27 Mar 2011

Sea to Sky

It was a breathtaking ascent, at least in the figurative sense. After a 5.5h domestic flight, I woke up in an airport hotel in Richmond, BC - a town filled with Chinese supermarkets, patchinko parlours, Korean BBQs and cherry trees in bloom. Hard to believe I had not left Canada, seeing how different this was. But what followed next was even more striking: I started drving up BC Route 99, affectionately known as the Sea to Sky Highway. It must be one of the most beautiful drives I've ever taken. In the early morning sun, I cruised through Vancouver with its its glistering harbour and inlets, past the joggers and bikers in Stanley Park, across the Lion's Gate bridge and then along the Howe Sound. The road, nicely improved for last year's Olympic Games, winds itself along the steep cliffs of the sound, with the deep blue Pacific water below and tall mountains rising from it. The wild beauty of the landscape made me think of Norway's fjords, especially as the first snow covered summits started coming into sight. With hardly any traffic in my way, I soon reached Squamish, where the road leaves the sea behind and starts its climb into the Coastal Mountain range. Within just a few kilometers, the weather changed from sun to fog, rain and shine again, and I suddenly found myself driving up an alpine valley, with a wild river that could have just as well been the Landwasser or the Lütschine in Switzerland. With less than 150km on the odometer, I'd crossed three distinct environments to reach my destination: Whistler, 670m above sea level and gateway to North America's largest ski area.

Masterplanned by the same company that designed Mont-Tremblant north of Montréal, the pedestrian village bears a striking resemblance to what I've called Disney on Ice. Behind it, though, rise much more substantial mountains, which provided for two fabulous days of skiing on nicely groomed runs as well as unrestrained access to fun off-piste areas that would make any European environmentalist pale with horror. Most crucially, they also offer a peak-studded alpine views, especially from the impressive Peak 2 Peak gondola, which was such an engineering challenge that the "Airbus & Boeing" of cable cars, Austria's Doppelmayr and Switzerland's Garaventa, had to collaborate to build it. There were even Asian tourists in sneakers, riding it with us skiers just for the thrill.

I, for one, was thrilled by the beauty, diversity and sheer wilderness of this part of Canada, and hope to return for more exploring soon. For now, though, the thrill will be to get back to Montréal: Two flights cancelled and counting...

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17 Mar 2011

Daylight

No, this post is not about the corny 1996 action movie starring the venerable Sylvester Stallone - although remembering the moment where he emerges drenched from the Hudson River, only to have perfectly blow-dried hair in the next scene, still makes me laugh today.

Much like the protagonists in said flick, the people living in higher latitudes are keen to get back to daylight after their long dark winters, when they frequently arrive at work in complete darkness and leave the office again under the same circumstances. Unsurprisingly, many head straight to the liquor store after days like that. ;-)

As the northern hemisphere moves towards summer, days automatically get longer again. But for the past 200 years, various countries have at various times resorted to trickery to further lenghten usable daytime. They did so through the introduction of daylight saving time, also known as summer time after the effect it produces: Shifting an hour of daylight from mornings to evenings during the summer months. That's bad for roosters, farmers and beer brewers, but for the ever-growing class of white collar office slaves, the extra hour of after-work sunlight is most welcome. The dramatic increase of evening joggers, along with the melting snow, is a sure sign that as of last weekend, summer time is upon us.

It was the Bush Administration which, with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, has extended the period of DST in the United States for three weeks into March, and one week into November, creating a temporary misalignment with Europe and a summer time which in fact covers almost two thirds of the year. They claimed that extending DST would help save energy, as people would use less artificial lighting in the evenings. Even though a study by the U.S. Department of Energy found that nationwide savings from extending DST amounted to a paltry 0.5%, most of Canada still decided to go along with the Americans - adding a time change to the usual border hassles was not applealing.

Unless, of course, you live in Saskatchewan. As I was politely informed by the CBC's morning news on Sunday, "all of Canada has set their watches one hour forward tonight, except for the province of Saskatchewan". That's right - time is a provincial affair in Canada, and those good people in Regina have decided to have none of this time change business. With the provinces around them changing time, this means that Saskatchewanians are aligned with Manitobans to the east in the winter, and with Albertans to the west in the summer. The fact that the prairie province is one of the few places where farmers (and roosters) still outnumber white collar workers is surely just a coincidence.

Daylight, clearly, is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly. I assume it was in recognition of this fact that executives on the top floor of our corporate headquarters have decided to remodel the work spaces, so that only the selected few in walled off outside offices get any exposure to it at all. Unlike hens and roosters, mere humans such as yours truly are kept firmly away from any daylight year-round, lest this create any sudden bursts of energy in their biorhythms. All we can do is wait until it's time to emerge from the workday, to whatever outside condition awaits us. Or maybe we could just tear down some walls? Ah, where is an action hero when you need one!

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4 Mar 2011

Camelot

It's not that I'd totally lack sympathy for the media business. But its most annoying representatives certainly test my patience with their constant besieging. I'm not talking about snooping reporters here, although from what I hear those can be a real pain if you happen to be a member of the Canadiens hockey team. No, my battle is with the hand distributors of free newspapers that lurk on my daily commute. They represent the foot troops in the fierce war for readership raging in Montréal.

It presumably started 10 years ago, on March 1st, 2001, when Swedish media group Metro International launched the local edition of their free Metro daily, as a direct assault on the hitherto peaceful Montréal newspaper landscape. With its free and abundant distribution, as well as compact format, it quickly gained a strong foothold and a big chunk of the advertising market. Unsurprisingly, the incumbent media overlord, Québecor, struck back in force shortly thereafter by launching the equally free and compact 24 heures. It also opened a second front through the legal system, contesting the exclusive distribution agreement Metro had sealed with Montréal's public transit authority, which forced 24 heures to relay on hand distributors only. After a long campaign, Québecor ultimately lost the legal fight in 2005, when the supreme court upheld the exclusivity agreement.

So Québecor had to change strategy from courtroom to checkbook battle: When Metro's contract with the transit authority came up for renewal, Metro saw itself outbid and as of this January, it is 24 heures instead of Metro which is distributed en exclusivité in subway and bus stop dispensers. All that remains from Metro's long reign are its branded recycling boxes.

But of course Metro has not surrendered. It fell back on the secondary distribution tactic pioneered by 24 heures when it was in the same situation: An army of brightly dressed, shouting guys shoving the paper into your hand outside transit hubs. They wrestle for the best spots with their opponents from 24 heures, who are still there (thanks to unionized labor) despite the fact that their wares are now also available inside the station.

Where does this leave the traditional media? On the same battlefield, unfortunately. Trying to stop the defection of their readership, tabloid Journal de Montréal as well as broadsheet La Presse increasingly reach for the same weapon: Free hand distribution by a camelot, as the touts are known in French. And so it comes that, on my daily commute from one busy interchange station to the next, I have to overcome no less than 7 camelots, which much like their mythical namesake castle, do their best to stand in your way and resist. Therefore, when the new iPad 2 was recently annouced, my exasperation led me to consider buying one. Not to read some fancy e-paper, mind you. But to use the tablet as a protective shield!

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