The Winter Solstice and Trying to Explain the Movement of the Sun

Many years ago I found myself trying to explain the movement of the sun during the winter to a class in Victoria, British Columbia, and ever since I have been struck by how cultural knowledge can be allowed or disallowed by geography. If you try to explain snow, for instance, to someone from the Cook Islands 00000in the central South Pacific—as I did when I was teaching there—you receive blank stares. My students understood the notion of frost and ice, for some islanders had freezers for the preservation of fish, but when I tried to describe how my entire country00000 sits beneath a blanket of such a substance, they agreed just to be polite.

When I tried to imagine the Atacama Desert before I went there this past summer, I was in a similar situation. I never imagined that the desert would be so completely dead. I was surprised that I could stand amongst the rocks and sand and not see a single living thing. Not a bug or weed or fly managed to live in such a desiccated place, although I expected that nowhere on the planet would be that barren.

Nearly thirty years ago I took a course in Icelandic literature at the University of Victoria, I was on the other end of that strange ignorance born from a lack of personal experience. I am from eastern Canada, and was lucky enough to grow up in a rural area where I had the four seasons explained to me in terms of the movement of the sun. Victoria has a monsoon climate, which means there are two seasons, summer, in which it rarely rains and is sunny nearly every day, and monsoon winter, in which it rarely is cold enough to snow but rains nearly every day.

People living in a monsoon climate know little about the movement of the sun in the winter, and that is why, when the question arose in class I had difficulty telling my instructor and fellow students what a line in the text meant. The line from the Vinland Sagas we were studying made reference to the “sun marching around the corner of the house” and the professor confessed that he had never understood the meaning of that line. He knew the line was referring to the passage of time, 00000but it made no sense to him that the sun’s movement could be used in this context. I tried to explain it from my seat, but when that made no sense to anyone in the class, I was allowed to go to the board and try my hand at drawing the movement of the sun.

In the northern climates, the earth’s tilt along its year-long orbit is angled in such a way that the sun does not climb from the due east and drop in the due west as it does in the tropics, but rather appears to cut across the corner of the sky. At times during the winter, the sun in the very far north merely peeks above the horizon, travels along it briefly, and then dips below again. That means, as far as the view from the ground in a stable place00000 like a house, the summer sun will rise due east, and then as the year grows later it will rise further and further in the south, until the winter solstice passes, and then it will begin its trek back to the location of its summer rising. In other words, to the careful observer, the sun appears to travel around the corner of the house.

This halting of the sun’s movement is happening as I write this tonight, for we are partway through the longest night of the year, December 21st. I know, intellectually if not intuitively, that the sun will be a little stronger tomorrow, and will rise slightly higher in the sky each subsequent day until nights of minus seventeen, like now, are a thing of the past.

All those years ago, I stood at the board in that classroom, and even though I did not have the pedagogical tools at my disposal that I have now that I have been teaching for twenty years, I tried my best to explain to them how the sun might appear to travel, at least when it is described poetically. The professor was patient, and tried to understand me, and the students were by turns attentive and dismissive, depending on their temper, but none of them could make out what I was claiming. In fact, and I could see this by their faces, many thought I was spouting pure balderdash.

Finally, the professor feigned to understand, just to get me to return to my seat, and left me to puzzle over why something that should be so simple, something to me that was so obvious, should be so difficult to explain or understand. It was a few days before I realized that I had been lucky to grow up in a rural area where the sun’s rising throughout the year was noticed and remarked upon. I rose early for school, and was able to see the movement of the sun, as day by day, it rose farther and farther to the south before the winter solstice and then farther east high_low_sunin the spring. Finally in summer, I remember the sun setting in a huge golden ball right in the middle of the north south running road.

For those of my fellow students, as well as my professor, who had grown up in Victoria, where the leaden clouds are parted for perhaps three times the entire winter, they would have had no such experience to draw upon. For them, the sun was sighted but rarely and was more or less in the same place in the sky. If I had been their astronomy professor explaining how the tilt of the earth affects the angle and location of the rising sun they would no doubt have made more effort, but since I was merely the student from the back of the class who took it upon himself to interpret a line from the Vinland Sagas, and used such an arcane notion of the movement of the sun, they could not credit it.

I’ve thought since that there was likely no way that I could have described such a difficult matter to people for whom it seemed to be patent nonsense. They had never seen the sun moving around like I described, and had put little thought into what the axial tilt of the Earth might mean. Therefore, 0000I was explaining something arcane by reference to something impossible. I was like a man explaining how the ghost he had seen was related to religious mythology. My fellow students might have tested my statement by research, but without the visceral experience, they would have difficulty even knowing which thread to follow.

The acknowledgement of geographical limitations on a student’s ability to learn is an important aspect of a general pedagogical approach. Northern lights can be

The aurora of February 9, 2014 seen from Churchill, Manitoba at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in a view looking northwest from the main building over the trees, with the 10-22mm lens. This is a 10-second exposure at f/4 and ISO 800 with the Canon 60Da. Moonlight lights the landscape. Cassiopeia is at upper left. (Alan Dyer/VWPics/Redux)

The aurora of February 9, 2014 seen from Churchill, Manitoba at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Moonlight lights the landscape. Cassiopeia is at upper left. (Alan Dyer/VWPics/Redux)

described to someone from the topics, but it might be better to use a video, and likewise for the tides to someone from a landlocked country. I have taught texts about the ocean in Winnipeg many times, but each time I make sure to describe what the tides are like on the ocean to the observer on the ground, 00000and by using the large lakes north of the city, the action of waves. As instructors, we need to ensure that we put some thought into the basis of understanding that our students might have, whether that is due to their cultural background, or the influence of geography.

Posted in Ancient Peoples, Culture, History, Literature, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on The Winter Solstice and Trying to Explain the Movement of the Sun

The Best line from a Student Paper

Although I have read many great student sentences over the years, probably the most memorable one is from my student’s essay when I was teaching in the United States. One of my students was writing about Frederick Douglass, the famous former slave, orator, and abolitionist, but the grammar of their essay turned against them and they ended up saying something very different from what they likely intended.

Although I have since—after many thousands of pages of marking—forgotten the paper itself, I remember the sentence: “Not only was Frederick Douglass a slave, but he had to work for long hours for low pay and frequent beatings.” They were right about some of their assertions. Frederick Douglass (born February 1818 – February 20, 1895) had been a slave in Maryland before he escaped to become the famous agitator for both black and women’s rights. Also, Douglass was frequently beaten; the student was right about that as well. As far as low pay, it is true that “low” 00000does not begin to describe how poor was the remuneration for slave work.

It is worth considering the sentence more carefully, however. Looking it over for more than its mistakes, it can be found to raise interesting albeit problematic questions. The beginning, “not only” makes the first clause subordinate, and implies that whatever follows will either build upon or supersede the initial statement: “Frederick Douglass a slave.” The reader is thus prepared for some other pieces of information related to his slavery but also possibly other portions of his life that inform his slavery or slavery in general.

The information the reader receives is not entirely expected. The notion of the student, 00000who—and perhaps this speaks rather highly of their moral sense if not their understanding of slavery—believes that slavery is a paying position, is likely due to modern idiomatic usage of the term. People who have to work for long hours, frequently complain, “I worked like a slave all day,” and when they mention mistreatment, they say, half tongue-in-cheek, “what am I, a slave?” Thus the student, who likely works for “slave 000010wages,” or minimum wage, has probably heard the expression applied to work like their own. As well, they may well find it impossible to imagine someone being forced to work for nothing, although the American Japanese internment camps, as well as the work camps of the Nazis, are there to disabuse them of the notion.

In modern times,0000110 this type of work is done by people with intellectual disabilities, who are sometimes hired for an extremely low government-paid stipend, although many of them may be more than capable than doing a day’s work. In that case they are merely being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers (surely a tautology) 000020who are abusing a system set up for people whose work skills do not add value in the traditional sense. Other forms of free labour that are common in society would be the demand for long unpaid, training periods for new workers, and the volunteer experience people are expected to use to pad their resume.

It is to the student’s credit that they found working for nothing hard to imagine, although it speaks volumes about how their education system failed them in terms of describing a major component of their own history. Note as well that his hours were “long,” which indicates the student is further noting the unfairness of the system.

Where the grammar gets increasingly strange is when the student considers the other part of Douglass’ pay. He works for “low pay” and “frequent beatings.” Although the use of the and is likely the an inadvertent result of the student’s prose getting away from them, the he or she has implied that Douglass was partly paid in beatings. Perhaps that was meant to make up 0000for the lowness of the pay, but whatever the result, it begs the question of whether he would have been willing to take more pay and less beatings, or whether the frequency of the beatings is meant to be a positive aspect of his pay system. He was paid regularly and beat frequently, which perhaps in the mind of the student is better than being paid on no set schedule and being constantly surprised by sudden and unplanned beatings.

The second and principal clause is where the sentence gets the strangest, but because of that it encourages the reader to forget that it is meant to supplement the statement made in the initial clause. “Not only” was he a slave, Douglass also had to be a slave. The statement implies that the student has a more uncertain notion of slavery than the reader might initially suppose. Although there are many more components to slavery, like denial to due process under the law, inability to own property, denial to medical care, inability to travel without permission, and say, “being owned,” the main idea that would come into the reader’s mind upon reading about Douglass being a slave was that he would be mistreated and likely had to work. The student reads this as somehow exacerbating Douglass’ slave status.

In a way, the student’s naiveté about slavery, and the mistreatment of his or her fellow citizens, or the people who would become his or her fellow citizens after emancipation, is endearing. They find the horror of the institution of slavery so impossible to understand that they cannot imagine even its more basic features, no pay for work and beatings, were an established part of the system of inequality. In terms of their sentence, however, they let the comma fool them into thinking that the two parts of the sentence were independent, instead of the reality of their grammar, that they were intimately connected and commented on one another. Also, they were seemingly unaware that the “and” meant they were listing two items which were equal under the umbrella that they had chosen to construct. The “long hours” Douglass had to work, once “low pay” entered the agreement and was followed by an “and,” meant that both items in the list were included in the pay.

This exercise is meant to be about more than denigrating student writing. The internet is rife with statements about students’ essays, and although most of them appear to be created on the spot by writers experienced in denigrating the abilities of others, I am more interested the student’s words got away from them, and thus were able to enjoy a life of their own frolicking on the grass of meaningless and illogic. This can happen to any of us, those who write for a living and are apparently aware of how a collection of words together in a string might mean something more or less than we intend.

More recently, online grammar 00000guardians seem to easily find any misuse of “their” and “they’re” riveting and the cause for hilarity, and they are cheered on by those for whom schadenfreude is a delight. But to engage in such fish-in-a-barrel target practice does not excuse us from the slippery world of the signifier’s loose relationship with the signified. Those who delight in the low hanging fruit of misspellings and the confusing of adjectives with nouns, lose track of the slightly more subtle problems that can arise in our sentences and entirely contravene what we mean to say.

This problem of expression is one that we all share, and first year students are no exception. As if the language is actively conspiring against us, words change their meaning, idiomatic utterances spring to life only to seem dated and trite a few years later, and new coinages astound with their obtuseness or utility. Even if we insist on reading grammar as no more than the rules that define how words form a chain of meaning, that does not mean the words will not conspire against us and link themselves to other thoughts almost of their own accord.

Posted in Media, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on The Best line from a Student Paper

The Contamination of Ideas: Truth and Lies in the Internet Age

A recent encounter reminds me that notions of knowledge and how it is gained can be subjective. I was told by a young person 000000that a documentary watched by their mother—they didn’t even see the documentary themselves—argued that there was widespread geological evidence for the biblical flood. They were not being facetious and they meant physical rather than textual evidence.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I suggested that the documentary sounded like a Christian documentary (Likely Is Genesis History?), rather than one which was interested in presenting the findings of archelogy and geology. They insisted it was true, and that left me with no answer. Instead, I began to wonder what would inspire them to argue vehemently about the truth value of a documentary that presumably they hadn’t watched themselves. This situation is a familiar one, for we live in an age with so little respect for the hardworking academics and technicians who are trying to give us a better understanding of our actual world that we indulge in every passing fantasy and whim. Unfortunately, there are powerful forces with a vested interest who are there coke-1938-by-thecoca-colacompanydotcom1to assist the fantasy just like the weather channel and Norad and the neighbourhood mall encourage the sightings of Santa, presumably for the delight of children.

This post-fact world, or largely-disinterested-in-science world is a mecca for those whose beliefs have no foundation. They can merely deliver their opinion and it will be received by their easily led market in any direction they wish. Once my opinion becomes as good as your fact, then the myths of the past can enter the public imagination just as easily as they did before the enlightenment, when most people in Europe lived in hovels outside of massive cathedrals 000000and sweated to support obviously wealthy institution. At the time, that made sense to them, but only because they were too ignorant to know they were being scammed.

This also means that other groups, even less savory if that’s possible, such as white supremacists, holocaust deniers, flat-earthers and birthers, can promulgate their masquerade of propaganda and silliness without challenge. In the recent American election, even if we set aside reports of Russia tinkering with the received 0000012information of Americans by infesting their social media with ridiculous news stories, Trump’s own erroneous statements are a cause for concern. Nearly daily he tweets nonsense, and there is no system in place except the public themselves to fact-check his statements. On national television he makes statements that are patently untrue, and which could be easily checked at the network level, but pleading that they don’t know how to handle a president who either lies, or doesn’t know the difference between what he is saying and reality, the news networks are at a loss.

The more biased news networks are a different matter. They have a deliberate agenda which they support mainly by repetition and debasing journalism to he-said-she-said 000000pundits arguing like children. Their credible market is made up of those who have already contaminated their minds by their Facebook information bubble, and therefore are ripe for convincing statements which support their prejudices.

My American friend recently was expounding to me about Muslims. It has been a few years since I have spent time with him so I was surprised. Perhaps his other friends who see him more regularly were present for the slow progression, but I had missed the intermediary steps, the missing link that made him sound like a rabid racist. He was asking me a series of inflammatory questions in order to scare out of me an agreement that Muslim-majority countries are more misogynist, brutal, and generally frightening than the Christian-majority countries 000000like his own. My main interest was summed up in my question to him about why he suddenly cared about Muslims. I’ve never heard him express any concern before, so I asked him if he was now working with a bunch of Muslims and they were treating him poorly. “Where do you get your ideas about Muslims?” I asked him. He responded by asking me about Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, countries he would be hard-pressed to point to on a map, but was full of ideas about. He had Google ready to draw and shoot, but I was persistent in my original question.

“How could you suddenly be so concerned with women in Azerbaijan if you never were before? What has changed?” I asked him. “What new information have you received, and more importantly, who did you receive it from?” I have only travelled in two Muslim-majority countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, and I never noticed any difference tied to religion in those countries any more than in any other South East Asian country, but at least I had been in one. Also, since I have Muslim friends and teach Muslim students, I’ve had some interaction with them. He couldn’t claim the same. He strove to remember and finally said that a guy at work might be Muslim, he didn’t know. “Is he particularly rabid?” I asked. “Lazy? Violent?”

I didn’t mean for my friend to re-examine all of his ideas about Islam, but I had made him curious with my one question about why he now cared about the question although in general his life was obviously unaffected. He began to ponder the question and soon isolated it to the media he was watching. He thought he would not be affected by the news, as biased as it was, but ideas are contagious, and while he was watching for bias, he was being told over and 000000over again facts laced with cyanide. He had come out of the American news system worrying about Muslim-majority countries when in fact he is not the type to care about anything outside his own state, and rarely outside his own house and workplace.

The messages around us are insidious, whether it is the documentary ostensibly watched by our mother or the news which tells us who to hate and why. With the internet such lies have long legs, and before their facts have a chance to be checked, they are in the serving dishes of many millions of people who are gullible and waiting for something to tell them what they should be thinking. Right now, the system runs amok. Someone posts a picture of their neighbour’s child and claims they have gone missing and millions of well-intentioned people spread the message far and wide. The disclaimer that follows, which asks them to please desist, is sometimes seen as an attempt to hide the truth, and still others see it as evidence that all reports are lies.

This is rather a long way of asking if as a culture, or series of cultures worldwide, we need a body of fact checkers. The journalists were supposed to do that for us, they were supposed to look through each story and ensure that it passed muster, but even if some of them are still doing their job, they are easily bypassed in the days where the president tweets to his vapid audience directly, and internet memes get mistaken as 000000truth. Given our rather more grim situation, should we require that any post online go through a fact-checking procedure? This rouses cries of control of information and censorship, but in fact that seems to be just what we need. Until we have everyone educated in how to educate themselves, until we have explained how to be a critical thinker, if that is even possible given such a huge and unwieldly populace, they might need a nanny to check over what’s in the children’s books of their nightly news and daily downloads.

Right now we have a rather ineffective system of checks and balances on our information, and it is only as effective and coherent as our friends. We have the vague and most times thoughtless ridicule of others. Once someone passes on a piece of information, it is subject to the very world which would promote or ignore it. If it is ridiculed enough,000000 it dies the death of a thousand times it is ignored. If our system is filled with people like ourselves, not surprisingly, they forward our nonsense to their friends, who are similar people, and we give life to something that should have been halted at the first stroke of the pen.

Unfortunately, this system’s downfall, as I suggest above, is that we need to be the Competent Receiver that H. G. Wells wanted us to be in the 1930s when he was worrying about the coming war and most people were suffering through the depression. If we have millions of people pushing and pulling at their own agenda until it is red and sore looking, then we might want to educate ourselves before we are victims to holocaust denial trolling, white supremacy vitriol, and religious buffoonery. If Santa is real, let him from out from behind the mall’s Christmas display, 000000and declare himself. If he does not, then let us send a firm message to those who would promulgate such messages—like the weather channel’s claim that he has been seen on radar crossing the north pole—to let the fantasy die it deserved death.

If we don’t have fact checkers on our networks silencing Trump’s mouth when he is lying, or disallowing Christian broadcasting masquerading as facts, then we need to be responsible viewers ourselves. Just because we want something to be true, doesn’t mean we have the right to send that information to our friends. Wishful thinking should not be confused with facts. If there is no hard evidence that the world-wide flood ever happened—and there isn’t—then keep the fantasy to yourself and do not contaminate the information pool for everyone else. It’s hard to avoid inflicting our fantasies on our neighbours and friends, but we have to remember that we do not have the right to corrupt the archive for future generations. If there is no evidence for something we’d like to be a fact, can we really justify teaching that to gullible people, or children, 000000knowing that we are lying about it being true? If there is no evidence for prayer being an effective treatment—see Why God Hates Amputees—then we would be better praying in the shame of our own homes than making sure that a deliberately lie gets any further currency.

How we become competent receivers is no doubt an arduous process that begins—and Wells was right about this—with a general education and ends with self-education that is an ongoing life-long process. We can begin that process today, but going through our own assumptions about Muslims, prayer, the flood in Genesis, holocaust denial, white supremacy, refrigerator lights, sunspots and climate change, contrails behind jets, the use of fluoride, vaccines, a New World Order, UFOs, homeopathy, auras, flat-earth, weather control, the world trade centre bombing, and examining them for evidence. We need to give those assumptions the same scrutiny that we reserve for ideas we dislike, or when the bank says we made a withdrawal when we insist we didn’t.

Apply that same rigor we did as children when we examined the Facebook bubble of Santa being real with what we knew about reality, and then relegated Santa back to the toy box where such ideas belong. If you still believe in Santa, that is another matter, and you can believe me when I make the baseless claim that there is help out there.

Posted in Culture, Internet, Media, News, News of the World, Social Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Contamination of Ideas: Truth and Lies in the Internet Age


As soon as I heard the word, and its definition, in a documentary about the New York waste stream, I knew, rather sheepishly, that I had been guilty of wishcycling.0000012

Many times I can remember standing over a recycling bin with something in my hands that should be recycled, something that I wanted to recycle, something I didn’t want to go to the landfill, but that I knew would not be recycled by my local system. Instead of throwing it into the trash so it could be compacted into the landfill for our future generations to find and curse us about, I would drop it into the recycle bin anyway. When my friends were present, I would say, “We’ll let god sort it out,” although I knew, that unlike people of different faiths who believe their gods will find the correct category at the end of time, real people at the city dump would have to 000000sort through and discard everything that I didn’t have the fortitude to bag as trash. Instead of decreasing their work, or not-so-subtly suggesting that they set up facilities to recycle a different plastic or glass, I was adding to their workload and ensuring that they had less money for recycling, the only service at the landfill which is positive environmentally.

My friend works at the Edmonton 000000city dump where he is building them a gasifier for those material objects, like mattresses, which cannot be easily composted or torn into their component bits in order to recycle them. Edmonton wants to divert ninety-five percent of its waste stream from the landfill, and projects like the gasifier are a necessary component of that plan. They will eventually have the facilities to make use of the plastic bags I have a hard time throwing into the landfill, or the Styrofoam that is not recycled by my city.

At one time I thought I was doing the city a favour, for instead of making sure everything in the recycle bin was recyclable, I was forcing them to acknowledge 000000what they weren’t doing. I should have known that they are far more aware than I am what their systems miss. I now know better, and I realize that there are excellent staff working on widening the categories, but their work is hampered by people like me, who due to laziness, or an earnest wish to coerce the city into a better recycling program, are actually overburdening the system in place.

If we want a better system it is going to take more of a commitment than merely being lazy about pitching my garbage. We need to foment for actual change, 000000and in the meantime—as I have suggested elsewhere—package your consumer items for the landfill carefully so that even as future generations—poor beyond our imagination because we reduced the earth to a subsistence layer of metals and hydrocarbons—dig up our trash, they will both curse us and be pleased with what they find.

As an addendum to the above, 20171202_113020I recently was waiting for a bus and was struck by the mute significance of the sign on the back of the recycling / rubbish bin. I’m not the only one who disregards the rule, and apparently I might not even be the most flagrant in my disregard.

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism, Self-reliance | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Wishcycling

Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”: Or, Save Me from the Dirty Poor

Although I usually have little wake me upto say about the fripperies and pomp of pop music, once I watched Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” I was infuriated by its rather simplistic and classist portrayal.

“Wake Me Up” is likely meant to tell the story of a woman and her daughter who feel out of place in the town where they live and how they are unhappy until they search for and find their real community. This seems innocuous enough, but the presentation of the mother and child as well as the villagers they are running from is more than problematic.

The mother is played by Russian fashion 0000001model Kristina Romanova and the younger girl is the actress Laneya Grace. They do not in the least represent a downtrodden minority, for in their blond and blue-eyed way they are well dressed, engage in no work, and somehow keep a horse nearby which they do not bother to maintain. The world they run to is filled with people like themselves, young, beautiful, careless, mindlessly conformist, and who, as far as we can tell, 0000001live only for themselves and contribute nothing to society. They all share, in their conformist way, the same tattoo of two triangles facing away from each another, but they are scarcely a suffering and oppressed group—such as the gay people targeted by the Nazis who were made to wear a purple triangle. Rather they are happy, have the leisure to leap pointlessly about at a concert and, as the video shows, they are entitled to and remain unquestioned about their rather derisive view of their neighbours.

The neighbours are quite another matter. Perhaps so the contrast between them and the hipster mother and daughter can be delivered with a bludgeoning and unforgettable force, the neighbours are portrayed as trapped in the 000000dustbowl thirties. They could easily fit in with any of Dorothea Lange’s portraits of depression era sufferers. Their clothes are out of date, colourless and dirty, and their 000000posture is one of misery, despair, and anger. They are shown working with wooden crates and ash strip baskets that the directors must have scavenged from antique shops; no one has used those in at least fifty years. Their expressions are singularly grim, as though a 000000score of drudges were let out of the prison where they had been kept since the thirties so that they could see everything that they were not able to be or have. The video is not in the least interested in them; they are given no voice, or even wake me upvariety of expression, although the video makes sure we are aware they represent black and white, old and young. What they most firmly represent, however, is the working poor. Just as the beautiful mother and equally beautiful daughter are meant to represent Avicii’s audience—young wealthy hipsters—the crowd that surrounds them in the street is the unhip, ugly, bestial side of America.

The video presentation is as unsubtle as it is classist. The mother and daughter are given voice in the video, such as when the daughter suggests that they are not liked by their neighbours and then asks why. The mother, perhaps because the answer is a little too obvious, merely hugs her daughter’s plaint away. The video is not prepared to state its rather obvious conclusion: “They hate us because we are so much better than them in every way.”

To return to the only scene in which we see the two groups interact, we can see that the way the small family acts toward their poor neighbours is very different than the smiles the mother reserves for her new beautiful friends at the concert. wake me upWhen the mother approaches her peers—as she obviously views them—she notes the tattoo which informs her they are her people, and then smiles at them and offers greetings. When she and the child walk through their neighbours, they wipe the smiles from their face and stare as though they were amongst dangerous zoo animals. Lest the viewer think that the mother and daughter are merely judgemental twits, the working poor neighbours are given the same stare and unsmiling faces. wake me upThis is meant to convince us that the mother is in the right: “I don’t smile at them because they don’t smile at me.” Instead, they walk amongst the freakish poor as freaks themselves, everyone staring at the other, but in the ethos of the video, we are meant to know who to sympathize with.

Once the mother rides away through the orchards on her horse to find her real people—the rich ravers at the concert—she returns to help her daughter escape. The horse is abandoned, as the daughter and her walk down the road dressed in even more funky clothing. They happily leave their neighbours behind, who are ostensibly working the orchards she rode through and taking care of her horse. The last scene is a shot of a poor, abused neighbour, carrying her wooden indigenous-made basket, turning away from the camera to continue her meaningless life now that her betters have left.

As an exercise in the portrayal of the working classes, the video is highly offensive. We know that hot only exists in reference to cold, but we scarcely need to experience zero degrees kelvin to know that something with less heat exists. Wealth is only defined by reference to poverty, but the video’s unsympathetic gaze reeks of unexamined privilege. We can understand that the video needs to write poverty as belonging to the dim past—to an America of the thirties—because otherwise the band might lose some of their own fan base, who live in poverty and spend their hard-earned money trying to emulate the lifestyle of the mother in the film. Even in the video, however, we can see that not everyone can merely dance their life away at a rave. Some people have to maintain the orchards, care for the abandoned horse, and maintain the roads the mother and daughter escape on.

The voiceless poor in the film, even in their exaggerated and archetypical presentation, are presumed to be single-minded, homogenous, angry, and judgemental of the beautiful. This is the poor written as the hateful other. Conveniently ignoring that the rhythms the rich are dancing to at the rave came from slaves and other musical traditions kept alive by downtrodden people, the video represents the working classes as mindless beasts that have nothing in common with the privilege of beauty and wealth which the video naturally combines.

The story of the mother and her daughter is as uninteresting as it is bland. Although I am curious about how the daughter came to be in the small town, what drab worker donated sperm to his better so that she might judge him later, and what they do for a living or how they manage to pay rent for their house, I am much more interested in the lives of those in the village. Are their resentful glances the result of having to maintain two useless members of their society, like the serfs of old supporting parasitic and superior aristocrats? What is their music like? What are their hopes and fears? They face a reality that is much more representative of the peoples of the world than the fraught anxiety of the mother and her daughter about not fitting in with people they despise, but what might the working classes in this video say if they had been given a voice?

If I were presented with the choice, 000000I would turn down the invite to the concert where the mother and her equally pretentious friends leap about and take selfies, and join the working poor, where the stories and art that keep culture alive find their wellspring.

Posted in Culture, Media | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”: Or, Save Me from the Dirty Poor

Misplacing People by Modifiers

Normally when I am reading articles, especially those on a topic outside my field of study, I often gloss over errors or problems with the prose. Sometimes I am halted in midsentence by an utterance that is troubling in terms of its implications, or which suggests something the author likely did not intend.

I found such a sentence when I was reading an article about indigenous people arriving in North and South America and couldn’t help but pause over one sentence about the relative strength and endurance of travelers: “All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which hearty travelers could feast.”

I read the sentence again, stopping this time at the word hearty. Would the diet of sea creatures have been too much for less hearty travelers, I wondered. If our current gluten-concerned crowd were to stumble on the kelp highway would they not have been hearty enough to feast on the rich banquet? Were only hearty travelers invited along for the feast, and if so, how did the authors know that? If the travelers were present at a feast, did they need to be hearty to arrive, eat, or digest it? I tried to move the word hearty around and see if we can see where it belongs.

“All that hearty 0000001kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could feast.” The kelp is now hearty, which is good news for this already hearty plant. The trouble with the word modifying kelp is that the travelers now have to eat kelp, which, regardless of how hearty it might be, it would doubtlessly cause digestive problems and rapidly make our travelers less hearty.

“All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich, hearty habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers 000000could feast.” The kelp is now ordinary kelp again, but the habitat has been upgraded considerably. Now the coastal habitat is not only rich, but hearty, although the discerning reader will note the words imply the same thing.

“All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for hearty sea creatures upon which 000000travelers could feast.” The sea creatures have come off well in this incarnation. Their health would likely have little to do with how easy it would be for the traveler to eat, however. They might be heartier once they were caught, but that might mean they are less likely to be caught and therefore eaten, which means our travelers would be less hearty when they arrived in the new continent, if they didn’t starve outright.

“All that kelp, it has been heartily noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could feast.” Once I could not use the word as an adjective, I thought it might work better as an adverb. Now, the ones making the observation about the relative heartiness of kelp, habitat, sea creatures, or travelers, are making their statements with a certain heartiness. They are proud of their opinion and state it firmly. Unfortunately, the sentence now draws attention to the ones making the observation instead of the observation itself.

“All that kelp, it has been noted, would have heartily provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could feast.” This modification doesn’t seem much better. Now the provision of the sea habitat is hearty, which is certainly redundant given that the habitat is “rich,” and dwells on the implication that an animate agency is responsible for the construction of sea habitat instead of the travelers who are ostensibly the main interest of the sentence.

“All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could heartily feast.” The travelers are now undoubtedly 000000happier, given that they are not only feasting, which implies the meal to be a good one, but that they are also really engaged. They are face down in the trough, their throats packed and Heimlich attendants at the ready in case some seafood goes awry. Likely the author of the sentence did not intend that the feast would be so bacchian, however. In this incarnation, the sentence says more about the gluttony of the travelers than it does what the sea habitat provided to them.

A rule of writing states that less is more. To employ that, I decided to remove the word entirely. “All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could feast.” Once the heartiness of the kelp, habitat, sea creatures, travelers, the providing, and feasting has been removed we can see what little the word contributed. The feasting travelers implies that the repast was hearty, just as the rich sea habitat implies the sea creatures were of quantity and quality enough to make a feast. The travelers do not need to be particularly hearty in order to eat, nor does the kelp need to be much heartier than kelp is normally to provide for the rich habitat. A rich habitat does not need to be extra hearty for the sea creatures, any more than the sea creatures need to be hearty in order to be eaten, especially if one is feasting. The relative heartiness of the verbs, the jovial voice that heartily notes the habitat is rich, or the heartiness of the provision of the habitat, or the hearty feasting, is not essential, and in fact obstructs the meaning of the sentence.

Once I left the word hearty out of the sentence it kept its rather pleasing focus on the travelers and still provided them sea creatures for the feast and yet lost none of its presumed meaning. I understand the impulse that made the travelers hearty, for we have often thought of humans in prehistory as 000000heartier than us, but for the purposes of the sentence, with the sea habitat so rich, we needn’t give them any more heartiness than they already undoubtedly possessed.

This hearty sentence is heartily provided by

Posted in Ancient Peoples, Editing, Writing | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Misplacing People by Modifiers

How Using Academic Research is like being in an Argentinian Argument

Although many academics tacitly accept that research makes a paper stronger, they don’t exactly examine that premise. In fact, if the paper is well argued, and has evidence it has garnered from the primary text(s), other sources are superfluous. They add nothing to the argument other than a vague suggestion that there exists a critical surround—a kind of village of academic peers—occupied by the same topic. Other critical resources, in terms of those which are meant to support an argument which has already been proven, are the academic equivalent of name dropping. To examine the premise of research’s utility, it’s worthwhile looking at the types of conversations I had many times in Argentina.

Although my Spanish runs from poor to laughable, once I was in the country I was able to understand much of the Argentinian discussions, especially if I was partaking. If I had the good fortune to be discussing an idea with a person who kept to the topic, I even began to be able to perceive the outlines of their argument, even if the logic by times escaped me. More often, the discussions proceeded in a disjointed fashion and left me behind gasping for air as they dove and fluttered and twittered around ideas that were at best tangential to the topic under discussion.

My confusion aside, I began to note there was a kind of logic to the way arguments would progress and, just as Prendick discovered when he returned to society in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, the utterance of big thinks around me followed a certain pattern. Once my vociferous combatant began to feel logically boxed in, or when—as Fabrício told me—throwing dirt at the question did not longer suffice, they would appeal to their friends.

If we were talking about whether it is selfish to want to have a child in a world of seven billion, for instance, and I was beginning to hear their point of view shift until we were discussing something else entirely, then I might expect them to call a friend to shore up what was rapidly becoming empty bombast.

“You say you don’t want a child of your own and then talk about seven billion, but that’s just a number and numbers have been known to be wrong and there are many wars being fought around the world at this time and that means people are dying in huge numbers. War is terrible no matter what you say and if you don’t believe in life after death and god then you might as well be supporting wars and that means you want people to die and not go to heaven.”

Oddly, I have been in discussions that were exactly this disjointed. When I pointed out that we were no longer talking about the same topic, the person who had just unleashed a streamer of ideology and free association would turn to their friend and ask, “You agree with me, right?” At their assent they would turn triumphantly back to me and say, “See.”

This strategy confounded me more than once. I had difficulty seeing the logic of their appeal to their friend’s agreement. For me, that merely meant that now I had two people in front of me who made no sense instead of just one. In their mind their appeal to another proved, in a schoolyard bully kind of way, that they were right. Their correctness lay in their numbers. I was alone, they had a friend who agreed with them.

Oddly, academic research works in exactly the same way. When an academic has completed their original research, they have to shore up their paper with appeals to authority which do not strengthen the paper in any other way than to say, “You agree with me, right?” The bulk of the paper is occupied with real proofs, just like the Argentinian discussion should employ real numbers about the population and how that will collide, Malthusian-like, with the phenomenological world.

Once that evidence is inserted, then the researcher will call upon those academic authorities, who admittedly have more credentials than those who happen to be standing next to the one making the argument, and use them to say that their peers agree. They are saying, “I am not alone in making this argument, and if my evidence is not sufficient, then here are some peers who say I am right.”

If the student striving to find quotes remembers that the quotes that support their argument really do little more than indicate someone agrees with them, they will perhaps feel less stressed about writing the master work. Their argument needs to be logical and well founded, but the academic sources merely exist to prop up their credentials, not to strengthen their argument; “My friend agrees with me. See.”

Posted in Literature, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on How Using Academic Research is like being in an Argentinian Argument

Magazines and the Internet

I was watching a video on YouTube about a man who was setting up his wilderness cabin. Although he spent most of his time complaining about a snow storm that was sweeping through his area I was most struck by a two second scene where he outlined his options if the internet went down. Perhaps because the electrical power went out when he was making his video, he began to discuss his internet connection.

His Wi-Fi booster runs on batteries apparently, so he can still get internet, and his computer was a laptop, so he could still, as he said, “read comments on YouTube videos.” If the entire system went down, however, he had a backup. He pointed to a plastic bin in which he had perhaps a hundred magazines and told his viewers that they would provide entertainment.

Perhaps because I have hundreds of books in my cabin, and no internet at all, I was struck by the comparison. It occurred to me that, depending on what you do online, magazines are likely a more apt comparison to the internet than books, or even movies. I pictured the magazines I had perused in the past, which admittedly does not add up to very many. I have never been a fan of the thrice-digested material that makes up magazine articles and I am annoyed by some of the aspects of the medium that seems to attract others. I find the images irritating, as they try to interpret the article for me, and the text is broken up by thousands of ads, both small and large. The internet is very similar in terms of a medium.

We have all been attacked by various pop-ups or distracted by flashing ads along the margin of the screen. Even the targeted ads intrude, such as when google tries to tempt me with bear hunting because my nickname is bear and many of my friends address me that way. Magazines are not nearly as targeted, but the articles, the collection of images, are also overrun by garish advertisement, and nearly every page has to be negotiated like the minefield that it is, just as we have to avoid material online. If I am reading a novel, I am subjected to nothing of the sort, although I am tempted in my next book to insert ads that parody the system. Like with magazines, however, it greatly undermines the seriousness of the content.

Perhaps Exburb1a, a YouTuber I follow, feels the same way. For one of the new methods to monetize YouTube videos in these days of adblocker is to insert ads into the video itself. I unfollowed a metal detecting channel because of ads about god, and I am likely to do the same for these other ads I cannot avoid. I sympathize with the YouTuber’s wish to make a living, but I don’t think the best content on YouTube is that of the professional channels. Rather, it is the more marginalized and speciality content that goes viral, or does not.

The articles in magazines are short, rather shallow, and often present rather trite and popular viewpoints. Likewise, those sites which make their living by numbers of clicks and follow-throughs, present material that does not excite too much controversy, and are easy to read and understand. The many pictures that accompany the article, or by times conflict with it, are also easily found online. The online world is increasingly visual and less textual. A picture is worth a thousand dollars, after all, if the viewer is too easily distracted by other information to sit through a thousand word article. In that case, even more information can be packed into the same viewer space by inserting, in the case of online material, videos or animated gifs. Such moving pictures encourage require little in the way of its audience; they need not be literate, or even attentive, for the information to be transferred and the money gained.

Perhaps the hunter preparing his cabin for the fall hunting season is correct. The internet—although originally information posted by academics and accessible through text browsers like Unix’s gopher—has quickly been overtaken once html allowed pictures and video. Now it is a medium that more closely resembles magazines. Meant for the reader or viewer who cannot be bothered to pay too much attention to media, and whose disposable income is suggested by how much money they are willing to pay for a magazine whose offerings are so meagre.

If he is correct, then perhaps I should lay in a supply of magazines at my cabin, for those friends of mine who are so trained by the internet that they cannot read an article over five hundred words and need pictures and glossy ads in order to find the experience satisfying. Of course, I can, like with this blog, make another choice. I can make sure I have even more books, and less pictures, in order to offer an alternative to the flashing banner ads, to promote literacy and perhaps with that, a more profound and slightly more varied way of thinking and interacting with the world.

Posted in Culture, Internet, Social Media | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Magazines and the Internet

A Use of Old Cannonballs

Galileo was alone on the top of the tower. He’d asked his friends to stay away from his experiment. He’d experienced enough failure in the past to worry that his latest venture might prove to be embarrassing and he was reluctant to take their kind offer of help, even if he needed it on the ground as the cannonballs came crashing down.

Now that the fateful moment had arrived, he hesitated. He knew that he would return the cannonballs after the experiment, no worse the wear for their fall, but the psychological effect on his own psyche might not be so easy to put back on his grandmother’s shelf.

Many of his friends said that he was too sensitive. That he insisted on viewing each experiment as the one which would make or break his career, that he didn’t believe his latest obsession would be quickly replaced by another, or that he dabbled in a science so rare or refined that few knew what he was doing let alone the implications of his evidence. Galileo knew he took the entire enterprise too seriously. He’d tried instead going out to cafés and engaging strangers in simple conversation, but that was ultimately unsatisfying. Before the solemn tolling of the church bell announced that an hour had passed, he was creeping back to his lab, eager to try his hand on the movements of weights and the calculations which would prove the moon might have been spun up by a divine hand but had suffered collisions since.

In part, that idea—that his life’s work was no more significant than the soft opinions of the pigeons above his head—stayed his hand. Those friends who had ignored his request waited patiently on the ground below and stared at his tiny figure 000000overhead. They could just see the top of his head past the railing of the tower, and such was the tilt of the poorly constructed building that he couldn’t hide from their perspective. Galileo took another deep breath. The stairs were too steep. He needed to walk more, to climb more, to get out of the lab. He was in bad shape physically, and not a young man anymore, so he hesitated because he was panting from the climb.

Even as he formed the excuse, he knew it was a lie. His breath was ragged from nerves more than the many steps. He’d made the climb a dozen times to take measurements to prepare for the experiment. He knew he was afraid of failure. Afraid that his heavy cannonball would arrive on the ground slightly before the lighter one, and thus show the world that universal laws were holding in the face of his hubris, show the world that he was a fool. That even Aristotle, slobbering over his attempt to cut a pie into smaller and smaller pieces that were still parts of a pie, was right, and that he, Galileo, standing on top of a tower that exposed to the entire world the faults in Italian architectural achievement, was a fool.

Galileo made a great show of shifting his bag on his shoulder. His friends had offered to send him aloft with a servant who would carry the bag, but even though Galileo hadn’t prepared his own meal in years, had servants pour his bath and wash his clothes, he insisted that he alone stumble on the uneven floor with the unwieldy bag.

On the ground his friends, their eyes squinting at the sun, waited while Galileo’s tiny figure set his bag on the tilting floor. Galileo took another deep breath, listened again for approaching steps—for he was afraid the church had gotten wind of his experiment—and then untied the flaps that had hid the cannonballs from his grandmother when he’d crept out of her 000000house. He’d never thought to ask his grandmother why she collected cannonballs when he was young and once he became an adult he was unaccountably shy about the question.

One of the straps was worn and the rope caught, and in his frustration he finally cut it. Dismayed slightly at his impatience, he lifted out the one pound shot. He tried to place it on the railing for safekeeping as he reached for the ten pound ball, and annoyingly it tried to roll onto the floor. He thought again that he should have tied the two together as he’d originally proposed. If the heavier weight fell faster, he had decided, then it should pull the string taut between it and the lighter ball. But if both balls were tried together then they would be a unit, then they would be heavier, and fall even faster joined together. Setting aside the implications of the original thought experiment, Galileo wished for a string, as he tried to hold the small ball on the railing with his elbow and at the same time lift the larger ball from his bag with one hand.

It proved to be too heavy for his grip, so he bent to grab it with both hands, and thus set free the untended ball on the railing. It fell to the floor, and before he could grab it, it set off along the tilted floor for the stairs. Cursing, Galileo dropped the ten pound cannonball into the bag, and ran after the smaller shot. It picked up speed and sped for the top step; even as he ran, Galileo thought about how it was likely enacting some other law of motion, such as the contrary nature of matter, that made it defy all attempts to make it behave in a reasonable fashion. The law of contrary motion, he decided, as he scooped the ball up just before it fell the ten floors down the stairs where it would have likely killed an unsuspecting precursor to a tourist.

By the time he returned to the rail, Galileo had placed the ball more securely in his pocket. He waved at his friends 000000below to reassure them in case his absence at the rail had been noticed, and realized grimly that their numbers had increased. Was that another law? A direct correlation between the potential for embarrassment of the experiment and the size of the crowd. He muttered to himself while his pocket swayed and he reached into his bag for the other cannonball. He was ready now, his hand steadied on the railing against the weight and his other hand fishing in his pocket for the ball.

When his fingers didn’t meet the expected cold metal, he cursed quietly, fearing his voice might carry in the morning air, and then set the larger ball into the bag while his hand went questing through the maze that was his poorly repaired coat to where the smaller shot had disappeared into a hole in his pocket. When he finally located it against the seam, he met it from behind with his left hand, confined it so it couldn’t go adventuring again, and then pulled it from the swamp of tangled fabric.

The crowd below had grown even larger while he’d been fighting with his coat. He began to worry that they were thinking his nerves were betraying him. Some of his friends had said as much when he’d slipped into a pub for a cognac, but he’d laughed them off by saying he needed the spirits for the climb.

Now that he was in possession of the small cannonball again he debated how to hold it while he grappled with the larger shot. Finally, he placed one beside the other and tried to lift them together. True to his more theoretical suspicions, they weighed even more together and were slippery. They rubbed against each other in a grating way that reminded him, excruciatingly, 000000of two eggs held in the same hand. Grimacing, he let them fall again and then picked up the smaller shot, and, momentarily at a loss, put it in his mouth. As he bent for the other shot, he thought of how his grand experiment would look if there were observers, especially those from the church who were always inclined to humiliate anyone who disagreed with their guesses by reference to scientific observation. They would make much sport over his closed mouth; the ball grew slippery with salvia as he thought about it.

When he had the other ball balanced on the railing, and had plucked the smaller one from his teeth, Galileo was more confident in the way he appeared. He was a scientist, he said to himself. A serious investigator of natural phenomena. Far below some of his friends waved and cheered, but others in the growing crowd were ominously silent.

The wind dropped and the pigeons stopped their mindless cooing. Galileo felt as though the world was holding its breath. He hesitated again, the smaller ball wet in his sweaty fingers. He could go home. He could put the balls back into the sack and take them to the room where his grandmother kept her collection. He could leave town and get a small house near the coast. He needn’t expose himself like this.

Then, for the first time, it occurred to him he could cheat. He could ensure he’d be right by hesitating slightly before he let the heavier ball join the smaller one. Even if Aristotle, that pompous ass, had been correct all along, Galileo would prove him to be wrong in front of everyone. Galileo’s back stiffened at the thought. He didn’t need to cheat. The natural world was on his side.

He lifted his hands out before him, clearly visible from below, his right arm trembling slightly from the weight, and then let the balls go at the same time. 000000Such was his relief that it was finally over, he almost collapsed. Instead, he stood at the rail, defying his temptation to run for the stairs. When he’d imagined this moment he’d thought of himself scurrying all the way to the bottom of the stairs and arriving just as the balls hit the ground, thus proving for all concerned that he’d been right about the way objects were attracted by a mass such as the earth.

Instead, he watched his friend’s faces. Their elation was visible even from ten stories above. Galileo lifted his bag and then trudged down the stairs. The digger in the ditch must feel this type of satisfaction, he thought to himself. The joy in a day’s work come to a close. Ignoring that the sun was still low on the horizon and only slowly rising, Galileo joined his celebrating friends and carefully brushed the dirt from the cannonballs and put them back into his bag. The burden was light now, and when he looked around at the cheering faces, he was elated enough that he didn’t notice those who hadn’t cheered, those who had vanished like insects when he entered a room at night with a lit taper.

Only later at the bar, when he’d had too much to drink and had lost track of his bag in the good-natured shoving and laughter, was Galileo forcibly reminded of the silent watchers. They hadn’t appreciated his arcane experiment as much as one could reasonably expect. Several enforcers from the inquisition bade him come as they stood in the doorway, deigning to enter. In the sudden silence his friends’ laughter faltered and Galileo walked to the door, his bag forgotten.

Some of his friends made as if to protest, and a few hands grasped at his sleeve, and Galileo was reminded of the strange attraction and repulsion of the lodestone. 000000The eyes of the officials from the inquisition gleamed as if they knew their repulsive force was so strong none would gainsay them, and while some weaker force which wouldn’t be discovered for two hundred years plucked at his coat, Galileo knew it was of little use against his new enemy. The force of the lodestone weakens with distance, Galileo thought. And nonferrous materials are unaffected. Steeling himself for the coming questions, Galileo went from the warm humidity of the welcoming bar into the harsh sunlight of the Pisa midday sun.

Posted in Culture, History, Supernatural, Superstition | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on A Use of Old Cannonballs

CBC’s “This is That” and the Reality of Our News Broadcasts

I thought my reaction to the popular CBC parody show, This is That was unlike that of others, so I never mentioned it until this summer when I was talking to my friend in Montreal. It turned out, others have felt the dislocating sense of disbelief about our news as I have, as Tom Waits said about keys to the city at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “that there were a whole lot of them.” My friend had the same reaction.

When the show first aired it was so effective as a parody—or our current news broadcasts are so ineffective at avoiding at being thought a parody—that many people thought This is That was real. This led to twitter storms as twits took to the keyboard to express their outrage at how ridiculous their world had become, little aware that they were the ones being ridiculous.

The episode that featured the interview with the Canadian border guard, “Canadian border guard bullies CBC Radio host,” for example, was one of the pieces that excited the most commentary, with people declaring that the bullying man in the interview pretending to be a border agent be demoted, fired, or conversely, supported and valorized. A man named Alex, on the petition to get rid of Murray Swift as a border officer, calls for his dismissal: “Shocking and disgusting. Such childish behavior cannot be tolerated especially when coming from a government employee in a position of authority.” David from British Columbia reiterates this opinion: “From this interview, his behaviour, attitude, demeanour, and lack of interpersonal skills does NOT qualify him to led [sic] any session n [sic] how to deal with the public. If Mr. Swift typifies our boarder [sic] patrol, we are in trouble. One can [ ] an effective officer without being a bully, aggressive, confrontational, and intimidating.”

My reaction to the show has less to do with the stories offered, although some of them are favourites that I think about even now, such as the border guard story, or that which described the locals in Lloydminster wanting to divide the small city. I missed the demand that dogs in Montreal be bilingual, “Bilingual Dog Bylaw proposed in Montreal,” and the changing attitude to fine art in Canada: “National Museum to allow high school kids to complete unfinished Group of 7 paintings.” As well, I missed those which exposed the gross stupidity of capitalist culture and contractor incompetence “Casino for kids opening in Las Vegas” and “Mississauga condo developer forgets to put 120 bathrooms in brand new building.”

My reaction to the show was more located in what happened to me upon listening to it. Usually I have CBC playing in the summer in my cabin, but when I would listen avidly to the parody show, my mind would gradually become attuned to their effective representation of stodgy CBC presenters and I would begin to apply the satire they evoked to the news that immediately followed the program. The news broadcasts, especially those that focus on the ridiculous behaviours of political leaders, or the incompetence of public figures, became hard to distinguish from reality. That was an impression I tried to cultivate, for as long as possible, after the show had finished. It enabled me to listen to our news with the distancing required to see the foolish nature of media choices.

If the news is meant to edify, then I cannot see the educational advantage of knowing about the Las Vegas shooting. I am not in Las Vegas, have no plans to ever visit, would likely avoid visiting countries whose governments encourage such shootings, such as NRA-sponsored American policy, and even if I were there while such an event took place, I can’t think of anything in the broadcast of that news that would help me in any way. The purpose of news should not be just what has happened recently—what is new—but rather what might help me negotiate the world around me and inform me about events that will help me make decisions. For the Americans, if they were listening, the latest mass shooting incident might assist them in their concern over gun laws, although that is not really happening.

When I spoke to my friend in Montreal, who would likely be out walking her bilingual dog if she were not on the phone, I found that we shared the same slightly disconcerting feeling. After listening to This is That we began to enjoy the 000000uneasy impression that the world around us is a parody of itself. I felt as though we were able to pry aside the wallpaper and get a glimpse of the plaster that covered the reality of our media presentation of information. That glimpse seemed to indicate that there is something wrong with the way we inform the public, so profoundly wrong, that a parody program is taken as truth, and yet the same program is required so that we understand there might be another way news can be relayed.

Posted in Culture, Media, News | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on CBC’s “This is That” and the Reality of Our News Broadcasts