Monday, February 22, 2016

It's the Humanties, Stupid

The Toronto's Star's top story right now is about how employers are saying that young people don't know how to read and write.

Keeping in mind that the "employer survey" is not a terribly scientific document, and are usually used to signal employers' desire to flood the market with a particular kind of workers (whose wages coincidentally go down due to the glut of people) The solution  being proposed would be something akin to an SAT test, which generally test you more on test taking than critical thinking! 

However, the thing that really shocked me about the article was how the obvious answer, that there has been a decades-long assault on a humanities education at virtually every level of secondary and post-secondary education, was completely ignored.

Instead we're treated to the usual bromides about how kids these days are all sheltered babies who cannot be more than five seconds away from their cell phones without going into withdrawal. Or that schools have lowered their standards.  All of which may be true (although in my teaching experience I don't really see it, except for the cell phone bit), but the reality is that the place where students best learned critical thinking was in a good old well-rounded liberal arts education.

However, universities, starved of public cash and hungry for private money, listened to these same employers who, in the 90's, declared that learning a foreign language and reading Chaucer would ill-equip you for the "real world" and have been shutting down or reducing the sizes of humanities departments, a culling that has only intensified since the 2008 financial meltdown.  Now it turns out that those things also, coincidentally, benefited employers, who are now seeing the results of their influence in the 90's come back to haunt them! 

So instead of blaming these anecdotal problems on the Internet or bad parenting, perhaps we could look at the actual systemic changes we have made to education over the past 20-30 years, and question that.  Or failing that, simply stop listening to employers. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Very, very Slow News Day

Despite the very many things going on right now, here in Canada and around the world, the Toronto Star managed to make one of today's top stories the fact that the Department of National Defense is buying a bassoon.

Could this be the stupidest non-story ever to grace the Star's pages?  Maybe not, but the "reporter", Oliver Sachgau, perhaps trying to obscure the fact that he comes from the land of classical music, manages to open the story with the following:

How much would you pay for a bassoon?

Probably nothing, seeing as you can just buy a fog horn for cheaper, and get more use out of it.

A-Hyuk!  I can just imagine young Oliver, sitting in the Star bullpen thinking "This is it, this is my chance to really make a difference.  We've all heard those stories about expensive screwdrivers - who would pay good TAXPAYER (cue angels) money on a musical instrument for a military band? I'm really going to have to pull out the stops on this one.   Think Oliver, think  -what does a bassoon sound like - a foghorn! And a foghorn is more useful than a bassoon!  This story is going to bring down the entire military musical industrial complex!  I'll be a hero!"

This, my friends, is journalism in the digital age - a mere 5 minutes of research would have revealed to him that actually, a professional bassoons could cost this much money. 

Moreover, why shouldn't a military band have a good instrument to play?  When I was in high school, I was lucky to receive a brand-new professional Yamaha tuba to play on.  The instrument cost $7,000 20 years ago.  Go on, Oliver, go write a sanctimonious hit piece about how the TDSB is wasting money on musical instruments for students.  Hey, you should really look into this - I bet they buy music for the bands too, new music at full price!  What an outrage!

I guess that's why I'm bothering to right about this - this is sanctimonious garbage reporting on the part of the Toronto Star, where they take something that's probably, on balance, in the public good, but turn it into a criticism of government spending.  The underlying message is: the government is wasting your hard-earned money on these things when they should be giving money to "better" causes. 

Here's a novel piece of information  - governments do a lot more then issue you a driver's license every 5 years.  I thought the Star knew this, but playing the arts for laughs doesn't really sit well with me, and they should be ashamed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Relieved but disappointed

That's how I feel today.  About what you may ask?  That's for you to figure out!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Jon Vickers

has died.

I know I never write on this stupid blog anymore, but man, I really felt this.  He was 88, so it's not as though there was some tragedy to this, but he was probably one of the most distinct and emotionally powerful opera singers ever, and the fact that he is no longer around is really sad.

Something I spent listening to last year, over and over, was his singing of "So starben wir, um ungetrennt" from Act II of Tristan und Isolde.  So amazing, and really, it's the part of the opera that you need to hear before the Liebestod to really punch you in the gut, because Isolde is there, alone, singing what she and Tristan had been singing together.  I would encourage you to seek it out, to hear that voice of his. 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Glenn Gould - Off the Record/On the Record

I discovered yesterday that the National Film Board has made its 1959 documentary about Glenn Gould available on YouTube.  The first part is entitled Glenn Gould - Off the Record/On the Record and it's fantastic! Here's Part I:

I am amazed that in all the years I've been writing on this blog this is only the second time I've ever mentioned Gould.

I used to borrow (and renew) a VHS copy of this documentary back when I was in high school - I couldn't get enough of it.  Watching it again, the sheer energy that comes from his Bach playing is something that never fails to amaze me.

It also reminds me of just how my own musical tastes, even today, are very much a reflection of Gould's. I was pretty impressionable, but I already loved Bach, so it would be natural that I would discover Gould.  Given how much I enjoyed his playing, his opinions came with a certain authority that I couldn't really object to. 

Although I've moved on considerably, I cannot help but think that one of the main reasons Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier is my favourite opera has a lot to do with Gould's advocacy of Strauss as a composer. 

These documentaries are also a wonderful window into late 1950's North America.   It is difficult not to watch these and think "wow, Mad Men really nailed that era", but also the fact that classical music, at this time, still had a fair bit of cultural credibility, which is something I've long written about, and which I may find myself writing about again!

Here's Part II:


Tuesday, November 04, 2014

On Not Working

This article from the Atlantic on not being busy at work managed to hit close to home and also widely miss the mark.

As a graduate student and a former civil servant...yes, take that in folks - not having much to do is a topic that I can clearly speak to with great authority!

When I try to describe being out of the civil service to people, I always want to be balanced in my sentiment, mainly because this is really how I feel - most of my closest friends are people I met in the public service, and I can safely say that there were many days in the various jobs I had where I felt like I was "making a difference" in some way and also working my ass off.

But there were other times...those times, they were like being in a kind of prison.  I would say this to people, and they would laugh (laugh! because you're a civil servant, so how bad can it be?).  There were times where I would go to work, and there was no work to do, and I had to be there, but I couldn't do my own thing, so all I could do was sit, finding things to do that skirted the edges of office culture etiquette.  Actually, I hear that in prison, you can take courses and work out. (No, I'm not saying that prison is better than an office job, I'm making an analogy and using a joke to illustrate it.) The first few weeks of this, especially after being busy, come as a relief.  But then the rot sets in..

You know why lots of people surf the Internet at their jobs?  Because if they were reading a book they would immediately be castigated for "slacking".  In a white collar environment, people sleep where they poop when it comes to their work - that's what the Alt-Tab key command is for.  Smartphones have only made this worse - it's now acceptable to check your phone every three seconds even though you're really reading Gawker and not texting a local official about emergency preparedness.

I even did what the article dutifully told me to do, and I spoke to my bosses about my lack of work, and they would throw things my way, but it was usually something that took about 15 minutes out of an 8 hour day.  I had been hired specifically to do a particular job, but when I arrived it turned out that a bunch of other people were already doing the job, and also had the resources behind them to do it.  All I could do was tag along.

The irony of course was that there were other people in the office who were busy. Those busy people, perhaps unsurprisingly, resented those of us with not much to do.  And I don't blame them!  There is so much shame associated with being a civil servant to begin with, that being one of those civil servants, without a lot to's not the best psychological environment for anyone.

I have also been one of those busy people.  For a number of years, I would get into the office, sit down, and basically write until I went home at the end of the day.  And then I would go home and mentally prepare what I had to write for the next day so that I could do it efficiently enough to get through the day.  These jobs are great because at that moment, we feel as though we're alive.

But being busy isn't nearly as newsworthy or interesting as collecting a pay cheque for doing nothing, so I'll go back to that.

It didn't help that I was working for Don Draper, except that instead of Don Draper, it was an idiot who thought s/he was Don Draper.  Indeed, those in charge would obstruct my desire to pursue other things because, wait for it, my pretend real job was too important!  My office chair wasn't going to warm itself!  And who was going to write that presentation which, after months of deliberation, would be thrown out the window at the last minute for a completely different approach that no one had agreed to and would invariably be completely ignored by the people we were targeting because it sounded "cool".

The most work I ever did in that office was helping people in a completely different department with their communications.  They were nearby, and they liked me, so in effect, I wound up working for a department that I didn't work for, simply out of sheer boredom.  But I enjoyed helping them, so it made things worthwhile until I resigned.

So, the major failing of this article - it attempts to be sympathetic to people working in a situation similar to mine, but it frames the entire debate as being one where the workers are "slacking", or "lazy", or "worthless", and placing all of the responsibility for their onto the workers themselves, who rarely have a lot of control over their own work. 

Did I procrastinate sometimes? Yup.  Was I always performing at my optimum capacity?  Nope.  Did I hire myself into a job that had no duties attached to it, when it was sold as an exciting super-busy opportunity?  Uhhhh....

I can point to many times in my adult life where my boredom in a job translated into some really good opportunities because out of the boredom came a certain amount of creativity.  But creating your own opportunities can be pretty threatening to the status quo as well, which is why it's often easier to keep someone around doing nothing than it is to let them do whatever they wanted - indeed, in a supreme irony, the one thing I would consider my biggest accomplishment at my time in this most Kafkaesque of  jobs was the thing that got me into the most trouble.  So it's tough to stay motivated in a situation like that.

But off the top of my head I can see all kinds of reasons why most people spend more time on the Internet than working, none of which involve making the people who work in these kinds of situations feel more shame, or a perverse sense that they're "gaming the system".

The reality is that if I weren't sitting in that office, exchanging my time for a salary, the good taxpaying citizens of Ontario, many of whom are also doing nothing at their jobs while reading celebrity blogs or shopping online, would be outraged over how some civil servant wasn't at their desk doing nothing in their job!  And they would share their outrage with you on Twitter and Facebook during their own office hours.  And we would all point out fingers at all the hypocrisy going on, while nothing changed.

Perhaps instead we should be asking how it is we live in a world where doing something that interests you, even for smart, talented people, is becoming increasingly difficult at the very moment when it's supposed to be easier than ever.   Or how we manage to live in the richest societies in human history, and there is not enough work to go around in an office, but also not enough jobs for everyone to be gainfully employed.

Maybe constantly shaming people for their circumstances isn't the best thing to do, even though it's pretty much the foundation of discourse on the Internet.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Our long civic nightmare is over - or is it?

I was out over the weekend, having drinks (probably too many of them) but attempting to explain why there's a large part of me that is, for lack of a better word, often ashamed to be a Canadian right now.

I suppose it's safe for me to say that I'm far from a supporter of our current federal government, or the current (at least until the end of yesterday) Mayor of Toronto.  But it's not just that they're right-wing and I'm not, it's more about the ways in which Canadians have become so much pettier and meaner than I recall growing up, and how our current governments often reflect that. 

By reflect, I mean that nearly half of voters in the last civic election voted for Rob Ford, knowing full well who he was and what he stood for.  And he delivered on his "mandate".

John Tory?  I usually remember him as the guy who used to real suck up to Mike Harris, which made me sick, but then I actually felt a bit sorry for him when he lost as PC leader over, of all things, funding for religious schools.

Now I know that I'm pretty much the only person (especially on the left) who feels this way, but I always thought he got a bad rap for losing the election over this issue.  Given we already fund Catholic schools, why not fund all the other religious schools?  And then they all would have to play by the government's rules - despite what people think about government, that's how it works.  If you want the money, prepared to have every last cent of it accounted for.  Wouldn't it be a better idea to bring these private schools into the tent than leaving them outside?

But it turned out that raising the spectre of "Muslim" schools was more than enough for the good people of Ontario to reject him, even though, like the whole Sharia Law thing a number of years back,  Ontarians decided it would be better to exclude Muslims from the law than to bring Sharia Law into the framework of the Canadian legal system. 

Canadians are good at talking about diversity, or being smug about diversity, but actually reflecting it in our institutions?  Not so much!

But I don't come here to talk about the mayor. 


No, I want to talk about the story that's overshadowing the fact that there will hopefully never be a Mayor Ford of Toronto - the firing by the CBC of Jian Gomeshi.

Given what's come out, it's pretty difficult to see anything good on Gomeshi's side - the calculated Facebook post, followed by the numerous allegations, and so on.  It's all very ugly.  But here's the disclaimer- none of my opinion on what happened matters or has any bearing on the truth!

But the thing that really got me was how many Torontonians, when they heard about this, answered "I'm not surprised."  Really, you "Toronto media and arts scene" assholes?  Really?  You weren't surprised that he allegedly hit and choked various women?

Is this what passes for being an "insider" in Toronto - I thought a membership to The Spoke Club or an invitation to the latest secret supper club inside the back of a food truck was good enough back in the day, but everyone "knowing" a prominent CBC Radio personality is supposedly doing this kind of stuff to people?

Maybe being across the pond, I'm seeing this rather differently than if I were there, but it's difficult not to think that most of the Torontonians who went around saying this all over the Internet the past few days were just reinforcing their own social capital, which is, quite frankly, insane to me. 

There are people defending him, there are people excoriating him, and then there are people telling you that they knew about this all along on twitter, and then defending or excoriating him.  Two of those three groups live in the real world, the other lives in downtown Toronto.

This is what infuriates me about Toronto -how incredibly blind people are to the world and that even we Canadians do awful things to each other and other people, all around the world. Here's a news flash for Canadians - we are no better than anyone else in the world

We do awful things, and we let awful things be done to people, and then we tweet about knowing how these things happened all along, and it's the latter that seems to be the most important thing.   It seems trivial to say this, but there are going to be long term ethical and political implications to seeing the world this way.  And that frightens me.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cash is the limit point of irony, or, things that have been in my head for a long time

If any of you were reading me five years ago, you might recall that one of my many failed projects was an examination of hipsterdom.  Back in 2009, this would have been cutting edge research, but because I was either lazy or busy (or other things that one could discern from this blog back in the day...) I never got past the first piece U did on the Black Hoof, which has become an institution.

I talked about hipsters as an artifact of late capitalism.  I thought that sounded pretty novel - well, it turns out that pretty much everyone already thought this.  Indeed, N+1, the literary magazine founded by white guys my age (like me!) published a book called "What was the hipster?", which I got with my subscription to, uh, N+1.

It's a good little book, and it kind of killed my project, in part because it had so much more authority than my blog, and better research too.  But there was always one thing that bugged me about the book, of which a good excerpt is here, which was that Mark Grief, the author of the piece, stated that the hipster emerged in 1999.  I don't really disagree with him, but I've always been convinced that the hipster aesthetic emerged before that, and my evidence for this has always been Fiona Apple's "Criminal" video:

Actually, I'll just say right now that I think this video pretty much invented the aesthetic.  By which I mean it made the 70's look like the 90's, and this is where we are now, isn't it?  Go back and watch and episode of Friends, or the last season of Seinfeld, and tell me they haven't aged.  But this?  It could have been filmed yesterday.  Or 10 years ago, even!  But this video is closer to 20 years old, which is mind boggling.  (Oddly enough, Tidal represents one of maybe 10 popular music albums I've purchased in the past 20 years, most of which happened around 1997-98.)

The reality is that the most authority I've ever had on this is when I wrote a post eight years ago about Ossington Avenue, and it's kind of cool because Ossington is so unrecognizable now in that piece, entirely due to hipster gentrification (I'm actually using this term ironically, just wait!)

It captured a moment, and also my own ambivalence about my role in the world, which at that time was centered around Queen and Ossington. (This ambivalence is a large part of why I post so infrequently now)

But I do have a couple of things to say about hipsters that I couldn't say five years ago. Besides my Fiona Apple Conjecture,  I'm pretty sure the early 21st Century hipster and what we refer to as hipsters now are two totally different things - the early version were people who get referred to as the shock troops of gentrification - they gave a place a cool edginess, but usually without the scariness of the Other -they somehow felt both welcoming and exclusive.  I'm thinking of a place like the Communist's Daughter, which is now an institution.  Or the Lakeview Diner, which was an institution before its makeover, and is now an institution.

But always lurking in the background were people like me - thirtysomething upper middle class white people. We were waiting there, letting the hipsters do the heavy lifting, and then we got in there and built condos and squeezed out the original hipsters.  But the process was so strangely organic, with Category 1 hipsters becoming Category 2 hipsters once they got a job in the civil service, that no one really noticed that the hipster, who everyone associated with say, Dash Snow, somehow became the hipster of the Portlandia series, that is, bourgeois, domesticated. 

The hipster that Mark Grief describes died out a while ago, but it still signifies two things - people with big glasses and lumberjack shirts, and then people who own the bars these people drink at.  They kind of look the same, but they seem to represent two very different things.

I mean, you can have conservative hipsters now!  There are actually guys, who wear lumberjack shirts and have beards with short, pomaded hair, and who vote for Stephen Harper.  I've met them.  This is not something I could have imagined 10 years ago.  Hipsterdom is rather like punk now - something a lot of people loathed, and a lot of people loved, but now it's just an aesthetic.

This is also why I got tired of writing about this stuff - I wanted to deconstruct the irony that the  hipster, in the movement's (actually not bad) celebration of kitsch and trash begat the $15 macaroni and cheese. But in doing this it also meant participating economically by consuming all this expensive crap. Because the only way one could participate in being a hipster was by paying $20 for a hamburger and fries, which was actually a pretty good sign that the way I, and everyone else, was talking about hipsters was deeply, deeply confused.  For a brief moment, hip meant affordable and interesting.  But then irony got expensive.

There's maybe no better example of this now than Wallflower.  It's a bar on Dundas near Lansdowne.  I was first attracted to it because it has that faded charm that so many bars in Berlin have. (Yes, I am aware of the fact that just saying that says a lot about me, but here we are!)

But then they charge $6 for a "mug" of beer, which actually works out to $8 a pint, and it occurred to me that I was not in a Category 1 hipster bar, but a Category 2 hipster bar.  By which I mean that people with money, who want to make money, are running Wallflower - it is such a calculated environment, but not in the way a fancy restaurant is, no, all the calculation is in the effort the owners took in hiding its calculatedness.  Hey, it's really just a low key relaxed place, with distressed wood and faded wallpaper.  And expensive beer served in a way that evokes drinking out of mason jars.  

There is some irony in this digression - I'm pretty sure that the person who owns Wallflower owns the Communist's Daughter.  So there's a circle there, somewhere.

But I am boring myself with this, and I didn't really have a point except that this has been laying in the fragments of my mind for a while, and now that it's gone, I can make room for other thoughts.  At least I think that's how it works.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

This blog still exists

It seems odd to think that this blog has been around for 7 years, limping along, a post here and there, lately reflecting not much more than a profound desire to avoid writing.  Of course we know why- there's a dissertation to be written!

In any event, writing at all has proven difficult.  And indeed, when one looks across the infinite horizon of the virtual landscape, there are moribund blogs everywhere.  So maybe it isn't just me.

I also know that people have moved on, to Facebook, to twitter, etc.  There are places where essays are also read and shared (metafiler is a good example), but blogging, that medium that "forced" newspapers to add comment sections to the bottoms of their articles, to the benefit of no one, now seems to have been a passing fad, consigned to the dustbin of internet history.

Instead we have sites like, uh, Medium, which is basically a blog, but it was created by one of the founders of twitter, and it's somehow new.

Does this seem like I'm complaining?  Why do I only ever write about writing?

Or about Toronto?  For years I've had a pet theory about Toronto mayoralty races since Toronto was amalgamated in 1998, and the current race, which I'm thankfully out of the country for, is a chance for this theory to really shine.  So I'm going to put it out there, in part because one of Olivia Chow's former advisors, Warren Kinsella, is asking this very question.

I call it the "Underdog Theory".  It's a pretty simple theory, but I've never seen anyone else write about it, and it's so far been a nearly universal predictor of who will become the next Mayor of Toronto.

Here goes:   About a year (or even earlier) before the actual election,  journalists in Toronto begin to create "buzz" about the next big candidate (if there's no incumbent mayor).  This buzz is amplified by polling firms, who take the conjecture of the media, and ask people who they might vote for, and also by the people who might want to be mayor.  This person, for the purposes of my theory, I've named the "consensus candidate".  By this I mean that person who, long before most people are thinking seriously about the election, and before anyone could even reasonably consider running, has been chosen by the media as the front runner.

 So for example, before the 1998 and 2003 elections, the frontrunner a year out was Barbara Hall.  After David Miller decided to step down, the consensus front runner was George Smitherman.  Do you notice anything about these frontrunners?  They never win.

Who wins?  Well, it seems to be the person who somehow bucks the consensus.  What's interesting about this is that it doesn't seem to have much to do with ideology - David Miller won mainly by being the lone candidate to campaign again the island airport, and Rob Ford won mainly because he represented an outsider looking into City Council.

So this is to me what makes this current race pretty interesting.  Firstly, we have an incumbent (or had I should say now).  But I think that, given everything that went on, including the fact that his powers were stripped from him, the current race was functioning effectively as one without an incumbent.

Now if anyone is actually reading this, and has bothered to stay with me so far, let's look at the consensus candidate from a year ago - Olivia Chow.  Does everyone remember all the stories about how polls showed that only Chow could beat Rob Ford at the polls?  When I saw this, my first reaction to it was "uh-oh".

I reacted this way for two reasons - firstly, at the time I thought this time might be the race that refutes my pet theory, and that would bruise my ego.  Secondly, I thought to myself, well if she's isn't going to win, who will, and the odds are that person is going to be awful.

So here we are a month out, and guess what?  Olivia Chow has basically disappeared from the race, and could sink to Joe Pantalone levels of support, and John Tory, who lost to Rob Ford, has come from below to steal the race from her, although as I've argued, she was screwed the day everyone said she would be the one to win!

But then Rob Ford got cancer, and his brother stepped in.  I cannot help but look at Doug Ford and see him as the new underdog, especially here in the bucolic splendour of Wolfenbüttel! 

Here's the thing - John Tory has been leading for some time now, and Doug Ford, whether or not deserves it, can pretty much count on all of Rob Ford's support.  What remains to be seen is whether or not the huge group of people who voted for Rob Ford but never admitted it to people (a tendency which, given the whole crack scandal, is strangely literary in its foreshadowing...) are prepared to switch their votes from Tory to Doug Ford.

Honestly, I don't know.  But now that I have finally had the courage to state my pet theory, I look forward to its refutation.  Mainly because the thing that seems really clear to me, if my theory is actually operating (somewhere) in the hive mind of the Toronto voting public, it's that the race for mayor has nothing to do with governance, or ideology. 

It's about something else.  I still haven't found a way to articulate what that else is, but it seems to have less to do with politics, and more to do with anxiety about "elites".  But I've already gone on too long.

With any luck, the next time I write on the blog won't be six months from now! 

Friday, March 28, 2014

A blast from the past!

Maybe because it's near my birthday, and I'm feeling both old and nostalgic, but this post from Metafilter about being a tuba player is a nice reminder of both why I loved playing the tuba but also why I gave it up.