Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reading, Between the Lines

...it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.
Recently I was catching up on my reading (sitting on a street car allows such habits) when I found this article in the New Yorker called the Twilight of Books. As a Canadian, I'm used to bookworms like those on CBC radio (who seem to fetishize books and authors) complaining about the increase in television and video games and the decline of books. As a person who loves books (with big pictures) and whose brain is mostly interested in visual stimuli, I've always wondered why book nerds get so hopped up on illiteracy and reading. There are hundreds of literacy advocacy groups but I can't think of a single one that promotes "visual literacy" (plenty of Canadians are visual illiterates). I've always wondered what was the case to be made for reading. Why is it important? After all, for most of humanity's existence we've lived in oral societies without any written language. What's the big deal if our dependence on television, film, gaming and the Internet means we revert back to an oral tradition?

Turns out that reading actually changes your brain and that the only way we can have any kind of critical analysis of a topic (be it religion, business, art or science) is through reading. So all you teachers out there, read this article (or download and print it) and arm yourselves with the kind of knowledge you'll need to convince a kid to put down the x-box controller and pick up Halo, Books 1-3.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Ed Burtynsky, Nanpu Bridge Interchange, Shanghai, 2004

Tonight TVO showed the film about Ed Burtynsky's photography, called Manufactured Landscapes. Though Burtynsky's photos are beautiful and captivating, I can't escape the feeling that he's actually documenting the End. This is how the world ends, this is what it looked like just before we finished and here are the documents that will describe how we plundered the planet. Sort of like the heads on Easter Island. Lasting monuments to a people who foolishly kept carving giant heads while they were running out of trees, food and a sustainable place to live.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Over Christmas we received a calendar with each month showcasing a different Italian movie poster so I've decided to watch each month's film. January was Fellini's "I Vitelloni" also released as "The Guys" or "The Young and the Passionate" though I don't know where the "Passion" was. In fact, this is the story of 5 friends who all lack passion in some way as they live at home and basically sponge off their families and do nothing other than drink, stay out late and chase girls. Thus the term, common here in Toronto, of a guy who's a Vitellone - just a lay about, a young calf getting fat (like a piece of veal). One thing that struck me about the movie was what a complete cad the 'skirt chaser' character is. There's no way in a movie today could you depict someone who forces himself on women as comical. Despite that, you can see Fellini's hand at work especially in the Carnavale scene or in the general theme of, I don't know, that surreal limbo or boredom Fellini seems to embalm his characters in.

It's funny how some films in the seventies (like The Omega Man) really look dated but with these older films you forgive a lot, maybe often assuming they'll look dated. Instead, these silvern gems often look classic (maybe just because they are black and white) but more surprising is when the humour holds up as well. Such is the case of the 1951 film the Lavender Hill Mob. It's fairly simple story of a quiet bank employee (Alec Guinness) who decides to cash in for a better life. He concocts the perfect scheme to steal millions in gold bullion only to have the plan fray at the seams until it falls apart. The best thing is, as it predates cussin' in movies, it is guaranteed grandparent-save viewing. If you watch any film made after 1960 with my parents, you'll definitely hear a few "tut-tutts" ruining your viewing pleasure.


Last weekend I saw the animated and Oscar nominated film "Persepolis" and it really is one of those films everyone can enjoy ("Something for the whole family"). It depicts the story of Marjane Satrapi growing up and escaping/leaving revolutionary Iran. The film is wonderfully animated (ah the French know a thing or two about cartooning), and beautifully designed. The design generally follows from Satrapi's comic book illustrations, but you really can't just animate a comic book to make a film. The film makers have done a great job of maintaining the spirit and style of Starapi while adding the depth, weight and dimensionality that animation requires. The story is also extended and shortened where necessary to work as a film rather than a book. If you have a chance, see it or rent it when it becomes available.

PS. Not that I give too much weight to the Oscars but it's a damn shame that Persepolis and Ratatouille were both nominated as both films are stand-outs - can't they give 'em a shared award?


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Live Feed

After a holiday where I probably gained a pound per day, I returned to Toronto to find Bernice had printed a Michael Pollan article from the New York Times Magazine called Unhappy Meals. The gist of the essay is simple with a clear directive for how we should eat.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Pollan then spends the rest of the article explaining this mind-blowing manifesto and how the science of "nutritionism" is making us sick (see the CBC article). If you are too lazy to read the whole thing (by the way, literacy = critical thinking), he's even made a 9 point summation which goes something like this (which I've edited to be even shorter so you really should read the original);

"1. Eat food. Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn't recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They're apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don't forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number -- or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won't find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer's market; you also won't find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more, eat less.

''Eat less'' is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. ''Calorie restriction'' has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. To make the ''eat less'' message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don't know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what's so good about plants -- the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? -- but they do agree that they're probably really good for you and certainly can't hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you'll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less ''energy dense'' than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (''flexitarians'') are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren't a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn't still be around.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of ''health.'' Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It's all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn't bordered by your body and that what's good for the soil is probably good for you, too."

Do yourself a favor, go print the article and digest it. It might be the healthiest thing you do on Robbie Burns day.


Friday, January 18, 2008

I Am Legend | The Omega Man | 28 Days Later

The only film I saw this Christmas was "I Am Legend". Not that I'm complaining. It was a good movie, and though I never really thought of the story as a zombie-genre film it made me curious to see other zombies-by-virus films. So I rented "28 Days Later" and the 1971 version of "I Am Legend", "The Omega Man" to compare.

The greatest thing about all three films is seeing major cities in apocalyptic abandonment (NYC in I Am Legend, L.A. in The Omega Man and London in 28 Days). As you might expect, the 1970's Omega Man doesn't really hold up. While it's interesting seeing L.A. empty, the production is pretty bad —3 years after a plague and there are still plenty of newspapers blowing around? In the early seventies some studios were spending a lot of money on cheesy sci-fi epics like The Omega Man. Or maybe it was just Charlton Heston? The Seventies seemed pockmarked with movies like Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run. They all have terrible scores and miserable sound effects (was there a composer and foley artist shortage? These movies all "sounded" the same). The dialogue reeks pretty heavily but most of all, with the strangely cast players and poor production values, these movies all look pretty much like television programs. All of those movies have the same look as "McCloud", "Columbo", "The Rockford Files" or "Macmillan and Wife".

I Am Legend is a far better film and it's pretty amazing seeing New York overgrown and abandoned with weeds and plants sprouting through cracks in the street and sidewalks with deer running wild down Broadway. Unlike Omega Man, I Am Legend spends an admirable amount of time showing Robert Neville's (Will Smith) routine of having the city to himself. Because so much of the film focusses on Neville, it means the standard "Holding Back the Zombies" component is much shorter and intense which only helps the pacing.

28 Days Later follows a more conventional arc of a zombie film but the one thing it adds (which I Am Legend keeps) is that the infected zombies are very fast, violent and frightening. In older films you wonder what is exactly so scary about slow moving, dim witted walking corpses. Again, seeing a major city like London deserted is a lot of fun. In this case, the abandonment was short and violent so the littered streets and overturned and burned out vehicles make sense. Another fun aspect of 28 Days is that it is more realistic. People are dirty and no one is taking their leisure looting from clothing shops. The lead character, Jim, at one point is suffering from a headache brought on by a sugar crash — he had been subsisting on junk food for 3 days as it was all they could find to eat. Another character complains that he had seen in a movie that you could collect water as condensation from plastic sheeting but he couldn't get it to work.

If these flicks are too intense then rent "Fido" a Canadian Sci-fi-zombie-comedy (a Zombedy?) which has a zombie filling as both a pet and best friend of a lonely young boy or try Shaun of the Dead, a great and funny parody of the classic zombie movies of the past where it's hard to tell the zombies from the bored slacker teens.

So if you feel like becoming a couch zombie, then check out these clips:

Dawn of the Dead
I Am Legend
The Omega Man
28 Days Later
Shaun of the Dead

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Monday, January 14, 2008

The corner of King and Spadina, Toronto, near where I've recently started working.

Last week was the first time in 2 years that I regularly had to get myself out of bed before seven in the AM each day and I'll be honest, I only barely survived. Let's just say that after 5 years of dragging myself to work by 10, followed by 2 years of working from home (meaning up by 8 or later) left me ill-equipped to re-enter the waking, working world. Yet, re-entry to the office-sphere went smoother than expected. Perhaps that's because the project is good, the people are nice (many of whom I know from previous work) and in general, everything is really familiar. The space itself is almost identical to Critical Path's office — exposed beam and brick, and is situated in the downtown core. I take the same street car in the morning and if I desired could walk to the same places for lunch. Despite all of this familiarity, I still get the same pangs of nerves in my gut — mostly from that moment when I realize just how much work there is to do.

Much of this problem is caused by the Sun's insistence on not making an appearance before 7:30 AM. Tomorrow the Sun rises at 7:49. I too will rise. Unfortunately I'll be up 50 minutes before the Sun.

If only I could be as chipper as this song when I get up:
listen here


Friday, January 04, 2008

Wipe the holiday sentiment outta yer eyes! Sunday, The Wire's fifth and last season on HBO begins.

There’s an incredible poetry in Clark directing the last episode. He’s the bookend of the show, in terms of directing. There were 30 original crew members with the show at the end, and everyone knows everyone well, and Clark is probably our most beloved director.

Forget following the Britney saga, ignore stories of cut up matinée idols and watch The Wire. While countless awards were thrown at the Sopranos et al, The Wire has quietly continued as the best show on television for 4 seasons and the 5th season should be no different. I'd also put forward that The Wire is also one of the most important shows on television. Collectively the show is really like the Fall of the American City and just how complex modern issues in any American city could be but even more so of a manufacturing center like Baltimore (loss of Beth Steel leads to the closing of the port, leads to mass unemployment, drugs, crime, poor health care, weakened education and racial tensions are all captured in painful human detail). It also demonstrates television's place as a viable re-invention of the long-form narrative. Best of all, for fans of Homicide: Life in the City, Toronto resident, Clark Johnson will be stepping out from behind the camera to take a prominent acting role this season.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Christmas Pics

Enjoy these photos, some taken in Newfoundland, some in Toronto, of our holiday shenanigans. Speaking of which, my getting back to the Big Smoke was an awful kerfuffle. My 6AM flight (which we woke up at 3:30AM to catch) from St.John's (YYT) left late which mattered little because my connecting flight in Halifax (YHZ) was cancelled (ostensibly due to weather - 20 flights were cancelled, mostly Air Canada ones). Thoughtfully, Air Canada went out of their way to offer me a piece of paper with a phone number on it. After oscillating between the customer service desk and trying the phone number (I never did speak to an agent) I discovered I had been placed on standby, along with everyone else on two afternoon flights and reserved on a flight for January 1st. Rather than passively accept whatever crap they handed me, I decided to connect to Halifax airport's wi-fi (thank you Internet) and find another flight. WestJet came up empty but Porter Air had a flight leaving early the afternoon that went through Ottawa (YOW) and landed at the downtown Island Airport (YTZ, not YYZ which is Pearson Int'l). I booked it, I took it, and I landed terra firma at 4PM local time (30 minutes late due to head winds) which was only 6½ hours later than I should have arrived. 45 minutes later, I walked through my front door, over 30hrs faster than had I accepted Air Canada's offer. I later calculated I had travelled by car, jet plane, prop plane, passed through 4 airports (though only 2 security checks), took a ferry (probably less than 300ft separate the Island Airport from mainland Toronto), a bus, the subway and finally, a streetcar. I suppose if I'd taken my bicycle or hitched a ride on a donkey I would've covered every mode of transport. I'm like the armed forces (by land, sea and air). Ah well, that only leaves me to try to recoup my losses from the indubitable scoundrels at Air Canada (hereby known as Air Cannot). I will say this, while I'm opposed to an airport on Toronto Island (It doesn't make sense economically or environmentally and unbelievably, can take the same amount of time to get as Pearson), flying Porter does feel pretty glamorous. You get all the little perks such as complimentary lunch and Stella Artois and when you land on the island you see Toronto's skyline stretched out before you. All this while stepping out of a small twin prop plane onto the tarmac, followed by a short boat ride to shore. It's like you're in an old film noir movie or something ("this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship" kind of movie). Shameful isn't it? Me enjoying glamour over principles.

The following video shows the storm that scraped over Halifax that begat my mini-epic odyssey in the first place.

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