Tuesday, 25 February 2014

5 Reasons Why An Edmonton-Calgary High-Speed Train Is A Bad Idea

Source: Wired.com
This week has seen yet more discussion of the on-again, off-again proposed high-speed rail link between Alberta's two largest cities. In an article in yesterday's Calgary Herald, reporter James Wood contends that a number of Alberta MLAs are once again smiling on the concept. With real estate prices on the rise along the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, some proponents argue that the longer the province delays, the more expensive the project will become. Others argue that while the time is not yet right for the province to build it, the time will come when Alberta's population will be more than large enough to support it.

The last time I wrote about the proposed Alberta bullet train was back in 2010 in an article for Alberta Views magazine. At the time I voiced cautious support for the idea, noting that some countries (notably Norway and Finland) have made high-speed rail work in spite of having relatively sparse populations along similar lines to Alberta. And I still agree that low population, the most oft-heard argument against building a bullet train, is not necessarily a reason not to build it. After all, Alberta has a similar population base to both Scotland and the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, both of which have relatively fast trains (although not, strictly speaking, bullet trains). It could work here.

Nevertheless, the more I've looked at the issue, the more I've come to think that making a bullet train between Calgary and Edmonton a priority at this juncture would be very much misguided. As a longtime ex-pat in Japan I'm a huge fan of high-speed rail, but having thought a great deal about the issue I'm forced to conclude that it makes virtually zero sense here - especially as far as Edmonton is concerned. Here are my reasons why.

1) We don't have adequate urban transit infrastructure to support it.

There's a reason why high-speed rail works in places like France and Japan, or for that matter in Norway or Sweden. All of these countries' major cities have superb urban transportation systems, which efficiently move people from residential neighbourhoods to the major downtown rail hubs, where they can connect to fast intercity trains. We don't have anything like that here. Calgary is rather further ahead than Edmonton on the urban rail front, but both cities have a long way to go before they're on par with Munich, Seoul or Oslo. If we were to build a train tomorrow, you would have people driving to the train station on the departure end - only to arrive at the other end without a car and not a whole lot of other options for getting around.

2) The proposed system would benefit Calgary far more than Edmonton.

Edmonton and Calgary are very different cities. Calgary, with its relatively compact downtown and dense array of corporate headquarters, would attract its fair share of train travellers, who would be able to get off and do whatever they need to do downtown. Edmonton, by contrast, is an enormous sprawl, with the lion's share of economic activity situated in its periphery. How many Calgarians doing business in Edmonton are going to opt for a train that leaves them downtown, which still leaves them a trip to Sherwood Park or Leduc that, in rush hour traffic, will take them nearly as long as the train trip itself? Until Edmonton invests in far better public transportation and encourages far more business in its downtown core, this is going to be a flop for Edmonton.

3) The train would kill Edmonton's airport.

Here's the other problem for Edmonton. Edmonton International Airport, while most definitely on the ascendency, is still only half the size of Calgary International, which now has its sights set on an expanded Asia-Pacific role. The latest proposals for a Calgary-Edmonton high-speed rail link hint at a stop at YYC - but notably not YEG, which would make this train little more than a glorified extension to the C-Train. Even with a station stop at EIA, it would severely endanger the progress Edmonton has made in air service development, and without one it would be suicide for EIA. After all, why would anyone use EIA when you can simply take a bullet train to YYC - and get there in about as much time (and more comfortably) as you would taking the bus to EIA?

4) There are far less expensive ways of reducing single-occupancy car traffic on the QEII.

One thing that Edmontonians and Calgarians will doubtless agree on is that something needs to be done to reduce single-occupancy car traffic on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway - as well as within the respective cities. Here's an idea. How about creating dedicated bus lanes and up-gauging the Red Arrow bus system to an hourly articulated BRT service more resembling a train? Having ridden the Red Arrow myself, I can tell you that it's a wonderful service with all the comfort you'd expect from a rapid rail system - while costing a fraction of what building TGV tracks and stations would cost. And creating dedicated bus (and perhaps carpool) lanes on that highway would significantly shorten the travel time, while reducing vehicle emissions.

There are other strategies the province could take on this front. What about a serious campaign to promote car-sharing? Both Calgary and Edmonton now have car-share co-ops. There are also new technologies coming down the pike that could, by the time a high-speed rail system is in place, make such a system obsolete, like electric driverless cars. It's not hard to imagine a megaproject like this amounting to little more than an extremely expensive anachronism.

5) What about Fort McMurray?

The Calgary-Edmonton corridor is not the only transportation vector in the province with a serious need of overhaul. While exact numbers are hard to come by, travel between Fort McMurray and Edmonton has grown by epic proportions over the past decade, and in doing so is presenting a formidable transportation challenge. Fort McMurray International Airport is now easily the country's fastest growing airport, with growth far outpacing either Edmonton or Calgary, and Highway 63 between Edmonton and Fort McMurray has quickly become Alberta's most feared roadway. Passenger rail between Edmonton and Fort Mac once existed, and the rails are still there waiting to be used. And it wouldn't necessarily need be a full-fledged bullet train. Surely something along the lines of VIA's Windsor-Quebec City corridor trains would do the trick.

Those, in sum, are my thoughts on the subject. A bullet train between Edmonton and Calgary would, at this juncture at least, be a colossal misplaced priority, in my opinion. Improving public transit in both cities would not only improve overall quality of life in both but also probably do more for the environment than a high-speed intercity rail system would, as congested urban traffic creates rather more air pollution than intercity highway traffic does. Best, in my opinion, to concentrate capital spending on that while augmenting bus service between the two cities in a manner that is well integrated with their respective transit systems.

Moreover, as an Edmontonian I fear that, as things stand currently, an Edmonton-Calgary high-speed rail system would simply amount to a train "to Calgary" that would contribute very little to Edmonton, and potentially cause great harm to the city. Given the nature of Edmonton's geographic spread and its transportation deficit vis-a-vis Calgary, it's not hard to imagine a system such as this turning Edmonton into a glorified suburb of Calgary as opposed to a thriving city in its own right.

Agree or disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts.

10 Sexiest World Leaders of 2014

Last January I ushered Brush Talk into tabloid territory with my still-popular Sexiest World Leaders of 2013 post. Given the overall dearth of homages to the hottest honeys at the highest echelons of global governance (and people's apparent enthusiasm for the subject), I felt it only fair that I update the list, given that two of the ten on last year's list are no longer in power and one other is hanging by a thread in the midst of renewed anti-government protests in her country (who still managed to find her way onto this year's list).

Four out of this year's ten are repeats from last year. Six are newcomers to the list. And with respect to the still-hunky leader of the Free World, we still think you're sexy here at Brush Talk but we gotta clear space for some new players here, and seeing as you have no trouble getting attention out in the world, we're going to give you a pass this time. Nothing personal.

So here it is, this year's 10 Sexiest World Leaders:

1) Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

Sigh.....the only three days ago the tiny and epically beautiful Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan celebrated the 34th birthday of their beloved "Dragon King", Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. And why not? The long isolated and impoverished mountain kingdom is undergoing a democratic renaissance with commensurate improvements in standard of living. Social media is radically transforming the country (over 10% of its population is now on Facebook) and embracing 21st century technology in a characteristically Bhutanese Buddhist fashion, such as partnering with Nissan to promote electric cars in the country. And at the helm of all this is Asia's hunkiest head of state - together with Asia's hottest first lady, Queen Consort Jetsun Pema. Who would have thought Bhutan would ever be the envy of the world?

2) Alenka Bratušek

Source: novosti.ru
Before the global economic crisis of 2008, Slovenia was enjoying a halcyon period as one of the star economies of the New Europe, the first of the former Yugoslav republics to join the European Union and the Eurozone. In the years since the crash, however, it's been in a state of fiscal Armageddon, plagued by insolvent banks and a heavily indebted public and private sector. However, things have begun to look up for the tiny country wedged between the Alps and the Mediterranean under the leadership of centre-left Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek, whose ambitious platform of surgical spending cuts and protection of social programs has won her plaudits both at home and with the IMF since taking over in early 2013. Following her election, one right-wing opponent chided her skills (and her wardrobe), saying her government would last no longer than her miniskirts. A year later, the pouty, pugnacious PM is still in power, and her country is looking all the better for it.

3) Enrique Peña Nieto

Source: Wikipedia
This week as been a good one for the still relatively young and untested Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, what with the capture of notorious drug lord Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman by Mexican marines in what as been lauded as "an impeccable operation." But even before this week's good news, Mexico's young leader had already been enjoying a growing reputation as a canny administrator and a shrewd economic steward, overseeing steady economy growth thanks to a manufacturing and tech boom and strengthened trade within the NAFTA zone - as well as an improving law and order situation. Only this month Mexico became only the second Latin American country to earn the much-coveted "A" grade credit rating from Moody's, which certainly bodes well for the country's economic future. If nothing else, Peña Nieto's first year in office has shown he's more than just a pretty face. Which nobody would dispute he is.

4) Yulia Tymoshenko

Source: www.go4pix.info
She's baaaack! After over two years behind bars on a dubious (and without doubt politically motivated) conviction of abuse of power, Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko, the economist-turned-oil and gas tycoon-turned-post-Orange Revolution prime minister has been released from prison in the wake of this year's anti-government protests in Ukraine, and is once again a player to contend with amid her country's current political chaos following the disappearance of President Viktor Yanukovych. But while her role in the 2004 Orange Revolution and her imprisonment have made her a heroine among a vast swath of Ukrainians, the 2014 revolution, by contrast, took place without her, and some have dismissed her as an old-style politician whose patrician style no longer chimes with a modern country with a vibrant civil society. Still, the Princess Leia of Eastern Europe is still a force to contend with. And she still looks the part, we have to say.

5) Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Source: New York Post
Yep, we still love Helle Thorning-Schmidt, especially after her priceless selfie moment with Barack Obama and David Cameron at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, which, predictably, incurred a barrage of sexist and puritanical outrage on the American right. But there are all kinds of other reasons to love Denmark's charming and ravishing prime minister. The centre-left leader of Denmark's Social Democratic Party is considered a frontrunner for the presidency of the European Commission and her staunch advocacy of Danish adoption of the euro, while controversial at home, has won her plaudits within the European Union with the promise of infusing a dose of Danish-style compassionate pragmatism into the Brussels bubble. Sure she gets some grief for her expensive fashion tastes and her favourable tax arrangements thanks to her blue-blooded British husband Stephen Kinnock (who most recently has been the target of tabloid rumours about his sexual orientation). But clearly Europe's most glamourous head of government is doing something right; last year's World Happiness Report crowned Denmark as the world's happiest country. And thanks in no small part to Ms. Thorning-Schmidt, it's certainly one of the sexiest.

6) Edi Rama

Source: flickrhivemind.net
It was only a matter of time before the charming and multitalented Edi Rama became prime minister of his long-beleaguered corner of southeastern Europe. A former basketball player-turned-professional artist (and occasional rapper)-turned mayor of Tirana, Rama rose to prominence for his radical overhaul of the Albanian capital, demolishing the worst of the city's Communist-era buildings and illegally built structures, widening roads, planting trees and - most famously - painting the city in bright pink, yellow, green and violet in what became known as "Edi Rama colours." Like Thorning-Schmidt, Rama is no stranger to controversy, from his reputation for insulting people over social media to his penchant for nudism. But his well-earned reputation for getting things done saw his Socialist Party and its coalition partners elected to a solid majority in June of last year on a platform centred on fighting crime, modernizing public services and EU integration. Only time will tell if Mr. Albania can work the same charm on the country that he did for its capital.

7) Michel Martelly

Source; vebidoo.de
Albania may be one of Europe's poorest nations, but it's still worlds ahead of the western hemisphere's poorest nation, Haiti - a land that was already destitute before the horrendous 2010 earthquake destroyed what little remained of its moribund economy. But while nearly 200,000 people remain homeless a full four years after the quake, there appear to finally be signs of stabilization and economic growth in the perpetually tragedy-stricken Caribbean nation. Tourism is on the rise in the country, as are mining and manufacturing, and an ambitious reforestation program is underway, which hopes to rebuild the country's devastated forests and in doing so control landslides. At the helm of post-quake Haiti is former "Kompa" music star-turned politico Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a guy who, at the very least, has helped restore hope and optimism to a country with very little of either. After having suffered through an evil medical doctor, a corrupt priest and an incompetant agronomist in the presidential palace, the suave and sexy Sweet Micky has been a welcome change.

8) Aminata Touré

Source: senenews.com
The west African republic of Senegal has undergone a political sea-change in recent years. In 2012 the country's geriatric strongman Abdoulaye Wade surprised many at home and abroad by stepping down without a fight following his electoral loss to petroleum engineer-turned-legislator Macky Sall, a dour leader with a reputation for transparent dealings. But while Sall may lack colour and charisma, his prime minister since September 2013 most definitely does not. Dubbed Senegal's Iron Lady, Aminata Touré is a ex-campus Marxist best known for her family planning work in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire, her staunch advocacy of women's rights and her athleticism - she was once a star player for the Dakar Gazelles soccer team. She's even courted controversy in the conservative country by appointing a justice minister who has spoken out in favour of decriminalizing homosexuality. She's new to the job so it remains to be seen how she'll fare at it, but we already love her - that's for sure!

9) Yingluck Shinawatra

Source: cbc.ca
This past year has been a rough one for Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra, the former telecom tycoon whose controversial brother Thaksin was deposed in a military coup in 2006. Most recently the beleaguered premier has pledged to stay in power in the face of widespread protests against her government, which are now in their fourth month. That said, Yingluck has performed better as prime minister than many people expected and still enjoys widespread support, particularly in the rural areas that have benefitted from her government's generous rice-buying scheme, which has helped lift many farm families out of poverty. With an election already overdue (postponed due to the protests), Yingluck's fate is anybody's guess - she could be out of a job tomorrow or she could hang onto power for a while longer. Whatever the case, she'll still be one of the sexiest world leaders in recent history, as was her dashing predecessor Abhisit Vejjajiva. Good looks, it would seem, only get you so far in the Land of Smiles.

10) Matteo Renzi

Source: ogginotizie.it
The newest kid on the sexy world leaders block, Matteo Renzi, who this month became Italy's youngest ever prime minister at age 39, now faces the job of running a country that goes through prime ministers like underpants and whose top job has in recent years vacillated between a cluster of ineffective bureaucrats and a pervy billionaire who ran the country's economy into the ground. But the dashing former mayor of Florence, whom the media dubbed "il Rottamatore" (the scrapper), is certainly not lacking in ambition or vision. A vociferous critic of old-style Italian politics, Renzi famously opined that all Italian politicians of the same generation as Berlusconi should resign. Frequently compared to Tony Blair for his youthfulness and his ambition to drag his leftist Democratic Party more to the centre, he's already become the subject of Internet memes comparing him to Fonzie from Happy Days. Nobody knows how he'll do in the long run. After all, Berlusconi was once a charming young bad boy too.

Who will still be around for consideration in next year's list? Tune in again in 2015!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

NME Concert Review - Ensemble Transmission

Ensemble Transmission (Source: ensembletransmission.com)
This is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of performance reviews for New Music Edmonton. For those of you familiar with NME, this 25-year-old arts organization is Edmonton's leading promoter of new and experimental music, with a particular focus on new works by Canadian composers. By reaching out to new audiences through new performance spaces, NME continues to do what Edmonton's artists and arts promoters have always done: bring daring new creative works directly to the people without a shred of pretense or elitism.

That said, NME was, until recently, completely off my radar - until I was approached by NME President Ian Crutchley about reviewing its current concert series. That's the trouble with Edmonton: too many shows but not enough PR, with our artists generally too humble to blow their own proverbial trumpets. But as I argued in my review of Mile Zero Dance's most recent Salon Series performance earlier this month, most Edmontonians have no idea what an artistic treasure trove our city is. Consider this review series my own humble attempt to do it justice.

Last night's NME concert at Muttart Hall featured Ensemble Transmission, a dynamite sextet from Montreal and the current ensemble in residence at the historic Chapelle du Bon-Pasteur in the heart of the city's arts district. (Montreal's arts and culture organizations have been the saviour of the city's innumerable old churches in an era where barely anybody attends mass anymore.) Founded in 2008, Ensemble Transmission consists of flutist Guy Pelletier, clarinettist Lori Freedman, violinist Alain Giguère, cellist Julie Trudeau, percussionist Julien Grégoire and pianist Brigitte Poulin - and for this performance was joined by Toronto-born, Berlin-based electro-acoustic composer Chiyoko Szlavnics on live electronics for two of her new works.

The show, while perhaps not for everybody's tastes, was nonetheless very eclectic. The opening piece Reimsix by clarinettist Freedman seemed to consist of a series of prickly, cut-up statements (none more than 30 seconds in length) with shrieking sforzandos and tonal extremes more reminiscent of Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler than of the avant-garde classical cannon. This was followed by Omaggio a Burri by Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (probably the best known of the bunch), a delightful trio for alto flute, bass clarinet and violin featuring various extended techniques, including percussive effects by the two wind players.

The third piece Feuilles à travers les cloches (Leaves across the bells) by French composer Tristan Murail was among the concert's highlights, a haunting, spectral work clearly inspired by Debussy for flute, violin, cello and piano that seemed to eerily capture the cold darkness of Edmonton in February with its dark piano intervals, chilling flute vibrato and incessant violin pizzicati. This was followed by more new music from Italy, Il volto della notte (The Features of the Night) by Paolo Perezzani, a playful and sarcastic trio for flute, bass clarinet and piano that swings from pure cacophony to sublime lyricism.

Chiyoko Szlavnics (Source: anechoicpictures.com)
After a short break the concert continued by two new works by ex-pat Canadian soundscape artist Chiyoko Szlavnics, Openings I and Constellations IV, both world premieres commissioned by New Music Edmonton. In stark contrast to the dense atonalism that characterized most of the first half, Szlavnics' twin works were characterized by sparse intersecting planes inspired by artwork - very much reminiscent of Ligeti's works from the 1960s and 1970s. Constellations IV was particularly striking, a crystalline creation that seemed to conjure up the winter night skies of northern Alberta.

The performance concluded with another Italian work, Encore / Da Capo by Luca Francesconi (a pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio), which completely shifted the tone again to almost a party atmosphere with a toe-tapping pulse and dramatic crescendos in which the sextet managed to sound like a full orchestra.

For the record, I enjoyed the performance much more than Edmonton Journal reviewer Mark Morris did. While I agree with him that the works performed were less groundbreaking than they were a throwback to the avant-garde chamber music of the 1960s, I found the performance to be thoroughly warm and engaging. I would like to have heard it in a cozier, less staid performance space (perhaps the UniThéâtre), but there are only so many concert spaces in this city for all the ensembles and troupes lining up to use them. My feeling is that any lack of warmth or humour on display last night, such as Morris alleges, was much more to do with the venue than the performance itself.

Like Mile Zero, New Music Edmonton should be applauded for bringing challenging art to the masses via social media, inventive choices in venues and sheer grim determination - not to mention the unwavering support of backers like the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Edmonton Arts Council, CJSR Radio and, in this case, the Wee Book Inn - and beloved Edmonton literary institution with three locations in town. While the music of Ensemble Transmission is certainly not for all tastes (and indeed not all the music they do is up my alley), there are far more people out there interested in this sort of out-there music and art than there were in the audience, and it actually wasn't too bad a turnout for a crappy Friday night in February in Edmonton.

Edmonton may be cold and sprawled out and have inadequate public transportation, but don't let anyone tell you we're uncultured here. And if you live in Edmonton and are a fan of out-there musical experimentation - and aren't already acquainted with New Music Edmonton (as I wasn't until recently), please check out their website as well as their Twitter and Facebook pages. Groups like this need all the support they can get.


Friday, 21 February 2014

EIA New Destination Showdown - Dallas vs Reykjavik!

After many months of anticipation, Edmonton International Airport will finally inaugurate the city's most highly anticipated new air route in ages, Icelandair's Edmonton-Reykjavik non-stop. While our marketing and communications team here at EIA expected excitement around this new connection, the Iceland-Mania that has consumed the city of Edmonton over the past few months is beyond anything we could have imagined, and advanced ticket sales to Reykjavik and beyond have been such that the airline not only advanced their original start date from the end of March to the beginning of the month, but also added a fifth weekly non-stop. Flights haven't even started yet and already Icelandair is looking like Edmonton's de-facto official airline.

But with all the buzz surrounding Icelandair's Edmonton debut, EIA's other new route, American Airlines' forthcoming daily non-stop to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, has received less attention than it merits. While Dallas might strike one as a less "exotic" destination than Reykjavik, this new US route is a huge coup for the Edmonton region. After all, DFW is the fourth busiest airport in the world by aircraft movements and the ninth busiest in the world by passenger traffic. It is also the primary hub for American Airlines, which, following its merger last year with US Airways, became the world's largest air carrier. And with AA's unparalleled network across the Americas, this new non-stop is a huge deal for central and northern Alberta.

But enough about air connections. What about Dallas and Reykjavik? Which destination is cooler? On the surface Iceland seems to score over Texas in the hipness department, what with its midnight sun, its deceptively temperate climate in spite of its arctic latitude, its haunting volcanic landscape, its ancient language little changed from Old Norse and its über-hip contemporary culture. But the great state of Texas is not to be underestimated, and not just because of its heavily armed citizenry. This is, after all, the state that gave the world gunslinger movies, tailgate barbecues, Tex-Mex, Davy Crockett, Janis Joplin, the Dixie Chicks, Tommy Lee Jones' glare, Beyoncé's legs, Matt McConaughey's pects, Nolan Ryan's arm, Chuck Norris' beard and a band that calls themselves the Butthole Surfers and expects us to keep a straight face. Indeed not a place you mess with.

So how do these two places stack up against one another? See for yourselves courtesy of this highly scientific study.

1) Cowboys vs Vikings
Source: comicvine.com

No, we're not talking NFL here. We're talking a pitched battle between actual cowboys and actual Vikings. Who would win? In long-range combat, Texas' iconic gunslingers would definitely have the edge thanks to their firepower, but at close quarters it's hard to imagine Billy the Kid besting the battle axe-wielding death horde of Erik the Red. As for pure coolness factor, cowboys have plenty of cachet thanks to the movies of John Wayne et al, but the sheer terror that the Norsemen of old inspired back in their heydey has lasted to the present, with Vikings remaining an enduring symbol of the Scandinavian lands - even in the era of Ikea, ABBA and socialized medicine. We give the Vikings the edge.

Edge: Reykjavik

2) Endless Sky vs Midnight Sun

"The stars at night are big and bright - deep in the heart of Texas" go the lyrics to the Lone Star State's unofficial 'national' anthem. When it comes to spectacular skies, few places can match Texas - particularly when coupled with the awe-inspiring mix of canyons, desert and forest that characterize the state's landscape. But while few places can match Texas in this regard, Iceland, with its spectacular aurora borealis in winter and 24-hour sunshine in summer - juxtaposed with its haunting lunar landscapes, is one of them. And in a land of poets like this one, we're sure there are plenty of songs written about these things too. We just can't understand the lyrics. It's a split.

Edge: Tie

3) Cacti vs Juniper Bushes

Not much of a contest here. When it comes to vegetation, Iceland's starkly beautiful but largely barren landscape is no match for the Lone Star State. Even Texas' desert terrain has more impressive flora than most of Iceland's interior, and its eastern forests and hypnotic fields of native wildflowers blow anything Iceland has out of the water. Texas by a landslide.

Edge: Dallas

4) Sam Houston vs Erik the Red
Source: biography.com

The founding father of the modern state of Texas was a petulant Ulster Scot who, in spite of his famous hairtrigger temper, was a devoted peacemaker who sought to avoid war with Mexico and famously fought for justice for Native American tribes. Iceland's most famous son, by contrast, was a murderous thug who founded the ill-fated Norse colony in southern Greenland (the first bona-fide European colony in the Americas) and whose relationship with the native Inuit was, shall we say, less than friendly. In this contest between a flawed by ultimately principled statesman and a convicted felon who, by all we've heard, was basically a total bastard, we're going to go with Ol' Sam on this one.

Edge: Dallas

5) Canyons and Deserts vs Geysers and Volcanoes

In geological terms it's a battle of the titans between these two. Texas' spectacular deserts and canyons are the stuff of western romanticism, and it's hard to imagine a more breathtaking landscape. But while the Texas landscape most definitely inspires, Iceland's not only captivates visitors but also positively keeps them on their toes. Situated smack-dab on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a land of awesome volcanic and geothermic power - a lunar landscape with land that's always liable to explode below your feet. For sheer geological shock and awe, we're forced to give Iceland the nod here.

Edge: Reykjavik

6) Texas Blues vs Nordic Post-Rock

Source: deviantart.net
On the musical front, there's great depth on both benches. Iceland of course is best known for whimsical electropop princess Björk and the glacier-paced symphonic post-rock of Sigur Rós, as well as electronic music acts like Yagya and Gusgus and death metal bands like Níðhöggur. But as much of a musical overachiever as Iceland is, its global impact still doesn't match that of Texas, home of blues legends Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins, sixties counterculture goddess Janis Joplin (and her good friend and collaborator Kris Kristofferson), country legends Willie Nelson, George Strait and Steve Earle, classic hillbilly rockers ZZ Top, R&B stars Beyoncé and Erykah Badu and badass noise merchants Al Jourgensen (Ministry), Dimebag Darrell (Pantera) and Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers). Add to that a heap of great music festivals, most notably Austin's South by Southwest (SXSW) film and music festival, and you have a veritable music leviathan.  Sorry Iceland, but for overall musical impact, it's Texas hands down.

Edge: Dallas

7) Dixie Chicks vs Björk

When it comes to edgy female pop stars, it's a heated contest between C&W's most controversial trio and pop music's most outlandish diva. Both have achieved international stardom and fanbases well beyond their genre, and both have courted controversy with their uncompromising social and political stances. But in this bracket, Björk Guðmundsdóttir stands out with both her prodigious musical output, both with her original band the Sugarcubes and under her own name, and her experimental nature - to the point of becoming her country's most famous export. With respect to Natalie, Martie and Emily, they can't match this.

Edge: Reykjavik

6) Chili Con Carne vs Hákarl
Source: zazzle.com

Here, alas, we fear poor Iceland is out of its depth. From Tex-Mex to tailgate barbecues, Texas cuisine kicks serious ass on every level. And with no disrespect to Iceland's minke whale kebabs and whatnot, Icelandic cuisine appears to consist mostly of dishes invented on a dare - or at least concocted out of desperation by Erik the Red's starving descendents, most notoriously kæstur hákarl (fermented shark meat), a food considered by many to be the most horrifying thing ever to be voluntarily eaten by human beings. Mind you, this alone will attract a niche group of thrill-seeking gastronomic tourists, but most will probably be wishing they'd chosen Dallas instead once the putrefied shark is sitting on a plate in front of them.

Edge: Dallas

7) Margaritas vs Brennivín

Two decades ago Texas would have run away with this category, but the picture is very different today. For decades Iceland was home to the western world's strictest liquor laws, with beer being outlawed until 1989 and other tipples, including Brennivín, the country's signature unsweetened Schnapps, severely restricted. But today Icelanders count among the world's most devoted party animals, even celebrating National Beer Day every March 1 (the anniversary of the overturning of the hated beer prohibition) with an all-night pub crawl in Reykjavik. While Texas is justifiably well known for its excellent margaritas and its respectable microbrews, the Icelanders' hard-won status as 24-hour party people gives them the edge here.

Edge: Reykjavik

8) Caribbean Beaches vs Geothermal Spas
Source: icelandhousing.com

Texas generally isn't thought of as a beach destination, but with over 600 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico, it really ought to be. Places like Matagorda and Padre Island have sandy beaches to compare with Maui or Cancun but without the huge tourist crowds, and the reef diving and surfing options make it a legit alternative to Southern California or Queensland. Still, Texas is far from unique in this regard, with Mexico only a sombrero's toss away and Florida and the Caribbean islands also enticingly close. Iceland, by contrast, is without rival in the hot springs category, putting even Japan to shame. Point goes to Iceland.

Edge: Reykjavik

9) Football vs Ice Hockey

There's no question that Iceland is a sports-mad country. Iceland's national men's football (soccer) team made an inspiring run in the European qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat to Croatia, while its national ice hockey team (probably the country's most popular team sport) has made impressive gains in international standings in recent years. But while Icelanders have excelled at numerous sports, nothing in the country can compare to the hysteria surrounding college and NFL football in the Lone Star State. Dallas' beloved Cowboys are more than a team; they're a cultural institution, and for that we give Texas the nod here.

Edge: Dallas

10) Gun Ranges vs Rifle Shooting
Source: texas-city-tx.org

It may come as a surprise to many given the Nordic lands' reputation for being socialistic 'nanny states', but Iceland - and indeed Scandinavia as a whole - has a decidedly Red State streak to it when it comes to firearms. Roughly one third of all Icelanders are gun-owners and marksmanship was once actively encouraged by the country's leaders as a means of asserting Iceland's national independence. (Sound familiar?) Texans of course are famously fond of their firearms, but Icelanders' abiding love of hunting and target shooting makes it an equally enticing destination for gun enthusiasts, and while guns are more heavily regulated there than in Texas, hunting licences and tour packages are available for international visitors. Both destinations hit the proverbial mark on this one.

Edge: Tie

11) Texas Hold 'Em vs Grandmaster Chess

There's nothing like dark, bleak winters when it comes to producing high-level chess players, and Iceland is no slouch in this category. Chess is serious business in Iceland and the country has easily the highest number of titled players per capita with over three per 100,000 residents and a substantial number of grandmasters, most notably Friðrik Ólafsson, Jóhann Hjartarson, Margeir Pétursson and Jón Loftur Árnason. Texans, by contrast, are better known as card sharks than chess mavens, and their signature version of poker, which was born in the southeastern town of Robstown in the early 1900s, is a Vegas staple today. But while Texas Hold 'Em is well known to the North American card-playing public, it scarcely has the global ubiquity of chess. And while Hungarian-born prodigy Susan Polgar now calls the state home, it's still a far cry from Iceland in this department. Check mate, y'all!

Edge: Reykjavik

12) Chuck Norris vs Magnús Ver Magnússon

Source: thinkingmansportsblog.blogspot.com
Several states lay claim to martial arts expert, action star and alleged master of the universe Chuck Norris, but it's in Texas where his star shines brightest thanks to his memorable stint as Cordell Walker in wonderfully camp cop action drama Walker, Texas Ranger - a show so beloved by current Texas governor Rick Perry that he had Norris made an honourary Texas ranger in 2010. But while there's no denying the impressiveness of Norris' martial arts exploits, which include six consecutive years as Professional Middleweight Karate champion and being the first westerner to receive the rank of 8th Degree Black Belt Grand Master in taekwondo, he has stiff competition in the tough guy category in the form of Icelandic powerlifter and four-time World's Strongest Man (and appropriately named) Magnús Ver Magnússon, a man easily capable of lifting multiple Chuck Norrises at once and tossing them across a room. One breaks bricks (and skulls) with his hands and feet; the other lifts tractor wheels and pulls trucks with his arms. Who is tougher? We can't decide.

Edge: Tie

13) Drag Racing vs Formula Off-Road

Thanks to their respective rugged, expansive landscapes and cultural propensity for macho stunts (see the section on the consumption of fermented shark meat in #6), Texas and Iceland share a love of extreme motorsports. For some, Iceland's lunar landscape is synonymous with the Formula Off-Roading, a gravity-defying extravaganza of souped-up exhaust-belching V8 dragsters leaping off cliff sides and embankments, which tourists can now experience for themselves thanks to Iceland's ever-outside-the-box tourism marketing machine. But as impressive as Iceland's off-road antics may be, it hardly compares to the ubiquity of Texas' drag racing culture. A statewide obsession almost on par with gridiron, drag racing is everywhere in Texas and the vehicles are a sight to behold. Iceland may get there someday, but they're not there yet.

Edge: Dallas

14) Dallas vs Næturvaktin
Source: fanpop.com

When it comes to television, Icelanders are at a distinct disadvantage to their Texan counterparts inasmuch as their language is only understood by some 330,000 people - virtually all of whom reside in Iceland. Still, some credit is due to the creators of Iceland's most popular recent TV hit, Næturvaktin ('Night Shift'), a sitcom set in a suburban Reykjavik gas station that has been likened to a blue-collar Icelandic equivalent to The Office, which co-starred popular comedian and future Reykjavik mayor Jón Gnarr. But while talk of a US remake of the popular show is ongoing, it is scarcely in a position to compete with Texas' most famous primetime export and its beloved anti-hero J.R. Ewing. This was never a fair fight.

Edge: Dallas

15) Austin Weird vs Icelandic Avant-Garde

Texas gets a bad rap when it comes to arts and culture. Far from a backward state full of uncouth rednecks, Texas' cities are replete with art galleries, symphony orchestras and an architectural and design aesthetic all its own. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the state capital Austin, a city whose unofficial slogan "Keep Austin Weird" accurately sums up its famously iconoclastic music, theatre and film scene. But while Ballet Austin, the SXSW festival and the Sixth Street music hub are all tourist draws for the city and the state, Iceland's outsized presence on the art, fashion design, modern dance and avant-garde film scene are hard to beat. Austin may be weird, but nobody owns their weird like the land of Björk, Jón Gnarr and the highway engineers that factor elf habitats into their designs.

Edge: Reykjavik

16) The Alamo vs Njáls Saga

When it comes to identity-forging battle narratives, Texans have the Battle of the Alamo and Icelanders have Njáls Saga. Thanks in no small part to Disney's Davy Crockett miniseries and John Wayne's 1960 film The Alamo, this notorious 1836 battle in which the Mexican army's massacre of the Texan revolutionaries turned the population against the future US state's then-colonial overlords and culminated in their overthrow has become a cornerstone of Texan nationalism. But this short-lived nasty business pales in comparison to the Icelandic equivalent to the Arthurian legends, a 13th century recounting of the murderous blood feuds that consumed early Iceland and nearly wiped out the fragile Norse colony. The 19th century Mexicans may have been brutal, but the blood and gore of 10th and 11th century Iceland beggars belief.

Edge: Reykjavik

17) Valero Texas Open vs Arctic Open

Source: arcticopen.is
Golf enthusiasts forced to decide between Texas and Iceland have a very tough choice on their hand. On the one hand, Texas is home to some of North America's finest courses - amid some truly spectacular scenery - and has a climate perfectly suited to all-year-round golfing. On the other hand, Iceland is a nation of golf fanatics (roughly one in eight Icelanders play) and the country's hilly, grassy landscape makes it perfectly suited to the sport. And while Iceland lacks the warm climate of San Antonio, home of the nearly century-old Valero Texas Cup, it makes up for it by hosting one of the golf world's most unique tournaments, the Arctic Open - an all-night contest held at the world's northernmost 18-hole course in the northern town of Akureyri. Midnight sun or all-year play? Can't really go wrong with either.
Edge: Tie
18) 20+ Destinations in Latin America vs 20+ Destinations in Europe

Depends entirely on where you want to go. American Airlines' shortly forthcoming EIA-DFW route gives Edmontonians easy connections to destinations across Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America, while Icelandair's new route does the same to the European continent via their award-winning hub at Keflavik International Airport in Reykjavik. So whether you're bound for Munich or Mexico City, Barcelona or Buenos Aires, or Stockholm or São Paulo, your choices of air connections are about to get a whole lot better. We call it a draw here too.

Edge: Tie


For those of you counting, the final score is Reykjavik 12, Dallas 11. Granted, Reykjavik's narrow victory has much to do with this particular study's North American bias to view Texas as less exotic than Iceland. Still, Iceland wins in the coolness department, but not without a fierce fought contest with the Lone Star State.

Are you from Texas (or Iceland for that matter) and disagree with the results here? We're expecting a response from Rick Perry's office any moment now disputing the results, so if you feel strongly one way or another, we'd love to hear from you. In the meantime we'll be booking our own ticket to Reykjavik. Or Dallas. We still can't decide.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

(Poem) New Orleans Is Clawing At My Bones


I used to dream of New Orleans
the birthplace of jazz
the humid, sinewy underarm of America
that place where the tide rolled in
corralling with it all the Devil's rejects
the flotsam of continents
each wave rolling over the previous
that place where the soft syllabary of the Natchez
learned sharpness in the wind
and still claws through the cold blasts from the Mississippi
still angry, still bitter as hell
dragging its nails through the delta
from its rusted chains in abandoned Haitian slave forts

I used to dream of New Orleans all the time
that place where Morton jellyrolled and Fats stacked dominoes
and Bonham beat down the buttresses till they busted open
that place where sea wall shadowmaps and Sazerac swizzle sticks
tell you what time it is, and when it's time to go home
or not
and leave you on the same barstool the following morning
paralytic, trying to remember
where you left your bike
and what ward you live in
and why the delta conspired to make the air so sticky
and the ghosts so damn persistent
Don't they know it's past closing time?

Yeah, that's the place I used to dream of
that is, of course, until the day it all got washed away
For ever, we all thought
No more Frenchmen Street
No more Preservation Hall
No more seductively mangled français
The Saints, we assumed, would not be coming back
not this time
in spite of the assurances of Irish rock stars and preprogrammed politicos
Is it not true that nothing is forever
even in this town?

But then the river receded
and the night watch came
not saints, just sinners with spray paint cans
mapping the city as they swarmed through the streets
tattooing the town
with the defiXiones
the X mark
haunted crosses everywhere that spoke with a thousand voices
We're watching you.
We may be dispersed but we're watching you.
We're not done here.

Tonight New Orleans is clawing at my bones
she's there in every neon-lit puddle
every misspelled word
every unapologetic wrong note in a pentatonic scale
she's there in every empty glass
at the end of the long night
and she's there in every X mark
no, nothing wrong, nothing incorrect
just a seething mass of humanity
wheezing like a Louisiana freighter
dragging us all back to life
even as we kick and scream for a safer, more logical abode

Yes, this is the place I used to dream of
the refuge of the reckless
the fortress of fools
where the city sees and the water saws
and Moldovan cabbies careen through Napoleonic alleyways
like they were somehow theirs to begin with
You're not done with me yet, are you?
Sousaphones playing Pink Floyd - you're not done with me yet
Scarlet corsets and scandalous bike rides - you're not done with me yet
Tearful tunes percussed by distant freight trains - you're definitely not done with me yet
Boys who fell asleep in the army only to wake up on a streetcorner with placards round their necks
selling jello shots and shitty advice - you're not done with me yet either, are you?
Nope, the city with too many exes and not enough whys
haunts my dreams now more than ever.

And I have no reason to think she'll stop
so I might as well get comfortable
Nouvelle Orléans, Bayou Sauvage
prends ce que tu veux de moi.
For unlike you
I truly am defenceless.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Asking For Money – 11 Fundraising Lessons from the IABC Leadership Institute

This is the first in a series of posts on takeaways from the 2014 International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Leadership Institute conference, held in New Orleans from February 6 to 8. Stay tuned for more highlights from this exciting event. (Photo: Shutterstock)

It goes without saying that most people aren’t particularly fond of – or comfortable – asking others for money. The same is true of the majority of IABC chapter sponsorship directors, which is a pity given that their job is, well, to ask people to give the chapter money. As a newcomer to the sponsorship portfolio of the Edmonton chapter, it was with great relief that I learned that many of my counterparts in other chapters around the world were struggling with many of the same problems I've faced. But most importantly, I was thrilled with the volume of information I was to receive.

Communications sponsorship guru and IABC fellow Barbara Puffer is not among those who struggle with asking stakeholders for money. At her session on sponsorship strategies for IABC chapters, she prefaced her presentation by saying “Unlike most people, I actually do enjoy asking people for money.” Her trick? Identifying and highlighting clear value propositions and creating finely tailored sponsorship categories. In other words, having a clear plan and sticking to it. Her approach clearly works; with a very small team her Heritage Region chapter was able to raise over $100,000 over a four-year period, including a remarkable single-year high of $58,000!

Puffer outlines the keys to a successful sponsorship in her seminar handout IABC Fundraising 101, a single-page guideline that she and her colleagues compiled over their years of research and trial-and-error. Here are the 11 tips she prescribes to the beginner sponsorship person.

1. Sell solutions not sponsorship.

Before picking up the phone or sending the proposal, identify your value proposition. What’s the big idea? How would sponsorship of your chapter, workshop, webinar, website, awards program or event be meaningful to your prospects and their organizations?

2. Sell what’s most marketable, not what needs funding.

Just because you need money to put AV or a web hookup in a presentation room, does not mean that is necessarily what you should be selling. Your strongest assets may be something else entirely, such as access to your influential board of directors and the opportunity for year-round promotions to your membership community. Many sponsorship fees—unlike some philanthropic donations—are unrestricted.

3. Base fees on value, not budget.

The fee must be commensurate with the rights and benefits being delivered, which may be more than the budget of what’s being sold.

4. Highlight benefits, not features.

Focus on the prospect’s need to build their business or visibility for his or her brand, message or something else. Do not expect a prospect to wade through a data dump to figure out what they want.

5. Be fair about the packages.

Give prospects a reason to buy at the highest level. Reserve key benefits for your biggest sponsors. Create clear differences for sponsorships at higher and lower levels.

6. Tailor to sponsor category.

Identify what your prospect wants to accomplish and who they want to reach. Think about their hot buttons and budget priorities. Some may not want an exhibit table at your event; for another, that might be key.

7. Don’t send a proposal until after the initial discussion.

You’ve gotten the name of a prospect. It's best to be introduced from the inside.  Does an IABC member work there?  Who's the right person to speak to about sponsorship? Who is the decision-maker. This is not the time to create a full-blown proposal. Instead, use a one-pager or short email. Be clear on their budget, objectives, timing and process, if you can. Once you’ve connected regarding interest, you are ensured that you are heading down the reasonable path, it’s time to send the proposal.

8. Go to everyone in the category at once.

Once you understand the category, do not send out proposals one at time -- waiting for the first prospect's response -- as it will take you considerable time to wade through the category. If there’s a fit for one organization in the category, likely you can apply it to the others. Who signs on first might surprise you! If you have an "exclusive" or a one-of such as "presenting sponsor,"  by all means wait a bit and cultivate him or her longer.

9. Have a media plan first.

Having media exposure is very important to prospects looking to IABC for possible sponsorship. Know ahead of time what you'll be doing and who it will reach. You can always add and discover new avenues later.

10. Put a deadline on your offers.

There are only three acceptable outcomes of any call or meeting: yes, no or definite next steps. Next steps might include getting the go-ahead to prepare a final proposal and invoice. Or it might only be scheduling a time/date for the next discussion.

11. Commit.

Sponsorship sales are partially a numbers game; many sponsorships start with a cold call. Sponsorship sales require lots of follow-up and hand-holding. Keep a master list of everyone contacted, when they commit (or not) and any other details that may be needed for future reference.

For more on Barbara Puffer, ABC visit her website at Puffer PR Strategies.