The Spare — Wong Fu Productions

September 20, 2021

Wonderful modern story-telling, from Japan.

 


The “original” Craig’s List?

September 18, 2021

In those distant days before the internet, sixty years before Craig’s List, and using just the telephone, a couple from East Vancouver set up a middle-man position for people trying to buy and sell things.

“People who want to buy or sell anything can phone Boyd’s List and will receive information where buyers and/or sellers can be contacted.  A very reasonable charge is made for this service.” — Highland Echo, 24 April 1952.

Craig’s List … Boyd’s List — even the name is not new!


Lascaux

September 12, 2021

On this day in 1940, the Lascaux caves in central France were discovered by four teenagers. As they entered the long shaft down into the cavern, the boys saw vivid pictures of animals on the walls.

 

When the site was made available in the later 1940s, this cave art was wildly popular with the public. More importantly, it allowed everyone, both public and scientists, to understand more clearly that the so-called “cave men” were far more than the mindless brutes of previous imagination.

At about 17,000 years old, the Lascaux images are far from being the earliest known cave art today — several caves in Europe and Indonesia have art from about 40,000 years ago, and a recent “sketch” on a rock in South Africa may be much older.  However, the enormous trove of images (more than 900 animals identified) at Lascaux combined with the encouragement of tourist traffic to the location has allowed this cave complex to become the best known of all cave art.

The discovery at Lascaux marked an important anniversary in our understanding of who we are and where we came from.


Fran Lebowitz

August 27, 2021

A few weeks ago I caught Fran Lebowitz being interviewed on a late night talk show.  I had heard of her but never read any of her work.  She was quite interesting in the interview and I duly ordered a copy of The Fran Lebowitz Reader from the library. I guess others had seen her interview because I was third in line for the only copy. I finally got it last week and began to read.

The book is a series of short magazine-style pieces, reprints of her books Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, some  of which were first published as magazine articles in Interview, Mademoiselle, and British Vogue.  I enjoyed the first few pieces, and I can see why she was considered a sardonic wit, perhaps a new Dorothy Parker. Unfortunately, I quickly became bored with the style and the viewpoint; after a dozen or so pieces, you knew what was coming in the next chapter, and the writing seemed no longer witty but, rather, repetitious and small minded.

I suspect part of the problem is the fact that these were written in the 1970s and 1980s. Our television schedules these days are full of brash, outspoken commentary by highly intelligent women. Compared to them, Lebowitz in this collection comes across as little more powerful than a pre-sensimilla spliff. And, like a forty-year old roach, her writing hasn’t aged well.

That’s a shame because I was looking forward to it.


Modern Cave Art

August 21, 2021

Due to our acquaintance with cave art from the Mesolithic period (see Lascaux, etc), we have a tendency to associate cave paintings with Europe forty thousand years ago. But recent discoveries in South Africa show that a cave wall could remain a handy artistic surface until much more recently.

An illuminating article in the Conversation called “South Africa’s bandit slaves and the rock art of resistance” introduced me to the runaway slaves of early colonial South Africa and the art they created to process their experiences.

“Khoe-San people were forced into servitude as colonists took both land and livestock. Together with immigrant slaves they were the labor force for the colonial project. Desertion was their most common form of rebellion. Runaway slaves escaped into the borderlands and mounted a stiff resistance to the colonial advance from the 1700s until the mid-1800s. In most cases the fugitives joined forces with groups of skelmbasters (mixed outlaws), who themselves were descended from San-, Khoe- and isiNtu-speaking Africans (hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers).

Thus, we find recorded examples of mixed bandit groups hiding out in mountain rock shelters, within striking distance of colonial farms. Using guerrilla-style warfare they raided livestock and guns. In their refuge, they made rock art, images within their own belief systems that relate to escape and retaliation.”

The images can be reliably dated from their content, which includes guns.

“The paintings themselves are also mixed—some brush-painted, some finger-painted—but are united by subject matter pertaining to spiritual beliefs concerning escape and protective power. Certain motifs, including baboons and ostriches, continued to be used, but now appearing alongside motifs such as horses and guns. This suggests some continuity in the recognition of these animals, mystical or otherwise, as subject matter pertinent to people’s changed circumstances.”

The article provides a good overview of the overlay of colonial exploitation on traditional belief systems. It concludes:

“The rock art of bandit groups is bound up with beliefs in the ability to call upon the protection of the supernatural. Baboons and ostriches, painted with images of livestock and people on horseback with firearms, were heralded for their associated powers pertaining to escape and protection while raiding. For these runaway slaves, rock art was one of several crucial ritual observances performed to prevent the likelihood of ever returning to a life of oppression.”


Celebrating Canada Day?

July 1, 2021

Talk about conflicted!

In a month or so I will have been a resident here for 42 years. I have been fortunate enough to live and work all around the world, and there is no place I would rather call home than Vancouver. One of the proudest days of my life was 35 years ago when I became a Canadian citizen; I cried with joy that day, and I am tearing up now as I think of it.

So far as I recall, I learned nothing about Canada at school other than the death of Wolfe and the bravery of the “colonial” troops at Dieppe. Canada only began to exist for me as a real country (as for so many others my age) when Pierre Trudeau, the patrician-hippy, launched himself onto the world stage and danced around the Queen. When I got a job and first landed here in 1978, Canada was genuinely a new found land for me, so different from the class-bound society I grew up with.

In the last four decades I have tried to learn as much as possible about this country and its history. In the beginning, I was proud that Canada’s treatment of the First Nations did not descend into the genocide practiced by the Americans. Like many others I have been aware for a long time that the Residential School system was a despicable attempt to rob the original peoples of their land, their language and their heritage. That was bad enough, but theft, discrimination, and forced assimilation seemed to be the limit of it. Now, especially now, we know that that might have been the least of it.

The unmarked graves of one thousand children have already been found, and I am certain those numbers will grow by leaps and bounds once proper searches are completed. It is certain already that many or perhaps all of those “schools” — operated by “Christians”, for God’s sake — were in fact factories of death and degradation, designed to eliminate the indigenous population one way or another.

Combined with the ongoing refusal to this day to provide proper housing, education and water to many “reserves”, the legacy of the Residential concentration camp system is a deep and indelible stain on our history.

I am proud to be a Canadian and I love so much about the place and its people. But that stain makes it impossible to sing our praises on Canada Day.


Celebrating Canada Day?

June 24, 2021

Talk about conflicted!

In a month or so I will have been a resident here for 42 years. I have been fortunate enough to live and work all around the world, and there is no place I would rather call home than Vancouver. One of the proudest days of my life was 35 years ago when I became a Canadian citizen; I cried with joy that day, and I am tearing up now as I think of it.

So far as I recall, I learned nothing about Canada at school other than the death of Wolfe and the bravery of the “colonial” troops at Dieppe. Canada only began to exist for me as a real country (as for so many others my age) when Pierre Trudeau, the patrician-hippy, launched himself onto the world stage and danced around the Queen. When I got a job and first landed here in 1978, Canada was genuinely a new found land for me, so different from the class-bound society I grew up with.

In the last four decades I have tried to learn as much as possible about this country and its history. In the beginning, I was proud that Canada’s treatment of the First Nations did not descend into the genocide practiced by the Americans. Like many others I have been aware for a long time that the Residential School system was a despicable attempt to rob the original peoples of their land, their language and their heritage. That was bad enough, but theft, discrimination, and forced assimilation seemed to be the limit of it. Now, especially now, we know that that might have been the least of it.

The unmarked graves of one thousand children have already been found, and I am certain those numbers will grow by leaps and bounds once proper searches are completed. It is certain already that many or perhaps all of those “schools” — operated by “Christians”, for God’s sake — were in fact factories of death and degradation, designed to eliminate the indigenous population one way or another.

Combined with the ongoing refusal to this day to provide proper housing, education and water to many “reserves”, the legacy of the Residential concentration camp system is a deep and indelible stain on our history.

I am proud to be a Canadian and I love so much about the place and its people. But that stain makes it impossible to sing our praises on Canada Day.


What Slums Can Teach Us

April 30, 2021

In Prospect Magazine Online, there was an insightful article about how modern urban planners are learning concepts and specific ideas from the squatter slums of India, Brazil and elsewhere.  This is the latest incarnation of the new urbanism that emerged in the 1970s.  This was originally written in 2010.  I wonder what changes covid-19 will bring to this scenario:

One billion people live in these cities and, according to the UN, this number will double in the next 25 years. There are thousands of them and their mainly young populations test out new ideas unfettered by law or tradition. Alleyways in squatter cities, for example, are a dense interplay of retail and services—one-chair barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables. One proposal is to use these as a model for shopping areas. “Allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6pm,” suggests Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. “That will inject life into the city” …

The book’s optimism derived from its groundbreaking fieldwork: 37 case studies in slums worldwide. Instead of just compiling numbers and filtering them through theory, researchers hung out in the slums and talked to people. They came back with an unexpected observation: “Cities are so much more successful in promoting new forms of income generation, and it is so much cheaper to provide services in urban areas, that some experts have actually suggested that the only realistic poverty reduction strategy is to get as many people as possible to move to the city.” The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually by their residents. To a planner’s eye, these cities look chaotic. I trained as a biologist and to my eye, they look organic. Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

The article concludes with the following sobering thoughts:

And just as this was true during the industrial revolution, so the take-off of cities will be the dominant economic event of the first half of this century too. It will involve huge infrastructural stresses on energy and food supply. Vast numbers of people will begin climbing the energy ladder from smoky firewood and dung cooking fires to diesel-driven generators for charging batteries, then to 24/7 grid electricity. They are also climbing the food ladder, from subsistence farms to cash crops of staples like rice, corn, wheat and soy to meat—and doing so in a global marketplace. Environmentalists who try to talk people out of it will find the effort works about as well as trying to convince them to stay in their villages. Peasant life is over, unless catastrophic climate change drives us back to it. For humanity, the green city is our future.

Well worth the read.


This Anarchist’s View of The Vaccination Controversy

April 26, 2021

I wrote this in 2015 when there as a measles outbreak and the last anti-vax movement.  As I read today, in the context of covid-19, of schools in Florida refusing to allow vaccinated teachers to be close to kids, as I read today of some Vancouver business people hallucinating on QAnon anti-vax nonsense, I thought it would be worthwhile to read what I had written then.

*  *  *  *  *

Much of the western world appears to be suffering from a recurrence of measles, a disease that many of us had thought to have been essentially eradicated. It is a simple and undeniable fact that 99% of cases of measles can be avoided through the use of vaccination. However, some people see the potential dangers of that vaccination as worse than the disease itself; and that has created a major controversy, especially among those who are involved with public education.

I have followed this issue closely in the media and have, indeed, indulged in some conversations on Twitter about whether parents should be forced to vaccinate their children regardless of their own views. People that I usually trust have been strong advocates on both sides of the issue.  This is my point of view.

As an anarchist, I cannot possibly support the idea that parents should be forced, by law, to vaccinate their children, against measles or any other disease. To support such an idea would be a complete negation of my core beliefs regarding personal freedom. That being said, the anarchism to which I aspire is not a life without rules, it is a life wherein one makes a free choice whether or not to be a member of certain groups which have their own rules. In this case, I believe that schools, community centres, libraries etc can make rules, if their members so choose, that bar unvaccinated children from their premises and their services.

The perfectly reasonable price of personal freedom of choice is the acceptance of the consequences of such choice.

In the case of measles, my suggestion is far from radical; many school boards across the country already bar unvaccinated children. Unfortunately, we have not taken that step in Vancouver. Here, we are left in the ridiculous situation where I cannot give my school-bound child a peanut butter sandwich for lunch (on the off-chance that some other kid might be allergic) but I am forced to accept that some other kid may give mine a deadly disease. That is truly bizarre.


The Oldest Animal Art

January 13, 2021

Many of us have grown used to the idea that pre-historic cave painting is a European artform, and we rightly delight in the images at Lascaux in France, for example. However, a new study has shown that the earliest images of animals yet discovered are to be found in south-east Asia.

(Image: © AA Oktaviana)

This is a digitally enhanced image of a painting at Leang Tedongnge Cave, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, dated from 45,000 years ago.

As reported in the Live Science article:

The mulberry colored painting, drawn with the red mineral ochre, shows the profile of what is likely a Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), a wild stubby-legged beast with facial warts that can weigh up to nearly 190 pounds (85 kilograms). These pigs “are still found there today, although in ever-dwindling numbers,” said study co-lead researcher Adam Brumm, a professor of archaeology at Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.

Also noteworthy are the stenciled hands on the left of the photograph. These types of images have been found throughout the world in early contexts.


The Policies of Deliberate Exclusion

September 29, 2020

For those who haven’t already seen this brilliant TED talk by “professional rabble-rouser” Dave Meslin given a decade ago now, please spend six minutes to watch and learn. Meslin explains in compelling simplicity how policies of “deliberate exclusion” work to create an apathetic and inactive electorate.  It is timely given our own electoral happenings.

That’s what Civics lessons ought to be about.


What Slums Can Teach Us

September 27, 2020

In Prospect Magazine Online, there is an insightful article about how modern urban planners are learning concepts and specific ideas from the squatter slums of India, Brazil and elsewhere.  This is the latest incarnation of the new urbanism that emerged in the 1970s.

One billion people live in these cities and, according to the UN, this number will double in the next 25 years. There are thousands of them and their mainly young populations test out new ideas unfettered by law or tradition. Alleyways in squatter cities, for example, are a dense interplay of retail and services—one-chair barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables. One proposal is to use these as a model for shopping areas. “Allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6pm,” suggests Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. “That will inject life into the city” …

The book’s optimism derived from its groundbreaking fieldwork: 37 case studies in slums worldwide. Instead of just compiling numbers and filtering them through theory, researchers hung out in the slums and talked to people. They came back with an unexpected observation: “Cities are so much more successful in promoting new forms of income generation, and it is so much cheaper to provide services in urban areas, that some experts have actually suggested that the only realistic poverty reduction strategy is to get as many people as possible to move to the city.” The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually by their residents. To a planner’s eye, these cities look chaotic. I trained as a biologist and to my eye, they look organic. Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

 

The article concludes with the following sobering thoughts:

And just as this was true during the industrial revolution, so the take-off of cities will be the dominant economic event of the first half of this century too. It will involve huge infrastructural stresses on energy and food supply. Vast numbers of people will begin climbing the energy ladder from smoky firewood and dung cooking fires to diesel-driven generators for charging batteries, then to 24/7 grid electricity. They are also climbing the food ladder, from subsistence farms to cash crops of staples like rice, corn, wheat and soy to meat—and doing so in a global marketplace. Environmentalists who try to talk people out of it will find the effort works about as well as trying to convince them to stay in their villages. Peasant life is over, unless catastrophic climate change drives us back to it. For humanity, the green city is our future.

Well worth the read.


Lascaux

September 12, 2020

On this day in 1940, the Lascaux caves in central France were discovered by four teenagers. As they entered the long shaft down into the cavern, the boys saw vivid pictures of animals on the walls.

 

When the site was made available in the later 1940s, this cave art was wildly popular with the public. More importantly, it allowed everyone, both public and scientists, to understand more clearly that the so-called “cave men” were far more than the mindless brutes of previous imagination.

At about 17,000 years old, the Lascaux images are far from being the earliest known cave art today — several caves in Europe and Indonesia have art from about 40,000 years ago, and a recent “sketch” on a rock in South Africa may be much older.  However, the enormous trove of images (more than 900 animals identified) at Lascaux combined with the encouragement of tourist traffic to the location has allowed this cave complex to become the best known of all cave art.

The discovery at Lascaux marked an important anniversary in our understanding of who we are and where we came from.


Crime And a Lack of Confidence

January 10, 2020

I subscribe to a number of neighbourhood email lists, and talk to residents every day, and from this anecdotal evidence alone, it is clear that a wave of break-ins and thefts has swept over parts of Grandview recently. On Venables Street, for example, a number of households in a single block were hit night after night with burglaries and robberies. A man was caught trying to break into my own building last week, thwarted by a neighbour who called the police. It does have locals concerned and talking.

And this local concern seems to fit into a general pattern across the region (shootings in Metro, etc) and indeed the country.  According to a recent Angus Reid report, crime has increased from a low in 2014, ticking up slightly each year since:

 

Along with that comes a fall in the confidence that Canadians have in the various parts of the justice system:

 

I don’t offer any opinions on what this all means; just wanted to share the data.

 


Looking For Love With The Oxford Comma

December 31, 2019

This post, first published on 22nd February, was the most viewed on my site in 2019:

 

Image: from Reddit

I have always used the Oxford comma. Because of it, I have been abused by grammar “purists”, marked down in school, and “corrected” by copy editors all my life it seems, but still I am happy to cheer lead for it. The battle for and against the Oxford comma is deeply divisive but limited, or so I thought, to those who write a lot. No more, according to an article in GQ:

“Recently, the Oxford comma has found a spot on the Bingo card of online-dating profiles, alongside mainstays like “no hookups,” “no drama,” and “420 friendly.” Whether you’re mindlessly grazing on Tinder or Bumble, OkCupid or Match.com, you’re now as likely to learn someone’s thoughts on the Oxford comma as you are their job title or their penchant for tacos. On the Tinder subreddit, which has 1.8 million subscribers, one user lamented that the Oxford comma features in “like a quarter of bios ’round my parts.” Another said, “It’s everywhere.” Even a journal entry on Tinder’s own blog mentions it: “Honestly, I’m not sure how compatible I can be with someone who is anti-the Oxford comma.”

I sympathize with that final cri de coeur.  However, is it really so important that it can affect your love life?  According to GQ, it is a reliable class signifier:

“The blue-blood punctuation mark, named after the Oxford University Press, acts as a social signifier, a sieve for the bookish and studious (and, perhaps, pretentious). It suggests personality traits that extend far beyond punctuation preferences …  I think it suggests care. It suggests somebody who’s structured and disciplined and not a slob … Somebody who’s into detail, who likes precision. Somebody who has standards.”

Gosh. Who knew?


The States They Are A’Changin’

December 29, 2019

As part of its end of year review the Pew Research Centre has issued a number of graphs and reports about the changing face of the United States.  As someone who believes in open borders and the power of diversity, I was particularly interested in the following conclusions.

 

 

These major demographic trends will doubtless create a more interesting and pluralistic society.  However, I have concerns that the nativist white identity culture enraged and encouraged by the current crop of GOP leadership will fall back on violent means to retain their grip on power. The long term hope has to be in the youth of the country who seem, in general at least, to be far less interested in ideas of racial purity.  Fingers crossed.


Deep History

October 6, 2019

A quick review of  David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.


For International Women’s Day

March 8, 2019

To me, it is a no-brainer that women should be — and should be treated as — equal to men in all respects.  Arguments against this thesis — whether by religionists (of any faith), GOPers, Tories, and other misogynists — do not rise above the thinking of Neanderthals.  For anyone with a whit of common sense and a whiff of humanity it should be obvious, I would have thought. Unfortunately, that is not the case in many parts of the world.

In 2015, Pew Research conducted a Global Attitudes survey in 38 countries that revealed significant differences of opinion. I doubt the figures have changed much since then.

[select image for a better view]

Even in countries, like Canada, the US, and the UK, which appear to score well in this survey, women are still not treated as equals when it comes to pay and opportunities in management, the professions, and science.  The 2016 US Presidential election revealed a continuing deep distrust (at best) regarding the possibility of a woman taking the top job.

There are structural gender issues that have to be fixed in all societies but that doesn’t mean to say we should leave the fix for politicians to deal with.  Far from it. If, as individuals, we all are careful to treat every other individual as a human being rather than as a member of some group or other, then we can solve this unhappy situation far quicker and more completely than any legislation.


Leisure Time

February 26, 2019

A new analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Pew Research is illuminating changes in time usage by North American teenagers.

The Pew research notes:

“Teens now enjoy more than five and a half hours of leisure a day (5 hours, 44 minutes). The biggest chunk of teens’ daily leisure time is spent on screens: 3 hours and 4 minutes on average. This figure, which can include time spent gaming, surfing the web, watching videos and watching TV, has held steady over the past decade. On weekends, screen time increases to almost four hours a day (3 hours, 53 minutes), and on weekdays teens are spending 2 hours and 44 minutes on screens …

Over the past decade, the time spent socializing – including attending parties, extracurriculars, sporting or other entertainment events as well as spending time with others in person or on the phone – has dropped by 16 minutes, to 1 hour and 13 minutes a day.”

The report also illustrates differences between girls and boys:

Perhaps more important than the actual time differences are differences in attitude:

” the way boys and girls feel about their day also differs in some key ways. A new survey by Pew Research Center of teens ages 13 to 17 finds that 36% of girls say they feel tense or nervous about their day every or almost every day; 23% of boys say the same. At the same time, girls are more likely than boys to say they get excited daily or almost daily by something they study in school (33% vs. 21%). And while similar shares of boys and girls say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades, be involved in extracurricular activities or fit in socially, girls are more likely than boys to say they face a lot of pressure to look good (35% vs. 23%).”

A useful study, I think.


Cultural Impact

February 23, 2019

A recent study has analysed the demographics of the artists included in 18 major museums in the US, a sample that included more than 40,000 artworks.  It will probably not be an amazing surprise to learn:

“[t]hey estimate that 85 percent of artists represented in these collections are white and 87 percent are men. (This is significantly out of step with the US population at large, which is 61 percent white and 50.2 percent male, according to census data.) ” [emphasis added]

While the article makes clear there are efforts afoot in the museum world to confront this diversity gap, I have to wonder how much of this gap was caused by a general sexist/racist bias in society as a whole, and how much in turn the gap in cultural collections feed and perpetuate that same white patriarchal mythology.

Which is cause and which is feedback?