Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Home Matters

So, this happened:

“@HomeMattersCB” is Sydney-Membertou MLA Derek Mombourquette and I groaned out loud when I read this.

Mombourquette’s own government doesn’t seem to have seen a convincing business case for Albert Barbusci’s container port project — it certainly didn’t “support” it in any real sense. I mean, other than paying the owner of the rail line thousands of dollars each month to keep it from selling the tracks for scrap, even as the line was permitted to rust and wash away.

Is Mombourquette suggesting Houston should continue these payments? Is he suggesting Houston should invest millions in rehabilitating the rail line, something the government Mombourquette served in wasn’t prepared to do?

Because if so, I have good news — Barbusci says rail is the final piece in his puzzle and rail, according to Sydney Harbour Investment Partners’ (SHIP) respected international advisor, former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, is not a problem. In March 2018, when Chrétien was in Nova Scotia definitely not lobbying the premier about the project, he was asked about the rail line by reporters here in Sydney and he said:

“If we have a port we will need the adequate railway. That’s the consequence of a port. There will be so much traffic there that don’t worry about a railway,” Chrétien said.

“It’s all in my judgment under control. Why? Because if you have the need there would be the railway. Today, they don’t repair the railway because there’s not the need for that.”

See? When Barbusci lands a shipper, the owner of the rail line will repair it. No government “support” necessary.


Concert Halls

I listened to a fascinating discussion about concert hall acoustics this week on a podcast called Well There’s Your Problem which focuses on engineering disasters. The episode I’m referring to, about the latest overhaul of Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, rates inclusion because the hall has been an acoustics engineering disaster.

The expert guest is Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell — a “viral blog” which “roasts the world’s ugliest houses from top to bottom” — who has a Master in Arts in Audio Science, specializing in architectural acoustics, from Johns Hopkins.

Among the many interesting things I discovered was that the acoustics in many of the world’s best performing arts spaces are the result not of science — acoustics as a science only emerged in the early 20th century — but of happy accident.

As Wagner explains, the 19th century “shoebox” style concert hall has great acoustics because of the confluence of a number of factors, including the preferred architectural style of the time — the “temple-like” buildings of the high-romantic neoclassical period — a taste for “overdone architectural ornament” from the classical era (mainly Greek), stratified seating (to ensure the rich were seen and the poor were not) and ventilation in the gas-lit venues “which required clerestory windows at the highest level of the concert hall to let out the farts and smoke and stuff.” All of these things combined accidentally made “a really f***ing good concert hall.” (Warning: if you prefer your discussions of concert hall acoustics without swearing, this isn’t the podcast for you.)



I also learned about Wallace Sabine, the American physicist who founded the field of architectural acoustics for a very pragmatic reason. As Wagner explains, he was an adjunct professor at Harvard who “got assigned the shittiest room imaginable to do a lecture in” and decided to “invent an entirely new field of science to fix it.”

The actual discussion of Avery Fisher Hall, which Wagner says is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — embarrassments for the field of architectural acoustics, is equally interesting. The venue began life in 1962 as Philharmonic Hall (part of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts) but had acoustical issues from the jump. The hall was subject to a “gut renovation” in 1979, at which point it was renamed Avery Fisher Hall, in honor of the philanthropist who had donated $10 million to the orchestra in 1973. Wagner says this reno solved a lot of the problems with the original design, but ran up against the “perpetual problem” with “regards to acoustic remediation,” which is that:

…acoustics is fundamentally antithetical to selling a lot of tickets…There is literally a golden ratio of seats to square footage that you should have….anything with more than 2,000 seats, and even 2,000 is like, a little high…you’re starting to fall off the cliff.

Wagner says the man in charge of this 1979 reno, acoustician Cyril Harris, knew the hall had to be narrower (more like a shoebox) and have fewer seats “but they wouldn’t let him do that.”

So post-renovation, the sound, while better, still wasn’t that great and in 2014, Lincoln Center launched a multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign to refurbish the hall a second time, as part of which, it removed Fisher’s name so that it could sell naming rights to the highest bidder. That bidder was David Geffen, at $100 million, so the venue in question is now Geffen Hall.

In 2019, a $550 million renovation was announced and Wagner says the new design — which includes reducing the number of seats from 2,738 to 2,200 — looks promising. And if you’re thinking, “Why should I listen to this, you’ve told me everything?” let me assure you, I have just scratched the surface.


Bet on Annette

I’ve decided to listen to an episode a week of Annette Verschuren’s Bet on Me podcast so you don’t have to.

Bet on Me, podcast, Annette VerschurenEpisode One, “From Farm Girl to Global Changemaker: Getting to know Annette Verschuren,” is a conversation between Verschuren and her “big sister,” Dorothy (“Dorth”) Tennant. As Verschuren explains:

I want to have her as my first guest so we can dive into our background and our life together, growing up, five of us, on a farm, and talk about what motivates and drives me.

I spit coffee at that point, imagining calling up either of my sisters to propose they “interview” me about “what motivates and drives me.” They would mock me mercilessly (as I would them). That’s what sisters are for.

But when you get to be as rich and powerful as Verschuren — and the woman seems to have the Island in a full Nelson right now — even your siblings treat you with respect. Can you imagine a more dangerous situation?

Verschuren has been here in Cape Breton since March 2020, when she and her husband arrived for a quick visit and got stranded by COVID. She discovered she can work here, assembled some sort of “team” and launched this podcast. It’s billed as a spin-off of her book, Bet on Me, which I haven’t read (and do not intend to, there’s only so much pain I’m willing to endure for you people) but which Verschuren assures us was well received and which almost won a business-book-of-the-year award.

The first part of Episode One covers a lot of familiar territory — if you’ve ever read anything about Verschuren, you know she grew up on a farm in North Sydney, worked at Devco, “privatized businesses for the federal government,” brought Michael’s to Canada, headed Home Depot Canada and founded NRStor. I didn’t glean much new information, other than that she left Devco at the age of 30 because she realized she would “never be president.” (Funnily enough, that’s exactly why I left the Czech Republic.)

As podcasts go, it’s not exactly gripping, but it does highlight how comfortable Verschuren is talking about herself — she effortlessly fills 40 minutes with reflections on her life, her work, her beliefs. I’m now honestly curious to see whether she has any chops as an interviewer, given that involves encouraging other people to talk and then listening to them. I’ll find out when I tune in to Episode Two. (All 13 episodes have dropped but I am feeling no urge to binge.)

Home Depot logo in BC forest clearcut

For now, I will leave you with my favorite exchange from the opening podcast. The sisters have moved from discussing Verschuren’s career to discussing Verschuren’s concern for the environment and Verschuren has just explained how, as the chair of the environmental committee at Home Depot Canada, she stopped the purchase of wood from places like the Amazonian rainforest. She presents this as an idea she came up with herself, but as Suzanne Stagganborg explains in Social Movements:

In a boycott campaign led by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace against Home Depot, the huge home improvement and building supplies retailer based in the United States, environmentalists deluged the company with postcards, sent an exhibit on the Great Bear Rainforest (located on the central mainland coast of British Columbia) to a shareholder meeting, and erected a Home Depot protest billboard over a clear-cut patch near Vancouver. The campaign resulted in a major victory when Home Depot, which has more than 850 stores worldwide, and sells 10% of the world’s market supply of wood, announced in 1999 that it would phase out sales of wood from endangered forests by 2002.

Tennant, who seems like a very nice person, doesn’t ask Verschuren about the boycotts or the environmentalists (again, very different from my own sisters who, although also very nice people, would be on me like Stephen Sackur on HARDtalk). Instead, she hails the decision as “an excellent example of  purpose over profit.”

To which Verschuren replies:

Purpose and profit together — you have to make money, hey Dorth? You know that, huh?

Which captures, in a nutshell, my unease with Verschuren’s free-market solutions to problems caused by the free market: when push comes to shove — and push will come to shove, because doing the right thing is not always profitable in strictly monetary terms — you just know profits will prevail over purpose.