12/15/13

Canada Post writes its own obituary


National PostHeadline news this week: Canada Post moves to end home delivery.

End home delivery? For me, both as  a writer, a lay historian, and growing up in an era where letters were important for communication, business, family and for art, that’s just crazy. I mean really, seriously, way-more-insane-than-the-OLG crazy. But, in an age of declining letter writing – where the tyranny of the Twitterverse is reducing our literary skills to hashtags and cryptic abbreviations- it may be inevitable.*

Charlie Gillis wrote in MacLean’s wrote about the accelerating slide to digital communication back in  March, outlining both the challenges the postal service faces and some options for its future:

Robert Campbell, the author of a 2002 book on fixing postal services, led the review panel that recommended against the privatization of Canada Post. He says he suggested the reprieve, not as a permanent state of affairs, but as a temporary measure allowing the postal service to restructure to a new world of competition. “You’ve got what is basically a smokestack industry here that’s trying to modernize,” says Campbell, currently the president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. “It has huge legacy costs.”

Chief among its burdens: a $4-billion pension liability owed to current and retired employees that could hobble it in the face of leaner, private-sector competitors. Ottawa owes Canada Post the time—and possibly the financial assistance—to deal with that overhead before opening the field to its rivals, Campbell argues.

Well, Canada Post has shaken the tree of its own accord, sans the intervention of Ottawa (which, given the current government and its inability to deal with the scandals in the Senate or the PMO, might be just as well).

And on top of that seismic shift, CP will dramatically increase the cost of postage. So were they thinking, we’re  already losing money: let’s find another way to discourage users!

UK mail man, 1885(Okay, to be fair, CP should have raised the price quite some time ago. This history of annual one-two cent increases was never a good business model given Canada’s large distances and small populations. And given the value of the penny even when it was in circulation, a jump of five cents would hardly have mattered. But until 2011, CP was making money, so maybe it never occurred to them to squirrel away a little extra for the lean years.)

But what is happening to letter writing?

When I browse my book shelves I see collections of letters to and from some of the greats of history: Darwin, Einstein, Dickens, Wilde. I don’t imagine there will be many future books of great emails, great Facebook posts, or great tweets. Writing a letter takes thought, takes care, is an emotional and personal investment. Writing on social media is generally instant, immediate, thoughtless; a reflex, a reaction, not a considered act.

Blogs, of course, may sometimes be considered the exception – although counter-argument might be made that many blogs are just lengthier versions of the tweet, and others are simply a platform for a more vituperative – but similarly reactive – anger than a FB post. But even a blog does not involve the same sort of contemplative act that handwriting entails, simply because the technology allows us to revise and rewrite in a way that the handwritten word does not.

(Handwriting’s demise is really another topic, which I started on about months ago and now have to resuscitate that draft post to include this week’s news. On a personal note: although I blog and enjoy digital media, I also keep handwritten notebooks. Sadly, I too share the guilt in the decline of letter writing.)

Continue reading

11/3/13

In Appreciation of Vintage Music


I was listening the other day to a song sung by Cliff Edwards, Cheating on Me, recorded from an old 78 RPM single. Scratchy, warbly, and a bit thin, but it comes across beautifully across the gap of time. When you listen for a while, the scratches just disappear into the background and you hear Ukulele Ike’s lovely voice cut through the noise. I was thinking it was a song I really should learn to play myself. Listen to Edwards’s classic strumming in his version, as well as the key change towards the end:

I have it on my MP3, player along with many other tunes from the 1920s through the 50s. When I tire of listening to audio lectures and history podcasts (my usual audio fare when walking my dogs), or just want a change, I put the old music on; tunes featuring Al Bowlly, Ruth Etting, Rudy Vallee, Bessie Smith and others. Music my parents would have known. Songs like Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Why Don’t You Do Right? Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. Ukulele Lady.

Wonderful stuff. Not really all that different from today’s music, just some changes in instrumentation, in rhythm and in instrumentation. Certainly the sentiment in the lyrics is familiar: love, passion, loss, cheating, family, friends, the ups and downs of relationships. A bit more innocent than music these days (no violent, pornographic lyrics). I turn to this music increasingly often these days, less and less to modern, post-1990 tunes.

Here’s the same song, sung a few years later by Kay Brown, arranged for a somewhat later period’s musical tastes and different orchestration:

Both are undated, but I’d guess Edwards was from the late 1920s, Brown from the 40s.* One of the positive aspects of the internet has been the archiving of a lot of material from the past like these tunes, making them accessible for a new, wider audience.

Back when Edwards recorded the song, the guitar was not used a lot in popular music – it would start its ascendancy in the early 1930s when the first electric amplification was developed. But the ukulele craze brought that little instrument to the fore from around 1920 to the mid-1930s. And Edwards was the top of the pops for a while.

How well that music of yesteryear works today is evident in the numerous pop stars who have cut albums of old popular standards. Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett and Brian Ferry, for example. Then there are those who have resurrected the music in somewhat more romantic manner: Steve Tyrell comes to mind as the best of them, as the least saccharine and most authentic of many performers. Critic John Taylor writes:

…Tyrell is a romantic’s romantic, his just-slightly-craggy voice possessed of a natural and easy-going warmth. He may not be the most technically precise singer around, but there’s a just-between-us quality that renders each tune an intimate and personal performance, as though Tyrell is singing, not to a crowd but to each and every individual listener. Add impeccable production and sympathetic support from an utterly immaculate orchestra, and the results are the perfect prelude to passion.

Tyrell and the rest all know that good music is timeless and our musical past is easily resurrected, with just a little careful honing (and sincere appreciation of the music). Most of their cover songs are arranged to suit more modern tastes. Orchestrations beefed up to fit the current tastes in sound and rhythm, bass lines pumped up. But really not all that different: it remains comfortable and approachable for any modern listener.

Continue reading

11/1/13

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men



Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Humpty DumptyThat children’s nursery rhyme says a lot about the situation Toronto Mayor Rob Ford finds himself in, following the release of police reports, yesterday. The mayor is in, to put it politely, a pickle. Rather than reiterate all the brouhaha and the details of what the police reported, I direct you to read the CBC, Toronto Star, National Post, Globe and Mail and even the notoriously pro-Ford Toronto Sun newspapers and websites. They all say much the same, differing only in how much gleeful I-told-you-so they can insert into the stories.

Whether Ford is guilty – and remember, nothing has been proven – the story has been titillatingly sensationalized in the media so that pretty much everyone but Rob Fords thinks he’s guilty. Of what? Well, something. We’re not sure but he’s gotta be guilty of something. That’s what media sensationalism does.

Until he is charged with some crime, much of it is, of course, merely allegation and innuendo. The police haven’t charged him with anything. And if they do, his guilt is a matter for the courts to decide, not the media or the public. The public will have its say on Rob Ford on election day, in 2014.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no affection for the man, or his style. I think he has handled the story wrongly from the very beginning. He’s a boor, a loudmouth and a redneck with the media relation skills of a bull rhino. But I can empathize with him about how sensationalism in the media can align with allegation, rumour and gossip to damage your reputation and your ability to do the job you were elected to do. And there’s damn little you can do when you get on that roller coaster.

What matters right now is governance. And the relevant question is: does Ford’s situation hurt the effective governance and operation of the city?

The likely answer is yes. Ford’s ability to manage the role is seriously compromised, regardless of the truth of any accusation. If nothing more, the job is too often interrupted by non-sequitor media questions. Too much attention on the allegations, not enough gets given to the business of running Canada’s largest city.

Continue reading

10/27/13

Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism


Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

Continue reading

10/15/13

1927: Ads, Layout and Typography


As promised, here are the first 20 scans of the ads from the 1927 North American Almanac I recently mentioned. If there is interest, I’ll do another set later this week. There are probably another 40 or 50 pages of ads in the book.

I think these ads give us a wonderful window into the daily, household life of the time, into cultural views and medical thinking. As well, they show the state of advertising, layout and typography. It’s fascinating to look at the mix of typefaces and their placement.

Click on the image to load a larger version and see the ads in greater detail.

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page
Continue reading

09/28/13

A Cup of Pu-Erh


Pu-Erh teaIt’s dark in the cup, but in the glass pot for brewing, it’s a deep copper. It smells of earth and age, a hint of horses and leather. A rich, slightly sweet and crisp taste.

Black, no milk. With milk, it changes to a hot-chocolate light brown, and the flavour mellows. I prefer the slightly sharper black taste. *

“For hundreds of years,” reads the Whittard’s package, “mule loads of precious Pu-Erh tea travelled the Ancient Tea Horse Road from China, risking the dangers of Tiger Leaping Gorge to reach the towering mountains of Tibet.”

It has that aroma and taste of a well-travelled tea. A tea that has sat on the tables of ship’s captains, and on the floor mats in nomad huts. This Yunnan province tea is “traditionally drunk after a meal,” but I’m breaking with tradition to sip it on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Tea is a complicated product, for all the simplicity we give it when drinking it. Wikipedia’s page on Pu-Erh is long and rambling, and a delight to read, albeit somewhat unfocused. It opens:

Pu-erh or Pu’er tea is a variety of fermented dark tea produced in Yunnan province, China.
Fermentation is a tea production style in which the tea leaves undergo microbial fermentation and oxidation after they are dried and rolled. This process is a Chinese specialty and produces tea known as Hei Cha, commonly translated as dark, or black tea (this type of tea is completely different from what in West is known as “black tea”, which in China is called “red tea” ). The most famous variety of this category of tea is Pu-erh from Yunnan Province, named after the trading post for dark tea during imperial China.

Black tea, red tea, green tea. Each one different, each with its range of flavours and aromas. All teas come from the same tea plant, but the difference is how/when the leaves are picked, processed and dried.**

The box says the production date is Sept. 1, 2011, best before early 2013. Here I am, two years later, still enjoying it. I actually brought this package home from England, from a small tea shop in Richmond. I still have a little left. I’m not concerned that it may be past its prime. It still tastes good to me. Whittard’s website says:

Pu-erh is a special type of tea grown only in the Yunnan Province in China. It develops its flavour through wet-fermentation and long maturity and is said to improve with age. It has been drunk by the people of the Yunnan and Tibet border provinces since the Tang Dynasty (620-907 AD).

My slightly-past-its-before-date cup of Pu-Erh is a quiet seque into tea’s fascinating history and culture.***

Continue reading