Category: Omnium-Gatherum

“I’m thankful to the people who made my life miserable”

Katalin Karikó said that when she won a Gairdner Award in 2022 for co-discovering the foundations of mRNA vaccines, which have saved millions and maybe even billions of us from dying of COVID.

On the bell curve of grit and redemption, it’s hard to find a more exemplary case than the Hungarian immigrant woman who was treated shabbily for years by her employer, the University of Pennsylvania, and last year ended up winning The Nobel Prize.

The search for new truths in science is possibly the hardest search of all, because the bar of evidence is so high.

Read on…

Death-Defying Denial

I had a bad stammer as a teen. And to this day, whenever I’m around a person who has a stammer, I start to stammer a little myself.

So when I saw Joe Biden acting his age in the debate last week, I started to feel very old. My mouth wasn’t agape, but I’m almost sure my voice grew hoarse the next day, my gait slowed, and my memory skipped a beat, as did my heart.

Maybe I was just depressed for the future and angry at how Biden’s staff and family had hidden his condition so well. Watching how Trump and Biden left their podiums after the debate told the whole sorry tale.

Most of us believed that White House aides are constantly assessing the President’s fitness to serve and preparing multiple scenarios for his running in November depending on his strength or frailty. In fact, this assumption is so universal that, like breathing, no one would even think to raise their hand and ask if it was true.

But after the debate, The New York Times did ask just that. Then Dan Gardner compared the stupidity of pitting Biden against Trump in an open debate to that of the planners of the Bay of Pigs invasion back in 1961. It called for CIA-trained soldiers to land on the Cuban coastline, make their way inland and overwhelm Fidel Castro’s regime.

Read on…

“More immigrants, more restaurants”

The New York Times’ food critic Sam Sifton blurted that out at a Toronto symposium back in 2018 when he chaired a panel with three Syrian refugees, all of whom were in the food business.

Sam was comparing Canada’s role in immigration to America’s where, in those mid-Trump years, “immigrant” was a loaded word, as it is now in the run-up to what could be the Trump II era. Back then, Canada took in as many refugees as America, a country with ten times the number of people. So Sam was happy to tout immigrants as a universal solvent here in Canada instead of the universal problem they seemed to be elsewhere back then – and are viewed as today.

But if a week is an infinity in politics, four years is…an infinity to the power of infinity.

Today, a record 55% of Americans view large numbers of immigrants entering the US illegally as a critical threat to the US’s vital interests. In Canada, the issue isn’t illegal immigrants; it’s immigrants, period. 

Not Novelty Seeking

I was on a flight home from Frankfurt last week playing with one of the things Air Canada got right: its storehouse of movies you can watch for 8 solid hours. But rather than try to find a new first-run film I’d never seen, which all looked like lighter-than-air objects, fluffy and predictable, I did the opposite.

I went on the hunt for my favourite old movies, like Bonnie & Clyde and Catch Me If You Can and Dog Day Afternoon and Field of Dreams, Gladiator, and A Few Good Men. I didn’t want to see these faves in their entirety; I just wanted to see my favourite parts, the scenes whose action and dialogue will forever be imprinted in my brain.

Like when Bonnie and Clyde die in a hail of bullets.

When FBI agent Tom Hanks catches up to fake-pilot Leonardo di Caprio and says: “Nobody’s chasing you.”

When bank robber Al Pacino says: “Kiss me….When I’m being fucked, I like to get kissed.” 

When dreamer Kevin Costner hears: “If you build it, they will come.”

When gladiator Russell Crowe says: “My name is Maximus.”

And of course when Marine Colonel Jack Nicholson says to Tom Cruise: “You can’t handle the truth.”

I enjoyed my tour of great scenes from memorable movies enormously.

Rummaging around in these old scenes, and who I was when I first watched them, was new for me. It was much much more fun than trying to focus on the thin gruel of bot-like dialogue and stick-man actions in so many new films.

Treason isn’t what it used to be

No matter which parliamentarians, if any, are exposed for sleeping with the enemy, the penalty for doing that has changed drastically.

It used to be death.

Indeed, Canada’s National Defence Act prescribed the death penalty for treason until 1999, although no military executions had been carried out since 1946. In the US, the last American convicted of treason and hanged in 1862 was William Bruce Mumford for tearing down a United States flag during the Civil War. And in Britain, the last person executed for treason was William Joyce, also known as Lord Haw-Haw. He was hanged in 1946 for his Nazi propaganda broadcasts in World War II.

But today, just as the meaning of treason has changed, so too has the punishment for it.

Spies and collaborators used to betray their countries for money, ideology or resentment.

Read on…

Remember when a night in a decent hotel cost less than a new car?

Two years ago, I got my first whiff that hotels cost staggeringly more than they did before the pandemic.

Some American friends were coming to Toronto for a family event in 2022. I said I’d cover their two nights here and set about booking a mid-price hotel. All I could get was the Delta Chelsea Inn in downtown Toronto, by no means five-star, for $500 a night.

That was nothing. Today, global hotel rates are like Toronto housing prices.

The big issue is supply and demand. Millions more of us are breaking free not just from our homes to travel, but from our home and native lands.

This is especially true with luxury hotels. As this week’s Air Mail points out: “The rich are continuing to get richer, and there are many, many more of them. Today, according to Statista, there are 59 million millionaires on the planet; in 2000, there were only 15 million.”

I remember growing up in Edmonton where my father had a flower shop in the Fairmont Hotel  Macdonald. One night, a wholesaler took a display room at the hotel and invited my dad up to see his wares. All I remember is that the room cost $80 a night. Ever since then, I’ve used $80 a night as my baseline for what a luxury hotel room should cost. I know that makes no sense. It was 65 years ago. But we all carry these childhood markers for value, just as I search in vain today for bacon and eggs and coffee for $5.

Today, the cheapest room at the Royal York in Toronto costs $957 per night, while the Four Seasons is $875. The Chateau Lake Louise is $1,427 and the Fogo Island Inn is $2,875.

Last to survive

“Last to Die” is a form of life insurance, like its cousin “First to Die”.

But with people dying much later in life (if you’re a baby girl born this morning in Toronto, the chances of you living to be 100 are 1 in 3), I’d like to expand the idea of “Last to Die” beyond life insurance into a cash award called “Last to Survive.”

It can be for any group of people bound together not by blood, but by camaraderie and interest, and “it” can be a joint savings account, mutual fund, or other recognized financial vehicle: that is, anything you can contribute to over time.

Many of life’s most tight-knit groups form when we’re young. High school and university friends. Sports team. Military buddies. Sorority sisters. Political interns. Biker gangs. String quartets. Sous Chefs. Knitting groups. Book clubs. Jewel thieves. Big brass bands.

All it takes is a 50th reunion to remind you just how enduring those bonds are and how regret tinges our memories for not having made them stronger before now. And now, hell, everyone’s getting sick and dying. Okay, not everyone. But when you’re 74 like me, it feels that way, especially for our friends whose old age is not their golden years but their tin cup ones. 

Some of us boast morbidly that our retirement plan is Lotto 649. But the odds of any of us actually winning that jackpot are 1 in 14 million. The entire population of Ontario is around that. So, no, you won’t win.

Read on…

Walking by cars on a sunny evening.

I used to walk from “A” to “B” in downtown Toronto to feel good about myself. Clocking 10,000 steps on my FitBit; finding delightful new alleyways and shortcuts; neither spending money nor polluting the world; all these gave my steps an extra lift.

That’s all changed now, and for the better.

This summer Toronto’s traffic congestion will be something the city itself perpetually strives for and fails to be: world-class. Indeed, it’s already on the podium. Last year Toronto ranked 7th among the worst cities in the world for traffic congestion, just below New York and Bogota.

This happened because City Hall and Queen’s Park banded together (a rare thing) and green-lighted the annual pothole repair work, lane widening, lane narrowing, and bike-lane building that turns every summer into a driver’s nightmare.

AND they decided to dig up Queen Street West and East at the same time.  

AND do major repairs to the Gardiner (through to 2027). 

AND build the Ontario Line, a major new subway that runs through gobs of blocks of downtown. 

Read on…

Our exits and our entrances.

One great lesson the pandemic taught us is how to buy everything online. I take great pride that, just by typing a few keys, a world of goods and services can land at my door.

But last weekend when Jean and I wanted to see The Fall Guy, with Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt. I discovered that, despite being in movie theatres for an entire two days, the film still wasn’t available online. Not Netflix. Not Prime. Not even Cineplex.com, in whose theatres it was playing.

WTF.

So I was doubly annoyed when I logged on to buy two seniors’ tickets to actually go to the theatre, something I haven’t done in two years, and discovered I couldn’t buy those tickets online because I kept keying in the wrong password, then got locked out after the third try, then when I tried to open a new account, was told that another account already exists with that same username.

Arrrrghh.

But hold on, I thought. We live two blocks from the Varsity Cinema in the Manulife Centre at Bay and Bloor in Toronto.

I could…..walk to the theatre, buy the tickets and be home in 10 minutes.

During that walk, my thoughts naturally turned to growing old and dying.

True, I’ve trained myself to stay fluent online. I walk my 10,000 steps each day. I even use AI every day! But my memory is a sieve, and growing sieve-ier every day.

Read on…

Air Apparent

Back in 2019 when newspapers were made of paper, I would take part in an annual ritual of disbelief: I’d turn the page of The Globe and Mail and there would be a full-page ad for Air Canada congratulating itself for being voted the Best Airline in North America.

I would quickly check to see if it was April 1st. Then I would read the small print to find out who gave them the award for four consecutive years from 2019 to 2022.

It’s a magazine called Global Traveler for “U.S.-based frequent, affluent travellers”. It claims the  average Global Traveler reader has a net worth of $2.8 million. Yes, Air Canada’s business class is….respectable. But the Best in all Classes in North America? Puleeeeze.

True, this was before Air Canada reduced its routes; slashed the value of Aeroplan Miles; made spontaneously cancelling flights a sunny-day activity; amped fares; admitted its Montreal-based CEO, Michael Rousseau, can’t speak French; saw customer complaints to Ottawa rise from 18,000 in 2020 to 30,000 in 2022, then 57,000 last year; fought to avoid offering refunds if a flight failed to take off; and claimed its own chatbot was “a separate legal entity that is responsible for its own actions;” before all this, Canadians had a love-hate relationship with our national airline.

Read on…

Gold for Gould.

The philanthropist Arthur Labatt noted that Canada has so few institutions that can stand up straight on a global podium, we need to do everything we can to ensure they survive.

Last week’s budget offered one of those institutions that chance. Ottawa gave The Glenn Gould Foundation $12 million.

Even though the Toronto concert pianist Glenn Gould died 42 years ago at the age of 50, his name shines brightly the world over – not in spite of his many quirks and eccentricities, but likely because of them. He loved recordings and hated live audiences (and told them so); he wore mittens in hot recording studios; and he hummed loudly while he played. But his genius at interpreting composers like Bach; his unyielding sense of what’s musically right (which caused even the mighty Leonard Bernstein to back down); and his album cover notes which codified his views on the future of music – make him 92 years after his birth a very big planet indeed.

Indeed, in the galaxy of music, Gould remains a god. When the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performed in Toronto, he would go to Gould’s gravesite in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery to pay his respects.

Read on…

Women, enter stage left.

I hosted a RamsayTalk last week about AI.

Nothing new there. The world is awash in AI pundits, AI books, and AI doom and rapture.

What was new is that the speaker and author of AI Needs You, a big important book about AI, is a woman. Indeed, Verity Harding is the woman in the arena when it comes to tech’s latest save-the-world-end-the-world invention.

I asked her a couple of months ago who she would like to interview her from the stage, and instantly she said: Diana Fox Carney.

So there were 325 of us in the Bader Theatre last Wednesday watching two deeply expert and authoritative women discuss the prospects of an industry almost totally dominated by men.

Read on…

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