Saturday, February 9, 2019

Quebec: Avoid at all Costs (Unless It's Winter Carnaval)

Québec is a developing province masquerading as developed. Take away Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary, and all of Canada looks like a U.S. satellite with natural resource and product sales dependent on a foreign navy. 
You'd have to be a fan of Marquis de Sade--the receiving end--to want to live in Quebec, so of course this is where the Canadian government placed many of its Syrian refugeesThe weather gets colder and more intolerable as you move farther Northeast, making Quebec City less hospitable than Montreal. One local artist remarked, "It's a freezer and it's raining ice cubes." 
At Winter Carnaval, an enjoyable annual event
He wasn't kidding. Imagine a third-tier San Francisco, just as expensive (except for housing) and colder--that's Quebec most months out of the year, thanks to onerous taxes and regulations. See this convoluted Uber receipt in Montreal? 
A twelve minute ride anywhere will cost about 10 USD, higher than most major metropolises. In Quebec City, I was charged 55 Canadian cents because the driver waited less than one minute while I put my backpacks in the trunk of his car. (It's automatically added as a "waiting fee.") Where do these taxes go? As far as I can tell, to white residents so they can have government jobs. 100% of the police officers, 90% of the bus drivers, 90% of Montreal's Metro workers, and 100% of the school crossing guards I saw were white. 
Despite aiming for égalité, the Québecois lack a single distinguished author or director. David Suzuki is from British Columbia; Anna Porter, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, and Margaret Atwood are from Ontario; and Jacques Poitras and Charlotte MacLeod hail from New Brunswick. Who's Quebec's best-selling international author? Here's the blurb from one of his latest books: 

For fans of Stephen King’s Misery and Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman comes an engrossing thriller about a monster who becomes a victim and a victim who becomes a monster. From Patrick Senécal, the Quebec author who has sold over a million books worldwide. 

Sigh. (If you argue Wajdi Mouawad, Jean-Marc Vallée, Chrystine Brouillet, and Simon Boulerice are Quebec's artistic "heavyweights," you've lost the debate--none of them have created anything memorable and widely distributed. As for Leonard Cohen, he achieved success only after moving from Montreal to New York in 1967. He died in the United States.) 

How is it that every other country with Muslim or African immigrants can claim credit for producing some of the world's best literature and art? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attended three American universities. The U.K. has Zadie Smith, born in London to a Jamaican mother. America has Dominican-born Junot Diaz. We haven't even discussed sports (the 2018 French soccer/football team, coached by Zinedine Zidane) or music (Senegalese-American Akon), and we won't, because it would take too damn long to list all the accomplishments. 

You'd think a province with so little going for it would at least be dignified, but the Quebécois can't manage even that simple task. As far as they're concerned, they're bloody victims: "[T]here is an understandable strain of anger running through much Quebecois writing—an anger arising out of more than 150 years of oppression and marginalization at the hands of a dominant culture and language." 

To summarize, they believe being forced to speak English is an affront worse than slavery that justifies millions of taxpayer dollars to support Francophone culture. (Pro tip: you can't buy class or culture, but that hasn't stopped anyone yet.) Sadly, tax dollars promoting Francophone culture seem wasted because they boost only French-speaking collections rather than bridges towards a truly bilingual society. 
Available only in French
When not discriminating against English speakers, Quebec taxpayers also enjoy financing the translation of works from other countries into French but not English, sowing the seeds for future civil war--or separatism. Unsurprisingly, Quebec has tried to separate from English-speaking Canada two times: in 1980 and in 1995. In 1980, PM Pierre Trudeau, current PM Justin's father, negotiated an uneasy peace. In 1995, Quebec narrowly avoided secession when 50.58% voted to remain. 

Today, Quebec's economy is tied to the aerospace (aka military-industrial complex
At Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac hotel, often featured in Hollywood movies
and finance sectors, plus its ports. 
From the small Bank of Montreal museum
Quebec City's Museum of Civilization discusses its economic history of making shoes, 
guns, then--I kid you not--a scientific Golden Age from 1990 to 2000: "Several large biomedical companies called Quebec City home from 1990 to 2000... Today, the life science industry consists of more than 100 companies providing nearly 6,000 jobs... with sales [not profits!] of 1.3 billion dollars." (For comparison purposes, Eli Lilly & Company, just one American life science company, generates about 20 billion USD in annual revenue.) 

What brilliant innovation occurred post-2000 in Quebec? Video games, and the local museum showcases American-distributed Guitar Hero. (I swear I am not making this up.) Quebec does indeed invest heavily in the video game sector--it provides tax credits up to 37.5% of employee salaries to attract talent. One major recipient of the tax credit is formerly France-based Guillaume Provost, who returned to Quebec: "native to Montreal, he has lived anywhere but..." If it sounds like Quebec has to pay millions not to lose its best people to other countries and to Toronto, you're not wrong. 

As for finance, the sector's influence is particularly interesting because it helps prove the West's economic development as historically driven by military and banking alliances. Murals of fallen soldiers in WWI and WWII are solemnly displayed in large banks, and justifiably so. 
Without war, capture of other countries' resources, and the implementation of legal and insurance systems designed to guarantee profits, modern Western governments seem flummoxed in having to adapt to other, more sustainable methods of economic development. 

"All the colonial wars for the last 25 years have been fought in the interests of capital; fought to ensure markets that would guarantee more profits for European capital. Capital has become very powerful, all-powerful. Capital decides the fate of humanity." -- Pramoedya Ananta Toer, This Earth of Mankind (translated from Indonesian in 1980)  

"The United States is now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world — and now, for the first time in 65 years, we are a net exporter of energy." -- USA President Donald Trump, February 5, 2019 

Regardless, Quebec's economy continues to be tied to America's, for better or for worse.
When your economy revolves around your neighbor... 
Alan Phillips, Nat'l Geographic, December 1961.
Majority-USA owned cos "control more than 70% of Canada's oil industry."
Such dependency explains why Canada could not decline the U.S.'s demand to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in a brazen attempt to influence U.S-China trade negotiations. Her arrest could be a nearly fatal self-inflicted wound, because most Canadian apparel products are manufactured in China or Cambodia, and Canada's major housing markets west of Quebec are propped up by Chinese investors and Chinese foreign exchange students paying rent (and outsized tuition). 

Moreover, due to its vast size and few heavily populated cities, Canada's mobile and physical infrastructures are underdeveloped. Though competition does exist between domestic mobile providers, no foreign companies--not even global behemoth T-Mobile--have bothered to set up shop. Consequently, if you're a tourist, basic service will cost you a frostbitten arm and a leg, and only Canada among developed nations sells prepaid monthly plans offering meager starting packets of 2GB to 4GB. (I considered a roaming package from Britain's Vodafone before seeing a bonus deal from Koodo Mobile.) 
The modern U.K. economy, like many developed countries, seems dependent on surveillance capabilities.
In short, it's not a good time to antagonize Huawei Technologies, but that's exactly where Canada is, courtesy of the United States. A smart PM would invite Chinese, European, and American mobile companies to invest and compete subject to data localization requirements; however, without subsidies possibly banned under WTO rules, Canada might be worried its domestic mobile companies are so weak, they'll all fold against outside competition. 

The entire situation reminds me of the Amana Colonies in also-freezing Iowa, where a culture of communal re-distribution of wealth worked well for one generation, but not two or three. 
Perhaps good times can survive more than three generations if funds are used for long-lasting physical infrastructure (trains, roads, etc.), but when you've reached the third generation in a non-innovative economy, there's a sense someone else--anyone but you, really--will handle things. 
No employees at a busy Metro station in Montreal
Service in all areas declines, then impacts the credibility of tax-receiving entities, who resort to propaganda to maintain funding. Immigrants are usually blamed, whether refugees or illegal, and if they're smart, they take their talents elsewhere
National Geographic, January or February 2019
A steady injection of well-targeted venture capital will improve prospects, but such economic weapons are rarely welcomed in a collaborative fashion (witness the worldwide struggles of Uber, Airbnb, Lime, etc.). Conflicts between newly funded players and established interests, while essential to progress, tear the social fabric. Worst case, Holocaust; best case, walls
From museum in Stockholm, Sweden
Even where collaboration is present, scaling a business without increasing segregation remains a challenge. Governments have yet to learn that neither laws nor taxes promote good behavior; the key is whether residents, citizens and non-citizens alike, feel connected to each other. The law, and its power to tax, are merely heavy tools to build--or break--social cohesion. 

Luckily for Quebec and other sub-zero locales, harsh weather provides perfect opportunities to establish credibility through the provision of public services, including transportation and snow shoveling. 
Outside McGill University, Quebec's top university
Each potential voter who wakes up and sees cleanly swept streets has less incentive to demonize governmental action. At that point, it's up to each politician to build on the credibility established by its winter crews, and some obviously do a better job than others. 

Speaking of social cohesion, I've yet to discuss Quebec's most horrific incident: the January 29, 2017 mosque shooting, where blue-eyed Quebecer Alexandre Bissonnette, a former Royal Canadian Army Cadet, used a rifle to murder six praying Muslims and to wound eight others. 
Ibrahima Barry (aged 39), Mamadou Tanou Barry (aged 42), Khaled Belkacemi (aged 60), Aboubaker Thabti (aged 44), Abdelkrim Hassane (aged 41) and Azzedine Soufiane (aged 57), all Canadian citizens, are no longer with us. 
At the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City
The judge could have issued a sentence of 150 years but chose 40 years instead, meaning the children the shooter orphaned may once day walk the same streets as their parents' killer. Meanwhile, Canada's other Muslims aren't faring well, either. According to journalist Nadine Yousif, "three years later, Alsaleh’s story, and that of other [refugee] families, is of feeling stuck. In Arabic, Alsaleh told me she misses her home in Syria, but that home is no longer there, and Canada still feels like a strange land, 'like you’re in a country that isn’t yours.'" 
F*ck you, Quebec. F*ck you and this whole province and everyone in it. F*ck Justin Trudeau, who still hasn't visited paralyzed shooting victim Aymen Derbali. F*ck your ice sculptures and your ice hotel, one-offs in a land otherwise culturally bereft. F*ck your failure to create a truly sovereign country, despite your ample natural resources. F*ck your judges, who give white terrorists lenient sentences. F*ck your fancy restaurants serving overpriced food in Montreal. F*ck your failure to innovate--you can't even manage conveniently located food trucks for snowed-in residents. F*ck your lack of African restaurants. F*ck your NYC-copied bagels. F*ck your sh*tty Tim Horton's coffee. F*ck your maple syrup, for which you haven't negotiated a TSA exemption under NAFTA or USMCA's carry-on rules. F*ck your six months of winter. F*ck this whole province and everything in it. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus: Quebec can claim one writer: Mordecai Richler, who publicized a study claiming "over 70 percent of Quebeckers fall into our highly anti-Semitic category." Because Richler doesn't speak French, he was not considered a true representative.

Winter Carnaval in Quebec City (2019)

Quebec City, Canada is cold in February--really cold! One upside to this unfortunate weather is the ability to host a unique annual festival called Winter Carnaval. Though most events are for children, including a maze made entirely of ice blocks, alcohol is sold (similar to European X-Mas festivals), so adults can listen to live music and drink to their heart's delight. (Somehow, the combination of alcohol and slippery ice doesn't result in cartoonish slips and falls everywhere.) 
The most impressive part of the show can be found in the Little Champlain area, which has several ornate ice sculptures. Though ice sculptures are displayed throughout different festival sites, the majority seem to be near Champlain (aka Quartier Petit Champlain). I saw everyone from The Little Prince, to Ken and Barbie, to the entire Simpsons family--all made entirely of ice. 
Other activities are available, such as ax throwing (I did not manage to make a single one stick to the target after the maximum five tries), sledding, viewing events on a Jumbotron, and more. The most fun activity is tobogganing, which I've wanted to do since reading Calvin & Hobbes as a kid. 
Comic strip copyrighted by Bill Watterson & re-produced under fair use exemption. 
The more people on the sled, the faster it runs, but if you go by yourself (like me), the experience will be just as much fun. 

Bonhomme, the name of the large, ubiquitous snowman, is the personable host of the Carnaval and can be seen chatting up guests and taking photos. 
Tickets to all events, in the form of a Bonhomme snowman "effigy," are sold for 15 Canadian dollars at the site. If you visit in 2019, I suggest taking a bus near Restaurant Le Grand Cafe (690 Grande Allée E), then walking up the hill to the main event area, where you can purchase tickets/effigies. Afterwards, walk the one kilometer to Le Chateau de Fronteac hotel, 
A popular location site for Hollywood movies
go tobogganing, 
then go downstairs to Quartier Le Petit Champlain to see more ice sculptures. 
Walking is easier than driving because many roads will be blocked to protect pedestrians and exhibits. I don't know whether this advice will be useful after 2019, but it worked for me. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus: if you have time, you may also want to visit The Queen Elizabeth Hotel. In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a week there, where they recorded "Give Peace A Chance" while in bed surrounded by singers and fans.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Book Review: Repetitive Tripe

Hordes of Mongols couldn't get me to pay more than one dollar for Jay Rayner's The Man Who Ate the World, which I found at a used library sale in, of all places, Stockholm. Another reviewer summarized it best: "You can equate the book to a dinner with good starters followed by a bland main course and even blander dessert." 
Rayner is a journalist turned restaurant critic; in other words, he lacks the kitchen experience of other reviewers like Anthony Bourdain, whom Rayner criticizes for his take on sushi rice. The only interesting parts of the book are when Rayner discusses his love of garlic buttered escargot and his wife--both of whom seem more capable of prose than himself. (February 2019) 

Bonus: Rayner references Star Trek, only to misspell Commander Worf as--I kid you not--"Wharf." Screenshot of page below. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Elegy for a Blog (Not Yet)

I just discovered this old post. I was going to publish it in December 2011, but I put it aside and forgot about it.


I've been feeling a bit strange lately and needed to get out to a different locale. I used a free Southwest ticket and recently spent a few days in New Orleans. It was fun, but the trip didn't do much to resolve my internal miasma. I don't know if this is a midlife crisis, especially because I'm only in my early thirties, but it feels like I'm moving steadily forward into nowhere.

I had a list of goals to accomplish before I turned 30 years old, and I completed most of them. I thought I was aiming high--I included unique items like shaking Warren Buffett's hand, which I did at the 2007 Berkshire Hathaway meeting. I completed other goals earlier than I thought I would, like paying off my law school loans.

I haven't been able to come up with another list of goals. I recall reading about Ted Turner's dad telling his son to aim high and to set goals he'd never be able to achieve. That way, he'd always have something to keep him going.

I haven't really accomplished much anyhow, which makes my inability to write another "to-do" list puzzling. The older I get, though, the more I realize that people who get things done don't usually write about themselves a whole lot. They just focus on the task at hand, get it done, and move forward to the next task. They focus more on their family, their friends, their colleagues, and their local surroundings than abstract issues like the world, politics, or the stock market.

With my degrees in Philosophy, English, and law, I've probably spent most of my life dealing with abstract issues. While I cherish my general knowledge and experiences, it seems time to focus more on the here-and-now, which may help me re-gain the energy and optimism I had when I had nothing.

From a financial standpoint, I am currently mostly in cash/money market funds. I've been luckier than most--since December 2007, I've lost around 14% in my retirement accounts and made money in my regular accounts. In my retirement accounts, I will be looking to buy more TIPs (either TIP or VIPSX) and/or low-cost corporate bond funds (e.g., VWEHX, VCVSX). [Update: my positions may change at any time. Nothing here constitutes investment advice.] I will still attend shareholder meetings, and I may write about them on this blog; however, I foresee writing more book reviews and fewer posts (maybe once every month).

I continue to believe the most dangerous modern development has been the attenuation of community, i.e. the unnatural separation of things that used to go together, and the knowledge we gain and take for granted when we live with engaged people in an honest community. These days, neighbors don't know each other well; bankers don't directly own their mortgages; elected representatives listen more to lobbyists than ordinary people; schools don't teach children basic principles about government and economics, because no one can agree on the fundamental things anymore (not even whether torture is acceptable); people worry more about protecting their slice of the pie than increasing its size and longevity; families in larger cities need dual incomes so they lack the time to keep local governments honest; men, generally the more unpredictable gender, have fewer ways of proving their manhood locally and seem to unconsciously seek conflict to prove their importance; and war has become all too easy and no less horrific. In short, things seem to be falling apart; the center cannot be found, much less maintained.

The second most dangerous modern change is the failure of serious journalism. Read New York Times v. Sullivan to see the role America's founders expected of newspapers and media. Needless to say, it's a serious, substantial role--not one that bombards the public with Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, and Chris Brown. Imagine: without the Washington Post's (WPO) intrepid reporting, would we have known about Watergate? Fast-forward to recent times, and the New York Times (NYT) has caved into the government's "request" to delay publishing warrantless wiretapping reports.

How did we go from newspapers keeping the government honest to newspapers assisting the government in withholding information? Is it any wonder newspaper companies are going bankrupt? But without national newspapers to expose government corruption, who will fill the investigative void? TMZ? The Drudge Report? The National Enquirer? Will major newspapers revert to non-public forms so they can focus on investigative reporting? Or are financial interests so entrenched that it is too late to return to a more appropriate business model? The current situation--government and deficits becoming larger, while few credible entities have the resources to expose corruption and incompetence--is untenable.

I'm not one to leave on a dour note, so I will end with the following Theodore Roethke poem, which, to me, explains best where I'm at:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go...

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to come back once in a while.

Friday, February 1, 2019

DisneyWorld in Orlando, Florida

When I was a kid, I dreamed of visiting the Epcot Center and seeing Michael Jackson’s show. 
On the way to Canada, I stopped in Orlando overnight and took a bus to several Disney parks in the morning. It was surprisingly chilly in the morning and evening, but coming from Sweden, I was prepared. Sadly, as with most childhood memories, DisneyWorld didn’t meet the hype, though its hotel, guest relations, and airport transfer service (Magical Express) were fantastic. 
The different parks—spread over miles of land and asphalt highways—required a makeover. I tried visiting the gift shops at each park, but most of them were behind the ticket gates, an odd business decision. I liked the artistic touches, such as the cruise line bus painted like a ship, but after Tokyo’s DisneySea, I had high expectations for Disney’s flagship park. 
Unfortunately, like much of America in 2019, marketing (aka propaganda) exceeded reality, and infrastructure looked neglected. I strongly suspected I should have visited one of Disney’s newer resorts elsewhere. I had to wonder: will America realize it needs to catch up to the rest of the world, or will it continue to sail on its remarkable post-WWII (1945 to 1991) winds? In the alternative, am I just living the cliché that once you’ve left home, you can’t return because your perspective has changed irrevocably? 

Bonus: some practical advice: 1) do not bring any bags to the parks. There are separate security lines for visitors depending on their belongings, and the ones without bags or backpacks sailed through; 2) the cheapest hotel appears to be All-Star Sports, which has a 24/7 McDonald’s nearby, an opportunity to save even more money by eating meals offsite; and 3) Orlando’s airport is busier and less efficient than Ft. Lauderdale’s. My TSA check took about 20 minutes—after the 10 minutes wait in line to security. 
One of the All Star Sports complexes