Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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A most terrible year?

The year-end reviews certainly are gloomy this year. A sort of consensus that it’s hard to find anything good to say about 2016.

And for residents of some countries, that was certainly true. Poor Haiti had yet another earthquake. Syria! A daily dose of tragedy, made all the worse because our countries were involved in trying to stop it. And the Venezuelans—suffering under an incompetent President, their economic situation already bad and getting worse daily.

But as a global aggregate, the fact is that a lot of things are improving. (These charts don’t all include 2015—and can’t include 2016 yet, as it’s not done!—but the trends shown did not reverse themselves last year.)

Extreme poverty is down, and real incomes are up.

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This one is for Canada specficially

People are healthier.

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Life expectancy is also up, globally

Education rates are much higher.

literate-and-illiterate-world-populationHomicide (and other crime rates) are down, even in gun-happy US.

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I think the source of all this gloom is the US election and its highly unfortunate result. Had Hillary Clinton won the Electoral College, Brexit would seem a weird mess the Brits got themselves into rather than part of an alarming global trend. We could celebrate the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement and some actual action on the front (carbon pricing in Canada! Mon dieux!) instead of feeling it’s all a bit for naught now. The loss of beloved celebrities, some at alarmingly young ages (had not realized just how contemporaneous George Michael and I were), would be just a sad thing that eventually happens to us all, and not a pile-on when we don’t want more bad news (on Christmas Day? Really?).

However… while the mood is understandable, it’s still troubling. Because it’s pessimism, and a nostalgic belief that things were better before, and a denial of the inconvenient fact that things are actually pretty good right now—that the President-Elect ran on and got himself elected with.

It’s not a good place to settle in, mentally. It leads to hopelessness, and inactino. This one bad event didn’t make all of 2016 terrible. (And not to bring down the room, but won’t it be worse once he’s actually in office?)

But in 2016, the US had a great President.

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The 2016 Olympics were fun and kind of inspiring.

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The number of women of colour elected to the US Senate in 2016 has quadrupled.

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After a serious health scare last year, Roger Daltrey came back with a Who 2016 tour.

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In 2016 the Canadian federal government and its gender-balanced cabinet made significant progress on trade with Europe, climate change, safe injection sites, assisted dying legislation, pipeline approvals (and rejections), and improvements to the Election Act.

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The Hamilton Mixtape, released December 2016, was awesome.

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And Saturday Night Live (and other satirical programs) provided some catharsis.

“I’m not giving up. And neither should you.”


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Live and on the CBC

I did watch The Tragically Hip show on CBC television last night. It seemed the thing to do, and I was interested enough. I’m of the age where their music formed the soundtrack of my life, whether I realized it or not. I own only two Tragically Hip albums (Up to Here and Road Apples), yet I knew the chorus of almost every song they played last night.

For any non-Canadians who stumble on this: The Tragically Hip’s lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. He’s in remission, and the band has done a cross-country tour, ending in their hometown of Kingston last night. National broadcaster CBC interrupted their Olympic coverage to bring the concert to everyone, commercial-free.

There’s been a lot of great writing about this band, and this tour, in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, The New Yorker. I can’t compete. It’s not only that I’m not as good a music writer—though that is true—but also that, familiarity with choruses notwithstanding, I’m not a big enough fan. I could observe that the band were quite good, that they mostly pumped through the songs without a lot banter with the audience (hard to know what to say, one thinks), that Gord Downie restricted his talking to thank you’s and a comment on First Nations people up north, that they did three encores, that the show was about three hours long.

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Gord Downie from an earlier Toronto show as, in a very strange decision, the promoter would not allow official photographers at the Kingston show

But I couldn’t truly get into the emotion of it. I’m not sure why, in all these years, their songs have never really touched my soul. They’re catchy, they’re in a genre I like, the lyrics are smart and highly original.

Maybe it’s simply that, until last night, I had never seen this band live.


Friday night Jean and I went to our first-ever CD release party. No, not our CD (heavens!); Alysha Brilla’s. Alysha Brilla is a local artist with some (not Tragically Hip level) national fame.

She once lived in LA, and was signed to a big recording contract. But she couldn’t fit into that little commercial box they wanted to put her in.

“They wanted me to write songs about going to the club. And picking up guys.” she commented on Friday. “And I’m like, but I don’t go to clubs. I don’t pick up guys.”

So she scampered away from that contract, and set up as an independent artist in Canada. And the only reason most of us have heard of her is the CBC Radio often plays her songs. (See her public love letter to CBC Radio.)

Her music has always been a kind of fusion of jazz / world sounds with a touch of pop, but the latest album, Human, has more Indian influences than her past work. I listened to it on Google Music (and yes, heard a couple tracks on CBC Radio) before picking it up on Friday, but I wasn’t sure about it. It has a lot of spiritual themes (one song is actually called “Spiritual”), it’s all peace and love and changing the world (another song is literally called “Changing the World”).

It’s very granola, you know?

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Music, singer, songwriter, producer, artist Alysha Brilla

But after having seen her perform several tracks live, I’m kind of digging it. For one thing, she’s just such a charmer live—gets you in her corner right from the opening, and keeps you there. She was playing the Jazz Room, which has an unfortunate rectangular shape that is not ideal for live music, and was very full, and pretty hot, and during the 1.5 hour or so wait before she started, we actually pondered leaving.

But I’m glad we didn’t; the show was interactive and so fun. We got the stories behind some of the new songs: “Gender Rollz” was inspired by her time in LA, and the strict modes of behaviour expected of both men and women in the big music industry. “Ahimsa” (which means peace) came to her while on vacation in Kenya. The “Bigger Than That” singalong has great lyrics. And her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” was awesome.(“Until Amy Winehouse came along”, she said, “I thought, ‘What hope is there for an olive-skinned weirdo like me?’”) It’s not on the album, but it is on YouTube.

And here’s some more:

Introducing Alysha Brilla (Soundcloud)

 


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Amazonian Olympics

While not entirely glued to the coverage, I’m definitely watching some of it (like that Canada / France women’s soccer game) and trying to keep up with coverage. For all its flaws, one great thing about the Olympics is that women in sport get as much attention as the men.

This is particular acute for Canada this year as, at time writing, 12 of the medals awarded to this country have been won by women athletes.

It’s a great thing, but as the article Opportunity Costs: What the Olympics Show Us About the Economics of Women’s Sports describes, it’s also unfortunate that women athletes only get to shine once every four years. Other than in golf and tennis—where women still earn considerably less than men—few women benefit financially from their “once every four years” moment in the spotlight.

The numbers must be understood in terms of economics, not just discrimination. In general, attendance at women’s sports events is low, and only about four percent of sports media coverage is dedicated to women’s sports, making female athletes less profitable investments for sponsors.

I’m also reminded, every four years, of the bizarre way that NBC, the American channel, broadcasts the games: very often on time delay, and largely in the form of “human interest” packages. According to the Washington Post, they do that for the women folk:

As the network’s chief marketing officer John Miller explained:

“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans,” he told Philly.com recently. “More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”

This is absurd, of course. For I am that women who normally doesn’t watch sports but will tune into the Olympics. All I need is a knowledgeable commentator to explain the fine points of sports I might not be familiar with, and I’m good. I want to see it live. The background on the athlete’s stories is nice, too, but you can put that in between events, ’kay?

And fortunately, that’s exactly the type of coverage I get from our national broadcaster, CBC, and its partner sports channels.

But if you care about improving women’s prospects in sports in general, NBC’s coverage matters to Canadians as well. Because it’s doubtful any women’s sports league can make it in Canada alone; it will need to be a North America-wide affair. And per Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post:

This is where NBC’s real offense lies. It’s not so much that it insults the audience — but it sure does insult Olympic athletes, especially female athletes. The Olympics is the most prominent competition in the world and 53 percent of Team USA is female, which means American women likely will bring in more medals than American men. Yet they will be presented in packaging aimed at a Ladies’ Home Journal crowd. Exactly how does that grow a hardcore audience for women’s sports, or a year-in, year-out base for other Olympic sports, for that matter?


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On things sporting

Have watched The Olympics, but not obsessively. I prefer the winter ones, as more of the sports are more interesting, and Canada is more competitive. The time difference is also difficult, as most events take place before I’m up or when I’m at work.

Live-streaming is a nice thing, though. The most thrilling thing I did get to view live via that technology was the end of the women’s soccer match, including that one goal! Though I didn’t watch much of the heart-breaker soccer match between Canada and the US, I heard so much about it after, I felt like I had. So I was vested in that Bronze medal match. Christine Sinclair is a good choice to carry the flag.

Another fun live-stream was that incredibly long tennis match between Miloas Raonic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Live on TV, I enjoyed the men’s 1500-meter swim, which was surprisingly exciting for such a long race, and I managed to catch the women’s eight rowing team final.

But I am really looking forward to the Closing Ceremonies, with its promised focus on British music, including Ray Davies, Queen, and The Who. Great Britain proved themselves athletically in these games with the amazing performance of their team, but they long-ago demonstrated that they were unsurpassed in producing great rock musicians.

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For various reasons, my main workout choice these days has been via exercise DVD. I like to get new ones semi-regularly to shake things up, and avoid boredom. Looking up my collected titles, you might think I’m desperate to lose weight:

  • Dance Off the Inches! Hip Hop Party
  • 10 Pounds Down! Cardio Abs
  • Fat Burning Fusion!
  • Super Slim Down!
  • Secrets to a Great Upper Body!

Which is just starting to get on my nerves. I know it’s all marketing, and there are a lot of overweight people that might be sold on such promises, but… Does “thin-ness” have to be the only selling point for these things? I mean, I have one called Fat-Burning Yoga, for heaven’s sake. Yoga. And it’s not some funky fusion of yoga and aerobics or whatever; it’s just your basic yoga stretches and holds, maybe  a little more peppy. But not so you’re going to break much of a sweat.

Thing is, inside, they’re really good workouts that will do good things for your heart, lungs, muscles, stress level, sleep, and so on. In most cases, by the end of these workouts, I feel great. That’s why I do them. Yes, I’m sure it’s helping me maintain a healthy weight as well, but that’s not what’s motivating me to keep it up.

Is that so unusual? Reminds me of having been stopped by someone selling gym memberships, and asked why I exercise. I said, “To stay healthy”, and she looked down her list of possible answers and said, “Huh. That’s not on here.” So maybe it is that unusual…

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And that big toenail that I damaged on my Amalfi hiking trip? Gone! Leaving just the stub of toenail that had been growing underneath it.

It’s kind of gross, of course. And the timing is really bad, because it’s still sandal season. (I’m thinking, cover it with a Band Aid, I guess?) But it’s still making me feel unusually athletic. Me, the marathoners, and the cross-country skiers: Losing toenails in our pursuit of extreme sport. 🙂


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Of nudes and natives, quads and queers: Olympic figure skating

Yesterday I enjoyed watching skicross almost as much as snowboardcross, but damn it was tough seeing the Canadian skier (skicrosser?) finish fourth. So many fourths and fifths. And after that way too close match against Switzerland, I had a bad feeling about the men’s hockey game. So I took a break from all that and watched the ice dance.

The theme for this year’s original dancing was folk dancing. This resulted in some mind-blowingly hokey costumes and dancing; think Janine and Phillip’s Russian Folk Dance on So You Think You Can Dance, multiplied by many. But you know? I wasn’t bored.

And then there was the Russians:

Yes. They were pretending to be Aboriginals. Since the above competition, they’ve dropped the dark face in response to criticism. But still, it was awful. Not just because it was tacky and disrespectful. It just wasn’t a good dance. It was not complex, it did not engage you. I was fairly appalled when they were in first place afterward.

(And less upset at the simple fact that they “looked nude!”, but somewhat amused at how upset commenter Rod Black seemed to be about that.)

Fortunately, a couple lovely teams were still to come, dancing perfectly to fantastic choreorgraphy in sophisticated-looking costumes, and knocking the Russians off their pedestal. First were American Davis and White, with a wonderful Bollywood number. Next were Canadians Virtue and Moir, with a dynamic Spanish flamenco. I was so nervous watching them. But they were so good. I had to watch it again today (and somehow still felt nervous, though I already knew there were no screw-ups and they’d ended up first).

In the earlier men’s competition, the big thing was the quad. And whether it was correct that someone who didn’t do the quad won the thing. Same squawking we heard two years ago when Jeffrey Buttle won the world championship, sans quad.

Notice that the only dudes ever complaining about quad-less wins are those who pretty much suck at everything but that? Plushenko, Joubert… Stojko? (Hey, I loved you, Elvis, but you’re being kind of obnoxious these days.)

I watched the top 10 or so guys, and Plushenko did by far the most boring and unattractive skate of them all. Salon described it fairly accurately, I thought:

He lands all of his jumps but looks terrible doing it, then breaks into a funky boogie nightmare that’s just plain ugly, like watching your gawky teenage cousin trying to break-dance.

Maybe the real controversy is not that Lysacek won gold with a skate that was both technically skillful and beautiful to watch, but that Plushenko won silver with the above. Quad-triple notwithstanding.

And finally? I just love Johnny Weir. You go on being fabulous, dude.


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Snowboard cross: The best sport there is!

While hunting down pairs figure skating this weekend, I learned that I have a channel called Rogers Sportsnet. Channel 74. Who knew? (Have I had this channel a long time? Do I pay extra for it? Mysteries, mysteries.)

It was thanks to figure skating that the upstairs television was therefore left on Rogers Sportsnet when I turned it back on Sunday, whereupon I discovered full, uninterrupted coverage of the men’s snowboard cross yesterday. I had put on the TV as a background to doing something else, but I kept stopping and staring, just riveted by this sport. I don’t remember ever seeing it before. So graceful. So exciting. So unpredictable. And straightforward—the fastest wins, no judges required.

I also just love the snowboarders’ attitudes. It’s cool, man. Let’s party.

So it was very exciting to come home today to the woman’s event. So I caught Maelle Ricker’s gold medal win, live! She ran a really nice race (apparently after barely qualifying).

So congratulations, Ms Ricker, and also Mike Robertson, who won silver in the men’s, passed just in the final moments. And thanks Rogers Sportsnet, for introducing me to snowboard cross. Possibly the best sport there is (at least to watch on TV).


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Join the majority

Like two-thirds of Canadians (!), apparently, I tuned into the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics last night. And I even watched it live, and nearly to the bitter end.

They really did a fine job, I thought. I liked the special effects re-creation of the ocean, and the fields, and the mountains (even if it perpetuates the myth that we’re “outdoorsy” country people, when most of us live in cities). And I liked the slam poet, reminiscent of the old “Joe Canadian” ads, but with more eloquence and no beer. (Even though it claimed an environmentalism we don’t deserve. But the rest felt right.) The fiddling medley was lively fun. And man, does this country have a great set of women singers, or what? Nikki Yanovsky, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell, Measha Brueggergosman, and most especially, KD Lang, actually outdoing her Juno performance of “Hallelujah”.

I liked that the final torch run wasn’t just Gretzky. I liked all the French. And it was appropriate that the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was recognized, and recognized again.

I have some sympathy with Olympic protestors. The IOC is really the most appalling organization. But the athletes… they’re mostly inspiring. They always win me in over in the end.

Finally, live TV meant not fast-forwarding the commercials, and the somewhat dubious sponsors involved. It made this 22 Minutes bit even more hilarious the second time around: