Monday, April 27, 2015

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia

     From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Art Gallery of Ontario, to 15 August 2015)
We’ve always liked Emily Carr’s pictures, but we’ve seen very few of them. So it was a treat to see so many of her paintings and drawings in one place. We went through the show once, then had lunch with Sowtons, then went through the show a second time. That hour or so of percolation through the subconscious helped: I was more sure of what I liked and why.
     Like many artists, Carr was always trying to define her vision, to find ways of expressing and sharing her experience. Every one of her rare meetings with other artists in Canada and Europe prompted her to experiment with composition, brushwork, and colour. She saw movement or life everywhere. It’s hard to realise that the totems and houses that she painted in her early years were in fact derelict and rotting away. In her last paintings she overlays the nearly abstract arrangements of sky, earth, sea, and trees with swirling strokes that express her sense of movement, of intense interaction between these elements. The most effective paintings show trees and earth rising into a blazing whirlpool of light. Lawren Harris gave her the confidence to move towards abstraction. She knew her energetic brushwork looked like van Gogh’s; her comment that van Gogh was crazy but knew about “go” or life shows I think that she was proud of the implied compliment, but characteristically played it down.
     The show also includes drawings and sketchbooks. Carr was trained in water colours, like many young women of her class and time. She clearly had superior talent; her watercolours of totem poles and villages show great technical skill and are more than mere documentation. She made up a lovely little book narrating a tour to Alaska that she took with her sister. Her later sketchbooks show that she tested her visual ideas obsessively, returning again and again to trees, sketching them as flowing forms that become gestures as much as pictures.
     The show included vitrines displaying artworks, masks, and other objects made by West Coat First Nations. These give us a context for Carr’s fascination with First Nations art, but also remind us that for many Europeans their beauty must have been an uncomfortable revelation.
     A good show. Go see it. ****

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dreams and Realities

      Dreams and Realities (Art Gallery of Algoma. Photos by Roberta Bondar and textile pieces by Carole Sabiston. To May 24th, 2015)
     The curator’s ambition was to help us see the connection between place and self, an odd ambition considering that not a single human figure appears in any of the works. But of course there is a human present, the one who looked through the viewfinder, pored over the images, and selected the ones to print. And the one who layered textiles, their shapes and colours and textures, until what she looked at echoed what she saw and expressed what she felt. We take their places, and with luck and empathy, we will engage with the places as they did.
     This engagement is thoroughly Canadian: an awareness, always present, sometimes in the foreground of our selves, sometimes in the background. It’s the knowledge that we are interlopers, that our huddling cities will not protect us, that the land was here before us and will be here after us.
     Colours are lush and subtle, textures are bold and  and faint, composition is clear and intricate. I found every image and textile piece at least interesting. The photo of sheep on a rock face, and the round construction of landscape, sky and clouds were among my favourites. ***

Route 17

      Route 17 (Timber Village Museum, Blind River, Ontario. To June 18th, 2015)
     Dani Lynn  Redgrift is a very good technician. All her images are well composed, her close-ups with a nice contrast between sharply focussed foreground and out-of-focus colour-field background, her wide angle shots ordering the busy detail in carefully arranged blocks of colour and texture. She uses Photoshop mostly to do what in the days of film any printer would do in the darkroom, to dodge and burn in, to control contrast and gamma. She likes to use HDR (high dynamic range) to dramatise skies and water, or to shift reality towards the surreal. She chooses to exhibit images that she knows will appeal to her audience. The result is that I don’t get much of a sense of her vision, of how she sees the world around her.
     With one exception: landscape and waterscape. She sees the wildness, the dark side, the glimpses of inhuman forces at work. Her pictures of forests, sky, and water remind us that no matter how familiar the bush may seem, it’s another reality, one that doesn’t notice us, in which we are merely guests. She uses HDR both to emphasise the inhumanness and to distance us from it, so that we can contemplate it with something close to equanimity.
     Worth a careful look. Matted prints available. **½

Amanda Cross. The James Joyce Murder (1967)

     Amanda Cross. The James Joyce Murder (1967) This is the second Kate Fansler mystery; she’s not yet known (and recommended) as an amateur sleuth. A publisher has died, his daughter asks Kate to look through his papers, especially the letters from James Joyce. In return, Kate gets a summer in his house in Araby, a small Maine Village. She’s asked to look after her nephew Leo, too. She hires two grad students, Emmett to sort and catalogue the letters, and William to tutor and mentor Leo. A horrible neighbour (|mean-spirited, selfish, interfering, pruriently puritanical) is shot dead when the unloaded gun used by Leo and William for “target practice” turns out to have a bullet in it. Reed Amhearst is visiting Kate, which helps with the legalities as well as the investigation.
     The unravelling of the knot proceeds slowly. Cross writes wonderfully meandering conversations. She assumes that her readers are well-enough educated to enjoy identifying the literary allusions before she gives away their sources. The people are mostly likeable, and well-enough drawn that we intuit back-stories that she doesn’t explicate. A first-rate entertainment. I’d like to see a TV series, but I suspect the intelligence of the talk puts off possible adapters. ***

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Cartoons by Macpherson (n.d., probably 1966) I suspect this collection was an insert in the Toronto Star, back when subscribers received goodies like this. The cartoons cover mid-60's events and issues, and as all such collections do, they both remind us of how burning issues cool into ashes, and how current politics have been shaped by the past. Macpherson had an especial animus against Diefenbaker, which subsequent research and reconsideration has justified. But he spared no one. His cartoons are editorials in themselves. His draftsmanship is superb, he is master of the telling detail and white space.  He names parts of his images to help the reader (and one does read his cartoons, even those without words) to focus the reader’s attention. A book worth repeated study for anyone who wants to understand the 60s political scene. It’s a primary source. There's info about Duncan Macpherson online. ****

Monday, April 20, 2015

Bigger isn't better: optimum organisation size

On the optimum size of an organisation

     I believe that for any enterprise there is a rather narrow range of effective size. Too small, and there are too few resources to accomplish the mission. Too large, and too many resources are used simply to keep the organisation functioning. Worse, as the organisation grows beyond its optimum size, the incentive for its members shifts from fulfilling the mission to creating and maintaining a secure position within the system.
     VLOs (Very Large Organisations), such as the mega-hospitals in Toronto, are too large to function effectively.      An organisation is a network. As any moderately numerate person should know, the possible paths through a network increase exponentially with the number of nodes in the network. Moving information around is the essence of management. For that reason, as an organisation grows, at some it begins to spend more resources on managing itself than it does on fulfilling its mission.
     It's no wonder that VLOs ossify, become plagued with internal politics, and find it almost impossible to shift from their course, even when everybody is aware that there's an iceberg looming ahead. It’s no wonder that people desperate to make them work propose "disruptive governance" and similar cures. Such cures merely perpetuate the disease, since they treat the symptoms, not the cause. The organisation is still too large, so it’s still spending far too much on itself, and too little on its mission. People know this, and attempt to reduce management costs. But the apparently common-sense approach of combining smaller units into larger ones in order to save on management costs assumes that management costs are concentrated at the top. In fact, management costs permeate the organisation, at every level. When two cleaners decide how to divvy up their work, they are managing their work. When unit managers construct a timetable for cleaners, they are managing. Which method costs less?
     I think that the best cure is to break up a VLO into small, effective (and therefore efficient) units. My experience as a teacher federation representative for our local bargaining unit gave me many opportunities to observe how our own small board differed from the huge ones (in the GTA, for example). I've come to the conclusion that the optimum size for a school is around 800 people, students and staff. A school board should govern one or two secondary schools and their feeders. I don't know of much research about organisation size and effectiveness in different industries, but I suspect that the optimum size for any organisation is about that of a healthy village: around 1,000 people. If more people are needed for some megaproject, bring several smaller organisations together, and parcel out the work among them.
     The notion that small units should be combined into larger ones in order to save management costs is mere superstition. Experience shows the exact opposite. E.g., the first thing that happened when Ontario elementary and secondary school boards were amalgamated in 1970 was an increase in the number of managers at the board level. In the case I lived through, we added a "supervisor of plant" and his clerical help to the board's staff complement. The board also "needed" superintendents of elementary and secondary schools. So the total board level staff increased by six or seven people, without any off-setting "efficiencies" in actual operating costs.
     We need to change how we organise our work. But unless we get rid of the superstition that bigger means better, we aren’t likely to get the results we want.

Why bigger is rarely better

      Back in February, the Montreal Gazette reported that the Quebec planned to eliminate some 1300 middle managers in their health care system. The aim was to save money. They expected to reduce the bill for health care by about $220M per year. See:
      The recent riots in Quebec indicate that the government has proceeded with its austerity plans, eliminating jobs throughout the public sector. In healthcare, some 182 care-giver agencies were to be replaced by 32 “umbrella” agencies.
     Anyone who has followed the history of rationalising a system by combining smaller units into larger ones knows that larger organisations need more, not less, management. The reason is simple: an organisation is an information network. We organise ourselves into teams and larger systems in order to perform work that we can’t do separately. The very essence of these systems is information flow. Goods and services flow wherever information about them directs. When information is blocked at any point in the network, the whole system slows, and if the blockage continues, it eventually stops.
     A fundamental property of a network is that the number of the possible paths through it increases exponentially with size. This means that the larger the organisation, the more effort must be expended to ensure that the information moves along the proper paths. Beyond a certain size, the organisation uses more effort to move information than to do its productive work. One symptom of this is that the productive workers must spend more and more time documenting their work.
     So, in the long run, the new system will cost more, not less.
     The wider economic effects of firing 1300 people will be felt almost immediately, and will be negative.
     Assuming the projected savings are real, some $220 million will be removed from the Quebec economy. That’s a lot of money, and will reduce economic activity in Quebec. Economists estimate that on average each dollar spent generates about five dollars of economic activity. So saving the Quebec Treasury $220M will cost the Quebec economy about $1 billion. That will of course cost the Provincial Treasury a lot of money. Probably about $220 million.  Net savings to the Treasury: zero. Net effect on the wider economy: a cost of about $1 billion.
      But it gets worse. These middle managers are the people who manage patient care, who plan. They will be replaced by senior manager from higher up the food chain who haven’t done this work for some tine, if at all. The effects of replacing experienced people with inexperienced ones can only be imagined.
     So why is the Quebec government going through this futile exercise? Because too many people believe that a government budget is the same as a household budget, and too many people think when they spend money it disappears. Too many politicians, who should know better, make the same mistake.
     They don’t understand the basic principle of a money economy: My spending is your income, and your spending is my income. If we all spend less so that we will have more money to pay down our debts, we will all earn less, and after we’ve taken care of the basics, we will all have less money to pay down our debts.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Margaret MacMillan. Paris 1919 (2003)

    Margaret MacMillan. Paris 1919 (2003) Macmillan deals with the Versailles Treaty, and all the other ones, including those that were concluded long after that one. She has mastered her material, and provides exhaustive abut hardly ever exhausting detail, a feat in itself. She keeps her narrative lines clear by concentrating on one treaty at a time, linking its narrative to the main one when such links actually existed.
     As in her later book, The War that Ended Peace, about the lead-up to WWI, she shows how character influences events. Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson each had flaws, blind spots, and assorted prejudices that prevented them from doing their duty, which was to craft peace treaties that would improve the odds of peaceful and co-operative international relations. Other players, such as Kemal Ataturk and Gabriele D’Annunzio, had agendas at odds with that of the great powers, who didn’t take them seriously enough until it was too late.
     But while hindsight suggests that a number of mistakes were avoidable (I think the Armenian genocide could have been prevented if Lloyd George in particular had more forcefully supported Wilson’s plans), hindsight also shows us that some mistakes were inevitable. The partitioning of the Middle East was the most serious of these, measured by its current effects. But the Europeans were unable to take Middle Eastern leaders seriously as equals, and besides, they wanted the oil.
    The attitudes towards Germany are another example: the French and the British especially exhibited a bias against the untrustworthy Hun that pretty well guaranteed that they would insult the Germans by refusing to negotiate peace terms. German attitudes were equally intransigent; both the people and most of their leaders were unwilling to accept any kind of blame for their role in starting the war, and so were outraged when peace terms were dictated to them. Conscious and unconscious racism is not only ethically repugnant, it’s politically stupid.
     A good book, worth reading not only as a thorough and even-handed account of those events and their aftermaths, but also as an example of how not to make treaties. There were many people at the time who saw quite clearly where the terms and process of treaty-making would lead, but they were ignored. It demonstrates once again that being smart enough to be a good politician doesn’t mean you’re smart enough to know which political goals to pursue.
     Recommended. ***

Friday, April 10, 2015

Alan Weisman. The World Without Us (2007)

     Alan Weisman. The World Without Us (2007) Suppose every human being would disappear from the face of the Earth? Maybe in a moment, maybe over a few hours or days, but complete disappearance. What would happen to the Earth and the traces of human occupation?
     That’s the thought experiment Weisman runs in this book. He begins by considering how the natural world would take over from us, by rotting and crumbling our homes, our subways, our roads, our and so on. He deals with the effects of our industrial legacy, and considers how the artificial chemicals we’ve dumped into the biosphere might influence future evolution. Finally, he talks about what may remain of our works of the mind the imagination.
     The answers are sobering. Natural processes begin to destroy our artefacts as soon as we stop maintaining them. Subways will flood. Houses will rot away. Bridges will sag and fall. The foundation of skyscrapers will rust, the buildings will lean and then fall. Trees, vines, grasses will grow in and on our works and will crack and split and crumble them. Our corpses will decay, although some of their containers will survive a few hundred years or so. Highly stable molecules will be recycled through the biosphere until some microbes evolve to break them out. Plastics will degrade into flakes, then into nanometre particles, by which time something may have learned how to extract the energy locked up in those molecules. Ceramic tile and pottery will survive thousands of years until geologic processes bury and metamorphose them.
     And Pioneer I and II and Voyager 1 & 2, and assorted other probes will drift through space and may at some time fetch up in a star system. But the odds that any sentient, intelligent life form will find and decode their significance is vanishingly small.
     Well then, what, if any, traces of our existence will survive us, and for how long? The answer is, lots, but not what you expected. Plastics, ceramics, earthworks and radioactive trash will survive the longest on Earth. The space probes and radio waves will survive longest of all, drifting through space until space dust abrades the probes and radio waves attenuate so they can no longer distinguished from background radiation.
     The subtext of this book is anther question: Can we survive our own successes? Technology is gift that we’ve used to procreate excessively and mine the riches of the planet. Doing that, we’ve changed it, and it will never revert to its pre-human state. In this, we are like all other successful top-level predators. But like any other creature, we will eventually become extinct, either by making our habitat lethal to ourselves, or by evolving into something else. Kurt Vonnegut imagined the latter scenario in Galapagos. Weisman’s book implies that if we don’t do something to reverse our reconstruction of Earth, a few of us may survive when the inevitable collapse occurs, and those few will become one among many species competing to survive on a planet that begins to reclaim its own. Our continued success is not guaranteed.
     Even if we manage to stumble and muddle our way through the catastrophe that’s already moving through the biosphere, eventually the Sun will destroy us. Weisman doesn’t mention the hope that others have expressed, that homo sapiens terrestris may become homo sapiens stellaris, but even if that remote possibility becomes reality, the Earth and humans as we know them will have ceased to exist.
     An oddly exhilarating book, despite the depressing and gloomy forecasts and implications. Read it. ****

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Carola Dunn. To Davy Jones Below (2001)

Carola Dunn. To Davy Jones Below (2001) Daisy and Alec are married, after a couple of weeks in Sussex, they are on their way to the USA on the Talavera. The cast includes Gotobed, a British millionaire, and his wife Wanda, an ex-chorus girl of uncertain age; Arbuckle, an American millionaire; Philip, Daisy’s cousin, and Gloria, Arbuckle’s daughter; Miss Oliphant, a devotee of herbal remedies; Pertwee and Welford, a couple of card sharks; and assorted other characters useful as witnesses and talking scenery. Nicely done fluff, with just enough sleuthing to lull the inattentive reader into pleasant reveries.
      Alec is asked to investigate what at first looks like an accident, but subsequent events are clearly either murder or attempted murder. He’s seasick, which gives Daisy the excuse she needs to ‘vestigate. Between them, and a couple of facts radioed to the ship but not revealed to the reader, a solution of sorts is devised. It fits the facts, but does not make a case for prosecution. Still, it’s best that Alec can do, so all’s well that ends well. **½

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Amanda Cross. A Trap for Fools (1989)

Amanda Cross. A Trap for Fools (1989) Canfield Adams, a much-hated professor of Islamic Studies at “the University”, is found dead on the pavement below his office window. He was pushed, it seems, and Kate Fansler is given the job of finding the killer. After much pleasant and occasionally probing conversation, she discovers shadowy donors compromised one of her colleagues, and another colleague’s need for cash led to blackmail. Adams found out, so he had to die. Tangles of academic politics obscure the path and impede progress, but Kate “rearranges the narrative” and arrives at the truth, not by logic and careful analysis, but with intuition and imaginative insights. This is the only weakness of this series, but the depiction of academic life, of friendships, of the life of the mind, of love, and characters we care about more than make up for it.
     Every novel is spiced up with parody and satire of the long-since forgotten intellectual and political buzz of the time. I think Carolyn Heilbrun, the person behind the mask of Amanda Cross, wanted to say things that needed to be said about the socio-politics of her time. She succeeds. That’s another reason I like to read these books. If you want tightly plotted procedurals, they are not for you. But if you want immersion in a pleasant world in which intellect and  feelings are given equal value, along with a bit of a puzzle to keep the story moving, then you will like them. ***

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Al Shabab, another bunch of cowardly thugs

This morning, 2 April, 2015, we heard that Al Shabab claimed credit for attacking a university dormitory in Kenya and murdering a number of Christian students, who were accused of polluting the Muslim students by their presence. This evening, we heard that the count is at 147 dead and counting.

Just another example of the cowardly thugs who represent themselves as militants, as fighters for freedom. They didn't even have the guts to show their faces, they all wore masks.

And of course their leaders who ordered this murderous attack are safely out of harm's way, and will ensure it stays that way.

Honourable fighters engaged in a struggle for freedom from oppression?

Cowards, the lot of them.