By Charlie Gillis - Thursday, October 4, 2012 - 0 Comments
In conversation with Charlie Gillis
Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant is a key figure in one of the most remarkable inquiries into human development ever undertaken. The Grant Study into Adult Development began in 1938 to follow the health, happiness and fortunes of 268 male Harvard students, and goes on to this day. Thirty per cent of the men have lived past the age of 90, allowing unprecedented insight into the sources of, and threats to, their longevity, from alcoholism to love. Vaillant, now 78, directed the study for 32 years and recently published his third book on it, Triumphs of Experience.
Q: The Grant Study is the story of many lives, but also the story of yours. What drew you to it?
A: The surprising things you find out about people if you follow them for long enough. When I was a resident, I had discovered some schizophrenics who had gotten well. So when I came back to [Harvard], I asked if I could interview some of the men who had had schizophrenia in college, when they came for their 25-year reunion. They said they didn’t have a health service 25 years ago, but they did have this study. So rather reluctantly, I began studying these normal men, and it was like a soap opera—fascinating.
By Jonathon Gatehouse - Monday, September 24, 2012 at 11:43 AM - 0 Comments
In conversation with Jonathon Gatehouse
For hockey fans, there’s something depressingly familiar about the current battle between the National Hockey League and its players. The lockout, which began at the stroke of midnight on Sept. 15, is the third in the past 18 years, all of them overseen by commissioner Gary Bettman. And the issue is the same as it ever was: money. In fact, the only significant difference this time around might be who is leading the players. Donald Fehr, the new executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, led pro baseball’s union for a quarter of a century, before riding to the rescue of his defeated and demoralized hockey brethren. Tough and determined, he’s every bit as stubborn as the man he’s facing across the table.
Q: In the run-up to the lockout, there have been proposals, counter-proposals, and a lot of numbers thrown around. Just how far apart are the league and the players?
A: It comes down to this. The players made enormous concessions in the last lockout, and took a 25 per cent salary reduction, which worked out to more than $3 billion over the life of the agreement. And the league has experienced seven straight years of record revenue growth. So then we came into bargaining, and the owners’ initial proposal called for another 24 per cent reduction, or $450 million a year, assuming revenues never grow. It was way over the top, and way outside the bounds. The equivalent from the players would have been for us to say we want 71 per cent of all hockey-related revenues (HRR). So now the owners have said they only want a reduction of 17.5 per cent, and that they’ll phase it in a little bit, but it’s still well over $300 million a year. So we’re hundreds of millions of dollars apart on compensation.
By Brian Bethune - Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 1:51 PM - 0 Comments
Hanna Rosin in conversation with Brian Bethune
Hanna Rosin, an award-winning American journalist, began investigating the developed world’s new socio-economic order in 2009, after the Great Recession hit the U.S. and the year female employment began to outstrip that of men. Rosin gathered the various strands of profound change—women dominating higher education and the fastest-growing economic sectors, the destruction of traditional middle-class marriage, and even women’s increasing aggression and violence—into her new book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women.
Q: More than one commentator has pointed out the apparently doom-laden symbolism of a woman chronicling the decline of men; “Like a man writing The Feminine Mystique,” noted one. What do you think?
A: Despite the title, the book is really more about the rise of women than the end of men. And maybe men don’t do that endless self-reflection and temperature-taking that women do. And they don’t do gender social movements all that enthusiastically either.
Q: It’s not news that the old physical economy with its traditionally male jobs is passing or that women are flourishing in the new one. What is news is the mounting evidence of the effects of those changes.
By Brian Bethune - Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
On how geography threatens the U.S., makes Africa poor and may alter our economy
American foreign affairs journalist Robert Kaplan, 60, is the author of 14 books, many about U.S. strategic imperatives and the re-emergence of long-standing cultural tensions hidden by Cold War politics. His new book is The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.
Q: You write that the West, especially the U.S., has lately been ascribing too much influence in geopolitics to human agency, especially air power, and not enough to the literal facts on the ground.
A: That’s a fair summation of the book, but it’s much wider than this. Since the end of the Second World War, with the emergence of economics in a big way, of financial institutions, of political science, of international relations, of human rights organizations, of an intellectual global elite that never existed before, geopolitics has been downplayed and especially geography. There’s this feeling that we’ve overcome geography—the global elite talks in terms of, “We can do this and we can do that”—as though it doesn’t matter. This book is a corrective.
By macleans.ca - Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 12:26 PM - 0 Comments
In conversation with Mike Doherty
Martin Amis moved from London to New York City last year, and his new novel, Lionel Asbo, has widely been viewed as a parting shot at his native U.K. But Amis himself sees it more as a goodbye hug, even though it’s a satire about a lout who wins a lottery and becomes a ridiculous public figure. Over the phone from a lodge in British Columbia, the author of Money and London Fields spoke with Maclean’s about America, England, new beginnings, and what he’d like to leave behind.
Q: Are you on holiday now?
A: Yeah, sort of. My wife [writer Isabel Fonseca] is doing a travel piece, and I just tagged along. It’s all hiking and kayaking and whale-watching, and I’m an indoorsy type. It’s great, ’cause I don’t have to be taking notes or involving myself in anything. I can just get on with my stuff.
Q: You’re now based in Brooklyn, I take it, for family reasons?
A: Just over two years ago, my mother died, and within a week, the prognosis for Christopher Hitchens was available. That got us thinking about mortality and my wife’s mother and stepfather. We thought, “They’re not going to be around forever.” At this point, it looked as though Christopher might well have lived for five or 10 years more, and those two considerations were enough. It was expressing no disaffection for England.
Q: That said, over the years you have mused about moving to the U.S., because Britain is “not exciting.”
A: The truth is, I’ve never been interested in British politics—or interested only to the extent that it relates to American politics. There’s undoubtedly a kind of gravitational attraction exerted by the centre of the world. Things that happen in Washington matter all over the world, and that has long ceased to be the case for London.
Q: You covered the Iowan Republican primary for Newsweek, and you’ve described Mitt Romney as looking “crazed with power.” What do you make of his running mate, Paul Ryan?
A: It seems to me quite an aggressive choice, making no bones about the fact that this is a plutocratic-leaning party, that money has entered politics in the last couple of years much more obtrusively than ever before. It seems that the Republican party’s just burning itself out and I think will lose the election and will then have to go back to the drawing board. Q: The Tea Party continues to splinter the GOP. A: Only a heavy defeat would get rid of them entirely, but I think the social issues that keep bobbing to the surface, like gay marriage and abortion, are losing their grip on the populace at quite a rate.
Q: What did you make of all the brouhaha in the press about your move to Brooklyn?
A: So far I’ve had a very nice welcome. I had a very weird exit from England. In America, there isn’t the suspicion of writers that there is now in Britain, because everyone understood that writers would play a part in defining a new country. Britain would be so very resentful of any attempt to define it, because its culture is so much more deeply embedded.
Q: Does that also explain some of the spleen that’s been directed at the subtitle of your new book: “State of England”?
A: Yeah. That was all a sinister coincidence, really, because I was halfway through the book when we had this fairly sudden decision to move. And it does look like my verdict in leaving was that novel, but that’s erroneous. It was more my affectionate evocation of Britain.
Q: Some reviewers have critiqued Lionel Asbo as being derogatory toward the working class; they focus on Lionel, who’s a criminal, rather than his hard-working nephew, Des, the book’s other main character.
A: He’s a celebration of the working class. It was much more of a challenge to create Desmond because of the inherent difficulties of making goodness interesting on the page. Something that Dickens, who was my great god when I was writing this novel, in fact failed to do: his goodies are famously insipid and dull. We don’t read Dickens for Little Nell and Esther Summerson; we read him for Quilp and Carker—all the villains and the wags and the eccentrics. That’s where Dickens’s energy goes. To channel energy into a good character is very difficult, and not very many writers have made goodness, happiness, the positive, work on the page.
Q: Your last novel, The Pregnant Widow, has an epigraph by 19th-century Russian socialist Alexander Herzen. Lionel Asbo’s sections start with variations on the chorus of the Baha Men song Who Let the Dogs Out. How did it work its way into the book?
A: It was the initiating idea. Ideas for novels often come from an overheard conversation, or something you see in a newspaper—Lolita began life that way. I was reading about someone who, as an act of revenge, unleashed his pit bulls on the infant of his enemy; that was the first thought I had when the novel was taking shape in my unconscious. I wanted that kind of chant, that incantation, because the lines are very resonant for me.
Q: When Lionel’s pit bulls are treated well, they become loving, and when they aren’t, they’re violent. Is this a metaphor for the English?
A: Well, a universal metaphor. One other surprising thing about the novel snuck up on me as I was writing—it’s to do with intelligence. Desmond idealistically cultivates his own intelligence and worships it and values it, whereas Lionel hates it; Desmond [observes] that Lionel gives being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought. And I realized that all my life I’ve hung out with people a bit like Lionel and Desmond; even the most law-breaking of them is in fact amazingly vivid and articulate and expressive. I feel that down there, in the underclass, there is a great deal of thwarted, trapped intelligence. It becomes self-destructive, and then out of that comes a sort of delight in stupidity, which nearly always includes a delight in violence. There was an old [Tony Blair-era] Labour slogan that just said, “Education, education, education,” and I found myself very strongly agreeing with that, and feeling that that is in fact the core political question. I see the job description of the novelist [as] playing some sort of role in the education business.
Q: You’ve said recently that the novelist has to love his characters as well as his readers. Is this different from your oft-quoted sentiment that “the author is not free of sadistic impulses”?
A: Ah, [laughs]. Well, I think they don’t completely rule each other out, but it’s become clearer and clearer to me that the world is there to be celebrated by writers, and in fact this is what all the good ones do, and that the great fashion for gloom and grimness was in fact a false path that certain writers took, I think in response to the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. Theodor Adorno’s line, “No poetry after Auschwitz,” is in fact contradicted by Paul Celan, who was writing poetry in a Romanian labour camp.
Q: Is it harder to get across the idea of celebration when writing about the Holocaust, as with the novel you’re working on now?
A: Yes, it is slightly more difficult, but interesting. And [I’m writing about] an absolutely hateful character, but Nabokov, who was always a very good guide in these things, was convinced that the way you dealt with extreme villainy in fiction was not to punish it. Your villain is not to be tritely converted, as Dickens tended to do, but the novelist’s job is bitter mockery, and that’s part of how I’m going at it.
Q: I understand that when Christopher Hitchens passed away, you felt that he left you some of his joie de vivre.
A: Yeah. It was surprising, because the death is a disaster, but what surprises you in the ensuing months is that—and wouldn’t it be nice if it were universally true—it’s as if you have the duty to feel that love of life. His was very strong—stronger than mine, I always felt. Wouldn’t it be nice if they do bequeath you that? It warms you, but it also warms your memory of them.
Q: You called the publication of last year’s biography of you by Richard Bradford, for which you were interviewed, a “regrettable episode.” Do you hope that one day a better book will be written about you?
A: Yeah, eventually. But I haven’t thought about it. It was vanity that got me into that first one, but vanity is, I suppose, part of the job. It would be nice, but it doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is being read after I’m gone. I think every writer thinks about that. It’s nicely complicated, and it keeps you honest, because you won’t be around for that.
Q: Much has been written about you and your father, Kingsley, as two generations of uncommonly successful writers. Your son Louis writes non-fiction, and when she was 10, your daughter Fernanda published fan fiction in The Guardian about Harry Potter. Should we be on the lookout for a third generation of Amises on the literary scene?
A: [laughs] As my first wife said, “Yet another nightmare writer is going to appear on the horizon.” I don’t know. I don’t even speculate about it; I think even if I do, that creates a bit of unwelcome pressure for [my children]. I certainly would never encourage them to write. Not that I don’t think it’s a wonderful way to spend your life.
By Ken MacQueen - Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 10:45 AM - 0 Comments
In conversation with Ken MacQueen
Battered and bruised, Canadian flag- bearer Simon Whitfield sat down with a pint at a London pub to reflect on the close of this, his fourth Olympic Games. It wasn’t how the script was to end: a bloody bike crash during his race; a public spat with Triathlon Canada and the subpar mental and physical race preparation leading to a tearful last-place finish for fellow triathlete and friend Paula Findlay. But he saw far too many glorious moments in London for anything to tarnish the “Olympic ideals” he lives by.
Q: How are your war wounds? I see a few scabs.
A: Yeah, I’ve a good one on my knees. I have a cracked collarbone. I have a large gash under my big toe. I’ve a bump on my noggin, but everything is going to heal.
Q: Backstage at the opening ceremonies, what’s going on around you?
By Mike Doherty - Monday, August 13, 2012 at 11:10 AM - 0 Comments
Rush’s drummer and lyricist talks to Mike Doherty
Rush’s 20th studio release, Clockwork Angels, hit No. 1 in Canada in June—not bad for a steampunk, progressive rock concept album. Its story, about a young man who flees a land designed to function in perfect mechanical order, reflects the philosophy of drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. Now living in Santa Monica with his wife and daughter, the native of St. Catharines, Ont., is preparing with his long-time bandmates, bassist-singer Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson for a concert tour that starts next month. At a Toronto rehearsal studio, he granted a rare interview about musical integrity, freedom and his fight to escape precision.
Q: Thirty-eight years ago you joined Rush, and the next day you went shopping for instruments for your first tour. What are your memories of that time?
A: I remember all of us riding in the truck down to Long & McQuade [a music store in Toronto]. What a young musician’s dream, to say, “Look at those chrome drums. Look at that 22-inch ride cymbal. I’ll have those.” It was one of those unparalleled exciting days of your life.
By Brian Bethune - Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 10:24 AM - 0 Comments
How animals do it, the real Olympic advantage, and why men rest easy
American journalist David Randall explores the little-known world of sleep in Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep. From the identification of sleep disorders, now numbering 75, to the $30-billion sleep-medication market, he examines new research into the third of our lives we know the least about.
Q: The mysteries of sleep were less an intellectual than a personal interest for you at first.
A: Yeah. I started sleepwalking about two or three summers ago, and I ran into one of the walls in my apartment. I woke up on the floor on my back, writhing in pain, holding my knee. A couple of days later I went to my doctor and said, “Hey, I started sleepwalking. I ran into a wall. I don’t want to, obviously, do that again. Can you help me out?” and he said, “You know, there’s a lot we know about sleep, but there’s a lot we don’t know. So I could give you some sleeping pills, but we don’t know if they’re going to work or not, so just kind of take it easy.” I decided I needed a little bit more than that. But looking into things it turned out he wasn’t lying—science doesn’t really have the best understanding of sleep.
By Kate Lunau - Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 6:01 AM - 0 Comments
Kate Moran in conversation with Kate Lunau
Oceanographer Kate Moran, who advised the Obama administration during the disastrous BP oil spill, was recently named president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria—overseeing a massive underwater observatory that uses fibre-optic cables wired across the ocean floor to deliver a constant stream of data via the Internet. Last year, NEPTUNE Canada made the top-10 list of “humankind’s most ambitious science projects” in Popular Science, alongside the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station.
Q: Ocean Networks Canada’s observatory comprises two networks, VENUS and NEPTUNE Canada. How do they differ?
A: VENUS is a coastal cabled observatory with a focus on coastal ecology. It uses sensors to understand various processes. For example, there are concerns about landslides that can break [underwater] cables. Power and communications cables run between the mainland and here—cables are a big deal. VENUS has sensors that would help us predict an underwater landslide. NEPTUNE is the first deep-sea cabled observatory, and it’s really changing the way we do oceanography. Continue…
By macleans.ca - Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 9:41 AM - 0 Comments
On lying, stealing, plagiarizing, and why most people actually don’t cheat enough
Dan Ariely, 45, is a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University in Raleigh, N.C., and the author of two engaging bestsellers, Predictably Irrational (2008) and The Upside of Irrationality (2010). In his cheekily named Center of Advanced Hindsight, Ariely has lately been concocting simple math tests that pay subjects for correct answers and which, at times, also allow various ways to cheat. The results, as set out in his new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, offer fascinating insights into the factors and limits involved in the human dedication to cheating.
Q: How did this topic come to intrigue you?
A: It all started with Enron, and the question of whether the massive fraud there was caused just by a few bad apples or whether there was something more general and systemic, involving more people who were not villains but who turned a blind eye to things that should have been obvious.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, July 6, 2012 at 6:58 AM - 0 Comments
On Mexican drug cartels, movie violence and whether America is getting more pot-positive
Oliver Stone, the Oscar-winning director of Platoon, Wall Street, JFK and Nixon, tackles the drug war in Savages, a thriller based on Don Winslow’s bestseller about a Mexican drug cartel that confronts a pair of primo pot farmers in California—Ben (Aaron Johnson), a philanthropic botanist, and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a ruthless Navy SEAL veteran. Living the high life, they try to retire. But when their shared lover (Blake Lively) is taken hostage, they go to war against the cartel (led by Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek), while a corrupt U.S. drug agent (John Travolta) plays both sides against the middle.
Q: How real is the threat of a Mexican cartel attacking California marijuana growers?
A: Don Winslow has done a lot of research into the drug wars. He wrote a wonderful book called The Power of the Dog, which is pretty documentary-like. This one, he just spun off a fantasy about what could potentially happen with young, attractive growers with a high-end product. It hasn’t happened yet as far as I know. This is a hypothetical fiction. The cartels can sell cheap, ungroomed bud successfully for very little money across the United States, as well as cocaine and methamphetamine. The operation of a small group in California would not be attractive to them. But a cartel like the Tijuana one, if they had some problems, they would look to other markets and it would maybe make sense to partner with a niche deal.
By Ken MacQueen - Monday, July 2, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
On the risks of the northern gateway pipeline, renaming the party, and being premier mom
After five years as a media pundit and talk-show host on Vancouver radio station CKNW, Christy Clark was elected premier of British Columbia 15 months ago. Her re-entry hasn’t been easy, as the Liberals face a soaring NDP opposition on the left and an invigorated Conservative party to the right. Now she has to rebuild her party’s brand, which fell out of favour under predecessor Gordon Campbell, before a legislated election on May 14, 2013.
Q: One of the last times we spoke you were the radio host and I was the one being interviewed. Do you miss those simpler times?
A: Simpler is the right way to put it, because it’s harder answering the questions than asking them, but I think, too, it’s harder to be doing things than it is to be observing people doing things. But do I miss it? It was a great job, but I never regret this choice. Only 35 people in the history of Canada have had the privilege of doing this job. It’s really, really hard work, but you get to make a real difference for people, too. And don’t we all want to make a difference in our lives?
Q: Let’s talk about the western vision. With resources the way they are, you’re driving the national economy. Are you sensing a power shift?
By Brian Bethune - Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
A Toronto professor fires a volley into the culture war
Michael Cobb, 39, an English professor at the University of Toronto, also teaches in the university’s Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. He’s the author of God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence and now of Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, a literary theorist’s take on how popular culture has not caught up to social reality when it comes to singles. Despite the fact that singles now outnumber married people, they don’t really exist as a recognized category, because our prevailing cultural narrative sees them as “real” people in waiting. Single is Cobb’s opening volley in a culture war.
Q: You’ve written quite a polemic over something scarcely noticed by the world. But singles’ cultural invisibility is the starting point of your issue with coupledom.
A: I had a lot of frustration with why singles weren’t being represented. We were always pre- or post-coupled—widows or bachelors or divorcees, unfortunates of some kind. Just a really awful category. When I started the book, I’d been single for 10 years of my life, and quite happily so, and not because I had endless freedom to pursue whatever person or fleeting irresponsible experience [I wanted]. It was more a joy of being by myself and being able to cultivate all sorts of relationships and not have one person completely be the centre and focus of the world.
By John Geddes - Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
Peter Voser talks with John Geddes about Arctic drilling, doing business with China, and why he deserves to be paid $15 million
Peter Voser is chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s biggest companies. Shell’s multi-billion-dollar investment in Alberta’s oil sands, along with its new joint venture to build a liquefied natural gas export facility in Kitimat, B.C., make the Swiss-born executive a particularly influential player for Canada’s energy sector these days. On a recent visit to Canada, Voser discussed energy and environmental matters, along with the state of the European economy and doing business with China.
Q: Last year’s decision by President Barack Obama’s administration to delay approval of the Keystone Pipeline, which is meant to link Alberta’s oil sands with Texas refineries, dramatically raised the profile of the environmental clash over the oil sands. How do you see that debate evolving?
A: Maybe it’s best to start by looking at what energy levels the world will need over the next 30 to 40 years. Demand will double. It is our assumption that all energy forms need to be developed in a sustainable, affordable way. We see oil sands as part of that mix on a worldwide basis. Therefore, it will be developed. It’s a legitimate challenge to government, and to industries, to do this in a sustainable way. If I compare oil sands today to 20 years ago, this is an industry that has made tremendous progress. That needs to be communicated in the right way.
Q: Is it possible to win over public opinion when aerial photographs of the massive mining and tailings operations around the oil sands look so ugly to so many people?
A: These are open-mining operations and therefore you have a temporary impact on the land. Reclamation of land is part of the sustainable operation of oil sands. Within the lifetime of the mine, we give the land back in a sustainable and acceptable form.
Q: After BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, public concern about offshore activity also spiked. Your company is planning to drill this summer in Alaskan waters, and Canada is contemplating Arctic drilling. What do you say to critics who contend it’s just too dangerous in such a fragile environment?
A: First, the comparison. The Gulf of Mexico is deep water and in many parts high pressure; Alaska is shallow water and low pressure. It’s a different risk profile. I think responsible operators like us have learned [from the Gulf of Mexico blowout] to further improve prevention and containment. On the prevention part, I think we have gone further than anywhere else in the world in Alaska with our safety systems, like double-blowout preventers and various other safety and security systems built in. And let’s be very clear what exploration means—drilling wells, and we’re looking at 10 in two years. These wells will be capped afterwards, and we’ll take the information we’ve gained to prepare development plans for the longer term.
Q: But opponents of developing Arctic offshore reserves say a spill in icebound waters would be impossible to contain and clean up.
A: We have tested and put a lot of money into scientific analysis on how to deal with oil spills below ice. I think today we are of the opinion that we can deal with it. That’s not necessary in the exploration phase, because we will only drill in ice-free periods. It’s a challenging environment, a challenging process. But as an industry, and also as a company, we’ve spent significant money developing technical solutions to that. These solutions over the years will improve.
Q: Canada’s federal government is pushing to streamline the approval process for energy and other resource projects. In the past, have Canadian regulatory reviews been a problem for companies like yours?
A: Canada is really going in the right direction. Let me be very clear: from Shell’s perspective, an efficient, effective, time-bound regulatory process doesn’t mean we are not going to be as thorough and as detailed as you would expect a very advanced country like Canada to be in terms of environmental impacts. What we want is certain boundary conditions so we don’t have to wait five, six, seven, eight years.
Q: Shell’s new liquefied natural gas joint venture in B.C. has PetroChina, which is owned by the Chinese government, as one of several partners. What’s it like doing major deals with China’s state capitalists?
A: I would not call them state capitalists. These are normal companies. They are keen to learn how modern companies operate and are governed. I think you would be surprised how open they are to changes. They are fast learners. There is clearly an overall steering mechanism by the state. Many times I compare it to the Western world, and I have to say: when you get a decision in China, the decision is firm and you can work with it. You might not always get that in the West.
Q: Speaking of the West, how do you assess the European Union’s prolonged crisis? Is the EU going to come apart at the seams?
A: I don’t think so. Common sense will prevail. It needs decisive actions, no doubt, but it will take time. Anybody who thinks this will be solved in the next six to 12 months I think will be proved wrong. I think the common EU market has to be defended. This is key to European competitiveness. They need to stabilize Greece, Italy, Spain. Once they have stabilization, they can move forward.
Q: Does stabilization ultimately mean scaling back the size of government in various countries, shrinking public programs many Europeans hold dear?
A: The EU has really no way around a major social contract adjustment. They need to go through this. It will come in stages. In order to preserve the living standards you have on average in Europe, if you want to stay anywhere close to that, you will need to adjust a few things on the labour policies, you need to start to deal with pensions, you need to deal with retirement age, average number of hours you work a week. That reform is coming and it will have to happen in order to preserve the competitiveness of European business. Otherwise I think we will be left behind.
Q: You’ve recently weathered a minor shareholder revolt over executive pay at Royal Dutch Shell. [Voser’s salary and bonus compensation totalled more than $15 million last year.] Why not pay yourself less and avoid the criticism?
A: Normally I don’t talk about remuneration. My salary is set by someone else. I’ve got a chairman and a board who are setting a competitive salary package, which has been approved by the shareholders. When you’re successful and these packages pay out, I find it rather disturbing that then we have a conversation about the package itself. When you are not successful, I fully agree that you should not earn your high salary.
Q: Your pay is linked to Shell’s performance.
A: In the last three years we outperformed all of our competitors. We had a 70 per cent share price increase. What I’m trying to say is it’s market-based, it’s performance-based, it’s variable-based. That’s the right form of setting incentives.
Q: What about the underlying debate about growing income disparity in so many countries?
A: Now we are really going into the philosophical discussion. I’m a market person, so for me performance is the absolute key. For our employees, they all have a market-based salary. The CEO is no different. When you grow up in Shell and you become CEO, your package in its components doesn’t change. The absolute magnitude does change, but it’s exactly the same system. That’s a key component for me.
Q: To get back to the oil sands, isn’t the toughest problem, when you consider climate change, that producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands generates more greenhouse gas emissions than producing a barrel of conventional oil?
A: Today we’re looking at oil sands [emissions] being five to 15 per cent higher than a conventional crude cocktail. The operations Shell has are at the lower end of that range. With carbon capture and storage [CCS], you can further lower that. With CCS, you don’t get it to zero per cent difference, but pretty close to it.
Q: You’re referring to injecting carbon dioxide underground rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. But at least one CCS project in Alberta has been cancelled recently as too costly. Does the concept remain economically viable?
A: Let’s lift it up to the global scale. If you want to achieve certain climate change goals, CCS has to be part of that solution. Therefore I think it’s up to industry and governments to make this happen. You need the right frameworks. You need a carbon price mechanism. You need incentives to get these projects started, to scale up the technologies. At Shell we have decided to work on and implement various CCS projects, and we don’t wait for government frameworks, global CO2 pricing mechanisms. In our opinion they will come in the longer term, but it’s about taking actions now rather than waiting for political decisions.
Q: You’ve been studying a possible CCS project in Alberta. When will you make a decision on whether to proceed with that?
A: Our project is called Quest. If everything goes normally, you can expect an investment decision on it in 2012. It would sequester a million tonnes [of CO2] in our oil sands operations. I think this is extremely crucial for the oil sands business model.
By Brian Bethune - Monday, June 4, 2012 at 1:41 PM - 0 Comments
Economist Dambisa Moyo in conversation with Brian Bethune
Zambian-born, Oxford- and Harvard-trained economist Dambisa Moyo, 43, first rose to prominence with her bestselling 2009 polemic Dead Aid. In it she argued that development aid from rich countries to poor African nations has left the continent mired in dependency, corruption, market distortion and deeper poverty. In her new book, Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World, Moyo rings a new alarm. Only China, she believes, has realized the pressure that rising world prosperity is placing on increasingly scarce commodities, and has begun to act accordingly.
Q: You are a free-market economist, but here you are expressing a limits-to-growth view.
A: Three billion new people will join the middle class by 2030. This is a positive trend toward a wealthier and more inclusive global order, and it will not be possible without healthy levels of economic growth. My concern is the limits to the kind of economic growth now under way. There is increasing demand for land, water, energy and minerals that far exceeds the diminishing supply.
Q: The situation you describe seems Malthusian: peak oil—and peak land, peak water, peak minerals—writ large. Wouldn’t free-market determinists respond that either the market or technological change will see us through?
A: The role of the market and technology will be necessary but not sufficient. At some point, one could surmise, the price of gasoline will be high enough that people will no longer want or be able to purchase it—that’s what economists call demand destruction. There is a big role for this in the West, and market signals in the form of high prices can push us to invest more in things like efficiency and new forms of energy. The problem is we have not seen demand destruction work in the developing world. There, consumption fulfills basic needs and people are not able to forgo it regardless of price increases.
Q: As for China’s specific role, you seem not so much politically worried as economically, even environmentally, concerned. It’s not that China’s actions are necessarily wrong, but that the West should be aware of the implications.
A: There’s nothing wrong about China going around the world making resource deals to support its growing population. What it’s doing makes a lot of sense. Yes, my concern is that other countries will not catch on until it is too late. In a zero-sum world, what will happen if China wins the race for resources? Other countries seem to be asleep while China is making a concerted effort. Some 24 ongoing wars and violent conflicts have their origins in commodities, and this trend is poised to continue. China is befriending what I call “the Axis of the Unloved”—countries and regions such as Africa, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and parts of Eastern Europe that have been basically ignored by the Western economies. China is the leading trading partner and foreign investor in many of these countries—a very different approach to the West’s largely aid-based model.
Q: The Chinese economic edge in this is that its state capitalism offers advantages that the Western laissez-faire model does not.
A: Favoured Chinese companies have a zero or near-zero cost of capital. State-owned banks provide highly concessional credit lines, in the form of government grants or low-interest loans. Favoured companies also benefit from tax breaks and the preferential allocation of key contracts. Like the US$12-billion credit line extended to Wuhan Iron and Steel, a major steel producer, by the state-owned China Development Bank, for ﬁnancing “overseas resource base construction.” And of course it helps to have a war chest of over US$3 trillion, while Western economies are struggling with cash constraints.
Q: The Chinese political edge is that it’s famously untroubled by governance issues in the countries it deals with.
A: Well frankly, in practice there is little to distinguish between the commodity counterparts of Western nations and those of China. U.S. and European countries are just as happy as China to strike deals with countries with less than pristine reputations—whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Russia. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but in this narrow sense, it’s unfair to constantly point fingers at China.
Q: So you think that criticism of China on both scores—cheating, so to speak, economically and being too comfortable with dictators politically—is often unfair and wrong?
A: Cheating is one thing, meddling in the markets is a whole other thing. Virtually all governments meddle in the commodities markets. Western governments are particularly egregious in this respect. The United States paid US$6 billion in commodity subsidies in 2010. OECD countries spend a total of US$226 billion on agricultural subsidies yearly. And in the EU, the Common Agricultural Policy sees some 40 billion euros spent on direct farm subsidies. So if meddling in the market is “cheating,” China has a lot of company. And the West has never had much of a problem dealing with despots and dictators if there is a benefit to be gained.
Q: For Third World nations, dealing with China rather than the West is often more attractive, you point out, not just for governments, but for the broad public. Why?
A: I think the reasons are quite clear. China pursues strictly business, symbiotic relationships, trading access to commodities for infrastructure, employment and other economic benefits. Take employment. The construction of the Imboulou Dam in [the Republic of the] Congo in 2010 employed 2,000 locals (compared to 400 Chinese). Survey results indicate that Africans much prefer to deal with the Chinese than with Westerners. In Ivory Coast, Mali, and Kenya, more than 90 per cent of respondents see China’s economic growth as “a good thing.” In Tanzania, 78 per cent agree, but only 36 per cent feel the same way about American influence. The difference is stark. Across the developing world, people want jobs, infrastructure and investment and the Chinese engagement does exactly that. Contrary to the assertions you commonly find in the Western media, I have seen no evidence that the Chinese are exploiting the countries they make deals with. In this sense these are old wives’ tales. To my mind, China’s strategy depends on mutually beneficial relationships—at least it has thus far.
Q: The West is being replaced by China both for aid and as a business partner?
A: Without question. As a result of the 2008 financial crisis and the debt crisis that continues to plague Europe, countries are slashing their budgets for bilateral aid—they have to, there is no choice. For the U.S., it makes little economic sense to borrow money from China and then give it to poor countries in the form of aid! Chinese investment in Africa increased 50 per cent over the past decade, with flows topping half a billion per year. Relatively small, but, all the same, growing.
Q: Is there another commodity that will soon join oil atop the political-economic heap?
A: Oil is the commodity that dominates the political conversation. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects the average price will reach US$135 per barrel by 2035. But we are going to start hearing more and more about other commodity shortages. Water is one major one. American intelligence agencies have raised the alarm over increasing risks of water-based conflicts around the world. Some industrial commodities, including copper, have mounting supply and demand imbalances. Consider the top three sectors using copper: electrical and electronic (42 per cent), construction (28 per cent), and transportation (12 per cent). The three billion new middle-class people by 2030 will want computers, TVs, washing machines, cellphones and dishwashers.They will live in new buildings and buy new cars. All of that means a heavy demand for copper, a mineral that is costly to extract and in increasingly short supply. Since 2003, copper inventories have declined 32 per cent and the price has increased by almost 400 per cent. And mining businesses will have to go much farther afield to more risky countries and terrains in order to source it. This is a preview of the mounting imbalance between supply and demand.
Q: The commodities you discuss, from land to water to oil, are key to Canada’s future. What effect will the Chinese resource rush have here?
A: To a large extent that depends on the Canadian government. In 2010, Canadian authorities blocked the foreign purchase of Potash Corporation, thus effectively signalling the sensitivities around Canadian resource space. Although the Chinese have successfully executed commodity deals in Canada, one would expect the Chinese buying spree seen elsewhere won’t necessarily be plain sailing in Canada.
Q: During Stephen Harper’s recent visit to China, a Maclean’s reporter noted one instance of bilateral trade—pork from Canada for laptops from China. Is that not a historic reversal of First World-Third World trade? Does it point to a manufacturing-less North America?
A: Well, markets are dynamic. What might be cost-effective to produce in China today could be cheaper to produce in North America in the next decade—if energy costs such as natural gas hover at low levels. That aside, I would expect that China’s position as a key trade and investment partner will rise in Canadian ranks. More specifically, Canada would be very rational to foment greater ties with China as a trading partner after the recent U.S. decision on the Keystone pipeline.
By Michael Barclay - Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 2:34 PM - 0 Comments
On playing hardball with HBO, saying no to the Pixies and what makes reunion shows work.
Shadowy Men drummer Don Pyle took time out of his 50th birthday trip to rural Iceland to talk to Maclean’s about the beloved Toronto trio’s upcoming reunion shows and the long-awaited reissue of its three classic albums from the early ’90s, which marks the first time the band’s music has been available digitally. Best known for being the house band for the Kids in the Hall TV series, Shadowy Men were endlessly inventive musically and fiercely independent, making them artistic and business role models to musicians across North America. For at least the last 10 years, their legacy has survived solely on word of mouth and Kids in the Hall reruns. Now it steps into the light on its own terms.
Q: What are you most proud of musically when you hear those records now?
A: Other than a few nasty reverbs, they are somewhat unplaceable in time and I really like that. I am also not embarrassed by any of the music, which I find quite remarkable. The first album [Savvy Show Stoppers] is so great because it all sounds like singles, like hits. Those songs were all written and recorded as singles so it has a wallop still very apparent, and it was only 30 minutes long, the perfect length for an album. The second album [Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham] was the best of the rest of the songs we had at the time, so I love that it sounds like an album. By the third album [Sport Fishin’], we were so tight and confident—and it was the only one of the three that we recorded all at one time, in a one-week session—so it has weirder songs executed at our best moment, as far as our abilities go. We were always trying to entertain each other, and had such a vocabulary developed between us that we were tough audiences.
Q: Shadowy Men was a popular band that always stayed true to its community; everything was very DIY and successful commercially while doing so. Bruce McCulloch told me how you played hardball with HBO about retaining rights to all the music on the show.
A: At the time that we played “hardball,” there was nothing at stake so it was easy to hold out—particularly since the first thing we did with the Kids for TV was a one-hour special, which used snippets of existing songs, so we were very adamant that we retain all of those rights. The Kids themselves also played hardball for us. [The show’s producer] Lorne Michaels didn’t want us. He said we sounded like “cheap porno music”—what a compliment coming from him! We were already taping episode four of the series without a contract. One of the producers approached us and asked if this was just about money. We said that for them, yes, it was, but for us it was about ownership. So he said, “Okay, you can keep it.”
Q: Were you making residual royalties from the show’s perpetual reruns? Is it safe to say that was a decent income supplement for the last 15 years?
A: Now that’s a personal question! It was great money for two years while the show was in its first run on the U.S. network, but it has consistently dwindled as the show reaches the bottom-of-the-barrel echelons of cable. The money is now less annually than what you’d need to buy a single bed from Ikea.
Q: What were some of the more unusual offers or temptations the band turned down during its time?
A: Two offers that stand out for me that we said no to were to license our music for a Labatt’s Blue ad and an Aspartame ad. Gallon Drunk asked us to open for them one New Year’s Eve in London, with PJ Harvey on first. The Pixies also asked us to tour with them. Those were hard to say no to, but they were victim to our consensus policy. For some reason Jethro Tull asked us to play with them, too. That was easy for all of us to say no to.
Q: The band always struck me as a conceptual art project that also made amazing rock music.
A: Thank you for saying that. I know that we occupied a unique place where some people thought of us as dumb rock and some thought of us as snooty art project. Ultimately, we were both. Brian [Connelly] is a great and creative visual artist. Reid [Diamond] developed a parallel career as a visual artist, which developed out of an interest in art ignited by being a maintenance person at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I’ve always had an interest in photography and sound as art. We worked pretty much every day once we got rolling, and so much of that was making things other than music.
Q: I can’t imagine anyone other than Dallas Good, who played with you and Reid after the Shadowy Men in Phono-Comb, stepping in [after Reid died of brain cancer in 2001] to play these shows. And yet there’s obviously going to be so many emotional, bittersweet feelings—for band and audience alike—seeing Shadowy Men without Reid. What were your hopes and concerns doing this?
A: In some ways it was to change how the story ended from something difficult and painful to something positive and celebratory. In so many ways it can never feel like or ever really be Shadowy Men. But because we all know each other so well and really do love each other, it has very quickly felt like its own real thing that is also great to experience. It feels so right having Dallas playing Reid’s parts. Once Reid’s wife loaned Reid’s Thunderbird bass to Dallas, it certainly felt like Reid’s voice was added to the music once again. My greatest concern was misrepresenting ourselves as being Shadowy Men. In some ways, it feels like shorthand for other people’s benefit. Our first draft of the name was The Remains of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, followed by an asterisk; an asterisk below that would read: “Some objects may appear larger than they really are.” That was a little too unwieldy, so we eventually settled on the old name. For us and for so many people, it isn’t the “real band” without Reid but we are certainly the best Shadowy Men cover band ever.
Q: Reunion shows in general: yay or nay? Best/worst ones you’ve seen, and why?
A: I have mixed feelings. One that was totally incredible and inspiring was the Stooges at Yonge-Dundas Square in 2010. [Founding guitarist] Ron Asheton had died very recently. James Williamson started playing and Iggy Pop stormed the stage and yelled, ”We the f–king remains of the f–king Stooges and we’re going to play some songs before we’re all DEAD!” It was so shocking and irreverent, it actually took my breath away. And then they played the most scorching, incredible set that I could ever imagine them playing—and I’ve seen Iggy lots of times since 1976. What he said about playing before we’re all dead had such a panic and urgency to it and I actually thought of Reid. Everything can be over for any of us at any second, and if you are going to do something, do it now.
I went down on my bike to Molson Amphitheatre when the Sex Pistols did their first reunion, to listen from the outside. I thought their reunion was all wrong, shouldn’t have been happening, and I turned down scalpers selling tickets for $1. When they started playing, I felt the power that I felt when I first heard them in 1976, and I thought, ”You’re an idiot for not going.” You can never predict these things.
It is so rare for any band to retain or be reinvigorated to play with that original vitality, and that is what has made the best reunions good for me. Most bands reunite as the terrible last version of the band, or one that I am no longer interested in. Of course, anything I could say about any other band is meaningless now that I am also doing it.
Michael Barclay is the co-author of the recently re-released book Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995. You can read his print story for Maclean’s on Shadowy Men here, and his 2010 interview with Don Pyle here.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 11:41 AM - 0 Comments
Canadian comedy legend on life in the fast lane, his hepatitis C diagnosis, and the miracle he is praying for
Mike MacDonald has been described as a “comedy legend” and inspired a generation of Canadian stand-up comedians. He holds the record for most consecutive appearances at Just For Laughs, the Montreal comedy festival. But last year the 57-year-old was diagnosed with hepatitis C, and following a serious infection, his liver and kidneys have shut down. He posted a message on Facebook seeking a live donor with type-O negative blood for a liver transplant. Friends have created an online campaign to raise money for his medical bills and there has been an outpouring of support. It overwhelmed MacDonald, who spoke to Maclean’s from his mother’s home in Ottawa.
Q: Were you surprised by this campaign?
A: It’s been totally unreal. Like I said in my thank-you note, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams and I can dream with the best of them. It’s been less than a week and the response has been amazing. Thank God for Facebook. I have a bit in my act about the top three uses of the Internet: No. 3, hate-mongering, No. 2, the downloading of free music, and the top one is porno. But something like this, this is what the Internet was intended for: to help people, to pass on information, the positive things in life.
Q: Before you had to stop working, how were you doing financially?
A: Well, I was trying to work as much as possible, but for the last two or three years, for the first time in my entire career, I was starting to feel the economic crunch of the time. Especially the corporate gigs, the gigs where sometimes in one night I could make what I could make in a whole month in the clubs. They were dwindling because major corporations weren’t doing as well as they could, so they weren’t having the big celebrations and hiring the big entertainers. And then with the complications of being bipolar and manic depressive, it seemed to go downhill. So financially, we were in and out of debt, with a heavy credit-card debt. To my wife’s credit, she pulled and scratched and crawled our way out of the debt.
Q: When did you find out you had hep C?
A. My father passed away in July after a long bout with diabetes. When I went up there to Ottawa about a month before, I’d displayed some slurred speech, and I was dropping things and tripping, which is uncharacteristic for me, because I’m very physically adept in my comedy. My wife insisted that I check in with a doctor. I checked in with the family doctor in Ottawa, they did some tests, and they said “some of these numbers are a little weird.” They checked it further, I went to a specialist, and they diagnosed it as hep C. That changed everything. Now it’s this situation where I can’t work at all and I’m stuck in Ottawa.
Q: Did the doctors say how you got it?
A: The No. 1 way is intravenous drug use. Going back 25 years, I went through my bout of trying to emulate my heroes like John Belushi and Richard Pryor, getting involved with heroin addiction and cocaine and all that stuff. I got through all that and did anti-addiction documentaries for the CBC, figuring it was the least I could do. I was so lucky I got through all that and I’m still alive. The doctors said my symptoms should have shown up sooner. My friend who went through hep C, when he found out about it, he said, “This is so weird. About nine or 10 other people have popped up from that scene alone who have hep C.” It’s like a generational time period thing, almost a mini-epidemic. I read somewhere that hep C is something that anyone from the ages of 45 to 60 should be tested for, because there’s something about that era.
Q: Do you think comedians take drugs in part to emulate other comedy idols, like Belushi, who died of an overdose, and Pryor?
A: I think that was a factor. I think another thing is that you go back to the hotel by yourself, and you have the choice between picking up somebody else, getting into that debauchery, and using the booze and the drugs to subside the loneliness. It’s all self-destructive. It took me a long time, especially after the drugs, to learn how to be by myself.
Q: Is it necessary for a Canadian performer to move to L.A., or is it possible to make a career in Canada?
A: I certainly thought, when I moved there, that it was necessary. There was all that “go to Hollywood” thing in the back of my mind. In hindsight, the only reason to go to L.A. is if you want to be on an American sitcom or in an American blockbuster movie. You can make films just about anywhere. I have bad luck stories about my experiences in L.A. There was an agent who approached me and said, “I always liked you, I thought you deserved to be farther up in your career than you are.” He said, “I just got my two top clients, John Candy and Steve Martin, five years of work, and now I would like to concentrate on you.” The next night, the guy wakes up in the middle of the night, gets a glass of water from the fridge, has a heart attack and dies. I’ve got a million bad luck stories.
Q: Why did you decide to come back?
A: It just feels right. I’m a Canadian citizen. I started here, I’ll end here. I used to exaggerate a little bit with the jokes I made about Americans, but now I don’t have to exaggerate any more. They’re really crazy down there!
Q: Has anyone come to visit you?
A: One or two close friends that I’ve known since high school. But so many people want to come and see me, so many people want to talk on the phone, so many people have offered to drive me to the health food store. When we were in B.C. or Vancouver Island, there were places where you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a health food store. But here in Ottawa, when you start looking for salt in everything, boy, you realize that the salt barons are out there laughing their asses off at the heroin and coke dealers. They run their products with impunity. They make tons more money than anybody else, their product is everywhere. At Tim Hortons the bottled water has five milligrams of salt in it.
Q: Before people started calling and donating, were you aware you had so many friends and admirers?
A: No. There have been people, especially comedians, who I’d met once or twice at Just For Laughs, and I thought there would be politeness, but I had no idea of the deep respect and concern or the outpouring of love and prayers they’d have now. It’s been a humbling experience to say the least.
Q: Have you tried over the years to encourage younger comedians?
A: Not so much, but according to the messages, apparently I have. People remind me of stuff. I would do little things, like have these seminars. I would sign up a maximum of 10 amateurs, and we’d go through their act, examine it, take it apart, and answer any questions. And by a collective think-tank kind of thing, they’d all walk out learning something. To me it was just a little thing. But according to the messages, it was such a big deal. For some of them, it started their careers. But if you’d asked me before all this happened if I had any influence, I’d have said, “I don’t know. Maybe. One or two.” It’s comforting to know that I wasn’t an asshole every second of my life, that at least I did something good. I have a tendency to remember the bad times more than the good. But it’s like one of my favourite song quotes: “Only good people wonder if they’re bad.”
Q: Is there anything you see differently about your life now?
A: Absolutely. This has been a life-changing experience. I have a responsibility, if I get the miracle ending that I’m praying for, to use that gift properly. There’s also the realization that if you touch people in a positive way, you can touch people in a negative way. Let’s say you’re in a restaurant, and the waiter comes over and says, “I’m sorry, I got your order mixed up earlier.” Instead of saying “Well, yeah, maybe next time you’ll do better,” say, “It’s okay, you came with the right order and everything’s fine now.” Maybe he’s had a bad day, and your answer could be what makes him go and be mad at somebody else, to quit his job, to take the drugs that send him into the spiral.
Q: How do you look back on your career?
A: There was a time that I wished I would have been more famous, made more money. But who knows? I could have killed myself with more money and more fame. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that I’ve been most popular in Canada. At my level of fame, people would come up to me, and say, “I loved you on Just For Laughs,” and then they’d walk away. Where I’ve been out in public with friends that are much bigger and more famous and popular than I am, like Tim Allen and Drew Carey. People come up and expect the world from them. And I’m sitting there going, “I am so glad I’m not you right now. Even though you have tons of money, and I’d love to be able to buy my wife a new house, I don’t envy this moment at all.”
Q: Will you keep doing Just For Laughs?
A: They’re arranging a special benefit for the 30th anniversary. Originally, when they asked me last month, I had to turn them down. But lately I’ve been feeling so positive with the energy, that I said that I’m really going to try to at least get down there just for the day. I’ll take the train, because I can’t fly, and try to appear at the benefit, because Montreal’s not too far from Ottawa. My wildest dreams would be to stand up on stage and just do one joke, to get a laugh, to thank the audience for being there and thank the comedians for working for free.
By John Geddes - Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 10:57 AM - 0 Comments
John Geddes in conversation with Brigette Depape
Brigette DePape was a uniformed Senate page when she made herself an instant symbol of youth protest nearly a year ago by silently holding a handmade “Stop Harper” sign on the floor of the upper chamber during the reading of the Conservative government’s Throne Speech. Since then, she’s been travelling the country meeting with activist groups, and this week the 22-year-old launches Power of Youth, a collection of essays she co-edited on activism.
Q: You went from unknown to icon awfully quickly. Did you ever ﬁnd the transition intimidating?
A: To be honest, I was really scared when I took the action. The hardest part was that moment of, “Should I do this?” I could either stand back and watch as the government was eroding our social services and destroying our environment or I could do something. I was scared about my parents’ reaction, my family’s reaction. But then I really thought about the people who are impacted by Harper—women, indigenous people and workers. That really gave me strength and the feeling that I’m part of something bigger.
By Luiza Ch. Savage - Tuesday, May 15, 2012 at 2:18 AM - 0 Comments
On Mitt Romney’s father issues, his Mormonism, and his Canadian blood
Mitt Romney has emerged as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, but in many ways he remains an enigma. In their book, The Real Romney, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, reporters at Romney’s hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, drew on hundreds of interviews to probe Romney’s youth, business career and tenure as governor of Massachusetts, and traced his family’s colourful history as Mormon pioneers.
Q: You describe Mitt’s father, George Romney, a former governor of Michigan who also once ran for the presidency, as headstrong, idealistic and outspoken: “He did what he felt was right and if the torpedoes came, the torpedoes came.” Yet Mitt’s image is the opposite of his father’s—that he will say anything to please. What mark did his father leave on him?
A: To understand Mitt Romney, you have to understand who his father was and the impact he had on Mitt’s life. Like Mitt, George Romney was a successful businessman and governor who ran for the presidency. Yet George’s campaign in 1968 was upended by his famous quote that he had received “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” from U.S. generals about the Vietnam War, and his turn against U.S. policy. As a result, George abandoned his bid before the ﬁrst primary vote. Mitt Romney’s sister, Jane, is quoted in the book saying this had a big impact—that Mitt is more careful and more scripted as a result. That’s part of the reason he seems so wooden. And when he has gone off script, such as saying he’s “not concerned about the very poor,” that has blown up in his face. That’s why he tries to walk a ﬁne line between being careful and also speaking in a way that is revealing and shows that he has a connection to regular people.
By Cathy Gulli - Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 11:11 AM - 0 Comments
On why we have breasts, what we don’t know about implants, and the future of breastfeeding
After reading a report about the presence of environmental toxins in breast milk in 2004, American journalist Florence Williams, who’d just had a child at the time, decided to have her own milk tested. She mailed samples to a lab. The results were astounding and unsettling: her toxin levels were exceptionally high. That propelled Williams to embark on an intense search that went well beyond her initial inquiries into the sociological, sexual and medical complexities of this organ. In Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, she provides a fascinating cultural and scientific tour of breasts through time—and what they might face in the future.
Q: You start the book by asking why humans have breasts. What did you ﬁnd out from anthropologists, and how did their theories differ depending on their own sex?
A: It really surprised me that this topic is still so contentious. A lot of male anthropologists love to study the breast and they seem to be easily persuaded that the breast evolved as a sexual signal. But the more feminist [and more often female] anthropologists said it may be that breasts evolved not for men, but for the fitness of women and offspring.
By Ken MacQueen - Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 2:26 PM - 0 Comments
On America’s decline and how bad parenting and mediocre schools hurt the economy
British journalist Edward Luce has worked both sides of the pond and both sides of the fence—as Washington-based writer for the Financial Times, and as a speechwriter during the Clinton administration. His book, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, takes a hard look at the frightening ramifications of a gutted middle class. He frets that America is in a precipitous decline.
Q: I wrote a story for Maclean’s last month based on a poll of Canadians. In it, 72 per cent of respondents agreed: “American dominance peaked in the last century and [it] will soon become a first among equals.” Reading your book, even that seems an optimistic view.
A: The International Monetary Fund said the U.S. had about 31 per cent of world GDP in 2001. It’s now 23.5 per cent. There’s every sign the second decade of this century will bring America’s share to about one-sixth. To go from a third to a sixth in 20 years, that’s a big shift.
Q: You say a relative American decline isn’t bad. What is the larger issue for Americans?
A: There are two aspects. One is the relative economic decline, which isn’t bad news. Poor countries are becoming less poor and providing potential markets for American exports. The second is the inaction of Washington to the structural forces associated with America’s relative economic decline. Namely, hyper-integration and globalization and exponentially changing technology. Both aspects are fundamentally transforming how Americans live and work.
Q: If America didn’t create the middle class, it idealized it. You make a case it’s been gutted in the U.S. —the “mancession” where men’s wages have taken a hit, and the five million manufacturing jobs lost in the last decade. The middle class used to finance the good times, now they’re kicked out of the party. What caused that?
A: If you look at the 2007 business cycle, this was the first where the median household income, most of the middle class, were poorer at the end than at the beginning to the tune of $2,000. This recovery began in mid-2009. Since then the median household income has fallen by 6.4 per cent. It’s not what happens in recoveries. The more we progress into this recovery, the poorer people get.
Q: These same pressures—globalization, rising inequality, lack of social movement—hit Canada and other countries, too, but with less profound damage. Why is that?
A: I know you’ve got problems, but they’re not as big as America’s problems. I think it’s also partly to do with the fact that you have safety nets, and you have a more progressive income tax system. When people are laid off in places like Canada or Germany, they don’t lose their health care. And they do have better access than their American counterparts to worker retraining colleges and vocational opportunities. The U.S. budget for worker retraining is being cut at a time when it’s never been more desperately needed. It’s going to lead to way more deskilling, way more social problems, faster drops in labour force participation, and way higher cost to the taxpayer via the prisons, policing and the expenditures you need to clean up the mess.
Q: Once you lose the middle class, you lose good schools, worsen educational outcomes, erode the ability for critical analysis. You kind of foster a war on science, economics and even historical fact.
A: America is going through a bout of constitutional fundamentalism, for want of a better term. There’s always been a very strong strand in American political culture of not just distaste for elites but also for expertise. The less qualified a politician, the better their standing in the eyes of people who hold [that view]. This pathology, because of the way the American constitution works, has essentially a veto on any action. You’re going to see a deteriorating response, or non-response, to these really serious, really profound challenges to the way America makes its money and sustains its middle class. One of the reasons I didn’t provide a saccharine Hollywood ending to this book is because the polarization isn’t something that’s been conjured up in Washington. It’s a deeply rooted phenomenon from beyond the Beltway.
Q: Let’s go back to the cradle. As a boomer myself, and a parent, I cringe at your assessment of how we’ve imbued in our children this “obsessive cult of self-esteem,” as you put it. I can’t understand how it came about.
A: You have to start with the 1960s, and the rebellion against authority, and the laudable progress towards tolerance, and diversity, and the acceptance of multiculturalism. But it went too far into a cult of narcissism. There is a difference between giving a child confidence and giving a child a completely unreal sense of their own capabilities and powers, of celebrating a child to the point of unreality. I see the ’60s as a positive decade. But it morphed into a cult of individualism.
Q: You reference Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, with its nose-to-the-grindstone, work-before-play ethic. That book shocked a lot of Americans and Canadians, but she’s only the latest generation of immigrants to espouse this view.
A: Exactly. I think we all read that book with a mixture of admiration and horror. One of the reasons I think it was so popular was because a lot of parents who, to use an old-fashioned word, mollycoddle their children—over-praise them, never reprimand them— feel a sneaking sense there’s something missing. These are values not just of Chinese or Asian mothers, these are values of immigrant families, as you say. The first and second generation you have to work hard: nobody else is going to do it for you, but the trade-off here is this is a society of equal opportunity. Perhaps it’s no accident that as America has become less a society of equal opportunity and more a society of plutocracy, that sense that if you work hard you’ll get where you want to get, has also decayed.
Q: Bill Gates, whom you interviewed, has spent billions through his foundation trying to find the key to teacher performance and educational improvement. He seems confounded.
A: This is a bigger problem than whether teachers are rewarded or incentivized properly. This is about what happens in the home, and we all know that. If the signals they get at home ﬁll them with a totally false sense of self-confidence, then they’re not getting the inoculation that they need about how the world really works. To segue, the other great problem with American education is the scandalously high college dropout rate. It is no surprise in that context that so many kids drop out, because at college you get the grades you deserve. At school, you just seem to get an A if you turn up.
Q: One of the teachers you talked to said, “Parents will be the death of America.”
A: You see it in politics. You see it in education, too. People want somebody to blame, other than themselves.
Q: You have an anecdote about the summer intern program at the U.S. State Department. The intern saying to a supervisor, “We don’t like to be criticized.”
A: The person who told me that was still smarting. It wasn’t just that one student said this, it was that the student had been designated to say this on behalf of them all! Can you believe it? This is America, the school of hard knocks where the best ideas win. The self-image just doesn’t fit the reality.
Q: How do you revitalize the school system? You say we have to stream students to vocational schools at an earlier age if they’re not likely to go to university. They need training that will see them get a useful job.
A: There are pilot schemes. But as a federal or state scheme it’s not a particularly American way of doing things. The President made a very American statement in his State of the Union address when he said, “I want every American to graduate from college by 2020.” Actually, not everybody needs to go to college. What he said was very egalitarian. I’m not sure it was very practical.
Q: Many come out ill-prepared, and angry, perhaps because they see their families falling behind. There seem to be two streams. One is the Tea Party crowd with its anger and fiscal incoherence.
A: I think the Tea Party is the most powerful recent symptom of the problem. If you look at the voting record from one Congress to the next, the polarization began about 1980. Now, if you stick your centrist head above the parapet it will get blown off. For politicians to talk to what I like to think are reasonable, Socratic, undecided voters—but who are usually the overworked, cynical and often apathetic floating voters—the incentive to address their concerns diminishes all the time.
Q: Then we move to what is loosely defined as the left. The Occupy movement seems a product of a lot of the things you described as being wrong with our schools. An incoherent agenda with a group that believes they can solve a problem by occupying space.
A: The Tea Party is as diffuse as Occupy Wall Street is, but the networks on the right are more organized and disciplined. Even if there is no leader, there is a sense of discipline and commonality. Within Occupy you have such a multitude of views from moderate trade unionists who want to see middle-class income restored or manufacturing come back to America, to anarchists. It’s hard to fashion a coherent platform out of that.
Q: What has the reaction been to your book, having a Brit poking into American affairs?
A: Americans are aware that their country is in trouble. A lot of them are confused about why. Fewer of them are confused about whether.
Q: That’s as optimistic as you get, isn’t it?
A: At the moment, yes.
By Nicholas Köhler - Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 1:50 PM - 0 Comments
Life on Wiebo Ludwig’s farm: head shaving, dandelion wine, and surprising humour
While writing his dissertation on radical environmentalism, Paul Joosse, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Alberta, began examining a string of bombings in 2008 and 2009 targeting EnCana gas installations in northeast B.C.’s Tomslake area. Speaking to rural people who felt under siege by the oil and gas industry, Joosse heard one name pop up again and again, often with admiration—that of Wiebo Ludwig, convicted in connection with similar attacks on gas wells in Alberta 10 years earlier. Joosse felt he had to interview Ludwig, leader of a radical Christian community in Hythe, Alta., called Trickle Creek, and talked his way onto Ludwig’s farm. Over multiple stays there, he got to know him, and wrote a chapter of his dissertation on Ludwig and his followers. Ludwig died this month of esophageal cancer at age 70.
Q: How did you first meet Wiebo Ludwig?
A: Fittingly perhaps, I met him on the set of a TV show—Alberta Primetime. That’s the thing about Wiebo Ludwig. As much as people like to point out that he loved courting the media, it was reciprocal—journalists loved interviewing him, because he would always give incredibly pithy, often humorous soundbites that would make you think. He was also fond of keeping you thinking, especially in terms of his involvement, or not, in any criminal activity. He loved tap dancing over the laser beams, saying just enough, but not enough to incriminate himself.
By Dr. Elaine Chin - Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 3:57 PM - 0 Comments
On writing medical fiction, cutting out meat, and why doctors need to own their mistakes
Dr. Sanjay Gupta is best known as the chief medical correspondent for CNN and as a special correspondent for CBS. He’s also a practising neurosurgeon, on the faculty at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, and the author of two bestselling books of health advice, Chasing Life and Cheating Death. Gupta has now written a novel, Monday Mornings,published last month. Its title refers to the weekly morbidity and mortality (M&M) meetings where doctors at the novel’s fictional hospital, Chelsea General, discuss recent surgeries, including instances of medical error.
Q: What inspired you to move to writing fiction?
A: It was driven by the content. I kept a lot of notes when attending M&M meetings for 20 years. As I looked over them, I realized they contained a lot of amazing stories. Originally, I thought I’d write a book about medical mistakes, which wouldn’t be the first. What I found, when I started to write, is that in order to be as candid as I wanted to be and tell the stories that I could tell, it needed to be fiction, because it wasn’t about implicating particular doctors or particular institutions. It was about giving people a real look at what happens inside a hospital after a mistake occurs: what happens to the doctors, and what happens to the hospital.
Q: Two of your characters, Dr. Park and Dr. Ridgeway, learn there is more to life than chasing a career; that life is about caring for your family and your community of patients. Which of your characters do you relate to most, and why?
A: The characters were all composites of people that I’ve met in my life. Dr. Villanueva was the purest of the characters. You knew how he was going to behave in almost every situation. There were no soft edges to him, certainly, and he was insatiable. Dr. Ridgeway represents what we fear about organized medicine—working at this fancy hospital with all the bells and whistles, but there’s a free clinic just down the road and those people could really use my help.
Q: What are the three lessons you’d like us to learn from your novel?
A: First, most people who don’t work in hospitals or in the medical profession are unaware that a morbidity and mortality meeting even exists. Two is to recognize—as unsettling as it is to think about—that, ultimately, medicine moves forward because people learn from their mistakes, and that means that mistakes happen. But the worst crime of all would be that it continues to happen because no one learned from it. What I’m always struck by is when something has gone wrong and when everyone sort of knows that a mistake has happened, but hardly ever does anyone really have a completely candid meeting, not to be punitive, but to hold each other accountable and to say, “Look, can we all agree that this was a mistake? And can we all figure out a way not to let that happen again?” I think if we did that, if we applied what we know as surgeons and from M&Ms, to all sorts of different facets of our society, I just think things would run so much better, and there wouldn’t be so much dabbling around the edges with regard to these issues.
Q: How did you get your start in the media world?
A: I was a writer; I used to do a lot of writing for various magazines and then I worked at the White House as a fellow, where I primarily wrote speeches—mostly health care-related things in the early ’90s. Around that time there was an increasing demand for health care reporting in broadcast. I had been approached in 1997 and I didn’t really fully know how that would work. Then in 2001, I was coming to Emory University looking at a job and Atlanta happened to be CNN’s world headquarters. In the airport, I ran into the CEO, who had approached me originally. It was one of those serendipitous things. There wasn’t much of a plan when I agreed to do some television. It just sort of evolved, and in many ways I just sort of designed it as I was going along.
Q: You’ve got a venture under way now to bring Monday Mornings to television, as Chelsea General. Had you planned for your book to be developed into something for television?
A: That was not at all the intent. In fact, it’s tough sometimes to convert books to television shows. David E. Kelley, who is a terrific television writer and someone I’ve admired for some time, got a hold of the book early on and called me. He’s done a lot of legal shows, and he’s done other medical shows, including Chicago Hope and others, and he very much wanted to turn this into a TV show. So we had a lot of conversations, and eventually a pilot and it’s been accepted. We have to finish editing the pilot and then go back to the studios and figure out if there are changes to be made and all that. So it can be a long process.
Q: You’ve got at least three careers going simultaneously—neurosurgeon, TV correspondent for two networks, and you’re a bestselling author. How do you do it all? When do you sleep?
A: Some days if I’m really being very productive, I’ll be working late into the night, and other days, not as much. It varies, but [I usually get] about six hours sleep. I compartmentalize pretty well. So, I will operate every Monday and every other Friday, and see patients in the office on Thursdays. So, that’s 2½ to three days a week as a neurosurgeon, depending on the week. With the media stuff, I have some time Tuesdays and Wednesdays for my TV and magazine writing, and when I travel, the schedule varies.
Q: You’ve said that much of what you’ve learned about preventative measures was learned outside of medical school. If you became dean of your medical school at Emory, what would you change in the curriculum?
A: Well, keeping in mind it’s very hard to make broad sweeping changes, one thing I would focus on is nutrition, early on. I’d love to have a lot more focus on prevention. Some of the medical schools, certainly, over the last 20 years since I graduated, have gotten better about that, but not all. I’m always amazed at how poorly nutrition is either understood or taught and it’s sort of reflected in the practices of physicians today. I would rather see our patients never get sick in the first place; I think one place that begins is through smart nutrition, and doctors should be smart on this. They should be able to educate their patients. We shouldn’t be going to pills and procedures and diagnostic tests full of radiation so quickly.
Q: I know that you’ve worked hard to spread the message about prevention. What do you advise in the way of nutrition?
A: Very pragmatic sorts of things. One thing I try to do is to eat seven different coloured foods every single day. Two, is I would try to eliminate or greatly reduce meat intake. We’ve eaten meat, as a species, since the beginning of our existence, but we also combine that with lots of other things. We don’t exactly chase woolly mammoths through the forest anymore to get our meat. We sit down and eat meat all the time, and I think it’s probably one of the more significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease, along with sugar intake, which is something I would also greatly reduce. I think sugar is a calorie like no other. I think of the way it’s metabolized in the body, the way the liver becomes fatty as a result, and the way that your lipid levels can respond to sugar. Leaving aside diet for a second, I’m not a big person on gyms. I think that gyms can be a great idea, but I think the point is this: I don’t think the human body was designed to either sit or lie for 23 hours and then go to the gym for an hour a day. I think the more natural movements you can have in your daily life, the better.
Q: We’ve heard rumours you were considered for the surgeon general role by President Barack Obama. Had you accepted, what would have been your first act as surgeon general?
A: I would try to make us a healthier country and make sure that more people had access to health care. With regard to prevention, we have some incredible health tools and innovations nowadays that we didn’t have even a decade or two decades ago, but they’re not available to everybody. I think we’ll look back on this chapter of our collective history and say, “Well, that was pretty embarrassing that we did all these wonderful things and we made so many things possible in our lifetimes and yet people still died of preventable diseases.” I don’t think anyone finds that acceptable.
Dr. Elaine Chin is a regular contributor to Maclean’s, Canadian Business, Chatelaine and CityNews.
By Jessica Allen - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 11:01 AM - 0 Comments
On Mickey Mouse prosciutto, the loss of food culture and why garlic makes everything better
After living in Rome for 10 years with her husband, Jeannie Marshall has witnessed ﬁrst-hand the inﬂux of a toxic, corporate food culture, most of which is marketed toward children, in the country where slow food was born. In her new book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products, Marshall, who has raised her seven-year-old son in Italy, details how the Italians seem indifferent not only to the inherent health risks of eating processed food, but also to the potential loss of their centuries-old food culture.
Q: We rely on the Italians to be this bastion of food culture. But living there, you were surprised to see processed foods lining supermarket shelves and that few Italians were hesitating to feed these products to their kids. Do you feel that North Americans in Italy are more shocked by this than the Italians are?
A: Yes, I don’t think they’re as aware of it. It’s somewhat invisible because the processed foods are made by Italian companies. So they might sneer at Americans and their Cheerios but then go get some horrible food made by some Italian company. That’s what’s funny. They don’t see it’s the same thing.
By Nicholas Köhler - Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 12:07 PM - 0 Comments
Steering Berkeley through its worst budget crisis, and why elite schools should charge more
Robert Birgeneau, a physicist and former University of Toronto president, has led the University of California at Berkeley as chancellor since 2004. Last week he announced he’s stepping down at the end of the year. Birgeneau, who turned 70 this month, delayed retirement because of the budget crisis—what he calls “the most extreme disinvestment by the state in UC’s history,” brought on by cuts and economic troubles in California. He implemented tough cost-cutting measures, found new sources of money, and dealt with an uptick in activism.
Q: Undergrad fees at the UC system increased 32 per cent two years ago, pushing costs up three times what they were a decade earlier. Last year, tuition rose another eight per cent, then another 9.6 per cent. Meanwhile, reduced services meant wastebaskets around Berkeley overflowed with trash. It sounds like a rotten time to be chancellor. Why didn’t you just retire?
A: I didn’t retire because that would have been cowardly. Berkeley plays a special role in the world of public higher education. We are arguably—certainly in North America—the only university that competes directly and successfully with the very rich privates: Harvard, MIT, Stanford. That’s an important role, to show you can have a public university that’s as strong as those very well-funded privates.