Tuesday, 21 October 2008


Quebec is the French part of Canada. It hasn't made money in decades, which is immediately obvious by the number of potholes after crossing state lines. The province is the second-largest (7.7m to Ontario's 12m) and Montreal is Canada's second city with about half of Quebec's population.

The leaves are changing in North America, and every tree is a different autumnal tone. The crowded, leafy forests, in summer uniformly forest green, fade in warm fall colours.

Montreal used to have money, but Quebec's separatist rumblings scared off major companies. The 1976 Olympics were Montreal's last attempt at greatness; unfortunately, despite having more athletes than any country but USA and USSR, Canada failed to win a single gold medal.
The streets are aggressively historical, with gap-toothed cobbles lining the Old Montreal part of the city and barkers promoting restaurants in the light rain. Chinese convenience store owners speak pragmatic French. I visited two lesser cathedrals by accident before finally getting to Notre Dame.

The leaves must drop away:
And yet it were a greater grief
To watch it withering, leaf by leaf,
Than see it pluck'd to-day;
Since earthly eye but ill can bear
To trace the change to foul from fair.
-- Byron

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Thanksgiving Report

Cranberry Sauce: 5/10. Not particularly surprising. I demand a certain level of alarm in my berry experiences.
Turkey: 4/10. Tastes like interracial chicken.
Pumpkin pie: 8/10. Tastes nothing like pumpkin. In fact, is sweet and flat, much like Billy Corgan when you really get to know him.
Yams: 5/10. The potato equivalent of shrunken human heads.
Pecan pie: 3/10. Seemed like a sugar reduction with tiny bicycle helmets sprinkling on top.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Stock Markets: Perspective

This is a graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the last three months.
It went mostly down.

This is a graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the last 20 years.
It went mostly up.

There's a lot more money and real wealth in the world in 2008 than at any point in history.
People affected by the current hue and cry won't be taking a Grapes of Wrath odyssey anytime soon.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Yeah, But How Far Is That Away?

Below is a map of North America and New Zealand side by side. The red dots are Toronto and Montreal; the blue dots are Boston, New York, and Chicago. If you don't know which are which, you need to learn a little more about the world. Do it now. I'll wait.

I'll be visiting Montreal next week, after Canadian Thanksgiving (which not only comes much earlier in the year than American Thanksgiving, but preceded it historically). The drive is about five or six hours, which by Canadian standards is like popping down to the shops for some milk.

As you can see, New York and Boston are a similar distance, but Chicago takes about nine hours to get to. No other cities worth a damn are anywhere nearby (sorry, Scranton, Pennsylvania).

You may notice the vast blank space north of Toronto. This is filled with Nature, red in tooth and claw, and with Canadians who over-pronounce their vowels and bathe monthly, if only to avoid being rutted by bull moose. The area contains snow, squirrels, trees, good clean honest livin', and other things that you can't sell on the international commodities market. I have no plans to see this part of Canada without a snowmobile, a pair of skis, and a Saint Bernard weighed down with a small flotilla of brandy.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Two Americas

The chart below (click for full size) lists American states by average IQ and highlights red for Bush in 2004, blue for John Kerry:

In the last decade, America has been clearly divided along urban/rural lines, and between populated coastal areas and sparse flyover states. While it was suspected there was an intelligence difference, it has never been shown in such a clear way.

What does IQ measure? According to Malcolm Gladwell, it shows how modern someone's mind is. This is demonstrated by rapid improvements in IQ scores in developing countries and in pre- and post-socialised immigrants, out of proportion with education funding. It also explains why African nations, among others, test so poorly.
Gladwell offers answers which are right in one context while wrong in another, to the question "How are dogs and rabbits similar?" A modern mind would volunteer that they were both mammals. A pre-industrial mind might say that a dog hunts a rabbit.
Another complication with IQ tests is that they must fit a bell curve. If everyone starts doing better, on average, then what '100 IQ' means has changed and the bell curve takes one step to the right. And we are doing better. IQ rises in OECD nations by an average of 10 points a decade, and is re-normed for the population's new average.

Does this mean that Mississippians aren't uneducated, knee-jerk hillbillies?
Not really. This is the state flag:

Can you really tell a state who retain a failed 1863 rebel insignia that their thinking isn't modern enough? The conservative culture in parts of America encourages a wholesale rejection of the kind of thinking which creates high IQ scores. The Republican Party taps into this culture while the Democratic Party does not (despite having a lock on the deep South until just 50 years ago). Whether this is cynical pandering or representation by verisimilitude is probably a question best left unanswered.

So the bad news is that much of America really is unapologetically stupid. The good news is that, by the law of averages, they're getting almost four IQ points less stupid every election. Let's hope that four points is enough this time.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Seven degrees

The weather has begun to turn. The icy northern wind blew yesterday, bringing the first flakes of snow and lowering the temperature ten degrees in one day. Summer is dead; the ground will harden; ice will crack pipes and line sidewalks; there will be no more miniskirts. Homeless people will begin to wear shoes. Casual smokers will quit rather than quake in doorside no-man's-land. A fine day will be as unpalatable outdoors as a heavy downpour, commuters bustling and bobbing in the refrigerated air, and lingering for another sip at Tim Horton's. Clumps of dirty ice will trail into buildings, pools will form by elevators, failed umbrellas will protude wetly from trashcans. Geese will honk overhead, squirrels will form trails in the snow, dogs will emerge happily from drifts as pontooned clouds. Snow will pyramid perilously against buildings and the opening of every door brings with it the intrusion of chill nature on warm community, for winter is here in Toronto.