Wednesday, August 29, 2012

7 Things You Can't Say in Canada

A 2005 Reader's Digest article from acclaimed columnist Margaret Wente has for some reason been buzzing on the internet lately. Possibly inspired then by Larry Elder's popular book The Ten Things You Can't Say in America, the slightly smaller but far more acerbic list is perfectly Canadian. Though seven years old, the list has remained quite relevant:

1. Margaret Atwood writes some really awful books.

She does write some awful books, which is why they're seldom read. Aside from The Handmaid's Tale, a mandatory reading for Canadian high school English cirriculums, few people can name anything else she's written. Wente is correct that Atwood's stature has more to do with politics and power than popular writings.

2. Recycling is a Waste of Time and Money.

This one should have been titled "Plastic and Glass Recycling is a Waste of Time and Money." Metal, and in some cases paper, is certainly worth recycling. It is cheaper (i.e. uses less energy) to recycle these materials than to mine and manufacture new ones. When people start picking plastic and glass from other people's trash, the same will then be said for those materials.

3. Only Private Enterprise Can Save Health Care.

When you have Canadians turning to the U.S. for complicated procedures, or tests requiring the most advanced technology, and Americans sneaking into Canada for cheaper meds and care for less severe ailments, it's hard to argue who has the better health care. What changes in the system would we have to make to provide what we lack while maintaining what we already have? For higher end medical care, the solution probably isn't found through more government.

4. David Suzuki is Bad for the Environment

Wente writes "He is our homegrown prophet of doom who preaches the essential wickedness of the human race. Like a modern Savonarola, he warns that unless we cast our material possessions into the bonfire, we’re all going to hell." Ouch. A fire and brimstone preacher or a petulant and annoying environmentalist? Good question.

5. A National Daycare Program Won't Do a Thing To Help Poor Kids.

Similar to the health care debate, I know very little except the general principal that the less the government is tasked with doing, the better. In a more traditional vein, I'm worried about the ease with which we see the raising of our children by non-family members as a normal, or healthy, phenomenon.

6. Group of Seven are Overexposed Genre Painters.

There are seven of them, yet nobody knows any of their names, or any of the names of their pieces. Maybe nature painting isn't as exciting and subversive as it used to be.

7. The United States is the World's Greatest Force for Good.

Most Americans sympathize. Whether college campuses or Hollywood cocktail parties, there are many places in the U.S. you can't say this either. Similarly though, even most of those who scoff at the statement are grudgingly grateful as they know it is true.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Toronto Street Pianos

To mark the hosting of the 2015 Pan Am Games, Toronto has commissioned the unique art project "Play Me, I'm Yours." Symbolizing the participating nations are 41 pianos, painted by an artist from each of the countries, scattered in public places about the city. A conceptually strange, and very early, way to welcome an athletic competition, aesthetically it's a much better public art display than the ridiculous moose that infested the city a decade ago.

The Street Piano concept is the work of U.K. artist Luke Jerram. Featured in dozens of cities since 2008, the "Play Me, I'm Yours" installation is estimated to have been interacted with by over five million people worldwide, as well as inspiring some incredible stories. The one nearest to where I live, and about 20 feet from where I play volleyball each week, was painted by Oswaldo DeLeón Kantule. His piano represents Panama:

Thursday, May 31, 2012

An intellectual illusion

Michael Tomasky from the Daily Beast attempts to explain Obama's latest embarrassment in the hyperbolically titled The Worst Thing Obama Has Ever Said. Tomasky is at a loss to explain how Obama could refer to the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland during WWII as 'Polish death camps':

For Obama to refer to a "Polish death camp" is just ghastly. How in the world could that happen? Some callow kid in the speechwriting office didn't know the difference? His or her boss also didn't know? And what of Obama? I will assume that he does know better.

Why? The assumption that Obama should have known better is without justification. Not only has he made these kinds of embarrassing geopolitical gaffes before, but the idea that he is among the more academically learned politicians, presidents or otherwise, is by now laughable. Whether general world knowledge (Austrians don't speak Austrian, Falkland Islanders find the term Malvinas offensive, to say nothing of being referred to as Maldives, Canada does not have a president, and Libya is not spelt 'Lybia'), or basic American knowledge (Hawaii is not in Asia, Illinois is closer to Kentucky than Arkansas, Pearl Harbor was not attacked by 'the bomb,' Lincoln was not the founder of the Republican Party, there is no 'p' or 's' sound in 'corpesman,' and the U.S. has yet to build an intercontinental railroad), Obama would make a poor Jeopardy contestant. His 'student of the world' upbringing and cultivation, combined with a half million dollars worth of Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard post-secondary education, has produced a very fact deficient intellect.

Obama's porous knowledge base is far from his only academic failing. He is sold as a deep and well educated mind, but he has yet to share anything in print remotely profound or philosophical. His university records are sealed under a million dollar legal lock and key, and there exists nothing since then. No post-academic scholarship (he was almost a professor), no professional articles or essays (he was a lawyer), not even a newspaper editorial anywhere has his name on it. His two autobiographies, both heavy in generic substance and prose, are suspected to be ghost written. Odd that such a brilliant thinker would have so little to write.

Obama's reading material is yet another example of his surprising lack of intellectual curiosity. For his August vacation last year, Obama took along the following books:
Daniel Woodrell: "Bayou Trilogy" (crime novels)
Ward Just: Rodin's Debutante (story of a boy from Chicago coming of age)
Abraham Verghese: Cutting for Stone (story of twin orphans from Ethiopia)
David Grossman: To the End of the Land (story of an Israeli mother)
Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns (non-fiction account of America's 20th century black migrations)
Though this is hardly the reading material of a dullard, there really isn't much weight here. Mostly politically angled fiction, perfectly in sync with today's bland and uninspiring university humanities departments where things like theory, emotion, and presentation are generally favored over facts, logic, and application. A book tote with no classics, no science, no philosophy, no great biographies, no reference or almanacs; nothing that other smart people seem to enjoy reading.

Without his well read teleprompter and the grand hype of a big stage, Obama is frequently at a loss for not only words, but also ideas. From what little he has tried to pontificate on, for example his thoughts on racism, socialism, or individualism, he usually just falls back on the standard collectivist and victimology rhetoric of today's far left. He ultimately ends up sounding like every conniving politician, phony accents and all, who like used car salesmen have no attachment to the empty words and cliched phrases they utter.

It would be unfair to compare Obama's academicism with recent presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Not only did Bush have better university grades than his 2000 (Al Gore) and 2004 (John Kerry) presidential opponents, he was such an avid reader that he held personal book reading contests with his staff. As for Clinton, his intellect was and still is legendary. One of the smartest presidents in recent times, he was similar to the also over intelligent Richard Nixon in that they may have actually been too smart to be president. Overlooking the academic capabilities of his predecessors, Obama as an embarrassing intellectual stands on his own. It would be nice to see America's next president bring back the spirit of academia to the White House.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

It's about pink slime, not pink slime

Officially referred to as Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), the succulent looking paste, made from ground bovine scraps and trimmings, has recently found itself in controversy with certain advocacy groups in the U.S. Used as a popular beef additive and filler (pork and chicken also have their versions of filler, though probably not as grotesque looking), the pink goo has for many people crossed the threshold of food  preparation disgust. For those familiar with abattoirs, or comfortable with the manufacturing of things like hot dogs and sausages, a food product such as this is neither surprising nor offensive. However, despite the safety standards and nutritional value of the product, the highly unappealing nature of LFTB has led some to push for an outright ban.



Economist and writer Adam Ozimek has an interesting piece in the Atlantic that points to the economic and environmental benefits of LFTB. Though nearly all the evidence may suggest this to be a worthy food product, there is no proof or logic that may be powerful enough to overcome the human 'ick' factor. While this quirk in our food preferences undoubtedly has a rich evolutionary explanation, Ozimek links to a blog post by Robin Hanson that contained a list of humbling Socratic truisms that may better account for this dynamic.

• Food isn't about Nutrition
• Clothes aren't about Comfort
• Bedrooms aren't about Sleep
• Marriage isn't about Romance
• Talk isn't about Info
• Laughter isn't about Jokes
• Charity isn't about Helping
• Church isn't about God
• Art isn't about Insight
• Medicine isn't about Health
• Consulting isn't about Advice
• School isn't about Learning
• Research isn't about Progress
• Politics isn't about Policy

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Jason Lee

Before his roles as the Chimpmunks' David Seville, and Earl Hickey from My Name is Earl, actor Jason Lee was known for the cool, quick-tongued iconoclasts he played in many Kevin Smith movies. His Brodie Bruce character from Smith's 1995 Mallrats would provide the template for Ryan Reynolds' career.



Prior to being one of the coolest guys of the late 90's, he was an even cooler guy in the early 90's. Still in his prime as a professional skateboarder, he upped his cool cred with appearances in a couple of music videos for alternative bands: Redd Kross' 1993 hit "Jimmy's Fantasy,"



and the Spike Jonze produced "100%", Sonic Youth's lead single from 1992's Dirty.



The previous year it was a different Jonze production that would be the genesis of both his and Jason Lee's careers. The relatively unknown though groundbreaking skate video, Video Days, heralded as setting the standard for the genre, introduced Jonze as a creative mastermind behind the camera and Lee a magnetic presence in front of it. It was Lee's performance at the end of the video that caught the attention of Kevin Smith.



The song in the video, "The Knife Song," was early 90's tune by Milk, a short lived band fronted by Jeff Tremaine, who along with Jonze and Johnny Knoxville would later create the Jackass franchise.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The beautiful Ocean Hue

I've missed some great things the last few months from one of my favorite blogs, Ocean Hue:

* In Magenta Ain't A Colour, Liz Elliot enlightens on the little known fact that magenta, better known as pink, does not exist in the color spectrum.


Unlike every known color (including browns, which are shades of yellow or red), there is no wavelength for magenta. It's actually an extraspectral color that is the result of the human brain simultaneously processing the two ends of the color spectrum, red and violet.


* Teamwork or Groupthink? Susan Cain makes the case that creativity in the workplace is often stifled in group situations and individuals are too infrequently allotted time or space for solitude, the ultimate condition for creativity. Commenters of the article appear somewhat split:

Evan - Creative people need to be alone, yes, but they also need to feel empowered to take chances and to feel that those efforts will be praised. If you look at google and facebookinc. those companies utilize open floor plans. They are also very flat organizations with low power distance. This means that any one can come up with an idea or question the boss on an issue. This is critical for creativity because, as we all know, not every idea is a success and going down creative rabbit holes can be time consuming.

J.Sawyer - There really is nothing more dangerous in a creative organization than a great salesman with a bad idea – and when groupthink takes over, the loudest salesman can readily recruit the rest behind a mediocre concept. Which is probably why 98% of ads, records, films, products and television shows stink. People in business are generally better at convincing than at conceiving.

Some projects are best carried out aggressive and fast, little mistakes and errors along the way be damned, while other projects are more methodical and require patience, and perfection. The same project might even need the service of both strategies, depending on the stage of progress. There is also the composition of the team to consider, the leadership style, what the business actually does, and many other factors. Too many variables? For writers and thinkers perhaps, but not for successful captains of industry.


* A couple of interesting items on branding, one creative and charming, the other pitifully ironic. From the first category, artist Nicole Meyer has taken on an interesting project where she intends to brand Minnesota's 10000 lakes. Some of them are so good you wonder if branding, or other symbolizing such as flags or coat of arms, will ever be something we do with bodies of water.




The second item on branding isn't so charming. The anti-capitalist Occupy crowd is unsurprisingly having a crisis of confidence and needs help identifying themselves. Well, that's what logos are for, right? I can't wait for the theme song.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unwanted music

In his book The Doubter's Companion, pop culture philosopher John Ralston Saul sardonically describes Muzak as "A public noise neither requested nor listened to by individuals. It is the descendant of a school of public relations invented by the Nazis." A little heavy, but this perception of Muzak is not without its adherents. There are many who find this common musical annoyance not only bothersome but invasive.

The question of whether it is in fact music often elicits a drawn out, undecided 'uh, sort of, not really' kind of answer. That it was invented by a sound and communications inventor rather than a musician furthers conflates the argument. In the early 1920's Major General George Owen Squier, an American scientist, inventor, and decorated WWI veteran, had pioneered a way to deliver music without the use of traditional radios. This new concept of background, or 'elevator music,' quickly found a niche simply by filling silence with sound. In 1934, Squier had officially founded Muzak and near instantly carved his legacy as a unique contributor to world culture. He passed away later that year of pneumonia, while his most renowned creation lives on.

Not everyone is happy about this. The more ominous perceptions of Muzak view it as a manipulator of human behavior; an Orwellian tool of crowd control and psychological domination. The relationship between Muzak and subliminal suggestion is no secret. Muzak was built on the ability of its product to optimize production from government and business employees through the use of music and sound patterns. In a terrific audio history, the company itself proudly illustrates this. In behavior and marketing experiments, Muzak has also proved to be remarkably effective. From the subtle (playing culturally specific music to persuade wine purchases), to the intrusive (subliminal messages that discourage theft), Muzak seems almost perfect at what it does.

In the same way daily technology such as television, computers, and the internet have been popularly described as tools or weapons of the fascist state, so too has Muzak. The more conspiratorial are easily convinced that governments and big business routinely impose their will on the hapless citizenry through electronic agents such as these. Though the technology of Muzak may fit in comfortably with the worst of these dystopian science fiction scenarios, this is to completely ignore its home and founding within the stronger Western traditions of freedom and law - and revolution.

A more reasonable explanation for Muzak might be that people actually find silence to be more annoying. As watered down, faux-jazz, and soulless as Muzak may be, it is better than nothing. A sixty second wait on the phone with nothing but silence would be unimaginable. In the waiting room or at a restaurant, every personal noise, shift, and scuffle would be amplified for everyone else to hear. In stores and businesses, no Muzak means listening to all the unwanted details of other people's conversations, or if you're lucky and the store isn't busy, the soft hum that drones from the ceiling of fluorescent lights.

In many public situations, silence can be creepy. It implies warning or caution, and socially detaches us while we more closely guard our personal space. Music, even if it is the sanitized, aesthetically bland, electronic production that is Muzak, is a healthy connection to civilization, as well as an indicator that a particular environment is welcoming. Similar to other social art that is specifically made to appeal to the lowest common aesthetic denominator (such as the art deco of lobbies and hotel rooms, the riveting acting performances in tv commercials, or the high fashion of workplace uniforms), Muzak may never be requested, but it's not necessarily unwanted.




There is music that perhaps more people can agree is truly unwanted. Though it can be popular, the level of public odium reserved for certain pop music, or pop acts, can be powerful.



Any pop/rock lists with the phrase 'worst of' are the best places to look. Replete with the most annoying and overplayed (often #1) chart hits, this is music that is truly hated, and easy to argue unwanted. Over sweetened melodies, obvious and uninspired nursery pop hooks, and the most tortuous earworms; this music isn't easy to describe, but it's very easy to identify. Buzzfeed has a couple of indispensable lists full of the most irritating pop/rock hits of the 90's and last decade. The best examples are actually from the dozens of reader contributions where Eiffel 65's "Blue," a 'popular' dance hit in 1999-2000, was offered by several posters from each list. Not only did it straddle the two decades, it was just that bad:




Who knew Wikipedia would have an entry on a list of music considered the worst. Not as comprehensive as it could be, though it was nice to see my favorite worst song of all time, Starship's "We Built this City," duly represented. I unwant this song more than any other.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Elevators

In case there is any confusion, this is where people like to stand in an elevator:



Elevator fanclubs? It's a thing. Here's an interesting write-up on Jacob Bachta's unique hobby of elevator appreciation. From his YouTube channel:


For as long as I can remember, I have loved elevators. Since I do not have the knowledge of a trained elevator technician, I appreciate elevators from a passenger's point-of-view. I focus on cab aesthetics, fixtures, ride quality, and age.

I wouldn't have thought many people would find this too thrilling, but his channel has over a thousand subscribers. If in the future he decides to favor uniqueness and originality in his criteria, this Popular Mechanics article, featuring odd elevators like the Gateway Arch tram in St. Louis and China's outdoor Bailong Elevator, might be a good place to start.





Popular in Europe, the paternoster works as a vertical conveyor belt that perpetually moves a series of shelves that create individual cubbies. A simple concept made even simpler; one goes up, one goes down.




Staring a paternoster, a short film on the ups and downs of life.





From the New Yorker a few years ago I remember Nick Paumgarten's terrific piece on elevators titled Up and Then Down. He gives a fascinating historical and engineering account of elevators, including the origins of the metal embossed OTIS you see on the floor of the doorframe of nearly every elevator.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Skyscrapers

Hard to believe this oddity, the Hotel Porta Fira in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Spain, won the heralded Emporis Skyscraper of the Year award for 2010. Inspired by the lotus flower, it evokes an awkward feel of a concept not quite realized.


(photo source)

Top-heavy skyscrapers seem to display our inability to master the aesthetic of mushroom or tree-like structures. The Torre Velasca in Milan and the Russian embassy in Havana is further proof.


(photo source)


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Even more stunning was that the Hotel Porta Fira was selected over the second place Burj Khalifa. At nearly double the height of the former tallest skyscraper, the Taipei 101, the Burj is not just the world's tallest building, but the world's highest man-made structure. For a skyscraper that was created to shatter a ridiculous number of records, it's quite pleasing to look at:


(photo source)


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Emporis' list of cities with the most skyscrapers.

1. Hong Kong 1,223
2. New York City 563
3. Tokyo 344
4. Chicago 282
5. Dubai 230
6. Shanghai 229
7. Toronto 154
8. Singapore 134
9. Bangkok 122
10. Seoul 114


(photo source)


Art and design site Dornob has a terrific piece on photographer Michael Wolf's project Transparent City, a mesmerizing series capturing the life inside Chicago skyscrapers.


In some cases, an eerie similarity prevails from one floor to the next – but even in the most rigid and rigorously geometric of buildings there are exceptions, like a bright red ballroom between stuffy, white, florescent-lit office floors.



Skyscrapers are not only one of humanity's proudest creations, for any serious Lego owner, their construction (and alien attack inspired demolition) is a rite of passage. The magnificent ceiling-tall buildings we built when we were kids however didn't exactly prepare us for what they're doing with Lego towers today:




...and coming in a close second for the tallest structure built by a member of the animal kingdom, termites.


(photo source)

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Cities

From the Brookings Institution via the Atlantic, an interesting contrast in city dynamism with dueling lists of the ten fastest growing and the ten fastest declining world cities. China was dominant on the list of the fastest growing with first place Shanghai and three others, including Shenzhen, the second largest city in the Pearl River megacity project. Surprisingly, Turkey placed three cities while Saudi Arabia placed two, leading me to wonder how exactly the folks at Brookings acquire such specific economic data from tyrannical and less than transparent regimes.

The list of declining cities reads like a bodycount of Fromer's European gems: Madrid, Lisbon, Naples, Dublin, Athens. Tourist cities crippled by the world recession is only a part of the explanation however. Like the two U.S. cities that made the list (Sacramento, California, and Richmond, Virginia), these cities have been hardest hit by the tightening of government largess. Increasingly reliant for so many years on the tax jar, these bureaucratically bloated and socialist epicentres are painfully witnessing the effects of their primary industry, the government, downsized. Not only have they realized the Thatcherian omen of running out of other people's money, like others that live on the government dole, they've forgotten how to do anything else.

Keeping with the theme is Forbes' annual list of America's most miserable cities. A disheartening list of twenty of the nation's worst cities, many being the usual suspects of similar lists (poorest cities, most violent cities, drunkest cities, etc.), the article could have been alternately titled "California, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida: America's most miserable states." They cover nearly the entire list with a total of sixteen entries, and although they are among the most populous of all fifty states, the lack of entries from Texas, Pennsylvania, or New York (Buffalo?!) suggests that factors other than large populations are responsible for their high representations.

1. Miami, FL
2. Detroit, MI
3. Flint, MI
4. West Palm Beach, FL
5. Sacramento, CA
6. Chicago, IL
7. Ft. Lauderdale, FL
8. Toledo, OH
9. Rockford, IL
10. Warren, MI
11. Stockton, CA
12. Cleveland, OH
13. Lansing, MI
14. Akron, OH
15. Merced, CA
16. Memphis, TN
17. Bakersfield, CA
18. Vallejo, CA
19. Modesto, CA
20. Gary, IN


At least these places exist. Listverse has a couple of fun lists on non-existent cities including Top 10 Amazing Cities You Will Never Visit (conceptualized cities never built) and Top 10 Lost Cities. For a more recent lost city there is the Walled City of Kowloon, a former city within a city once located in Kowloon, Hong Kong. A near airtight cluster of several hundred adjoining buildings, most 10-15 stories high, it culturally isolated a population of over 30 000 people. Sitting on a six and a half acre grid, it had a population density (over 3 million per square mile) like no other city in the world.


(photo source)