Even as 2017 ends with a sigh of relief, it still managed to give us a few chuckles

Well, we’ve made it to the end. “May you live in interesting times,” goes an old Chinese curse, and if nothing else, 2017 was an “interesting” year.

It was a year of revolutions. It was the year in which Donald Trump and his crew threw out all the old rules about the U.S. presidency, only to find out that it wasn’t just his supporters who wanted change as Colin Kaepernick took a knee for equality, and the “#MeToo” movement took down the high and the mighty.

Other countries, meanwhile, opted for youth. Emmanuel Macron became President of France at age 39, Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister of New Zealand at age 37, and Sebastian Kurz became Chancellor of Austria at a mere 31. In Ireland, meanwhile, the 38-year-old, openly gay, ancestrally half-Indian and half-Irish Leo Varadkar was promoted to Taoiseach — i.e., Prime Minister.

And Britain? The land that once gave Margaret Thatcher three majority governments in a row very nearly gave the keys to 10 Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn, an unapologetic socialist, despite early expectations of a Conservative landslide.

And as 2017 ends, protests are rapidly spreading in Iran, hinting that nearly 40 years of religious dictatorship could be on the verge of being swept away by a secular and democratic tide.

While 2017 was a year of serious business and once unimaginable change, it also gave us a few good chuckles to lighten the mood a bit.

Why you should keep Alexa and Siri away from your TV. 2017 started off with a rather funny story out of Texas, where a six-year-old managed to convince her parents’ Alexa voice-recognition device to purchase her a $170 dollhouse and “four pounds of sugar cookies” — with the bill going to her parents of course. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Days later, a San Diego TV morning show host concluded a report on the story by uttering the words, “I love the little girl saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse’”.

“Ordered” or “order”? Apparently some viewers’ Alexa devices couldn’t tell the difference, and the station received complaints that “the TV broadcast caused their voice-controlled personal assistants to try to place orders for dollhouses on Amazon.” (Jan. 7)

Hi, this is head office calling! The search was on for an Irish-accented prankster this spring after two incidents in which callers claiming to be from “head office” convinced employees in Britain to close their stores and do bizarre things in exchange for prizes. In one incident, the caller from “head office” instructed employees to “…lick the shoppers’ feet… [and] even convinced the employees to ‘pretend to be a vacuum cleaner’.” In another, at a Poundworld discount store, “the staff had to refer to [two customers] as ‘Ugly’ and ‘Beast’ and in return they had to call the manager ‘Beautiful lady’ with the promise of £50 each time they said it.”

“We are both too scared to go into Poundworld now,” said one of the customers caught up in the prank. (May 23-26)

Waking up the Nation. If you’re setting up a national emergency alert system, it is naturally good practice to make sure it works. New Zealand Civil Defence dutifully carried out its own test in early October.

The good news was: The system worked.

The bad news was: The system worked — for real!

An unknown number of New Zealanders — about one-third of the nation’s phones were believed to be capable of receiving the alert — were woken up by three emergency alerts sent to their smartphones beginning at 1:32 a.m., informing them that “This is a test message for the Emergency Mobile Alert System that will be available by the end of 2017. Visit civildefence.govt.nz to find out more.”

“Dear @NZcivildefence, thanks for testing your mobile emergency alert system at 01:30AM. The whole house is awake now. #muppets,” one perturbed New Zealander wrote on Twitter.

“This is completely unacceptable … and [we] want to say sorry to every person that was woken by the messages during the night,” New Zealand Civil Defence spokesperson Sarah Stuart-Black said. (Oct. 3)

British prime minister’s speech turns into a comedy of errors. Having very nearly lost an election she was expected to easily win, and with Britain’s Brexit plans having turned out to be “no plan at all”, British prime minister Theresa May needed all the good luck she could get going into her Conservative Party’s annual conference in October. The highlight was to be her speech to the party faithful, broadcast on live television, and she must have hoped that perhaps the spirit of Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher would guide her through it.

What she got instead was the ghost of Benny Hill, as she was first handed a termination notice by a prankster claiming to be acting on behalf of Foreign Secretary (and potential leadership challenger) Boris Johnson, then suffered a coughing fit, and then had to continue on as the letters fell off the wall behind her.

By the time she was finished her speech, “Building a Country That Works for Everyone” had become “Building a Country that Works or Everyon”. (Oct. 4)

How in the world did he get up there?! A hospital offers many tempting places for an inquisitive young child to explore, and precautions are generally taken to prevent wandering. Hospital staff in Auckland, New Zealand were baffled however, in October, when a child somehow managed to climb into the ceiling unnoticed. First called at about 8 a.m., rescuers from the Fire Department managed to coax the child out of the ceiling by 9:45 a.m., but how the young explorer ended up there remained a mystery. (Oct. 19)

 

Five nude people in a car. It’s not unusual for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to respond to motor vehicle accidents, but it’s certainly unusual for them to find five nude people inside, as they did when they responded to a report of a car-truck collision south of Edmonton in November. Police were said to have considered it a “purposeful collision” and to have suspected that drugs or alcohol were involved. (Nov. 7)

What a bunch of donkeys. Jail staff in India’s Uttar Pradesh state had had enough with all the trouble the eight had been causing in the neighbourhood, injuring children and wrecking gardens. But the eight miscreants weren’t humans — they were donkeys that had been let loose in the vicinity of the jail. When the donkeys’ presumed owner pleaded ignorance, the jailers decided to lock up the eight donkeys until the problem could be resolved. Eventually, the donkeys’ owners and other local officials were able to arrange for the animals’ release. (Nov. 28)

Fare dodger gets his due. How else to end 2017, the Year of the Absurd, than with the news out of London, England that a would-be fare dodger got his “penis stuck in ticket barriers at Covent Garden Tube station”.

If you’ve taken the London Underground in recent years, you’ll know that you must go through automatic gates to get in or out of the station. Last Wednesday, one man decided to try to get a free ride on the Tube by sneaking past the gates, only to find himself pinned by them — at the crotch. Transport Police were able to free the hapless fare evader after about two minutes, but not before one bystander filmed the scene and another taunted him with “Butter him up!”

Once freed, the man reportedly “hugged a police officer and a passer-by” — though perhaps not the taunter. (Dec. 31)

Best wishes for a happy New Year!

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Palmerston, Larry and the Acoustic Kitty

A new hire started work this week at Britain’s foreign ministry — and his lunch break lasts all day long.

Palmerston, a black-and-white shorthair cat, is the new Chief Mouser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s headquarters on London’s King Charles Street, kitty-corner (pardon the pun) to Parliament and just around the corner from the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street.

Like his counterpart Larry, the brown and white tabby inhabiting 10 Downing Street, Palmerston’s duty will be to help the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) deal with its persistent rodent problem. To welcome Palmerston to the team, the FCO issued a tongue-in-cheek news release, quoted in The Telegraph:

Palmerston is HM Diplomatic Service’s newest arrival and in the role of FCO Chief Mouser will assist our pest controllers in keeping down the number of mice in our King Charles Street building.

Palmerston’s domestic posting will have zero cost to the public purrse as a staff kitty will be used to pay for him and all aspects of his welfur.

But has anyone thought to check Palmerston — or Larry — for any smuggled goods? To make sure he isn’t a secret agent for the Americans, the Russians, the Israelis or the Chinese?

Believe it or not, there actually was once an attempt to use a cat to commit international espionage.

In the mid-Sixties, the ever-imaginative CIA explored the possibility of enlisting a cat, with a microphone and transmitting antenna implanted in its body, to eavesdrop on conversations. It became known as the Acoustic Kitty Project.

But, as former CIA officer Victor Marchetti told The Telegraph in 2001, after the Acoustic Kitty documents were finally declassified, the idea of using a cat to perform espionage quickly ran into problems.

“They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity. They tested him and tested him. They found he would walk off the job when he got hungry, so they put another wire in to override that.”

But finally, the CIA had the Acoustic Kitty ready for his (or her?) first public test. According to Emily Anthes in her 2013 book Frankenstein’s Cat, “CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to the park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench.”

Cats tend to have a mind of their own, however. Instead of making his way to the park bench, Anthes wrote, “the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi.”

“There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials, and the cat was dead,” Marchetti recalled decades later to The Telegraph.

Estimates of the cost of the Acoustic Kitty project range from $10 million to $20 million.

Despite the cat-astrophic flop, one of the released (but still partially censored) documents praises the researchers who worked on it.

“The work done on this problem over the years reflects a great credit on the personnel who guided it . . . [and their] energy and imagination could be models for scientific pioneers.”

But, “our final examination of trained cats for [censored] use in the [censored] convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”

 

* — See also the World War II Bat Bombs experiment, which tested the possibility of releasing bats over Japan with tiny bombs strapped to their bodies, and having them fly into the country’s many wooden structures to start fires. The tests took a disastrous turn when some of the bats were accidentally released, setting both a hangar and a general’s car on fire.

Border Security: Norway’s front line against illicit butter and contraband chicken

Busted: The driver of this Passat tried to convince Norwegian Customs that the 800 containers of yogurt shown here were for his personal consumption. They didn't believe him. (Click for source.)

Busted: The driver of this Passat tried to convince Norwegian Customs that the 800 containers of yogurt shown here were for his personal consumption. They didn’t believe him. (Click for source.)

On Monday, Norwegian Customs officers were on duty along the Swedish border when they pulled over a suspicious looking vehicle bearing Swedish licence plates.

Their suspicions were confirmed when they quickly discovered that the unfortunate Swede was indeed a smuggler — and that it wasn’t the first time he had been busted by Norwegian authorities.

The Customs officers ended up seizing no less than five hundred kilograms (or 1,100 lbs.) of the dastardly Swede’s goods before they could end up on the streets of Oslo, Bergen or wherever in Norway he was destined.

Five hundred kilograms of what? Marijuana? Cocaine? Heroin? No; none of these.

“Inside his getaway vehicle – a Volvo car,” a Norwegian news site reported later that same day,”was 500 kilogrammes of raw, frozen chicken.”

“The Norwegian customs team was not particularly surprised by the Swede’s haul, however, as he has been caught doing the exact same chicken run eight times before,” TheLocal.no noted in its report.

The incident came days after a Danish visitor was stopped by Customs with 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lbs.) of meat crammed into his car.

He claimed that he was on his way to attend a football game in Trondheim, and that he planned to take the undeclared meat back out of the country with him.

This might seem absurd in Canada, where chicken is one of the cheapest of meats. But in expensive Norway, where groceries are about 50 percent more expensive than in Canada and restaurant prices are more than double what we would pay, cheap food has become a lucrative black-market commodity.

One reason for the high price of Norwegian food: the protectionist policies that Norway maintains to shield its agricultural sector, despite years of complaints from other countries throughout Europe.

Under these policies, imported frozen chicken is subject to tariffs of up to $18 Cdn. per kilogram.

Contraband chicken has consequently been a problem in Norway for years. Back in 2006, Norwegian Customs — which does not screen 100 percent of travelers arriving from low-risk countries, but instead relies upon the honour system and spot checks to ensure compliance — seized a total of 25 tons of meat of various kinds, rising to 39 tons the following year.

In addition to tariff evasion, contraband meat is considered a concern because it is “virtually never refrigerated and conditions of smuggling cars are unhygienic,” a Norwegian news site reported in 2008.

“The cars are filled with meat on the floor and in the seats,” a customs official told the reporter.

It’s not just meat that traffickers stand to make money from in Norway. Norwegian Customs’s 2011 annual report tells the tale of two inept Swedes who tried to offload 250 kilograms of illicit butter to passersby in a small town north of Oslo for 500 kr. ($89 Cdn.) per kilogram.

“That they were attempting to sell the butter outside the Prix supermarket in Beistad indicates a real lack of market analysis,” the report sardonically noted. “Supermarket customers notified the police, who in turn notified Customs and Excise.”

“The two smugglers admitted having brought the butter in via Storlien the night before. If the sales had been better, the smugglers would have pocketed NOK 125,000 [$22,180 Cdn.] for the whole consignment.”

The “butter bust” happened as Norway’s heavily protected dairy industry suffered a bad year. The barriers intended to protect the industry left Norway without a backup source to make up for the domestic industry’s poor output, resulting in empty shelves during what both bloggers and the business press called the Norwegian Butter Crisis.

As the Christmas season approached — and demand for butter for Christmas baking soared — reports began to appear of people offering hundreds of dollars online to anyone who could hook them up with some butter.

Yogurt has become another heavily trafficked item in Norway’s expensive, protected dairy market. A 2013 Swedish news report explained how one man had been caught multiple times by Norwegian Customs trying to sneak a total of 720 kilograms (1,590 lbs.) of yogurt in from Sweden.

The same man had been previously stopped trying to smuggle hundreds of kilograms of cheese into Norway in the trunk of his car.

In another case last year, police were notified of an overloaded Volkswagen Passat arriving on a ferry from Sweden. The vehicle turned out to be loaded up with 800 containers of yogurt, along with large quantities of chicken and powdered milk.

Despite the driver’s pleas that he had purchased all 800 containers of yogurt for his personal consumption, his purchases — valued at more than $3,500 Cdn. — were confiscated and destroyed by customs officers.

Winnipeg needs healthy and well-educated people, not Laser Pyramids

Jerusalem Hug's proposal for a laser pyramid over that city. (Click for source.)

Jerusalem Hug’s proposal for a laser pyramid over that city. (Click for source.)

A curious refrain in Winnipeg’s civic history has been the perception that we would rise up from our reputation as one of Canada’s grittiest and least-envied large cities if only we had more stuff. Usually this is either in the form of the arrival of a fashionable retailer, such as H & M, IKEA or Nordstrom, or a big-ticket construction project such as a vastly expanded Convention Centre, new arena or airport or Human Rights museum.

Yet those projects pale in comparison to the ideas outlined by former mayor Susan Thompson in a speech she delivered to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce on Friday. Thompson, who served as mayor from 1992 to 1998 and now lives in Vancouver, still has big dreams for her erstwhile hometown, as the Winnipeg Free Press‘s Bartley Kives reported:

What [the audience] wound up hearing was the funniest comedy routine ever delivered in the second-floor ballroom of the Fairmont hotel, where many a best man has failed miserably at the task of making a toast to the bride and groom. 

Thompson, who now lives in Vancouver, proposed a garish image makeover for Winnipeg that would make the Vegas strip seem as subdued as an industrial park on the outskirts of Estevan.

To announce itself to the world, Thompson suggested Winnipeg cover itself with a laser pyramid that would be visible from space. She said she suggested a similar idea to executive policy committee in the 1990s, only to see it get shot down on the basis lasers would interfere with airplane traffic.

Thompson also suggested Winnipeggers with no interest in going for a polar-bear dip on New Year’s Day could instead immerse themselves in hot tubs placed at Portage and Main, which would be decorated with fake palm trees.

She also surmised Winnipeg’s image routes could be spruced up by planting evergreens alongside major streets such as the drive in from Richardson International Airport. Since road-salt-tolerant conifers do not exist, she suggested someone develop a hybrid evergreen that could survive on Route 90.

Early reports on Friday suggested Thompson was merely trying to amuse her audience. But as Kives later discovered, this was no joke:

Except Winnipeg’s 40th mayor wasn’t kidding about anything. Winnipeg needs a laser pyramid, Portage and Main hot tubs and hybridized, Route 90-enshrouding evergreens in order to be a world-class city where people want to live, she insisted after her speech concluded.

This blog has already twice delved into the matter of what policymakers could do to make Winnipeg a more attractive place to live. Basically, it comes down to this: people mostly move from one city to another to seek or accept job offers, to enjoy a better lifestyle or climate than they would in the cities they are leaving behind, or for family reasons.

Since there is little policymakers can do about climate or family dynamics, then they must work on lifestyle issues (e.g., more walkable cities tend to have more pull for interprovincial migrants; automobile dependency and stressful living tends to repel them), and on creating the right kinds of jobs (business services, construction and the sciences tend to pull people in; but manufacturing-oriented cities seem to be distinctly unattractive).

One way to create jobs is to cultivate a more highly educated population. This is an area in which Winnipeg has long struggled. In the 2006 Census, Winnipeg ranked ninth among Canada’s 10 largest metropolitan areas in terms of the percentage of 25-64 year olds who had completed any form of post-secondary education (59%). This placed us just ahead of last-place Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo (58%) and well behind front-runner cities such as Quebec City and Ottawa-Gatineau (both 69%) and Calgary (67%).

An international 2012 study by two researchers at the Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Amsterdam found a strong link between a country’s educational performance and entrepreneurial success:

The vast collection of research into the drivers of entrepreneurship performance to date has rather convincingly shown that human capital is a main driver of performance (and education a primary source of human capital) . . . [H]igher levels of education lead to more productive business owners and thus to a steeper relationship between the business ownership rate and value creation. And since more-productive business owners run larger firms, they require, on average, more employees . . .

Statistics Canada has also noted that Winnipeggers with a university degree earned nearly $20,000 more annually than the average Winnipegger aged 15 years and over in 2005; and that Manitobans aged 25-64 with higher levels of education have higher employment rates.

Other benefits abound from higher educational attainment rates. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that U.S. college graduates could expect to outlive those without a high school education by more than five years on average, and were far more likely to describe their health as being “excellent” or “very good”.

Readers of this blog will recall from the previous post that both employment prospects and health are strongly associated with higher levels of satisfaction with life.

And a 2012 research report found that improving educational attainment is important in the fight against crime:

. . . [E]ducation policies can reduce property crime as well as violent crime. In both the US and Sweden, the estimated effects of educational attainment or school enrollment on property and violent offenses appear to be quite similar in percentage terms . . . Even murder appears to be quite responsive to changes in educational attainment and school quality . . .

Fifthly, higher wages increase the opportunity costs of both property and violent crime. Lochner and Moretti (2004) show that the estimated effects of educational attainment on crime can be largely accounted for by the effects of schooling on wages and the effects of wages on crime. This is important since it suggests that policymakers can reduce crime simply by increasing labor market skills; they need not alter individual preferences or otherwise socialize youth.

Both the former mayor and the Chamber of Commerce have encouraged Winnipeggers to be bold in terms of imaging the city’s future. Fair enough. Let’s be bold enough to aim for this goal: that 95 percent of the children born in Winnipeg in 2015 will finish high school on-time in 2033; and that 90 percent of the total will finish some form of post-secondary education by the end of 2040, the year of their 25th birthdays. All without lowering standards.

Sounds too ambitious for a city struggling with so many problems? Yes, probably so. But the closer to the target we get, even if a long way off, the better off this city will be.

And one more bold idea:

Let’s exorcise once and for all this perverse, parochial idea that the path to respectability and admiration for our city is the accumulation of more “stuff”.

A short history of the Moral Menace

Normally one thinks of coffee shops as places where mild-mannered people, male and female alike, gather to chat or to stare at their Macs over coffee and perhaps a pastry; not as hotbeds of sex and immorality.

That, at least, tends to be the reality in Canada, which is why a recent article in the Kuwait Times might strike many of us here in North America as being inadvertently hilarious:

Three Kuwaiti ministers could be interrogated by parliament if mixed coffee shops are not closed within one month, a lawmaker has warned. Reports in Kuwait City pointed to the presence of young women and men in these coffee shops to smoke shisha.

“We will not hesitate to grill the competent ministers if these immoral coffee shops are not shut down within one month,” MP Askar Al- Enezi said, quoted by local media.

“We urge the ministers of interior, commerce and municipality to take action against these cafes all over Kuwait, but particularly in the Jahra area,” he said, referring to his constituency north east of the capital Kuwait City.

The lawmaker issued his warning as he took part in a rally on Saturday alongside other MPs, religious figures and residents in Jahra to push for action against the coffee shops accused of promoting vice and depravation.

“Such coffee shops have no room in our society as they violate our very traditions and customs as well as the spirit of the Constitution which stipulates the state’s responsibility in maintaining the values of the family considered as the core of the community and in protecting the youth,” the lawmaker said.

MP Sultan Al Laghisem and Mohammad Tana said that they would use all parliamentary means to ensure the end to the “moral menace” to Jahra by the coffee shops. “There is a deep corruption of morals at these suspicious places and we will do our utmost, including quizzing, to fight it,” Mohammad Tana said, quoted by Al-Jareeda daily on Sunday.

On my next visit to a local Starbucks after reading this article, I scanned the scene carefully for any sign of vice, depravation or corruption of morals.

Other than a woman in a blue coat who looked suspiciously like a cheating dieter by becoming suddenly shifty-eyed when ordering her pumpkin scone, there were no signs that that particular Starbucks was in any way a “suspicious place”.

But that’s not to say that North America has always been free of relatively innocuous behaviours being treated as moral menaces. Some of these menaces include:

  • Children’s stories and nursery rhymes. The Mar. 14, 1925 Reading Eagle reported on public comments made in New York by Dr. Winifred Sackville Stoner, the president of the National Education Forum, accusing Mother Goose of promoting “cruelty, rudeness, selfishness, murder, immorality, cowardice, bad grammar” and a variety of other evils “with the possible exception of arson”. Stoner also criticized Little Jack Horner for promoting bad manners, Rock-a-By-Baby for terrifying children, and Old King Cole for promoting an anti-Prohibition message.
  • Tinky Winky the Teletubby. Televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell raised a few eyebrows in 1999 when he accused Tinky Winky, a character on Teletubbies, a U.K.-produced children’s program syndicated to the U.S., of promoting homosexuality. ”He is purple — the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay-pride symbol,” Falwell wrote in his organization’s National Liberty Journal magazine. The company distributing the show to American audiences denied the accusations.
  • Watching movies on a Sunday. The audience at a showing of Cranes are Flying at Winnipeg’s Uptown Theatre received an unwelcome surprise one Sunday in November, 1959 as the Winnipeg Police morality squad raided the premises to investigate “possible violations of the Lord’s Day Act”, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reported on Nov. 23, 1959. The newspaper reported that Winnipeg Police chief Robert Taft was considering whether a report should be sent to provincial attorney-general Sterling Lyon for further action; and noted that several other sports teams in Winnipeg had been given warnings by police for playing sports on a Sunday. Movies could at that time be shown for a voluntary contribution on a Sunday, but not for a set admission price.
  • Dancing. In 1917, Toronto police cracked down on the perceived problem of — wait for it — young people going to dances to look for a partner. Thus, as the Jan. 31, 1917 edition of the Toronto World reported, “In future, the young women of Toronto who wish to go to a dance hall will have to be escorted there by a young man. Vice versa, the young man will not be admitted without a fair partner.” The crackdown by the Toronto Police morality division came after “complaints of indecorous conduct”, and came with a promise to station police officers at the front doors of Toronto’s dance halls, with orders to arrest “any woman who accosts a man with a view to entering the place.”

Slurping our way to obesity

Winnipeggers' love of Slurpees even got the attention of CNN once. (Click for source.)

Winnipeggers’ love of Slurpees even got the attention of CNN once. (Click for source.)

Sitting in a London coffee shop this past April, watching people going about their daily lives on the sidewalk — ahem, pavement — on the opposite side of the floor-to-ceiling window, I devoted a bit of time to trying to figure something out: Why is it that people on this side of the Atlantic look better, on the whole, than people back home?

Could it be the body language? Perhaps. In the world’s big cities, people tend to walk with a briskness and assertiveness that contrasts with the easygoing saunter that all but the busiest Winnipeggers maintain.

Could it be the clothes? That would certainly explain part of the difference. In a global business capital, people are expected to dress the part, which means strong demand for suits and ties. Sweatpants and the “gangster” look were somewhat less commonly seen. Yet even then, many wore clothes that were no more formal than what would be considered normal at St. Vital Mall or on Corydon Ave. on a Saturday night, aside from a propensity on the part of both men and women for wearing scarves even when the temperature is in the teens Celsius.

Then it occurred to me what the most important distinguishing factor might be: a lot of people here look healthy and fit — or, at least, relatively few look blatantly unhealthy and unfit.

The stats seem to bear this out: a 2011 study found that obesity rates in the London area ranged from a low of 14 percent of adults in Kensington and Chelsea to a high of 29 percent in the eastern suburbs of Barking and Dagenham.

In Manitoba, by comparison, a 2011 Manitoba Centre for Health Policy report on obesity, based on data collected between 2004 and 2008, concluded that 28 percent of the province’s adult males and 26 percent of adult females are obese, based on a body-mass index of 30 or higher. (Note that these figures exclude on-reserve populations.)

In Winnipeg, the province’s least obesity-ridden regional health authority area, 25 percent of adult males and 22 percent of adult females were estimated to be obese. A lot of weight would have to be lost to get the city down to Kensington and Chelsea’s enviably low levels.

Conversely, less than one-half of the city’s adults — 45 percent of women and 30 percent of men — were estimated to be of normal weight for their size.

Londoners and residents of the cities to the east and south in continental Europe, of course, have an advantage. Even if they have a sedentary job, life in that part of the world tends to be more active. Walking is part of the local way of life, and needs to be given the high cost of gasoline (estimated by numbeo.com as of Wednesday evening at $2.19 Cdn. per litre in London, compared to $1.20 in Winnipeg) and commuting (non-inner-city Londoners are charged a £10 per day congestion charge, or $16 Cdn., to drive into central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays).

They also don’t consider the heavy consumption of sugary drinks to be a matter of civic pride.

That is in sharp contrast to Winnipeg, as the Winnipeg Sun reported this week:

For the 14th consecutive year, Manitoba’s capital has been named Slurpee Capital of the World, 7-Eleven announced Monday. This year, Winnipeg will also receive the first-ever Slurpee Capital Trophy Cup.

Winnipeg won the cup for having the highest average number of Slurpee cups sold per store in a region. Calgary and Detroit were close behind, 7-Eleven says.

“Canada can no longer be complacent with this title as we have some serious competition globally,” Tim Donegan, vice president for 7-Eleven Canada, said in a media release. “But we have faith in Manitobans and their passion for all things Slurpee. It’s a title they’re extremely proud of and it really shows how Slurpee is truly a part of our culture — it’ll take a lot to beat that.”

It’s not clear how the “first-ever Slurpee Capital Trophy Cup” will differ from the “Slurpee Capital of the World trophy” accepted last year by city councilor Grant Nordman as Metro Winnipeg reported on July 9, 2012:

“This being the largest slurpee store in the world is really quite an accomplishment,” said Nordman, as he sipped on a Crush Lite Cream Soda Slurpee, which, he added, has 30% less calories and is a more healthy option.

Quite rightfully, that didn’t convince Twitter user @CoachV_HLF.

“This [is] horrible, we are the Diabetes capital of Canada and our city councillor is supporting the idea of slurpees being special,” “Coach” wrote in response to a CTV Winnipeg tweet promoting the 2012 event.

Such sugary beverages, including Councilor Nordman’s Crush Lite Cream Soda Slurpee, are indeed hardly beneficial for Winnipeggers’ health. A fact sheet published by the Harvard School of Public Health (c. 2012) noted that regular sugary drink consumption contributes to weight gain and higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks or gout.

If you accept the premise that Winnipeggers would feel better about our city and ourselves if both the city and its citizenry took a little more pride in appearances — shrinking rather than expanding waistlines, and fewer discarded Slurpee cups strewn about, for example — then Slurpees are of little benefit to the city’s collective self-confidence.

Thus, Manitoba’s politicians would be well advised to stay away from the Slurpee bandwagon.

It could always be worse, however. Earlier this year, Mississippi legislators passed a law that, in the words of the Washington Post, “bars counties from passing and enacting laws that require calorie counts to be posted or caps the size of beverages or foods.” (This being the state with its own Brain Drain Commission, which is casting about trying to understand why the state’s best and brightest young people dream of leaving as soon as possible, and even candidly admits on its web site that the state is “perpetually behind the curve”.)

Doing it all in your PJs

For decades, all that the pajama manufacturers of the world could do was watch as their market seemed to gradually disappear.

Some of the earliest alarm bells were sounded in 1949, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (?) reported that one-half of American men no longer wore pajamas to bed, a change attributed to returning World War II veterans who had gotten used to going without.

Despite the protests of the U.S. Shirt and Pajama Association, whose spokesman was quoted in a United Press report saying that a pajama-wearer is “much more of a gentleman”, pajama sales generally continued to decline over the years (aside from a spike in the Fifties), being worn by only one-in-four at the end of the 20th century.

Then, as the 21st century got under way, everything old became new again. The same mysterious cultural forces that bestowed upon the world the plaid suits of the Seventies and “the grunge look” of the Nineties suddenly made pajamas fashionable again.

Not necessarily for sleeping in, but for going about all your daily business in — a look supposedly inspired by college students who had mastered the art of rolling out of bed and into class 15 minutes later.

This style found no shortage of takers across North America, where expanding waistlines make elastic, or at least easily adjustable, pajama waistbands handy for both comfort and for not having to buy larger clothes more often.

Pajamas are also a good fit — no pun intended — in Winnipeg, where comfort comes first. In fact, the ability to live life in your pajamas is the newest marketing angle for selling condos in downtown Winnipeg, as the CBC reports:

A new highrise structure is in the works for downtown Winnipeg but most of the details are still under wraps.

Jawad Rathore, president and CEO of Fortress Real Development, said more details will be released soon but he’s not yet prepared to say what the building will look like or even where it will be located.

“I would love to … I know everyone wants those details,” he said. “We’re making a big announcement in about three weeks.” 

All he would say is it will be a mixed-use concept, which means people can live in one building, work in an adjacent building and have retails services at the base. And one thing that is certain, there will be a grocery store, Rathore said.

“If you need groceries you can actually go grocery shopping in your pajamas and your flip-flops in the middle of winter just by walking out the door and heading right down,” he said.

“And people kind of get this goofy, giggly smile on their face that yeah, you can actually do that.”

Having more people living downtown is a good thing; no doubt about that.

We do live in a city, however, that struggles with the diametrical opposite of being vain — that is, with being blissfully unconcerned with how the place looks.

Pride in civic appearance starts with pride in citizen appearance. If the latter doesn’t matter, neither will the former.

Around the world, businesses and governments have started to take firmer stances against the pajamas-in-public craze.

In 2010, a Tesco supermarket in Cardiff, Wales stirred up its pajama-wearing clientèle when management instituted a no-nightwear and no-bare-feet rule for customers, and turned away a 24-year old pajama-clad woman who wanted to buy cigarettes.

“I think it’s stupid really not being allowed in the supermarket with pyjamas on,” Elaine Carmody told the BBC. “So they’re going to lose their custom, with people going to other shops to buy stuff and they’re allowed in with their pyjamas on.”

A protest was soon organized on Facebook, in which half a dozen people “shopped while dressed in their finest nightwear”, Wales Online reported.

The concept of going about one’s daily business in pajamas has met resistance elsewhere, too. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, the head teacher at one school sent home a blunt note, accusing parents who drop off and pick up children while they themselves are clad in pajamas of being “disrespectful to the school and a bad example“.

Chinese officials have begun ‘discouraging’ citizens from wearing pajamas in public, as a New York Times op-ed reported from Shanghai in 2010:

Catchy red signs reading “Pajamas don’t go out of the door; be a civilized resident for the Expo” are posted throughout the city. Volunteer “pajama policemen” patrol the neighborhoods, telling pajama wearers to go home and change. Celebrities and socialites appear on TV to promote the idea that sleepwear in public is “backward” and “uncivilized.”

[ . . . ]

Two journalists from Hong Kong’s Weekend Weekly magazine have already challenged [the pajama ban]. They marched in their silk pajamas along Nanjing Road, a major shopping area in central Shanghai, and sat down in a restaurant. They met only one pajama-wearing comrade, and many people made fun of them (maybe because on a rainy day they were wearing silk jammies rather than the quilted or heavy flannel styles normally worn in cool weather). It wasn’t what they expected in Shanghai.

Most draconian of all: In Louisiana, a local politician has been trying without success to ban the wearing of pajamas in public. Having made little headway, the politician turned his proposed law into a mere resolution that would encourage businesses to turn away pajama-clad customers.

Such a ban has been rejected in Gisborne, New Zealand, where the New Zealand Herald reports that a minority of residents’ habits “shows a lack of self-respect and lowers the town’s appeal.”