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"The student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn. A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals."

-Spiro T. Agnew, 
October 18, 1973

powered by brooder: don't bother clicking, there's nothing there

(started 05.14.02 | 06:39pm EST) DESPITE THE SUBJECT MATTER I work with - war, death, power, money, celebrity, disaster - my day is as mundane as anyone else who spends their day behind a desk. I sit in a midtown low-rise office tower processing the by-products of the news but, still, sometimes something makes it through the wires that seems touched with the sublime. Today, I read this description of a photo shoot on the local sked we get from the major metropolitan daily that half-owns the paper:

A TV cameraman
feeds a passing duck
while staking out court.

A search through the daily's archives reveals that no such photo exists, or at least it isn't available, despite the attached notation that it's "in system", meaning it's been shot a day or two ago. So in fact there's no photograph of a cameraman feeding a duck, just a haiku of the scene (quite a proper one: sixteen syllables, parsed 6/5/5, easily read in one breath), and I think that's beautiful. (finished 06:54pm | 05.14.02)

(started 05.15.02 | 10:17pm EST) THE CITY WENT ABSOLUTELY BATSHIT last night when the Leafs beat, uh ...(quickly checks out today's paper to make sure he sounds like he knows what he's talking about) ... Ottawa to win a slot in the Eastern conference finals. They'll be playing (wheels chair back over to the paper for a quick review of the front page) the Carolina Hurricanes. Hmm, are those the North or South Carolina Hurricanes, or are they come kind of federalized Carolina alliance, a pooling of Carolinian hockey talent once bitterly opposed by team loyalists years ago (who'll forget the Durham hockey riots of '73?) but how well-loved by folks in both Raleigh and Charleston?

Does the team change hometowns every other year to keep still-simmering tensions at bay? Or has there been a move in both state legislatures to unite the two states for the first time since Charles I divided them in 1710, inspired by the sense of camaraderie instilled in once-bitter rivals by the beloved 'Canes? I'd like to think there's some kind of romantic backstory to this whole situation, if only to give myself something to care about, as I obviously couldn't give a gold-plated shit about the Leafs.

What I do know is that I waited almost an hour for a streetcar at Queen and Yonge after work, standing on the banks of a river of honking cars and hooting teenagers waving blue and white flags. "What's the matter? Get with the spirit!" shouted one young girl from the passenger side of a Nissan. I am, apparently, insufficiently spirited. Alas. (finished 11:02pm | 05.15.02)

(started 05.16.02 | 06:39pm EST) I'M SURE THAT SOMEONE is so going to hell for this:

I shouldn't laugh. I shouldn't be amused. I shouldn't want to look at the whole site. But I can't help but be impressed by the sheer ... effort ... that went into this. If I was at all a decent Catholic I'd have to run to confession for this, I'm sure. (finished 06:47pm | 05.16.02)

(started 05.16.02 | 08:37pm EST) A PHOTO CAME IN YESTERDAY that I practically insisted Fermin, our world editor, should run. (Well, I did insist, a rare exercise of will on my part. As photo editor I have, at best, a 25% say in what runs in the paper. Occasionally I can insist on something, but mostly I just sit here filling spaces to order.) It was a Reuters pic from China, an old peasant woman named Wu Chunmei holding up a bunch of rice seedlings ripped from the field where she's squatting. She has a pained look on her face, on the verge of tears, and a close inspection of the seedlings tells us why.

The soil around the roots is dry and caked, a good portion of the seedlings dry and brittle. A close inspection of the field around her shows that quite a bit of the field - not a majority, but a chunk - has dried up. Now I'm no botanist, but I do know that rice grows in muck, a marsh crop that needs lot of water, and apparently there's a drought going on in China.

Sometimes you see a story and you file it away; something's happening there, the first tremors of future headlines. I remember thinking to myself over a year ago, as I read about the Taliban's program of social and cultural devastation in Afghanistan, that a breaking point had been nearly reached there, that someone, somewhere, was waiting for an excuse to wipe that particular slate clean. I dismissed it as wishful thinking - surely it was just my own hope talking.

There's an onset of famine in southern Africa right now; in Zimbabwe, not surprisingly, thanks to Robert Mugabe's criminal regime, but also in Malawi, where the government sold the country's emergency grain reserve and haven't accounted for the proceeds - typical, dismal African kleptocratic disasters. There's a truism in foreign policy circles that drought is an act of nature, but famine is almost always man made.

There's a drought in India right now, and water rationing in Taiwan, so severe that one Taiwanese island, Matsu, has been buying water from their arch-enemy, China. With news of drought from Guangdong and Hainan provinces, I wonder if China will be exporting water much longer. China has always pursued aggressive export policies, often to the disadvantage of the domestic economy, so it's hard to tell whether the Party is getting nervous yet.

Drought in China and India would be catastrophic, though. The failure of crops in the most populous countries in the world would be devastating, and the business of providing them with relief would probably bring about some basic change in the balance of debt and trade deficits in two countries where bad outcomes are the stuff of nightmares. Cold calculations to be making in the face of probable disaster, no doubt, and I haven't even begun to ponder how, if at all, this might might have something to do with global climate change, a subject I can't even begin to decipher, a concept so thickly tangled with cant and dogma, with good and bad science, that I've long since given up on divining anything like truth in it, at least until the Atlantic has backed up into Lake Ontario and spider monkeys throw mango seeds through my windows at my cats.

So let's raise a glass - of precious, precious water, if you like - and toast the hope that, in this case, I'm utterly, totally wrong. (finished 10:37pm | 05.16.02)

An unexpected glimpse of poetry; the Leafs (again); hints of disaster; a bit of blasphemy; a monstrosity; the Goddamned Space Movie (again).

john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
mike reed
lucy huntzinger
warlog: ww3
little green footballs
ken layne
uss clueless
andrew sullivan
relapsed catholic
arts & letters
steve bell
talking points memo
jim treacher

Various, The In Crowd: The Ultimate Mod Collection from the Original Style Movement 1958-1967 buy it

I've been waiting for this box set for months, since I read a rave review in - of all places - the Spectator. It's basically an expensive mixed tape, and if it were just Motown classics like "Heatwave" and "Mickey's Monkey" and Stax/Volt hits like "I Can't Turn You Lose" and "Road Runner" I'd call it a rip-off at British import prices, but there's a hundred tracks here, including bits of ska, organ jazz and brit R&B like Georgie Fame's "Yeh Yeh", which I've never owned before.

I was fascinated by the whole Mod thing when I was in high school - I owned a union-jack bedecked parka for a year before I sold it to Chris Bingham and moved on to rockabilly - and this, I suppose, is the souvenir I'll let myself take into my forties. It's such sharp, cool stuff, but what's interesting is how uncomfortably most of the real "mod" tracks - The Who's "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere", "Biff Bang Pow" by the Creation - sit in amongst all these great soul and blues tracks. The only band that doesn't seem utterly outclassed is the Small Faces, who I never heard (except for "Itchycoo Park") back in the full flush of teenage mod-dom, and who I adore today.

And if anyone has a copy of an Alan Haven (Image, the soundtrack to The Knack and How to Get It) record they'd like to burn onto disc for me, I'd be grateful. I've been playing this thing non-stop since I bought it last week, and I'm sure I'm driving the wife crazy. "It's still oldies weekend?" she asked when she came home from church the other day. I'm afraid so.

(started 05.20.02 | 09:20pm EST) A SURE SIGN OF THE ENDTIMES came across Reuters today:

"Scientists at Agriculture department of the Hebrew University in Rehovot have genetically engineered a chicken that has no feathers," says the caption. "The naked chicken as it has been dubbed is also a low calorie bird because the lack of feathers means the chicken has less fat."

And I thought the mouse with the ear growing out of its back was scary shit. I can only imagine how this will go over with millenarians and Baptist fundamentalists. Look on the bright side - now poor people can have their own, live, pink flamingo in the yard, decorative and edible. (finished 10:26pm | 05.20.02)

(started 05.20.02 | 10:30pm EST) IT'S VICTORIA DAY today, which for non-colonials means an excuse to light fireworks to celebrate the long-ago reign of a woman who didn't believe in lesbians.

I've lived in Toronto my whole life but I never knew about a Victoria Day parade up the city's main street. I guess I just never go downtown on holidays. We're running a photo on the front page today of the parade, nonetheless, and as I was slapping it around in Photoshop, I noticed a few interesting things. There were Union Jacks, of course, and two local worthies in an open sportscar dressed as Lord Simcoe and Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent. But then there were the orange sashes on the standard bearers, and the standard itself, emblazoned with a regal picture of the current Elizabeth and words like "Derry" and "Boyne" and, just at the top, the legend: "Enniskillen Toronto L.O.L. No. 387".

Holy crap. It's an Orangeman's Parade.

You've got to understand that there's no reason for an Irish Roman Catholic to feel anything but a chill when contemplating an Orangemen's parade, even now, when Orange Lodges, once a staple of anglo-Canadian life, as much a fixture in any town as the firehall and the schoolhouse, have pretty much disappeared. That you can still find a crowd willing to march in tribute to King Billy and the quaint tradition of demonizing the Church of Rome is remarkable, and more than a bit frightening. My grandfather ended up in the non-town of Mount Dennis ninety years ago because it wasn't organized enough to have an Orange Lodge, and my mother still remembered the "No Irish Need Apply" signs all over downtown Toronto.

I suppose I should be grateful that an old relic of mostly-expired hatred can make its quaint showing with no reports of violence, but I truly do long for the day when they can't muster two people to hold up both ends of that banner. (finished 11:11pm | 05.20.02)

(started 05.21.02 | 09:48pm EST) IT'S TAKEN ME ALMOST the whole weekend to get my thoughts in order on the new Goddamned Space Movie. It's not like I had to think about whether I liked it - my review should make my feelings clear enough - but rather that it's hard to write about something so thoroughly pawed over, while at the same time almost immune to criticism. It's like reviewing chain-restaurant pizza - no matter how bad it is, you know it'll get eaten. Most movie critics like to flatter themselves that their opinion is useful at least as a sort of consumer's report, and perhaps that's true enough when you're advising, say, the tiny audience that sees "foreign" or "art" films, or judging any of the offhanded bits of piffle that major studios produce out of contractual obligation to stars or in pursuit of some nearly-expired trend.

A film like Attack of the Clones goes beyond product - it's certainly only art when you squint hard at the work of the hundreds of craftspeople that put it together - and becomes something like a phenomenon, something experienced without the benefit of critical distance. At least, I'm sure that's what it is for most of the crowds that make it the equivalent of an inheritance, a lottery win, and a stock market killing for Lucas and the studio that produced it. The collective will to love a Star Wars movie overwhelms the puny urge to criticize it.

I suppose that was what made me set out for a downtown theatre at eight in the morning, the day after it opened, to watch Attack of the Clones with an audience of Xerox salespeople and their clients. The film had already been reviewed - viciously - by Norm, the paper's other film critic, so I could have given it a miss, but I wanted to see it, to share the experience, and then pretend that I still had critical distance by writing a review, the only one on this site's movie review section for which I wasn't paid.

There are a lot of things I didn't talk about in my review, like the spectacle of Yoda doing a Matrix on Christopher Lee's ass with his little light sabre, or my own pure speculation that Lucas must have read a lot of Castiglioni to come up with a plot so convoluted, so much like something from the history of the Medici popes.

What I'd like to remember, though, are the poor gimps in clanking plastic stormtrooper armour and Wookie suits by the entrance to the theatre, and the startling youth and maleness of Xerox clients. But foremost in my mind was the Xerox shill who gave a little sales talk before the screening, and the way he introduced the group of high school students who'd been demonstrating their Robot Wars machines in the lobby. Quite without being aware what he was saying, he referred to their project as a "product", and to the competition they'd won with it as a "corporation". Nerves, perhaps, but telling regardless, and somehow appropriate for the occasion. (finished 10:34pm | 05.21.02)

Robert Ward, Virgin Trails buy it

IT'S FINALLY OUT! A couple of summers ago, I travelled with Robert "los Bob" Ward through north and central Spain, and I can say that, among the man's other virtues, he's an impeccable travel companion. His book will let you share the experience of travelling with "los Bob", along the pilgrimage routes of Europe. A really amazing read.

Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden buy it

Another book by a friend. A novel about the bomb, among other things. It's still there, hanging over everything, despite every attempt to pretend that, along with the wall, if just went away ten years ago.

Martin Parr, Boring Postcards USA buy it

Exactly what the title describes, and my favorite "art book" in a couple of years. A perfect coffee table book, for very small coffee tables.

Daniel Yergin & Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights buy it

A "big picture" book, about the last century of economic history. Told as a conflict of economic faiths - Keynes vs. Hayek, Galbraith vs. Friedman, "planning" vs. "market". The basis of a really excellent PBS series, and one of the most entertaining books of its type in years.

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