End of the Road

August 2007: We began with high hopes, but our Canada dream ended in disappointment. In September, Chaya, Julia and I will be moving to the UK, to Oxford. Those interested in the details of that move are encouraged to read the sequel there. Here, I will sum up the Kingston experience.

Disappointments with Queen's University

I recognized from the beginning a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in my approach to the university and the city. Determined to be pleased and proud of my new physical and intellectual home, I sought out supporting evidence and avoided contradictions. Queen's certainly has the reputation of an elite institution in Canada, even if hardly anyone outside of Canada has heard of it. Queen's is considered to be the most competitive university for students to get into, even if the reasons are sometimes obscure, and may be summarised by the comment of a Toronto colleague who said of his high school cohort, "If you were rich and white, Queen's was the place to go". Queen's is regularly ranked near the top among Canadian research universities by Maclean's (the relentlessly bland universal magazine of all things Canadian), with a noble history and great potential strengths. There is a strong medical school and epidemiology program, internationally respected mathematical biologists, and apparent eagerness to hire me and Julia, suggesting a support for further growth in our areas of mathematics and statistics. And yet... On the Canadian scene there's McGill, Toronto, UBC (in no particular order) and then everyone else.

Still, cognitive dissonance is powerful, and is supported at Queen's by the many very smart faculty members who have been seduced by the exceptionally low housing prices (and commuting times to the aristocratic manse with the private duck pond in a small fraction of the time you would need to get to a corresponding sized spread in the GTA), as well as those, amiable or embittered, who were tenured back when the main criterion was possession of a Y chromosome*, and can't go anywhere else. (Since unionisation of the faculty this criterion has since been relaxed.) I won't try to estimate relative proportions, but there are enough of both these groups would be enough to maintain anyone who is willing in a warm social bath of self-satisfaction. We were willing, two years ago, but were driven out. I won't comment in this public forum on the specific reasons for our leaving, except to say that it did not seem possible that we would be supported in building up a high-level statistics program at Queen's. In any case, the price for getting basic support -- in particular, a permanent job for Julia -- was that we had to first find jobs elsewhere, and once we had done so we had no motivation to stay at Queen's. In addition (and this is important information for anyone who might have come upon this text before negotiating employment with Queen's), the university has a policy of allowing department heads to negotiate hiring conditions autonomously, with no interference or direct participation by the dean or higher-level administrators, but in the end the university does not consider itself bound by any agreements made in these negotiations, whether oral or written. Months after you've agreed what you thought were the terms of your hiring, the university will send you an official letter, with perhaps completely different terms (in my case the change was in the time to tenure), and you're only choice is to sign the contract or not.

While there is considerable good will in some quarters directed at the principle of building up the statistics program, in practice the broad majority view statisticians as did Musil's Man Without Qualities, as 'bad mathematicians'. I had numerous conversations which ended with the punchline, "But the good statisticians all get better-paying jobs elsewhere," or "Their work is mathematically shallow." This is rather like a music professor complaining that a bit of mathematics is not sufficiently tuneful. Still, I have some hope that the department, under new leadership, will be taking the statistics half of its mission more seriously.

The peculiar Queen's mixture of green eyeshades and megalomaniac self-satisfaction, particularly as embodied by the university's somewhat self-dramatising principal Karen Hitchcock has been the subject of a satirical pamphlet.


Good things

Mulberry School in Kingston seems to be one of the very few Waldorf (or, at least, "Waldorf-inspired") schools within walking distance of a city centre -- about fifteen minutes at a brisk walk from our house. (Waldorf parents tend to range from skeptical toward Luddite in their regard of information technologies introduced since the Reformation, but they do seem to love driving cars.) Chaya was in their kindergarten program, and found it delightful. We have high hopes for her new school in Oxford, but leaving Mulberry School is one of our greatest regrets from Kingston.

Other to-be-missed Kingston institutions are the Sleepless Goat Cafe, where I spent many of my days working, eating, and drinking tea; the reform Jewish congregation Iyr HaMelech, with whom we celebrated many a Kabbalat Shabbat (at our own home; while Jewish reform may have history on its side, it's the soi disant orthodox who own the property, and the real-estate moguls all belong to Congregation Beth Israel).

Kingston actually has quite pleasant weather. The winters can be quite chill, a problem for those who don't like that sort of thing, but surprisingly sunny. It's a pleasure to be able to look up any side street and see Lake Ontario. Wolfe Island is anything but sensational, but it's nice to have it there, and we've had some pleasant family excursions there. There is a plethora of festivals in the summer, a special favourite being the Dusk Dances, which coincide (more or less) with Chaya's birthday.


One colleague, who used to live in New Jersey commented, "In New Jersey you knew the mob was running things. And now and then a bunch of people would go to prison, which gave you the feeling that at least someone was keeping a lid on things. Here, you see all the same signs of corruption, but no one ever goes to prison."

As with Queen's it's the Lucifer effect: The corruption of a magnificent potential is particularly dismaying. It would be hard to expect much of Edmonton or Hamilton, but Kingston has a marvelous location, decent weather, fascinating history (even if the citation of every hovel that Sir John A. ever signed a lease on can be a bit trying), a wealthy and renowned university, and a well-preserved historic city core. (This past winter I happened to be

Unfortunately, the city is dominated by real-estate interests, who have privatized most of the waterfront, with the bizarre result that there is no public beach near downtown Kingston, and what water access there is within several kilometres of the city centre is rocky and uninviting. Walking along the lake is possible only for short stretches, as most of the waterfront is taken up by highrise apartment buildings and hotels.

The current mayor, Harvey Rosen, has mastered the political subterfuge of starting major construction projects, and only revealing the costs after the city is already committed. He practiced with the Grand Theatre, whose reconstruction was under way when we arrived in 2005, and whose completion, it is believed by some, will herald the End of Days. By mid-2006 the projected price had risen from $6.5 million to $14.5. A city report then said, in effect, mistakes were made, but it's too late to do anything about that. Opponents of the far more costly new Large Venue Entertainment Centre (LVEC), which was then still under debate, citedthis financial fiasco in argument against trusting the Rosen administration. "With the city on the verge of beginning one of the largest construction projects a downtown arena it has ever undertaken, the consultants issued a series of recommendations calling for more oversight of costs and better communication between departments to identify and control costs before they become unmanageable." So what happened? Wonder of wonders, Rosen went public after the election (which he won by a few hundred with an auditor's report (completed before the election, actually, but, you know, everyone was so busy...), pointing out, among other things, that the $38 million  LVEC cost estimate neglected to include such amenities as furniture and lighting fixtures,


This may reflect above all my sheltered life, but I have never lived (or even spent any significant amount of time) in a city that is so miserably suited to bicycling, or so poorly served by public transportation. The buses run only every half hour or so, when they run at all (i.e., no evenings or Sundays for many routes). Even at that they run nearly empty, so it's hard to say there's much unmet demand. It's a cultural thing. While the great Canadian cities Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver are among the most liveable cities in the world, with public transportation and pedestrian and cycling amenities ranging from good to great, Canadians in small cities, towns, and the countryside are wild for internal combustion. (Just for comparison, over 80% of Kingstonians commute to work by private car, as compared with about 55% in my old hometown of Berkeley, CA.) There are large parts of Kingston that could not be reached in any way without travelling on highways without even shoulders for a bicycle. And without a private car you can forget about the much touted provincial parks and outdoor recreation areas. There is not even a token public transportation service to any of them.

(including Pedestrians are somewhat better served in Kingston. Where we lived, in the centre of town ("Sydenham ward"), it was no more than a fifteen minute walk to almost anywhere we wanted to go, and you could mostly stay on pleasant side roads. On the other hand, downtown Kingston is cut by a sequence four heavily travelled one-way parallel roadsPrincess Avenue, the only significant shopping street in the city). Only two or three times, in more than two years I lived there, did an automobile ever stop to allow me to cross the street. The Canadians are a busy people, and even if it's sleeting or 20 below and you're carrying a child, you can be sure that every one of the drivers needs to get across the road more urgently than you do.

Kingston is as well served as any place in Canada with intercity rail service, which is to say, hardly at all. You can travel from Kingston on Via Rail to Ottawa, Montreal or Toronto, and since all the trains run through Toronto, there are actually about 8 trains a day -- though with gaps of several hours in the middle of the day. The service is passable, even if the trains are dingy and old. (Apparently they were purchased at fire-sale prices when the French SNCF modernised, without consideration for handicap access or the colder Canadian winters.) Still, if you have a flight from the Montreal airport, the earliest you can arrive is 11:32. Or you can fly to Toronto from Kingston airport, in commuter airplanes so small and apparently unstable that they (seriously) put the men in the rear, apparently in an effort to balance the weight without resorting to the embarrassing recourse of putting the passengers on a scale. (I'm waiting with dread for the news of an Air Canada flight from Kingston downed by the fortuitous overlapping itineraries of Kingston Women for Fat Acceptance and the Canadian Jockeys' Association.)

*A slight exaggeration. The favoured means of teaching the fairer sex their place at Queen's before the faculty unionised was to tenure them -- thus avoiding a procedural review and potential lawsuits -- while denying them promotion to associate professor.

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