A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “No Laptops, No Wi-Fi: How One Cafe Fired Up Sales”

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Writing for NPR, Annie Russell describes how Vermont’s August First Bakery & Cafe boosted business by banning portable computing.

When owner Jodi Whalen first opened four years ago, she initially offered free Wi-Fi to customers. Students like Colt flocked to the business and started typing away — and staying. All day.

“We saw a lot of customers come in, look for a table, not be able to find one and leave,” Whalen says. “It was money flowing out the door for us.”

That’s why Whalen decided there’d be no more screens. It was a gradual move. She started by shutting down the Wi-Fi two years ago. Then, the cafe banned screens during lunch.

“A lot of people were disappointed,” Whalen says. “But we actually saw our sales increase.”

What’s socially acceptable when it comes to using a laptop in public, anyway? Student Luna Colt says it’s about how much money you spend.

“You should buy something every two hours if you’re going to be here and just work all day,” Colt says.

As long as you’re being a good customer, she says, there’s nothing wrong with working on a laptop. It’s why she’s been coming here in the first place.

“If I was going to be here all day, I’d probably come here and eat breakfast. Then a few hours later, I’d have lunch,” Colt says. “I would guess that wouldn’t lose them any money, really.”

Not quite, according to Whalen. It’s less about how much any given laptop user buys, and more about table space.

“Even if they think they’re a good customer because they buy lunch, they’re still here for four hours,” Whalen says.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 24, 2014 at 3:59 am

[BRIEF NOTE] On the intelligent crows of Aesop’s Fables

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The Aesop’s Fable of The Crow and the Pitcher was proven by science. In the paper “Using the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm to Investigate Causal Understanding of Water Displacement by New Caledonian Crows”, investigators determined that the famously intelligent New Caledonian crow can interrogate questions of volume as well as young humans.

Understanding causal regularities in the world is a key feature of human cognition. However, the extent to which non-human animals are capable of causal understanding is not well understood. Here, we used the Aesop’s fable paradigm – in which subjects drop stones into water to raise the water level and obtain an out of reach reward – to assess New Caledonian crows’ causal understanding of water displacement. We found that crows preferentially dropped stones into a water-filled tube instead of a sand-filled tube; they dropped sinking objects rather than floating objects; solid objects rather than hollow objects, and they dropped objects into a tube with a high water level rather than a low one. However, they failed two more challenging tasks which required them to attend to the width of the tube, and to counter-intuitive causal cues in a U-shaped apparatus. Our results indicate that New Caledonian crows possess a sophisticated, but incomplete, understanding of the causal properties of displacement, rivalling that of 5–7 year old children.

Virginia Morell interviewed one of these researchers, Sarah Jelbert, for National Geographic News. An excerpt:

How did you come up with your idea to give the Aesop’s Fable test to the crows?

Our study was based on the fantastic work of two other researchers, Christopher Bird and Nathan Emery. [They showed that rooks would use stones to raise the water level in a tube so that they could reach a worm.] Dropping stones into water isn’t something New Caledonian crows do in the wild; no animal does. But it is also a completely natural thing, and so is a fair test of animals’ cognition.

We trained six crows to drop small stones into tubes. And then we gave them different tests to see how much they understand or can learn about the cause and effect of water displacement. Would they understand that dropping stones into water in a tube [to get a piece of meat to float to the top] is different from dropping them into sand in a tube? Or that hollow objects have a different effect from solid ones?

They did very well at four of the six tests, where they were able to apply their natural understanding of cause and effect and the properties of objects. They understood that solid objects sink and hollow ones float, for instance, and that it doesn’t make any sense to drop stones into sand. But they were incredibly poor at the counterintuitive test, which involved a U-[shaped] tube; they had to infer that there was a connection between the two tubes, but none of them could do this.

And what do their successes and failures at these tests tell us about the cognitive abilities of New Caledonian crows?

We’re trying to understand the cognitive mechanisms of animal minds, and to do that you need to look at tests that animals can pass and those that they fail. In human psychology, researchers have discovered that the way people make mistakes is often most informative about how they think. The errors give away how they are solving problems. Is this true for animals, too? Or do they have a completely different way of conceptualizing problems? By looking at the errors the crows make, we may get a better understanding of how they successfully solve problems.

Jelbert reserved judgement as to whether or not the crows took the tricks they learned into the wild.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 24, 2014 at 3:29 am

[LINK] “Macau Already Dwarfs Vegas—and China’s Gaming Hub Is Getting Even Bigger”

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Bloomberg BusinessWeek‘s Bruce Einhorn reports that gambling in the formerly Portuguese enclave of Macau on the south Chinese coast, near Hong Kong, is taking off with vigour.

China’s economy is slowing, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the casinos in Macau. The former Portuguese colony is the only place with legalized casino gambling in China, and while this year the Chinese economy is likely to expand at its slowest pace since 1990, there’s no sign of a pause in Macaua’s casinos. Gross gaming revenue this month should jump between 10 percent and 12 percent over a year ago, according to a report published today by Barclays (BCS). For the whole year, the bank expects 16 percent growth.

Casino operators in the U.S. should be so lucky. Gaming revenue in Las Vegas is down 12 percent so far this year, and in the Midwest, casino revenue has dropped for six months in a row. While in the 1980s the only states with legal casino betting were Nevada and New Jersey, now almost every state in the country has casinos—and as Bloomberg Businessweek reported earlier this month, revenue is dwindling, with New Jersey down 44 percent since its peak in 2006.

Meanwhile, China’s gambling hub keeps on growing. Gaming revenue in Macau, the tiny peninsula and nearby islands an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong, last year hit $45 billion. Compare that with the $38 billion total not just for Vegas but for Atlantic City, all the Native American casinos, and everything else in the U.S.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 24, 2014 at 3:00 am

[URBAN NOTE] “Report Exposes Climate of Fear at TCHC”

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Torontoist’s David Hains was one of many, many people to report on today’s report on alleged misconduct at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, charged with overseeing the city’s public housing. Its head, Gene Jones, comes under particular fire.

Is anyone surprised that Mayor Rob Ford is Jones’ most prominent backer in the face of damning criticism?

Today, the ombudsman released a damning report about human resources practices at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC)—one that could lead to the dismissal of CEO Gene Jones at an emergency board meeting being held this afternoon. In the report, ombudsman Fiona Crean suggests the work culture at TCHC is governed by a “climate of fear” and finds that repeated HR violations committed by Jones and a handful of other senior executives have created a “destabilizing effect” on the organization.

[. . .]

Crean characterizes her findings as “a shocking story about the abject failure of leadership from the top.”

The report contains a number of recommendations: the organization, for example, should comply with its own policies and procedures, and train members of the board of directors and those with hiring power about those policies.

Such suggestions might seem to reflect only basic common sense, but at least one high-level TCHC executive expressed doubts about the utility of the organization’s guidelines. Anand Maharaj, vice-president of human resources, told the ombudsman’s office the HR policy framework was “outdated” and suggested HR hiring policies were something of a hindrance[.]

[. . .]

Gene Jones himself apparently doesn’t feel it’s important for a CEO to familiarize himself with an organization’s policies. The ombudsman’s report notes that “the CEO believed that his actions were his prerogative and that he had no responsibility for knowing the rules because it was the responsibility of his VP of HR to ensure that they were followed.”

The relevant rules were not followed, the report indicates, when Jones hired the former executive assistant of a councillor without posting or holding a competition for the position. Lisa-Joan Overholt, former EA to Vincent Crisanti (Ward 1, Etobicoke North) and a volunteer for Rob Ford’s mayoral 2010 campaign, was taken on as a manager—six months later, Overholt was promoted to a senior director position and given a $30,000 raise. When the ombudsman asked Overholt and Jones to provide a job description of her role, they could not do so. Another employee, Graham Leah, was appointed to be TCHC’s interim vice-president of asset management, a position for which he had not even applied.

And the HR irregularities also extend to firings: the ombudsman found that between June 2012 and October 2013, there’d been 41 terminations without cause, including 15 at the director level and 14 involving people with more than 10 years’ experience. “Terminations often seemed poorly planned, even impulsive,” Crean observes, “and conducted without regard for the knowledge gaps they created.” Since Jones joined the TCHC, there have been at least four COOs; three have been fired.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 24, 2014 at 1:59 am

[URBAN NOTE] “Stollerys at Yonge and Bloor gets an A for missed opportunity”

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Karen von Hahn‘s Toronto Star article criticizing vintage men’s clothing store Stollerys, located squarely on the southwest corner of Yonge and Bloor, for a slew of missed opportunities is sadly on target.

The store has received only two stars out of a possible five on Yelp, many of the commenters singling out service as an issue.

For a local landmark that is hardly a discount store (Stollerys stocks and sells quite pricey, suppliers-to-Her-Majesty type goods such as Barbour jackets, Daks and Aquascutum raincoats, Viyella shirts, socks by Pantherella and Derek Rose silk pyjamas) it is hard to fathom a window display in 2014 featuring men’s slacks on torso-less mannequins shod only in dirty beige socks, and topped with cashmere sweaters in place of heads. Or dress shirts stapled to pale wood Grand & Toy wall dividers adorned with cut-out squares of coloured bristol board, as if from a science project made by a child in Grade 5 some years ago.

In fact, the windows look a lot like those of Honest Ed’s, except that Honest Ed’s sells jackets for $14.99, not two-ply cashmeres for hundreds of dollars.

As a proud supporter of small independent and local retail (heaven knows this is an ever-shrinking category given the pressures of advancing global retail chains and shrinking margins), I have nonetheless made an effort to pop into Stollerys on occasion, comparison shopping for, say, a “good” men’s overcoat, or in search of a father’s day gift.

On one of these occasions, I bumped directly into an exiting Lloyd Robertson, former news anchor at CTV. Two thoughts immediately came to mind: first that he looks a lot taller on television; and then, I guess that’s who shops here, men whose job is to look reliably inoffensive, like news anchors.

While I wish I could say that once you get inside the store things look a lot better, this is not the case.

The first thing that greets you by the entrance is the kind of pants press they have in the closets of mid-level motels. Said press is at the landing of some really ugly ’80s Victorian pine stairs. In front of the stairs is a modular arrangement of scuffed Lucite cubbies jammed with cellophane-wrapped dress shirts. On the wall behind this ragged display hangs a rainbow of solid satin ties in disturbingly bright colours.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 24, 2014 at 1:08 am

[LINK] “Patrick Brazeau: It all started with a boxing match”

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I last wrote about disgraced senator Patrick Brazeau in February, when I mentioned that he was now working management at a strip club in the Ottawa area to pay the bills. Since then, worse has happened–arrests, rehab.

What went wrong with the former Conservative star senator? Postmedia News’ Stephen Maher wrote an essay on the 28th of March tracing the moment when Brazeau began to fall apart to his famous 2012 boxing match with then-aspiring Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

As Trudeau celebrated his victory, Levant asked him: “Is Bob Rae next?”

A year later, Trudeau had replaced Rae as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The fight had changed his image, launching him to a new level of national popularity. Two years later, he has been ahead of the prime minister in the polls for a year.

Brazeau, in contrast, has been in a downward spiral.

The fight raised $230,000 for cancer research — something Brazeau wanted to do to honour his late mother — but the loss in the ring came as a bitter disappointment to his caucus colleagues, and since that day, his political, personal and legal troubles have piled up.

Soon after the fight, he had to apologize for insulting reporter Jennifer Ditchburn on Twitter after she did a story on his spotty attendance in the Senate.

CTV’s Bob Fife started digging into questions about Brazeau’s questionable use of his father’s Maniwaki home as official residence, which allowed him to claim extra expense money. That led to an official audit and ultimately an RCMP investigation.

In February 2013, after an early morning incident at his Gatineau home, he was charged with assault and sex assault. The next day, he was suspended from caucus.

In June, he was ordered to repay $49,000 in housing expenses. When he failed to pay, the Senate started to garnish his wages. In November he was suspended from the Senate without pay. In January, the bank moved to repossess his house.

His girlfriend, who works at a Gatineau bar, faces cocaine charges. He himself faces two trials: one for fraud and breach of trust, the other for assault and sex-assault charges. If he is convicted of any of the charges, he may be permanently expelled from the Senate.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 23, 2014 at 7:31 pm

[LINK] “Remote, oil-rich Shetland elbows way into Scotland’s independence vote”

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Reuters’ Sarah Young writes about how Scotland’s Shetland Islands–a small archipelago northeast of the Scottish mainland–are trying to take advantage of Scottish constitutional jockeying.

The three major Scottish archipelagoes in question–the Shetlands and the Orkneys to the northeast, the Western Isles to the west–are, to my limited knowledge, somewhat culturally distinct from the Scottish mainland. The Shetlands and the Orkneys have their Nordic links, while the Western Isles are the strongest redoubt of Scots Gaelic in the world.

Watching this.

Twelve hours by ferry from the Scottish mainland, hundreds of miles from Edinburgh and closer to Oslo than London, the windswept Shetland islands have their own aspirations about Scottish independence.

Some of the 23,000 inhabitants even want their own.

Many Shetlanders see the September 18 vote on whether Scotland should end the 307-year-old union with England as an opportunity to gain control over local services and a share of revenues from the oil pumped from the North Sea.

“The oil belongs to us. We don’t have to argue about that. It is ours,” said Shetlander Hazel Mackenzie, 43, who works in the livestock auction house in Shetland’s main town of Lerwick.

“If we could have all the revenue from all the oil then we could probably be very self-sufficient.”

[. . .]

As the Scottish independence vote nears, Shetland’s council has joined forces with two other island councils, Orkney and the Western Isles, to ask for greater control of local services and new fiscal arrangements to enable them to benefit from the oil, fisheries and renewable energy resources surrounding them.

At stake for the Scottish government could be its share of the 7 billion pounds or so of annual oil production taxes which Edinburgh wants in the event of a “Yes” vote for independence.

For many on Shetland, where the blue and white Nordic-style flag flutters from masts amongst the peat hills and isolated coves, a sense of being a Shetlander comes ahead of any Scottish, British or, given history, even Norwegian identity.

In Lerwick, where seals wait in the harbour to greet the arrival of the next fishing boat, some islanders see the result of the Scottish referendum as irrelevant.

“Why would we believe in independence if all it means is that powers move from London to Edinburgh? No, we want to move an awful lot further than that,” said Tavish Scott, a Liberal Democrat who is Shetland representative in the devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, dominated by the Scottish National Party.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 23, 2014 at 7:22 pm

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