Friday, April 25, 2014

Schiphol moments

1.

Schiphol is an exercise in protestant European orderliness. A female voice over the P.A. system drones on in a friendly, unwavering monotone about which flights are arriving and departing at which gates. Somehow, this exact same voice cautions "Watch your step" every time we step on or off the moving sidewalk. I wonder if they are twin sisters working in tandem, Bertildis and Betje. Or maybe androids? Over the hours of our stopover, the voices never vary in pitch or cadence.

2.

Hedonism is permitted, if strictly regulated. I see a small group of men smoking cigarettes in a tiny glass box. Meanwhile, the airport gift shop openly sells ash trays and all sorts of items emblazoned with a cannabis leaf.

3.

Our return stopover here is unbearable - an eight-hour wait. We opt to steal some sleep at a nearby hotel with hourly rates. A free shuttle bus takes us through five minutes of Dutch countryside, and along the way we see adult cows with short, stubby legs. If Darwin had it right, we can assume their legs would be longer if they really needed to be. Unsurprising that in this part of the world, they are efficiently constructed and engineered, with no bone or muscle wasted.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Things I Can Live Without: Ideology

The following was submitted to the Ottawa Sun as a letter to the editor.
____

Re: Conservative view of Flaherty legacy, April 16

Ideology is an invitation to stop thinking for yourself, and can lead to intellectual dishonesty. Witness John Robson as he reflexively gags on the notion that Keynesian economics helped see our country out of the financial crisis.  “As a conservative doctrinaire,” he writes, “I still think those deficits harmed us.”

Merriam-Webster defines ‘doctrinaire’ as “one who attempts to put into effect an abstract doctrine or theory with little or no regard for practical difficulties.” It would seem Mr. Robson wishes we had put ideological purity ahead of the economic well-being of our country.

When he tries to convince us that John Maynard Keynes got it wrong, is he telling us the truth as he sees it based on careful analysis, or is he simply upholding a dogma at any cost? (Keynes predicted that the severity of reparations imposed on Germany would result in chaos in Europe. As the subsequent rise of Hitler teaches us, he most certainly got it right.)

As for other countries’ stimulus spending, he doesn’t consider whether it was sensibly applied, nor does he consider mitigating factors. The problems with the United States’ economy, for example, run too deep to assume a direct correlation between the size of a stimulus-incurred deficit and the extent of the recovery.

Any practical conservative would agree that we need clear-headed pragmatists with a wider view to guide us to prosperity, and not knee-jerk zealotry.

James Deagle
Ottawa

Monday, April 21, 2014

Things I Like: Beachwood Sparks

I hope you had a great Easter. For the foreseeable future, all blog posts (starting with this one) will contain a clue that will add up to an 'Easter egg' for those nerdy enough to put it all together. The clues will make no sense on their own - you'll have to check in on a regular basis and look at them in sequence. Also, don't just look in the body text of any given post. Look in all of the elements, from the headline on down to the comments. The only other clue regarding the clues (the meta-clue, if you will), is that each post's respective clue will always be in the same spot. 

This will be the last mention of this endeavor until someone posts the solution in the comments of this particular post.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program...

If you're like me, you don't find much to rally behind in today's pop music, nor in the deluge of pop music being marketed as 'alternative' or 'indie'. A certain something just seems to be missing in most (if not all) of what you hear on Top 40 radio. As a result, I'm guilty of falling back on oldies of one sort or another, music from a time when songwriting and musicianship meant something.

There comes a point, however, when one must stop living in the past and find that which is vital in our own time. Thus, I concentrate much of my music listening on other avenues, particularly shows like Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW, an NPR station broadcasting out of Santa Monica College. 

If you're also willing to scour the Internet, you can also make some startling discoveries. One such find happened while I was on a website devoted to jam bands, trying to find some contemporary equivalents of the Grateful Dead. I happened upon a review of the then-new Beachwood Sparks reunion album, The Tarnished Gold, and it was like a revelation. From the opening acoustic strum of Forget the Song giving way to swelling keyboards and steel guitar and then to soaring vocal harmonies, it was like a bracing gust of fresh air after being cooped up inside.

While not a Grateful Dead pastiche, they certainly hark back to an era that encompassed what I consider the Dead's golden era, namely from 1969 to 1974. More accurately, they continue the tradition of Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds, as well as the mellow 'country rock' typical of the so-called Laurel Canyon scene of the time.

And although their self-titled debut album from 2000 is awash in Byrdsian 12-string guitars, they are not specifically a nostalgia act. The Tarnished Gold in particular shows a maturity and confidence that comes with experience and craftmanship, and features a sound that is not so easily pinned to their iconic forebears. While the songs therein are great for when you want to drift away on some good vibrations, it is also music that stands up to repeated listening, and offers something new each time around.

In these days of smug sarcasm and ironic detachment, it's refreshing to hear music that comes straight from the heart.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Things I Like: Public transit

Beyond the carbon footprint-reducing environmental benefits, commuting by public transit has much to offer, namely:
  • time to read, contemplate, meditate, or even grab a catnap, 
  • the chance to be exposed to a more varied mix of people, including those from outside of your caste, 
  • the possibility of communicating with said people in ways that don't involve laying on a car horn and raising a middle finger, 
  • did I mention catnaps? 
  • a justification for being able to say to a co-worker "My driver is picking me up at 4:17", 
  • watching the same ol' landscape for something new (and there's always something new), 
  • a reason to embrace slowness as a moral imperative in a stressed-out world, where saying "I'll get there when I get there" could be construed as a treasonable act, and
  • a way to extend the life of your car while sticking it to the gasoline cartels. 
Yes, I ride the bus to work, and offer no apologies to those car-centric elitists who would cast aspersions.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Things I Can Live Without: The culture of anti-smoking

Full disclosure: I am a former heavy smoker who hasn't touched a cigarette since September 2005, with the exception of lighting a cigarette for a gentleman who had fallen after slipping on some ice in January 2010. (As the first responder, it was my next order of business after calling the ambulance.) Far from triggering a relapse, that brief puff only reinforced how glad I am to have left that filthy habit behind.

With that out of the way, let me say that I find our society's fixation on demonizing smokers highly suspect, as I believe very little of it has anything to do with saving lives.

Can cigarettes cause cancer? Absolutely. On the other hand, we live in a world that is chockablock with known carcinogens, or things that could be shown to be carcinogenic if the powers that be had the appetite to get to the bottom of it.

What about the other things that cause illness and misery, such as the overconsumption of alcohol? Where are the scary warning labels on booze? "This product can destroy your family." "Alcohol consumption can lead to transgressive or abusive behavior." "This is a liver bloated by a lifetime of liquid lunches." (In fairness, there is a movement here in Ontario for such labels, but as far as I can tell it is still just that - a movement rather than a sanctioned cause.)

How about the stress the average person takes on while pursuing their required alotment of status symbols? Years ago, my old family doctor told me that easily 80 percent of the cases coming through his practice were stress-related. If his observation is representative of the public at large, then why hasn't stress been declared a wide-scale public health emergency? Where is the movement to unilaterally ban its biggest causes? (My own belief is that there are some who work themselves sick, and others who benefit economically from that unwarranted level of loyalty and commitment, but that's a whole other thing.)

In the end, cigarettes are an easy target: they're stinky, they discolor human tissue after prolonged exposure, and are unhealthy enough to distract the populace from asking serious questions about other sources of illness.

Instead, we have ever more graphic warning labels that I presume are meant leave us with the warm and gooey feeling that comes with knowing that cancer is being eradicated, one supposedly grossed-out smoker at a time.

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NEXT - Things I Like: Public transit

Monday, April 14, 2014

Things I Like: General interest magazines

In recent years I have cooled to the idea of special interest media. That's not to say I don't ever seek out an all-music radio station, an all-news TV channel, or magazines geared to a narrow topic - it's just that I've become more open-ended in how I approach my media consumption.

The biggest reason for this shift from special to general interest is a desire to be caught off guard by unexpected topics or perspectives, to be pulled in a direction I didn't know existed. A good example of this is demonstrated by a change in how I buy and read magazines.

There was a time when I would hunt down whatever magazine scratched a very specific itch, be it guitars, cameras or poetry, to name a few. And prior to making a purchase decision, I would accumulate a shortlist and then pour through the contents of each until I determined which one would give me maximum reading pleasure for my money.

This seemed to work for a number of years, even though it meant I usually knew exactly what was coming next, and, ironically, often found myself skipping over entire articles.

Fast-forward to the present, where my tendency now is to simply grab a title I know and love (such as Harper's, The New Yorker, or the Saturday Evening Post), and do my utmost to not glance at the table of contents or even study the cover too closely before sitting down to read it from cover-to-cover.

In this way, I now make a much heavier demand on a magazine - whereas before it only had to satisfy whatever nich whim I was following at the time, now I expect it to do nothing less than open up whole new worlds to me.

That's a pretty tall order, but when it is met, reading becomes the thrilling adventure it was always meant to be.

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NEXT -  Things I  Can Live Without: The culture of anti-smoking

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Deagle's Law

If it is true that everyone has a twin somewhere in the world, then it follows that everyone also has a mother with some explaining to do.