Friday, May 30, 2008

Of Love and Curling

Speaking of great English Canadian music, I think the Weakerthans must be the most clever band in English Canada. I was very taken earlier this spring by "Virtue the Cat Explains Her Depature." I thought it so creatively captured how a cat would think if cats thought like humans (that is to say, as we think they think). Now I am entirely taken by Tournament of Hearts, which is available on their myspace page. The song develops several curling metaphors to describe a man's inability to commit to a woman, culminating in the great chorus:

"Why, why can't I draw right up to what I want to say?"
"Why can't I ever stop where I want to stay?"
I slide right through the day, I'm always throwing hack weight

I've never thrown a stone, but I can still relate. Give it a listen.

So it can't carry on a conversation....

One has to wonder if the Toronto Star thinks that this machine deserves to be stuck in a hole just because it's not good dinner company. The headline says it all, really. Elitists... If it's so boring why did they even write the story?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What's the best album in (English) Canada?

My friend and occasional teacher Charles Blattberg finds it contemptuous how readily English-speaking Canadians will declare something they like to be "the best in Canada" or "Canadian". His basic argument is an elegant one: most of what we refer to as Canadian is in fact English Canadian. So, Sounds Like Canada should be Sounds Like English Canada, etc.

This objection is rooted in Charles' belief that there is an English Canadian nationalism which should be celebrated but should not be held up as definitively Canadian. I don't agree with all aspects of his argument. But it's an argument he makes consistently and passionately and it's well-worth consideration and conversation.

My objections aside, Charles is entirely right about one thing. The Polaris Music Prize should not call itself the prize for the best album in Canada when it has a jury which is probably completely unaware of French music in Quebec and elsewhere and would certainly have no chance of identifying a worthy album recorded in any of the dozens of native languages spoken in Canada. It's ok to choose the best album in English Canada. Just don't say that you're choosing for the whole country when you're manifestly unable to do so.

If you think the Polaris Prize should either change its name or get a more, ahem, Canadian jury, you can write Steve Jordan at You can also get his publicists at and/or

Friday, May 16, 2008

Small pleasures, pt 3

In the third post in a continuing though quite intermittent series, I note three new small pleasures:

i) Old Man Luedecke's new album. Chris Luedecke is one of the most creative and original songwriters in Canada today. Aside from his banjo playing -- which is completely anachronistic and thus great -- he's really something of a lyrical master. On his first album he somehow weaved together a story of visiting the Fairview mall and a Footlocker salesmen with the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, not to mention the heartbreaking bridge in Little Stream of Whiskey. On his new album, Proof of Love, he captures in one line on Send My Troubles Away a great truth: Well, you never know the good in you's been found. As I set to set out for Africa and then to Vancouver, I am reminded by that line alone that we cannot really know when and from where good things are going to come.
ii) The breeze off of Lake Nipissing. It makes long days in the garage pleasurable.
iii) And most importantly, taking the training wheels off my nephew's bike, watching him peddle in a circle in the garage, and then riding all the way down to Champlain Park and back with him, little legs like pistons and a smile as big as the lake.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Make a carbon task costly

There's been much to and fro about Dion's proposal for a carbon tax. Look for it and you'll find it, if you wish.

Here's his idea in a nutshell: he's going to tax heating oil and other carbon emission sources, but not gasoline. Then he's going to cut your income tax. The whole thing is going to be a shift of $15 billion of so.

Here's the consequence: basically no one likes the idea and even less people believe that the tax shift is going to be neutral.

Here's what he should do: propose a carbon tax which is actually going to cost people more if they drive. This would be more effective, more honest, and more believable. And, believe it or not, there's a segment of the population (somewhere between 30% and 40%) who are more likely to support a policy when they are aware that it will cost them something.

I was lucky enough to run some survey experiments on a carbon tax for my dissertation. I may write about them in more detail at some point, or I may continue to embargo the results while they're under review. Either way, two facts stand out: a sizeable amount of the population is willing to pay more in taxes in exchange for a carbon tax. And a sizable portion is also more likely to support the policy when they think it will cost them something.

Herle sees rationality where others see luck

Danistan won't do it, so it falls to me. David Herle has quite the piece in the Toronto Star today. Excerpted from his May piece in Policy Options, Herle lays out a strategy by which Stephane Dion can win the next election. It's a rather simple prescription: first, point out that the Conservatives are far to the right of most Canadians; second, highlight Dion's strength as a different type of leader; third, play up the environment.

I want to leave aside discussion of whether these presumptions are even correct. I suspect at least one of them is wrong, but I've never been asked to run a campaign, so what do I know. I do want to highlight a rather ridiculous paragraph halfway through the article. In justifying his claim that Dion should emphasize his different qualities, Herle argues that Dion won the party leadership because:

Liberals wanted, and sensed that Canadians wanted, something different. They sensed that politics in Canada was ready for a new national challenge, something that transcended the machinations of Ottawa politics. In addition to his passion for the environment, Liberals saw in Dion a man of character and an anti-politician as an antidote to the current mode of our politics. After the sponsorship affair, Canadians needed to believe that the Liberal party was about purpose, not jockeying for partisan advantage.

This is ridiculous. This suggests that delegates calculated, once confronted with the binary choice between Dion and Ignatieff, that Dion was somehow the best man for the job all along. He was a new kind of leader and just what the country ordered. If delegates were so rational at the time, then why did less than one-in-five plump for him in the first place? It is simply not true that delegates selected Dion because he was the best choice of all candidates. No, they selected him because he lucked onto a final ballot in which his opponent was very controversial and far outside the mainstream of his party on three key issues: Quebec, fiscal imbalance, and Afghanistan.

I've written in the past of my admiration for Dion and it abides. But admiration shouldn't ignore the facts. Make no mistake: David Herle is very smart. He is probably one of the sharpest political minds in Canada. But I am left to wonder whether reading rationality and brilliance into luck hasn't impaired his judgment, now and in the past.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Is walking worse for greenhouse gases than driving?

It appears it could be depending on how you get your calories.

These posts at Freakonomics, pointing to a long post calculating the impact of walking versus driving goes some way to turning conventional wisdom on its head. Here's the story: walking requires energy. The fuel for this energy is food. The amount of food required to replenish the calories burnt walking can require more energy and produce more externalities than driving.

I love economics because of its ability to confound conventional wisdom. And no where, perhaps, does conventional wisdom need more confounding than in confronting the very real challenges of climate change.