Tuesday, December 30, 2008

And a Merry Xmas to All of You at Home

How many Doctor Who fans out there have published blog posts with that name on it? Probably all of them, or at least the ones with no shame. However, after much stumbling around the internet, I've finally managed to watch this year's Doctor Who Xmas Special, The Next Doctor, which I thought was a solidly above average, if not exemplary story. It was considerably appreciated among the general British populace, as is the case with everything the show does today. But I think the biggest problem that arose in the fan community was that none of their wild and insane expectations were satisfied.

Now here's the context. In an interview this Fall, David Tennant confirmed that he was leaving the role of the Doctor at the end of 2009, so the four television movies that will be released over the next year will be his last. He'll regenerate during the last tv movie just before the start of season five in spring 2010. Shortly after this announcement, the title of the Xmas 2008 special was revealed as The Next Doctor, and that the title character would be played by David Morrissey, one of the bookmakers' favourites to replace Tennant. The fan community was all a-flutter and a-squee on the internet, with the majority interpreting this evidence along these lines. Morrissey was booked to become the eleventh Doctor in 2010, and Tennant was going to overlap with his own personal future and meet him.

I rejected that plot as just too obvious, especially when the BBC released a teaser clip in November of the pre-credits sequence of The Next Doctor. Tennant appears in Xmas 1851 by himself to chill out for a while, hears a woman shouting for The Doctor, and runs to help. But she keeps shouting when he gets there, and David Morrissey appears wearing Victorian clothes and speaking with a bunch of vocal mannerisms that Tennant himself uses for the character. Rather than Tennant meeting his future self, I guessed that instead this "next Doctor" would be an imitator. Perhaps he was a fan who found opportunity to take up the mantle of his hero, or a time travelling con man out to use his identity for fun and profit. It turned out that neither of these was the case, and Morrissey's "Doctor" (but I should say 'Professor') had a far more compelling, engrossing, and tragic back story than I had imagined. My expectations had been completely thrown and I couldn't have been more pleased.

Some, however, were not pleased at all. Behind the Sofa is a blog that has become a pillar of the community of Who fans, and while they began as a bunch of barely literate prats slagging off their favourite show for a bunch of fanboyish slights, they have evolved into a group of solid reviewers. But they still have their fannish moments. All of these reviews have spoilers, so if you want to watch the story without them, go do that first.

I mentioned that I was glad to have my expectations overturned, since to create the novel and unexpected is what art is all about. However, one negative review of The Next Doctor seemed entirely occupied with the writer, Neil Perryman's, disappointment that he had guessed wrong about Morrissey's character. Iain Hepburn gave a much better negative review, since he didn't like the story for much better reasons. Among them was what he perceived as a by-the-numbers Russell Davies adventure script, a lack of the chemistry between Tennant and Morrissey that they had shown when previously working together on the miniseries Blackpool, some lacklustre special effects, and a tired performance from Tennant himself.

Overall, this is the kind of story structure that Russell Davies writes in his sleep, and that has become a tad old at this point. The story certainly had some unfortunately silly elements, such as the Cybermen secretly using an army of Dickensian street urchins to build a fully functional steampunk 20-story Cyber-mech. Both of these points Frank Collins discusses in his overall positive review of the episode at Behind the Sofa. As for myself, I found Tennant's performance to fit the tiredness of the Doctor himself at this point in his character development. Being forced, for all practical understanding, to euthanize your best friend Donna at the end of season four does not put one in the best of moods, and the Doctor is without doubt tired. His encounter with Morrissey is an opportunity to take stock of the man his tenth self has become.

Indeed, this movement is at the heart of what I thought was a quite intense and dramatic interaction between Tennant and Morrissey. Of course, the chemistry isn't going to be the same as in Blackpool; they were antagonists then. Indeed, the best part of the story was its first forty minutes, where the Doctor works out just who Morrissey is, and helps him come to terms with himself and what he can do. When we meet Morrissey, he's a man who thinks he's a hero, and over the course of the story, the Doctor helps him become a hero himself. It was a perfect ending as well, with Morrissey helping the Doctor become what he didn't think he could be again, a friend.

It's a shame the villain's evil plan didn't make any sense, or this would have been brilliant from start to finish. As it is, The Next Doctor was 70% brilliant and 30% mindless fun that could have been much better as mindful fun.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Brief Reflection on Barstool Philosophy

A discussion with a friend of mine at McMaster Philosophy a while ago resulted in the second crossed-finger 'Back Vampire!' gesture and accompanying hissing noise that I've received for my philosophical ideas. All in jest, of course. There's no real hatred happening, at least not for my philosophical views. The first one I got during my MA thesis research when my friend saw I was reading Neurophilosophy, which she utterly despised.

The second one was in a bar in Hamilton, when we were talking a little colloquial philosophy, and I mentioned that I didn't believe in an immaterial soul. And my friend, she gave me the cross and hiss. From what I remember, her case was "You can't just believe that we're just machines reacting to stimuli, can you?!"

The big difference between dualists and me is that a dualist thinks that you need a whole hell of a lot of equipment to do all the crazy cool stuff humans do. I think all the crazy cool stuff humans do can be done by a very trim, svelte, efficient rig. The human gear is simple, but with practically unlimited potential for action. I think mine actually sounds a lot more cool and poetic than the dualist model. After all, a game of Go is just a bunch of discs on a board, but the complexity of what can be done is immense.

Now I must drink and dance to rock music.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Phones and Mannerliness

I was just listening to a fascinating BBC Start the Week podcast, discussing various issues of architecture, and a new book of collaborations between poets and astrophysicists. But a throwaway comment near the end of the podcast threw me, and it's something that always comes up whenever middle aged people discuss how that dang new-fangled technology, mobile phones in particular, have changed the way we interact with people.

One person, I think it was the host, Andrew Marr, mentioned how it's become acceptable to excuse yourself from a conversation with people standing in the same room with you to answer your mobile phone. He described it as caring more about a piece of technology than about a person. But there's a person on the other end of the phone.

They're trying to connect with you from quite far away, and are connecting much more tenuously than these people who are right in front of you. There is a fragile bond connecting you and whoever is calling you, a shaky cellular transmission. It's only fair that this other person should supersede the people in the room with you. The folks standing face to face with you have a much stronger connection with you, and so don't need your help. You can let them go for a few minutes to pay attention to someone through this much more tenuous link.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Coincidental Wrong Number

Eventually, I'll get around to writing a fairly long, detailed post about contemporary American politics, but I'm waiting for various bits of the Blagojevitch scandal to calm down, and I've been busy trying to get all the writing (conference papers, novel) and reading (Pynchon's Against the Day, Latour's Politics of Nature) out of the way by the time I fly to St John's on Xmas Eve. So until I get around to writing that, here's something that used to happen to me in Newfoundland.

About every three months or so for a period of about five years, I would get a wrong number on my mobile phone from someone looking for a person named Yahtzee. I never actually tried to track him down, because I didn't care. But over the past year, I've become inordinately fond of Zero Punctuation, the video game reviews hosted by The Escapist Magazine. I rarely play video games, and I'm rubbish at them. But I do understand the ideas involved, and I find them very interesting. And the man behind Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee Croshaw, is one of the most entertaining people on the internet today.

Just after listening to the latest Zero Punctuation review, a scathingly abusive treatment of the latest Sonic the Hedgehog game (They still make Sonic games? I was surprised too.), I thought about my formerly regular wrong numbers. Since my phone number changed when I moved to Hamilton, I don't get these wrong numbers anymore. But I imagined just now that actual friends of Yahtzee Croshaw were trying to call him. This meant that they were ranking up hideously high mobile phone charges for accidentally calling me in eastern Canada over long distance from Australia. However, that's probably not the case, as very few people would ever be that stupid.
Also, there's a really good Roberto Bolaño short story online over at The New Yorker, and you should read it.
Some of the reasons why I love love.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Protesting in the Freezing Cold

This weekend, I was in Toronto, and found myself at Stephane Dion's and Jack Layton's protest rally downtown without even planning to go. I wandered in, and ended up holding a sign, listening to the speeches of the two party leaders, having arrived just in time to see them both, catch a couple of acoustic songs by a few members of Broken Social Scene (which rally MC Mary Walsh at one point called Broken Scene), and be on my way. The sign is still up in my apartment window, stating that I'm part of the 62% majority.

I had spent the previous Friday, among other events, sitting in a rooftop tent above a pro-actively weed friendly coffee shop in Toronto, laughing myself sick at my friend Chris' impromptu performance of a rant about how, if one interprets the constitution correctly, it would be perfectly acceptable for the Governor General, during a parliamentary crisis, to overthrow the parliament in a military coup. Since the Governor General is the Commander in Chief of the Canadian armed forces and the head of state anyway, this would not even really be a coup, but the Governor General exercising her powers in a time of necessity. I think it was the large number of mellifluously flowing syllables in Chris' explanation. The more I think about this, the more I realize that I would not mind if this happened.

Regular readers (if I have any left) are probably wondering why it's taken me so long to rant about our current political situation. Well, it's because I have so far only been briefly excited about the idea of a coalition, and I'm now fairly concerned about it. I'm not worried about the coalition itself. I endorse the idea of Canadian politics being more open to multi-partisan processes. And every policy the coalition has put forward is a perfect blend of the most sensible Liberal positions with the most sensible NDP positions for what this country needs to do if we're going to ride out the global credit crisis. Canadians should not fool themselves into thinking that we are immune to serious economic problems, like the over-inflation of housing prices.

Conservative party economic policies will only work for magical fantasy worlds where markets are run not by an aggregate of several billion humans buying and selling things, but by the miracle-like dictates of the ghosts of William F Buckley, Milton Friedman, and Barry Goldwater. They are practically photocopies of the Reagan/W economic approach, which values only sustained growth of Gross Domestic Product statistics, ignoring the growing numbers of poor people domestically and throughout the world. Nothing would make me happier than to see this government thrown back to Alberta, where they belong.

And there is my major worry about this country right now. There is something rotten in Canada, possibly the most serious political division in our history since the Quebec referendum. I would say it is moreso, because a nationality can be bargained with, and federalist Canadians have bargained quite well with separatist Québécois. Ideological enemies cannot be bargained with, because they want to destroy what the bargainers are not willing to give up. Contemporary Québécois have largely been satisfied with the greater level of inclusion in the Canadian political process, and increased recognition, at least in the public, of Québec's distinct nationality. They did not want to destroy the economic institutions of federalism. A separate Québec would have had all the same welfare state institutions as Canada.

Albertans do not want this. Contemporary Albertans are beacons of intolerant conservative ignorance. They are a frontier state, settled by a culture of independent farmers and ranchers; individualists distrustful of anyone other than themselves assuring them that they the outsiders know best. Before oil wealth made Alberta a major engine of Canadian economic growth, the people had political leanings that could be called socialist: individuals who have worked hard for their property banding together to protect that property, whether from an invasive federal government or capitalist robber barons.

When Albertans were able to become the robber barons, their tune changed considerably, if not the basic distrust of outside interference, which is often seen as a kind of theft. That was the Albertan response to Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program. It goes to show that even though Trudeau was an effective strategist against Québécois nationalism (why Trudeau had little to do with the 1995 sovereignty referendum is a post for another day), he knew nothing about Alberta. The intolerance toward outside interference has mutated into an intolerance for any dialogue with outsiders. Most immigrants to Alberta quickly change their political beliefs to match their new home. I've seen examples of left-leaning Ontarians and Newfoundlanders going to Alberta to work, and returning as virulent fiscal conservatives.

Now that extreme wealth was the order of the day, principles of sharing that wealth disappeared from the Albertan idea of self-reliance. When a self-centred culture becomes rich, the concerns of their people change to reflect their wealth. If wealth was going to be given to other people who were not Albertans, then Albertans were opposed to this. The bill for a welfare state is paid by those citizens who have enough money that they do not need welfare state services themselves. If those people can understand that the poor are unfortunate and need help, then there is no problem. If those people see the poor as lazy, then the welfare state is institutional theft from hard workers to feed bums.

The values of hard work and just rewards are strong in Alberta, and I admire that. I am disgusted by the self-centredness seemingly ubiquitous in that province which blinds them to the idea that hard work does not necessarily lead to wealth. Albertans believe that their wealth is a necessary result of their hard work, and that people who are not wealthy do not deserve to be so. Albertan conservatism is the greatest threat to Canada's wider prosperity in history, because the Albertan political goal is to destroy every means of protecting people from the injustices of greed in growth, or poverty in depression.

No compromise is possible because they seek to destroy the institutions that I wish to protect. I don't think there is any way to solve this political crisis other than marginalizing the conservative movement in Canada to the point where it withers and dies. They must be kept out of government by a united front of all Canadians who believe in economic justice. The centre-left campaign of the next election must show the suffering poor of Canada abandoned by the Conservative government, and showing Ignatieff (because he'll win this), Layton, and yes even Duceppe standing with people putting factories back to work and marketplaces buzzing with Canadian farm goods.

Some matters of politics are non-negotiable, because we refuse to give them up. Do not buckle down to Conservative demands.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Impasses and Turns of Phrase

As of now, the novel stands at 246 pages and 93,000 words. It is longer than my doctoral thesis will be, and gives me considerable hope that I will finish my thesis and have a job well before the start of what I call Continuance Fee Country, that arid, depressing wilderness many doctoral students find themselves in when their four years have finished, their university funding has been cut off, and they are still writing, now without any income whatsoever.

If I'm able to reach 246 pages of fiction in a year, I'll certainly be able to reach 200 pages of philosophy in eighteen months. Add six months for editing, and a further six months to a year in examination, and I'll have finished my degree fantastically on time. I hope there'll be enough publications and conference presentations as well to have a knockout resumé that can get me into whatever job opens itself up for me. I know a lot of people will say to a doctoral student that they should concentrate on their thesis and save their publications for later.

But I say take that advice and shove it, if you want to get yourself decent employment, instead of a further two to five (yes, five!) years living off your credit line on a diet of Mr Noodles and Spaghetti-Os earning slave-like per-course wages. As a professor, you have to be able to do multiple things at the same time, like teach, publish, administrate, and the various sub-duties attached. And if you don't learn how during your doctoral studies, then you never will.

However, the real point of this post was not to brag about how much work I can do without breaking down in a fetal position and crying like a schoolgirl at the end of term. It was really to ponder a slight hitch with the plot of my novel. The next scene is written up in my outline as follows. "SB and his pregnant partner SM return to St John's from Toronto to get married. 25-30 pages."

As yet, I have no idea how to fill out this scene very far beyond that sentence. The two of them telling stories about Toronto will certainly take up some space, though I'm not sure what kind of Toronto experiences they'll have yet. SB works for CBC arts, so celebrity encounters will be among what he describes. An encounter with SB's and SM's parents might be included as well. However, there's no real conflict there, as the only one I can think of would revolve around their race difference, and SB's parents had no problem with him living with my protagonist JJ for four years. Perhaps I can have things proceed somewhat ironically with no problems whatsoever, and have the entertainment value come from pithy observations and hints of inner despair, like I have throughout the rest of the book.

I think I've made a lot of progress just by writing that paragraph.
One of the blogs I've started reading is the immensely entertaining, Belle de Jour. Much of my enjoyment is found in her forthright honesty, perceptive observation of people, and her delicious turns of phrase. If you do not find this funny, then you either have no sense of humour whatsoever, or are a gigantic prude. Discussing a friend of hers whose girlfriend is jerking him around, she says:

"She still expects him to drop everything and come round as and when she wants, take her out for a meal and morose conversation, then drop her back home without so much as a blowjob. Some women have no shame."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

And Now We Say He's Dead

I discovered today that Richey James has finally been declared legally dead. His parents asked for the court injunction so that they could take control of his estate, which is worth a little over a million Canadian dollars. One could say that it closes a chapter in UK rock history, but it doesn't really, because there will continue to be Richey sightings and cult obsessions articulating themselves as long as there are people who come to love the Manic Street Preachers.

For those who don't know, Richey was a member of the Manic Street Preachers, and even though he was a terrible guitar player, he co-wrote the lyrics of all their songs during his time with the band. On their third album, 1994's The Holy Bible, he wrote almost all the lyrics, poetic statements of a man on the verge of complete collapse. Richey was dangerously depressed, anorexic, and prone to self-mutilation. His car was given a parking ticket at a gas station in Severn on February 15, 1995. It's conventional wisdom that he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge near that gas station. But since his body was never found, he was always considered missing. The band wrote their best album, Everything Must Go, while grieving Richey, and have been a three-piece ever since. After almost 14 years, he's been declared legally dead.

Oddly, Richey came up in a conversation I had Tuesday afternoon with a friend who was researching articles about pro-ana websites for the women's studies course she's TAing. "4st 7lbs" from The Holy Bible is the greatest song ever written about anorexia and the twisted mental state from which it arises. This video I found of the Manics' singer/ lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield and bassist/surviving lyricist Nicky Wire lets you listen better to the lyrics in Richey's songs much better than the album versions, which are equally raw, but much less sparse.

"She Is Suffering" and "4st 7lbs," both from The Holy Bible

Friday, November 21, 2008

New Doctors and New Movies (Goodbye David, Prematurely)

The news has been out for a while, confirmed by the company and the star himself in a mostly unsurprising interview. David Tennant is leaving Doctor Who when he finishes filming the tv-movies that will broadcast over the course of 2009. At the end of the movie broadcasting over Xmas 2009, David will regenerate (for real this time) into the eleventh incarnation of the Doctor. Naturally, I'll miss him, though we'll always have those dvd box sets.

He's been an excellent Doctor, comparable to William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Tom Baker in terms of the consistent quality of his Doctor performance. And his acting skills themselves are in the same league as Hartnell, Troughton, and Peter Davison. And as my friend Kelli-rae told me when I broke the news to her over the internet, her sexual fantasies are never going to be the same. It wasn't just the sexy characterization and plot structure of Doctor #10 that enraptured people. He was also one of the best looking actors to play the part.

I knew he was a huge fan of the show when he joined for the 2005 Xmas movie, and when his performance was good, it was so good that I hoped he would stay long enough to break Tom Baker's seven year tenure. But four years was long enough for him, and he's made some wonderful stories. His first amazing performance was season two's The Girl in the Fireplace, where he completely sold falling in love and losing her through a cruel twist of fate and time portals in one episode. Rise of the Cybermen was a multifaceted story that called on the Doctor to run through the full palette of his character. Then The Impossible Planet's chilling atmosphere and imagery, witty script, and genuinely intriguing philosophical investigation made me qualify it as the best Who story of all time.

Season three had a fairly consistent quality of writing aside from three mediocre stories and a rather silly final episode after a brilliant bait-and-switch and Doctor-on-the-run combo leading up to it. David's best performance of the year was in Human Nature, where he spent most of the story playing a fictionalized personality instead of the Doctor. But season four was undoubtedly the best of the revived show, arguably the best season since the legendary season 14 of 1977. Every performance from David was perfect, especially the horrifying desperation of the closing moments of Midnight. But the series hit its height with the terrifying, surreal, irreal, mind-bending, soulful, beautiful Silence in the Library.

Can Doctor Who get better than Silence in the Library? I don't know, and I'm hesitant to answer the question in either direction since I had asked that very thing two years ago after I watched The Impossible Planet. And I asked it the year before that when I saw the uncensored version of 1977's The Talons of Weng-Chiang on dvd the year before that. And I asked it as a kid when I watched Genesis of the Daleks on YTV.

Of course, David had his wince-worthy moments too, especially in his first year. At times, he articulated his Doctor's manic enthusiasm as a cloying mawkishness that bordered on the childish. This was especially evident in his almost idiotic performances in New Earth, The Idiot's Lantern, and at some moments early in Army of Ghosts. These were toned down quite a bit by the end of the season, and by The Runaway Bride, David had achieved a perfect balance of enthusiasm and gravitas that only became more nuanced as the next two years went by. Perhaps he found this as he delved into the subtleties of the philosophical and emotional conundrums in the script for The Impossible Planet, the last story to be filmed for season two, even though it was numbered episodes eight and nine.

As soon as his departure was confirmed, the bookies were on the job, ranking odds as to the probable successors. David Morrissey leads the pack, already cast in the upcoming Xmas tv-movie as the title character, The Next Doctor. But this is so obvious, it has to be a red herring. The preview clip of Morrissey's performance broadcast as part of a BBC charity special this month illustrates it as well. Morrissey's "Doctor" plays like the arrogant manic moments of #10 in season two, dressed in the Victorian outfits of Paul McGann's #8. My own theory is that he'll turn out to be an imposter, perhaps a con man or a superfan who decides to emulate his hero. There's an old audio play (The One Doctor) where the Doctor meets a man who pretends to be him, and I think this would be the rough source material. It wouldn't be the first time an audio has served as loose inspiration for a tv story. Look at Dalek (Jubilee), and Return of the Cybermen (Spare Parts).

But the real story has to do with a slip of the tongue that has worked its way onto the internet as an actual plausible clue: Paterson Joseph. One of his co-stars recently let it slip that he's been in negotiations with Steven Moffat the new showrunner for 2010 onwards. And he's been interviewed by BBC Entertainment, and said he would relish the role if he had it. Joseph has even worked with Moffat before, as a scenery chewing villain on his series Jekyll. And he's worked on Doctor Who before, as a scenery-chewing dick in the first season finale. In fact, the Jekyll connection supported the rumours that Jekyll star James Nesbit would be up for the eleventh Doctor. But Nesbit doesn't want it anyway.

You can probably guess what I think Paterson's weakness will be in his characterization if he does get the part: his propensity to chew scenery. But there's also a villainous edge to him, a harder quality in his voice and his manners than David, or even Christopher Eccleston had. Paterson has the potential for a contribution to the Doctor's character that we've never really seen before. William could pull it off when the situation required, but he couldn't put the physical force into it. Colin Baker could lose his temper, but this is more than just anger. Sylvester McCoy's Doctor was written this way, but he could never quite sell it in his performance.

I'm talking about menace. To his enemies, the Doctor is a villain, and Paterson Joseph can sell villainy. It would be an interesting companion dynamic too, because Paterson has an icy quality that could seriously alienate his friends simply from seeing it. The Doctor can be cruel sometimes, and Paterson would give his cruelty an extra cold spice, a menace, and a sneer. It could make for one of the most intriguing and enrapturing Doctor performances yet.

This is all incredibly premature, of course, since David has the role for another year, during which we'll see him in four tv-movies. But the fact that we know of his departure so early will just build up the expectation to that moment at the climax of Xmas 2009 when we'll say goodbye and hello. After all, there's a black President in America. Why not a black Doctor in the TARDIS?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Financial Crisis in a Picture

The inimitable Jeffrey Rowland of Overcompensating and Wigu posted on his blog recently an excellent account of the global financial crisis and the housing bubble that precipitated it. Well, he linked to the graphic that lives on Mint.com, the financial blog.

The graphic is here.

And this is why I think it's particularly cool, in addition to explaining so simply an incredibly complex situation. The graphic culminates in the bailout and situates the reasons for it, and it pretty much explains itself. But I think the most interesting element of this graphic is that it shows that purely mechanical processes were not entirely responsible for the housing bubble bursting. In fact, many of these mechanical processes were started by a very contingent human activity: belief.

This was the belief that "Housing prices never fall." So housing is automatically a sound investment, no matter how insane the mortgage package might be. This belief was at the centre of the mania for home ownership, because real estate was seen as a guaranteed investment. There was no real worldly evidence for this perception, only the belief that operated as its premise: "Housing prices never fall."

If you believe that housing prices never fall, then any investment in housing will eventually be profitable. In order to have more real estate to invest in, more and more houses are built. Eventually, the number of houses outweighs the number of people able to buy them, even under subprime paradigms of mortgage. When the supply outstrips the demand, then prices fall. But no one thought about this because there was a belief among so very many people that "Housing prices never fall."

But the supply of houses was outstripping the demand, so housing prices were falling. And when you have to pay more on your mortgage debt than the actual value of your house, you can't afford that debt anymore. You'll have to borrow against your house to pay off the debt on your house. But that just creates more debt on your house. The result of this conundrum is default. And when homeowners default, the banks lose their money. And banks had integrated these mortgage debts into almost every investment package they sold, every investment agency ended up losing a ton of money. Investment agencies including Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros, AIG, Merrill Lynch, for example. With no lenders having any money, there was no source for loans or investments of any kind. Since big purchases are driven by loans and credit, no one could make big purchases, and the economy constituted from those purchasers (us) ground to a halt.

All following from a single concept: "Housing prices never fall." Remember the power of thought.

Friday, November 14, 2008

This Is the Most Chauvinist Song I Have Heard in My Life

The first time I heard "Long Black Veil" was when I was 17 years old. I was volunteering with the organizing committee for a now-defunct music and arts festival in St John's called Peace-A-Chord. As one meeting at Bannerman Park downtown petered off into a strictly social gathering, the festival coordinator, Jeff, played this song on his guitar. I remember that he played it well, with a particularly soulful tone in his voice which hinted that he was playing the song just as much to impress the attractive women on the committee as much as for his own enjoyment. I knew it was a song made popular by Johnny Cash, but I didn't really know my music history at the time quite as well as I do now. The song was pretty good, but it didn't impact me enough to make me discover more about it.

Now flash forward to this winter when I first acquired The Band's classic debut album, Music from Big Pink. I had no idea that they too covered "Long Black Veil" on this album. And for the first time, I listened to the lyrics all the way through. Everybody in The Band was a great musician and singer, but that song is mortifying to anyone with sane sensibilities. Let's walk through the lyrics, shall we?

Verse one
Ten years ago on a cold dark night,
someone was killed 'neath the town hall lights.
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed,
that the one who ran looked a lot like me.

Pretty standard scenario for a tragic song. A murder happens and a mistaken identity leads the wrong man to prison and/or the electric chair. 

Verse two
The Judge said son, what is your alibi,
if you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life,
for I'd been in the arms of my best friends wife.

So on the night of the murder, he's screwing his best friend's wife. So he has an alibi, but it would probably wreck his friendship, so he says nothing. When I realized this was the scenario, I was amazed. The protagonist is so totally indifferent to his friend that he has an affair with his wife, but is all of a sudden respectful and remorseful when he has to admit it. Now that public record is involved, he has so much respect for his friend that he's willing to die rather than humiliate him in public.

Verse three
Now the schaffold is high, and eternity's near.
She stood in the crowd, and shed not a tear.
But some times at night, when the cold wind moans
In a long black veil, she cries over my bones

And the wife stands there and says absolutely nothing. Forever. Meanwhile, no one has mentioned anywhere in this song that the protagonist's suicidally misplaced machismo has resulted in the actual murderer going free.

And now, the chorus
She walks these hills, in a long black veil.
She visits my grave, when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows, but me

In fact, she's so distraught that she makes regular pilgrimmages to the protagonist's grave. He was perfectly happy screwing around with her when there was no public consequence, but ultimately still had more respect for the friend he was betraying than the woman who, judging from these scenes of devotion, had fallen in love with him. But her feelings didn't matter in this situation. The important thing was that he finally did right by his friend. As for the wife, she doesn't factor into this story as anything other than a cause and an awkward situation, never as a person with genuine feelings that mattered.

I can barely listen to this song anymore now that I have once. It's similar to when my friend finally deciphered the lyrics to one of his favourite punk bands and discovered that they were anti-semitic. He couldn't listen to them after that, and couldn't even sell their cds, fearing that someone else might be exposed to what he thought was repugnant. Thankfully, the rest of Big Pink is still awesome.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Most Fascinating Figure in That Election

No, it's not Obama. I'm talking about John McCain. This piece, The Fall, in the New Yorker really spells out McCain in 2008, and the immense tragedy that his presidential run really amounted to. Here was a man who had developed a sense of politics as heroism, as the same activity as his life as a soldier and war hero, except with slightly less risk of assassination. He built a career based on standing up for his principles and not backing down on them. And he had paid for his highly principled political approach with continual defeat, yet he was never humiliated because he never compromised on what he thought was right.

The attacks he endured from the Bush camp in the 2000 Republican primaries were probably the most abuse McCain had ever received in his political career. Rove-style political smear tactics based on fear, hatred, and divisiveness derailed his presidential ambitions. As a result, America ended up with the most catastrophic president in its entire history. And John McCain could return to the senate, confident that he had at least gone down in a fair fight. If the McCain of 2000 had won the nomination, he would probably have soundly defeated Al Gore, would have run a White House not beholden to the neoconservative ideologues of Project for a New American Century, and actually put the care and effort necessary into the war against al Qaeda. John McCain, if he had been elected in 2000, could have been a brilliant president.

But by this year, his ambitions completely derailed him. One by one, all the stands of principle that had dominated his senate career, he let fall away so that he could secure the nomination and compete for the presidency. It got so that many of his old colleagues came to consider the upstanding bipartisan just a front to build up a strong coalition who would back him for president. He spoke so much about whether we know the real Barack Obama. But when you look at what he did during the campaign, people wonder now if they ever really knew the real John McCain.

I believe that McCain really is the principled man who worked the senate floor for three decades. I could tell by his concession speech on election night. His words were calm, conciliatory, looked forward to a challenging future, and were spoken without recrimination or resentment. I doubt Sarah Palin's planned speech would have been quite so honourable. McCain is a figure of classic tragedy, an honourable man ruined by his ambition. Sarah Palin is a cackling supervillain, a self-obsessed bigot who will bring the Republican party to disaster with her 2012 run. Perhaps even more than his own personal fall from integrity, John McCain will regret that he brought this wretch to national prominence.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Short Post Lamenting Technology

Nothing big or philosophical here. My computer's hardware has been tetchy since a fumble in the airport on the way to Hamilton this June. The only real problem was that the jack for external speakers no longer worked, and I had to buy an external sound card that connected to my computer through a usb cable. This wasn't a serious problem, and there certainly could have been worse damage to my computer, lovingly named Michel, from that fall. The sight of one of my students' internally shattered laptop screen (my continued condolences, Heather) showed me just how lucky I was.

Yet tonight, in the amount of time it took for me to get a glass of water from my kitchen, a scratch has appeared in my own screen. The scratch is about four inches long and one inch high, a higher level of brightness on my screen starting from about the centre at the very bottom and streaking out to the right. There is also a roughly circular patch where the scratch begins at the base of the screen, half an inch in diameter, not quite as bright, and not visible from most angles other than directly in front of the computer. I have no idea what could have caused this anomaly, since I came back from my kitchen a few minutes ago, and it had appeared.

I think it's going to be an expensive Xmas this year.

UPDATE, 10.40. As of this morning, the anomaly on my screen is gone. That was strange, though.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why Barack Obama Must Win Tuesday Night

A book I just finished reading was Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. It was a document in miniature of a nation that was paralyzed by a national trauma, trying to come to grips with what had been inconceivable. Terrorism was something that happened on small scales of street corners and car bombs. The incredible scale, force, and the power of the symbolism of Sept 11 was like no other terrorist act before or since. It was an act with a purpose few people could understand. National traumas of a similar scale in the United States like Pearl Harbour or the Civil War at least had reasons that people could comprehend. The politics of an act like the destruction of the World Trade Centre, at the moment of its happening, seemed to transcend reason for the American people.

The first reaction of such an incomprehensible act is fear, and resolve in the face of fear. Yet that fear also encourages irrationality, a fear of self-doubt, the inability to think through one's actions. I do not mean to say that the Iraq occupation that began in 2003 was an entirely irrational act. The neo-conservative policy-makers in the executive branch (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz chief among them) had entirely rational plans. But these plans were written in the 1990s, under the think tank Project for a New American Century, and not in the chaotic national mood of the years after Sept 11. Dick Cheney and his ilk hijacked the American people when they were still too traumatized to understand fully what was happening to them. The lie was swallowed so easily because, with the ability to think critically still paralyzed in many Americans, people believe what they are told, what is suggested to them.

Throughout the immensely, unbelievably long campaign for the Presidency in 2008, the Republican party has returned again and again to fear. In the primary season, it was the fear of women, of a reversal of sexual traditions; then the fear of the black man, of the mysterious dark race that, in the words of Rev. Wright, damns America. And there was the return to fear after the candidates were chosen: fear of Russia, fear of economic collapse, fear of terrorism, fear of socialism and communism.

But Barack Obama asked Americans to put aside their fear. I first understood how special he was when I listened to his speech about Rev. Wright, A More Perfect Union. Instead of the easy denunciations that were coming from the Republicans, and from Hillary Clinton (who, progressive as she is, gendered as she is, remains a traditional American politician), Obama asked Americans to listen to each other, listen to themselves, and understand. Instead of hiding behind denunciations, he accepted the complexities and paradoxes of his own life. When we are overcome by fear, we seek simplicities to reassure us, to return us to easy security. Obama never offered people that.

He continues to offer a way forward for America out of its trauma, out of a political discourse based on fear and aggression. Instead of lashing out at enemies wherever they are perceived to be, he offers calmness, calculation, and understanding. The American people have cowered under the rubble of Ground Zero for too long, fretting about the next attack, their perspective dominated by the terror seared into their bodies. Obama offers no easy answers. He extends to the American people the opportunity to face the paradoxes of their lives, to understand their lives, their society, and their country. He calls this the perspective of hope. I see him offering an opportunity to heal the wounds that have been bleeding into the eyes of the American people for over seven years. He offers the opportunity to live again, not in ignorance of their trauma, but because of their trauma.

That is why Barack Obama must win Tuesday night.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Moving Beyond Old Offenses

Adam Riggio writes an open letter to Natalie Portman.

Natalie, I can finally forgive you for Star Wars: Episode Two. And Star Wars: Episode Three. Although the Saturday Night Live rap about how badass you were certainly helped. But really, that was more the basis for my forgiveness for Star Wars: Episode One. And in all fairness, your performances in V for Vendetta (which I thought was faithful in tone and ethics if not in the letter of its source material), Goya's Ghosts, The Darjeeling Limited, and My Blueberry Nights certainly went a long way to our reconciliation as actress and fan. This video sealed the deal, however, beyond all doubt.

Now I can safely go back to considering you one of the best actresses working in my generation. Even if you were a bit wooden in The Other Boleyn Girl. And to be honest, I'd rather forget that Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium ever existed. After all, I need to respect Dustin Hoffman too. Whenever a car cuts me off crossing the street, I still say, "I'm walkin' here!" in my best New York accent.

And I really hope next year's Brothers doesn't end up too sappy. It looks like the treacle level of the script might kill your performance. Please do another movie with Wong Kar Wai.

Fraternally yours, your fan;

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Muslim, America's New Black

When Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for US President Sunday morning, he mentioned how disturbed he was that one of the mudslinging insults the Republican Party had thrown at Obama was the rumours that he was a Muslim. They had used the fact that his name was not that of a typical American to throw up doubts about him, by linking him with the faith of the terrorist groups who specifically targeted the US, Islam.

Yet Powell was exactly right about the nature of this very political act. He said in his interview with Tom Brokaw that the correct answer to the question, "Is Obama a Muslim?" is that no, he is, in fact, a Christian, and a firmly believing Christian. And Powell distinguished what he called the correct answer from the right answer, the answer that accords with American ethics and values. The right answer to the question, "Is Obama a Muslim?" is that this question should not matter. There is nothing about Islam that necessarily makes you unpatriotic or anti-American. We know in Canada that one's faith doesn't affect your patriotism for the country, and the growing number of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus competing and winning elected offices here attests to this.

But Colin Powell was precisely right that whether one is a Muslim should not matter to questions of patriotism, even though throughout America, it clearly does. The many clearly ignorant members of the American population who believe chain e-mails spreading blatant lies about Obama, faith notwithstanding, are affected by this. Consider the woman who, speaking at a McCain meeting as he took questions from the audience, distrusted Obama because "he's an Arab." McCain quickly rebuked her, but the question that there is something to be feared from Arabs or Muslims inherently is just as virulent racism as that which confronted American blacks in the early years of this century.

Powell raised two important examples as he discussed this point. He asked us to imagine a seven year old Muslim boy in America wondering if he could ever become president one day. And he described a photo from an essay on American soliders that was in the New Yorker. The photo showed a mother leaning on the headstone of her twenty year old son. He was born in 1987, and died in 2007. Listed on his headstone were his awards, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, and his mission, Operation Iraqi Freedom. His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and at the top of his headstone is the star and crescent of Islam. As Powell described it, no American, no person, can see this image as it is before them, and still believe the vicious racism against Muslims. Or at least they shouldn't. His full interview is here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Prime Minster Who Will Put Food on Your Families, Me

So there was an election this week in Canada, and nothing really changed. The Conservatives got a few more seats, but not enough to take away unilaterally all the abortion and free speech rights of Canadians. As I thought a few posts ago, Stephane Dion's performance was a disaster, and I'd say that after a few months of party infighting, his political career will be over.

Dion spent the entire campaign trying to sell his own Green Shift tax policy (which hardly anyone liked anyway) instead of attacking the Conservatives. And he was unable to counter the Conservative attacks against him, which have already solidified for most Canadians the image of Dion as a nebbishy whining twit. Of course, Dion is actually a very intelligent, assertive, visionary leader. This is the truth, but no one will ever believe it. I thought Dion had a lot of potential and could do a lot of good for Canada. I still think this, but I also know that he has been utterly defeated.

As for the other leaders, Stephen Harper can be called a failure too, even though he won with more seats in his minority. He was running a united party against a left that was split in three directions (four directions in Quebec), with a main opposition that was disorganized and rapidly losing the respect of Canadians. Under these conditions with the political spectrum reversed, Jean Chretien won by a landslide in 1993. I think this is the best the Harper Conservatives will probably do.

Jack Layton's presumptuousness earned him a whole seven seats, and made his prime ministerial posturing look foolish in retrospect. His talk of becoming PM looked even sillier when I discovered a friend of mine going to grad school in Montreal ran for the NDP in the Abitibi district, but never actually campaigned because she didn't have time during her school schedule. How can you talk about taking over the government and winning seats (note the plural) in Quebec for the first time when you don't bother to fund candidates there, even just so they can be present on the campaign trail.

Elizabeth May might have led an increase in the vote count for them, but the Green party is still a joke who can earn a place at the debate table with the big folks, but who still can't win an actual seat. It was pretty presumptuous of her to think she could unseat Peter MacKay as well. She would do better running in a safe left seat like urban Halifax and taking votes from the NDP.

Meanwhile, Gilles Duceppe is still a sexy, sexy man.

I've been disappointed once so far this fall. Pray you do not disappoint me, Senator Obama. On the bright side, I have decided, thanks to the groundswell of support on my facebook page (seven status comments!), I've decided to begin a master plan to become Prime Minister of Canada myself. I'd certainly do a better job than any of the folks who were up for the job this month.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Profound End to a Pedestrian Day

Today was an oddly productive day, even though I had planned it that way last night when I wrote down my list of the things I had to do. The most important thing was to sleep in by a couple of hours, since I had no class commitments today, and could make up for the six hour nights I had gotten earlier this week. After checking my e-mail, reading my webcomics, and looking through some music and movie reviews, I made myself presentable for the masses and made a lunch that would last until around 8.00pm.

After that, I got the bus into campus to drop off some forms for a professor who was writing a couple of recommendation letters for me to go with my research grant applications. Since that was the only business that I had to do on campus, I left immediately after this, and got the bus back downtown to buy a new book/laptop bag, as my old one was fraying at the edges, handles, zippers, pockets, and pretty much everything else that could fray.

So I went back home, marked a pile of first year papers, did my laundry, read some The Red and The Black in French (which I've been working on for just over a month now), watched My Name Is Earl, read a New Yorker article about the life of Arianna Huffington, then worked on some thesis research. This is where the first piece of profundity comes in.

I'm almost to the end of a book about the central philosopher of my doctoral thesis project, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The book's author, Gary Madison, is a former McMaster professor, and I was told that this book is regarded as the stage-setter for Merleau scholarship, which first made me think it would make me very angry. But Madison and I seem to have very similar perspectives on Merleau. I'm glad because having precedent makes it a lot easier to get people to accept my ideas as valid, something I had some pretty serious problems with during my MA. But I'm a bit disappointed too, because it means my work might not be as iconoclastic as I hoped.

Anyway, my work focusses on Merleau's ideas close to the end of his life, and his unfinished second magnum opus, The Visible and The Invisible. There are a lot of ideas similar to Martin Heidegger's late-period work in Merleau's writing in this era, and as I was finishing a section in Madison's book on the concepts of Being and Logos, I wrote a paragraph so good that it might end up in my thesis almost word for word. In one half-page handwritten paragraph, I connected Heidegger's analysis of the Greek concepts logos and physis, Merleau's appropriation of them into his non-reductive realism, which fed my own Gilles Deleuze-inspired analyses of differentiation (physis) and understanding (logos), in the context of my concept of existence as a process that continually constitutes multiplicity.

With that taken care of, I started writing the novel again. My friend Vikki published a facebook photo album last week that included herself and her posse climbing around some of the hills on the edge of St John's, and I thought of a great way to rewrite an early scene I needed to revisit. I originally included a short scene around page 10 where the protagonist, his university girlfriend, and some of their friends, spent Saturday night drinking in a condominium under construction. The changes in the condo building was originally going to show the shifts in time as the narrative jumped around various points in the protagonist's life. But eventually I dropped the condo angle as it never really fit well into the story.

So instead, the same characters are having the same conversation while hiking up Signal Hill in the middle of a Saturday night drinking. And I added a long paragraph that introduces some of the central themes of the book as the protagonist and his girlfriend look out over the city at night. It revolves around the vibrant, self-contradictory, anachronistic, idiosyncratic nature of the city, the conflicts and resentments between urban and rural Newfoundlanders, and the limitations of life in the city, even while it remains so incredibly alive.

Then, reading out this paragraph to myself, I opened my mouth and swallowed a fly.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Years of Work Ruined in One Name

In St John's, I saw a book called Return of the Native, and the story sounded like an interesting idea: examining Newfoundland's culture and national identity through a quirky picaresque novel about the return of a native son to his old stomping grounds. The boy from the provinces makes reasonably good and returns to the province to see what has changed and stayed the same. His purpose was to write a new history of his home island, with all the nationalist overtones one could expect with a book whose cover photograph is inlaid in pink, white, and green. It was a novella, a slim volume, the author Jonathan Butler's first, its title perhaps an homage to Thomas Hardy. Its back cover included the standard blurb and selected quotations of critical praise.

But the main character was a Newfoundlander named Udo Nomi. And then I realized the book must be terrible. No one in Newfoundland is named Udo. It's obviously a pretentious authorial contrivance, which is a major warning light for a book sucking. It's a first novel too, which is an even bigger warning light. I'm writing a first novel myself, but one thing I make sure isn't happening is that it sounds like all the first novels I don't like.

I feel kind of sorry for Butler, just as sorry as I feel for all first novels that are filled with overwrought imagery, symbolism that smacks you in the head with a cricket bat, an ego so huge that it crowds you out of your city, and cloying aggravating sentimentality. Actually, I don't feel sorry for them. They don't need my pity. They just have to read more authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Roberto Bolaño, Virginia Woolf, and Stephen Fry so that they can figure out how to write deftly, wittily, powerfully, and touchingly, while maintaining an attitude of friendliness and accessibility to its readers. There are few books I hate more than the ones that disappear up their authors' assholes and expect its readers to follow along.

Giving their protagonists stupid, unrealistic names is just one glaringly obvious way to spot a book that doesn't deserve your time as a reader to read it. Lots of English people have names like Hugo Cartwright, like in Fry's The Liar. Juan Garcia Madero is a perfectly ordinary sounding Mexican name for Bolaño's The Savage Detectives – it's Juan, for goodness' sake! But how many people outside Germany are named Udo? Not many if you don't count Germans living abroad.

There's one name that, even though it's a sensible name, can't be used in a novel because it can't avoid symbolic meanings. I've met people named Hope – two of them in fact, Jamieson and Bennett. But I don't think anyone could ever use the name Hope as a character in a story, because as soon as you say her name, she's turned into a symbol, whether you want her to be one or not. And people are terrible symbols. They work much better as characters instead.
Life is beautiful.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Funny Things I've Noticed Since Arriving

First, I want to inform you that the blog is not dead. I meant it when I said that I would not update as often as I used to in my old location. After all, I have priorities called a doctoral thesis and a novel. However, I've been gathering material for my writing and slowly decorating my apartment. Its formerly bare walls now sport a somewhat generic and very classic greyscale-coloured Bob Dylan poster above my writing desk in the bedroom. Young Bob stands in front of an amp plucking at a bass guitar, lips pursed in concentration and irritation. I find this image inspiring during my blocked periods at the keyboard. Next to that is a small black and white Fleet Foxes poster that came with their album that I bought a few weeks ago.

Next to my kitchen hangs a Barack Obama poster, a reproduction of the Shepard Fairey image of Obama in red white and blue. The displayed word is my favourite of Obama's campaign – hope. If he wins the election, this image I think will become a classic piece of Americana. As for my even bleaker office on campus, I bought a giant Big Lebowski poster to go next to my desk there, though the stucco-like wall surfaces are not exactly friendly to tape. I'll have to get creative to stick this up.

And perhaps inspired by Lebowski, I might also buy a rug. It could really tie my living room together.
As for the material I've been gathering for my writing, I want to focus on some idiosyncratic details that I think would make funny observational points, or interesting character humour at some point. A quirk of downtown Hamilton geography is that Hess Village, the skank magnet every weekend night, is also the home of several respectable doctors' offices. And it's right next to the Freemasons' castle and lodge house. Yes, the Masons have a genuine castle here, and it's right behind my house. I pass it every day on the way to the bus stop.

There is no common space in bars here. Almost all the floor space, aside from a small area around the actual bar just big enough for people to stand in to order drinks, is taken up by tables and chairs. So when groups arrive at a bar, they sit at a table, likely are handled by a waiter, and do not interact with any other groups, because they are centred around different tables. So groups are very alienated from each other by the geography of bars in this city, with no common space where strangers can bump into each other, stand around, and interact. I've seen this in Toronto too, so it seems to be an Ontario thing. This is probably the only culture shock since I moved here – that the very geography of meeting places prevent people from meeting.

Some details related to public transit. The other day, I was waiting at the bus stop and a woman crossed the street to stand next to me. She was rather buxom, and wearing a jacket and tank top. She carried her iPod nestled in her cleavage. Describing this to my friends at the philosophy department led into a conversation about how women's clothes are made with no convenient pockets. I conclude this to be the implicit sexism of the garment industry (in addition to all the explicit sexism).

Also, there are indentations in the pavement in front of my usual bus stop caused by the constant pressure of bus after bus, tire-shaped dents in the solid asphalt road from the weight of so many buses.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

So Many Book Ideas, I'll Never Be Able to Write Them All

In the past week, I have had ideas for two novels, one of which is more developed than the other. But they are still two novels, both of which have the potential of not sucking, which is my major qualification for following up an idea. My current literary project, now titled Laughing Lovers, is on page 185 as of this writing. And I've been working on it for ten months. I estimate it'll probably take me another year to finish, since I'm working on a doctorate now. And when I finish it, I plan to try to get it published with a decent company as well, and do all this while completing my doctorate before my university funding runs out after four years in the program.

So the fact that I keep having other ideas that I simply don't have the time to work on is encouraging for the state of my creative faculties, but frustrating in that many of them will likely get no farther than one or two page outlines. In all fairness, I've managed to get more work done on LL since I moved to Hamilton than I thought I would. But for the next couple of years, my time is only going to be more squeezed, not less.

The most developed new idea I had this week was inspired by David Foster Wallace's death. He was the writer of Infinite Jest, a book I read when I was 17 years old and amazingly pretentious. It was over 1,000 pages long, and was hideously complex, but also beautiful and quite sorrowful in its hilarity. I suppose that its tone, if not its style has been quite influential on my own writing. Looking through the manuscript of LL as it stands now, humour seems to alternate with sorrow, and sometimes occur at the same time. I'm not near the skill of Wallace, but that's a goal and a model for me.

I was quite shocked when I discovered that he killed himself two Fridays ago. Reading the obituaries and salutes to him and his work have been enlightening and thought-provoking. The Guardian, I think, had the best such tribute. One thing I learned was that he had taught a creative writing class for the past few years at Pomona College in California. He died on September 12, so if the class hadn't started, then it was about to. And I wondered what his students would have thought, to have gotten only a glimpse of this man before he snatched himself away. Whether Wallace was even teaching this term didn't even matter. The point was this brief connection that was abruptly severed. That relationship is the centrepiece of the story.

The second idea I had this week was a random idea that jumped into my thoughts as I was talking about the mass cultural phenomenon of western humanities graduates to finish their B.A.s and, for want of a better salary in their homes, move to east Asia to teach English. I know several people who are currently or have been working in different cities in South Korea, and a couple of folks who work in China. One of my friends who teaches in China looks set to live there permanently.

I imagine that within a generation or so, most major cities in China and South Korea will have neighbourhoods called Little America with English signs and Western-style fast food restaurants, white and biracial neighbourhoods populated by North American English teachers, their families, and their descendants. Chinese and Korean people will feel like slumming it some nights, and take the bus down to Little America to eat hamburgers, Italian-style pasta, and food with forks.

Also, if any of you could leave a comment on the blog itself or on my facebook page about whether you think any of my prospective titles sound stupid, I'd really appreciate it. I just don't think I'm very good at coming up with titles. They all seem a bit too corny. So the following are up for your consideration: 1. Laughing Lovers; 2. Poor Yorick. The first is my university and politics in Newfoundland story, and the second is my salute to Wallace, which is currently just in outline form, and likely will be for some time.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

My Country's Democracy Has Failed

The major movement in conservative politics in Canada over the turn of the century was to unite the right, to unify the two right-wing parties, the Progressive Conservative and the Reform, into a single political party that could mount a successful challenge to the Liberal party hegemony. And they succeeded brilliantly. I disagree with virtually every Conservative party platform except the general idea of being very careful with government spending in hard economic times. But I have to congratulate them on accomplishing the considerably difficult task of bringing together two political parties who regarded each other with resentment, anger, and suspicion.

It was their unity as a party that enabled them to succeed in a federal system like Canada's. We simply do not have a political culture where parties can conceive of working together in a governing coalition. This means that any minority government is afflicted by petty squabbling, and an almost total lack of ability to govern. So any attempt at cooperation between the Reform and PC parties, like not running candidates against each other or appointing the other party to one's cabinet, was inconceivable. The united front of the new Conservative party had led them to election victory and the longest-lasting minority government in Canadian history.

And the Conservative party will probably get a majority in this election thanks to just the kind of deplorable petty squabbling on the left side of our parliamentary spectrum. All the possible leadership candidates after Paul Martin's retirement were going to shift the party leftwards, but Dion has emphatically done so. The Green Shift tax plan is a special mark of this, the centrepiece of his focus on environmental issues.

But the Liberals are being shouted down on the left by the New Democrats, with Jack Layton's campaign focussing on a request to the Canadian people to make him Canada's first New Democrat prime minister. His own program on childcare, healthcare, pacifism, and a carbon cap-and-trade system solidly anchors him on the left. And his higher presence than Dion's on television in central Canada makes him the more visible voice of opposition to Stephen Harper. Add to the mix the Green party's inclusion and left-leaning voters are torn in so many directions, their limbs are falling off. Of course, the Green's fiscal and social policies are quite conservative, reflecting their origin as an offshoot of the old Canadian rightist parties of people who simply differed in that they were environmentalists.

Two key conditions in Canada's current political climate are going to give the Conservatives an unfortunate majority this October. The main reason is the systemic problem I've just outlined: Anything But Conservative. I am just as opposed to the Conservative party plan for Canada as the majority of Canadians. But the sheer number of alternatives to Harper work against each other. The leftist and centrist vote in Canada is split practically evenly among Liberals, NDP, and Green. In an electoral environment like this, a Conservative candidate can capture his (and it will probably be His) riding with little more than thirty per cent of the vote. Quite likely, the majority of Conservative candidates will do so. The right has taken governmental power in Canada by uniting, and the left will lose it for the foreseeable future by dividing so terribly.

The most depressing of the two reasons is Dion's complete inability to control how Canada's populace perceives him and his message. From the beginning of his party leadership, the Conservatives have painted him as a nebbishy, weak-willed Woody Allen type unsuitable to lead a classroom, let alone a country. He has totally failed to communicate to the general public his intelligence, tenacity, assertiveness, and personal strength. New websites like ThisIsDion.ca are potentially effective, but they come too late to matter. Canadians have made their decision, and they have been bamboozled. His painful public relations failure will probably cost him the election, at least half the Liberal party seats, and probably his leadership of the party. He will be an unfortunate footnote in Canadian history: the first Liberal party leader never to become prime minister. Dion could have transformed Canada for the better. But he has already failed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Moments that Define an Entire Life

I was going to write a slightly more date-appropriate post about this on September 11, but I never had time on Thursday, so I'll be late. When those buildings actually fell down, my mind was quite literally blown. It was an inconceivable event happening right in front of me, and I was swept up in the moment. I wasn't swept up to the point where I believed what the Bush-Cheney Administration eventually said about Iraq. But there was a moment where everything I thought about politics, society, and possibly ethics changed completely.

I was watching on live television a few days after the attacks when George W was touring the rubble at Ground Zero, and he was giving a sort-of-impromptu speech through a megaphone, a series of fairly mundane platitudes that are barely memorable. A male voice shouts just loud enough for the microphones to pick it up, "We can't hear you!" George shouts back through the megaphone, "But I can hear you!" And the crowd goes wild, and I went wild. That answer was worth more all the next four years of speeches about security and safety. Those speeches showed the incredible hypocrisy of Republican policy regarding global security, and their outmoded, foolishly simplistic moral approach to the world, "Axis of Evil" concept included.

But for that one moment of connection, of calling and answering, George W Bush amazed me. For at least a few days in September 2001, I supported George W Bush because of the power of this moment. I was astounded that this idiot could understand the transformative power of this moment. That one exchange I think was the greatest point of George W's entire presidency. I don't consider it hyperbole to say that September 11 and the immediate aftermath in New York is a single event that defines me as a person more than any other.

I have since realized that George W Bush is still an idiot, still misguided as to the nature of the world, still insular, and still barely able to think. Yet he remains a fascinating character, probably the most fascinating person in American political history of at least the past hundred years. I think George W Bush the person will be the focus of mesmerized scholars, historians, students, politicians, truck drivers, bureaucrats, activists, ministers – pretty much everyone who bothers to look – for centuries. How did this drunken lout become the president of the United States of America? How did he feel being the public face of Dick Cheney's disguised dictatorship? Did he even know he was a patsy?

This is why I'm looking forward to Oliver Stone's new film, W, which seeks to tell the story. The trailer is mesmerizing, and the film looks like a genuine exploration of this man. Stone's politics veer left, and so do mine. But I don't think politics is really the driving force behind this film W. Instead, it's that question from the trailer – Why this man? Of all people?

Here is a moment of pure professional jealousy. Hanging out in a hotel room are various music industry people in 1965, including Donovan and Bob Dylan. They're talking and smoking and decide to trade songs. Donovan sings one he's working on, a nice enough little song. Then Bob Dylan sings "It's All Over Now Baby Blue." You will rarely see a face that seethes with more resentment than Donovan's listening to that song follow up his own.

A small update since my post last week about the St John's music scene. In an article on the AE Bridger band in the first Muse of the semester, they discuss exactly the same problem that the structure and geographical isolation of Newfoundland creates for a working musician.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Smell of Laundry Detergent Makes the Mind Wander

Thursday night, I did my laundry. Don't worry – the post will become more interesting than this. You can skip down to the second section if you want. My apartment building has shared laundry services, which consists of two washing machines and two clothes dryers, both coin operated, sitting in the basement. I consider it pretty convenient, as I don't have to go outside to do my laundry. Most people just throw their clothes in a machine, set it going, then head back to their apartments and come back some time after the cycle ends.

I try to do it a little more efficiently. If I leave the basement, I'll make sure I come back before the cycle is over. And most of the time, I don't leave the basement at all. I'll just take a book down with me and read while I wait for the machines to do their business. There are a couple of abandoned chairs sitting in the far corner of the basement just under one of the ceiling lights, so it's the perfect place to relax with a book for eighty minutes, which is how long it takes for both machines to run through their cycles.

Anyway, on Thursday, I happened to come down at the same time as one of my neighbours was moving his clothes into the dryer. I threw mine in the washing machine, and we made small talk about the eccentricities of our laundry machines. He was amazed they still worked properly, even though they were so old. I responded with a joke, saying they should advertise the laundry services with "Arthur Meighen once used this washing machine." I don't think he knew what I was talking about. I am a huge nerd.

So I started the washing machine, he started the dryer, and we both left. He went to his apartment, and I went to the bank down the road, then the convenience store next door because I was almost out of orange juice. I came back down to the basement with the book I'm reading, Stendhal's Le Rouge et Le Noir to practice my French. I am also a bit pretentious. And after a few minutes, my washing cycle finished. I noticed my confused neighbour's dryer still had fifteen minutes left, and while the one next to it had finished, there was still a pile of clothes inside. Clearly, someone had been far from prompt getting their clothes back, but he had also taken his basket with him, so there was nowhere to put them.

I could think of only one course of action, as my neighbour who I had spoken to had left his laundry basket on top of the dryer. I waited until his dryer cycle was finished, took out his clothes, and put them in his basket. Then I put my clothes in the dryer and went back to my book at the far end of the basement. About fifteen minutes later, he came back in and saw his clothes in his basket on the table next to the laundry machines. He mumbled something that sounded pretty hostile, picked up his clothes, and left. I don't think he knew I was there, because he never even looked in my direction.
After that long, slightly strange story, which I think went nowhere, I sat down reading French literature in the basement waiting for my laundry to finish drying. And I thought of a great idea for a short story or a novella, depending on how much I wanted to focus on supporting characters. It takes place in an apartment building that isn't too large, but has a large enough number of tenants to keep a superintendent fairly busy. And while everybody likes the super, thinks he's really friendly, outgoing, and an all-around nice fellow; he's actually lonely, depressed, thinks he's ugly, and spends all his time watching mediocre television.

The actual plot of the story would involve him meeting a woman who likes him, but they eventually break up because of their mutual insecurities that corral them into a series of misunderstandings about their relationship and why they're there. I think that the question of why you're with someone is the most devastating thing partners could ask each other. Then you start giving reasons why you're there, and when you give reasons, it sounds like you're justifying the relationship, giving it a ground outside of itself, which leads to the formulation on both sides, "All you're here for is X." No relationship could survive that reduction.

The main things I'd have to fill in before writing this is figuring out how a superintendent who never leaves his building meets a woman. Once I have that taken care of, the whole thing can basically write itself. I'm not sure if it should end at their breakup, or when they get back together because they don't have anything else in their lives, and can't take being alone anymore.
Also, my alma mater, The Muse, published their first big issue of the new volume on the same day I did my laundry. I've linked it above, and you should most certainly go and read it, either physically or on the internet.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Sad State of The Awesome Rock in My Hometown

So I discovered the other day though facebook that Stars are playing Club One in St John's this November. The venue is a spacious club that can fit several hundred people comfortably, and the show should be pretty awesome. Club One has become the main venue in St John's that hosts Canadian indie artists who are reasonably mainstream in Canada, but without the appeal in America outside the Pitchfork set to have really hit the big time, and without the appeal to people over 35 to play the larger concert arenas like the city's money-hemorrhaging white elephant, Mile One Stadium.

Two previous acts I saw at Mile One over the year before I left Newfoundland were Metric and Buck 65. None of the city's local rappers are really good enough to open for Buck. The closest the St John's rap scene has no genuine talent that could break beyond generic hip hop stereotypes other than the novelty act Gazeebow Unit.

Anyway, the local rock band opening up for Stars is the same one that opened for Metric: Hey Rosetta. They have quite a fan following in St John's, and probably an equal number of people who find their music treacly, saccharine, and derivative. You can probably tell that I'm in this latter group. Think Coldplay, only much whinier, and they have yet to write a song whose lyrics are not pathetically over-clichéd.

I got to thinking that this is perhaps all that Newfoundland bands will ever be able to accomplish: opening up for the bigger Canadian bands that play here. It's easy to survive as a working band making good quality music when you can play shows at dozens of popular venues within a hour's drive of your home base. Toronto, Montréal, and Halifax are all hubs of this kind. But St John's, despite the dreams of Danny Williams to make the island a global transportation hub, is just not conducive to musical success. The population of the island is small, and St John's is the only city within convenient driving distance of anything that has reasonable venues to play, even just considering bars with stages.

Assorted bits of Mark Bragg, playing the Ship, of course.

If a band stays in St John's, it won't take long before they just end up playing to the same fairly small group of people over and over again. This happens to Mark Bragg, who always plays to the same crowd of people at the Ship. It happens to the punk bands who always play to the same crowd of people at Distortion. The Satans and the other crust bands hardly ever leave Turner's Tavern anymore. And if they don't leave town, the Gramercy Riffs and their associated acts Texas Chainsaw and The Late Greats are always going to play to the same crowds of people at CBTGs and the Ship. This even though Gramercy is probably the best band in St John's I've heard since the Discounts in their prime in my entire ten years of living in St John's and going to shows there.

The bands in my hometown have the potential to become gigantic in Canada. I'd say Gramercy has the potential for success on the scale of Arcade Fire. When you live in Montréal, Toronto, or Halifax, it's easy to pile into a van and take a day trip to another city to play a show for people who have never heard you before. But when you live in St John's, going on tour on the mainland is a huge event and a huge investment. Most bands can't afford to do it more than once a year. The rest of the time, they work their terrible day jobs, and play to the same hundred or so people every week. Then they'll eventually get tired of this repetitive grind, and wonder why they aren't as successful as the bands they admire, even though they are just as good as these bands. So they'll split up, and play a reunion show in ten years when they're middle class and suburban with a pile of kids, that all their old fans will nostalgically love. And everyone will wonder why they weren't more successful when they were so good. And everyone will love Newfoundland so much that they will never say that it's because they never left Newfoundland, so no one ever heard them outside St John's.

Potatobug was a brilliant old rock band that gained a huge following in St John's in the early 1990s, who had a reunion show at the start of August. They played the type of music that actually could have brought them pretty far in the rock music scene of Canada. But they stayed in Newfoundland. So the best they ever got was a big following in the city and good turnout for their reunion show at Distortion. And bands that stay in Newfoundland as their home base are always going to have this as the apogee of their musical career. That other very awesome St John's band, the Discounts, had a reunion show this summer too that was the climax of their career.

Isolation kills ambition.
Now some awesome news! This link takes you to the first new song to be released from TV on the Radio's upcoming album Dear Science, called "Dancing Choose." Get over the fact that the song title is a really hideous pun, play it, and rock out. The first few comments on the song are fairly negative, and I am slightly hesitant about Tunde Adebimpe rapping instead of singing, as his singing voice is utterly astounding. But I think this song is alright, and bodes well for the album. Maybe not as good as Cookie Mountain, but certainly good quality, I hope.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Failure in the First Person

Perspective is important in any literary work, one of its central structural elements. The perspective from what a narrative is written will demarcate what any reader can be told directly and what they must glean for themselves through implication and throwaway details. Three of my favourite books used a clever first-person narrative construction to create highly nuanced stories which had their power in the small details that composed them.

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita hid the suffering of the title character under the self-important narration of her pedophiliac abductor Humbert. Roberto Bolaño's By Night in Chile had a narrator, the priest and literary critic Father Urrutia, spend his entire life hiding from the uncomfortable political reality of life in a dictatorship. This only becomes explicit at the end, when he describes a house that was the hub of Chile's literary scene in the early 1980s, which happened to have a torture chamber in the basement. And Bolaño's masterpiece, The Savage Detectives, depicted two central characters, poets without a home Ulises and Arturo, through the viewpoints of over fifty first-person narrators who knew them at different points in their lives.

I've thought about writing my own fictional works in the first-person, but I don't think I'm quite good enough for that yet. I still need to find a way to structure a story around the telling of the story, as Nabokov and Bolaño could do so well. At this stage in my life, any first-person writing attempt would probably end up like these examples.

This spring, I found Mario Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise in a bargain bin. It's the life story of French socialist activist Flora Tristan in odd-numbered chapters, and that of her grandson Paul Gauguin in even-numbered chapters. The narrative makes a very simple point about life, that the ideals for which we strive in our lives are always subject to the compromise that comes with living in society. The problem with this book is that you figure this out about a hundred or so pages in, then are continually bludgeoned with it until the end. Their lives and thought processes (and so narration) is repetitious, blatant about the theme of the novel, and seemingly unchanged in attitude all the way through. The clear questing of these characters removes any subtlety from the narrative, and we are left with a slog of nearly 400 pages that would have been expressed much better in a different, shorter, format.

I haven't read Joyce Carol Oates' My Sister My Love, or any Oates, but judging by this review by one of the more reputable sources I know, I'd get more of an idea of how not to write than anything else. It's a book based on the killing of JonBenet Ramsay, told from the fictionalized version of the girl's older brother. But apparently, in this case, all the limitations on the knowledge of the narrator that constituted subtle powerful details and implications, are here just limits. As well, the narrator is said to be quite inconsistent in characterization, with serious breaks in tone that throw off the possibilities for the narrator character. Because one thing I learned from Lolita, By Night in Chile, and The Savage Detectives, is that a first-person narrator is a character herself, in addition to being a storyteller.

Maybe that's why I haven't tried to write in a first-person style yet. I haven't worked out a narrative yet that would have a place for someone who would want to tell the story in the first place. All the characters I've made so far are so secretive that they wouldn't want to reveal anything to a reader at all. So they wouldn't even bother narrating.

In all fairness, I don't intend to disparage Joyce Carol Oates or Mario Vargas Llosa themselves. The impression I have from my research on them as I was preparing this post was that the books in question are among their worst, and far from their A-game. Perhaps eventually, I'll find a cheap copy of Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, or Captain Pantoja and the Special Service; and maybe Oates' Them, or Zombie.
An odd thing to consider for a moment. A friend updated her facebook status a while ago, and it read "[Name Removed to Prevent Embarrassment] just dropped a container of yoghurt in the fridge and made a huge mess." Do you think she cleaned this mess up before or after she updated her facebook status about it?
I was watching some CNN today for coverage of the Democratic National Convention, and one of their amusing items was a short, almost scatological piece on the prominent product placement of Pepsi at the DNC this year. The Convention is held at the Pepsi Centre, a name which apparently cost the beverage company $68 million.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Career Advice for Young Economists

I discovered this article in the New York Times about Nouriel Roubini, the economist who predicted the current recession in the United States. He did it by identifying the problems of reckless debt growth in emerging economies over the 1990s that led to their economic collapse (Thailand, South Korea, Russia, Brazil, Argentina), and seeing where those traits were in other countries. The one with the clearest indicators of impending collapse was the United States. Read the article I linked at his name for a much better articulation of this economic process than I could give you.

A curious point. In Roubini's interview, he points out what he sees to be a flaw in the way economists work, which I think has its roots in the way economists are educated. The models that economists create to predict future events are based on a very common presumption: that the future will be basically similar to the past, that trends which have begun will continue. But this isn't necessarily the case. We know that there have been severe financial crises, so such crises are possible. And a severe financial crisis is not a continuation of past trends and patterns, but a catastrophic rupture of those patterns, the breakdown of all previously ongoing movements.

For any philosophers reading, this sounds pretty familiar. It's David Hume's skeptical critique of knowledge from book one of the Treatise on Human Nature. We think we understand what will happen in the future, and that our statements of scientific law are universal across all time, because we presume that the future will generally be the same as the past. But the future hasn't happened yet, so it's completely indeterminate, a venue where anything is possible.

Returning to economics specifically, Roubini pointed out here that economists often focus on evolution of existing movements, and the continuity of those movements. So the financial panic, the severe break with the past, the economic catastrophe, is not usually studied. Any realm of a discipline that is not usually studied is a niche that an enterprising young thinker could fill. An economist who specializes in financial panics and crises will find themselves publishing original, groundbreaking research, simply because they are in an area where so little work has been done anyway.

Such studies are important not just for the growing public profile of a young economist, but are critical for humanity as a whole. Not only will a young economist specializing in crisis studies gain a reputation as an original thinker, but he will also be doing a great service for humanity by using his science to help guide us through financial disasters, and prevent the conditions for those disasters from arising in the first place.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Batman, Overman

There can be considerable overlap between art and philosophy, and not only in the obvious field of the philosophy of aesthetics. In a way, I think the best art is ethical philosophy, and the best ethical philosophy is such a work of art. That statement wasn't clear at all, so allow me to give a very broad example of what I think this overlap can do.

Just before I left Newfoundland, I had a conversation with a friend about what we both took The Dark Knight to be. One of his philosophical interests is post-colonial philosophy, which he shares with me. But I also love Nietzsche, and I've read more of this than he has. One of the things we talked about regarding Dark Knight was its conservative interpretation. Here we have a hero, Batman, who spies on the populace and allows himself to be provoked into torturing a villain, presumably for the greater good. On this interpretation, Batman is a figure who justifies the Bush-Cheney administration, taking on evil tasks to protect the innocent from a terrorist. I definitely think you can interpret Dark Knight in this way, but there's also another understanding of the film that resonates with me, and I think speaks a much more profound truth.

Harvey Dent says, having dinner with Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." This phrase encapsulates how I understand Dark Knight. Just because he's Batman, that doesn't make everything he does morally acceptable. This isn't about justification of any action like spying or torture or police brutality. It's about the confrontation of a person who holds himself to be good with the abyss. And when you stare into the abyss, as Nietzsche said, the abyss stares back at you. Where I pick up from there is that when the abyss stares back at you, you have to be strong enough not to become an abyss yourself.

The three characters at the centre of Dark Knight's ethical confrontation that I've just described are Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and Jim Gordon. The abyss, personified as The Joker, forces them to confront themselves, and what they are willing to do to achieve their ends. Because if you go too far, you betray the good intentions you started with. "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Of those three, Harvey wasn't strong enough to resist the abyss, and abandoned his ideals as he embraced revenge in his final rampage. Everything Harvey did as Two-Face was a surrender to The Joker's will to destruction. He believed everything The Joker told him in that hospital room, and acted precisely according to plan.

Jim and Bruce are strong enough to take up the burdens necessary to sustain their ideals. Bruce refuses to kill The Joker because that would betray his principles about murder. And he and Jim are both strong enough to cover up Harvey's crimes, and maintain the fiction of incorruptibility that keeps hope in Gotham alive.

My post-colonial friend expressed concern when I advocated an ethics inspired from Nietzsche's talk about strength, believing that this kind of thinking leads to fascism, and the triumph of the one with the bigger gun. But the strength I mean is the kind of strength to affirm your life, to overcome petty, reactive desires like revenge and resentment. This is the strength to maintain your ethical stance even in the face of the most incredible temptation to break it.

This strength is value neutral, of course. The Joker refuses to abandon his ethical stance, which is that all are corruptible, and he will corrupt them through fear, terror, and paranoia. The writing style of philosophy proper is working out ethical systems. Grammatically, they are a series of positive statements. Starting from premises about what is good or what standards the good must satisfy, the straight philosopher works out theories and corollaries that elaborate this concept of good. Just read John Rawls' A Theory of Justice as the best example of this I know.

But the actual collision of ethical systems is something I'm not sure this style of philosophizing I've described can help us with. When two incompatible ethical systems collide, can anything settle the collision except war? Are we really faced with what The Joker describes in his last lines in Dark Knight, "an unstoppable force meets an immovable object."? I'm not sure of the answer here yet, but I think stories like Dark Knight offer us a way of understanding these collisions, and how they would play out. The best way to solve this problem of the limitation of philosophy is, I think, to figure out how to combine the philosophical grammar of positive statements with the narrative grammar of the morally ambiguous situation.

I'm certainly thinking modestly here, aren't I?