Leaf through the BIG Book of Canadian Trivia

July 28, 2009 5:46 am

Ottawa author Randy Ray and co-author Mark Kearney of London, Ont. have published their ninth book, The Big Book of Canadian Trivia. The latest Ray-Kearney effort is as a “greatest hits” book that contains the best Canadiana from their previous eight books, plus an astounding amount of new material. In one big book readers will find all the trivia and facts about Canada they need to know: there are stories of important Canadian artifacts and history including what became of Canada’s World War II spy camp. All regions and provinces are covered, as well as important Canadian figures like John Molson, Elizabeth Arden and Russ Jackson. If that isn’t enough there are sections explaining whatever happened to such Canadian icons as the last spike, labour leader Bob White, hockey tough guy Dave “The Hammer Schultz,” the first skidoo, former Ottawa 67 player Denis Potvin, swimmer Marilyn Bell and the first Tim Hortons donut shop. Some items are “classics” while others are little known facts. Approximately 25% of the material has never before appeared in print. The Big Book of Canadian Trivia is published by The Dundurn Group of Toronto. Ray and Kearney have sold more than 50,000 copies of their books. The Big Book of Canadian Trivia is now available in stores and at: www.triviaguys.com .

Art and Politics – The History of the National Arts Centre by Sarah Jennings

4:27 am

Documenting four decades of the National Arts Centre (NAC), Sarah Jenning’s book, Art and Politics- The History of the National Arts Centre, is a real treat for Canadian art culture enthusiasts. The book details the developments of the arts scene in Canada while highlighting the memories of the many participants who contributed to the NAC’s history. In it, you’ll find the stories of the many patrons, performers and board members who supported the NAC through its rough periods and helped in the rebirth of the organization.

Sarah Jennings has spent the last five years sifting through archival material and collecting first person accounts for the purposes of this book. Her work has been highlighted in the BBC, CBC, Wall Street Journal, National Post, Financial Post, and the Globe and Mail. Jennings was a lecturer at the School of Journalism at Carleton University until 2005, and currently resides in Ottawa.

The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and fall of Civilizations

May 25, 2009 5:23 am

Brian Fagan, Bloomsbury Press, 2008, 282pp.

Brian Fagan cannot be counted among those who dismiss the threat of global warming. He understands better than most that warming periods have occurred and that their effects on human societies can be drastic and severe. In his book The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations Fagan examines what historians and archeologists refer to as the medieval warming period, occurring approximately from 800 – 1300 A.D. By examining the relationship between climate and the respective fates of various civilizations, Fagan produces a compelling case for climate change as a vital force in history. His analysis is at once sweeping, subtle and beautifully descriptive. Fagan showcases an encyclopedic knowledge of the relationship between climate and civilizations as disparate as the Mongolian Empire in the Eurasia Steppe, the Maya Empire based in the Yucatan Peninsula and the Inuit based in the Canadian Artic, but draws firm conclusions only where warranted. Otherwise much of his analysis is well reasoned but necessarily speculative. Nevertheless, Fagan demonstrates that slight changes in temperature and rainfall patterns during the centuries in question produced subtle but vitally important changes to climate. More interesting is how climate change up ended apparently stable societies. For this reason, The Great Warming is also a grim warning about the potential consequences of climate change for our own civilization.

Fagan makes clear the effects of the medieval warming period were varied and depended on other climatic factors. In Europe the warming period was characterized by a 10% decline in rainfall and a temperature increase of 0.9 – 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The seemingly minor changes had far reaching effects on the overall climate and agricultural production. In Europe, the period was characterized by relatively stable harvests and slightly warmer winters. This combination was conducive to a period of population growth and the accelerated formation and expansion of towns and cities. As populations increased, more people were engaged in activities other than agriculture. Thus despite the relative stability of the climate, agricultural production was under increasing stress: there were more mouths to feed and yet fewer people engaged in agricultural production. Food shortages remained a constant threat, as well as the social unrest that would inevitably accompany them.

In explaining the interaction between climate and human communities, Fagan introduces the metaphor of the ‘desert pump,’ which refers to the desert’s capacity to draw in animals, plants and peoples during periods of rainfall. The effect of the precipitation is to shrink the desert: plants take root where rainfall occurs, prompting the eventual migration of nomadic populations and their animals. Once the rainfall ceases, the desert conditions return and the nomadic populations are forced to migrate once again. This is why the Eurasia steppe was comprised of populations who were perpetually on the move and perpetually at war with each other over scarce resources. Survival in such unforgiving lands was precarious at any time, let alone during a period of intensified warming.

Indeed, the effects of the medieval warming period were more dramatic in climates of either extreme heat or cold. To take one example, the collapse of the Maya Civilization highlights the vital relationship between climate patterns and cultural and political instability. The Maya civilization was located in the Yucatan Peninsula. Like other civilizations, the Maya were very much attuned to subtle climatic shifts and were thus adept at developing water management strategies conducive to agricultural production. Over the centuries, agricultural production was elaborate and sophisticated enough to help the Maya Civilization build Tikala and other great cities, the eventual effect of which was to expand their population base. Nevertheless, sustained warming eventually produced drought conditions, from which the Maya did not recover. By early in the 12th century most remaining Maya communities were scattered.

By contrast, the warming period created important opportunities for peoples living in the bitterly cold and harsh climates in and around the Artic circle. Evidence suggests that the warming period produced slightly warmer summers in areas as far north as the Beaufort Sea and east through the Canadian Archipelago and Baffin Bay. Water was consequently easier to navigate during the short summers, making possible encounters between different civilizations. Fagan relates how the Inuit came into contact with the Norseman, a people who migrated from Norway down to the Shetland Islands and eventually west to Baffin Bay before settling in Greenland. The Inuit had established trading relations with other peoples and were less insular then other groups inhabiting the harsh landscapes of the Canadian north. Indeed both the Inuit and the Norsemen craved what turned out to be a mutually beneficial trading relationship. The Inuit possessed ivory and the Norsemen iron. The Norsemen needed narwhal and walrus ivory to pay as tithe to the Norwegian Church. But a prolonged period of intensely cold winters and summers in the mid 14th century served to sever the connection between the Norsemen and Norway. The Norsemen migrated to the south of Greenland and the trading relationship with the Inuit collapsed. It is one among many fascinating stories of climate change Fagan tells in this remarkable book.

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

March 24, 2009 8:10 pm

The current U.S. originated housing slump and subsequent global recession has exposed the extraordinary extent to which the world is connected through money. The housing market was the basis for a sustained period of economic growth, most especially in the U.S. but in most other advanced capitalist countries as well. Home ownership dramatically increased, one effect of which was to propel the growth of home building related industries. As demand for homes accelerated, so too did the increase in their value. Meanwhile wages and money earned by a growing portion of homeowners remained stagnant. This was the first sign of a flaw that would eventually strike at the heart of the industry: many people were buying homes that they could not really afford. In such a scenario if a homeowner lost his or her job, the capacity to pay their monthly mortgage payments was lost and foreclosure the likely outcome. However, the value of that home would not necessarily fall. If millions of people, however, undergo the same downward spiral of job loss and home foreclosure an additional consequence will be the collapse in housing values. The viscous spiral is then intensified. A shrinking job market and growing unemployment depresses the market for homes further. Shrinking demand, in turn, further depresses housing prices. Fewer new homes are thus built and fewer renovations of existing housing stock are undertaken. With so much of the economy tied to housing, the industry’s collapse still ripples far and wide.

Notwithstanding our collective capacity to forget, this sort of boom and bust cycle is hardly unique. There are, however, added elements that have intensified the scope of this particular economic crisis. In his new book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, Niall Ferguson writes of a growing disconnect between ‘planet finance’ and ‘planet earth.’ The disconnect in question revolves around the increasingly sophisticated tools of financial engineering used by lending agencies and investment firms to transcend the conventional economic cycle and thereby generate profit and minimize financial risk. Witness the accelerated growth of the ‘subprime’ housing market. Mortgage lending agencies and banks were financing mortgages to homeowners with stagnant incomes and poor credit histories (often with initial tantalizing low interest rates, followed by unsustainably high rates) and in turn packaging those loans and selling them as “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs) to other agencies the world over. Indeed pension funds, banks, and municipal governments in places as far-flung as Iceland and Norway used CDOs as investment vehicles. It was a financial engineering model predicated on the perpetual rise in home values. No one it seemed – certainly not on Wall Street – pondered the simple question: what will happen if home prices start to fall? Contrary to the promise of arcane formulas used to generate staggering profits, financial risk had been spread far and wide. When the house of cards did finally fall in the U.S. much of the world fell with it.

Although Ferguson repeatedly highlights the role of such crises in the evolution of finance, money’s ascent continues unabated. In explaining why, The Ascent of Money expertly traces the development of the first banks, the introduction of bonds and the creation of companies and stock markets. But Ferguson’s greatest strength is his ability to uncover the hidden relationships between money and a country or region’s political evolution. To take one example, he tells the story of how England’s strategy of using the bond market to finance their military effort was a decisive factor in their ultimate victory over France during the Napoleonic wars. Nevertheless Ferguson’s judgment must sometimes be called into question. To take another example, he comes perilously close to rationalizing Pinochet’s authoritarian rule in Chile for nearly two decades. Pinochet, it will be recalled, orchestrated the coup against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. According to Ferguson, the state of Chile’s finances is sounder today than it would have been had Allende been allowed to rule.

Ferguson ultimately insists that money is a progressive agent of change. His thesis is seemingly confirmed through simple comparison: societies, where money assumes a minimal role or is non-existent, are closed, authoritarian and fail to meet the basic material needs of its citizens. North Korea comes to mind. In the wealthiest societies, by contrast, money is the fuel driving the economy and improving living standards for the vast majority of citizens. Ferguson’s contention, to my mind, only points to a partial truth. Money is so much more than its conventional definition would suggest. As Ferguson demonstrates, it is indeed a source of liberty: those who possess it are often able to pursue dreams and live life with a quiet dignity. But one does not need to be a Marxist to recognize that the profit motive can fuel greed and exploitation. Similarly, one does not have to be Christian or otherwise religious to know that money can drive individuals to evil. Money, from this perspective, is many things at once. Ferguson’s book, for all its learning and erudition, only begins to uncover money’s mysterious power.


A Place Within: Rediscovering India

January 13, 2009 6:14 pm

In November a group of gunmen launched a series of coordinated attacks on both civilians and foreigners in Mumbai, India. In the end, almost 200 people were dead, hundreds more were injured and Mumbai itself teetered on the edge of chaos. The attacks were devastating but hardly novel. It was only in 2006 in Mumbai that seven bombs laid on train tracks went off simultaneously during the afternoon rush hour commute, killing hundreds of innocent civilians. In both instances much of the subsequent analysis focused on the terrorist nature of the attack: the 2006 bombing campaign had all the hallmarks of an Al Queda operation, while November’s attack was most likely carried out by Lashkare- Taiba, a terrorist organization based in Pakistan. According to the one gunman caught alive, their aim in killing as many people as possible was to ‘free’ Kashmir from Indian control. In any case, both attacks lay bare a series of stark truths: communal violence remains distressingly common throughout much of India and relations between India and Pakistan remain in a heightened state of tension.

The November attacks also shed light on the type of city Mumbai has become — frantic, overcrowded and unequal. The concentration of financial power in Mumbai has accelerated its transformation, physically, politically and socially. More wealth has been created, to be sure, but so too has inequality and sometimes wrenchingly difficult forms of dislocation. The majority of peasants who migrate from the rural areas become members of the city’s underclass. As for the burgeoning middle class, a majority are still forced to live in shacks in communities so dense it is likely impossible to have sex without neighbours hearing. For most people living in such a city, personal and financial freedom must be a tantalizing but elusive dream. For all of the city’s undeniable dynamism, it remains an oppressive place for too many of its citizens.

From this perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that many Indians choose to leave their country in the hope of creating a better life elsewhere. Yet most Indians who do leave likely remain deeply attached to their country of origin. Their ambivalence is understandable. M. G. Vassanji, a Canadian writer of Indian descent, is acutely aware of India’s ongoing painful transformation. In A Place Within: Rediscovering India, Vassanji writes of a series of journeys back to the country of his ancestors. The book is vast in scope: it is at a once a travelogue, a history of India and a meditation on the type of country it is and aspires to be. For this reason, reading A Place Within is occasionally tedious but ultimately rewarding. Vassanji documents the rise and fall of past rulers. He laments India’s pervasive violence and the injustice of the caste system. However, he also describes the beauty of traveling through India on overcrowded trains and celebrates the country’s burgeoning self-confidence.

Vassanji’s story resonates most when he writes of India’s independence in 1947 and Partition. India and Pakistan’s subsequent relationship has been characterized by lingering, simmering tensions that occasionally spill over into full-blown violence. Vassanji’s odyssey strikes the reader in part as an attempt to seek wisdom where the perpetual conflict between the two countries is concerned. The section in which Vassanji describes meeting Kushwant Singh, one of India’s greatest writers is certainly a highlight. Although very old, Singh remains a free spirit and is said to love the company of women. He also understands the vital role tolerance must play if Pakistan and India are to ever amicably settle their profound differences. More interesting perhaps is Singh’s contention that the unspeakable violence and the wrenching dislocation due to Partition has never been sufficiently acknowledged or memorialized by either country. For example, there are no museums documenting the period. There has thus been no attempt at a collective catharsis. The resentment between the two countries thus festers and is indeed intensified after every outrageous act of violence.

Elsewhere Vassanji describes talking over tea with an elderly and humane couple, the wife a painter and the husband a famous Hindu writer. The quiet and spacious setting in which Vassanji finds himself is in stark contrast to the images of dense streets and cities with which we associate India. Before long the discussion settles on the familiar themes of communal violence and the cynicism among India’s rulers. Both scenes call to mind the theme that binds together the book’s disparate parts. To use Vassanji’s own term, in India one must prepare for the darkness even amidst the country’s ‘warm embrace.’


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