Tuesday, August 27, 2013

(No.246) "Are cruise ships killing Venice?"

"Are cruise ships stopping in Venice 
hastening the destruction of the historic city? "

by Alastair Rickard

Is the magnificent city of Venice dying? Many people think so.

That area constituting the historic city of Venice in a northern Adriatic lagoon has a population of only 60,000. Most of the city's working life is carried on by commuters. The deputy mayor of Paris, the most visited city in the world, recently told Le Parisien that "we don't want to become like Venice, a city devoid of inhabitants due to tourism."

Venice's high waters, getting higher steadily, have resulted in an average of 100 floods a year. The so-called Great Flood of 1966 destroyed $6 billion of artwork. The subsequent Italian government plan to protect the city is still incomplete after the expenditure of more than $7 billion.

If global warming and rising sea levels and associated floods don't finish off this Italian city (and the still incomplete flood defences don't) then visiting cruise ships and their passengers likely will.

The Venice Port Authority, among other Venetian vested interests, want even more huge cruise ships to visit the city each year, to be pulled by tugs toward the Doge's Palace then down the Guidecca Canal.

Why does this matter to the survival of Venice?

Here are a few indices of the magnitude of the problems faced by this major tourist destination:

-- In 1997 Venice was visited by 206 cruise ships; in 2011 by 655; the latter number means 1310 passages in the same canal, polluting the air, shaking the houses with their backwash, displacing water up into the canals off the Guidecca.

--The number of berths in the Venice port has been increased so it can handle 8 giant cruise ships at the same time.

-- In 1990 200,000 tourists disembarked from cruise ships in Venice; by 2000 this figure had increased to 337,000; in 2007 the total was 1 million and in 2011 1.8 million.

-- On one day in July 2011 6 cruise ships put 35,000 tourists ashore in Venice at the same time,  a human total equalling more than half the city's residential population.

-- It is worth noting that cruise ships disembark mainly single day visitors to the city who are not even counted in compiling Venice's 6.3 million visitors a year (i.e., those counted as 'visitors' in this total are those who stay over at least one night).

-- Most of Venice's tourists, like first time visitors to the Louvre in Paris who head straight for the painting of the Mona Lisa, want to see St.Mark's Square. It used to be called the drawing room of Europe and is today likened -- because of the crush of tourists now overwhelming Venice -- to the crowded concourse of a major railway station.

After the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground on the island of Giglio on Jan. 13, 2012 an Italian government decree banned ships of more than 40,000 tons from sailing down Venice's Guidecca Canal. [Most of the modern cruise ships are more than this tonnage, often much more.]

The decree has been ignored.

UNESCO reports predict that as sea levels continue to rise Venice will flood twice a day every day in the spring of the year because of tidal ocillation. Buildings in the city have already been seriously degraded by periodic flooding and the 'rising damp'.

Can the death of Venice be far behind?


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

(No.245) About the Economical Insurance Co.: is Rickard a "crackpot & blatant liar"?

"About the Economical Insurance Company: 
is Rickard of RickardsRead.com "a crackpot and a blatant liar"? 
Yes, according to one correspondent
(plus an update on Manulife )"

by Alastair Rickard

During the past few years I have posted a number of columns on RickardsRead.com about the proposed demutualization of Economical Insurance, a mutual property and casualty insurance company based
in Waterloo Ontario since 1873. All the columns have been critical of and opposed to the demutualization plan for the company advanced by its management and board which would award the equity in the company (perhaps, they hope, as much as ca. $1 million each) to fewer than 1,000 of the 1+million policyholders of the company.

The most recent column, "Economical Insurance Co. -- Insiders with more nerve than a canal horse"
(No. 241) was posted on July 18, 2013. It prompted a number of responses from readers, none more interestingly hostile than one I reprint (below) in its entirety.

Consistent with the longstanding practice of RickardsRead.com I will withhold the name of the writer but for the benefit of readers briefly identify him by his interest and/or connection to the subject.

The writer was a senior salaried employee of Economical Insurance. He is also an 'equity' policyholder in the company who seems to be anxious about the delay by Ottawa in providing a regime for P & C company demutualization.

"I see you have crawled from under your rock again, after about a year to take another swipe at the Economical demutualization process. The process which, as you know, is perfectly legal and written into the Economical bylaws.

"I am a retired employee of Economical and take exception to the way you have portrayed the Economical Mutual policyholders to your '40' or so subscribers [sic], in your 'rants'. Far and away, most mutual policyholders (including myself) of the Economical are ordinary folk. But that is not what you are portraying in your 'rants'. You characterize them as Directors and Senior managers, but that group comprises less than 3% of the total. So you are an outright liar & definitely a crackpot.

"But more seriously, I have concerns you are receiving inside information on the demtualization process. Last year you indicated the demutualization process will be spread out. None of us knew this. Now, you seem to have inside knowledge as to how these regulations will play out. Even a blatant liar and a crackpot such as yourself could not have come to this conclusion. And this is my concern."

The foregoing email, obviously written in a fit of exasperation, sets up and then knocks down several straw men.

I do not intend to reply here to each of the comments made by this Economical Insurance insider, neither the silly nor the ad hominem. Nor will I present in this column excerpts from emails I received agreeing with my comments or from emails referring to possible class actions.

However there are three points I do wish to make:

1. It would be unfair to federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty and his staff in Finance for me to allow to pass unremarked the assertion that I have been receiving "inside information" about the development of a regime to govern the demutualization of p & c insurance companies. I have not.

2. My comments about the small group of Economical Insurance "voting policyholders" (i.e., those seeking to have the company demutualize and then divide a $billion+ in corporate equity among them) embraced company "insiders".

    The "insider" group includes but is not limited to the company's directors and senior managers (current and former). It was a group whose members over time had both the knowledge and the opportunity not available to most of the company's policyholders to acquire a "voting" policy from Economical.

3. RickardsRead.com does not have "subscribers". The columns posted on it are available to be read by anyone with access to the Internet.

The demutualization of a federal p & c insurance company like Economical, whatever else it involves, is at root about an action that would if it followed the Economical proposal mean a relative handful of Economical policyholders getting rich off a socially useless scheme involving almost entirely other people's money.

That reality is not altered by an inability or refusal to recognize fact.


I have written several columns in recent years about the near disaster which threatened to take down Manulife, the Toronto-headquartered Canadian life insurance company whose senior management for years chased hundreds of millions of dollars of new variable insurance contracts the return from which it guaranteed.

In order to increase company profits (and therefore also profit-related executive compensation) to even higher levels Manulife in 2004 stopped hedging the unwise risk it was assuming in great dollar volumes.

What happened to Manulife, when the Wall Street-generated meltdown began to occur in 2007-8, was inevitable. As Manulife's net exposure to guaranteed variable policies hit $72 billion by Sept. 2008 the company headed toward the financial ditch.

In a recent column (No. 238: "Manulife and Turkey: some interesting numbers", posted June 17, 2013) I referred to an Ontario Superior Court hearing scheduled for June involving a class action against Manulife. The required court certification of a class action was to be sought.

Shareholders of Manulife had launched a class action in 2009 claiming $500 million from the company, former CEO Dominic D'Alessandro and former CFO Peter Rubenovitch over the company's risk management policies and practices.

On July 25, 2012 the 20 page ruling of Mr. Justice Edward Belobaba was released. The judge certified the investors' class action lawsuit. As the Financial Post reported (July 26, 2012) the plaintiffs, whose claim was filed by the Siskinds law firm of London, Ontario, have permission to seek relief under provisions of the Ontario Securities Act that allow investors to sue for "secondary market misrepresentation". The claim also seeks common law damages for negligence, negligent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment.

Stay tuned.


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
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Monday, August 12, 2013

(No.244)"Cable news: home of the callow & the sanctimonious"

"Cable news: home of the callow and sanctimonious
(plus items on Canadian banks, Picasso in Las Vegas and Conrad Black)"

by Alastair Rickard

I have long since become resigned to the careful use of spoken English continuing to decline in television journalism coincident with the cultural 'advance' of electronic communication with its emoticons, acronyms, Twitter limitations, etc). But it is still irritating to watch the decline in the standard of English usage among the very class of persons who ought to be one of its bulwarks: broadcast journalists.

The CBC in Canada, always anxious to be seen as inclusive and non-elitist, puts on air younger reporters (especially but not exclusively) whose lack of facility with properly spoken English serves to promote its misuse like the debasing of a currency.

Just one example: the other day I heard a CBC broadcast journalist reporting from the scene of a relatively minor tragedy, an event certainly some distance from one signalling the end of the world, use the following words within a minute or two: unthinkable, indescribable, unimaginable and incredible.

Clearly the matter being reported did not qualify for the use of any of these words if they retain their actual meaning. But such hyperbole has become routine in television journalism, especially on cable news broadcasts.

It involves the misuse of language in the service of promoting attention (and ratings) among those people who -- the networks believe -- must be stimulated to watch by the use of verbal hype, by endowing something or other with phoney gravitas or salaciousness. Meaningful context is usually missing:  too time consuming to provide; too much risk of straining the average viewer's supposed brief attention span; might promote distraction from the 'headline' focus (i.e., ratings).

What would be an example of a fact, a reality that might begin to approach providing justification for the use of such hyperbolic language?

How about this?

In terms of Japan's record of mistreating prisoners of war before and during WWII, its greatest crime was not (as many in the west understandably think) against POWs it captured in fighting the western allies in World War II (about a 30% death rate overall) but the Chinese. On Dec.7, 1941 -- the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- after 4 years of war in China, the Japanese  held some 340,000 Chinese POWs. At the end of the war in 1945 fewer than 100 [sic] remained alive.

Do you think that the next time a cable news story involving some aspect of continuing tensions between China and Japan is reported (if it is reported at all) that even this much or comparable context will be provided? Don't hold your breath.

Linguistic flatulence does make a contribution to feeding today's popular media culture especially as embodied by the comments of the callow and the sanctimonious who are increasingly prominent. CNN, in pandering to those U.S. viewers they believe are interested above all in crimes and misfortunes involving attractive blond females, makes CBC news coverage look consistently elevated.

Under its recently installed senior management CNN pursued higher ratings by spending almost all day every day for several weeks on one event, one trial and the post-trial period: i.e., the shooting of a 17 year old Florida youth by a self-appointed neighbourhood 'guardian'.

Where was the needed context, the perspective, the proportionality for this sort of massively excessive 'news' coverage? There wasn't.

This single unfortunate shooting happened in a country in which more than 30,000 of its citizens become gun death statistics each year, an average of more than 80 a day, and in a country in which every year twice as many people are killed by guns than die in terrorist attacks worldwide.

But then 'news' network executives can smell a story they can build into a likely ratings succcess as readily as a feral cat roaming an alley can find an opened tin of salmon. Forget about proportionality related to importance.


In the second of a two part column on Las Vegas and a few of its curiosities (No.221, "Las Vegas nocturnes: Monet & the Cirque du Soleil") I referred to Steve Wynn, the most creative and sophisticated entrepreneur in the modern history of Las Vegas.

Wynn was and is a collector of major works of art. A valuable painting in his personal collection was Picasso's Le Reve which he had bought in 1997 for $48 million. In 2006 he had arranged to sell it for $139 million to hedge fund player Steve Cohen. However while showing the painting to some guests Wynn (who has degenerative eye disease and is now legally blind) turned and put his elbow through the painting.

The sale was cancelled and Wynn sent the painting for a major restoration effort. It has recently been reported that Wynn has now sold the restored Picasso to Cohen for $155 million.


Terry Campbell is the president of the Canadian Bankers Association. I knew him slightly several years ago when we were part of the same financial services working group. He is a very able and articulate advocate and has proven to be an excellent choice as head of the CBA.

Earlier this year he wrote an op-ed piece for the Financial Post (March 19, 2013). In it he explained the reasons, as he saw them, for a rise in Canadians' "favourable view of banks in Canada." One main reason, he argued, is that during the the world financial crisis five years ago Canadian banks were seen by Canadians as "well run and well regulated."

I have in several columns in the past few years commented that the fact no Canadian bank failure
occurred post-2007 had mainly to do, despite Candian bankers taking international bows,  with strong federal government prudential regulations vigorously enforced by the federal regulator OSFI which prevented Canadian bankers from treading the same disastrous financial paths as many of their American and European counterparts did.

Conrad Black also expressed an opinion in one of his weekly columns in the National Post (March 23, 2012): "Canada was spared (the) fate (of bank failure and govt. bailout) only by the fact that Canadian banking is a tightly regulated six-bank cartel, not by the genius of our bankers -- contrary to their frequent insinuations otherwise."


In a RickardsRead column "Executing the innocent as well as the guilty" (No.242) I reviewed some of the causes and results involving the conviction of accused persons in the U.S. who are later shown to have been innocent, the conviction having been based on faulty evidence.

One of the causes I cited for this state of affairs was wrong eyewitness testimony. One recent American analysis of 40 cases in which DNA evidence established the innocence of wrongly imprisoned individuals revealed that 36 of the 40 convictions involved incorrect eyewitness identification of the innocent (but convicted) person.

It occurs to me that, whatever the objections from the prosecutorial fraternity, the reality of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony -- long known to criminal counsel -- should be used as a caution when charging juries (at the very least). It would doubtless also be useful news for television watchers who in the main seem to believe in the verisimilitude of American courtroom dramas.


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
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Sunday, August 4, 2013

(No.243) "The Shaw Festival, drama critics & stoat pate"

"The Shaw festival, drama critics and stoat liver pate:
two more plays in the 2013 Shaw season"

by Alastair Rickard

I have written other columns for RickardsRead.com about drama critics and not only how their views of a play can differ but why, seeing the same play they have reviewed, I am led to wonder if indeed they attended the same play I did.

The nature of criticism in the arts is often idiosyncratic and partial with critics' praise often tending to be given disproportionately to the trendy or the unusual or the precious.

Nor is the absence of what many see as critical common sense confined to stage plays.

I think of much of what today passes for art criticism which elevates the silly and the untalented -- for example, the American Agnes Martin's 1981 'white painting' (untitled) -- to the status of serious art using pretentious and precious language like "making white seem as if it floats off the page".

Or by characterizing -- 25 years on -- as "the one truly vital voice of the 80s" the musical meanderings in 1980s Manchester of The Smiths (including co-founder Steven Patrick Morrissey), pretending that The Smiths' rock music wasn't largely noise masquerading as the 'meaningful' social preoccupation of what is today a fairly minor pop music cult.

"Lady Windermere's Fan", one of the plays Pat and I saw during our first visit to this season's Shaw Festival was I concluded (RickardsRead, No.237), a production that "works reasonably well except for a bit too much effort for my taste to appear trendy and precious in staging, design and music" but it is "worth seeing."

In the reviews of the play I read subsequent to our seeing the play the drama critics of the major Toronto dailies -- far from differing in their reception of this play -- embraced it enthusiastically.

Such comprehensive praise underlines yet again the fact that professional arts criticsm is often like food tasting: the 'expert' can tell his audience that stoat liver pate tastes ever so grand but how it actually
strikes one's palate may be quite another matter.

In our second visit to this season's Shaw Festival Pat and I saw "Guys And Dolls" and "Enchanted April", both presented in the main Festival Theatre.

"Guys and Dolls"  is the umpteenth revival of yet another in a very long line of Broadway hit musicals, a type of production which has become a crowd-drawing staple on which both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals have come to rely for financial sustenance.

Frank Loesser's 1950 hit has racked up more mileage than a still-operating 1957 Chevy in Havana. While such musical revivals staged anywhere are not high on my list of favourites, the Shaw version is more than a respectable production. Pat thought it was well done for its type. The audience of which we were members loved the production and most gave it a standing ovation.

We also saw "Enchanted April", the 2000 adaptation as a play by American Matthew Barber of the 1922 novel by Australian-born Elizabeth von Arnim. The plot in a nutshell: four Englishwomen in drab post-First World War London club together to rent an Italian seaside villa for a month -- without husbands.  As sitcom promos used to say -- complications ensue.

The Globe and Mail's Kelly Nestruk thinks the Shaw production of "Enchanted April"  is an "altogether charming incarnation ... pulled off with undeniable polish".  In contrast the Toronto drama critic with whom I most often agree was rather less than impressed. Robert Cushman of the National Post concluded his review with some wondering: "what this second-rate confection is doing on the main stage of one of our two premier theatre festivals, I cannot say. It doesn't even have the excuse of being a musical."

Pat thought "Enchanted April" one of the two better productions we saw at Shaw this season. The other was "Lady Windermere's Fan" which she rated behind "Enchanted April".

My assessment of "April" landed somewhere between the opinions of Nestruk and Pat on the one hand and that of Cushman on the other. I thought the play, while nothing very substantial, pleasantly entertaining in a modest way.


"Guys And Dolls" is at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-On-The-Lake  through Oct.12, 2013.

"Enchanted April", also at the Festival Theatre, runs through Oct.26,2013.

For details visit www.Shawfest.com


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go the blog
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use the links.

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