Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Guardian

Although I was stung when Noam Chomsky included the Guardian in Manufacturing Consent, I have come to respect this news source. In general, I'm somewhat wary of all mainstream media, especially when it stirs up kerfuffles like Obama and Wright (At least the NY Times quoted Achelpohl who stated, "This is a media-driven thing and a presidential candidate shouldn’t have to vet every person that he has had a relationship with in his life."). I frequently read the Weekly, an outstanding publication with features from Le Monde and the Washington Post, (I particularly enjoy World roundup, Comment&Debate, Culture, Books, and Diversions). The Guardian is also one of the RSS feeds in my Bookmarks Toolbar Folder. What stands out about the Guardian though is its extensive adoption of modern technology, e.g., podcasts, interactive maps, and more than the usual superficial reference to blogs. The City Guides are excellent; they are podcast tours of a number of European cities. I just listened to the Paris 1968 walking tour. Although I was not in Paris at the time, I know the city well enough to follow along in my mind. If you listen you will learn much about the city and the period; here are my favourite parts. Near the middle Sarah Wilson states, "Paris designed by Haussman is a series of very very direct boulevards designed really for military things; in fact, confrontations with the police, which is what 68 is all about. In fact, the situationist idea goes all the way back to surrealism with the important ideas of psycho-geography, finding surprising and weird places in the secret Paris, but also to in, more important, 68 ideas that of dérive (swerving) and détournement (diversion) ..." Just before the end Andrew Hussey states, "It is truly the first post-modern revolution, that is to say, it's not a revolution driven by nineteenth century Marxist ideas of class, but to do with boredom, boredom with consumer capitalism, to do with a sense that everyday life itself is a con trick that's been perpetrated on us."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New Music (to me)

I have been downloading a lot of music lately. One goal of mine has been to complete albums for which I only have a few songs (usually due to the high price and low quality of iTunes, except Plus, see mp3fiesta). Other goals were simply to expand my musical horizons, check out new releases and get further releases from favoured musicians. Of course, MySpace Music is an awesome resource and I can't wait for its store to open. The store should provide an easy way to access all that good music and will save me emailing artists about purchasing their music. Frank Mackie, whose song New Wave Fall Express was featured in the last Shralp Snow videocast, is a recent favourite.

Throughout this downloading process, I have found some gems and disappointments. Flight of the Conchords' Collection is very disappointing and besides the hilarious song "The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room," The Distant Future is pretty weak. Although Shawn Colvin's latest album, These Four Walls, is fairly good, it's just more of the same, so I wouldn't recommend it if you have previous albums. Groove Armada's latest Soundboy Rock has some good songs, but none that make it stand out, though it's still worth getting. Last Night by Moby has some new beats and if you like his style you'll enjoy this album (the chords from his keyboard still weave through the beats creating a lulling flow and there is a good selection of vocal tracks). After Cru and the Life Aquatic soundtrack, I looked forward to hearing Ana and Jorge. There are definitely some good songs, but the album and the concert lack fluidity and compositional congruity. My introduction to Ana Carolina was the best thing I gained from the album. Her deep voice and amazingly lengthy high notes compliment Jorge's raspier voice; the same goes for her crisp guitar playing, which compliments Jorge's loose-string casualness. Ana can also funk the bass; listen to Tanta Saudade. Of course, they had their hits and their version of The Blowers' Daughter (from O and Closer) is good in a pop way:

This song reminded me of K'naan and Nelly Furtado's duet. Check out the drum box (I've heard Futureman play them live a few times; they're awesome):

Bebel Gilberto reaches for new heights with her title track Momento; it has the finesse of some of her mother's work. Although her voice on Close to You reminds me of her father, the next few tracks seem somewhat redundant, each having the same pop construction. With Cacada the polished tunes in the same vein of Momento returns and continues for most of the album. I've always found her previous albums patchy to some degree, so if you enjoy her previous work you'll enjoy this one.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Global Care, Cheap and Easy

Purchasing green products does decrease your footprint, but a number of solutions cost no money. Reducing consumption is an obvious one, but one that needs to be stated more often in North America. The Hungersite and its family of sites only require a click to make a donation to various causes or purchase endangered land. The donations are made possible by donors and advertisers. Over the years the website has been greatly improved, so the process is easier than ever (if you stopped clicking due to its inefficiency, try it again). The site has tabs down the side that contain concise information on a number of issues and fair trade items can be purchased through the site. EcologyFund works the same way as the Rainforest site. Both sites tell you how much land has been saved (on the Hungersite the info appears after you click, while EcologyFund has it in the sidebar); encouraging. I have these links in my Bookmarks Toolbar Folder, so it's easy to click every day (you can only do it once a day). To add them there, assuming you're using Firefox, just click Bookmark This Page and select Bookmarks Toolbar Folder.

Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) has partnered with UsedEverywhere, so sellers can donate a portion of their sale to the NCC. Sellers doing so will have a NCC logo next to the item for sale.

Don't forget World Fair Trade Day on May 10th.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Brisk Berry Blend

After a snowfall last week, spring has arrived in Victoria; finally, I can don the batik shirt I brought back from Indonesia in February. Today, to quench my thirst, stay awake and get a little buzz, I invented a divine nectar (my usual at 2% Jazz and the Black Stilt is better suited to cooler weather and evenings). Dig out your blender or hand-blender and mix together 1 1/2 cups of chocolate ice cream, 2/3 cup of frozen blueberries, 1/2 cup of ice, 2 to 3 shots of espresso, 1 cup of milk, and a shot of blueberry liqueur. If fresh blueberries are used use 3/4 cup of ice. I used Thetis Island Vineryard's Blueberry Fruit Wine; if you prefer a blackberry flavoured drink, use blackberries and Cherry Point's Blackberry Port.

Vitriolic embers and definitely maybe

In the same way that Snowman's old addictions "burst into full and luxuriant bloom," my prejudices lie under the desert sands (Atwood. Oryx and Crake, 333). When and what will ignite my embers varies, but a good rant often burns them out. A rant can't be a sanitized tract on bullshit (people say "bullshit" when they're mad or hurt), but must get to the point like a Difranco tune. Call it as it is. Be a race car driver. Leave your suburban sloppiness. Learn to corner, gear down, and accelerate smoothly:

Frustration is "why don't you value what I do?" or "why don't you hear me?". Don't you know how much more efficient and safer the traffic flow would be if you took driving seriously? It's not something you do while talking on the phone, eating a burger, reading a paper, etc ... . Well, I feel better. But I've been there, kids screaming, phone ringing, and late; mistakes happen. Oh ... yeah: the song changes from Untouchable Face to You Had Time. A chill flows through my veins taming the conflagration. Dissonance changes to resonance, the imperative to the subjunctive. Now, the hunks of peat sizzle softly, warming my bones. Beauty's got me.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Robert Fisk has always had a lot to say on the Middle East, and deservedly so. In London last week he commented that if modern reporters would read and consider history books in their reporting they would know that Churchill spoke about a "wealthy, crowded Jewish state, armed to the teeth" as early as 1937. The Guardian, which reported this story, produced Rachel Cook's candid interview with him in Beirut the next day. A month ago, Fisk pronounced that after five years in Iraq and we still haven't learnt our lesson. More recently, after an engagement in Ottawa where he stated that the audience was at liberty to condemn Israel and America, he has shifted his focus slightly, to Bush. He has come to the conclusion that Semantics can't mask Bush's chicanery. I personally think that chicanery is too strong a word for Bush as it implies a certain craftiness, which Bush, but not his close circle, lacks. Nevertheless, Fisk clears up the vagueness surrounding the actual casualties and deaths in the war and what has (not) actually been accomplished. His analysis and comments, such as the prevalence of "re" in Bush-speak, nicely complements other elucidations made on the occasion of the war's fifth anniversary (see Barackidiness2; for Iraq in general. Middle East Mess, Duped and Iraq Bits; for Bush's qualifications, Can the English Language Survive George Bush? and his phonetic teleprompter). Although I agree with and enjoy most of his pointed remarks, Fisk always provides enough fact and sentiment to tone down the offensive ones.

Reflections of an old(er) man

My absence from the blogosphere is easy to account for: on Tuesday I aged a few decades when my back went out. The list of "no longer ables" is a mile long and even as I write now I'm lying flat, regretting the purchase of my heavy laptop, which presses hard against my mid-riff. Like the aged, I have had much time to reflect and read. I read The Children of Hurin, The Guardian Weekend, some academic articles, and made some good progress through Oryx and Crake, a wonderfully written social commentary; however, it's the time for reflection I've really treasured. My nine year-old son took up the slack and unloaded the truck full of compost, which had mocked my condition in its untouched state in the driveway, carefully spreading it around the plants in the garden. I've often been the blessed recipient of his outside-of-school work ethic, such as a divine breakfast-in-bed served upon a fully furnished platter after a lie-in. My laid-out state caused my four year-old daughter much consternation and she would frequently check on me and pat my arm or kiss my cheek; then there's the selfless labour of my wife, all the meals, work and cleaning.

Receiving blessing amidst this pain got me to thinking about my interactions with others. My sub-conscious must have been doing the same because before I fell asleep the other night I had a vision of a tumbleweed in constant (and random) motion bumping into a wide circle of stationary objects. In my lucid state I took the tumbleweed to be me and the pillars, those I interacted with. The picture seemed to benefit me solely, so a top, more specifically a hard, pointed, and long-spinning Bey-Blade (I can't believe they once cost $15) might be more appropriate: the blades could actually take out chunks to represent what I took from others, the borrowings from their soul. Of course, all this imagery is rooted in my self-focused condition, but it got me to thinking nonetheless. In the same way that a whirling dervish can signify divine communication, so can water molecules represent human interaction: molecules mixing amidst eddies appear like humans moving through experiences. To get a sense of what I mean watch this:

Each person dancing and sharing yet also alone, swimming yet pushed by the currents. Are we propelled through life by the force emitted by the movement from withdrawing to socializing, taking to serving? Or some other force? Who knows? But at this time I especially enjoy the weightless feeling of being around family and good friends. Keep swimming.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Recycling and Purchasing Responsibly in a Consumer Culture

The harsh reality of a lack of concern for the environment becomes apparent to me whenever I fish recyclables out of the trash. Landfill bans have lessened this experience somewhat, but initiatives, such as every public waste-receptacle having separate compartments for biodegradable, non-biodegradable, and recyclable would have a greater impact (I can't tell you the number of times I've had to hunt for a place to put my recyclables; that is, in every place except Cebu airport, which has these). Furthermore, a recent article has shown that Canadians print an average of 30 pages a day at their offices and discard of 40 percent of these immediately after printing; only a third felt guilty for this behaviour, while three-quarters were concerned about their impact on the environment, though apparently not concerned enough to use print preview and double check the number of pages selected.

Putting the waste in the proper receptacle and reducing paper (reading on the screen is much less strenuous with today's monitors and programs that manage files for easy retrieval, e.g., Endnote, RA Document Organizer, IdeaTracker, and others) requires little thought, especially if you've toured a landfill or a developing nation to see what the consequences are. Recycling has also become easier with the addition of a number of items, such as tin foil, to the recyclables list (I'll soon be posting another entry on recycling in Victoria, including how to dismantle non-recyclable items, so their parts can be). Nevertheless, much waste is generated by consumerism; if you don't wish to petition companies or research how much waste they produce, you can vote with your dollar, i.e., purchase items in bulk and with less packaging. Manufacturers also save money with less packaging or providing digital products in downloadable form and the amount of green house gases produced is greatly reduced due to resultant increase in transport efficiency (more items can fit in a container). I can't believe Thrifty Foods advertised items as "flown in" to emphasize their freshness, but which really betrayed the emissions generated.

You can also, with some research and care, choose products that have less impact on the environment. A number of classifications, such as Organic and FSC, provide a guiding hand. Of course, the environmental impact becomes more acute with the purchase of larger items, such as furnaces and cars; heat pumps and hybrids, in general, are the best option (ten years, the period it takes to recoup the additional costs goes by really fast). Many websites rate the energy efficiency of cars and other items, but beware because none of these ratings are standard like EnerGuide. Nevertheless, researching every day items can be tedious (it took me ages to find the Fuchs Ekotec toothbrush with a replaceable head); that is pre-Zumer.

Zumer is a new website, which is now in beta and offered by invitation (click the link to request a membership by email, from then on it's pretty much straight forward), that simplifies this process. Upon registering you fill out a questionnaire with four categories: EcoFriendly (I love the question of paper products with the option "I only use a bidet"), Social Justice, Product Advocate, and Corporate Watchdog. Then you search or browse for products, which are ranked according to these preferences. You can then click on each item to find out details about the product and the corporation that produced it. This feature is very helpful. Zumer covers a wide array of items from laptops to handbags and has a number of categories that are not active yet, so once the final version is launched it will be fairly comprehensive. The same goes for the inclusion of lesser known brands (often more environmentally responsible). This site is easy to use and I recommend it; look out for its official launch in the near future.

Once you get this process of making informed choices down it becomes effortless. Of course corporate responsibility and environmental impact can only form so many of your choices, but on the whole organic and socially conscious products are produced with greater care and taste better. Hopefully corporations will pay attention to Zumer and your choices and change their practises accordingly. See Walmartification, Creation Care, and Biblical Environmentalism for more on the environment.

Magical (re)interpretations

Due to mp3fiesta's accessibility, calabash and epitonic's wide variety, and friends' good taste, I have been listening to some very good music lately. Like many fans I usually frown upon the release of greatest hits albums, usually viewing them as a money grab and preferring the "hits" in their original context; however, every now and then I am pleasantly surprised. I have been thoroughly enjoying Mothership, not so much because the songs were chosen by the surviving band members themselves, but because the re-mastering of the songs is magnificent. I have a newfound appreciation for the intricacy of Page's guitar work and Plant's high pitched screams. I cannot overstate the clarity of the recording; it's first class and worth many times the dollar I spent on fiesta. Even Stairway to Heaven, a song which has been forever tainted by too many plays as the last song at school dances, bristled with Page's fine guitar work. I now appreciate the band much more than the grainy 70's and 80's tapes ever allowed. Given the lower tones associated Jones and Bonham's work, the improvement is not as noticeable; however, they still drive many of the songs and I found myself air drumming and moving to the bass more than ever. Only the cowbell in Houses of the Holy made me wish for less clarity.

Lenny Kravitz has always focused songs around blazing guitar licks (sometimes with off-set bass lines), frequently blending the melody lines into them. He pulls this effect off well in his new album, It's Time for a Love Revolution, especially on songs, such as Bring It On, Love Love Love, If You Want It, and Dancin' Till Dawn. I think he must have been listening to a lot of the Beetles when he recorded it, because some songs have a Beetles feel, e.g., I'll Be Waiting, I Love the Rain, A Long and Sad Goodbye; Good Morning even includes McCartney's distinctive yell. Some of the songs, Bring it on and If You Want It, have religious overtones, but this is nothing new to Kravitz's music. Overall, a pretty good rock out session.

Since hearing Bach's Air put to beats on Buddha Bar - Ten Years, I've become addicted to this re-interpretation of classical pieces. Two outstanding albums, Mozart l'égyptian and Lambarena: Bach to Africa , do this well and are a delight to listen to. Mozart includes more of Mozart's famous melodies, which are played on Middle-Eastern instruments and put to voice in Arabic, while Lambarena tends to reinterpret Bach's music and the melodies are not as accessible.

I just found out that Bruce Cockburn and Romeo Dallaire's Child Soldiers No More concert is coming to Victoria on October 4th. This should prove to be an amazing evening; both men have a deeply personal message and exude talent. Dallaire's scarred journey is particularly compelling; no doubt I'll have a review of it in October.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Valuing the Humanities and the Arts

As a student of the humanities and an artist, I often feel the need to justify my vocation. On the way to school I regularly face a gauntlet of neighbours and family who, ignorant of my preference for late nights, remark on my late start. With every passing year, funding requires more work to for qualification and is harder to come by. Last year my choice of office was a dilapidated WWII era hut or a crowded room; I only complained once I saw the plush equivalent in engineering. Furthermore, I am not alone: Chad Gaffield, the new president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), now seeks to “make crystal clear the ways in which SSHRC advances knowledge and invests in human capital” to the Harper government, which can be argued is suspicious of SSHRC. So what is the value of the fine arts and humanities?

Fine art provides a way for humans to make sense of their world. It helps us grieve: just think of the powerful anthem, “like a candle in the wind,” belted out by so many at Diana’s funeral to expunge the grief from their souls. The arts provide us with a dialogue when ours has been lost. They speak the unspeakable. It is uncanny how often a song comes on the radio, a painting comes into focus, or a poetic phrase catches the ear which expresses the deep groaning that is even incomprehensible to us. Karen Armstrong, speaking of poetry, phrases it this way: “Poetry matters, among many other reasons, because it is by its nature revelatory, surprising, and liberating. It re-connects us with the familiar world we mistakenly think we know while offering glimpses of the mysterious and untranslatable worlds we know we don’t know” (Tapestry October 30, 2007).

It is pure wonderment how words find their way on to a page or into a melody. I love how Gwen Stefani describes the process: “Sometimes it's so hard to find out what I am trying to say. People might think you can turn creativity on and off, but it's not like that. It just kind of comes out, a mash-up of all these things you collect in your mind. You never know when it is going to happen, but when it does it is like magic. It's just that simple and it's just that hard.” Nevertheless, the artwork seems to take on a life of its own when released into the world. Alberto Manguel states, “Under certain conditions, stories can assist us. Sometimes they can heal us, illuminate us, and show us the way. Above all they can remind us of our condition, break through the superficial appearance of things, and make us aware of the underlying currents and depths. Stories can feed our consciousness, … .” (The City of Words, 9-10).

So art matters, it's inherently precious, even magical, but what value does it have? Ironically, although art helps us process the overpowering and speak out our inmost thoughts, the personal experience rarely has currency; namely, the cathartic love, anger, drama, and sadness soon fades when related to another. I can’t number the times I’ve tried to recapture a mood and failed; I always want to ask, “Didn’t that piece touch you, pamper you, and grant mercy to you?” Even when art is experienced together, each individual comes away with unique impression, never mind other factors that influence experience, such as trends and critics’ opinions. Art is enigmatic: personal yet communal and elusive yet accessible.

Art’s value is more than personal betterment and access to the sublime. Art speaks to us about the human condition: how and why people act as they do, what people experience and how they express this experience, or what causes humans to tick. The humanities are disciplines that examine multiple forms of art in their historical context and the context of other pieces of art to answer these questions; scholars revive, restore, preserve, and interpret artwork. Provided there’s not too much ivory-tower jargon, these scholars can disseminate the understanding on the human condition. They can accomplish this in oblique ways, such as The Lord of the Rings and Narnia series. This field also includes philosophy and history; scholars from Berlin to Ignatieff have disseminated insightful perspectives on their current worlds. Understanding the past and the cultures of the past does provide a lesson we can learn from.

Yet, despite the valuation of master artworks, record deals and box office profits, how can art and its study be valued in dollar terms.?It can’t. Although today's market-place has no way to value the abstract or intrinsic (the environment is a good example), some dollar term needs to be assigned to them. They need to appear in the budget since their value can no longer be assumed in today’s reductionist climate. Sure any value is ambiguous, but funding needs to continue. How can one value the work of authors, such as Günter Grass (despite his role in the Waffen-SS), have had a deep impact on their country’s ability to process trauma and heal; in Crabwalk, he states, “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising. … By now, after all, we Germans have come up with expressions to help us deal with the past: we are to atone for it, come to terms with it, go through a grieving process” (122). How about those who bring understanding of the plight of others, e.g., K'naan, or understanding among cultures, e.g., Solzhenitsyn? The media just brings new information, facts and figures, and no way to process them. As Louis Riel stated, the artists would be the ones who gave the people (Métis) back their spirit once they’d been asleep for one hundred years. Don't they do the same for us now?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Canada on the world stage

I've always been well received as a Canadian in my travels and even experienced about-face reactions when angry or reserved people learn I'm not American; however, there are times when I'm less apt to wear my Canadian-ness on my sleeve. Today is such a day: Canada has derailed a UNHRC resolution to make clean water a basic human right. Although I understand Canada's reason for doing so (their afraid that they'll be forced to sell or give water as a result), I do not approve of this motion. During Harper's tenure Canada seems to have lost its sense of the greater good and become overly concerned with the legal implications of every decision. While I in no way suggest the government or any one else ignore the advice of lawyers, it's no good to be paralyzed by the "what-ifs". For example, the main reason Canada has not made an apology to the First Nations, like Australia's, is that it may be exploited legally as an admission of guilt; Canada purposely avoided the term in the 1998 statement of reconciliation concerning the abuses that took place at residential schools. Still, Australia did it. We have not, although the AFN would welcome it. Instead, Canada has voted against a UN's native rights declaration; McNee, Canada's UN ambassador, stated the declaration was "overly broad, unclear and capable of a wide variety of interpretations."

The Harper government has also softened its stance on capital punishment: for the first time in ten years, Canada has not co-sponsored the UN resolution on capital punishment and it has stopped seeking clemency for Canadian prisoners on Death Row. These actions have been denounced by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Never mind Canada's role in trying to derail and eventually dilute the Bali talks on climate change. Read McNee's statement to the UN or the many critiques of Canada's climate change plan (e.g., Suzuki). These examples show that the Canadian government is frequently guided by technocrats, legal advisers, and making America happy. What about the great Canadian ideal which is rooted in Canada's role in liberating Europe, serving as peace-keepers, and not joining the invasion of Iraq? Is this just propaganda from a world past or is its absence indicative of a lack of cohesiveness in Canada?

National identity is a vast topic indeed, but I think some firm decisions governed by more than the pragmatic would go a long way. Canada also seems to dilute its identity, as if it's hesitant to be too proud: it is the only country I've seen that has no division between residents and visitors at immigration and probably, the only country that on government forms and surveys defaults to "select country" on a world list rather than default to "Canada" or at least list "Canada" first on the list. Furthermore, there is less consistency among the official languages, for example, upon disembarking the plane at Vancouver I saw only Mandarin/Cantonese signs directing the way to immigration (I relied on the universal symbol to find my way) and in the lavatory saw an English and Spanish sign; I am speaking of languages at an official level and fully appreciate the diverse nature of Canada and ethnic districts that have signs in various languages. So what brings definition for me? Stan Rogers, Glen Gould, Trudeau and Stephen Leacock from the past and CBC radio, the Hip, Hockey Night in Canada, Dallaire, and the great number of immigrants (poets, scholars, artists, and athletes especially) at the present. My vision of Canada would have Harper banning the import of fossil fuels in ten years to address climate change and providing a cohesive plan for doing so; apologizing to the First Nations; and upholding Canadian law on capital punishment. In other words, I envision Canada as a leader rather than a hesitant follower.


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