Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Mystical in the Songs of the World

As one who came of age in the Nineteen-Sixties, for me Brad Wheeler’s now forgotten  2009  review article in the Toronto Globe and Mail remains a seminal read. He was memorializing the 90th birthday tribute to Pete Seeger on May 3rd in Madison Square Garden. Titled  'The songs, they are a-changing'  Wheeler's piece was a trip down the memory lane of the big “songs-of-the-times” and a lament for the great pop anthems of our past. Perhaps the last of these was Neil Young’s Rocking in the Free World of 1989.  

Wheeler's obituary for great songs quoted Don McLean, who in 1971 had penned that superb tribute to the rural American South, American Pie, as saying: “Pop culture is illiterate now; nobody cares about words and they don’t care about melody either. In order to write an anthem, you have to be at least reasonably poetic, and I don’t think that people today have the verbal wherewithal”. McLean went on: “People love language, they crave it, but the support for it is drifting away. Society is not going in the direction of poetry. It’s going in the direction of numbers.”

In regretting “the vanished mighty sway of music” Wheeler attributed it to the ever-expanding diffusion of outlets for music so that “..the potential to reach a large audience with a serious topic is diminished”. The possibility of a single and singular artist capturing the ethos of a time in history is disappearing. The ‘do you remember where you were when...’ moments of  today and tomorrow will have myriads of uploaded YouTube snips or their future equivalents. While a few are widely spread by viral means online, nearly all will be without the broad exposure that creates an enduring image in the public mind

As there is now so much noise out there, nothing can any longer be definitive.  No single vision can capture a time or place’s dominant mood or emotion. How can there be shared nostalgia for an era, like there is still for the Sixties, when there is no longer a signature tune or memorable picture or quote that forms a collective point of remembrance of how it felt to be alive then? Are we already coming into the time when the truly transcendent, the stuff of myth, can no longer find an entry into our society’s collective consciousness?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Snared by Technology

US consumer reporting agencies are required by their federal laws to show consumers their credit reports to allow them to correct errors in their own records, but data brokers who collect and sell consumer information for marketing purposes are not required to give individuals access. The business of collecting information about our individual tastes and behaviours is running amok pretty well everywhere in the World, totalitarian or democratic. It's just the purpose for doing it that differs.

Google is now using its mapping and GPS capabilities to send you locally tailored ads - the shape of things to come. One just can't hide, short of dropping off the grid and becoming a hippy or hobo, or going to live with an Amazon tribe. The itinerant Roma keep trying but it's not working. And even true hippies have to consume something commercial at some point.

You can be sure a great deal of the promotional digital bumf that data collection technology developments bring your way will be unwelcome. The old broadly distributed and loosely targeted analogue advertising was easier to ignore than the rifled hit that you get on your smart phone, a message that is more intrusive and may well cost you money to read. Watch an old 1960s Star Trek episode on DVD and you'll time it at 51 minutes, then compare that to the length of the action in a modern one hour show on TV.  Just how many more unwanted messages can we receive before there's little else?

But is anyone really fighting back? What liberates also enslaves, and technology is our modern slaver.

A Weird and Crazy Empire

"With the N.R.A. (US National Rifle Association) unusually quiet since the (Newtown CT school) shootings, gun control supporters and opponents had looked to Friday’s event as a sign of how the nation’s largest and best-known gun lobby would respond and whether it would pledge cooperation with the White House and lawmakers seeking new actions.
Mr. LaPierre’s (NRA V-P) defiant tone suggested otherwise. He and David Keene, the group’s president, took no questions from reporters at the event who called out asking whether they planned to work with President Obama.
The N.R.A.'s main answer to school violence was a model program it unveiled called National School Shield, which would train and arm security guards at schools in those local districts that want to use it.
 From 'N.R.A. Calls for Armed Guards in Schools to Deter Violence' in  N.Y.Times: 21.12.2012

"Hey kids, our gift to you is upping our taxes to give you real protection at school next term!"

I generally enjoyed living in America the few years in mid-life I did so but the place has always had a different take on social order. Perhaps some of this derives from its relatively short but violent expansionist history in trying to grab the British North American colonies (unsuccessful), hiving off one-third of Mexico then much of the remaining C19th global Spanish Empire (successful), and dispossessing, killing or relocating large numbers of  indigenous people who got in the way. Everyone else calls this empire building. The fact that America resolutely refuses to accept that it created an empire, and did so by the usual time-honoured methods, ranks as really odd. But at least one can see why they once needed guns.

Post-imperial societies like Western Europe, Japan and even Russia don't see why the population needs to be armed. America is to all intents and purposes post-imperial. When will they understand that?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Individual Mental Illness vs. Social Lunacy

"Perhaps the horror of 20 children being killed in Newtown will finally push members of Congress to locate their spines and begin working to pass some sensible gun legislation. Consider that on the very same day as the Newtown massacre, a deranged man walked into a school in Chengping, China and tried to kill as many children as he could. He attacked 22 of them. But because he was wielding a knife, not one of the children died." Paul Waldman, US editor and author

The current heightened debate in the US media on gun ownership is as highly polarized as so much of American social discourse. Their argument seems to distill down to strategies for dealing with the nut jobs in society versus limiting access to automatic weapons that facilitate massacres. In any other civil society the difficulties presented by identifying and effectively managing all mentally ill individuals who might pose a danger to society, when set against those presented by rigorous screening and licensing of gun owners and limiting military-grade weapons to security forces, would create only a brief debate.

Not so in the US. Uniquely there it all boils down to the historical right of an American Patriot to carry a flintlock to fend off the 'foreign' tyrants, especially those known as the British Crown. Only nowadays that's morphed into fending off your fellow patriots with repeating weapons that don't need reloading. It's worth remembering that, at the time of the American Revolution, 40% of the population of the Thirteen Colonies weren't opposed to the Foreign Tyrant. Those guys fared badly in the first 40 years of the new republic, and many left. The descendents of those United Empire Loyalists, at least those here in Canada, don't seem to be any more gun-loving than the rest of us. Too bad they couldn't have stayed home down there - they might have kept things a bit saner.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Hirising the Countryside

A recent Council meeting in our bucolic and largely rural township discussed planning progress on major developments at the southern end where we edge the 'big smoke' that is widely known as the Greater Toronto Area. It was refreshing to hear my county councillor wonder aloud about the logic of government policy that seeks to press ever higher housing densities onto rural community developments. He pointed out that he had yet to meet someone who planned to move up here to live in high-density dwellings! As a resident of a nearby once-historic township for over 40 years, I saw a lot of poor decision-making around the preservation of social continuity.  I now fear that much of what is socially and historically meaningful will be lost in what is being developed hereabouts under the pressure of blanket policies forced upon our town and mandating increasing density and industrial / retail space.  

Urban planning guru Jane Jacobs may have got it right for cities, but a New Urbanist strategy for our still-remote byways, small villages, spacious prime farmland and seemingly endless treed hills is nonsensical. If the price of rapid population growth is the disappearance of a sense of place and the past in once-cohesive communities as happened within one generation where I last lived, what hope is there for social consensus down the years?

A Pandit Passes On

Ravi Shankar died the other day. He was 92.  

"Ravi Shankar was the ideal ambassador for Indian culture. As an artist he was a great hybridizer, respecting tradition but innovating freely. Collaborating with George Harrison on the “Concert for Bangladesh”; giving lessons in Indian classical music to John Coltrane; merging new musical technologies with classical Indian instruments and dancers from the Bolshoi in a stunning live performance inside the Kremlin; working with Philip Glass on the chamber-music album “Passages”; writing film and TV scores: Shankar’s unbounded and creative curiosity, steeped in the classics but pointed always at the new..." from Ravi Shankar (namesake American writer and editor), NY Times, Dec 17, 2012

For me the deceased Ravi Shankar has been a partner in music since university days. The complex musical tradition that he almost single-highhandedly introduced to the world beyond India was alien-sounding yet completely in sync with the mood of the 1960s. It is liquid and extemporaneous but also very spiritual. Still exotic to Western ears, it speaks to us in a soulful way. I have copies of Shankar's Russian collaboration and that with Yehudi Menuhin, both gifted works of art.

I vividly recall, while driving a rental car through one fine summer evening a decade or so ago, listening enthralled to a BBC radio documentary on the differing traditional musical styles to be found down the Indian subcontinent. Some of my forbears were in military service in the former Raj and motoring down the prehistoric spine of England helped the artistic richness of another complex and ancient land resonate as a place of connection.

Before Shankar there would have been no such documentaries to enrich my travels. His contributions to our shared global culture were extraordinary. I shall miss him.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Masters or Slaves

From Colin Brezicki of St. Catharines in an Ontario newspaper article titled 'Books not read': -

"As an English teacher, I sympathize with essayist Robert Costanzo’s  fear that 'deep, prolonged reading is losing its relevance'. My own take on students’ apathy to reading literary fiction is that they are now empowered by their technology, able to traverse the cyber universe with the swipe of a finger, while reading fiction has always required a surrender of the imagination to the writer. Empowered and entitled 'digital natives' are not hardwired for surrender.

In the new cyber culture of instant gratification, distraction and multitasking, the literary imagination takes too long, is too slow and unwavering, and so it will shrivel from lack of use. Or, at the least, become a vestigial organ, an appendix. 

The irony, of course, is that the masters of technology are also its slaves, a paradox that literary fiction has explored from many angles. But no one goes there any more."

Great books that require "deep and prolonged reading" may sometimes be made into movies. Sometimes the result works, like 'Lord of the Rings' or the 'Life of Pi'; other times it doesn't so well. It seemed to me that the recent release 'Midnight's Children' was in the latter camp. Salman Rushdie's droll, meandering prose doesn't really work as a picture. Much of the wit and whimsy is lost. One needs to linger over his text as with any great writing. Is the rising generation learning how to linger over anything? Devote single-minded attention to one thing for hours at a time?  Be master of their time and attention?

The Yawn of Flash and Dash

Have you noticed how advertising for 'performance' car and truck  is looking more and more like a James Bond movie?  Trucks pull enormous boulders or other behemoths across terrain the like of which no buyer will ever encounter. Cars race up snow-covered mountain pathways or tear down alpine hairpins at insane speeds.

The best car I ever owned was an Audi Quattro. It ran well and was the safest thing I've driven on our winter roads. But the current "Land of quattro" promotion, with its acres of deep wilderness snow which should never see anything mechanical that doesn't have tracked propulsion, is absurd. Gone are the ads for sensible Swedish Volvos which save you in that roll into the snowy ditch that we Northern drivers all face at some point. Instead we have Vorsprung durch Technik which resembles a Mars Lander on steroids.

To counter this Euro-Japanese souped-up-dodgem-car hutzpah, American manufacturers extoll the virtues of the automobile as infotainment centre. Anything your laptop/tablet/smartphone can do can be done en route in comfort. Never mind drugs and booze for getting high while you drive. You can get all the kicks you need from your dashboard. Connection is always in. No need to feel lonely or worry about what's going on outside.

Everyone knows today's road vehicles are reliable, durable and much safer. So what's left to say about them other than hyperbole...and 'Zoom, Zoom'?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


The major Toronto local coverage  newspaper this summer did a piece on the shifting ethnic composition of its Greater Toronto Area.  A not untypical online comment:  "Great story about how quickly things can change when we open our doors to people from all over the world. We need them all here, anything to dilute the white bread existence our English/Scottish uptight ancestors imposed on us. It's a much more exciting place than it was 50 years ago, and it's most welcome." As a bona fide 'white-bread' (but the ancestor of only a handful of Canadians), I marvel at how easy it is to dismiss what white-breads 'imposed'.  Law, order and good governance for example. Plus the English language, today's lingua franca

If as is predicted we 'uptights' are soon  to be supplanted as the majority by immigration from currently dysfunctional societies like Somalia, the Arab countries, Haiti and Pakistan or totalitarian China, one cannot but wonder how long those core values that underpin the Shangri-La that multi-culture fans believe we are building will last. We could certainly be living in an 'exciting place' but in the way that say Brazil is exciting  with its pollution, environmental over-exploitation, business and government corruption and crime. Time will tell but our scale of immigration (highest in the Developed World), and the accelerating accompanying integration and acculturation difficulties make me doubt it is going to be an all-fun filled adventure.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Blame Game

We blog here about the experience of being a boomer.

One of those experiences is to function as whipping boy for the ills of the generations behind. A national columnist called Gary Mason leads the local newspaper blame brigade. His latest tirade starts: “When is an economic recovery not an economic recovery? When you’re among the hundreds of thousands of young people being left out of any revival in the jobs market.”  Follow along and once again one quickly finds it's all our fault as selfish and uncaring boomers.

The comment thread on this particular rant is huge and much of it is about just who's to blame.  I especially enjoyed this riposte by a fellow calling himself  'Cosmic Wheels': -

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Love Your Library

"A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft  and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination...they are the only sheltered public places where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead."
Caitlin Moran, The (London) Times, Dec 8th, 2011

Despite my professional qualification in library science, in mid-life I rarely went inside public libraries. A quick visit to a chain bookstore or to Amazon took care of my literary cravings.

Yet today libraries are a favourite hangout of mine, either online or, better, there in the flesh. In an era where none of us need venture beyond our digital e-readers, I'm thrilled by the sight of books and media piled up on racks and shelves in a cornucopia of delights. Once back home I pore over newspaper book reviews and e-mailed library lists of new additions.

What I can't get on inter-library loan, I may find in used book and recorded music shops. There's little that beats an hour or two pleasantly shuffling along shelves or into racks with an eye out for a gently-used bibliographic or audio gem.

When the hard-nosed mayor of our metropolitan neighbour, Toronto, announced that he would limit library access as a budget measure, he was soon put to flight by famous international author Margaret Attwood using her Twitter account to foster outrage. Libraries may be the only places where teenagers and children spend quality time in a restful setting with older folk about. They are custodians of local culture and the church of the literate.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Limping into Retirement in a High Tech World

"... many people will have to get more serious about saving money. They’re the ones who are determined to retire at 65, who have health issues that will prevent them from working longer or whose employer or profession doesn’t offer much opportunity for older workers." This retirement dilemma summed up by Rob Carrick (a personal finance columnist worth following) resonates with this writer. I certainly wasn't planning to go to grass, but my industry no longer offers opportunity. Nowadays I have to admit, when people ask, that I'm in a state of  'involuntarily retirement'.

You could be thinking I'm out of one of those rust belt industries? Not so - I was in biotechnology, a truly C21st discipline where once Canada was a major player.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Collecting Good Deed Experiences

Last week's NY Times Education had a thoughtful piece by Neal Gabler, a prof at SUNY Stony Brook, on how the pressure on college-age kids to super-achieve places social progress as a poor second to individual perfection in their life goals. To quote Gabler: "There is a big difference between a culture that encourages engagement with the world and one that encourages developing one's own superiority". Anyone who viewed 'Margin Call', the recent and provocative Hollywood movie story about Wall Street perfidy, will get his point - the film's populated with grown-up super-ego products of fine universities.

The compulsion that Gabler refers to of adding to great grades from the best schools with a long list of other activities that point to the students' always-on capacity for success in life, seems to me to infect many well-off folk in their later years who also seem to rack up trips to underprivileged spots to do social work or save ecosystems. Face Book entries, blog posts and round-robin e-mails from friends and former colleagues heading off to points distant to help out the less fortunate ensure we stay-behinds know all there is to know about their achievements.

All this bragging material from whizzing around the globe can make it hard for us lesser mortals to feel good about vegetating. You know - taking it mostly easy after a life of  'making our contribution' working long hours and sitting on many planes. Loafing on the back porch with a beer, reading in a hammock or refilling the bird feeders, all are coming to seem a form of deplorable mindlessness. Try countering tales of long and daring trips to provide aid to far-off charities with stories of your occasional stirrings to perform local good deeds. Just doesn't have the same cachet.

HG Wells postulated a future where humanity divides into meek underachievers and aggressive top-dogs;  maybe it'll be more like Zoomers and Loafers when it comes to the Great Score Card in Cyberspace.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Volunteering as a Wise Owl

2011 is gone and volunteer organizations are contemplating what they can deliver in a 2012 that looks to be an equal economic and social challenge.  As my career began to wind down a few years back, I thought I'd try volunteering outside my previous focus on professional groups relevant to my then-working life. Us Oldies often read that we should now be 'giving back', yet many of us who are outside the now-diminishing net of fat corporate pensions have seen our savings take a beating. Our charity is of necessity now given as in-kind labour when before cash donations were the norm.

The public service has always relied in part on the efforts of community volunteers to inform its activities. With diminished revenues government is relying more than ever on unpaid help. While there are more people reaching the age when they have the time to contribute than in years past, many of us fret over spending time on potentially frustrating non-billable activities as we contemplate living beyond our nest eggs. One consequence of this is that we may exercise more care than in the past in deciding just who exactly will benefit from the windfall of our availability, especially now that the web provides a vehicle to explore the performance of potential recipients of our volunteer time.

Myself I've tried out several forms of volunteer persona for fit. The first to receive the blessing of my insights was a regional charity working to create awareness of substance abuse in high school students. While I once had a personal connection to this problem, one I'm glad to say is long over,  this proved largely unused on a board usually ignored by the charity's CEO and founder, a feature of charity boards that I hear is all too common. So I moved on to an altogether sunnier option, the board of a charity owning a key nature educational reserve in Costa Rica. Since I wasn't really likely to travel down into Caribbean swamps to see things on the front line, this proved a short-lived experiment. Next I thought let's volunteer for an association that I know well as a member so there'd be no surprises.  Invited to observe the executive committee in action I discovered a small cabal ran things with an eye to ensuring nothing happened that couldn't be accessed by public transport. As a dweller in an area without such an amenity yet one in which potential new members with the right ethnocultural creds are widespread, I had to decline.

I 'd run out of ideas until a chance conversation at a nearby country gathering with a municipal heritage employee had me recalling that I'd once been on a heritage buildings evening course and even read a few books on the subject.