Friday, November 08, 2013

Running is Cheap

I clicked on this expecting to be angered (is that not that the main reason we read anything on the Internet?), but it instead confirmed something I wish I'd said out loud a long time ago!

A long time ago, I wrote a nice post  about getting back into running.  Unfortunately, right after that post, I injured myself, or aggravated some long-term problem in my knee, or something, which put me off running for long time.

But I started running again this summer, and again, it is so strange to be a runner now, having been a runner over 20 years ago, and how everyone who runs now has all kinds of crazy gear, like belts with water bottles attached - who on earth needs one of those to go out jogging for 3km?  I recall seeing this one woman every morning, running very slowly and deliberately, with three small, completely filled water bottles.  Perhaps it would have been easier for her to run if she weren't carrying 10lbs in water on her?

This was something I remember very clearly after I ran that race 5 years ago.  Cheering people on the finish line, and watching people come in 20 minutes after me, wearing hundred of dollars of running "equipment", like special tights, and those crazy watches that tell you everything about your run, and all I could think to myself was "this equipment did not really do much for you".

Maybe that sounds unfair, but it is so easy to buy professionalism these days - to feel like you are with the pros.  It's like Guitar Hero - it very much gives you the feeling of playing a guitar, but please do not tell me (as many do) that it's the same as actually playing a guitar.  It isn't, and it's kind of insulting to all the people who spend day after day practising.

I am not really in a position to brag about my own discipline and amazing practicing techniques, but I know well enough to know that buying stuff isn't a replacement for taking the time to learn something, that's the attitudes that link jokes about is really more about commodification than it is about enjoyment or exercise.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Margaret Wente: Ace Concern Troll

Why did I read Margaret Wente's recent column on David Gilmour?

I don't even know why I'm writing about this, except that I a) wrote about both of them recently, and b) I am, in my own pathetic way, as bad as everyone else on the Internet (forgive me, Jonathan Franzen!).  I also promise not to write about her again at least until next year.

To be charitable to her, her column points something out that nearly everyone else has ignored.  She is nearly the only person who has pointed out that Gilmour is not a tenured professor.  Rather, he is (like me, actually, as well as many of my friends) a part-time sessional instructor at U of T, specifically, with Victoria College.

I suspect one of the reasons this was lost in the shuffle was because the impression one gets from the initial Hazlitt interview was that the U of T begged to give him a 100k+ per year tenured position because he's a "natural teacher". The reality is that he's making about $7,000 per course, at least until his contract runs out...

Besides that, her column is phoned-in trash about how men are a disadvantaged minority on campuses.  The following is a character study in complete bullshit being passed off as conventional wisdom:
Frankly, I was surprised and glad to learn that there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T (although I guess it’s not safe any more). As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub- and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.
I know that the Globe and Mail, like many other news organizations, has had to tighten its belt, but couldn't anyone have googled the U of T's English Department's course listings?  A cursory glance at the course outlines shows that there are plenty of the supposed "guy-guy" writers, like Philip Roth, getting taught at U of T.

The problem, and this is maybe what Wente missed when her overworked, unpaid intern, who had spent 30 seconds "researching" her column after picking up Wente's Pumpkin Spice Latte, is that a lot of the "guy-guy" writers that Gilmour mentioned just fall under the category of "American Fiction of the 20th Century".  In other words, their maleness is not pointed out because it remains the category against which everything else is judged. 

Indeed, Hemingway might be the only major white male author for whom I could not find a course listing.  However, there's a fourth year seminar for that darling of the feminist left, Ezra Pound.

This brings up an important point.  Maybe we do need to spell this kind of stuff out - English 324 should be called "Modern, mainly white, male poets up to 1960" so that men too can also wear the burden of their identity the way Margaret Wente so casually diminishes the identities of everyone in her laundry list of courses.

But the line that really sticks in my craw is the last one "No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities." Seriously?  Men aren't drawn to the humanities because they don't get to read books by male authors?  So then what are all these women doing reading Milton? Penis Envy?  And what the hell do I have in common with Milton anyway, beyond my gender and my skin colour?  None of what she writes makes any sense!

In conclusion, I will never write about anything she writes ever again.  Sorry to have troubled you.

New York City Opera

Here is a very nice obituary for it by Tim Page.

Having never lived in New York, I cannot really imagine what it would be like to lose something like this.  We remain, in Canada, relatively lucky that, despite an (allegedly) crack-smoking mayor here in Toronto,and a Prime Minister bent on returning Canada to its fur trade roots by narrowing our economy to resource extraction, we have managed, somehow, to retain most of our arts organizations.

Even if the Canadian Opera Company pisses me off, and it has lately, I don't know what the cultural life of the city would be like without it.

A very sad state of affairs.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

David Gilmour

I see David Gilmour all the time.

He used to host a program on CBC Newsworld called On The Arts.  I used to watch it a lot, in part because it was almost the only thing on TV that had much to do with the arts, even though "arts" usually meant film and literature reviews, and not much music, which was what I was actually interested in.

But I do remember a few things about the show and his attitude, things that stuck with me for some reason. Firstly, he had a really combative interview with Brad Pitt over Fight Club.  It was interesting because everyone was looking at the movie as "culture jamming" and Gilmour was taking him to task because he felt that a big Hollywood production was incapable of culture jamming in the way the marketing of the movie implied.

I liked it because after years of watching these publicity "interviews" I thought it was unusual for the interviewer to actually call a celebrity out on what they thought was bullshit.  It also made me question what Fight Club was about, and made me realise that I had completely bought into the marketing of the film as being equivalent to the effect of the film.

I also remember him often saying that he didn't like Shakespeare because "he's boring".


When I first moved to Toronto, I lived at Bloor and Brunswick, pretty much the heart of the Annex neighborhood here in Toronto.  I saw David Gilmour a lot there.  Then I moved away and didn't see him around much.

When I started doing grad school at the University of Toronto, I started seeing him again.  He's one of those funny people in one's city life where, even though you don't really know him, he always seems to be around the same places as you.  I go to a cheese shop in Kensington, and he's there.  I grab lunch at Victoria College, and he's there.  I can't avoid him.

I don't really know him.  But until yesterday at least, I really quite admired him, mainly because of this article he wrote about Tolstoy.  This is one of my all-time favourite articles about a writer.  I don't know why I liked it so much back in the day, but I did, and it made me go out and buy War and Peace.  And oddly enough, the last time I saw him, which is usually at least once a week, he was going up Yonge street, and I mentioned to my girlfriend that I might go and tell him how much I loved that Tolstoy article in the Walrus.

But now I feel ashamed to admit that.


Why, you are asking, because you do not have an rss feed reader?  Because of this.  He has since kind of apologized, but the thing that really comes out of that interview is the fact that he seems to utterly lack charity.

This is ironic because the Tolstoy article is all about coming around to Tolstoy, about imagining that he would hate it, and then reading it, and realising how wonderful it was.  It was that joy of discovery that really affected me in a positive way, and I can imagine that if he can come across that way in a classroom, it would be very inspiring.

But I cannot help but think now that his Tolstoy article was a work of fiction more than a work of memoir, as he seems completely incapable of understanding how his remarks might be interpreted as deeply, deeply uncharitable to women, or to nearly anyone.  This interview makes his experience of Tolstoy sound impossible.


I want to contrast Gilmour's controversy with the one I wrote last week about Jonathan Franzen.  Both are causing a lot of controversy, but I was surprised by how much of the Franzen controversy surrounded what he wrote about women, and also by how differently I read those passages.

They are both middle-aged white men (I am also perilously close to that demographic) but where I see Gilmour blind to his own uh, blind spots, I read in Franzen a self-deprecating moment that, perhaps having been a young man myself, I could identify with that ingrained youthful sexism where, even if you are a "nice guy", you still somehow believe that your grand gestures should be acknowledged as signs of greatness (and virility), and when they aren't, it really offends your ego.  Never mind that she may have her own feelings and thoughts on this, and have different wants and needs.

And I look back on some of those moments, and I feel badly about them, and I hope to talk to my son about those things in a way where he doesn't find himself in those kinds of situations of being angry with yourself, and with the world, because you cannot control whether or not people are attracted to you or not.  A lot of other critics read him as just being straight up sexist, and I don't agree with that at all.  But then perhaps people will imagine that my saying what I just did is sexist.  And then I suppose it's true that there is no space for conversation on the Internet, and Franzen is right again!

Anyway, I suppose my point is that where I thought many critics were uncharitable to Franzen, it seems pretty clear to me that Gilmour lacks that charity towards others. They are being compared to each other (right now on the Internet!) as symbols for creepy/irrelevant old dude power, when it seems pretty clear to me that, at least from the standpoint of women, they are coming at things from wildly different perspectives. It is also true that they are older white dudes.

But as it stands, I think it will be kind of awkward seeing David Gilmour around (I know I will!) and I don't know if that bizarre familiarity will lead me to feel sorry for him, or kind of pissed off that he managed to poison my nuanced and thoughtful admiration (as you can see from above) of him.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Craig Davidson

One of those lucky few (ha ha) to have a sidebar link from my prestigious blog is the Canadian author Craig Davidson.

I'm not actually sure how I encountered his work, although, I think it was from this, where he savages a review of a book on the old literary site the Danforth Review.  (The exchange is actually kind of funny...)

Anyway, it led me to his blog, which honestly, has been one of the funniest things I've ever read.  If you look watch this recent CBC interview, the interviewer mentions that the men always wound up smelling like doughnuts, and I can't help but think he is referring to an old blog post about his dad working at the Ridpath Sugar Factory, which had me in tears.   It looks like that post has long since vanished, so it will only live in my heart (and mind) as some of the funniest stuff I've ever read.  That being said, he's still very, very funny!

What's great about his blog is how different it is from his work as a novelist, but taken together they show a wonderful and convincing range on his part.  I'm really happy to see that he's doing so well, with one of his books turned into a movie, and the latest one on the Giller longlist.

I actually ran into him once, at a bar called Pauper's here in Toronto, and I (unsuccessfully) tried to get him a job!  That was years ago, but nevertheless I'm going to pick up his book, which will be strange given how much I hate Canadian fiction, but it seems like the least I can do for all the entertainment he has given me over the years.  If nothing else I have a table leg that needs balancing.

Seriously though, I would urge you to check out his blog and buy his book!

Thursday, September 19, 2013


A few weeks ago, via the blog Sounds and Fury, an article on how America’s orchestra’s are in crisis. I have been debating whether or not to write on it, in part because it reads to me like something that is right in the overall conclusion but wrong in the details. So like many articles that come across my virtual desk, I was planning on just ignoring it. Also, is this really a classical music blog? I guess it is, with a smattering of terrible posts on Rob Ford...

Anyway, I was going to ignore it, but then it popped up on Metafilter. And the comments there really annoyed me, as they often do on Metafilter. (I do really like Metafilter, by the way!) Perhaps because so much of the bile directed toward classical music is the same straw man that I have written about many, many times before, that it’s hopelessly elitist and inaccessible to “average” people, and that if only classical music were MARKETED appropriately, we wouldn’t have these problems. I think this is completely wrong.

There are a bunch of insightful comments too, about maybe the fact that it’s become increasingly unaffordable to play or learn classical music, or any music for that matter, as Public schools have increasingly purged their schools of viable arts programs. That might actually be a huge reason for it, but the whole “classical music needs to be accessible, and this elitist jerk just wants to push regular people out of the classical music halls” is something I’ve been accused of a million times.

I am even writing this knowing full well that the very idea of a "crisis" in orchestras has been shown to be a very old trope by classical music bloggers far more involved and insightful than I am.  But hey, no one can stop me!

Perhaps before you read what I write, you should read the New Republic article.

Done? OK.

I’d like to propose the possibility that the article actually does something really good. In looking at outreach as something that has cost a lot of money but yielded almost nothing in return, it has exposed a strain in North American classical music culture that has been there since I got into classical music in the early 90’s.

But hey, while we’re in the 1990’s, how about I describe, for the benefit of my audience, what growing up in Calgary Alberta in the late 80’s and early 90’s felt like from the perspective of a budding classical musician. I don’t really know if there was any outreach or those kinds of things when I was a kid. I never attended a classical music concert until high school, and I never took piano lessons as a kid. So how did I wind up getting a BA in music?


I had taken band throughout junior high, and although I enjoyed it, the idea of becoming a professional music never occurred to me, especially as a tuba player. I enjoyed sitting at the back of the band, playing away, but seriously, who thinks about becoming a professional tuba player?. My first week of high school, that all changed. The high school band had a retreat out at a farm the first weekend of September, and we were treated to a concert by a local brass quintet, followed by a clinic.
So here I met this professional tuba player. And he was perhaps, the most infectiously excited and hilarious person I had ever met in my life. By the end of our lesson with him, I wanted to take tuba lessons, and within a pretty short period of time, say 4 months, I had stopped listening to pop music and was spending most of my time ducking out of school to see free organ concerts and listening to Bach.

But when I look back on this, and I peel away the layers of “my life”, it’s not hard to see that there was a pretty robust infrastructure (sorry, not sure how else to describe it) that supported my ability to pursue classical music.

For example, I rented a brand new professional level Yamaha Bb tuba from the Calgary Board of Education, and I think it cost about $100 per year. Can you imagine? Can you possibly imagine, in this day and age, that not only would a local board of education rent out their own instruments, but that they would heavily subsidize a student’s ability to play it? Here in Toronto, they were talking about getting rid of all the part-time music teachers!


So this New Republic article. Here’s the thing. When I was growing up, in Alberta, it was pretty easy to be a classical musician and not be rich. Yes, there were lots of rich kids doing it too, I met a lot of them, but there were tons of incredibly talented kids who came from relatively poor backgrounds. We all somehow found this music, and we loved it, and we were supported in it. By the government...

Philip Kennicott’s point, at least to me, isn’t that all these pop musicians should get off his lawn, but that the classical music industry one day decided that instead of just being happy with what it had, classical music needed to “grow” its audience. So what does it do? It alienates the very people who paid the bills in the first place, and then blames the decline on some ridiculous notion of inaccessibility.

Pointing to my own education, I never once felt shamed or degraded showing up to a classical music concert as a teenager, dressed rather poorly. In fact, as a student, they had $10 rush tickets in Calgary.

What Philip Kennicott is describing is the same affliction that plagues most non-profit organizations, from hospitals to universities. It’s that they are administered by people who fundamentally believe that the only way in which to gauge the health of any organization is whether or not it’s growing.

In other words, even non-profit organizations must somehow conform to the logic of capital, even if it doesn’t make any sense. They have to find new audiences, but what does even mean? In my case, it was having a school system that made it easy (and cheap) to get really involved in music, and then a broader community that behaved the same way.

I feel as though so much of what one reads about classical music these days is a self-fulfilling prophecy, that we need to find new audiences, when in reality, and this is likely how it’s always been, the audiences will find them.


And I say this having just read Musical Toronto to see that French CBC is replacing their Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts with a pop show.

Anyone familiar with my blog knows how I feel about what happened to CBC Radio 2, and I don't really bother speaking about it anymore because I haven't listened to Radio 2 in nearly 3 years. But what's going on with the CBC is part and parcel of this perverse need to "grow" arts organizations and find new audiences whether they need them or not.

What's especially awful in the classical music realm is that this always seems to be a zero-sum game. At the CBC, they realised that the only way to gain a new audience was by completely destroying their old one. Hiring Ben Heppner to host Saturday Afternoon at the Opera might look like a coup, but when they cannot even afford to record performances of operas in Canada, it smacks more as an attempt to cover up the fact that they've gotten rid of everything else. CBC is now trying to do "outreach" by bringing in a big name in the hopes that it will improve ratings for them.

They are also going to start having ads on Radio 2. What can I say? It just reminds me of that episode of the Simpsons where Lisa sees into the future and Marge is in bed and says "You know, Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually, I didn't even notice."


But what do all these digressions have to do with the aforementioned article? Well, I guess I'm trying to get across the idea that there's so much more to the waning popularity of classical music than marketing. How about actually teaching kids music in schools, or making it cheap and easy to learn music in a community? 

And maybe it's going to be really bad for a while, because there's been an entire generation here in North America who have grown up in very different circumstances than I did, and it's entirely possible that for them, none of this is worth saving. But the reality is, it's not their fault, it's ours.

Perhaps this is my concern with where writers like Alex Ross point out that there are far more new music groups out there now than 30 years ago, or Lisa Hirsch suggests that there is likely no crisis in "classical" music, the one thing that is difficult to avoid is that even if there are a lot of ensembles out there, how many of those people are making any money at it, and if they are, is it anywhere near a living wage?  And if we don't teach music to kids anymore, or price it out of their range, who is going to listen to it?

I think I'll end here because this piece is bad and digressive enough as it is!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

One Language to Rule us all!

Here's a depressing (albeit anecdotal) read.  It's about how native English speakers, who also fluently speak another language like German or Korean, have discovered that Germans or Koreans are actually insulted when an English speaker speaks to them in their native language.

As a Canadian, I have become somewhat accustomed to going to Montreal and finding it nearly impossible to speak French with anyone.  I am bilingual, having spent my entire school life in French immersion, but it's obvious that I was not brought up in Quebec, and so I've found it a challenge to speak French in Montreal.

Outside of Montreal it's a completely different story, but it used to really frustrate me to have to speak English to Quebecois who could barely do so, just because they were offended by the fact that I could speak their language, and my French was much better than their English.  This kind of suspicion, I think, is part of what's motivating the PQ's recent decision to ban religious symbols from public spaces.  But this was the mid-1990's, the height of the Separatist fervor and the 1995 referendum, and so I chalked it up to that.

As for Germany, my experience has usually been pretty positive.  People will respond to me in English when I begin speaking with them, but I usually think they are doing this as a courtesy, because when I respond again in German, they respond in German.  Most people I encountered in Germany seemed somewhat relieved that they didn't have to speak English, in part because although nearly everyone speaks it, it's easier (for all of us!) to converse in one's native tongue.  Often people seemed relieved to be able to speak German instead of English.  I might not have felt relieved, but that was my problem!

But there is a larger issue here, one that is raised in the post.  I was speaking to some Medievalist friends yesterday, and they noted that the language requirements in their department have been watered down over the years, because students are not coming to the program with much in the way of foreign languages.  We lament this, but the fact that Universities are closing down their language departments and schools no longer teach Latin means that it's quite likely, even in Canada where everyone "learns" French, to have a student population who has had no meaningful exposure to a second language, where it's messed up their brain a bit and made it soft for learning other languages.

I think this is a really big issue for those of us in the North American Humanities - it's not just that people (maybe) don't want to speak with us in anything but English when we are abroad, it's that really learning a bunch of languages, when you are a native English speaker, is a cost you do not have to bear, because you can always rely on English anyway.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Torched, or, Social Media is a Symptom of Existential Boredom, Not its Cure.

Jonathan Franzen wrote  an article about the Internet last week (on the Internet, oh the hypocrisy, it's like Noam Chomsky owning stocks!) and the Internet is furious ab- no wait, actually, the Internet is rather dismissive of it.  Actually, they focus on the fact that he dislikes Twitter and then reply that other people, even famous authors like Jonathan Franzen, like and use Twitter.

But dear readers, you are sitting there, at your computer (or perhaps you print off everyone of my blog posts to savour them the way they were intended to be read, on paper) and waiting to read my opinion of Jonathan Franzen's opinion of the Internet, by way of an introduction to his translations of Karl Kraus with respect to Kraus' views on Heinrich Heine.

Well, I had intended to reserve judgement, in part because it just so happens that Heine is the subject of my PhD dissertation!  Moreover, I think Kraus' piece on Heine, which had a tremendous (and negative) influence on the subsequent reception on Heine, is a deeply flawed piece, and I suppose I want to give Franzen the benefit of the doubt to see what he takes from Kraus' essay.  And I intended to talk about it later on, when the book is out, if it's worthwhile.

I say if it's worthwhile because, having subscribed to the digitized archive of Kraus' die Fackel years ago and also having read quite a bit of him, I have to say that I don't really get Karl Kraus.  I get that he's angry, and I get how he feels about language, but what he writes does not resonate with me.  So when I read Franzen's piece, beyond the fact that there's a major American author attempting to do something relentlessly uh, highbrow, (an Austrian?) I was genuinely interested to see where he would take this.

But what didn't really occur to me was that the overwhelming response to his taking a dead Austrian misanthrope and bringing him to a wider audience was to dismiss everything he says because he doesn't really like what Twitter or the Internet are doing to us, and that all the people criticizing him are doing so because they like to tweet and use Facebook.  And because he isn't as popular as Norman Mailer.

In fact, it seems that his audience is incredibly hostile to the very idea that Franzen (or Kraus) could have anything of value to say about the Internet, or perhaps anything at all.  I woke up at the start of the week, and looked around the Internet, and Franzen is everywhere on social media. In other words, watching how people are reacting to this on Twitter, or elsewhere, is a case study in exactly what he's getting at.

It's not good.

Some people seem to hate the essay because it's long, as in more than 140 characters (gotcha!), but what's really perverse is just how desperately so many people (as in half the people who write for the New Inquiry) seem to focus on defending the Internet, as though the Internet needs defending.

It reminds me of all the times I've dealt with people who like non-classical music criticize my love of classical music because they reflexively see Beethoven as a kind of existential threat to popular music's existence.  But this fits right into that - note how many articles about this quickly point out that Franzen is an old white dude, who likes old white German dudes!  You cannot get any more elitist than liking old Germans!

But need I remind all of you, the war is over, Rock and the Internet won, young people are our future and they love technology and so you should never listen to old men who have spent 20-30 years reading and thinking about someone and who then use that to criticize your anxious, incessant electronic emissions, except that he's not criticizing your emissions, he's criticizing why everyone finds those emissions so essential to the functioning of modern life.

Or that the Twitter account is modern life, that yes, it's true, it's really true, your tweet is the final word on all that he wrote, 140 characters and a smartphone is all anyone needs to respond to a 5000 word essay.

I think what really bothers (even angers!) Jonathan Franzen is that the latest iteration of modernity (I mean the one since maybe 2006?) is accelerating the replacement of knowledge with reaction which has been a long-standing feature of modernity (I'm thinking of modernity as something invented in 1797 in Jena by some young German dudes).  It's the whole Enlightenment vs. Romanticism thing, again.

I cannot help but agree with him.


I have to confess, I have thought about getting a Twitter account again.  I had one years ago for work reasons, but deleted it because it freaked me out.  Why the hell would these random people want to read my text messages?  But then I have to admit that I really enjoy Teju Cole's twitter feed.

But then, as someone who worked in an environment during the transition from letter mail to e-mail, and watched as people's concerns about political issues moved from having to take the time to write out a letter, and then put a stamp on it, and send it along, to simply sitting down in front of a computer (as I am now) and typing out the first things that come to you when you read/see/hear something, is it really, really crazy to think that there was something better about the long hand-written or typed letter?  That my free blog is perhaps not the best possible way to conduct conversations in the public sphere?

Lately, Franzen (and I) are not alone.  The publisher of Harper's, John R. MacArthur, writes in this month's issue a jeremiad against the publishing industry's race to the bottom, they who, in the spirit of competition, hoped that giving everything away for free would magically produce profits, when all really did was impoverish writers and create the expectation that everything online, including well-written and well-researched writing, should be free.

And recently, Rebecca Solnit had a piece on how our feeling of time changed in the 90's with the advent of e-mail how the acceleration of social media has transformed (not always for the better) our lives in ways that only someone like her, a writer, could meaningfully and cogently articulate.

Is it terribly uncharitable of Franzen to dislike much of what the Internet has simply because lots of other people have Stockholm Syndrome from spending so much time online that they no longer distinguish reflecting on the Internet from being on the Internet?

I quit Facebook about 3 years ago, mainly because, I didn't really like it.  And for the most part, leaving has had no impact on my life.

But it's telling what people say when you tell them you're not on Facebook.  They tell you about how much I am missing out on because I'm not on Facebook, including actual parties.  All I can think to myself is that if people aren't inviting me to parties because I'm not on Facebook, that's probably not a problem, because they probably didn't really want me there anyway.  People who want to see me, or invite me somewhere, have a wide assortment of tools at their disposal with which to communicate with me and invite me to things.

But at the same time, while so many explain to me the necessity of social media, I know very few people who actually like Facebook, or Twitter, as in, they love nothing more than sitting down and using these things.  Rather, it often strikes me as though everyone is consuming some low-protein gruel that they cannot stop eating, but that never fills them up.

All of these technologies are so hungry, for our reactions, for our thoughts, for our time.  And for what?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Nein Quarterly

The biggest problem with being such a terribly inconsistent blogger is that my many plans never come to fruition. Worse, I never even tell anyone about those plans that never come to fruition!

But at one point, I thought to myself, "Hey, I'm a Germanist, getting a PhD at a German department at an actual university!" (In fact, that is how many of you have found me!) Thought continued - "I should strive to become the biggest Germanist in the blogosphere! Yeah, I'm going to focus on that, oh hey look, a dog with a puffy tail! Come here Puff Puff!"

Anyway, as someone who has actually publicly defended Adorno on jazz, all I can say is that I wish I had come up with something like Nein Quarterly because it's both funny and also sounds a lot like this character I do for a very, very, very small group of people...but 36,000 followers for a Germanist making fun of Germans is impressive.

I guess I can give up my dream of being the Fü-, no wait, that's not good, I mean the top Germanist online...

Yes, it is crazy that I'm promoting a twitter feed, but here we are, where blogging is an old-fashioned medium, and twitter is the telegraph of our age. I think it was Hegel who said that the Owl of Minerva, who made it difficult to listen to Beethoven because it would not stop hooting, was the Pudelskern of modernity, but Twitter is something, I think!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sad but True

There was a time when I hoped that this blog, if nothing else, would land me some free review copies of classical CDs/DVDs and books. That really seems insane to me now, not just because I never really put the work into this blog to justify anyone sending me anything, but because I thought that marketing other people's work because they sent it to me for free would be a good thing for me and this blog.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Einbahnstrasse as a Lost Paradigm for Blogging

So I'm re-reading Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street and it occurs to me, as I suspect it occurs to nearly everyone, just how bloggy it is. The discrete sections, seemingly unrelated, yet which nonetheless amount to a whole - could there be a better description of the experience of reading a blog? (It should come as no surprise that there is a One-Way Street blog)

There is a difference between the average blog and Benjamin's Einbahnstrasse - Benjamin intended his bits and pieces to come together, he slaved over their order of presentation (He reminds one of Wittgenstein in this respect).

Wasn't this the great, yet unrealized promise of blogging? That at the end (or along the way) many of them should be turned into a book? Blogging now feels less writing creating a book on the side, and more like maintaining the cork board at a Student Centre, so that the advertising of piano lessons and the selling of bicycles remains a satisfying experience for the student consumer. That being said, I suppose it is some badge of honour that the most regular visitors to my blog are people who come to crib materials for their undergraduate essays on Aristotle. Welcome cheaters! Bask in the illusory authority of the Internet, where what I write looks good, but could be entirely wrong, and all my citations made up just like in Flann O'Brien's The Dalkey Archive.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Kids are learning Socialism instead of Math! Or, why do so many adults hate the fact that we no longer beat children in schools anymore?

I knew I shouldn't have clicked on this Margaret Wente article, about how "the system" is failing Canadian kids at math.

But I did, in part beacuse a) my son has started school again, and b) he seems to have a hell of a lot of math classes! In fact, math seems to squeeze everything else out of his education this year. The fact that Wente claims that math is all but invisible in her column set off my BS-detector because it's the exact opposite of what an actual child in the Canadian school system is actually experiencing.

Maybe it's a trick by the teacher to teach them about the wonders of Stalin and the glories of East Berlin before the fall of the Wall, but I'm going to hedge my bets and say that the schedule is accurate, and that he's spending more time doing math than any other subject, by a considerable margin.

It is true, however, that last year's math test scores in Ontario are a bit lower in Grade 3 and 6 than they have been in the past 5 years. And it's true that there might be a trend there. But the pedagogical "issues" Margaret Wente is describing have been around since I was in school in the very late 1970's.

As always, I both encourage you and discourage you from reading the comments. They are the usual miasma of incohate rage and conjecture about how no longer forcing children to memorize times tables and teaching them creative ways to problem solve is Socialist Liberal Communists ruining our society and "failing our children". Except that it's not true.

I mean, I don't want to say that Margaret Wente is full of shit here, but my own anecdotal evidence is as follows: last year my son learned multiplication tables, as in, he had to memorize them, along with a weekly spelling test where he uh, had to memorize how to spell words correctly. Other kids, not just my son, were also subjected to this kind of rote learning.

He also learned about division and multiplication, and he also learned to add large numbers by stacking them on top of each other. So he, and everyone in his class, learned algoritms and memorized facts at school. Here in Ontario. Last year.

In fact, in what I'm sure would come as a shocking development to Margaret Wente, he was asked to review his multiplication tables over this weekend!

Oddly enough, this is not only how I learned to do math, it's also how my parents learned to do math!

Just a few years ago, I would help my step-daughter with her high school math, and it was all quadratic equations and trigonometry. It was never "Hey, see if you can figure out a cool way to calculate the acceleration of a Care Bear in her Care Car on the way to visit her friend Dora the Explorer in Cuddle Land, if Dora is 3.4 cuddle units from Careland and it takes her 12 love time units to get there? Please tweet your most creative attempt and then like it on Facebook".

So are these people telling us that kids aren't learning to do division or multiplication the old-fashioned way? Yes. Are they completely full of shit for reasons that I do not at all understand? Also yes.

Is the problem here that school is, at least to adults, more enjoyable now? It's as though all these grown ups recall school as being this soul-crushing experience of constantly having to memorize facts and figures, and in true modern Canadian fashion, instead of thinking that there might be a better way, instead believe that this young generation should be subjected to the same things that turned Margaret Wente into Margaret Wente?

Then there's this. Most adults I know are terrible at math, even those who were taught in the good old days back before "student-centred learning" became all the rage. How many of these self-righteous turds could help their children with math past Grade 6?

Perhaps the Ontario government should start measuring that, because I bet the results would shock the same mean-spirited jerks tut-tutting the current state of Canadian education. You who were products of that old system, many of you also suck at math.

By the way, the old system sounds pretty crappy. My parents grew up in the good old days of learning, and do you know what I took away from it listening to their stories as a kid? That most teachers in the old days were masochistic assholes who liked nothing more than to hit kids with straps and to treat kids they didn't really like with utter contempt or disdain.

Do you know what the approach was back in the day if you were bad at math or anything? It was to write you off! "Hey kid, there's always bricklaying or the steno pool! HA HA!"

Margaret Wente pines for the days when the switch was plentiful, and rote memorization was everywhere. This says a lot more about Margaret Wente than it does about what kids are actually taught in Ontario, which, if my son is anyone to go by, is basically the exact same stuff I did, except with more empathy.

If empathy is that bothers you about schools today, then maybe you're the problem.

Friday, September 06, 2013

A Sad Thought

For a few years now, I have been making the rather pessimistic prediction to friends and family that in 10 years, Canada will, in most respects, be to the right politically of the United States. My contention was that it would happen almost happen without a word, and Canadians would only realise it when it was far too late.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Does Anyone Remember John Weinzweig?

Canadian composer John Weinzeig would have turned 100 this year.  The Toronto Star had a nice overview of what's going on in celebration of his life. But before I get back to him I have to ask: Do you remember that whole thing about needing a new Hockey Night in Canada theme song?

What do you say about the winner? I say it's really, really kitschy.

Firstly, Bagpipes? And isn't this really just another David Foster Olympic tune, except without the edge? Or are the bagpipes the edge?

The new hockey song isn't bad. It's just kitschy. Which I suppose means really bad, but it doesn't sound really bad, so does that make it a work of genius?

Perhaps I've been reading too much Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste, a book I picked up at my favourite bookstore.

It's a depressing read. If you take the book's arguments seriously, basically everything around us is kitsch. As some of the Amazon reviews contend, this could be a "hoplessly outdated" high/low view of art, and I suspect most people who read this book will balk at the possibility that there's this much bad taste out there.
Worse, it was written in the 70's, and as far as I can tell, things have gotten much much worse on the kitch front. At least people way back then came by it honestly! (That's a not very obvious joke right there)
I even found myself looking at the book going "Really? That's kitsch too? Crap! I like that"...he has a special dislike for superheroes - one of the captions for some Batman bedroom wallpaper reads: "The idiotic figures of Batman and Robin raised to the level of unsophisticated decorative fetishes." That, my friends, is contempt! but then again, when you think that superheroes are our biggest, fattest Hollywood spectacles, which people watch while eating an artisinal hamburger with artisinal relish and artisinal kraft dinner made by artisinal artisans from the land of Artisinalia...

Also, my son has a pair of Batman pajamas. He hates them. Now I realise why - my son has an innate hatred of kitsch. God bless that little boy!

I the end of this exhausting book, I began to dismiss old Professor Dorfles essays as the sad musings of a modern curmudgeon, musings that sound, ahem, a lot like this blog...but just as you get to the end, he makes a case for Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as decidedly unkitschy artists. Why? Because they use kitschy elements...the miasma of kitsch is unstoppable.

My theory as to why kitsch is everywhere? Kitsch is the aesthetic form of late, late, late capitalism. I mean, once you've exhausted handbags and diamond encrusted watches as luxury goods, where else is there to go but down? Rich people want to eat terrible food too, but they don't want to pay terrible food prices! and if you think I'm kidding, the latest issue ot Toronto Life has an article on fancy tater tots! you cannot make this stuff up folks!

But what about that hockey song? I listen again to the not-so-new Canada hockey song, and I recall how excited people in Canada get when Tim Horton's offers to slop chili into a bowl made of bread, and it seems that Professor Dorfles worst fears have been realised as Canadian society. We are so deep in kitsch that we know nearly nothing else. This is where Stephen Harper was deeply wrong about ordinary Canadians not caring about the arts - when it comes to kitsch, it seems both Canadian artists and ordinary people can't get enough of it. I should know, I live near Dundas and Ossington, perhaps the epicentre of artsy kitsch.

So what's all this crap about kitsch got to do with the hockey anthem, or the title of my post?

My suggestion for the hockey anthem - John Weinzweig's Hockey Night in Canada. It's resolutely unkitschy, for the same reasons Warhol and Lichtenstein are. You can listen to it here. Stick - Check- Bodycheck. He takes the kitsch and he stabs it to death right in front of you. And as a choral piece, it reminds us that our experience of hockey on television is very much through the colour commentary. The other theme songs are just there to tell you to sit down on the sofa, Weinzweig reminds you that you're there to be part of a sacred ritual in Canadian society - watching grown men skate around on ice and shoot a vulcanized rubber disk at each other in the hopes of hitting it into a net.

I would gladly watch the first four minutes of Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday to hear it. But then I would probably turn it off.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In other news

Today is the 200th birthday of the Richard Wagner. 

I wish I had something bloggy to say about him, you know, cheeky and showing off how smart and above it all I am, but all I can say is that his operas are some of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced.

As someone also doing a PhD in German, I should especially say something about his impact on German history, but all I can say is that his operas are some of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced.

The Difference between Right and Left

If David Miller, the former mayor of Toronto (and purported socialist) had been caught on tape smoking crack and spewing racial epithets, and Gawker were fundraising $200,000 to get a copy of the tape, they would have raised the money in a single day and we would all be watching it on the Internet, alongside the video of David Miller's resignation.

Funnily enough, I was walking through the Junction a few weeks ago, and David Miller walked past me.  He smiled, and I wished I had said, "we miss you!".  Miller was far from perfect, but he never made Toronto the laughing stock of the world.  Oh but he also raised taxes so he's the devil.

I really do wonder, what would it take for "Ford Nation" to lose faith in this clown?  Given that he's really a cipher for alienated rage, I suppose the answer is nothing, but you are welcome to venture forth in the comments!

But back to my original point.  The reason there is a Ford Nation is because a lot of people here, in fact, about a third of Torontonians, are always out for blood, and they are nearly all completely on the right side of the political equation.  I often try to ask myself, why are these people so angry, but in that anger comes an incredible amount of reality-bending motivation.

How many people on the left could you imagine seeing a video like that of David Miller and then trying to argue it was doctored?  And yet this is the standard line, as though these drug dealers sat some guy in front of  a green screen and then CGI'd Rob Ford into the video!!  Can you imagine how insane that sounds?  It would be cheaper to just outspend him in the next civic election!

No the "left's" actual tactic was to try to have him legally removed from office, which failed.  If the video is real, Rob Ford did this to himself, and not the staff at ILM, who created it while on a break from the latest Star Wars film.

Friday, May 17, 2013


Today's been a pretty crazy day here in Toronto.  We had an earthquake this morning, and then the Toronto Star broke a story about a video supposedly showing Rob Ford smoking crack and making racial slurs.

Except the Star didn't break the story.  I happened to be on Gawker last night when they put up the whole thing, read it, (you should too, it's kind of amazing) and then went to the Star to see their reaction.

Except there was nothing there.

Come today, it turns out the Star has been sitting on the story and the released it, and pretended as though it was theirs all along. As a result, there's some pretty funny (and nasty) stuff going on between the Star and Gawker on twitter, which is actually kind of sad, because although Gawker is completely right that the Star is being stupid in claiming this is their story, Gawker doesn't seem to know that the Star, as far as Canadian papers go, is maybe the last bastion of relatively decent journalism in the country and not a front for business interests like the Globe and Mail and National Post.  Instead they're playing the whole "Canadians are dumb boring people who don't really know much about things", except for the fact that they get all the same media as we Americans and watch it obsessively..."

That being said, it's comically cheeky of the Star to call their slightly differing account of the tape an "exclusive", and I can see why people at Gawker, like Tom Scocca, are so angry about it, or at least appear to be really angry about it on twitter.  And it's also annoying for the Star to get all self-righteous about Gawker getting pissed off, given how much of the paper lauds its own muckraking when no one else is doing it.

I'm actually really glad Gawker broke it, in part because Canadians usually only take something seriously when Americans are involved, and it also makes it a lot harder for the usual Ford crowd to merely blame the Star for this.

I guess I'm talking about this and not about the actual video in part because these are the only people to have seen it, and so this is actually the story right now, in which two rare outfits where decent journalism is still practiced are totally crapping over each other. 

That's actually the saddest part because Rob Ford has been a lost cause for so long now that's it's not actually even worth talking about him.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A Tale of Two Columnists

There are two columns worth reading in the Toronto Star today.  Royson James, who I don't always agree with, in part because he constantly plays devil's advocate, has a really nice piece on the issue of the Scarborough subway.  I can't help but wonder if the decision today by Toronto City Council to discuss transit taxes was fuelled in part by James' cogent analysis of the rank hypocrisy that surrounds the debate over whether or not Scarborough should get a subway extension or an LRT.

Although I live in downtown Toronto, and I guess I'm supposed to be at war with people in Scarborough and Etobicoke, my deeply held socialist beliefs force me to believe that if we taxed the hell out of everyone, we could have subways running down every major street in the entire city, whether we needed them or not.  That even includes people who live in Scarborough or Etobicoke or all those something-York areas north of Bloor and West or East of the downtown core are called..

Seriously though, James makes a good point about the actual politics going on, and how the absence of a Scarborough subway isn't necessarily just because we downtowners don't think they deserve one, but that their own representatives on Council are part of the problem.


Which brings me to the other column, by Martin Regg Cohn, which concerns the recent Ontario provincial budget.  Unlike James column, Cohn tells us all about the various statistics that show us we're in a slump, and accuses the current Finance minister, Charles Sousa, of ignoring the plight of the Ontario economy. 

The problem with this piece is that Cohn himself admits, at the very end, that there's very little Ontario can do to actually change its position in a national economy run by a federal government more concerned about extracting the remains of long-dead dinosaurs in Alberta than pretty much anything else. 

Instead, he trots out the usual centrist Canadian columnists' bromide about the Ontario government needing to instill "an entrepreneurial spirit in Ontario’s commercial classes" in order to "kick-start" Ontario's economy.  Maybe people aren't feeling so entrepreneurial because that magical market put Ontario into this predicament in the first place.  Does anyone remember the economic meltdown of 2008?  Rescuing the auto industry and such? No?

Perhaps Cohn was trying to be balanced after writing a number of pieces that were more supportive of the Liberals?  And his editor told him he needed some balance?  Maybe I'm just tired of hearing how Ontario's economic problems boil down to some regulatory fiddling and letting "the market" step in and magically figure everything out, and how pointless his column seems, except to allow the trolls who populate the Star website to talk about how if only government got out of the way (because it's always somehow in the way, I guess, building roads, cleaning water and taking away our garbage). 

That's not actually how markets work, ever, and generally, it's when we let the markets do their thing that all hell breaks loose.


Friday, May 03, 2013

Salome at the COC

So we went to see the Canadian Opera Company's revival of Salome Wednesday night.

It was awful. 

A long-standing tradition of mine, when I know I'm going to see an opera, is to avoid the reviews, in part because I don't really want to know what I'm seeing until I'm seeing it.  However, what both of them convey quite nicely is the insipidness of our critical culture here in Canada.

To be fair actually, the Toronto Star review, by John Terauds is OK.  I think he's trying to be diplomatic, but he is not nearly as hard on the staging as he should be.  And I think he, like many Canadian classical critics, is much more polite about the quality of the singing (and the musical direction) than he needs to be.

The Globe and Mail review, however, reads like copy from a Canadian Opera Company press release.  Who is J.D. Considine?  It turns out he's a rock critic, who also now does jazz reviews for the Globe and Mail, which makes him a perfect candidate to review an opera!

Am I being snotty here?  You bet!  It would be like asking me to review a rock concert!  Has he ever reviewed an opera before?  A quick Google search indicates that he reviewed Tannhäuser at some time, but that's it.

I don't really read the Globe and Mail anymore, in part because the quality of the writing and reportage has steadily declined over the years, but his review is more of a joke than Atom Egoyan's "controversial" staging of Salome.

Mr. Considine completely swallows Egoyan's premise, which is that somehow, Salome needs some kind of updating so that people would understand it better.  What's worse is that nearly every review of the opera online essentially concedes this premise.  You know, that opera is old, and difficult to understand, and so we need to have it explained to us by the director, who occupies the role of a benevolent storyteller father, like Stalin.

Except it doesn't.  Especially not this one.

Nearly everyone talks about how Egoyan successfully conveys "psychological depth" and "family issues" in this production.  However, my sense is that he did this mainly through his program notes, which everyone dutifully read and accepted as Egoyan somehow shining a light on an aspect of the opera that had, until now, been neglected.  In essence, he argues that his production seeks to move away from thinking of Salome as a femme fatale, and more as a product of her environment, that perhaps she has been sexually abused, and in the midst of damaged and violent environment, herself becomes an expression of this violence.

Except that the first lines that Salome sings in the entire opera are the following:

Ich will nicht bleiben.  Ich kann nicht bleiben.  Warum sieht mich der Tetrarch fortwährend so an, mit seinen Maulwurfsaugen unter den zuckenden Lidern?  Es ist seltsam, dass der Mann meiner Mutter mich so ansieht.


I will not stay. I cannot stay. Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while with his mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids ? It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that.

So Egoyan's entire justification for his staging, the premise that he proceeds to beat you over the head with by deploying cliche after cliche, is something which Wilde and Strauss manage to convey in about a minute of music and dialogue.  We know that she is disturbed and bothered by Herod's sexual advances.  Showing us a girl on a swing, and then Salome getting (symbolically now, in a positive contrast to the 1997 production) gang-raped by the Jews(!) during the dance of the seven veils doesn't really do anything but serve to show that Egoyan is good at manipulating the bored narcissists who I suppose he (and many others), believe make up a good chunk of modern opera audiences.

Why do I seem really pissed off about this? In part, I actually spent a month in Vancouver back in the 90's watching this opera (this very Egoyan production in fact) get put together.  There were things that bothered me about the production, but I was never able to really express them, maybe because I was so much younger, and I, like most of the people reviewing this opera now, naively believed that there was some kind of productive relationship between "edgy" and "arty".

Now I'm a bit older, and a bit wiser, and I can't help but see just how terrible the whole thing is now.  I mean, Herod in this production is meant to be a drug lord or something (at least he was in 1997).  So why the hell does he have John the Baptist in his basement?  Was he some unlucky Jehovah's Witness, whose monthly door-knocking excursion went horribly, horribly wrong?

And I know that this is when well-intentioned people will step in and say, "No, no Andrew, it's art, and Egoyan is trying to convey the allegorical aspect of Salome here."  But what's the allegory in a drug dealer having a religious fanatic in his basement?  The entire crux of the story is that Jochanaan is a kind of political prisoner, held there but not to be killed.  His death has tremendous implications, but the way Egoyan stages it deprives the entire story of this tension.  Herod is just a pervert, and John the Baptist a disheveled nut.

I suppose this is what enrages me (yes I know, 1st world problems, blah, blah blah, don't care about art or the human condition when there are more important things to be worried about) is how so much of this is framed as "controversy".

It's the ultimate arts marketing dodge  - stage a bad production, but throw in a blowjob (no really, there's one in this staging!), some nudity and also a sense that Salome is really just an damaged child by showing us a film of it, and it comes out the other side as "controversial".

I think what it's really called is bullshit.

I've seen some really interesting modern stagings.  They don't always work, but they are often pretty good.  This wasn't.  This staging of Salome seems to rely on the viewer to trust Atom Egoyan to have some insight into the opera simply because he's Atom Egoyan, and in the auteur-starved country of Canada, I suppose that's enough.  And I say this having really enjoyed Egoyan's production of Wagner's Die Walküre a number of years ago at the COC, so I'm not saying he's incapable of it either.

Suffice to say that Egoyan performs a very nice bit of sleight of hand - he and the COC marketing department manage to fool most people into thinking that what is completely obvious in the libretto and music of the opera in fact emerges only thanks to his ingenious direction!

I could go on for a looooong time about the problems in this production, but I would actually also like to talk a little about the music, which was almost equally disappointing.

The production was, overall, not terribly well sung.  I mean, there were no stand out bad singers, and to be fair to Egoyan, I think he gets one character right (Herodias), who also happened to be the strongest and most compelling actor and singer in last night's performance.

The Salome was excellent, although she, like many of the singers, struggled to be heard over the orchestra, to the extent that the fault must lie with the conductor, either in his casting of the roles, or of his handling of the orchestra.

I have yet to be really amazed by our new music director's handling either the music, the singers or the orchestra, and I genuinely wonder why some of the singers were cast in this production when they fairly clearly were not entirely well suited to the roles. I mean, it's never bad, but I certainly don't understand why the COC orchestra is always singled out for praise, except that they are often the best part of a mediocre performance.

If you were planning on going, don't, unless you are OK with spending money to listen to the last 10 minutes of the opera, which not even this staging could ruin.  I don't want to say that it's worth it just for the end, but the opera succeeds despite what's gone on before, because not even Atom Egoyan could get in the way of Strauss' sublime music and sense of drama.  He tried, but at the end, Strauss managed to triumph over the intellectual and emotional desolation of this production.

Anyway, some of you might wonder why I never posted anything on the recent production of Tristan at the COC.  I saw it, but unfortunately I injured myself on the way to the opera, and didn't really feel like writing much up at the time, and now it seems a very long time ago!

That being said, I also saw Opera Atelier's recent production of Mozart's The Magic Flute with my son and girlfriend.  Unlike Salome, this production was straightforward and simple (read traditional), and yet incredibly engaging.  Opera Atelier advertised it as a great "first" opera for kids, and it was true.  But what made it great fun was that the production let the opera speak for itself, in all its sublime strangeness

I've said this before, but I am really tired of the idea that every opera going experience has to be sold as providing some added pseudo-pedagogical value.  First of all, most modern productions don't actually do this (see above) and secondly, I think it's time we stop insisting on the idea that classical music is somehow good for us as a way of justifying its existence in light of its high costs.

But I need to think about this more before I actually attempt to explain myself!  Some other time, then.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Some thoughts on why people are not enamoured of unions right now

Reading today that the recently privatized garbage collectors here in Toronto voted to reject unionization does not come as a surprise, but it is a pretty depressing result nevertheless.

As I have written before, I feel as though the way in which Torontonians think about our garbage collectors is a very clear example of the general state of incoherent mean-spiritedness in the city when it comes to the public sector.

This isn't terribly surprising, given that there has been a fairly long-term (and highly successful) assault on the idea of the public sector being anything more than a bunch of lazy unionized assholes who are literally stealing money from the honest taxpayer.  As a former civil servant, and now part of the broader public sector, I still get into arguments with people who. on the basis of having had to wait for an hour to get their driver's license renewed, conclude that the government "can't do anything right".

Beyond the fact that this is a no-win argument (if the renewal office was staffed to the gills, wouldn't that be more wasteful? or maybe it's 20 years of attrition to pay for those tax cuts that had some effect?), it points to a much plainer fact - nearly no one in Canada ever has to deal with any level of government.  This is why most people go to city hall to get their passport, or e-mail the province to ask about their local property taxes.

The reality is that most Canadians don't have a clue as to how their governments work.  And what's funny about this is that they don't really have to, because we live in a society where our governments, even if I really don't like them, still manage to make the quality of life here in Canada pretty good.  But the quality of our public service has now come back to bite the public sector in the ass, because it's actually done a pretty good job of uh, doing a good job.

Anyway, I say all this in part because when the garbage strikes happened here in Toronto, it shocked people into remembering that there was this whole public sector, and it did all kinds of stuff for them, like picked up their garbage, looked after their children, or provided cheap recreation for them. 

However, in a spirit remarkably consistent with the laughter and derision towards protestors during the G20, rather than thinking that outside workers might have as much dignity as say, someone who works at a bank, we as a city, very loudly and clearly, told them to shut up and get back to doing our dirty work, and how dare they think that they deserved what they negotiated over the years, like all those previous agreements that no one noticed, and where all these "benefits" accrued. 

"I mean what", the civic body thought to itself, "do the outside workers think union negotiations are some kind of good faith contract between two parties?"

So it does not surprise me that the workers at GFL did not unionize.  I don't think it helped the union's cause when their initial strategy was to argue that GFL would do a bad job, going so far as to set up a hotline for people to call to complain.  Not a great idea, given that the GFL garbage collectors might actually think the union is accusing them of doing a bad job (which is kind of was...).

But when you think about it, I suspect most of those who work for GFL were here for the last strike, and that the last thing they wanted to do was to rock the boat right now.  I doubt that GFL even really had to press them that hard - it was ordinary Joe Toronto who scared them into rejecting the union.  I mean, right now they are the worse-off heroes of the city!   Way to take one for the team, ladies and gentlemen of GFL!

That being said, I'm sure things are probably pretty good for them right now - as is common with capitalism, there is always the opening gambit, when the company is flush with cash and able to show its workers that they can offer similar benefits without union protection  (Remember the early days of the National Post?).  But it will get worse, and GFL will ask (and likely receive) more money from the uh, taxpayer, to increase its profits while keeping wages "competitive" and costs low.

This is the perversity of our civic culture right now, and I can't help but be reminded of Michel Foucault's preface to Anti-Oedipus, when he reminds us of "the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us." (And no, I'm not saying GFL or the workers are fascists like Hitler of Mussolini!!!!!  His comment is about why we enjoy hurting ourselves to assume a particular kind of power)

I am certain, as we all are, that the garbage collectors who voted again unionization all sincerely believe that they will be better off, in the long run, without collective bargaining, because right now, they all probably feel as though they have the power, the power to be on the city's good side, and that the union would take away that power. 

However, just as one of my tyrannical former bosses believed that governments could do away with unions because "they weren't relevant anymore", by simply saying what he said, he unwittingly demonstrated their necessity.

Better luck next time, CUPE 416!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

La Clemenza di Tito

I was the Canadian Opera Company's production of Mozart's last opera last night.  I don't actually have much more to say about it than the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail.  I completely agree with this reviewer that it was really well sung, maybe the best sung Mozart opera I've seen at the COC, and that the substitute for Michael Schade, Owen McCausland, really shone in the title role (especially in the 2nd part).  However, it was marred by one of the most incoherent productions the COC has ever staged. 

Now I have complained about COC strangeness before, like when they tried to set Beethoven's Fidelio in a Kafkaesque (HA!) bureaucracy, or completely ruined the ending of Don Giovanni (for laughs?), but the problem with this one went deeper, in part because the notes the director, Christopher Alden, wrote for the playbill were quite intriguing.  He argues that Titus, who is characterized by his clemency (hence the title!), actually tyrannizes his populace with kindness. 

I have to admit, this sounded like a really interesting take, and I looked forward to seeing that.  Unfortunately, what happened on stage failed to resemble even the director's argument for the production!  Instead, it came off as farce, which, in light of the libretto and Mozart's music, simply made no sense.  It resulted in people laughing at points of high seriousness, and reducing certain characters, like Annio and Vitellia, to wildly inappropriate caricatures. Basically all the humour that was set up in the first part led to the audience seeing certain characters as funny, and so when they got serious, like when Vitellia completely changes her position on Tito, it comes off as though she's not serious, or perhaps insane. 

It was the same with the setting - I enjoyed the idea of a kind of late-late Modernist building, and the fact that it looked like every 1960's arts centre lobby in Canada, from Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre to the Confederation Centre in PEI.  But again, there was no payoff.

So unlike some of the previous productions I've seen, which were obviously thought through, but the concept itself was poorly conceived, this one struck me as intriguingly conceived, but terribly articulated in its execution. 

Nevertheless, I would highly recommend seeing it for the singing, and it's a shame that the house was the emptiest I've seen it in a long while last night given the quality of the musical performances. 

Just try not to think too much about what's going on on stage.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Which Language does the Word "Panacea" Come From?

There has been much talk of late about online courses and how they will revolutionize the University Experience. (Yes, I meant to put every word in that sentence exactly in that way)

I say much because, I am notoriously self-selecting when it comes to what I read online.  There was a time when I would read right-wing political blogs (and maybe troll a little..) but I stopped doing so mainly because I stopped browsing the Internet when I set up my RSS feed, which I now update about once a year with a new blog or two.

Anyway, to my feed came a whole bunch of posts critical of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  They basically all seem to be in response to this blog post by Clay Shirky.  These responses have been building steam, and over the past few weeks everything has kind of boiled over.  (By the way, I'm explaining this out loud in part because I have no idea who reads my blog anymore, and because you aren't me, I assume that you have not read the same bunch of pieces I have. The links in the previous sentence will get you much more up to speed than my explanation anyway.)

In light of all this, a comment on an another blog, Leiter Reports, struck me.  It's the first comment after the post, and what caught my attention, unsurprisingly, was the comment about how language schools like Berlitz eating into language teaching at Universities was likely a good thing. 

As a language instructor in a university, it's not surprising that this rubbed me the wrong way!  But it got me thinking -  What would be the effect of MOOCs on language courses?  How would something like that work?

I ask this because I can totally see university administrators thinking that language learning might be a great place to try this kind of approach, especially for first year students.  There are already tons of online resources, and it would "solve" the problem of low student/teacher ratios in language courses relative to other disciplines through the magic!  You just turn university language learning into Rosetta Stone and voila! 

It's true that many people think that the way languages are taught in universities is flawed, geared too much toward evaluating grammar and not enough about learning the language as a living means of communication.  In fact,  I think this is what the commenter was getting at.  At the same time, university language courses are still a pretty inexpensive and effective way to start learning a language, and to gauge whether or not one wants to continue learning the language or not.

Anyway, it seems obvious to me that a MOOC-style model for language instruction would be terrible, and it would be terrible in part because in order for it to not be just as (if not more) labour intensive than current language courses, it would essentially have to roll back the past 50 years of science and pedagogy on language learning and focus even more exclusively on grammar and vocab memorization than we already do now.

Why?  Well, it seems to me that if these courses are to be meaningful in the sense that they give someone a grade or a sense that they've learned something, if they're to be more than a list of youtube videos, they're going to have to test them. And the cheapest and easiest way to test people is going to be by designing tests that really entirely on right/wrong answers, like asking about the genders of nouns, or filling in the mission preposition or pronoun.

I mean, this is why math and computer science are seen as great models for online learning - the answers are usually just right/wrong. But you get outside of this incredibly narrow band of topics, and it seems impossible to imagine doing anything even remotely like this with respect to most things that we teach at a university.

In my experience, when it comes to language learning, the Internet is quite good at a few things.  It's pretty easy to find good learning resources (Deutsche Welle springs to mind) for self-study.  It's also easy to find things like anki or memrise, which are basically flashcard programs.  But very, very few people are going to learn a language from flash cards or games. 

However, it has also made things a lot worse when it comes to language instruction.  Google Translate, for example, is the bane of my existence.  Suddenly everyone thinks that the translation problem has been solved because you can simply type whole pages into Google and it will "translate" it for you.  The problem is that these translations are terrible, and it is also really easy to spot fakes from students who think that Google Translate will hide the fact that they didn't want to do the hard work of writing in the language they are learning.

How would an online course address this kind of stuff, beyond eliminating all writing and talking from evaluation, which are basically all the things that make learning a language possible?

Unlike math or computer science, which are taught in a language, language learning is about the medium of thought itself.   They require a kind of intense concentration and discipline that something like an online course simply cannot provide without a huge amount of labour.  And if all that labour is going into supporting an online course, why not make it much easier for everyone and just teach it in a room?

I know that a lot of the arguments for MOOCs have to do also with the idea of having access to the best professors at the best university, but again, I cannot really imagine that anyone taking German at some community college somehow believes that they would be better off learning German via video lectures from an Ive League professor.

Maybe there are world class instructors of German, but they are probably world class because of how they interact with students on a personal basis, and not simply that the words they use or the explanations they give magically have teaching power.  And a lot of their work is probably the constant cajoling and convincing an instructor has to give students in order to keep them from getting discouraged when it dawns on them that learning a language is actually one of the hardest things to do in university, and not a bird course you take to fulfill a breadth requirement,.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more this kind of argument seems to make absolutely no sense to me.  Yes, of course, there are terrible teachers out there, but the reality is that even a terrible teacher is going to provide more of a positive feedback loop to a student than the fill-in the blanks testing that a MOOC would have to depend on in order to justify itself from an economic perspective, and it would only wind up producing people who are even less knowledgeable about communicating in a foreign language than what is currently the norm in higher education!

That being said, if the long-term goal is to just eliminate languages from universities entirely, and leave it up to the private sector, then MOOCs are probably the way to go, because after a few years of teaching them, they can evaluate how well people did and declare that it was the languages themselves that were at fault, and not the technology.  We simply will not be able to afford to teach languages anymore because we have made everything around them so efficient that they look even more old-fashioned than now.

A depressing thought, but not at all inconsistent with the way people who are actually listened to ( as in, not me!) would argue this case.