[Note 2019:  I was recently forced to port my website to a new format, and all of the internal links were broken.  I might fix them eventually, but those that link to another part of the same page are lowest priority.  This page has a lot of them.]

Postings:


Posted 2006/05/10

Table of Contents for today’s posting

Don’t call 911

Loren and I were walking past the corner of Bloor St. and Walmer Rd. in Toronto. Several people were gathered around a not-very-clean-looking man who was sprawled out on his back. Most of him was on the sidewalk, but his head was tilted back into the gutter. A woman was tending to him, but he appeared nonresponsive. Several of what appeared to be DVD boxes were near his head. Another woman was heading into the adjacent drugstore to get help, but her friend told her not to bother when she saw me get out my mobile phone. I asked, “Is it [the emergency number] 911 up here?”

The woman tending to the sprawled-out man said, “Don’t call 911”.

Then the man himself mumbled, “Don’t call 911”. When I didn’t put down my phone, he said, “Jesus H. Christ, don’t call 911.” Then he stood up. As we started to continue on our way, he said, “Wait wait wait, don’t go away. Let me tell you a joke.”

“No thanks”, said Loren, and off we went.

Trouble at the border

During my time in Toronto, I have made many visits back to the States, and so have enjoyed numerous dealings with the two nations’ border guards, whose grumpiness level fluctuates wildly according to no discernable pattern.

At immigration at Pearson Airport, I was asked the following questions:

  • Why you coming to Canada? [I’m working temporarily at the University of Toronto.]
  • What you doing there? [I am teaching a course.]
  • What course? [Linear algebra.]
  • Are you easy professor? [I just laughed. Had I told her the truth, would she have let me in the country?]

Later, I told my students that at least the border guards are looking out for them.

Canada: We Care

A woman approaches the bus driver at the airport. “I’m not familiar with the transit system here. Can you tell me how to get to Oshawa?” The driver patiently describes a method for getting there, the first step of which was to ride his bus. “Do you require exact change? I only have a five.” “Sorry, I don’t have any change.”

Then all of the passengers start searching their pockets, and someone has change.

In Chicago, at least in the ’90s, the response (from the driver, not the passengers) would have been: “Lady, get off the bus!”

That’s harrassment!

Waiting for the streetcar:

  • Have you ever had a streetcar driver refuse to let you on?
  • No.
  • Because that happened to me they shouldn’t discriminate like that but there are a lot of stupid people in the world. If you had a car and you had a friend who needed a ride you’d give him one, right?
  • Yeah.
  • Well not everyone would but there are a lot of mean people in the world. I say if your friends are like that then to hell with them they’re not your friends anymore, right?
  • [Shrug]
  • Have you ever had a problem downtown where people just come up to you and talk to you?
  • Sometimes.
  • Well once my phone’s charged up again I’m going to call the police. That’s harrassment!
  • Here comes our streetcar.

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Posted 2006/05/27

Table of Contents for today’s posting

Murder Rate

I recently had dinner with my friend Kevin. He had invited along his best friend because the latter had had a “bad day”. What was so bad? One of his ten-year-old students had been slightly injured the previous day in an unsuccessful attempt to stop his mother’s boyfriend from killing her with a knife. Then he had taken his three-year-old brother to the neighbors.

Not only would he now need a funeral suit, but because his house was a crime scene, all of his regular clothes were temporarily inaccessible. Teacher and student had thus spent part of the day buying clothes.

The case was a sensation in the local papers, not only because of the specific details, but because murder is relatively rare here. This one was only the 18th this year in Toronto (the city, not the metropolitan area). There’s a local perception that the murder rate is growing. Just how bad is it here?

In 2004, Canada had 1.9 murders per 100,000 people, several times lower than the U.S. rate. A similar comparison holds for other violent crimes, at least for those crimes for which comparisons are possible.

However, Canada has a slightly higher rate of crimes against property. Since such crimes vastly outnumber violent crimes, you can add everything up and claim that Canada has a higher “crime rate”. You can further spice up your claim by comparing rates for crimes that are defined differently on both sides of the border.

Of course, that would be lying. But some pundits are courageous enough to think outside the box, even the box of truth.

Naively, you would think that the murder rate would be highest in the largest cities, but this is not true at all. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has a lower 2004 murder rate than many other major (and minor) Canadian cities, including all major cities in the prairies and the west. What’s more surprising is that Toronto has a lower murder rate than each province west of Ontario. (Reference: Statistics Canada.)

Moreover, by this measure, Toronto is safer than every major city in Ohio, including Akron. Toronto is safer than the United States taken as a whole (Reference: FBI.) So far, I’ve only been able to find one American city whose murder rate is lower than Toronto’s: Virginia Beach.

But has the murder rate here increased? Yes. Toronto’s 30-year low was in 2003, so of course the rate has increased since then.

Other Crimes

I lived up here for two years in the ’90s, and recently bumped into an acquaintance from that time. Like me, he has had a few foreign adventures since then. I already knew that he had spent some of the intervening years in one of the Persian Gulf states, and so hadn’t expected to see him at all. However, it turns out that he left that country in a hurry after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

For what crime?

His answer: Fraud. Interestingly, he made no claim of innocence.

Jane Jacobs 1: Cities

Jane Jacobs, one of the more famous residents of my Toronto neighborhood, died April 24, just shy of her 90th birthday. In addition to the local papers, both the New York Times and The Economist carried obituaries, the latter calling her an “anatomiser of cities”. For a three-word description, this ain’t bad.

Jacobs managed to overturn the conventional views of how cities actually develop. Her theories were based on real-life observations and voracious reading. Instead of low density, wide open spaces, shiny new buildings, boulevards, and highways, she promoted, high density, short blocks, connections between neighborhoods, vibrant markets, and mixed-use development.

Because she inspired a generation of planners and developers, you can find her influence in many cities. It is partly her doing that New York’s Greenwich Village and Chinatown were not destroyed by a highway. Ditto for Toronto’s Chinatown and Annex. Today, these are all centers of activity.

Growing up, I formed a view of urban development that was totally divorced from any actual urban experience. Not surprisingly, it matched the conventional urban planning wisdom from the ’40s and ’50s. Renewal projects from that era were designed to produce cities that would be ideal for strange, idealized people. But how many of these projects were successes? I can’t think of any.

Hyde Park, my former neighborhood in Chicago, suffered through limited urban renewal in the ’50s. This consisted of clearing out lots of viable but “dirty” businesses (like bars and jazz clubs), and replacing them with open space and low-density housing. As a fellow grad student put it, they did the “urban”, but forgot about the “renewal”. Only in the ’90s did the neighborhood start recovering from the devastation.

Jacobs first came to my attention in the summer of 1987 when John Gerth (thank you!), one of my coworkers at IBM, pointed me to her then-most-recent book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations. What an eye-opener! For example, she starts by asserting that cities arose before rural development occurred, which sounds preposterous if you haven’t had a chance to think about it. Then she proceeds to back this up remarkably well.

Next, she describes in great detail how wealth is created in practice, and some of the ways in which it is destroyed.

I once gave a signed copy of one of her books to my brother Jack, who is in a business that is tangentially related to property development. To get the signature, I called Jacobs up on the phone, asked if she could sign a book, and she said to come on over. If you know me, you know that I was acting wildly out of character. That’s how much I liked her books. Jack apparently appreciated the gift. In a phone message, he said that he would put it in his “canon”. Of course, perhaps he actually said “cannon”, which would mean something else.

Since as an academic I have a financial interest in people’s desire to earn academic credentials, I am duty bound to point out that Jacobs had none, a status that she maintained by turning down all honorary degrees.

More information about the work of Jane Jacobs is available at the Ideas That Matter website, and probably lots of other places, too.

Jane Jacobs 2: Changing one’s mind

I often think of Jane Jacobs even when I’m not thinking about urban development. Since I’ve completely changed my mind concerning how cities work, have I changed my mind on other matters, too?

At the age of about 30, I made a list of matters about which I’d changed my mind since age 16, an exercise that I can recommend. I was surprised and delighted by the results (which I still have, but won’t post). Delighted, because they suggested that I had actually learned something over the years.

There are several lessons I can take.

  • My knowledge of the world tends to increase over time, but not monotonically. Meanwhile my ignorance also increases, but faster, and monotonically. Putting these together, I conclude that my world is expanding.
  • Having been wrong before, I should temper whatever opinions I have now. Except for this one.

Games

Back when I used to live up here, I joined a ScrabbleTM group. For some reason, I never won, and considered it a moral victory if I didn’t come in last place. But I kept going, because the hosts and the rest of the group were so friendly, and still pop in when I’m in town.

It wasn’t until I moved away that I really learned against whom I was playing. Several players travel long distances to compete in tournaments, and one of them puts together the Saturday crossword for Canada’s most important newspaper. Oops.

One of the guys was recently on Jeopardy. He’s not allowed to say how he did until the episode airs on June 26, but I’m optimistic. Let’s wish him luck. [Updated: see the endnote.]

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Posted 2006/06/23 [but composed, at least in rough form, when I was still in Toronto]

Table of Contents for today’s posting

Don’t spread yourself too thin

One of my problems is that too many interesting professional opportunities come my way, and I don’t say “No” often enough. The technical term for this is “sluttiness”.

But consider Kevin. He is a radiologist who works part time so that he can take classes at the university. This past term, that meant English grammar, Spanish, and German. And on the side, singing. After he saw that I was teaching linear algebra, he looked through the textbook, asked me a few technical questions, and threatened to take the course next fall. Knowing what he was in for, I suggested that he not spread himself too thin.

The next time I saw him, he said, “I took your advice”. He was now studying out of a German grammar book written in Spanish.

Corruption: Low level

Jonathan and I both have trouble getting out in the morning, and both could use some more exercise. He suggested a healthy routine for this spring: we could go swimming together in the morning. Since the pool at the athletic center closes to the public at 9, we’d have to show up at 8.

I suggested an alternative. Instead of swimming at 8, how about coffee at 11? He readily agreed, and this is what we did most weekdays, at least when I was in town.

But that’s not the kind of corruption I mean.

One morning, the following happened at the next table over in the coffee shop.

A young man and woman, both of whom appeared to be from the horn of Africa, showed up separately and sat down together. A few minutes later they were joined by an early-twenties white guy in a suit. It was clear that the woman was arranging an introduction between the two men.

The details of what happened next are a bit sketchy, since I’m not a natural eavesdropper.

Apparently, the black man is an aspiring rapper who comes from Somalia via Kenya. The white man spoke of his dream of being a music producer, and so I thought that this was the reason for their meeting.

How naive.

Soon, Mr. Suit was saying, “How would you like to be financially free? Being financially free means that you have a monthly income that’s sufficient to satisfy your basic needs, and you receive this income whether or not you do anything.”

When was the last time you heard someone present a legitimate business opportunity by talking about how nice it would be to be rich? I thought so.

Continuing: “Think about how much money you would need every month in order to be financially free, and when you want this to happen. Then we can calculate how much money you need to save up, and how soon.”

I didn’t hear Mr. Rapper’s response, but the upshot was that in order to achieve his goals, he’d need to accumulate $400,000 in one year. At this point, I would have advised him to adjust his goals. Guess I don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit. Fortunately, Mr. Suit does, and so he started discussing a plan for meeting the goal.

During all this time, Jonathan and I were continuing our conversation, but at a slow enough pace to facilitate eavesdropping. It wasn’t easy.

The plan seemed to involve selling pet foods and a variety of other products and, more importantly, recruiting other people to sell ditto.

At first, Mr. Rapper seemed willfully clueless. “You mean I have to buy lots of pet food?” At the very least, he was not showing proper enthusiasm.

About 15 minutes or so in the presentation, Mr. Suit said that while everything they’d discussed so far was public knowledge, further business details were secret, and he could only reveal them if Mr. Rapper signed a nondisclosure agreement.

Mr. Rapper declined, and left. I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell him “Mazel Tov”, even though we were in the Jewish Community Center.

His woman friend apologized to Mr. Suit for wasting his time. But he didn’t mind. Some people understand when opportunity is knocking, but Mr. Rapper isn’t one of them. “When you’re making a ton of money, he’s going to ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this?’ and you can say, ‘I did!'”

Corruption: Medium level

While I’ve been on the road, one of my high school classmates has served six months in a federal prison for forging a judge’s signature. He’s out now, but is charged with conspiracy, mail fraud, and money laundering in connection with an alleged scheme to bribe a public official. Separately, he stands accusted of defrauding 20 legal clients out of their settlements. His trial is scheduled for July 21. [Updated: see the endnote.]

But this has nothing to do with my story.

Corruption: Medium level, but on topic this time

The night before I left Toronto, I had dinner with X and Y. Y is the research coordinator for Dr. Z, who has a private practice and also works out of a major hospital.

I won’t reveal Dr. Z’s specialty here. But the nature of it is such that he sometimes has the ability to improve his patients’ quality of life dramatically. Despite the fact that the treatments he performs are routine, he is seen as something of a bigwig in the field, and so he has many patients, some of whom are wealthy. Some of them remember Dr. Z in their wills. Not the hospital or the lab, but Dr. Z personally. He does not discourage this.

Dr. Z is very good at bringing in research money. Sometimes, he can acquire a multi-year, multimillion-dollar grant without even applying for it.

Most of Dr. Z’s research is sponsored and designed by drug companies. Thus, in a sense, this is not Dr. Z’s research at all, and he is a contractor for his sponsors, giving a patina of independence to work that they could have done in house.

We’ve heard stories of doctors who prefer to prescribe products of the companies who have given them the most freebies. In the case of Dr. Z, this can get extreme. He once refused to prescribe the competitor’s product even though, because of distributional difficulties, his favored company’s product wasn’t even available. His patients just had to do without.

Recently, he was offered several tens of thousands of dollars to put his name on an article that he had no hand in writing. This is apparently not uncommon. Y is convinced that Dr. Z turned down the opportunity only because Y was right there in the room.

Should Y blow the whistle? There’s no point, since these practices are too widespread. Instead, he’s looking for another job.

But then, we’re in Canada. I’m sure that none of this happens in the U.S.A.

Wrapping up

This round of travels has ended, and I have returned to Akron to work for an undergraduate research program. Since I am not a blogger or a diarist, this particular travel log will end, too. Perhaps I’ll add some endnotes if anyone corrects or clarifies something I’ve written above. But that’s it. Thanks for reading this far.

In the summer of 2005, before I started this trip, I was not able to find a subletter for my apartment, and so had to give it up. Thus, in a narrow, technical sense, I have been homeless. But now I have found a new apartment… in the same building as my old one. Same floor. Next door. Having gone around the world, I am back where I started.

It reminds me of those late-night infomercials featuring testimonials like:

“It turned my life around 360 degrees!”[Return to top]


Endnotes

  1. Mark won the first two days, and lost on the third. Not bad! [Return to main text.]
  2. The trial was delayed until October 30, but my former classmate did not show up. A warrant has been issued for his arrest. As of this writing [14 Dec 2006], he’s on the run. [Return to main text.]