Archive for March, 2012

Americans Have Penny Envy Of Canada

- March 30th, 2012

penny

 

 

Who knew it would be so easy to get rid of the damned penny?

 

All the Wizard of O’Connor Street had to do was wave his pudgy hand in a federal budget speech and — poof! — the nasty, useless little dingus disappeared. Or will within the year.

 

Americans look at such a bold act of rationality in awe: Some enlightened members of the U.S. Congress have been trying to get rid of their cursed penny since the 1980s without success.

 

Although poll after poll shows most Americans would love to ditch the penny, their wishes have constantly been stymied by a well-organized lobby led by Jarden Zinc Products which (not surprisingly) supplies the U.S. Mint with the zinc alloy blanks it uses to make penny coins and by Coinstar, the company with all those coin-counting machines in grocery stores (because half the 40 billion coins the company processes — and makes a profit on — every year are pennies).

 

But Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did it in a flash. And America noticed.

 

The punched-out penny was just about the only part of Thursday’s Ottawa budget that got any mention in U.S. national media.

 

The New York Times, after devoting 10 paragraphs to the Canadian penny’s demise, then took two — count ‘em, two! — paragraphs to summarize the rest of the budget:

 

“Mr. Flaherty, a Conservative, said that his budget measures would reduce the government’s spending by 5.2 billion Canadian dollars over three years. The cuts include eliminating 19,200 government jobs, less than the government’s critics had anticipated but not as great as many conservatives wanted to see.

“The budget also provides for the retirement age to rise to 67 from 65, in 2023.”

CNN, Fox News, the Washington Post and the rest of the usual suspects were all pretty much on the same wavelength.

For his next budget, Flaherty will hopefully KO the nickel too — although that carries a little more emotional baggage for Canadians, the Big Nickel in Sudbury and all. But the nickel isn’t made of nickel any more than the penny is made of copper and the nickel costs the Mint — ergo the taxpayer — even more than the penny to produce.

And it’s not as if we would be hamstrung in our daily financial transactions.

One cent in 1940 had about the same purchasing power as 25 cents has today. In other words, consumers in 1940 got along just fine without the equivalent of today’s penny, nickel AND dime.

It’s not as if we’re trail-breakers in this regard either.

New Zealand ditched its one-cent and two-cent coins in 1989, went to the one-dollar and two-dollar-coin in 1991 and got rid of its five-cent coin in 2006 while drastically reducing the size and weight of its 10-cent, 20-cent and 50-cent coins at the same time.

(A New Zealand dollar is currently worth 81 cents Canadian, so there’s not a big difference in terms of impact on the consumer.)

So let’s get on with the job and dump the nickel too, rounding out every cash purchase to the nearest decimal point.

Personally, I’d like to go even further because I hate those slippery, slivery, silvery, teensy, weensy, slip-through-your-fingers-and-pocket-holes dimes.

Down with dimes, says I.

Unless, of course, they bring back 10-cent-a-glass draught beer in pubs.

BTW, here’s a link to a wonderful 2008 New Yorker magazine article that will tell you far more than you thought you wanted to know about the awful penny (American-style).

 

The Most Expensive Hearse In The World

- March 29th, 2012

 

Well, that’s what the guys who make it claim.

 

I’m not going to show you “the most expensive hearse in the world” right away because, frankly, it’s a let-down. The vehicle you imagine in your mind is a far more exciting and out-of-this-world ultra-hearse than the real thing.

 

The so-called “most expensive hearse in the world” was unveiled last weekend at the Tanexpo international  funeral home show in Bologna, Italia.

 

Designed and custom built by Biemme SpecialCars SRL  of Parma (yes, the Italian company has a sort-of-English name), the B12 Phantom hearse is based on the chassis and powertrain of a Rolls-Royce Phantom four-door extended-wheelbase limousine.

 

That’s one of the Rollers you see Queen Elizabeth puttering around in. But of course the Queen wouldn’t be seen dead in a B12 Phantom hearse: When she finally goes, she’ll get the black-silk-draped royal gun carriage drawn by six black horses (or maybe eight for the Queen since Diana got six) with black ostrich-feather pom-poms on their heads.

diana-funeral

(As a completely off-track aside, the funereal gun carriage for the Queen’s father, George VI, was drawn by 96 Royal Navy sailors. But then George always considered himself first and foremost a naval officer; Elizabeth’s more the horsey type.)

GeorgeVI-funeral

 

Back to the Rolls-Royce B12 Phantom hearse that’s good enough for us commoners:

 

It’s powered by the Phantom’s standard (if you can call anything about a RR Phantom “standard”) 6.75-litre V12 engine with self-levelling air suspension. It’s got a six-speed automatic transmission with gear lever on the steering column, according to Biemme.

 

And that’s about where the commonality between the hearse and a Phantom limo ends (apart from the fact that the hearse keeps the limo’s four doors — including the back rear-opening “suicide doors”).

 

The B12 Phantom hearse is 701 cm (23 feet) long, almost a metre longer than the extended-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom limousine. And the entire body of the hearse is made of hand-crafted aluminum with more than 600 assembled parts.

 

So now, after all this buildup, I’m going to show you pictures of “the world’s most expensive hearse.”

 

rolls-hearse-1

 

See, it’s not really such a big deal, is it?

 

Especially when you consider the price — “more than half a million Euros,” according to the company. That’s about $700,000 in Canadian (or American) money.

 

Let’s take a look inside and see what you get for $700,000.

 

rolls-hearse-2

 

Not much really.

 

The coffin compartment measures 234x92x90 cm — that’s about 7.6 feet long, three feet high and three feet wide. Yao Ming would just fit in — but not his coffin. And the King of Tonga (I’m talking about old Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, of course) would barely squeeze through the back door.

 

And those blue lights you see inside? LEDs, to give the whole experience an ethereal, heavenly glow. Baby’s in black and I’m feeling blue.

 

So, as I said, not much for $700,000 when you consider this is your last ride — ever.

 

You might get a splashier — and more cost-efficient — sendoff in one of these Harley-Davidson motorcycle hearses.

 

harley_davidson_hearse_funeral

The top one is designed by German Joerg Grossman and sells for 60,000 Euros (about $80,000 Canadian). Grossman says he currently has orders for 10. The bottom one, costing about $100,000, was custom-designed for a funeral home on Long Island, New York.

harley-hearse_12

 

But if I have to make the last ride in a hearse, I’d prefer this one.

 

JFKhearse-2

I know it’s a little morbid, but this is the Cadillac hearse that carried President John F. Kennedy’s body to Air Force One at Love Field from Parkland Memorial Hospital after he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963 (by LBJ, the CIA, the Mafia and the military-industrial complex, if memory serves).

JFK-1963

It was sold at auction in January for $176,000 to Stephen Tebo, a Colorado real estate developer, after being in the private collection of a Texas funeral director for four decades.

 

Tebo’s one of these car nuts whose collection includes vehicles like a 1965 Rolls-Royce custom built for John Lennon and a mock-up taxi from the Seinfeld TV show.

 

And, come to think of it, the Kennedy Cadillac could have been  “the most expensive hearse in the world.”

 

Tebo told the Associated Press he wasn’t even planning to bid on it when the hearse went on the auction block in Dallas on Jan. 21: He expected the final bid would be somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 — potentially more than Biemme’s $700,000 B12 Phantom hearse, in other words. But when the bids stayed (relatively) low, he jumped in and got himself a piece of macabre history.

 

Personally, I’d rather my dearly beloved spent the money on a good farewell party. When I’m dead and gone, you can just put the left-behind packaging in a fast-burn pressboard box and cart me off to the crematorium in a minivan (with a modicum of respect, of course).

 

That, to me, would be much better value for the money.

 

Riposa in pace.

I’m Half In The Bag Right Now

- March 20th, 2012

celebrity-shopping

Some celebrity bags: Plastic? Paper? Cloth? Decisions, decisions.

 

Half in the plastic shopping bag, that is. And I’ll probably stay that way for a while.

 

First of all, let me say that I hate plastic bags with a passion. Discarded plastic bags are a blight on the urban and rural landscape, a menace to the environment and most living creatures, and they’re often too flimsy to do their primary job properly in the first place.

 

But I also love plastic bags. I don’t have to lug reusable bags all over town if the grocery store is my last stop in a busy schedule. If I’m delivering something (anything — a book, a sweater, a bottle of wine, a cake), I just pop it in an anonymous plastic bag and leave the bag behind (for the recipient to deal with). I store everything from other plastic bags to old notebooks to nuts and bolts in plastic bags at home. And I would be lost without plastic bags for garbage pail liners and animal waste disposal.

plasticbag

(I know, I know, I could pay extra money for biodegradable plastic bags specifically designed to catch garbage, cat litter or  dog doo — but why, then, aren’t the grocery store’s plastic bags biodegradable? And there’s a serious downside to biodegradable plastics — they produce carbon dioxide, methane and/or other greenhouse gases when they decompose.)

 

So there’s a place for disposable plastic bags in my universe. That place just isn’t blowing down a sidewalk or waving madly from a tree branch or clogging a storm drain.

 

Now I’m not preaching here (except the part about not letting plastic bags blow around the countryside like toxic dandruff or clog the oceans). I’m just explaining my starting point as I try to figure out the facts — which seem to be pushing me in a particular, surprising direction.

 

The surprising part is that there seem to be a couple of bag villains bigger than plastic — and I naively used to think they were the good guys.

brown-paper-bags

We’re so used to being hit over the head with the propaganda that all plastic bags are bad that it’s hard to accept that the most environment-friendly alternative to a plastic bag might be … a plastic bag.

 

Really.

 

And this spin isn’t coming from the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition (yes, there really is such an organization in California).

 

Jurisdictions around the world from San Francisco to Rwanda to Bangladesh have already banned one-time-use plastic bags. Italy last year banned non-biodegradable single-use plastic bags. Other jurisdictions from Ireland to Toronto (despite Mayor Rob Ford’s antipathy) try to reduce their use by imposing a charge or tax on each disposable bag.

 

The European Union, despite its preoccupation with keeping member states solvent, is currently considering a total ban on the bags as it tries to cut back on the 100 billion plastic bags Europeans go through every year. (That’s nothing compared to the 120-billion-plus plastic bags used annually by Americans  and Canadians — and Europe’s population is almost 50% bigger than the United States and Canada combined).

 

As it moves ponderously forward in its decision-making process, the European Union has amassed a lot of facts and figures for consideration.   And Britain’s Environment Agency last year published  a “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags.”

 

Thankfully we have the BBC to sort out all that confusing data for us. Here’s the BBC’s simple graphic to explain the comparison.

One-use-graphic

 

In other words, the production of a paper bag cause three times as much greenhouse gas emission as the production of a plastic bag. A heavy-duty, reusable plastic “bag for life” causes four times as much greenhouse gas in its production. And the production of A REUSABLE COTTON SHOPPING BAG SPEWS 131 TIMES AS MUCH GREENHOUSE GAS INTO THE ATMOSPHERE as the production of a single-use plastic bag.

canvas-grocery-bag

So, although a reusable cotton or canvas carryall seems BY FAR the best choice for an ecologically conscious shopper, you would have to use that bag 132 times before you outweighed the damage to the ozone layer caused by the use of plastic bags. How many people are really, truly going to use that ratty old cotton bag after, say, the 90th or 100th time?

 

 

What’s a carbon footprint?

 

According to the UK’s Carbon Trust, a non-profit organization created by the British government to help that country reduce its carbon emissions,

 

“A carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organization, event or product. The carbon footprint considers all six of the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gases: Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).”

 

 

Different studies produce different figures. A report produced for Los Angeles County when it banned plastic bags last year concluded a cloth bag would have to be used 104 times before its greater environmental impact (compared to a plastic bag) was neutralized. The difference seems to be that one study was looking at just carbon footprinting and the other was considering the full spectrum of environmental impact. Given the after-effect of plastic-bag garbage, I’ve got to believe the overall environmental impact is understated.

 

But using just the UK Environment Agency figures, here’s an example:

 

If I have six cloth shopping bags and I use two of them at a time to go shopping three times a week, it would take me MORE THAN 7-1/2 YEARS to be on the carbon-footprint upside of disposable plastics bags.

 

As for paper bags, who re-uses a paper bag even once, let alone two times? What am I going to re-use a paper bag for, apart from storing mushrooms or as fire-starter?

LCBObags

I used to feel quite virtuous when I walked out of the LCBO carrying my paper bag(s) of booze. Not anymore.

 

The difference becomes even more pronounced when the “one-use” plastic bag is reused. Here’s the BBC’s graphic comparison:

 

3-reuse-graphic

 

Sooooo, by far the best alternative to a plastic bag (in my books, anyway) is a plastic bag — a heavy-duty, reusable plastic bag with handles (the kind the supermarkets sell for $1 or $2), the so-called “bag for life.”

Bag-for-life

Even if you don’t keep it hanging around for life, you’re way ahead of the carbon footprint game within a few weeks and every usage after that is a bonus.

 

So I’ll keep the cloth bags I have and keep using them until they rot or rip, but I’ll never buy another. And I’m going to stop having my LCBO purchases brown-paper-bagged. The booze goes in my backpack now and the groceries go in a “bag for life” (if I have one with me).

sobeysbagforlife

And I’ll still get some one-use plastic bags on the occasional shopping expedition because I still need ‘em.

 

As for anyone carrying around a designer canvas shopping bag like the one below (by Anya Hindmarsh), stop it. You may not be a plastic bag but you are being a complete hypocrite.

canvas-bag

Even Polar Bears Are Irish On St. Patrick’s Day

- March 17th, 2012

polar-bear

Actually, Canada’s polar bears have always had Irish ancestry. It’s just topical to talk about it on St. Patrick’s Day.

The Irish connection was made last year when a worldwide team of researchers realized that the modern polar bear’s mitochondrial DNA is closely related to DNA in the bones of brown bear skeletons found in eight cave sites around Ireland. The Irish brown bear became extinct about 3,000 years ago.

Ireland-bear

Previously the general consensus had been that polar bears were descended from brown bears on the Siberian side of the Arctic, not the Atlantic side, and the genetic digression took place about 100,000-150,000 years ago. But the most recent study has concluded that all existing polar bears can be genetically traced back to one Irish brown bear mama (the “Eve” of polar bears) and the lineage is much more recent than previously thought — only 20,000-50,000 years old.

The study was conducted by researchers from across Europe (including Scandinavia and Russia) and North America, with the the final connection being made by scientists in Ireland, Britain and the U.S. Here’s a link to the abstract of the group’s paper published in the scientific journal Current Biology in July 2011.

The conjecture is that multiple matings took place during the last ice age. Well, actually we’re still technically in the tail end of an ice age that started about 2.5 million years ago, so it would be more accurate to call it the “Würm glaciation period” that extended from about 110,000 to 15,000 years ago.

Guinness-polar-bear

At the height of that glaciation period (about 22,000 years ago) the whole northern part of the globe from Siberian Asia to Canada to Greenland to Scandinavia and Europe, including the islands of Britain and Ireland, was covered in giant ice sheets. Thus the movement of various polar species, including bears, was widespread and led to substantial interbreeding with more southerly species around the edges of the icesheets.

Guinness-brown-bear

That’s the thesis anyway and the explanation for why Canada’s polar bears can trace their ancestry back to a lady brown bear in Ireland.

What can’t be explained, however, is why the polar bears seen below are displaying behaviour more usually associated with the aftereffects of St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Go figure.

polar-bears

I’m Betting Ontario Place Becomes Casino Toronto

- March 12th, 2012

 

Well, of course it will.

 

No, I don’t have any insider information, but I don’t need any to see the obvious.

 

The McGuinty Liberals were always going to stick a big, splashy, money-gobbling casino in the middle of Canada’s biggest city. It was just a matter of when.

 

When is now — soonish, anyway. Why is because, as Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said, “This new revenue will help us balance the budget.”

 

A pipe dream, of course, but desperate people do desperate things.

 

McGuinty held off approving the Toronto casino until now for a number of reasons:

 

1. It’s wrong. I don’t mean that in any moralistic way (although I find the gaming halls of the few Ontario casinos I’ve visited to be pretty pathetic places). No, wrong in the sense that casinos bring out the worst in people (often bad stuff those people didn’t even know they had inside them until the casino came to town) — and it becomes a fairly expensive proposition trying to pick up the pieces of broken people and put them back together again. Because this is supposed to be a money-making proposition for the McGuinty Grits, I think you can be fairly sure they will only invest a token amount of their new revenue stream to deal with the blowback. McGuinty knows it’s wrong — which is why he held off for so long — but he’s going to do it now because he’s totally screwed up the province’s finances and  it’s one of the few ways he can recycle more money from the real economy into provincial treasury coffers.

 

2. When Americans were coming to the border casinos, McGuinty could afford to leave the rich Toronto market untapped. Sort of the way the NHL is keeping the second Toronto hockey franchise in reserve for a rainy day. Torontonians could drive or bus it to Niagara, Rama, Brantford or Great Blue Heron in the meantime. But (since they now need a passport to cross the border) Americans aren’t coming to Niagara, Windsor, the Soo and the other Ontario casinos anymore — at least not in the numbers they used to. I think it’s very safe to say we’re going to see massive downsizing at the Windsor and Soo casinos soon — and probably at Niagara too, once Casino Toronto opens.

 

3. The logical place to put a Toronto casino has always been Ontario Place. Study after study has said that. But McGuinty — Premier Dad, the Education Premier, the (progressive) Family Values Premier — just couldn’t bring himself to mix the sleaze and purported debauchery of a casino with the kid-friendly, wholesome atmosphere Ontario Place tried so hard to maintain. Now that Ontario Place has been put out of its misery, the conflict (in McGuinty’s mind) no longer exists.

 

The only real question is a chicken-and-egg one: Which came first — the decision to open Casino Toronto or the decision to shutter Ontario Place?

 

I’m sure everyone inside the Ontario government will say the decision to board up Ontario Place was completely unrelated to the looming need to tap into the rich gambling motherlode of Toronto. But I think anyone with half a brain cell can figure out that the two decisions were not unrelated. If they weren’t, it would just be one more example of McGuinty’s fiscal ineptitude in managing the public resources of this province.

 

I know I’m acting like the Ontario Place location is a fait accompli. That’s because it is. In keeping with the spirit of the transaction, I will consider giving (hypothetically, of course) two-to-one odds to anyone who puts up $1 million — cash — to back the proposition that Casino Toronto lands anywhere else in the GTA other than Ontario Place. You pick your specific location, I pick Ontario Place and we’ll see who’s right. But first come up with the (hypothetical) cash.

 

Woodbine? The Jockey Club’s been pushing that idea for years but it’s not going to happen. Why? Because the Ontario government doesn’t own Woodbine — it owns Ontario Place. Operation of the casino will be placed in private hands; the government doesn’t want to share the bounty with a third party — a landlord — as well.

 

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation has already indicated it wants to put more slot machines in locations other than racetracks. I think it’s safe to say that hard times are going to just keep getting harder for Ontario’s horseracing venues as more-convenient competition is allowed to siphon off their clientele.

 

Now I’m not completely against opening a casino in the middle of Toronto — if it’s done right.

 

For years, the big fear was that the Mafia would get its foot in the door and take over. That’s still a real possibility but the segment of organized nefarity that is listed on stock exchanges in New York and Toronto is now such a big player in Vegas and other gambling locales across North America that corporate gangsters with MBAs will almost certainly be fixing the odds instead of their Mafia brethren.

 

Ontario Place actually could be a giant, swirling, kaleidoscopic, don’t-stop-the-music party place for adults — if it’s done right.

 

I just don’t think the present Ontario government has the guts and vision and panache to do it right. They’ll do it half-assed and it will be just as ho-hum as the current Ontario casino experience.

 

If the Grits had the roulette balls to make Casino Toronto a real adult adventureland (and I don’t mean “adventure” in the sense of “Hey, what happened to my wallet?”), it might be worth it.

 

Think Vegas North, where good food and drink are affordable if not downright cheap, where you can get tickets to good shows without knowing the premier’s chauffeur, where the customer doesn’t always feel like he’s being ripped off by a hypocritical preacher in the bingo hall, where pleasure is a smoothly realized group objective, not an occasional, unintended byproduct of the money-gathering process.

 

I want to see Donnie and Marie booked for a 36-week stand. I want to see Liza’s name dancing in lights on Lake Ontario. I want Buddy Guy to be delivered to his nightly gig by water taxi (even in the middle of winter). I want to see a permanent — no, two permanent — Toronto Cirque du Soleil troupes. (Can you imagine the fantastic use Cirque would make of all that space in the geodesic dome?)

 

I want to see a bunch of independent, funky bars filling every nook and cranny and terrace of Ontario Place. And I want all those bars to have a constant, revolving flow of bands — some new, some established, some house bands — like the ones that used to make Yonge Street so much fun and employed so many Toronto musicians.

 

I want them to restart all the games and rides and waterpark slides (ice slides in winter — right out onto the harbour at 3 a.m.) — but for adults, not kids. I want them to add a ferris wheel standing in the middle of one of the lagoons. I want the shlock and the shock. I want the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. I want the whole crazy tamale, baby.

 

And part of that whole, gaudy Carnival experience is the gaming halls with their slot machines and poker tables and roulette wheels and tumbling dice. But only part. Like a well-mixed drink — not too much liquor, not too much lime, just a wonderful euphoric blend of ingredients, some good, some bad, some naughty, some nice.

 

If the McGuinty Liberals could pull that off, I’d back Casino Toronto. But they can’t. They are, after all, the McGuinty Liberals. So they’ll do it half-assed and the very small thrill they do manage to create (at great expense and not on time) will very quickly fade into just another money-grubbing disappointment.

 

So you, Premier McGuinty, can keep your Casino Toronto and your Ontario Place. And I’ll keep my money.