25 Jan 2010

Opus magnum

It is admittedly a pretty clever pun. The chip-based smart card which was launched with fanfare last year as Montréal's new public transport ticket is called Carte Opus. If you don't speak French, you will probably be at a bit of a loss, and if you're me, you will have initially thought of the one-hit wonder band that wrote my all-time favorite song. In the essence, the Opus card is an RFID-enabled device onto which you load tickets for all means of public transport in Montreal, and then just "tap" your wallet holding an Opus card on the fare gate or bus door to be admitted. In a surprising effort of collaboration, the technology was also adopted by the transit authorities of the fiefs surrounding the city (of course, neither the schedules nor the fare structures are synchronized though).

It all works pretty smoothly, and by now the STM seems sufficiently confident (having run an in-your-face education campaign late last year) that they actually start sending out inspectors checking your Opus card as you ride. Today, I was stopped by two agents in police look-alike uniforms, but armed not with Taser guns, but an equally stunning PDA which can read Opus cards. It took me a moment to dig out my Opus from amidst the countless loyalty cards I carry around, but I was ultimately able to prove my status as a legal rider.

Of course, obtaining the right titre de transport is far from easy: For reasons definitely not related to technology, the STM will only sell monthly or weekly, but not annual passes. What's even worse, those passes are tied to the actual calendar month, and not just any 7 or 30 day period as is the case in most other cities. And despite the fact that an Opus card can technically store up to 5 separate tickets at the same time, the passes are not sold up until a few days before the beginning of the month. This leads to the absurd situation of long lines in front of the few ticket machines and the one booth at Metro stations at the beginning of each month. And to many frustrated potential public transport users, who have the nerve to arrive in the city mid-month. They are condemned to the use of more expensive single rides or weekly tickets until the next month begins.

Given the massive effort that went into the launch of the Opus card, would it have really been so hard to get a bit of best practice first? After all, the technology is far from new these days. In fact, even I am a long-time holder of two similar, but more sophisticated versions of the smart card technology, going by the names of Oyster and Octopus. Instead of another STM monthly pass, in February I'll use the two of them.


17 Jan 2010

Pro-rogue state

I am merely a guest in the Great White North, and as such should stick to Swiss neutrality and not meddle in Canadian domestic politics. That's not always easy, especially when the Prime Minister on a whim decides to prorogue parliament (if like me, you'd have to look this up, he essentially pushed the parliamentary pause button). The official reason given was that this would allow people to enjoy the coming Olympic Games in Vancouver undisturbed, which led the Economist to this priceless quip: "Politicians’ ritual slanging matches should not be allowed to distract Canadians from weightier battles, such as the bobsleigh, the giant slalom or round-robin curling."

But read for yourselves:

Harper goes prorogue
Parliamentary scrutiny may be tedious, but democracies cannot afford to dispense with it

From the Economist print edition, Jan 7th 2010

Canadian ministers, it seems, are a bunch of Gerald Fords. Like the American president, who could not walk and chew gum at the same time, they cannot, apparently, cope with Parliament’s deliberations while dealing with the country’s economic troubles and the challenge of hosting the Winter Olympic games. This was the argument put forward by the spokesman for Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister, after his boss on December 30th abruptly suspended, or “prorogued”, Canada’s Parliament until March 3rd.

Mr Harper’s supporters might argue that there is nothing wrong with this. Precedent allows it, and Canada is a decent, well-run place, where much is decided at the provincial level. Since most countries already have too many laws, a pause for parliamentary reflection might count as progress. Some places, such as Texas, manage well with only a part-time legislature. Politicians’ ritual slanging matches should not be allowed to distract Canadians from weightier battles, such as the bobsleigh, the giant slalom or round-robin curling. Come to think about it, why not shut down Parliament altogether, perhaps until the economy is growing again at full throttle? At least that would help cut the federal deficit.

The argument that previous prime ministers frequently prorogued Parliament is no more convincing. In almost every case they did so only once the government had got through the bulk of its legislative business. The Parliament that Mr Harper prorogued still had 36 government bills before it, including measures that form part of the prime minister’s much-vaunted crackdown on crime. When it reconvenes, those bills will have to start again from scratch. Past prorogations were typically brief. This time sessions will be separated by a gap of 63 days.

Never mind what his spin doctors say: Mr Harper’s move looks like naked self-interest. His officials faced grilling by parliamentary committees over whether they misled the House of Commons in denying knowledge that detainees handed over to the local authorities by Canadian troops in Afghanistan were being tortured. The government would also have come under fire for its lack of policies to curb Canada’s abundant carbon emissions. Prorogation means that such committees—which carry out the essential democratic task of scrutinising government—will have to be formed anew in March. That will also allow Mr Harper to gain immediate control of committees in the appointed Senate, where his Conservatives are poised to become the biggest party.

Mr Harper has form. He prorogued Parliament last winter, too—to dodge a short-lived threat by the three opposition parties to bring his minority government down. Having gone to the polls three times since 2004 Canadians do not want another election. He might say that governing in a minority obliges him to play fast and loose with parliamentary nicety. He has nursed the economy and he has confounded those who feared that he would impose his supporters’ loathing of abortion and liking for the death penalty on a generally tolerant country.

A legislature matters more than the luge
Mr Harper is a competent tactician with a ruthless streak. He bars most ministers from talking to the media; he has axed some independent watchdogs; he has binned campaign promises to make government more open and accountable. Now he is subjecting Parliament to prime-ministerial whim. He may be right that most Canadians care more about the luge than the legislature, but that is surely true only while their decent system of government is in good hands. They may soon conclude that it isn’t.

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14 Jan 2010

Freezing point

So here we are in the middle of January, supposedly the coldest month of the year. According to statistics, Montreal's average daily temperature in January is -8.9C, with an average daily minimum of -12.4C. In a typical January, temperatures stay below freezing on 23.2 days and a nearly half a meter of snow falls.

This is well documented, so I was prepared for the worst. After a record-breakingly mild November and a tolerable December, I returned to Canada with woolen turtlenecks and down-filled jackets, then snagged gloves and a tuque on sale. Last Sunday, grey and windy, offered the opportunity to put my gear to the test, and I went for a walk on Mt. Royal. Getting ready felt a bit like Neil Armstrong preparing to step outside his lunar lander, but much like in his case, the equipment did not fail me. As I made my way across the snowy landscape, I noticed how much the park had changed since my last visit in fall: It now felt like a winter resort, complete with cross-country ski tracks, ice rinks, tobogganing hills and snowshoeing trails, all heavily used.

Clearly, Canadians are not easily deterred by icy conditions, and I even saw several joggers inhaling the cold air while doing their laps (today, a co-worker proudly told me about his nightly 5km run, which he only skips when it drops below -20C). As for my equipment, it performed admirably, but a slight oversight on my part meant that an express order of woolen long unterwear was dispatched the same night. And when my mobile phone rang, its battery ran empty in the same short while it took my fingers to nearly freeze stiff!

While the cold is everything I expected it to be, what really takes me by surprise are the frequent and unpredictable hot spills. Or, as the radio host puts it, "today temperatures rise to a balmy 2 below". From my bedroom window, of course, this still looks and feels exactly the same as the -15C the night before, and so I occasionally find myself stepping outside, well, overdressed!

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6 Jan 2010

Take away

In the days of the transatlantic steamliners, the voyage from Europe to the New World took two weeks and consequently, people went through most of their food supplies before they even set foot on American soil. Today, a mere 8 hours (or 72, if your baggage is checked in with Air Canada) is all it takes to switch continents, and thanks to a generous weight allowance, I had the chance to fill my bags with lots of stuff prior to leaving Switzerland.

So what does one pack into one's bags to brave an estimated 6 months in Canada? Keep in mind that this is not exactly a third world country, although I did bring a 14-function Swiss army knife just in case (hey, it saved MacGyver many times!). With 24 hour pharmacies taking care of the most obvious emergencies, I could focus my attention on the genuinely Swiss virtue of Notvorrat: When winter (nuclear or otherwise) strikes, I can fall back on several kilos of chocolate, a 110V raclette oven and a bottle of heart-warming Kirsch. To "blend in" with my surroundings, I resort to Candida toothpaste promising snow-white teeth, while Rohner socks will keep my feet warm in the harshest of climates.

And although it may be hard to believe, the old adage "One man's trash is another man's treasure" does hold true for the Swiss as well, which is why I am able to report that a neglected tube of Thommy mustard has found a new home through my office's infamous Swiss connection.

When I was working at Zurich airport, we used to ridicule the packing habits of passengers travelling to certain south-east European countries. Today, let me state this in public: I am sorry! :-)

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