Tag Archives: essays

On restaurants loved and lost: Brasserie in midtown Manhattan

It was fairly nondescript from the outside: a simple awning, some signs stating its name, and a revolving door. You might not think much of it walking along East 53rd.

Once you walked in, though, your impression immediately changed. Especially if you were there early in the morning, the way I often was in the 80s and 90s. You would be at the top of the stairs looking over the whole place, and it was packed with people there for power breakfasts. The sound of people talking just washed over you, and if you managed to find a seat, you would hear what was on the mind of Manhattan men and women of that era.

It could be intimidating, especially walking down those stairs into the middle of it all. Everyone seemed so confident, so polished, so put together. The fact Mike Bloomberg would often dine here to start his day gives you an idea of what it was like. While I felt shy on my first visit,  I quickly found the place thrilling and energizing. No doubt the other diners did too.

Among other things, it was a convenient place to go. I would be in the city for business and the offices we worked in and the hotels we stayed in were nearby. I could wander over to the Brasserie and have delicious croissants or a proper egg and sausage breakfast before I went to work. The coffee and orange juice? Also great. As was the service.  Convenient yes, but excellent too.

I don’t ever recall it changing that much over the years, which is one of the things about it that appealed to me. It gave me that constant connection to midtown Manhattan over the decades. It was my spot. After a long period of not visiting, I went back to NYC around 2018 and I wanted to hit it up, only to discover it had closed. Sad.

I’m glad I got to go all those years. If you visit a city often, I hope you can find such a place that allows you to fit in and belong and be part of something. It won’t be Brasserie, but I hope you find the next best thing.

For more on it, see this piece in Eater on it’s closing. Looks like they went out with a bang. Nice. More on it, here. (Images from those two places.) Finally this piece is in Japanese but you can get Google to translate it and there are some good images of Brasserie in it too. One thing I like about the Japanese post is you can see some of the food but you can also get a sense for what the stairs were like.

Some thoughts on the genre of food writing, after reading about Chantal Braganza’s cake

Good genre writing tends to make us forget it belongs to a genre. Atwood and Kafka and Borges all can write in the genres of SF and fantasy, but we don’t think of them as genre writers. They are good writers who happen to (sometimes) write genre fiction.

I thought of that when I read this piece by Chantal Braganza in Maisonneuve: An Ugly Sweet Thing. Food writing is also a genre, and while Braganza is a food writer here, she is first a good writer who in this case is writing about food. It’s a really fine piece and I encourage you to read it. It’s about food, of course, but it’s about so much more. That’s what good food writing does.

Food writing gets knocked about these days, and that’s too bad. So many food writers that include a recipe in their writing have a button at the top that allows people to skip just to the recipe. People who click on that button are missing out. The writing is important too, not just the recipe. If you just want a recipe, go to AllRecipes.com. If you want to learn more about food and what the author thinks about this particular dish and why it is important to them and perhaps you, too, read the writing. You’ll be glad you did.

More and more I buy food books not for the recipes, but to get inspired to cook and to create in the kitchen. Preparing food is work, and some times that work gets us down. (Ok, it gets me down.)  We need things to lift us up. One of those things is good food writing. Here’s to more of it.

Now go get some cake.

 

On the joy of train travel compared to air travel

 

Train travel is good.  Train travel from Toronto to Montreal and back exceptionally so. Let me count the ways by comparing it to airline travel.

It starts off before you even get on the train. In Toronto you can catch a subway or an Uber to Union Station downtown. Once there, it’s a short walk to get to where you board the train. There’s no getting stuck in traffic on the 401 trying to get to the airport. No paying for expensive cabs or limo. Fast and cheap.

Then you get to the station. There’s no multiple checkpoints to get on the train. You find out where the train is boarding and you line up to get on. Quick and easy.

Once on the train, you have lots of room to move around. No having to sit in your seat all the time. No seatbelts. Wide chairs. Comfortable.

If you take the business class train, you get a constant supply of food and drinks. Wine, caesars, port and cognac is all available and included. Plus hot towels, snacks and full meals. Satisfying.

Then there’s the scenery. There’s lots of it and it’s easy to see out the big windows. Tired of the scenery? You have a good amount of time to watch a movie, read and even nap. Relaxing.

Finally, you start in one downtown and end up in another downtown. You don’t have to get in still another cab to get to your final destination. Sweet.

Sure you can take Porter at Billy Bishop, but you still need to cab into Montreal from Dorval. And while the flight itself is short, the time you take getting to the airport, getting through security, building in extra time so you don’t miss your flight….it all adds up. 

Air travel is essential for long distances. But for shorter distances, you owe it to yourself to take the train.

 

 

What is good food? What is fine dining? These are things I considered while thinking about Michelin stars and eating pasta in Montreal

I’ve been thinking a lot about food since Michelin recently announced the awards given to restaurants in Toronto. When they announced the winners, I thought: how is it that I eat so much good food in Toronto and yet I have not gone to these places? Maybe I don’t know good food at all?

I thought about it more as I travelled to Montreal and ate on my trip. Two things I ate on my travels were pasta. This dish of pasta was part of a tasting menu at Cabaret L’Enfer on St. Denis.

And this was a dish of pasta I had while on the train from Toronto to Montreal:

The first pasta was good, as was the second. The first pasta was carefully handmade, precisely cooked, smartly accompanied with intensely flavoured sauces and extras and wine and finally presented artfully and with a detailed explanation. The second pasta was factory made, warmed up, accompanied with not bad wine and presented politely without much explanation. Given these differences, how can I say both were good? 

While the first pasta was excellent and superior to the second in many ways, the second pasta was still good. The second pasta’s temperature was neither too hot nor too cold, it had mild but pleasant flavours, and it fit in with a nice variety of other food. Eating it, I was reminded of all the meals I’ve enjoyed while travelling on planes and trains, and that made me think of all the joy I’ve had while travelling. I was hungry when it arrived, and afterwards I was pleasantly full. While it was not exquisite like the first pasta, it was far better than any of the other food I could have picked up at a train station. In this context, it was good — very good — and I was glad I had it.

While the first pasta was excellent, it was in no way filling. When combined with the overall meal I was no longer hungry, but it was not sufficient on its own to satisfy my hunger, nor was it meant to be. It did not remind me of other joys, though I enjoyed it. And while the overall meal was excellent, it was also very expensive. 

Perhaps food is very important to you, and any food that doesn’t approach Michelin level is not considered good by you. But to me, good food is dependent on context. A rich cheese is no good to someone who is lactose intolerant. A fine steak is undesirable to a vegan. Likewise, if you are famished, fast food you can have right now may be better than a rich stew that takes you hours to prepare. On a bitter cold day, a simple hot chocolate may taste better than the finest champagne. Or you may desire a chocolate chip cookie that reminds you of your mom’s cooking over a slice of gourmet cake. We eat with all of ourselves, and the more we bring of ourselves to the food we eat, the more good food becomes a matter of the individual who is eating it.

Good food is also dependent on qualities. The next time you are eating, think of all the textures and the tastes you are experiencing. Think of the temperature and the toughness, the sourness and the saltiness and the softness. How does it look in front of you? What are the colours? How hard is it to make? How easy is it to eat? What do you think when you are eating it? How do you feel right after you swallow it? Or an hour later? All those thoughts and feelings that you have will help you to better appreciate your food and its qualities. It will help you realize what is good food — to you — and what is not. It will make you appreciate fine dining, whether it is in a beautiful restaurant or eating at a cafe counter or on a picnic blanket. 

Michelin stars do not solely define good food or fine dining. Only you, the individual, can do that. Bon appetit. 

The seasons of the quiet house

There are seasons of the year when the temperature outside is somewhat close to room temperature. Neither my furnace nor my air conditioning comes on for long periods of time. Without them on, the house can be totally quiet. So quiet you can only hear the occasional noise outside or you can hear a mechanical clock. Maybe you can hear the wires in the wall humming. It’s the season of the quiet house.

I love those times of year. Nothing is more relaxing to me than sitting in a quiet house.

Right now it’s one of those seasons. I treasure it.

On restaurants loved and lost: Mike’s Lunch in Glace Bay

It doesn’t look like much. Only that Teem sign on the right tells you that this is the location of the famous Mike’s Lunch of Glace Bay. It had a good run of 109 years in various locations in my hometown before closing in 2019.  It was one of my favorite restaurants in the whole world, and it was the first place I went and dined by myself as a young man.

Back when I was young, it was located on Commercial Street in a little galley type restaurant. It had a counter in the middle where you ate, while pinball machines lined the walls behind you and the cooking was done in front of you. In the summer I would sit next to the open door and look out at the beautiful house across the street (the only house left on Commercial Street). I can remember the sunshine and the warmth and the joy of sitting there while I waited for my food. While many diners had the famous fish and chips, my meal of choice was the Club Sandwich. Toasty bread and toothpicks held together chunks of turkey, crispy bacon, lettuce and mayo. Mine was completed with hot french fries coated with gravy and ketchup and accompanied by an ice cold Coca-Cola. To this day it is still one of the best meals I ever had.

Years later Mike’s Lunch moved to a nicer space in the Sterling. The pinball machines never made the transition, but it still had a counter. It also had nice tables and booths and friendly waitresses. I never failed to go any time I visited Glace Bay, often more than once a visit. I don’t know how, but no matter how long I had been away, when I returned they always remembered me. And the club sandwiches were as good when I was 50 as they were when I was 15. No wonder we all loved it.

I miss Glace Bay for many reasons: the Chip Wagon, Venice Pizzeria, and Colette’s, to name a few great places. But of all the places I miss, I miss Mike’s Lunch the most. Thank you Mike’s Lunch for all the great meals and great times I’ve had there. I have been to many great restaurants over the years, but if I could walk through the doors of any one of them one last time, it would be yours.

Bonus: footage of Commercial St in 1988. The town changed over time, but this is how I remember it growing up. By this point Mike’s Lunch had already moved to the Sterling. Teddy’s (or as this video called it, The Greasy Spoon, and a similar restaurant to Mike’s) was still there.

How to grow old, and other things I learned from my Father and his Father

My dad in 2012, around his 72nd birthday, looking over the land he would someday buy

My dad had two dreams late in life. One was to win a (relatively) big lottery, which he did. The other was to buy the property behind his house, which he did some time after winning the lottery. He had played the lottery for years and played the same numbers consistently each week. I thought he would never win but he prevailed.

When I was a child my grandfather planted new fruit trees in his yard. I remember being stunned when he said that they might yield fruit in a decade or so. I could not see the point in spending effort on something you might not get to enjoy soon, if at all.

The lottery tickets and the fruit trees were small acts in support of a belief in a better future. That better future may not come, but the only way it could come would be to take some action and increase — if only in a small way — the chance it would happen.

Fatherhood is like that. You plant roots and you try your luck and work and hope for a better future that may not come, or come after you’re gone. You do it regardless.

Sons and daughters live off the luck and the land of their Fathers and Mothers before they set off to find their own. During their stay some seeds are taken, some luck rubs off, some lessons (intentional and otherwise) are learned along the way. Then they go.

After you go, you think there is nothing left to learn. But then you are old like they were old, and you learn lessons even then. Lessons like the importance of having dreams and goals no matter how old you are. Lessons like living like you will never die and acting accordingly. Or the overriding lesson of believing in a better future no matter what. Though the person passes away, the lessons are passed on, like the fruit that falls from that long ago planted tree.

Happy Father’s Day to us Fathers, living and not. We the living have much to learn, and trees to plant. Wish us luck.

How to use the motivation equation to get more motivated

On Saturday I wrote about how the motivation equation explains why you are or aren’t motivated. I want to write now on how you can use the same equation to get more motivated.

Here’s the equation again. Recall we replaced the I with F, for Friction

In short, to get more motivated, you need to:

  • Increase the chances you can do something (E)
  • Increase the value of doing it (V)
  • Decrease the things that make it harder to do something (F)
  • Decrease the delay in it occurring (D)

Remember, we all have alternatives (A) in terms of what we can do. And this is where context C comes into the picture.

Let’s take some classic examples to walk through this. I’ll underline the approaches you can take to motivate yourself and emphasize how it relates to the formula.

First example: lie on the couch or go to the gym and get in shape? V may be the same for both, but E is low and D is big for getting in shape. Plus there is hardly any friction F in being a couch potato. Going to the gym means getting ready, getting to the gym, dealing with people at the gym, washing up, and then going home. So much friction! If only you could motivate yourself to get off the couch and do something!

The way to motivate yourself with this is to reframe things. Change the context. That will help you change the equation and bump up the Vs and Es and decrease the Ds and Fs. If you need motivation for getting in shape, the question should not be: lie on the couch or go to the gym and get in shape? The question should be: 1) lie on the couch and feel bad later and sink into poor health or 2) go to the gym and feel good now and get in shape? In that context, V for #1 drops and V for #2 increases. Next, tackle the friction F for going to the gym. People do all sorts of things for that: find a gym near them, have a gym bag packed, find a friend to work out with, or skip the gym altogether and workout at home. There are lots of actions to decrease F. Likewise, if you focus on the short term goal of feeling good on the day you go to the gym,  E increases and D decreases and your motivation goes up.

This leads to my next approach: you need a plan. Plans help increase expectations E and decrease delay D. If you want to run a 5K or a marathon, if you want to learn a language, if you want do achieve anything worthwhile, it helps to have a plan. Plans help with E:  if you have an authority (coach, instructor) telling you that if you stick to the plan you will succeed, E goes up. Plans help with D too because now you can imagine/see D decreasing with every day that passes. Likely V increases every day too. Finally plans decrease F. Uncertainty of what to do is a source of Friction. A plan decreases uncertainty and thus F.

Planning is easier than you think. Can’t come up with a plan? Do this. Say: I will do this today and tomorrow. Or today and the rest of the week. After you do it, make a record. Write it down. Mark a calendar. Whatever works. After a week, tell your stupid brain: that was the plan, dummy…I tricked you because you were telling me I couldn’t do it and I did it and before you tell me I can’t do it again you told me I couldn’t do it at all and I did so I know best and I will do it! (It’s worth a shot). Don’t let planning stop you. Any plan, even a bad plan, will help. Here’s a plan: buy a dozen beer or Gatorade. Put them on a shelf. Plan to drink one every time you work out. Put the empties next to the full ones. Plan to finish them all. Voila! Who said you can’t plan?

Another way of dealing with expectations E (and your stupid brain) is visualization. Chances are you use visualization already, just in a bad way! You imagine all the reasons you cannot succeed. Now be like a professional skier or runner and imagine all the ways you can succeed. Whenever you imagine failing, imagine successful alternatives instead and practice going over them in your mind. You will see increases in E if you work at it.

Related to visualization is internal chatter. In sports, coaches will tell players on the bench to “talk it up!”. Why? Because it encourages teammates and defeats their negative internal chatter. You should do the same. When you motivate yourself to do something and you are done, what do you do? Do you just move on to the next thing? If you do, you are telling yourself: that didn’t matter. If a team scores playing a game, they get excited! They cheer! When a team is defending, everyone yells “Defense!” All of these things increase the value V of the thing they are doing. You need to do the same, and by doing so, increase the value of what you are doing or what you did. And when you succeed, you give yourself a cheer and your brain thinks: I can do it! And with that, the next time you try and do it, E is increased.

Another way to motivate yourself is overloading. If you aren’t motivated to go to the gym to get in shape, come up with several reasons to go. You aren’t just going to the gym to 1) get in shape. You are going to the gym to 1) get in shape 2) get out of the house 3) meet your friend 4) reasons of vanity 5) reasons of pride 6) etc. Give yourself as many reasons as possible. Brainstorm ideas. Ask friends. List them all out. Get as many high value ones as possible.

Related to overloading is overshooting. Didn’t do any of your hobby last month? Missed meeting up with friends? How about planning to do it every day next month? Twice on Sunday even! Imagine making huge improvements on your drawing or sewing or photography. Think about all the enjoyment you’d get seeing all your friend or just contacting them. List all the ways you could derive value V from that. Now after a month, look back. You likely didn’t do it all. (If you did, awesome!) But look at the improvements you made. As they say, you aimed for the stars and landed on the moon and that in itself is incredible. No doubt all the effort resulted in ways you learned to decrease friction F and improve expectation E. You will find you are much more motivated to do things by planning to overshoot.

Refuse to fail.This is useful if expectations E are low and is related to overloading and overshooting. So you and your friend skipped the gym but you had a good time and you needed a break and you went the next day. Or you didn’t create anything but you cleaned up your work area and made it easier to draw the next day. Sure you could beat Today You up for not doing the thing. But give yourself credit for helping Tomorrow You be more motivated by reducing the friction  For the expectations E for tomorrow. You don’t fail if you get up the next day. There is no timeclock.

If you should do good things for several reasons, do bad (or not so good) things for one reason. Don’t lie on the couch and eat cake and watch movies and talk with friends, etc. If you do, you are going to be very motivated to be a couch potato! If you are tired, lie on the couch. If you want a slice of cake, go get one (preferably as a treat…maybe after the gym.) Talk to your friends in person. You want to decrease the value V of lying on the couch. Heck, pile stuff on the couch (increase the friction F) or lie on the couch only after you do some other things (increase D) or only lie on the couch if you flip a coin and it comes up tails (thereby decreasing E).

Understand what does motivate you and apply it to other areas. If you still are struggling to motivate yourself, sit down and write down what you are motivated in doing and understand the V, E, F and D for them, Then look at what you are not motivated in doing and see how they are similar. Is there any way you can change the unmotivating ones to look more like the motivated ones. You should see ways to increase your motivation.

Keep a log for things you regularly struggle to find motivation for. Write down the V, E, F and D for the last time you did them. Maybe you are imagining F and D as being worse than they are. Likewise, maybe it was easy for you and you enjoyed some aspect and the value V and expectation E are higher than you imagine. If so, great! If not, keep logging and log what you changed to motivate yourself this time. Keep tweaking those values until you are doing better.

Choose the next best alternative. Can motivate yourself to go to the gym? Go for a good walk rather than lie on the couch. Can’t call that one friend you should call due to high friction F? Call someone else where the value V is high but F is lower. Can’t do the creative thing you think you should be doing? Do something else creative instead. Eventually you will need to understand your lack of motivation for not doing that one thing; doing a close alternative can help.

Lastly I want to mention two last things: Habits/Routines and Novelty. Habits/routines are very good at decreasing friction F and increasing expectations, E. But they can also cause you to feel a decrease in value V, because things get stale and boring and less enjoyable. That’s where novelty comes in. Novelty decreases expectation E (who knows what will happen) and increases friction F (because it is new), but can also increase V (less stale and boring) . If habits/routines are the main dish, novelty are the herbs and spices. You need both.

If you’ve read this far: wow! you were motivated! Good work! I hope the value V was high and the fraction F was low.

If you were wondering: why did he keep repeating those letters? It’s because I really think the key to motivating ourselves is to think in those terms: V, E, D and F. Repeating them helps reinforce that. Also there is nothing new here when it comes to approaches to motivation. What I think is new (at least to me) is applying them in light of the formula. I hope you found it the same.

Now go and do good things. Great things, even!

 

 

 

 

How the motivation equation explains why you are or aren’t motivated

I was having a hard time getting motivated last week. I knew there were a number of things I needed to work on. For some of them, I had no problem tackling. For others, I really struggled. Why was this?

This simple equation, from this article, The motivation equation, really helped me. But I also felt it was lacking something:

For those who hate math, the “M” stands for motivation, “E” stands for Expectancy, “V” stands for Value, “I” stands for Impulsiveness, “D” stands for Delay.  E is the likelihood of getting something, and V is how much you value it. D is how far away it is, and I is impulsiveness. Let me walk through an example.

Let’s say it’s lunch and you have a choice of leftovers or something new. You value something new over leftovers, so all other things being equal, you are more motivated to eat something new rather than the leftovers.

Now let’s say there is a chance that the new thing you want to eat may be sold out before you get there. With leftovers, E is high: you know you can eat them right now. For the new thing, E is lower: it might not be there so expectation has dropped. To bring E up, you think: well, there are many new dishes you can try…one of them will be there for sure.

To further complicate things, let’s say it is 11 am and you are hungry but the place selling something new doesn’t open for an hour. The delay for something new is larger than leftovers. That means your motivation for eating something new may drop.

Finally, impulsiveness. I would like to replace that with F, for friction. Friction is impulsiveness and more. Friction is all those things that put a drag on you doing the things you need motivation to do. In this case, getting something new may mean having to go out in bad weather to get it. Bad weather is friction. Or you may not like the food court where the new food is because it is too crowded or noisy. Unpleasant atmosphere is friction. Or you may be hungry or tired or bored and want to eat right away. All those feelings are friction. The more friction you have, the less motivation you have.

Two other things to consider are A: alternatives and C: context. Sometimes we may be motivated to do something in one Context and not the other. On a cold day I may be motivated to have a hot chocolate. On a hot day I may not. The value of something can change in different context. Likewise, my motivation for something may change if there are alternatives. I may be motivated to eat a frozen dinner because the alternatives (make my own, get take out for the 4x this week) are worse for me at the time.

I recommend you do what I did this week and list some things you are motivated to do and NOT motivated to do and run them through the formula.

For a work example, I had two things I wanted to do on Friday, write a report and solve a hard technical problem. I worked on the latter. D E and F were the same for each. But for the report, I felt it had little value. I have to do it, but it was hard to motivate myself to do it because V was Low. On the other hand, V for the hard technical problem was High. I learned alot (which I value), I have more value as an employee because of what I learned, and I felt proud of this accomplishment. Given this, it’s not surprising I chose the hard technical problem. Now, if the expectation (E) of me solving it was lowered, then my motivation would have dropped too. Likewise, if I thought it would take a week or more (delay, D) to solve it,  motivation would have decreased.

For a home example, I have two chores to do: organize the basement and organize the living room. Both have a high value (V) for me. But D is higher for the basement: it’s much more work and will take much longer. E is the same: I can accomplish both. Also F is higher for the basement, since there is so much stuff to go through and move around. Naturally I am motivated to tackle the living room.

Finally, a personal example. I have several hobbies: painting and website design. D and E are the same, but V and F are different. I am good at web site work and poor at painting, so the outcomes are better for web site work than the outcomes of my painting. Likewise, for painting, there is setting up to paint and then cleaning up. For website work I just sit down at my computer: no setup and no cleanup. Painting has higher friction F and lower value V, so I tend to do it less.

Ok, Bernie, you say, that’s great. How do I deal with that to get motivated. That will be in part 2 of this, since this is already too long and you are likely losing your motivation to keep reading. (V is dropping, D is getting longer, E may be dropping too. Likewise you may have alternatives A that you are more motivated to do.) That will come out on Monday.

Essays on aging, from Oliver Sacks, on my birthday

 

 

It’s my birthday. I’m into my seventh decade. Born in ’61, now 61.

 

My first decade was one of being shy and smart and tall and skinny and bullied. My second decade was one of growth: growing out of everything, from my clothes to my hometown. Cruising into my twenties I became independent and anxious and happy. By my thirties, I became responsible. In my forties, I became lost. In my fifties, I was crushed.

I expected worst things still to fall on me in my sixth decade, and I was surprised instead by things that uplifted me. Where I will land in my seventh decade, I don’t know. On good days I look to remain open, on bad days I hope for a close.

In all that time, with rare exception, I have taken off every day since I started working in the early 80s. Often those free days were filled with simple pleasures. Mixed in with that was some contemplation.

I think two good things to contemplate on this day are these two essays by Oliver Sacks. One was written when he was still vibrant and turning 80: Opinion | The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.) in The New York Times. The second one when he was dying of cancer not much more than a year later: Opinion | Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer, also The New York Times.

What impression they will leave on will depend on your current perspective. I encourage you to move around, literally and figuratively, to have to best perspective on life that you can have. The days will be what they are, regardless. How you perceive them depends on where you stand and how you look out.

A critique of the weird counterfactual history of Matt Yglesias and his case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire


Recently, Matt Yglesias wrote one of his contrarian essays arguing the case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There’s so much wrongness about it that it’s hard to know where to start.

Perhaps the best place to start is some basic history of the empire over the 19th century. As the Holy Roman Empire was dying off, the Austrian Empire was formed from it and lasted from 1804 to 1867. From there it transformed into the Austria-Hungary Empire.  During the 19th century the Empire, led by the Hapsburgs, had stability issues. It was battered from the outside by leaders such as Napoleon of France and Bismarck of Prussia/Germany. It was torn internally, with revolutions like those in 1848. Even under less dramatic situations, it struggled to manage large parts of it due to things like the divisive actions of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Given all that, the idea that Yglesias puts forward that:

In today’s light, the idea of the Habsburg realms evolving into a multi-lingual democratic entity doesn’t seem particularly absurd.

Well, it is pretty absurd. The Emperor took all forms of actions to prevent the forces externally and internally from defeating the Empire, but those forces only grew stronger over that time. To imagine it evolving into a singular democratic entity is based on nothing and counter to the history of the Empire during that century.

Yglesias goes on to propose:

The empire wasn’t doomed by its diversity of linguistic groups — it started and then lost a major war.

Actually, it was doomed by its diversity in war and peace. In peacetime it was doomed by too many political groups it could not reconcile. In wartime it was doomed too. (This is covered in depth in the book,  A Mad Catastrophe.) The army of the Emperor was terrible for many reasons, and a key one in particular that led to their downfall was the inability of its soldiers to communicate with each other.

Yglesias drives forward:

And this, I think, is the thin point: had the continent not plunged into war following Ferdinand’s assassination, I think the empire could have survived.

This overlooks why there was a war in the first place. The Empire was looking to flex their muscle in the Balkans since they made aims to move into that area that was once part of the Ottoman Empire. After the assassination, an ultimatum of demands was put to Serbia. The demands were difficult and still Serbia made an effort to agree with them. Despite being agreeable to all but one, Austria-Hungary would not accept this and this ultimately lead up to the Great War. The continent was plugged into that war because of the Empire.

Assuming no war – a tremendous assumption – he goes on to imagine an optimistic future for the Empire:

My optimistic view is twofold:

Absent the pretext of war, the Viennese authorities would recognize the need to return to parliamentary government, even if that meant dealing with socialists as a counterweight to the grab-bag of nationalists.

Franz Ferdinand wanted to cut Hungary down to size (literally) and the Hungarian nationalists might have realized that this was actually in their interests and would have let them be masters of their own domain.

Again no. Hungary had been fighting against the leaders in Vienna for decade. There’s nothing in their history that indicates they would have changed their minds. If you are going to be a contrarian historian, at least have some facts to support your counter history.

He also has a fantastical view of how the Empire might have operated:

I think a more workable version of federalism would have been to leverage the Empire’s small administrative divisions and create a state where a lot of power was devolved to local government with the national government handling national defense and foreign policy, plus the kinds of things that are run out of Brussels and Frankfurt in contemporary Europe.

This is also counter to the facts. Facts such as how Hungary would subvert any kind of spending that was not in their interest, including defense, to name just one.

More fantasy in the form of how schools would run:

The expectation would be that schooling would be available in one or two local languages of instruction in every locality, that every non-German student would be taught German as a foreign language, and that every German student would choose from one of the other languages of the empire. I think that absent the outbreak of war, this would have proved to be a sustainable model

Again, no. Not based on history.

Finally:

And by midcentury, the script has sort of flipped on the Habsburg domains. Far from a feudal relic, the empire starts to seem progressive and modern.

That certainly wasn’t going to happen when Franz Joseph was emperor. He truly was a feudal relic, and the only purpose of the empire was for him to be Emperor. Preferably an empire that was based on those of centuries past. He and the land he ruled was notoriously conservative and antiquated. Nothing in their history would indicate this would become anything other than that, short of dissolution.

In summary, Matt Yglesias imagines an Austria-Hungary that never existed and never could exist, but if it did, it would form a model of some ideal federation within Mittel Europa. The only place that might fill that bill is Switzerland.

If you want to read what the empire was really like at the end, read A Mad Catastrophe. As well, AJP Taylor has written several essays and books on the subject, including this. I’ve found all those worthwhile The Guardian has 10 more books on the topic, here. Finally, consider reading Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

On Stonehenge and the Judean Date palm: the past is never gone

I have been thinking much on these two pieces I’ve read recently:

One thing I find interesting about them both is how something that could be considered part of the Past is now part of the Present. Stonehenge keeps being meaningful to us now by revealing things about the people of that era; the seed for the Judean date palm shows us what a long lost plant looks like now.

The past is never past. We choose not to pay attention to it, but it remains, piled up behind us, a huge closet full of things that were once in the present. They remain there until we find a reason to make them present again.

On TV, the 90s and me


I stopped watching TV in the 90s.  The last three TV series I watched were Northern Exposure (1990-1995), Seinfeld (1989-1998) and Friends (1994-2004).

I thought of that when I recently started rewatching Friends clips weirdly via Instagram. It is full of them. This Vanity Fair piece hits on something that Seinfeld and Friends and to some degree Northern Exposure had in common:

It was the ’90s; oh, was it ever the ’90s. The show’s anxieties are inextricably tied to the that decade—answering machines, VCRs, the discomfort its straight characters feel upon encountering queer people.

Yep, all that. The discomfort (or whatever you want to call it) in Friends is particularly painful to watch.

You notice other things too. No smart phones (obviously). No internet. Also suits and ties. Chandler and Ross in the early episodes are often in business attire of the time and it seems as dated as tuxedos and top hats now.

In the end, I gave up on each of those shows for different reasons. Northern Exposure lost its bearing and became some sort of Alaskan fantasy land. Friends seemed to become a landing place for cameos of famous actors. As for Seinfeld, I have to agree with the Vanity Fair piece, who said:

… for more than a few episodes at a time, these people and their concerns—so self-absorbed, so entitled, so stupid—are a little deadening to watch.

Seinfeld’s leads are a tiresome quartet; in the show, everyone who meets them ends up deeply regretting it.

I skipped the golden age of TV with the Wire and the Sopranos and all that. None of it appealed to me. I’m trying to get back into watching things via streaming, but even that is a struggle. I don’t think I am superior for not watching it. I just find it is something I can’t watch on my own.

For now I’ll watch clips via Instagram and maybe that is enough TV for me. 🙂

On the things parents tell their kids and the things kids remember

Vihos Sweets

This is a picture of a street in downtown Glace Bay. Next to the Dominion is a small place called Vihos Sweets. It didn’t exist when I was growing up, but it did when my mom was a teen. She worked there for a time, and she occasionally talked about it.

Though she didn’t talk about it a lot, it stuck in my mind and I often thought about it. I don’t know why. Maybe I liked the sound of it. Maybe the way she described it made it seem special. Perhaps I was trying to imagine having my own job someday. I am not sure.

I wonder of the many things I’ve told my kids what they remember. You hope that the big lessons you try and impart to your kids are the things that stick. But often times it is the little things. Things like the name of a place you worked at for a short time when you were younger.

Try and be comfortable with the notion that  you have less control than you think.  You can only live and speak as best as you can, and hope that is enough to send them in the right direction. They may recall the important things you passed on. They may recall something you said in passing. They are their own person, and they will absorb and recall what they need.

(Image via http://capermemories.blogspot.com/)

 

How I track my goals and my year using spreadsheets: my 2021 review. (Maybe you can steal this approach)

I’ve used a number of ways to track my goals and my year, and I have found spreadsheets the best way to do it.

Below are snapshots of the two worksheets I used in my spreadsheet. The first image is the worksheet I use for the goals I have regarding my responsibility for people and other things. The second image is the worksheet I use for the goals I have regarding myself. Each row is a week in the year. If I did nothing to advance the goal that week, I colour the cell red. If I did something but fell short, I use yellow. If I had a good week, the cell is green, and if I had a great week the cell is purple.

What’s nice about using colour like this is that I can zoom out and see how I am progressing over the year.

In the first two columns above I track how much I do for my son and daughter. Pretty good there. The next column is what I do for my brother and sister: I started weak but picked up throughout the year. It was good, and better than last year, but it can be better still. Next column is for keeping in touch with friends. It’s tough in a pandemic but I could email and use social media. The last three columns are my home, my finances, and my involvement in politics.  I was much better with political engagement last year: this year the pandemic wore me down. Likewise I did ok managing my home and finances this year but it could be better. All in all too much red and yellow in those last 2 columns. (Part of the problem is I find them thankless tasks that provide little or no good feedback.)

After my responsibility to others,  my goals are managing myself. I found I did poorly on the hard parts of this but better on the soft parts. lol! The first two columns above are fitness (do more exercising) and reading (do more reading). I get a D to an F grade for much of the year there. The third column tracks how much I draw and do other art. Again, D or maybe a C-. I did well writing (column 4): I wrote every week in my main blog, and sometimes elsewhere.  After that comes column 5 and IT skills development: I got maybe a B- there. Often that takes a backseat to other things. In terms of cooking (column 6) that was easy in a pandemic! I did a lot of cooking and cooked hundreds of different recipes. (I track all the meals separately because I am a nut.)

For a long time I felt homebound and never did things for myself, so I tried to improve that and make them goals. So the last three columns are Treats, Restaurants I’ve tried, and new and good things I have done. Mostly I’ve done well there, compared to reading and fitness. Sigh. Ah well. (Those are easy to do, since the feedback you get once you do them is really good.)

The colour coding is subjective, of course, and in a pandemic the bar to green and purple is lower. But as a consultant, I quite like this way of tracking my goals.

Now I have a lot of goals, I admit. One thing nice about that is that I usually feel like I am accomplishing something. So if I am not getting in shape, at least I am keeping in touch with people and taking care of other things.

I also don’t track everything in a spreadsheet: I have some goals I track elsewhere, for example for some relationships and responsibilities. Likewise I sometimes have goals that are in a limited time window of weeks instead of months: they don’t go here.

It may seem like a lot to track, but I find I spent a few minutes each day then I can get it done. Plus I can course correct this way too and shift my priorities around.

If you struggle with goals and tracking them and moving forward, I recommend this approach. It’s fast and painless.

Here’s to achieving your goals, small and big, in 2022.

On de Klerk and Hume (and Cromwell too)

Cromwell
FW de Klerk died last week. While there were many reactions to his death, I thought this one was best. His legacy is complicated. But he has a legacy that is complicated and not one that is simply horrible because of the bold actions he took. I had thoughts on de Klerk, but that piece is better than anything I could have written.

I’d argue that almost everyone’s legacy is complicated. I especially thought that after reading about how David Hume’s tower was renamed last year. I suspect that eventually the only things that will be named after people will be for people whose lives we no longer care about. But who knows? As I wrote earlier, the naming of things (and the removal of names) is about power and eventually those newly in power want to name their things so they become their own.

Perhaps we should not erect memorials at all. Perhaps we all need to be iconoclastic. If we do cast new ones, then the memorials we erect of people need to include the “warts and all” aspects of them. Make the memorials a lesson instead of an icon to worship.

One thing I want to add on de Klerk is that when I was younger, I never thought that the Soviet Union, Apartheid, or the Troubles in Ireland would end in my lifetime. For every de Klerk there was a Paisley in Northern Ireland who would fight tooth and nail to prevent change from happening. But it did happen, because of people like Gorbachev, de Klerk and Mandela, Trimble and Hume. They should be acknowledged for the good they did.

(Image from a story on the painter who painted Cromwell, warts and all: Samuel Cooper)

 

On capitalism, environmentalism and architecture, and the need to vacate, retreat and celebrate holidays

Last week there was much discussion about a dorm being sponsored by Charlie Munger for UCSB, which resulted in resignations among other things. Here is an example of the floor plan:

The big point of contention was the lack of windows for the bedrooms. Munger, who has been dictating the design, said it was more important that students have their own room than windows. I agree that having your own room is very important. My son is attending my alma mater and unlike me he has his own room in his first year and I applaud this. But he also has a window. It doesn’t have to be an either / or situation. We need both.

I’ve been thinking about this situation and I think in some ways many people who talk about urban housing have all become like Charlie Munger. In discussions they have, the living space of people living in cities gets smaller and smaller. Sure there are windows, but they are little windows looking out on little else. They are nothing like this:

And why is that? It’s because we assume we cannot afford it. Capitalism says people cannot live this way. Environmentalists often support that, saying dense cities with dense buildings are greener than suburbs or single dwellings.

Most of us, me included,  assume that has to be the way it is. We don’t ask ourselves is that a good way for us to live constantly I think that is key. I love living in cities for the most part, but I think we all need to get away from them and have a good place to get away to.

Vacation and holiday have had their meaning diluted  over time. Many would consider a retreat something we do because of a breakdown in our lives. I think we need to reconsider this. From time to time we need to vacate our current environment. We need to have holidays where we celebrate our spirituality and our connection to a greater purpose. We need to retreat from the day to day and restore ourselves.

I love where I live, but I would love to be able to go to this place from time to time. To vacate my current life and retreat to this place and celebrate a holiday.

Is it affordable? Well, there is a cost each of us bears for living in small spaces right up against each other all the time. The pandemic is just one of many costs that have resulted in this. But we suffer the cost in other ways in terms of mental health and much more. We need to revisit these costs and determine a better way to understand what we can afford. We need to live better. We need our space and our windows.

For more on the cabin shown here, see this: This prefabricated cabin is a holiday retreat that balances a rustic personality with modern details! – Yanko Design

On places loved and lost: the Canada Square Cinema


I’m sad to see that the pandemic has claimed another victim: the Canada Square Cinema at Yonge and Eglinton. I’ve been going there since it opened in the 80s, and especially so since I moved into the neighborhood in this century.

It’s always been a lovely theatre. One thing I loved about it was how little it changed over the years. Those gray panels on the wall, that red carpet, the cup holders from eye weekly: it was like going into a time machine every time I went there. While it was frozen in time, it was well kept up. It showed good movies. (The last film I saw there was “Parasite”.) It had decent crowds. It was great to see films that had been out for awhile but missed. (It was almost like a rep theatre in that way).

Still, with so many theatres closing over the years, I was expecting it to close too. Instead it was recently upgraded. I thought: great! I will have the luxury of having two big theatre complexes in my area. Then the pandemic hit.

I’m sad to see it go, but happy for all the good movies and good times I had going to it. Go see some movies in theatres as soon as you can. We still need that experience, and we need those theatres. May the theatres that you love last for a long time.

P.S. For more on the theatre, go see BlogTO’s write up, here.

 

On growing up with Dr. Suess

As a kid in the 60s I grew up reading Dr. Seuss. You could still get “Dick and Jane” books at the time, and let me tell you, the difference between them was stark. Reading Dick and Jane was drudgery. Reading Dr. Seuss was fun,and I associated reading with fun because of him.

Last year there was a big controversy about him that lead to six of his books being pulled from print. Dr. Seuss Enterprises said they did because these books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Fair enough. Some of the images like those above from  “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” are terrible in my opinion.  I don’t think there is much lost in that book being pulled from print. I would pause for one of those books though. The imagery from “Scrambled Eggs Super” seems vaguely offensive in my mind but it echoes more offensive imagery from other books depicting Arabs and Eskimos, so I am not surprised it went. I am disappointed: I loved that book. But that’s just me. It’s not hard to see the imagery as stereotypical, if not as negative as some of the others.

Thinking about Dr. Seuss and his imagery is difficult. At times blatantly racist (especially early in his career) and other times strongly progressive (later). Because of the former I can see why many educators and others would like to see him gone. I suspect his influence will wane over time and educators and parents will shift to newer books with representations that better reflect their values. Maybe someday we won’t even see the Grinch any more at Christmas.

That said, I am happy I grew up with Dr. Seuss books and read the ones I did. I am glad I read the ones I did to my kids too. (None of which were among the six.)  His books were very helpful in teaching me and others the joy of reading. I hope the books that come to replace his do the same.

For more on this topic, it’s easy to find links to the controversy on the Internet. Here are some of the pieces I’ve collected:

On not forgetting George W Bush

I was reading this analysis of a recent speech by George W. Bush (‘The Nation I Know,’ by George W. Bush – by James Fallows – Breaking the News) and it got me thinking about him again.

It’s easy to forget about Bush. Most Republicans act like they have. Many Democrats too. While reviled towards the end of his presidency — so much so that he was shunned by his party at their conventions — there are people who still think positively of him (For example, Michelle Obama Explains Her and George W. Bush’s Candy Exchange and Friendship).

But no one should forget about Bush and all  the terrible things done during his presidency, from torture to war. To see what I mean, read this: The Legacy of America’s Post-9/11 Turn to Torture – The New York Times. While some in America would like to forget all that and think better of him, much of the world likely thinks like this: George W Bush should shut up and go away | US & Canada | Al Jazeera. Even there, the idea is to dismiss him and forget about him.

Perhaps Bush is a genial and charming man. But he will also be the man that brought the United States and the World to a worse place. That should not be forgotten.

(Image above: Official White House photo by Pete Souza – https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/4291602492/ (direct link))

On restaurants loved and lost: Cafe Cancan


I can’t remember how I came across Cafe Cancan on Harbord Street, Toronto, but once I did, I couldn’t wait to go back. I love French food, and their menu was full on French. They had classic dishes, but there were also innovative ways of cooking that felt both new and traditional at the same time. I wanted it all.

One of the things great about Cancan was their prix fixe. It was reasonably priced and extensive. You’d order and sit back while the servers brought out dish after dish of delicious food. Even better were all the extras. You might believe you would get five dishes with the prix fixe and you would end up with 7 or 8. Plus you would get an amuse bouche when you sat down and once while settled in at the bar they brought me a little additional sweet at the end of the meal. I felt pampered everytime.

The restaurant itself was a gem. The tables were fine, but it was equally fun to sit at the bar. What was especially great was sitting on the back patio during the warmer months. Whenever I was sitting there I wanted to stay all night.

The wine was always good, and they had Tawse rose on tap for cheap. Oysters were plentiful too, but even here they would come up with innovative mignonettes to make them extra special.

Sadly the pandemic hit it hard, as it hit other restaurants. In the first summer they opened but the menu was very different. Now they are gone.

It seems like a new place that is going to open that is related to Piano Piano. I am sure it is going to be good. But I am going to really miss that lovely pastel French restaurant on Harbord. I had so many lovely meals with lovely people on one of my favorite streets of this city of mine.

(Images from the articles in BlogTo linked to here).

On restaurants loved and lost: Florent (and Odeon)

Here are a number of pieces on two great downtown Manhattan restaurants: Florent and Odeon. Florent has been closed for a number of years. But Odeon lives on, happily. What I love about both restaurants is how the embodied that era and how they both set a stage. You can see that in the pieces below about them. Florent in particular was a radical place that was like no other, right down to their menus and promotional material (like the one above).

When they both opened the lower part of Manhattan had nothing like them. There was no gentrification down there like there is now. They were an oasis of good food, good design, and good times.

To really get a sense of that, read Restaurant Florent Takes Its Final Bows – The New York Times.

For more on the design ideas around Florent, see: Restaurant Florent | Restaurant Design in New York, NY — Memo Productions

A short history of the space Florent occupied is written about here: What remains of a Gansevoort Street restaurant | Ephemeral New York

Lastly, here is it’s Wikipedia write-up: Florent (restaurant). It’s a good source of other links on the place.

Before I forget, this is a fun piece on The Odeon: A Retro Haven That Defined New York 1980s Nightlife | Vanity Fair.

Also worth reading. Now go and eat at The Odeon.

 

On prisons and prisoners and how things can be improved

Here are three pieces on prison and incarceration that I thought were worth reading:

  1. Here’s some technology to help identify discrepancies in prison sentencing based on race.
  2. Here’s how California jails take a kinder and better approach.
  3. Here’s how artists teamed with prisoners to transform their prison.

(Image linked to in the third piece)

On progress: may you live in average times that are getting better in many ways


Matthew Yglesias wrote this piece here and it did not go over too well: The case against crisis-mongering. I mainly agree with him, that our world problems, dire as they are, aren’t as exceptional as we may think. Or as Dan G put it on twitter:

What Dan states is my worldview as well. There are still many bad things in the world, but there is progress and things are getting better.  We have overcome problems in the past and we have the ability to fix things in the future. Plus the past was terrible in many ways and so much worse than now (and our times will look terrible to people in the future).

If you disagree with this, I strongly recommend two books:

  1. Factfulness
  2. Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

They make the case stronger than I can for how the world is getting better and how we should be optimistic despite our difficulties.

People will say: what about global warming? The pandemic? Nuclear weapons? All I can say is read Matt’s piece and then read those books. I think that will help alot.

(Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash )

 

 

 

Is math political? Does it need to be? A few thoughts

You would think so, if you read this: Sneering at Ontario’s anti-racist math curriculum reveals a straight line to what people value in The Star

What has the columnist angry was the removal of several passages of progressive political text that went with the update to the recent changes of the math curriculum. I can see why that removal would anger some people with progressive political values.

I can also imagine how many conservatives would have been angry if there was text like this removed from a new curriculum: “recognize the ways in which mathematics can be used as a tool to uncover, explore, analyse, and promote actions to address greater productivity and growth within our economy and to lead Canada to a strong future of wealth and opportunity”, or if the government removed anything to do with teachers creating “pro-capitalist and pro-business teaching and learning opportunities.” Any group that tries to explicitly frame a curriculum and then have that framing removed will be upset.

Mathematics itself is not political, but it is always taught within a political and historical context. For example, I have math texts that make it seem that the only worthwhile math came from European men, while I have others that show mathematics has roots all over the world. I have math textbooks that mention 0 women, while other texts show the role women have played in mathematics and delve into why women had a hard time making more of a contribution.

Whatever context you want to frame a curriculum, I think that emphasizing politics and history with regards to teaching mathematics will not achieve some of the goals that progressive thinkers hope it will achieve. I think the new changes in the curriculum with regards to things such as streaming will help achieve those goals, as I wrote here.

Additionally, I think there are other things that can be done outside the curriculum that could help students that are disadvantaged when it comes to education in math. I am thinking of the work done by organizations like BlackGirlsCode. We could use more organizations like that who can provide specialized programs not just to help kids who are struggling with math, but to uplift kids that excel in math. Organizations that can support the next Maryam Mirzakhani, wherever she is. The kids who are struggling with math need more help than what the schools can provide: the same is true for kids that excel in math.

(Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash)

Two good pieces for those of us getting older (with some additional thoughts from me).

People runningHere’s two worthwhile pieces on growing old:

This, Fighting against ageism and this, Aging is inevitable, so why not do it joyfully? Here’s how.

How we see growing old is a cultural thing. When I first went to pick out a photo, I decided on the first one of the man running. Because I am a product of my culture, as they say. I see being fit and young and productive as valuable.  Especially in our culture, being able to produce is highly valued. That’s why ageism occurs. If you show signs of age, people assume you will produce less. So your value decreases to them.

Then I saw the picture below. In other cultures, being able to sit and converse with your friends is valuable. These people are not being productive. They are not trying to look young. They are being social. They are being human.

Old people talking

I think we have problems in our society because for many the chief purpose of humans is to produce, to be productive. As long as that is true, we will have problems with ageism. True, we need times of our life to be productive, but we also need times for growth, times for rest and reflection. To combine all those times effectively is to live a good life. A life where all humans at all times of their lives are valued.

(First Photo by Lisa Wall on Unsplash. Second Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash )

Haiti and the Dominican Republic: a case study as to why results are never monocausal

Dominoes

People like to think outcomes, especially political or social outcomes, are monocausal. They’ll say: Y happened because X occurred.

I think that is rarely true. At best, X could be the main contributor as to why Y occurred. But it is never the only contributor. Often it is not even possible to determine which cause made the most difference. Most outcomes are not monocausal.

A good case study for this can be found in this essay on Haiti vs. the Dominican Republic – by Noah Smith.People will often say the main contributor to Haiti’s poverty was French colonialism or American intervention. Smith makes the case there are many factors that contributed to the significant differences between the two nations and it is not easy or even possible to single out one cause.

The next time someone tries to argue for single causes, look deeper. You’ll like find at least a half different other factors that contributed. People who can highlight multiple causes for an event understand the event better.

(Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash )

On my study of history in school and out of school

In the United States and Canada recently, there have been terrible events that have driven people to ask: why didn’t we learn about XYZ in school? Tom Hanks devotes an article to this line of thinking in the New York Times, here.

I just have a few things to say about that, based on my own education in history, the education of my kids, and the education I gave to myself post high school.

In Canada there was a big discussion about the Residential School System and why did we not learn about it. I didn’t, and my kids didn’t, I don’t think. What I did learn when I was younger was different aspects of history for each year I was in grade school. In the earlier grades, we studied Nova Scotian history, British history, and Canadian history. We studied ancient world history and then history of the second millenium. We did study indigenous people at the time when the focus was on North America. (As well, we studied Mi’kmaq religion in grade 7, which was interesting). Indigenous people were not invisible in the lessons, and their role was significant at times. That said, the lessons were mainly Eurocentric and mainly focused on major events like wars and politics, though.

I noticed a shift in this when my kids were studying history in grades 7 and 8. There were lessons on injustices in Canada, especially when it came to racist events such as the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. I thought that was a good improvement in the study of Canadian history.

Of course what facts are taught in history, and what are not, changes all the time. This will depend on many factors, from school administrators, teachers, parents, and others. Even what books are available matters. I hope and expect that Canadian history will be taught in a less Eurocentric way, and that Indigenous and people of non-European origin will get more focus. Also important would be more focus given to the role of women in history. That would be a change for the better.

I think it is important to acknowledge, though, that the point of history classes in school is not just to teach facts. For example my kids were learning not just about Canadian history, they were learning how to think about history. That makes a great deal of sense (though learning the facts is good too).

I can say this because I actually stopped studying  history as soon as I could in high school, and I think that is a shame. I found grade 10 history boring, and there were alternative classes that were more interesting in the next two years, classes I took instead. I made up for that later by reading history copiously starting in my late 20s, thanks to encouragement from my brother. By reading people like AJP Taylor, not only did I learn about history, I learned how historical writing could be criticized. I also learned from Taylor how history could be presented in a way different than more mainstream historical writing. I was studying history again. Thinking about it. Thinking about the arguments historians made. Agreeing and disagreeing with historians. Getting to recognize good history from not so good history, at least in a limited way.

I think knowing how to think about history is as important as ever. We are being confronted with our past and the past of others all the time. By being able to think critically of those times, we can better understand our past, our current era, and even ourselves.

P.S. If you want to understand more about how to history is taught, at least in Ontario, see this.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)

On how you are in terrible times

I’ve been thinking about the terrible times we live in a how it affects us. When life is easy /not difficult, it is relative easy to be good. That’s normal, and by normal I mean like the vast majority of people. However as life gets more and more difficult, some people don’t change their behaviour and manage to stay the same. Those people are saints (1a). What about the rest of us: does that mean we are monsters? I’d argue that as life becomes much harder (1b) our behaviour tends to become terrible too. That doesn’t make us monsters: that makes us….normal still. Most of use are fairly elastic and as things become easier we slide back (2b) to being good. A few though end up staying terrible (2a). The hard times affect them in a way that doesn’t allow them to behave the way most people do when times are good and easy. We end up as seeing them more like monsters. We may avoid them but we should also have pity.

It’s hard to tell the saints in good times: they seem normal too. It’s only when difficult times occur do they stand out. Likewise it’s hard to know if people are monsters in difficult times because everyone seems to be not their best. It’s also hard to know if monstrous people have always been that way or if the times shaped them so.

Have some pity and understanding on all during difficult times: saints, monsters and the rest. We are all struggling to deal with what life throws at us.

On restaurants loved and lost: Harvey’s on Bloor Street in Toronto

Can you be abandoned by a restaurant? If it is me, it’s the Harvey’s that was on Bloor in the 1980s.  I used to go there and get my favourite, a charbroiled chicken sandwich with mayo and pickle on the side. (Still my favourite thing to get at Harvey’s). I loved sitting in the front window and look over U of T’s Varsity Field.  When I was in my 20s I used to joke with my gf that when I was in my 60s I would still be coming here and eating the same sandwich and sitting in the same spot.

Times change and streets change, especially in Toronto. That area is now filled with condos. It’s nice and I still like the area, but I miss that Harvey’s. I’m much closer to my 60s than my 20s and I would love to be able to fulfill the need. Guess I will have to go to Okonomi House instead. 🙂

(Image via a link to this good piece on the History of Toronto’s Swiss Chalet (also in the image above, from the blog Historic Toronto)

P.S. Okonomi House is the same as it was in the 1980s. I hope it never closes. Click on the link and order from it if you can.

On restaurants loved and lost: Brothers

Brothers Restaurant Toronto

It’s Valentine’s Day, a good day to write a love letter to one of my favorite restaurants of all time, Brothers.

Brothers is a restaurant that should not have worked. Crowded between the entrance of the Bay Street subway and a downtown mall, there was barely room for anyone. One table in the window, a midsized bar, and a few tables in the back. Amongst all that a kitchen the size of a big closet nestled in a corner. It should not have worked, but in the short time it was around, it worked wonderfully.

You realized it was special when you first walked in, and I walked in often. I worked nearby, and whenever I needed a treat, I would wander over and sit at the bar and have lunch. I went so often that Chris who ran the front of place would warmly greet me after a time. (Later, as the place became extremely popular, Chris would sadly greet me after a time to tell me there was no room. It got so bad — for me, not them —  that I ended up scheduling lunch at 2ish just in the hopes of  getting a spot.)

While the service, atmosphere, and location were all great, what had me come back again and again was the food. The food was superb. I would take the hearty bread they offered and wipe down the plate to get every bit of it. The cooking was precise, simple and stellar. I loved to get something like sausage served with beans or vegetables and accompanied by a well chosen sauce. I’d take my time to slowly eat it, trying to appreciate and understand why it was so good. It was as much a cerebral as it was a sensory experience.

I would ask Chris about their tomato sauce or their green sauce, and he would tell me how they experimented with the amount of dairy or herb or whatever ingredient was in it to make the dish just right. And just right it was.

Most of the time I would get their sausage dish. The meat would change in the sausage, but it was always expertly balanced with seasoning. At first they may have been traditionally shaped, but later they were puck shaped. I loved that, and I loved them.

Sausage was not the only thing they excelled at. Pastas were always handmade, cooked to just the right texture, then served with a sauce better than any pasta sauce I ever had. Carpaccio was thin slices of whatever was appropriate for the season and accompanied with a light, lively dressing. The beef carpaccio was one of my favorite. They once said they could teach anyone to make it, but I doubt that. Fish, salad, dessert: whatever they made, they made well, listed it on their minimal menus, and I was happy and lucky to have it.

Brothers wasn’t around long, and in the time it was around, it lived three lives. The first was before the New York Times wrote about it, the second was after that article, and the third was the pandemic. Before the Times article, it was not too hard to get a seat there. They didn’t even take reservations. After the Times article, it was very hard to get in. There were weeks when I could not get a spot at the bar.  It got so busy they went with a reservation system. It slowed down a bit, but it was always popular.

Until the pandemic occurred. That was their last life. They tried to pivot to take out, and I did a curbside pickup of a wonderful meal from them. In the end they decided they didn’t want to be that kind of place and closed it down.

Lots of places have gone due to the pandemic. Some of them would have gone regardless. Not Brothers. If there was no pandemic, I am sure it would still be running, still sliding plates of that chewy soft bread and warm mixed olives and perfectly cooked food for me and you to delight in. I am going to miss many places because of the pandemic, but I think I will miss Brothers most of all.

(From more on it, see the New York Times article, or this blogTO piece. Images from the blogTO piece.

Check out their old web site. It’s simple but smart, just the way it used to be.

Finally this Google link will show you a wealth of photos for the place.)

 

On restaurants loved and lost: the Boulevard Cafe

On Harbord Street in the 1980s I fell in love with the Boulevard Cafe. My life was just starting, and my girlfriend and I were living just up the street from it, on Brunswick Avenue. We would stroll down and line up with the other people in the area for the wonderful Peruvian style food they had there.

It was the first time I learned to love fish. I come from Nova Scotia, but the fish was prepared terribly when I was growing up. Plus fish was associated with poor people food, unlike all the packaged food I wanted. I hated it.

Or I did until I had the Boulevard’s sea bass. (Sea bass was big in the 80s.) They would gently cook it and serve it with a perfect combo of delicious salad and fragrant rice.  I was instantly transformed into a fish lover after that first meal. Many a fish meal I had after that, and all were great.

And their soups. Their soups were incredible. I once had a garlic soup there that was so good that I still recall it decades later. It was simple, and yet I have often had garlic soup elsewhere and it never compared. They had many great dishes there, but the soup and the fish kept me coming back.

When we first started going, it was popular but not too busy. There was seating on both floors, and half of the upstairs was just a seating area where you could sip your drink and enjoy their  fireplace. I remember one night we were sitting there next to the fire, looking out over Harbord Street as a nice snowfall floated down covering everything. I could have stayed all night.

Later on the word got out and it got busier. The lovely seating area was replaced with more tables. The patio area in the summer was jammed with everyone enjoying the wonderful flavours that came out of the small kitchen in the back.

I was shocked to be riding my bicycle across Harbord Street a few summers ago and seeing it all closed up. It was then I took those photos. It was so good, I thought it would last forever. I stood there for quite awhile and remembered all the wonderful times of my youth sitting outside under the awning and living the good life with great friends and great food. I am lucky to have had such a time.

(In the top photo you can see the chimney where the fireplace was. In the bottom photo you can see the main doors that led to the dining room on the lower floor. The bulletin board would list all the specials. There would be tables put in front of the benches, and you either sat on the benches or chairs opposite. In the evening the lights would come on and it would seem magical.)

P.S. Over at Zomato there is still a copy of the menu and some other photos.

 

On the paths you get to choose in life


There are two sets of paths you take in life: those you choose, and those chosen for you. We comfort ourselves by thinking we have many opportunities to choose the right path, but often the right path is taken away from us, either directly by others, or indirectly through our circumstances. We also comfort ourselves by thinking we can influence others to take the right path by pointing out what is obviously the right way to go. Then we are surprised and saddened when they chose the wrong path.

All of that is a way of introducing these two articles on Terry Naugle. The first one is about him being sentenced to 15 years in jail at the age of 62. The next one is about him dying in prison a year later.

I don’t have anything more to add to this man’s life and death. It seems from a The paths available to him from a very early ages were the wrong ones. Later on he could have chose better paths, but it seems he could not make it over to them. His story made me think about how a good life can move away from us given the paths before us.

(Photo by Tim Umphreys on Unsplash)

How to improve and get better by using taboos and your dark side


How to improve and get better by using taboos and your dark side seems like a contradiction. But sometimes using your dark side can be just the thing you need to improve.

Now this can be harder to do than you might suppose. Our culture (from Faust to Star Wars) says appealing to the dark side leads to your ruin. This can cause you to not want to do this. But anger (against injustice), pride (in becoming the best), gluttony (for hard work) and lust/vanity (to self improve) can sometimes motive you and drive you much better than love and happiness can.  Sure, excessive vices can destroy you, I agree. But vices well harnessed and in moderation might get you through the difficult days of changing and help get you to the other side.

To see a good example of what I mean, read this: A Spiteful Guide to Self-Improvement.

You may not have an enemies or rivals or arch enemies. Fine. Invent some. Then go out and take them on and in the process become a better person. Then be magnanimous and graceful in your victory. There: now you are a better person and a good one too.

(Image by Gustave DoréJacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855) from wikipedia)

On blogging/writing online in 2020 (how I write now)


In 2020, blogging is back. At least blogging as newsletters. Think Substack and all the people flocking to there. Blogging on WordPress (or Blogger or Tumblr or other blogging platforms) is not as hot but still going strong.

That’s good. I am a fan of more writing and better writing, whether it comes in blog form or newsletter form. Bring it on.

I continue to write here as I have been for some time.  I’ve written a number of pieces on blogging over the last decade; this piece will join that.

I’ll likely to continue writing here until I get 1,000,000 hits (currently at 976,745 hits) but given the limited readership, that may never happen. I’ll keep writing, regardless. We all need goals, and the million hits is one of mine.

Currently I sit down every Saturday morning and review interesting things I’ve found on the Internet and saved in Pocket. I have over 1000 things still in Pocket, not to mention a spreadsheet of old links that were noteworthy. There’s always something of interest to write about. Plus the Internet never stops being interesting.

I usually take 3-4 hours to write about these things. Then I schedule them to be posted throughout the week. My thinking is that this is more likely to bring a wider readership to them. My SEO skills are limited, but this is my thinking.

I enjoy this writing time. I grab some breakfast and a coffee and craft the posts. I grab images from Unsplash.com to illustrate the posts. It’s a hobby and something I enjoy doing. I love doing it. I’m an amateur writer and thinker.

I try and mix up the posts for readers. Something on Monday to help you get your week started. Something fun on Friday. Something to make your weekend better on Saturday. Perhaps a more thoughtful post on Sunday.

As always I think: would someone reading this get any benefit? Much of my posts are advice, but in areas I am interested in. I want to share things of interest to me but that will also interest others.

Once a month I go back over posts from other years. Today I will go back over the December posts. It’s fascinating to see what was interesting to me in other years.

Whenever I am lost for what my audience is, I think: would someone in my family want to read this? Or one or more of my friends? Once I have that one reader, I can write to them. Many of my posts are letters to people that may not realize it.

Since the pandemic, I have started a newsletter within the blog. I haven’t broken it out into its separate media. Just like I never moved to Tumblr or Medium or took up podcasts. This blog is sufficient for what I want to communicate and record.

I have a few other blogs on WordPress: one on cooking that I enjoy writing from time to time. A few others that are experimental. I use Instagram still because it is easy, but photography is a very separate and different media.

I’ll continue to write here, writing for smart people I know. I’ve been doing it since before the World Wide Web.  Why stop now?

As always, for those who have read this far:

An appropriate thank you card for this era.

(Coffee Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash. The other image is also from Unsplash but I could not find who to attribute it to)

On being moderately gifted, and the pain and pleasure that brings


This piece by Austin Kleon on being moderately gifted got me re-thinking this idea he discusses.

I say re-thinking because it is something I have thought about since I was a young man. Back then I was getting into  jazz (as one does) and someone told me: the problem with being a jazz musician is your new album is always competing with the albums of Armstrong and Fitzgerald and Davis and Coltrane and Simone. People putting out pop music don’t have to worry about that. It’s tough to be moderately gifted in jazz, I thought, for you are always competing with the best. But in pop music, you are usually competing with the now. There’s more room to get by being moderately gifted. (Especially in the era I grew up when three chords was all you needed.)

If you have a creative spirit but moderate talents, it is easy to get dispirited and put your tools away. You will never be great you say, why bother? But I think the answer comes from looking at pop music. You may never be great, but you can enjoy putting in play whatever talent you do have. Maybe you can only paint flowers, or knit scarfs, or bake brownies. Do it with gusto! Do it like a punk rocker pounding away on his guitar with the 3 chords he knows! You might never be great, but in the moment, you are living large and the audience at the time is loving it. That’s enough. And enough is as good as a feast.

Perhaps you will go on to greatness. Whether you do or not, shine on as brightly as you can. Not all of us can be the sun, but sometimes being a campfire is fine.

On something being ugly but something you’ll miss when it is gone

For me, it’s this bridge which according to BlogTO is going to be demolished:

When I first moved to Toronto in the 80s I lived near this area and used to pass under this bridge all the time. There’s nothing attractive about it, save the murals, which weren’t there when I lived there.

Still, I will miss it when it is gone, ugly or not.

Programming is on a spectrum, or how programming is like running

Programming is on a spectrum.  I have felt for some time. That said, I liked this article by Paul Ford, one of the best writers on IT that I know: ‘Real’ Programming Is an Elitist Myth | WIRED.  His and my thoughts overlap. First, yes you can do real programming/coding with simple tools. Anyone who writes their own HTML, Javascript, simple bash scripts or basic Python scripts is really programming. Heck, I argue that what people do in Microsoft Excel is a form of programming.

If you wanted to step up from small pieces of code, you could get a book like this and write all sorts of useful code. 

 

(That’s a great book, by the way.)

However there is a very wide spectrum for programming, and some people are very advanced in the form of programming they do. That should also be acknowledged. The work I do automating tasks by writing Python scripts is very different than the work done by people writing operating systems or other difficult tasks.

I like to think of it like running. If you run, you are a runner. End of story. If you work at running, you can enter a big race like the New York City Marathon and you will be with a range of runners from the very best in the world to people who will finish many hours later. The first and the last are all marathon runners, and the last are as real a runner as the first.

Same with programming. If you program, you are a programmer. You are as real a programmer as the person writing new code for the Linux operating system. Just like you can always get better as a runner, you can always get better as a programmer. It just depends on what you want to put into it and what you want to get out of it.

If you are feeling bad about reading fewer books, then read this

I’ve been reading less since the pandemic hit. For many reasons. It started to bother me, since the last few years I have been reading dozens of books each year. I felt I was failing. Then I read this: How to Read Fewer Books, from The School of Life.

I whole piece is good, but this part nailed it for me:

In order to ease and simplify our lives, we might dare to ask a very old-fashioned question: what am I reading for? And this time, rather than answering ‘in order to know everything,’ we might parcel off a much more limited, focused and useful goal. We might – for example – decide that while society as a whole may be on a search for total knowledge, all that we really need and want to do is gather knowledge that is going to be useful to us as we lead our own lives. We might decide on a new mantra to guide our reading henceforth: we want to read in order to learn to be content. Nothing less – and nothing more. With this new, far more targeted ambition in mind, much of the pressure to read constantly, copiously and randomly starts to fade. We suddenly have the same option that was once open to St Jerome; we might have only a dozen books on our shelves – and yet feel in no way intellectually undernourished or deprived.

What am I reading for: it’s a great question. I think there are many answers to that. To be content, as that suggests. Or to become an expert in an area. Or to pass the time. All are good answers, depending on your need for reading. If you are feeling bad about reading fewer books, step back and decide what you are reading for. It may help you read in a new and improved way.

(Photo by matthew Feeney on Unsplash)

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On policing and lack thereof


With the situation in the US concerning police and the use of deadly force, there is much discussion of defunding the police. One argument is that the police can be replaced with other social service workers, as this town did here. Then there is the story of Camden and how they fired all their police, though they did replace them. Some believe that police are unaccountable, and when you try to hold them accountable, they do thinks like this (What Can We Learn From the Chicago Police Department’s API Shutdown?). Or they do pullbacks like this How to Stop a Police Pullback – The Atlantic.

My thoughts, which don’t amount to much, is there is not one answer to deal with problems in police forces. They clearly need to be accountable. They may need to shift some of their responsibilities to other services. This has been done in the past (e.g. the officers who give out parking tickets are different than the ones that make arrests). They also should be paid well: nothing encourage corruption like poorly paid police officers.

Societies need public police forces. I don’t believe the lack of police means things automatically get better. There needs to be some form of organized force that keeps the peace and enforces laws. Otherwise, you will get individuals taking advantage, gangs of organized crime, and private police forces. An unaccountable police force is bad, but no police force is worse.

Finally, here are two good links. This one, which eviscerates the idea that looting is acceptable: There Is No Defense of Looting – The Atlantic. And this one, which highlights the failure in parts of the world to control the criminal organizations forming: El Salvador’s president Bukele cut deals with MS-13 gang in bid to reduce killings, report says – The Washington Post. Mexico has similar problems. Any member of a society that thinks they are immune to this need to ask why they think that.

(Photo by Esri Esri on Unsplash)