Costa Concordia and Exxon Valdez: What do they have in common?

First, the more recent Costa Concordia disaster. This cruise ship ran aground with significant loss of life. The captain abandoned ship ahead of his passengers. All this is probably common knowledge.

What you may not already know is, his friend was on the bridge with him at the time of the crash. From the picture in this web page, she was, er, potentially distracting.

On to the Exxon Valdez. Here the plot is only slightly thicker. In this article, you’ll find out that the person steering the boat had a distracting companion he was possibly trying to impress. (My memory was, they were in a much more distracting situation than this article makes it out to be.) One problem with this article is that it makes it sound as if the captain normally went below, once the ship was outside harbour and no longer had the local pilot on board.

In this wikipedia article, you’ll find out that the captain of the Exxon Valdez was, in fact, sleeping off a bender. The captain may not have gone below just to send ‘departure messages’.

The Wikipedia article points out that key equipment on the Exxon Valdez may not have been functioning, including the RAYCAS radar.

For some reason, the Captain of the Exxon Valdez appears to have taken the blame. The captain of the Costa Concordia eventually took the blame too.

What’s in common? Distraction, of the most pleasant kind, I might add.

A final dumb question. The endzone2 web page includes a bit of a rant about ‘political correctness’ creating unnecessary hazard. The thesis is, some ‘crews’, for want of a better word, should be all one gender. Especially when ‘at sea’ or equivalent for long periods of time. I wonder about this. Women astronauts and their crew members seem to manage OK. So the question is, when or is this assertion about distraction correct? In a traditionally all-male occupation? Is the ‘girl in every port’ part of the problem for seamen?

A final note. The female person on the Costa Concordia bridge was a non-paying passenger. The female person on the Exxon Valdez seems, from the articles, to have been over-qualified to be there. This is not a ‘dumb babe’ question, it’s a ‘dumb guy’ question. Should some crews be single-gender? Post your opinion here.

Keshia Thomas, 1996

You can read the full story here. Eighteen years old, in the crowd at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Ann Arbor, where police in riot gear protected a small group in white conical hats from an unwelcoming crowd. A person was noticed wearing a Confederate Flag T-shirt with perhaps an SS tattoo. Chased, knocked down, kicked and hit with sticks.

So, this black girl, Keshia Thomas, puts herself over the (white) man and defends him from the mob.

I will end with one of my favourite quotes from Will Durant (from The Story of Civilization).

In the end, nothing is lost. Every event, for good or evil, has effects forever.

Keshia is in her 30’s now and deserves her privacy. But, let us each think: would we do such an act of kindness? I am reminded of an e.e.cummings’ poem, which begins

a man who had fallen among thieves

Cummings, in his own way, repeats Durant’s statement. In the end, nothing is lost. What would you have done?

Independence: Kyle Richard Albers

This review first appeared on the website on January 18, 2013.

Unusual, personal, disturbing and wide-ranging.

four stars.

This is a large collection of poems, some of which are intensely personal, and some of which are universal. From the opening poem, When We Were Young, you will be introduced to Albers’ philosophy. You will find some memorable lines, including this one: “There is no punishment/ man can bring down/ on another man’s head/ more powerful/ than forgiveness” in the poem When I’m Gone. A few of the later pieces are not for the faint of heart; there are difficult situations exposed, as in Cry Your Eyes Out and I’m Insane. It is a measure of the power of Albers that you will be uncomfortably involved in these poems. Again, not for the faint of heart is Cold Turkey. That said, you are in for a large and intense trip, an exploration of the human condition. There is hope of escape here too, as in the wonderful poem The Woods, one of my favourites. There are over ninety pieces here, including poems, lyrics, and some short essay/stories. One favourite poem, You Can Come Over, explores the paradox of loneliness leading to sex. Some of the pieces are puzzles, as in The Past, but from the previous poems we can make a good guess, eh?

In the title prose poem, Independence, we have a sort of culmination: Albers’ philosophy, fresh images, human situations, and a glimmer of hope. In The American Dream, this combination is achieved again in a totally unique creation. Another favourite, My Father’s Hands, is deep and resonant. Again in Catherine, Albers reaches into the reader’s gut with personal yet universal revelation. In Old Oak Tree we find an interesting metaphor and a combination of social commentary and Albers’ own dreams and demons.

Of the lyrics my favourite perhaps is Penelope, almost too powerful to be in a song. Another favourite lyric is Man of Few Words, with a satisfying twist ending.

If I had to make tiny carps, they would be these. While in general deliberate repetition is used to great and powerful effect, in a few cases of ‘accidental repetition’ perhaps a more careful word selection could have been more moving. Occasionally the rhythm might benefit from shortening, for example ‘so I leave the tv on to break the silence’ could be ‘tv left on to break the silence’. You notice this if you read aloud. The poems are not equally strong, which should be no surprise, given their great number and wide range of subject matter. Some are lyrics and some are poems in the gut-wrench sense of the word. This is an enjoyable work.

In the prose pieces there are pleasant surprises too, as in Lessons Learned. Here we learn a bit about the author, a songwriter, and his personal angst at himself in his quest for success and relevance. Again, in Hummingbird, there are memorable lines (see his breakfast for an example). The prose piece Something reminds me of Robert Frost: ‘truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.’ This is thoughtful work.

Why four stars? Five stars denotes a level of excellence rarely seen. Three stars is definitely OK and recommendable. Albers’ is not an easy work to rate, but I think four stars gives you a fair measure of the quality of the better poems, which are the ones that speak to you, personally. Recommended.

Jim Bennett (Kindle Book Review Team)

How should politicians be selected? Some cynical sugestions?

First, let me level-set for new readers. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Thus I am subject to the whims of three levels of government. Even more complex, the Federal level has an elected house and an appointed Senate. And, the Ontario legislature has committees et cetera, as does the Toronto City Council with its mayor.

We elected Rob Ford to be our city Mayor based, at least in part, on his promise to end the gravy train and miraculously reduce gridlock without tax increases. The gravy train exercise involved at least one consulting firm billing a hundred thousand dollars to find, pretty much, no gravy. Rob Ford is pretty famous, perhaps internationally, the best-known Canadian politician of all time. The Toronto Star has had cartoons of him constantly, as have other papers around the country and around the world.

I suggest we have the Toronto newspaper cartoonists choose our next mayor. I have seen articles describing Rob Ford as, for them, the gift that keeps on giving.

Why this suggestion? Well, at least somebody could be happy with the result, and news coverage of Mr. Ford might be better if he owed something to his detractors/reporters.

Now for our provincial premier, Kathleen Wynne. Inheriting Dalton McGuinty’s two power plant scandals, you’d expect this expert negotiator to know better than to kowtow to a small group to save a seat or so. But no, our premier has thrown her weight behind a subway, nicknamed the stub-way, to Scarborough. Three stops. Very expensive. In this link you will find this quote: “Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong called the subway on Tuesday a “vote-buying exercise” and said the repercussions would be huge.” Incredibly, one Scarborough councillor voted against the subway, to have his area subsequently robocalled that same day.

The fact that light rail would work better is irrelevant. Scarborough voters must be propitiated. The fact that one councillor from Scarborough thinks, rationally, that light rail is actually better service, is irrelevant. Scarborough influencers seem to have a poor-me got-shafted attitude. Light rail was, in one estimate, likely to be at 50% capacity by something like 2025. And, it would have had nine stops. And, those stops would have been in higher density areas. And, we had it budgeted and paid for, and it was cheaper than a three-stop subway.

I suggest that every citizen of Ontario send Kathleen Wynne an eMail with suggestions for improvement of every conceivable area of government action. A professional concensus-builder, Wynne has fallen (imho) into the trap of trying to please everyone. (Most of us are aware of how unsuccesful Barak Obama’s attempts to achieve consensus were in his first term, and even now negotiation looks like a sure-loser tactic.)

Maybe if all of us suggested that, instead of reading our eMails, she came up with a defensible set of actions and simply implemented them, without listening to lobbyists, we’d be more impressed.

Normally I might suggest we vote only for provincial politicians who actually have platforms. Hopefully we could find one we could live with. Experience has shown, however, that expedience trumps stated goals.

That said, I come to the sad conclusion that it is irrelevant how we select our provincial premier. We should instead form groups, like those lobbying in Scarborough, and pay them to lobby for the few improvements that really matter to us, like properly planned, budgeted, and executed transit.

On to our Prime Minister and ‘his’ Senate. After ages of not doing many appointments, claiming intent to alter the Senate’s structure, in 2008 Harper appointed 18 senators on a single day. You can find the news here, and the summary of all of Harper’s appointments to date here.

If you are unaware of the scandal surrounding some of these appointees, you can catch up here.

How should senators be appointed? Should they be elected? Should the Senate have obvious party lines? How long is a decent term? Can a Senator be impeached?

What we have today is trial by newspaper. This is both a good and a bad thing: without news media searching for issues like this, we’d all be in the dark and the gravy train would continue and keep growing.

(I am reminded of an Englishman who was somehow put into the House of Lords there. Perhaps he inherited his post. He was immediately told, by existing members, of all the things to expense, claim, and do: it was important to old members that new ones use all the perks right from the start. I’ll bet our new Senators were all told how to charge for residences, for example.)

However, trial by news isn’t exactly an even-handed calling of witnesses.

I suggest that all standing Senators, including those under the cloud of apparently bogus expense claims, stand for election. I suggest that every area represented by a Senator have the opportunity to choose one or more candidates for each seat as well. I suggest that the area that a Senator represents should then vote for their Senator from the choices of old-senate and new-candidate lists.

I suggest a seven-year term with an age limit of seventy. Best I can do. Any better idea should prevail.

That only leaves, besides my MPP and MP, Stephen Harper.

I suggest that everyone who can think read up on our Prime Minister. His predilection for proroguing parliament is documented. Here you will find these words: “speculation that such use of the royal prerogative had been advised by the sitting prime minister for political purposes.” His predilection for wedge issues is well known. Now he is touting a trade deal, made in secret with the EU, of which essentially no details are known and apparently most are still being finalized. Compensation for damaged businesses is being promised; apparently in the NAFTA era, Brian Mulroney made similar promises and kept none.

So, how should we choose our next prime minister? Research. Read.

and then, vote.

Poetry for the Heart: Christine Rice

This review appears on the website and was posted on October 13, 2013. I have ‘skipped ahead’ but will catch up with older reviews from time to time. Now for the review:

Christine Rice: Poetry for the Heart.

About writing, personal growth: a new poet.    Three stars.

As always, do not let my star count override your judgement of content. More on the stars, counting, and my rating challenges later. Here we have some twenty-two poems, mostly narrative, mostly straightforward, from a new and promising writer.

In the opening poem, The Self, “uncertain/ If I would find out who I was” covers an experience most of us must have had at least once. Again in Self-Doubt, we have this: “There are different styles of creativity,/ And they are all acceptable” which echoes one of the most important lessons this writer ever learned, and from a very good teacher.

If you’re scrolling for the tiny carps, here they are. Eight of the poems are about writing, potentially of less interest to the general reader. I must note that of these, Dire Need for a Career Change is imho the best, as it captures the ennui of being in the wrong job. If you’re looking for plentiful metaphors, you will have to settle for straightforward description for the most part. In this volume Rice writes in a simple style. Let’s get back to the good stuff.

The most literary poem, imho, is I Miss It, where you will find this: “Giant pine trees, offering their protection;/ Sapphire lakes, sparkling and wanting your company” and this: “Earthy roads, begging to be traveled;/ Stars in the clear night sky; offering their peace.”  Here Rice shows control and great promise; you will be drawn into her missed countryside.

There is a sense of resolution in My Inner Child, and nostalgia for both earlier innocence and potential loss of potential. If you’re looking for social commentary, you’ll find it in Just Trying to be Beautiful. Animal lovers will sympathize with Tangerine (a cat).

My personal favourites include the last two poems. In A Bad Day at Work, you will recognize yourself: “My coworker thinks I’m/ Her assistant.” Finally, in Truth or Dare, Rice’s simple style takes you back into childhood: “The least damaging choice:/ “Truth,” I say.”

Back to the star count. My personal guidelines, when doing an ‘official’ KBR review, are as follows: five stars means, roughly equal to best in genre. Rarely given. Four stars means, extremely good. Three stars means, definitely recommendable. I am a tough reviewer. Rice is not (yet) Robert Frost or Emily Dickenson. Nevertheless you will gain enjoyment from this volume. Recommended.

Jim Bennett, Kindle Book Review Team member.

(Note: this reviewer received a free copy of this book for an independent review. He is not associated with the author or Amazon.)

“Our” “Economy”

We see this beguiling phrase (Our Economy) in the newspapers all the time. I submit that the word “our” is an automoron.

Those of you who missed it can get a laugh and catch up here. I proposed the word ‘automoron’ as a parallel to oxymoron. An oxymoron is a real (or apparent) contradiction in two adjacent words. ‘Military Intelligence’ is the usual snickering example, while I prefer ‘secret evidence.’

My proposed  automoron is a simple construction: it consists of a single word which, by its very presence, denies its own impact. My favourite example is a performance review of an unliked employee. The reviewer said it was basically fair. By needing to describe the fairness, the word basically defeated itself. (pun intended.)

We are told it is ‘our’ economy (that is improving or deteriorating). I submit that it is not. It is the economy of large, sometimes foreign, corporations. It is the economy of the Gord Nixon (which feel free to search for in this website) types who consider sending jobs offshore to be good business. It is the economy of the US Republican Party, which wants to keep health care unaffordable for the poor majority. It is the economy of special interests. In no sense is it ‘our’ economy.

Even better, (worse, actually) it is not really an ‘economy‘. This mellifluous word implies order: ‘the hidden hand of the marketplace’, the ‘balancing of supply and demand,’ the creation of decent employment statistics, a system of governance preventing financial meltdowns, a fair distribution of products based on contribution of labour and inputs. None of the previous noun phrases actually exist.

Cars have airbags. This is a dumb example in that modern airbags do save lives. However, when they were being legislated, the fine American magazine Road and Track pointed out that: a) a three-point seat belt was a lot of protection; b) a five-point seat belt is even more (and, if you saw the high speed Formula One crash the other day from which the driver emerged with a totally shattered car, two cracked vertebrae, and a broken leg – no airbags, just a five-point harness, a roll bar, and a chassis designed to protect the driver) and c) most tellingly, Road and Track predicted the injuries that would result from airbag deployment. Even with the new ‘slow’ airbags, if you have your hands over the centre of the steering wheel, expect to have both wrists broken.

So what, you say. Get to the point. The point is this: there were alternate means of greater safety (the Volkswagen Dasher had automatically latching three-point seatbelts and a knee bolster) but the vehicle lobby wanted the more expensive solution. So that became law. It was not a decision based on safety so much as one based on forcing drivers to pay for new gadgets.

More to the point, there were laws implemented after the Great Depression to increase consumer financial safety. Dismantled over decades, protections like the Glass-Steagall act were meant to curb financial corporations from risking ‘our’ ‘economy’. When the protections had been dismantled, financial institutions could get rich while risking ‘our’ ‘economy.’ You will note that, while profitable, profits were limited to the heads and chief traders – the 0.1 % of America. You will note that, when everything tanked, bailouts were done by Federal institutions, using ‘our’ money.

Today, in the USA, the economy is being held up by, among other things, the purchase of low quality mortgage-backed securities. You can start your research on this Quantitative Easing here. What nobody seems to have noticed is, the bad debts written by the financial institutions after tearing down our protections, are being bought up by the Fed using money that is essentially printed. Printing money makes more of it exist. (You already knew that.) Having more money chasing goods is called inflation. Sooner or later this fact is going to catch up with the US economy, and we little beavers living next door in Canada will also notice.

To recap: articles telling us to worry, invest, be optimistic, whatever, about ‘our’ ‘economy’ are misleading us. Big Business will stay profitable. Prices may rise. Jobs may disappear. It isn’t our economy at all.

If there is an invisible hand, it’s in your wallet pocket, it’s handing you a pink slip, and it’s doing really well for itself at the same time. This is the economy that isn’t ours.

Countdown to Zero – or Not?

This can be read as a public complaint about pedestrian walk signals and countdown timers. Let’s cover countdown timers first.

I first saw this phenomenon in Egypt in November 2006. Some green lights (!) had countdown timers on them. They also had standard signals for cases of unfortunate glare from sunlight etc. I thought it was pretty neat: our bus driver could know how much green light time he had before entering a crowded intersection.

Later, most of our pedestrian walk signals have gone to countdown timers, at least in the parts of the GTA I move about in. This seems to have had an unintended consequence.

The number of collisions, fatalities, pedestrian injuries seems to have gone up after implementing these timers. If you google ‘Toronto countdown dont-walk’ you’ll find a number of pages, including this one which covers what I saw in the paper today.

I submit that this occurs for several reasons. One is, someone approaching the traffic from the cross-street, anticipating the light’s changing, will clip the end of the red. Meanwhile, someone with a count-down timer will not leave any ‘slack’ in their timing of entering the same intersection, technically having the right of way.  In other words, knowing to the second when the light is going to change, lets a driver approaching that light cut it a lot closer than not-knowing. This increases the likelihood of collision, especially if another driver is also bending the law.

A second reason could be the (ignorant, imho) phenomenon of countdown timers going to zero and then reverting to ‘walk’ signals. Since this often happens when the intersection is empty, drivers approaching an empty intersection may gamble that the walk signal will be reinstated, and no orange light will occur. If there is an unnoticed vehicle approaching the intersection, again, pressing the time frame, bam. And pedestrians have a bad habit of stepping out when they are sure they’re going to have the ‘walk’ signal.

I would like to see the following changes made to pedestrian walk-don’t walk signals.

  • Never count down to zero without going to orange and red.
  • Always turn on the pedestrian ‘walk’ signal, whether a button has been pressed or not, for the green cycle.
  • add more delay to the don’t walk solid signal.
  • Occasionally, police pedestrian crossings and ticket violators – walkers, drivers, and of course cyclists entering the intersection at speed in the non-traffic direction from a sidewalk.
  • Occasionally, put speed traps in areas where collisions frequently occur.

Cyclists should have to dismount to use a sidewalk-like pedestrian crossing. Drivers speeding up a lot to make a light should get at least a warning.

I have complained about the non-walk signal (unless a button is pressed) and been given amazing bafflegab. Supposedly the button, or the presence of a car, adds three seconds to the green / walk cycle. So what? add it anyway. If I almost make a light change, I have to look at a green light / don’t walk crossing for both cycles – green and then red – before I can cross. Sounds petty, but when you’re in freezing rain or slush those extra seconds seem really long.


A Cynical Observation: Convert .odt file to .doc (and how to do it.)

If you Google “convert .odt to .doc” you’ll find quite an interesting list.

There are several websites that claim to do this conversion for free. What, one wonders, is their motivation; and what, one marvels, is the security of this document sending back and forth. How long do they keep it? Privacy?

I had a need to convert a handful of .odt files. My daughter’s computer had been set up with Open Office for almost six full years. She had written a few small, but important to her, documents. (I am allergic to Open Office since it made it hell on wheels for me to execute XL by clicking on a .xls file. I had several inputs from Microsoft on this, and tried a lot of things before it finally got cleaned up).

Her computer had been set up to ‘hide file extensions for known file types’ so I did not twig that I wasn’t looking at a handful of word documents. So I deleted Open Office and installed an old license of Microsoft Office. (A very old version, but good enough.) Now I needed to convert the documents.

Not trusting the free online converters, I looked to this website for help. However, when I ran the downloaded install program, ZoneAlarm warned me that it was trying to alter the registry such that it would always run on startup. When I told ZA no, the program complained. After a few retries, I told the program install to get on with it, and it did: it claimed it completely un-installed all its stuff.

I’m morally certain I’ve downloaded good stuff from CNET before. I am surprised that they would put the apparent equivalent of spyware on my daughter’s computer.

I have a new-ish Acer desktop and on it I have a more recent version of Office. I wondered if that version of Word could inhale an .odt file and save-as it as a .doc file.

It can.

On an ancient XP computer, an ancient version of Word can in fact open the resulting .doc file. Problem solved.

Now for the cynical part, and then the dumb questions.

Do the google search “convert .odt to .doc” yourself. You’ll find many websites that will convert your document, but I think you lose all control of content. Some documents aren’t just shopping lists, they are personal and perhaps secret. Certainly private.

How come there are software packages to do this that insist on having some of their code started every time you power up? That’s Dumb Question #1.

How come nobody says, if you know someone with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2010, that version of Word can do the conversion? That’s Dumb Question #2.

Any answers? Post them here.

Stubway, anyone? dont Harp(er) on it.

If you google Toronto Subway Routes you’ll find a lot of hits. In this one, you’ll read that Andy Byford thinks the proposed route is a bad idea. This is the two-stop route using the current LRT. Byford understands that the turns are too tight for normal speeds, and that the two-stop route is a waste of money. And, he understands that going above ground with a subway is stupid: sleet, snow, routinely stop our existing open-cut sections of subway routes. This on those really bad days when you really want subway transit to work. You end up in shuttle buses.

Since this is, admittedly, a bit of a rant, let me list from memory the options we’ve heard discussed regarding improving transit to Scarborough. Roughly in order, and from memory, they were these:

  • Replace the LRT with a long route, nine? stops, going through high density areas.
  • Replace the LRT with a shorter route, fewer stops, going through low density areas – but presumably, areas of wealthier homeowners – who choose to drive.
  • Replace the LRT with a short subway, three? stops.
  • Replace the LRT with a short subway, now two stops?

At this point, our generous (sarcasm intended) Federal Government, in the persons of Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty, suddenly offered $660Milllion if we would do the two-stop route. Conceivably this could be a three-stop route, unclear.

What is clear is that, imho, Stephen Harper still hates Toronto and Torontonians. This ‘generous’ offer is a brilliant gift of federal taxpayers’ money that will be insufficient to fund the subway we probably don’t need (an LRT would be only 50% full in 2025, some say, have more stops, and go farther.) You can find an analysis of costs and taxes here. We will be some $900Million short, and that’s just an estimate. Why is this anti-Torontonian? With this ‘gift’, Harper has trapped Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and anyone else with a brain (Andy Byford, for one) into a stubway we’ll have to raise taxes to pay for. We will get the worst of all possible worlds: two or three stops instead of nine, a Sheppard-like empty dinosaur, and many Scarberians not within convenient distance of the new transit line to fill it. So it will lose money throughout all its life, at a higher rate than the mildly subsidized TTC in general. (I say mildly subsidized, because last time I saw real fares and real costs on other subways – New York, Montreal, for example – their fares and costs and subsidies were all significantly higher than the TTC. We are getting a deal.)

Since this is, admittedly, a rant, let me also rave about the Toronto Board of Trade. Excuse me, to the anger of places like Hamilton, it now calls itself the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Here is a pointer to a discussion paper (PDF file) on this. On page 3 you’ll find these words: Most notably we highlighted the $6 billion in lost productivity annually in the Toronto Region and identified 16 dedicated revenue tools, which governments could consider to pay for public transportation investments.

I remember some of these tools, one of which was a parking levy. It was immediately made too complex to implement: it would be necessary to base the levy on property values, for example. Bullflap. Simply charge one dollar per non-residential parking instance. Everyplace downtown. The numbers are staggering. On page 8 of the paper, $1.6Billion could be raised by charging per space per day; I propose charging per parking instance: empty spaces pay nothing, but every parking car gives us a dollar.

I find it fascinating that over a billion dollars per year has never been discussed as an option. Instead we’ll see property tax increases. This is unfair: I don’t use the roads, and already pay the extra levies on plate renewals, for example. Congestion is caused by cars that eventually park, eh? So, to charge for congestion, charge for parking. Simple. And more fair than charging on gasoline: my fuel takes me to a writers’ meeting in Ancaster. I’m not the one you’re cutting off in gridlock every day. You and your co-worker might be.

Given that parking is now probably over $10.00 anyway, those with downtown jobs can afford this little tax. Five bucks a week.

To recap:

Imho, we’re going to build the worst possible solution, in terms of transit value for money. I think we’re locked into this decision by our mayor, our premier, our prime minister, and our finance minister. We’re not going to ask those Toronto Region Board of Trade businesses, who claim there is $6Billion being lost to them through gridlock, to put up a penny. We’re not going to charge directly for the privilege of contributing to gridlock. We’re almost certainly going to raise property taxes – an unwarranted insult for non-commuting seniors who somehow own their homes – for now.

Stubway, anyone?