25 April 2010

ok, so now what's wrong with me?

a few weeks ago, i sprained my ankle. despite the fact that i wear big girl heels a lot of the time and had been out the night before wearing one of my most skyscraper-like talons, i managed to sprain my ankle walking in bare feet on the wood floor of my bedroom. i don't even know what happened, but all of a sudden my ankle was perpendicular to my tibia and i felt a shot of pain.

in retrospect, it might have been better if i had felt a lot of pain, because, when that initial shot subsided, i went merrily about my way assuming i'd just clumsily turned my ankle, as i am wont to do and there was nothing more to it. in fact, i was dj'ing that night, so i went out, did my dj set, danced to the other sets, strolled down to chinatown to get a late night/ early morning snack (well, a little more than a snack, actually) and, the next morning, was sort of astonished to see that my right ankle looked like i'd stored a baseball inside it. it was sort of nice and round and firm and about double the size of its neighbour. nothing a shoe whore hates to see more than that.

so it was a week of flats and limited walking (and i am not only a fan of heels but long, long walks and yes, by the way, i can combine them), as well as keeping the injured soldier elevated and iced whenever possible. the ankle never really started to hurt. i have pain if i cross my legs "indian style" (there's probably a pc term for that, but i never learned it) and if i put pressure on it (more than usual) by standing up, but it's not what you'd call debilitating. i can make it hurt by poking it, but even then, it's not much and i have to poke pretty hard (because i didn't come off as strange enough anyway).

i allowed myself to go back to normal after a week or so, but i noticed this weekend that the ankle still seems sprained. it is still swollen, not as much as originally, but noticeably, a medium-sized lump in front of the ankle bone. it hurts less, but it does still hurt and i'm mystified as to why. yes, i've gone back to heels (not every day, by any means) and walking, but it's not like i didn't give it time to heal. so why is it still bothering me and, more frustratingly, why is it still swollen?

the easy answer would be to go to a clinic and talk to a doctor, but i've already spent far too many hours this year in hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices. so that means that i'm open to any hare-brained theories that come from the internet. hit me with your best shot...

17 April 2010

scapegoat, shame on you

i'm not catholic. i wasn't raised catholic, i've never considered converting to catholicism. i live with a catholic and have friends who grew up in catholic. i've attended one catholic service (midnight mass at the notre dame basilica, and i recommend the experience to anyone). my exposure to catholicism has been enough to convince me that i'm very glad my paternal great-grandmother took it upon herself to convert her entire family to protestantism while her husband was off sailing tall ships around the world and couldn't argue with her. in short, catholicism scares me.

as if the constant bludgeoning of churchgoers with guilt and sin wasn't enough to cause permanent damage to those raised in the faith, the last decades have added a new layer of horror: it turns out that a lot of the men who were in charge of doling out the lessons on the wages of sin were sinning pretty massively and pretty flagrantly themselves. that has to be tremendously disillusioning for the majority of catholics, who aren't child molesters and who aren't trying to cover for those who are. and, despite their years of avoidance, it has to be getting fires-of-hell uncomfortable for the catholic church, who are seeing their congregation plummet as more revelations about child abuse and about how much people in the upper echelons of the church knew about what was going on.

this story has been trailing the church for years. in fact, one of the first examples to receive a lot of media attention (and to be made into a surprisingly good television film) happened in newfoundland, adjacent to my home province and home to a fiercely loyal catholic population. in the 1980s, a series of allegations, which grew uglier and uglier, was made against the christian brothers running the mount cashel orphanage. despite a grotesque attempt to block the story by the church, the government and the police, the truth came out and eventually hundreds of former orphanage residents came forward with horrific tales of abuse at the hands of those who were charged with protecting them.

the reaction of the church in that case is telling. people who have nothing to hide generally don't go to great lengths to cover their tracks. that the church in newfoundland attempted to hide or diminish the emerging case against them indicates that either they had been grossly negligent and had failed to notice what was going on (and were trying to save themselves some embarrassment), or that they had actively tried to hide the facts and protect the perpetrators to begin with. and the more cases emerge all over the world, it's clear that powerful people in the church were all too eager to give their ordained sinners a slap on the wrist and shuffle them out of sight until the whole thing kind of blew over.

and, despite the growing clamour, this approach worked for quite a while. with a popular pope occupying the vatican, there was a limit to how far the accusers were willing to carry their arguments. no one wanted to be the one within the church who demanded accountability from a man who was seen by many, even non-catholics, as a hero and, literally, a candidate for sainthood. but with the passing of john paul ii, the stalemate ended. of all the candidates whose names were bandied around in the brief period between popes, none had anything like the stature and public trust to fend off the incoming tsunami. everyone knew it was going to get worse, a lot worse, before it got better.

so with the allegations flowing in and money hemorrhaging out, with investigations running deeper and implicating individuals higher and higher up, the church pondered its next move. whoever came to the papacy at that moment might face any number of challenges, but the single, unavoidable crisis he would have to meet head on would be the sex abuse scandal.

fully cognizant of this, the church turned to cardinal joseph ratzinger, now benedict xvi, who was about as far as one could imagine from his predecessor. a lifelong academic and guardian of catholic doctrine, ratzinger had the popular appeal of a viper. even when people were trying to like him, it seemed forced, as forced as his attempts at enjoying his time in the public eye. then things got worse when it came out that he'd been in the hitler youth as a boy. this should not have tarnished him- he was conscripted like all boys and there is no evidence he ever showed the least interest in the organisation. it just really didn't sound good, at a time when the catholic church was looking for better p.r. to have people tossing around the fact that their leader had been part of the hitler youth.

things have not gotten better. benedict xvi's chief talent seems to be finding new and interesting ways to piss off large groups of people, like he has some big list and wakes up every morning thinking "who haven't i gone off on recently?". it amazed me for a long time that the catholic church, a pretty sophisticated organization at a very fragile point in its existence, would allow this guy to continue to make these statements and not just lock him up in his offices and roll him out for special occasions. more recently it's occurred to me that they don't want to and that he is actually performing in exactly the manner they want him to.

at the time he became pope, ratzinger was already 78 years old. everyone knew that he was basically a temporary stand-in while the church readied itself to take the logical next step in its evolution- the election of a non-white, non-european pope for the first time in history. but lately, i've started to think that his role is not merely that of a placeholder, but that of a scapegoat. the church's response to decades of hideous revelations has been to produce a figure who's easy to dislike, who is tied (increasingly closely) to the scandal, who can end up taking the blame for all of the failures that have lead them to this point. it's a ballsy plan and one that i suspect might work.

there is nothing, nothing that is going to give people a sense of justice and satisfaction about the church's sex scandal. the church is never going to be able to undo its years of malfeasance. but when something as huge and distasteful as this emerges, the braying crowd does tend to be sated by the feeling of success that comes from dislodging a leader. and while it doesn't right past wrongs, if the church is able to shift the locus of blame to one individual, forcing that individual out makes them look like they are finally showing some accountability.

i know next to nothing about the current pope. he's evidently a very intelligent man. he loves mozart and cats, which are things i take to be good signs. but these very human elements are lost under the mire of misstatements and unapologetic hauteur that the public at large sees. i don't know if he's aware of it, but benedict is a patsy. the media would have us believe that, having covered up large-scale sex scandals for decades, the catholic church is suddenly unable to control the voice of one man. don't believe it. the church is as tight and controlled with their public image as any presidential candidate and if stories that paint his holiness in an unflattering light continue to surface, it's because they are allowed to surface.

i suspect that a lot of the people who wept at the death of john paul ii will be unmoved by the death of his successor. and i suspect that history, in the short term, is going to be very unkind to the man. if my musings are correct (and they may well not be), he is likely to be linked forever with the painful memories of the sex abuse scandal, the one who was brought low by it, whose departure signaled the church's rebirth under someone new and different. but i do hope that there will be a diligent few who remember that the scope of the abuse almost beggars belief and that it points to a kind of rot lodged deep in the systems of the church itself- its paranoid secrecy, its barbaric insistence (with tenuous biblical backing) on celibacy in its clergy- which is a profoundly difficult problem to cure. one man did not cause this plague of molestation and bringing one man down, however cathartic and momentarily satisfying it may be, will not fix it.

09 April 2010

the lively arts

poetry is one of those forms that a lot of people find difficult to evaluate. the difference between william carlos williams and the kid in your grade one class who used to eat his paste can be a very fine one indeed.

people who take poetry seriously and who want to hone their poet's skills have found a new home on the internet, though. there are a plethora of sites where they can receive feedback, constructive criticism and encouragement from their peers. what a relief for those of us who grew up thinking that the poetry gene was inextricably linked to the dying alone and miserable gene.

below, i've excerpted some of the feedback on various poems from one such site, so any of you interested in participating in this sort of forum can see what you're in for. i have removed any names that were given and any reference to the specific site, as i don't want to make it seem like i am targeting one particular forum. no other edits have been made, it's just copy and paste.


this reminds me of all my writing i keep in two big rubbermaid totes, and i always said if I die ill let everyone see them

Great poem. I especially like all of it. Bravo!

yr pom suks

WHat the fuck, u fuckin idiot, go shoot yourself u fucking useless piece of motherfucking cocksucking shit. u can burn in fucking hell and have even more pain than u do . trust me, fuck you

yeah I was just stating what it was from. The rest of you are the hight of douchebaggery

what a fag who writes GAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

this fuckin sux and you kno dont b mean to that 12 yerold cause u have no dick cus satan bit it off

ur head is broken, mind rapist.

ur weirdly retarded, if you want my take on it honey bunz.

07 April 2010

parity and prestidigitation

On some level, we all know that we’re sort of getting screwed by retailers. Generally speaking, the larger the retailer, the greater the damage that they can inflict (and no, I’m not going to mention any names). We’ve all made comments to the effect that a retailer or manufacturer makes an item for $2 that ends up retailing for $50. This is, of course, engaging in a little bit of spurious logic that somehow the remaining $48 is finding its way directly into someone’s pocket, which is far from the case. In fact, there are a lot of very good reasons why a $2 product can end up costing $50 in a store, a lot of reasons that we all (without knowing it) want that item to cost $50 in a store- the number of jobs that are supported by its eventual sale, the amount of money driven directly into government coffers by tax on the item that we depend on to pay for our services, etc. I’m not arguing that there isn’t some greed and gouging involved, but there are reasons why we all depend on the economic system generating profits at various stages. The tacit agreement is that retailers and manufacturers should keep their greed below our radar (not difficult, given the sad level of awareness that most of us have of the costs and logistics of retail). If they fulfill that one small requirement, then we will pretty much give them free reign to charge whatever they want and make whatever they want, as long as the charges are broadly consistent across product types.

Yet sometimes, and for Canadians it is one of those times, retailers (and, behind the scenes, manufacturers) manage to trip up even on this simple requirement. Like charging Canadians significantly more than Americans for an item when our currency has virtually the same value. This is one of those things that can drive otherwise friendly, polite, unassuming Canadians to distraction. The last time our dollar hit parity, it was brushed off as a temporary blip and retailers waited months to adjust prices (and even then, did so under considerable pressure). Note that when the dollar went into freefall in 2008, they didn’t wait so long to adjust the prices back up.

To their credit, the venerable American institution Brooks Brothers, who have a small number of retail outlets north of the border, did not wait to be asked and dropped their prices 15% in Canada earlier this week. They could teach a few things to other retailers, who are hemming and hawing about how Canadians can’t use the dollar as their only measurement, while being fairly vague about what other measurements we should be using. This is where working for manufacturers for a number of years comes in handy. So here’s an analysis of some of the excuses being coughed up as reasons why currency parity cannot equal pricing parity. I am not an expert, these are just my observations based on my own experience in the milieu.

1. Market Size- Canada is a small market and therefore does not benefit from the buying power that the United States has. After all, we’re only one tenth their size, so there is no way we could ever get the same volume discount. I’ve always admired how simple, straightforward and sensible this argument sounds, particularly since it’s such an utter load of crap. Sure, if you’re talking about different items being sold in Canada and the United States, that’s true. But how do you calculate parity on items that are different to begin with? You can get close, but it’s never going to be equal.

The same rules apply to different retailers. Different retailers have different prices and that’s the end of it. Canadian Tire can be expected to sell a sleeping bag for a different price than Target in the U.S.

But for items sold by the same retailer (including over the internet) to both countries, this excuse is hogwash. If I am ordering 500,000 of an item to sell to the U.S. and 50,000 to sell to Canada, I don’t place my orders separately. I place one order for 550,000 and work out the differences when it comes time to ship them out. In fact, I get a better deal by combining the buying power of both countries than I would for either on their own. If I’m really smart, I’ll even use NAFTA-compliant trilingual packaging and labeling, so that I get a mass deal on that as well. Most successful manufacturers know how to leverage their full buying power to get the best pricing. That’s why they’re successful.

And, as a side note, keep in mind that market size does not automatically equal buying power. Many retailers with outlets in Canada find that these stores have a MUCH higher return per location than their American counterparts. So, while we may only be a tenth of their size, we buy way more than a tenth of the product that they do.

2. Shipping costs- It costs more to ship to Canada than it does to the United States. This one is completely opaque to most people, so they just take it on faith. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because it’s true. Since there are far more vessels going to the United States from everywhere (but especially from the manufacturers’ hub of south China), it is substantially cheaper to ship to the United States. The last time I saw reliable figures, the difference was between 30 and 40%.

How much of an issue that actually is, however, depends a lot on what item you’re talking about. Shipping containers come in a few standard sizes, but by far the most common is a 40’ one. The cost of shipping any individual item is determined by how many of them you can shove into a 40’ container. If you’re a big retailer, that’s all there is to it. You buy products by the container load. If you’re a smaller retailer, you may have to contract an agency to buy a number of items and mix them up to fill one container, which has added costs. However, this scenario is only relevant if you’re shipping mixed containers to Canada and full containers to the U.S. I’m sure it happens. I’ve never seen it. Honestly. If a retailer is ordering container-loads of goods for the United States, they can always find a way to squeeze out one full container for Canada.

So we'll assume that we’re dealing with a container going to the U.S. and a container going to Canada. Let’s say they’re really different in cost. The one to the U.S. is going to cost $3,000 and the one going to Canada is going to cost $5,000. Say we have 1,000 units of an item in a container (note: this would make it a fairly substantial item, something like a large piece of luggage). The freight on that item to the U.S. is going to be $3. The same item will have a freight cost of $5 coming to Canada. This definitely accounts for some of the difference. Our theoretical $2 item now costs $5 in the U.S. and $7 in Canada. But that’s a fairly large item. If you were using something the size of a wallet rather than a piece of luggage and you could fit 10,000 of them in a container, then the difference falls to only $0.20 between the countries. How much of a big deal is that?

3. Taxes & Tariffs- The universal wisdom is that these are higher in Canada than in the United States. I’ve never seen a comprehensive analysis, but I’m willing to bet that it’s true on a very grand scale. However, that only means that when a Canadian and an American importing a variety of goods from overseas look at their bills at the end of the year, the Canadian is likely to be holding a somewhat higher bill. There are all sorts of rules that apply to the importation of goods and how much duty is levied on them and these have mostly to do with which industries a country is trying to protect. Imagine you are importing two items from China. They are alike in every way, except that one is made out of cotton and and one is made out of synthetic fibre. If you're shipping them to Canada, there is no difference in terms of the duty you'll pay. Going into the U.S., with its massive, struggling textile industry, you’re likely going to pay six times the duty on the cotton piece. So where you end up paying more duty is a lot more detailed and specific than working out a general rule.

Then, of course, you need to keep in mind how much this actually affects the price of the final item. Remember, duty is charged on the value assigned by the importer, which means its value when it leaves the point of origin. For our example of a $2 product that costs $50 in store, whoever imports it pays duty on $2 only. In order for this to make a substantial difference between Canadian and American retails, the variance in landing costs would have to be huge.

4. Shipping costs, Part 2- This is where calculating shipping gets complicated. There are very smart people who spend their entire careers doing this sort of thing, so you don’t need to be able to sort out exactly how much shipping is involved in getting something in the door of a United States retailer as opposed to a Canadian one, but you should be skeptical about grand claims that it’s just always more expensive in Canada.

Once a product arrives in its destination country, it actually has to make its way to the store where it will be sold to you and me. There can be a few steps to this process, but lets stick with our model of a large retailer and look at what is most common for them. From the port where it lands, the item goes to a number of distribution centres (generally referred to just as “DCs”), who then divide the shipment into smaller bundles and send it to individual stores.

In the United States, the population is spread out over the country’s entire land mass. A large retailer needs to have several DCs in various regions to service this and to coordinate stores receiving merchandise at roughly the same time. This is an expensive network to maintain and requires a fleet of trucks on the road at all times. There is a lot of ground to cover. And if there’s a lot of ground to cover in the U.S., imagine how much there must be in Canada, which is so much larger. The answer is a hell of a lot less.

Many retailers service Canada out of a single DC in Ontario. Others have three or four, but it’s never all that many. And, unlike the United States, Canada’s population, or at least the lion’s share of it, lines up in a neat, straight line along the border. So, once a product is in Canada, there’s a less complicated procedure to getting it to its final destination and fewer places where goods need to be directed. In anything, less complications mean less cost.

5. Difficulty of execution- Now here’s something to consider. How much work and, more to the point, how much cost is involved in making all the changes necessary to come up with new pricing? There’s needing to reprogram cash registers, scanning systems, adjusting inventory value, changing web site information, changing printed information that may have been set months in advance… There’s a lot of difficulty in changing a price, let alone changing all the prices for all the items. The easiest time to do it is obviously at the end of a season, when new products are coming in and old products are leaving. So maybe that’s what they’re waiting for.

Ha. This is where we can look at the Brooks Bros. system. They haven’t changed their prices anywhere. They’ve simply implemented a 15% discount, the same type that retailers everywhere do all the time when they have sales. This is something that can be implemented very quickly. What takes time is deciding who’s going to pay for it.

Retailers and manufacturers spar constantly over responsibility for the costs of special giveaways, sale pricing, anything that involves cutting into their profits. So even when groups can agree that near-parity in retail pricing should be a goal, it becomes a complicated process to determine who’s going to barf on their bottom line to make it happen. (Which is why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a company like Brooks Brothers, which serves both as a retailer and as a manufacturer of its own goods, should be the first to step up.)

6. Timing- "It takes a while to see the benefits of currency differences." This one always sounds suspicious. It’s the argument gas companies make when their prices stay the same even as the price of oil tumbles. In fact, it’s probably the best argument you can get for delaying any move towards price adjustment (and we’d take it a lot more seriously from gas companies if they didn’t jack up their prices at the pumps the second there’s a rumour of an increase in the price of oil).

Retailers and manufacturers don’t just buy what they need on a daily or weekly basis the way an individual does. The quantities in which they need to secure materials force them to order months in advance and to lock in a price at that time. That means they’re stuck paying that price, potentially for months after the rules have changed, because they had to commit in January to a program that will finish shipping in June. Of course, the counter argument is that they’ll be making more money, because the sales that they’re making in Canada will suddenly be worth more than what they projected. The key is finding the tipping point: At what time does the extra revenue generated by the higher dollar meet or exceed the higher price paid for the materials? it takes work to figure this out and work takes time. Even when you've had advance notice to prepare, you're going to have some lag- potentially months- in adjusting prices.

What’s truly weird about this argument is the following: I’ve not once heard anyone use it to explain why they need a delay in changing prices. It’s a fairly sensible argument, that would allow retailers time to negotiate with suppliers and divide costs. I guess that gas companies have ruined that line of logic for everyone.

The problem with all these arguments is that they take a long time to explain. I’ll bet you’re exhausted just reading this blog post and I’m just a neophyte without any kind of economic training. If you watch the news, you’re lucky if you get a 5 second sound-bite of someone explaining the difficulties of price parity and all they’re likely to do is say a couple of the words I’ve used as “subtitles”.

Forcing someone to explain their logic is a long process and it all comes down to the fact that the same rules just don’t apply to every type of product. Parity can come, but it’s individual retailers who have to do the analysis and figure out when they can adjust prices and how close to parity they can come. Given that this debate keeps resurfacing, perhaps it’s time to enact legislation forcing retailers to make product specifications available- item size, carton size, container quantities, percentage duty charged, etc. None of these reveal how much the retailer is paying or earning. It just allows the enterprising consumer to see how great the difference between Canadian and US costs actually is. And keep in mind, this isn’t asking the retailer to supply anything they don’t already have- they need this information to import and stock the product anyway.

Until that happens (stop laughing), I’ll leave you with my sound-bite, an oversimplification designed to go head to head with those of the retailers who are saying that achieving price parity is a difficult and complicated procedure:

There is no excuse for not achieving near-parity in the vast majority of cases. The slow but steady rise of the dollar has provided retailers and manufacturers with time to plan for the inevitable arrival of currency parity. Within a few months at most, the differences between retail pricing in Canada and the United States should be negligible and we should take our business solely to those companies where it is.
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