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.***

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09/20/13

Swimming with Vivaldi


VivaldiToday, for an hour, I swam with Vivaldi. Not the actual composer, of course. He died in 1741 at the age of 63. Would have made a mess of the pool to dig him up and toss him in.

The “red priest,” as he was called (for his red hair), probably couldn’t even swim. Not a lot of people back then could. but he could write music, and play the violin beautifully. Almost 300 years later his music is still as powerful and moving as when he was alive.*

Rather, as you guessed, I swam with his music, the Four Seasons to be exact. Gil Shaham/Orpheus Chamber Orchestra version from 1995, Deutsche Grammophon, my favourite of many versions I own. Crisp, clear and full of life, that version. And almost perfectly timed – not quite an hour long.

Composed in 1723, The Four Seasons remains Vivaldi’s most famous work. Justifiably so, in my estimation. It is instantly recognizable even by those unfamiliar with classical music, and has graced many a Hollywood production. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel over-used. But maybe I’m just a sentimental fool for it.

Vivaldi was born in Venice, a city built on the water, a city of canals and gondoliers, bridges and sweepingly beautiful architecture that towers over the water. The city permeates his music, as does – to my ears – water. The rhythms of waves, of tides. Which seems entirely appropriate for the waves I make as I swim laps.

He actually wrote his masterpiece while working out of town. In 1718, Vivaldi took a position at the court of the governor of Mantua. He moved from there to Milan in 1721, then in 1722 he moved to Rome. He didn’t return to Venice until 1725. During his absence, he wrote the Four Seasons. It wasn’t published until 1725, however.

Vivaldi’s concerto was written the year before another famous Venetian – and one of the historical characters I both admire and delight in reading – Giacomo Casanova was born. Not quite contemporaries, Vivaldi died in Casanova’s 17th year, but no doubt Casanova heard the piece – and many other Vivaldi compositions – when he lived there. The concerto has been used in TV and movie biographies of Casanova, and in my mind they are intrinsically linked.

The Four Seasons, as its name suggests, has four movements, each dedicated to a different season. It’s actually four mini-concertos linked by thematic components. Wikipedia suggests Mantua was his inspiration:

The inspiration for the concertos was probably the countryside around Mantua. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires.

But I can’t help but hear the busy plazas and streets of Venice, see the masks and the palaces when I hear it. I imagine Vivaldi sitting indoors in Mantua, writing out the notes, thinking of his Venice, not the hills outside his window.
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09/16/13

Of Type and Typography


Just My TypeHumans have remarkable ability that is shared by – as far as we know – no other animal. We can turn abstract images and symbols into meaning. Words are, of course, the prime example, as old as our history. We can turn a  word like dog, tree, table or vacation into a broad and deep understanding of what that word means to us.

Of course when I write “dog” and you read it, they’re not the same thing. I need to add qualifiers – adjectives, descriptions, anecdotes – for you to come close to appreciating my meaning. Even then, it’s still based on your and my individual emotional experiences. And they’re likely not aligned or similar. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop writers from discussing dogs, from describing dogs.

But like molecules are made of atoms, and atoms of smaller particles yet, and those made up of quarks, sentences are made of words, words are made of letters, and letters are made strokes. The jot and tittle of Biblical phrase.

The amazing thing with the human brain is that we can take a collection of slashes, lines, strokes and dots and transform it into a letter and thus into a word. We take the abstract and solidify it.

Dissect an ‘A’ and what do you have? Two angled and one horizontal line. In lowercase – ‘a’ – we see two curves, one cupped against the other.

But in the human brain that’s a letter; a vowel, an indefinite article. It’s a crucial component in writing and speech, one of  five (and sometimes six) sounds that connect the vertebra of consonants. Tens of thousands of words depend on those simple lines. We could not do without the letter A. it is part of the genetic makeup of language. Yet by itself it’s just some lines on a page.

The letter “A,” we told, comes from the Phoenician aleph: a stylized bull’s head, rotated with use (see here). Today we’re using symbols created 3,000 years ago (although our Western alphabet – Latin – is really a creation of the Romans, dating back more than 2,700 years, although in today’s form and content about 2,100 years old. Consider the heritage in that, every time you type a Facebook post, an email or write a letter: the history of writing is ancient.

The alphabet is a remarkable invention. It turned human vocal sounds into abstract symbols, it codified the world into abstract symbols. Humans assembled a series of strokes, lines and curves to define language. And we did it a long time ago – in Egypt in the 27th century BCE by most accounts. More than 4,700 years ago. Others identify it with Sumerian culture, somewhat earlier. Either way, it’s pretty impressive and probably the most important human invention.  Clive Thomson writes in his book, Smarter Than You Think,

Writing — the original technology for externalizing information — emerged around five thousand years ago, when Mesopotamian merchants began tallying their wares using etchings on clay tablets. It emerged first as an economic tool. As with photography and the telephone and the computer, newfangled technologies for communication nearly always emerge in the world of commerce. The notion of using them for everyday, personal expression seems wasteful, risible, or debased. Then slowly it becomes merely lavish, what “wealthy people” do; then teenagers take over and the technology becomes common to the point of banality.

(I don’t agree entirely with Thompson’s assessment that writing is on the same technological level as, say, an iPad or the internet, nor that technology makes us smarter; in fact I argue the opposite in that technology makes it simpler to do things, so we work less at them. But I sigress and will save that argument for another post.)

But letters are not rocks: they are not fixed in the firmament. They change, they evolve like living things.

The design of those letters has been debated and developed since the first words were scratched into rock. But it really became an art when the printing press was invented, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg. And ever since his invention, people have been debating what makes a good, readable, legible and aesthetically pleasing typeface. Sometimes with great emotion.

Robert Bringhurst, in his book The Elements of Typographic Style, made a comment typical of the passion that type raises in its aficionados, designers and critics:

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles.

Type and typography creates in some people the fiery emotions we see in other arts.*

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09/13/13

Empire of Illusion and the End of Literacy


Empire of IllusionI don’t know whether to feel vindicated, delighted, frightened or depressed as I read through Chris Hedges’s book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Much of what he says reflects many of my own observations and opinions. I started reading this book in part as research for my upcoming conference speech on social media, but it has kept me mesmerized, like seeing a train wreck before your eyes, something you can’t quite turn away from.

I suppose we like to read books that reinforce our world view (those of us who read, that is – literacy in Canada is declining)*, but it’s sometimes uncomfortable to have those nagging doubts about the decay of society made public by someone else. Having another say it or write it seems to confirm our darkest nightmares. We all sometimes think we’re the only ones who recognize the issues, who see the fly in the ointment, but Hedges makes it clear we’re not alone.

And, yes, our wildest fears are true: the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or at least that’s the way Hedges plays it, to my cynical and jaded eyes.

It’s hard not to agree with his argument. He thinks our culture is dying, driven from its heights to an abyss of reality TV, celebrity watching, contrived spectacle, self-exposure, self-indulgence, corporate greed, gossip, the lack of critical thinking, and crass self-interest.** He is a modern Virgil, guiding us through the Inferno of Western culture towards the inevitable Ninth Circle of moral, economic and political collapse.

Hedges writes,

The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult shares within it the classic traits of psychopaths; superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked.

Cheery stuff. But hard to slough off as mere pessimism. Just turn on the TV. The schedule for the “Discovery Channel” – a channel ostensibly about science and technology but instead is crammed with “reality” show, anti-intellectual dreck – is a good example of the extreme dumbing-down and trivialization of TV.

Or read the comments on any national news website. Or a local blog. Our sense of entitlement makes us believe that everyone has the right to comment, that every opinion is valuable – and technology gives all opinions the same apparent value and weight, even when many are simply digital noise that confounds, rather than contributes to, the conversation. No wonder we see the rise of superstition, pseudoscience, emotion and gawking over fact, science, respect and common sense. The wheat and chaff are irrevocably mixed online.

Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. This is the bleak future. This is reality.

This doom-and-gloom is hardly new. The imminent implosion of modern culture has been described and predicted at least since Socrates, who griped, “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

My parents lamented my generation’s irrevocable slide into a moral and social morass when they heard Bill Haley and the Comets. It was confirmed when they heard the Beatles. Their parents fretted over Rudy Vallee and Ruth Etting, then over talking pictures. In part this is the natural gap between generations, the difference between youth and middle age, between the new and the old.

Civilization did not collapse, despite the dire warnings from each subsequent generation. But that was then, this is now. Things have changed, and changed so rapidly, so deeply that society has not had the time to adapt effectively. We’re on a rollercoaster now, not a walk in the cultural park.

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06/8/13

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education


CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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06/1/13

But is it news?


Rob FordToronto Mayor Rob Ford seems to get more than his fair share of headlines these days, most of them negative. The stories that follow are full of allegation, innuendo and “unnamed sources.” Gripping tabloid stuff. Real time soap opera. But is it news?

Most of these stories seem based on a simplistic media prejudgment of the man. Ford: bad. Stories that belittle, humiliate, denigrate and ultimately crucify Ford: good.

And in this heated, increasingly toxic environment, allegations, gossip and rumour get given the same status as fact and build on themselves. Everything is sensationalized to such an extreme that it becomes impossible for the audience to pry even shreds of truth from the media frenzy. It’s like trying to apple bob in a piranha pool.

This, of course, one expects of Fox News, QMI and Sun News. The latter two Canadian media groups waffle between defending Ford (usually for no other reason than he is a Conservative) and wallowing in the mud with the likes of The Star, Globe and the NatPost. After all, tabloid-style headlines sell papers, and they don’t want to miss out on the public appetite for scandal, real or imagined. Dollars are at stake.

And, of course, some of these media outlets have political agendas and allegiances with other political parties. Reporters may also have personal or social allegiances they try to shove below the radar while they write their latest exposé, based on anonymous sources.

Even the once-credible CBC has gotten into the act, barely able to contain its delight while it roasts Ford over yet another allegation, all the while justifying its lack of actual fact by uttering stock phrases about not having seen the video, or the allegations being unproven. As if that makes a difference to the listener. It’s just the old nudge-nudge-wink-wink and no one is fooled.

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