Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Ticketmonster

I was on vacation in Seattle, and awake before Jean was, for some reason, when I got an email about a pre-sale for a Who concert in Toronto nearly a year later. Buying a concert ticket on a tablet while on vacation isn’t the ideal scenario, but I had the time, so I figured I might as well see what I could get.

As anyone who’s tried it knows, buying tickets from Ticketmaster is a roll of the dice. Who knows what seats it will cough up for your consideration, and at what price, at any given time?

But this time the dice landed landed on: Floor seats! In the front centre section! And at the normal price, no VIP / resale nonsense!

Stunned, I started the checkout process…

Only to lose the connection partway as the flaky hotel wifi conked out.

Cue the swearing. (Quiet swearing, as Jean was still sleeping.)

Wifi returned, I tried again, and… So did my luck! I was still able to get front center floor seats at the normal price! And this time managed to complete the purchase. (The show was great.)

View from the floor was pretty good!

I have no idea how or why that happened or how I could possibly replicate it. I don’t recall who I got  this presale offer for, except that it wasn’t the fan club and it wasn’t American Express (I’ve never had an American Express). Was it just that the sale took place so far ahead? Did The Who just decide not to hold back that many seats as “VIP”?

We know the deal with Ticketmaster, that it’s exceedingly difficult for any human to beat out the resell bots—that, it turns out, Ticketmaster is in cahoots with). And that presales (and even the general sale) only have a subset of seats on offer, giving a constant impression that they are going fast.

I have had great, even front row, seats at other rock concerts, but that involved either not dealing with Ticketmaster (Bob Geldof in Ottawa, Roger Daltrey at Casinorama), or paying for VIP (Adam Lambert, who, as a solo artist, at least has moderate prices. If you don’t count the expense of getting to Berlin.).

Views from the front row

But for big shows in arenas, I think that Who concert was my once-in-a-lifetime good ticket-buying experience that won’t come around again. Especially since Ticketmaster keeps finding ways to make things worse.

Their latest ploy is to not tell you what the ticket prices are ahead of time. I don’t buy tickets often enough to know when this changed, but I’m certain that in the past you could look up ahead of time what ticket prices would be at different levels, so you could plan. They seem to not do that now.

I thought their main motivation must be that, in the frenzy, people might spend more than they otherwise would had they been able to plan ahead. But according to the CBC report on Ticketmaster, it’s also because they sometimes raise the prices a few hours after they initially go on sale.

They’re taking their queue from the airline industry.

Then there’s the new “Waiting room”. Admittedly, it wasn’t ideal before, sitting on the ticket buying web page waiting for the on-sale time, then refreshing and hoping nothing crashed before you could get in there to roll your dice.

So now, about an hour before the on-sale time, you can click to go into a “waiting room”. At on-sale time, it refreshes and you are “randomly” assigned a place in line.

I had over 2000 people in line ahead of me. The only other person I know who’s tried this also started with over 2000 people in line ahead of her. Make of that what you will.

There’s a little animation of your place in line that moves along as the number of people in front of you drop. You daren’t go anywhere else, but it’s not the most compelling viewing. (I can’t find a screen cap of it. Everybody must be too stressed while waiting to take one.)

Finally, your turn comes up, you copy in your presale code, you see what seats come up! And how much they are!

My target this time was yet another Queen + Adam Lambert tour. It was awful. I switched between seeing what was available for general sale and what the “cheaper” VIP offered. You couldn’t seem to look at both options at once, and of course, every time I went back to one or the other, the available seating was less. (Also, the Best Available sorting? Really wasn’t in that order!)

I finally picked something. I winced at the total, but smiled at the seating chart.

I don’t have a solution to this. If you want to see a big rock concert at an arena, Ticketmaster and resellers are your only option. Queen + Adam Lambert are encouraging use of Twickets, where people aren’t allowed to sell the tickets at higher than the price they paid. So that’s nice, but they currently have 0 tickets on offer. (Admittedly, there’s a lot of time for people’s plans to change.)

In Europe, they seem to have many more places where you can still buy general floor seats, then end up with a good spot if you’re willing to wait in line for them. Not all that helpful for North Americans.

So, I’m just glad there aren’t that many artists for whom I’m willing to go through this.

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One of the few


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Garbage election day

Monday, October 22 was the municipal election day in Ontario. Much as I rely on electronic calendars like anyone else, I still like to rock it old-school with the paper calendar,  on which I note items such when garbage day (that is, the biweekly date on which the region picks up trash along with the recycling and compost they pick up weekly) and municipal elections occur. Those fell on the same day this year, so the calendar read: Garbage Election day.

Only it wasn’t.

Nor was the historic US midterm election that took place on November 6. It wasn’t immediately apparent how historic it was, because the counting and recounting, it turns out, goes on long past that date—it just finished last week or so. And the Democrats got the largest margin of victory in history, thanks in large part to that election having had the largest turnout for a non-Presidential election in a century.

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Way to go, Americans.

Our municipal elections, of course, were far less consequential, and featured the usual poor voter turnout: 34% for the City of Waterloo (though 48% in the uptown Waterloo ward, so kudos to them). I don’t see this ever changing much unless we bring political parties into municipal politics, allowing people to forget about the individuals running and just focus on party platforms. Which I don’t want, as the partisanship would be a terrible side effect that we get enough of at every other level of government.

Municipalities try to increase voter turnout. This year, several cities and townships in Waterloo Region—not including the City of Waterloo—offered electronic voting from home. Though this greatly increased the days on which you could vote, a lot of people left it til election day. And then the system crashed under the load. Forcing extensions to the voting time, in some cases by an extra day.

Hence we didn’t get all the results—including who the new Regional Chair would be—until a full day later. Whereas cities who used the old paper ballots had results counted in a few hours.

Also, it didn’t really increase voter turnout.

Apart from the potential computer snafus, the most compelling argument against electronic voting is that some dominant person in the household could do the voting for everyone else. I’m sure that would be a very small problem, but there’s no way to eliminate it. Whereas when you have to go vote in person, everybody gets a chance to mark their own x’s in private.

Obviously, compared to the US wait, one day longer wasn’t a big deal, but it was odd and I was curious about the results. If you are going to vote in these local elections semi-responsibly, you do have to do a fair amount of reading and research. And at least in these parts, there’s no polling to give you any idea who might win!

There were some pleasing and somewhat surprising results.

In the absence of parties, incumbents always have a big advantage, with many getting re-elected for years. But in Cambridge, long-time mayor Doug Craig lost out to Kathryn McGarry (who had her own name recognition due to having recently been the city’s MPP). To me, Doug Craig’s political philosophy could be summed up as Cambridge First, characterized as an unwillingness to compromise and a large propensity to complain. I was happy that the people of Cambridge were also getting tired of that approach. (And now Craig is planning to run for the federal Conservatives.)

And Michael Harris, who had been unfairly (in my opinion) cast out of provincial politics by Doug Ford shenanigans, won a seat on regional council. He always seemed one of the brighter lights in the Progressive Conservative party, so I was glad to see him get another chance to serve (in a less partisan environment).

In general (and as in the US), a lot more women got elected. The new regional chair is Karen Redman; Kitchener City Council and two of the townships achieved gender parity. On both Waterloo and Kitchener City Councils, women candidates managed to defeat incumbents.

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She defeated these three guys

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She defeated this guy (the incumbent)

On the other hand, the two women I voted for (there are two seats) as Waterloo regional councilors both lost to men. But, at least the two men in question weren’t unqualified, boorish, populists, so one can take some comfort in that.

In my city ward, the incumbent chose not to run again. One candidate captured the support of most of my immediate neighbours by expressing dismay about the planned residential high-rise building nearby. I considered joining that bandwagon, but ultimately voted for Royce Bodaly, who seemed to have a really good grasp of the local issues and a real online presence, and who made an effort to visit every household in the ward during the campaign. I must have talked to him for 20 minutes myself! He ended up winning the seat… By a margin of 11 votes. (And yet, there was no recount.)

By the way, I am not critiquing how long the US results take—or that they have recounts. Those are elections on a much bigger scale, of course, and conducted very differently (in ways I won’t pretend to understand). Giving people various ways to vote and taking the time to count all the votes is good, even though that means you can’t trust the narrative on voting day. It’s not a blue wave! Unless, wait for it, wait for it, yes it is…

One of the challenges raised in the US midterms (in Maine) was over the use of ranked ballots, as the leader after the first round of ranked ballot voting lost his lead in the second. (The results were upheld.) Ranked ballots were also tried in one Ontario city this year: London. They had to do something like 14 rounds of counting, but in the end, the same person who was in the lead after the first round became mayor. People said that demonstrated that ranked ballots are pointless, but I’m not so sure. There were a lot of people running (hence the number of rounds of counting), and at least the winner now knows he’s not a polarizing figure, and that the majority who voted are basically OK with him being their mayor.

I think it might be worth trying elsewhere. (Cambridge and Kingston voted to do so in the next election, though the results aren’t binding in Cambridge.) When you do this local election research, you do generally end up with not only your #1 choice, but an idea of the other people you think would also be OK, and those you really don’t want elected under any circumstances. So marking your ballot accordingly wouldn’t really be so much more work.

Finally, municipally there was a period after the election where the previous council continued to sit and govern, til the new crew were oriented and took over about a month. There was no drama or scandal surrounding this that I know of—except perhaps Cambridge council voting themselves a raise without accepting the offsetting reduction in benefits. But they did that for selfish reasons that they wanted their cake and eat it too (many were re-elected), and not to hamstrung the newbies.

The US has a longer “lame duck” period during which some states, like Wisconsin, well:

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Details: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/in-stunning-power-grab-wisconsin-republicans-pass-bill-weakening-new-governor_us_5c06e268e4b0680a7ec9a289

Democracy, man. It’s fragile. But worth fighting for.


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My relationship with the Globe and Mail is dysfunctional

I do think that, in these times, it’s important to support the newspaper industry financially, if you can afford to. This might seem crazy, when so much news is available for free online—and there’s certainly an argument that news companies haven’t been that smart in making so much of it available free online. But, we need to support real journalists. Those who hold politicians to account. Who spend months on investigative stories. Who fact check. Who provide the background details on that “click-bait” headline. Someone needs to help pay for all that—or we’ll lose it.

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Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

However, there is really no need to subscribe to as many newspapers as I do. Most of these subscriptions, I acquired at some great deal, but these deals gradually expire, I have to start rethinking some of these relationships.

Long-time companion: My local paper

If you’re looking to subscribe to one newspaper, your local paper is a good one to consider. For one thing, if you even have one, you’re lucky—just ask Guelph. And there have been studies that closures of local newspaper increase the cost of local government: no more watchdogs.

But you don’t have to think of your subscription as a charity donation; it is actually a source of useful information—who’s running for office in your town; local perspectives and comments on national and international stories (example: Greg Mercer’s great investigative work on Doug Ford’s shoddy treatment of former Kitchener MPP Michael Harris, later picked up by The Toronto Star); upcoming and ongoing constructions projects; festivals and other events; stores and restaurants opening, closing, moving, and expanding; and updates on when the heck those Ion trains are going to get here. The New York Times is great, but it ain’t going to cover any of that stuff.

Conestogo River at sunset!

Wondering where this lovely neighbourhood trail is? Your local paper might tell you.

Plus, an e-subscription to my local paper, the Waterloo Region Record, is pretty cheap. For just under $8 a month, you get unlimited access to the website and a full replica of the print edition in a handy Android or IOs app. It’s also a nice, I think, that The Record is not a Postmedia publication, meaning it doesn’t run obligatory corporate editorials (that just happen to have a right-wing slant). The Record is owned by the TorStar, who allow the local staff to set their own editorial direction.

Cheap date: The Washington Post

So, this is how they lured me in: They said subscribe to our newsletter, and we’ll give you full website and Washington Post app access for six month. And I said, OK. And it turned out their newsletter was kind of interesting, and I was reading a bunch of their articles (Trump era! You can’t look away!), and when the six months was up they said, how about you give us $20 (US) and then you can keep getting the newsletter and having full website / app access for a year. And I said, OK.

postThen the year was up, and I was like, oh my God, what is my price going to jump to now? But it didn’t jump at all (except to the extent that the Canadian dollar fell); it was still just $20 US for another year. Or about $2 Cnd. a month. Which, I can totally afford, so I’m keeping it, because—you can’t look away!

Weekly gentleman caller: The Toronto Star

Though this is soon to change, the Toronto Star doesn’t currently have a online paywall, so my subscription is an old-timey one, to the paper version, but on Sundays only. And at this point, I’m still getting it at half price.

It is kind of nice to get a paper copy (in limited quantities), and I do usually get it read (though not necessarily all on Sunday). I’m also wondering if this small subscription will provide some access once the paywall does go up. So I’ll hang on to this for now to see what happens.

Toronto Star special project: Daniel Dale keeps track of every false claim Donald Trump makes. (Maybe they should do Doug Ford also?)

Glamour boy: The New York Times

Yes, this is the prestige paper, but the thing that stands out to me about The New York Times is that its online experience is just head and shoulders above everybody else’s. Their long-form stories are interactive and gorgeous. For example, though it broke my heart:  Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.

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“Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario…”

You can seamlessly link to the responsive and attractive New York Times app from browsers and social media. As a subscriber, you can “set aside” any story for safe-keeping or later reading, something I’m now constantly expecting from all other papers! But alas, no one else has it. (Thanks goodness for Pocket.)

And if you like cooking? A vast collection of recipes is available, auto-organized, to which you can add external sources. And even get it all printed up (for a small extra fee). If you want the “full paper replica” experiences, that’s available, too. And though it’s not my thing, the crossword experience is apparently incredible as well.

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The lovely (and far less depressing) cooking section of the New York Times

I had this subscription for a year at 60% off, and the full monthly price ($22; they let you pay in Canadian) is now a bit of a shock. Cheaper subscription are available—and even freeloaders aren’t completely cut off. So I’ll have to do some research on how much glamour I really need in my life.

Dysfunctional relationship: The Globe and Mail

If you think The New York Times is a bit pricey… Meet the Globe and Mail. I have the cheapest possible subscription, but now that this 60% off discount has expired, we’re talking $27 a month. That’s just to read stuff on the website—no amazing app, no replica of the full paper, no home delivery, nothing much extra other than… Report on Business magazine.

So I keep breaking up with The Globe and Mail. Which is always painful—because it requires a phone call, of course, no handy Cancel button. And the cancellation request is never immediately accepted. No, they first try to lure or guilt you into staying, but if you succumb, you know you’re just putting off the pain to a later date.

But even when I succeed in ending the relationship, I often find myself lured back. Because for all the frustrations with this publication:

They do have some very good columnists, and they do invest in long-form investigative pieces more so than any other Canadian newspaper. A prime examples is the Unfounded series that Robin Doolittle worked on for 20 months, revealing that an incredible percentage of reported sexual assaults were being dismissed as “unfounded”, or without merit. It’s a rare case of a newspaper story leading to nation-wide changes in policing.

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There’s also the simple fact that a lot of Globe and Mail stories are “subscriber-only”, period. While there are ways around this (you can get the Globe digital replica free from the library, for example), they are not  as convenient as just clicking and reading the story. But what price convenience? That’s what I have to decide.


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Twitter break

We’d boarded, so I set my phone and tablet to airplane mode, and kept myself entertained with a novel. On the drive home from the airport, I decided: No more Twitter.

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Going cold turkey

I made no announcements (who would care?), did not delete my account, didn’t even uninstall the app or turn off the notifications. I just… stopped going to Twitter.

What struck me at first was that… I felt like I had so much time. To read other stuff. To get chores done. To talk to people (in person). To arrive places on time. Woah.

What surprised me next was that, I didn’t miss reading Twitter at all. But I did miss tweeting out links to interesting stuff.

A few times, I just broke down and did that, the tweeting. (Alysha Brilla liked one of them. That was cool.) But I stayed away from the reading of the timeline.

The reason was nothing so dramatic as online harassment, thank God. It was just the stress of it, the anxiety.

Twitter was just Freaking Me Out.


Ontario was about to elect an incompetent populist as Premier. Canada was getting into a trade war with the US. Immigrant children were being separated from their parents. And reading about this (and more!) on Twitter, I worried about all of it.

Yet, it’s not like a took a news break here. While not on Twitter, I was still reading and hearing about all of this (and other bad stuff going on). It just seemed so much easier to manage the information in the form of news articles, editorials, and TV reports than in the hot takes, inflammatory opinions, alarming speculation, and emotional responses on Twitter.

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Twitter never warns you. (Source: Pearls Before Swine)

Twitter is a social media, and there can be some comfort in knowing that others are worried about the same things you are. But only to a point. The point where you start out seeking validation about one issue only to find yourself, an hour later, in a tizzy about ten other issues, three of which might just be inventions or misunderstandings.

So, I stopped. The generalized anxiety didn’t immediately disappear. Initially, it transferred onto other targets (Inner monologue: “Is the cats’ ear infection back?” “How do you get a skunk out from under the deck?” “Wait, is this just a mosquito bite, or…?”), like the angst needed somewhere else to go now that it didn’t have Twitter to feed it. But with time that diminished also.

On election day, I was able to view the bad (but expected) results without getting overly emotional, and I managed have a decent night’s sleep afterward. Sure, it was mostly an infuriating result, but my candidate won (easily), and she’s a qualified, experienced women. And Ontario did elect its first Green MPP, a just reward for the party that had the best platform on offer.


Today, after about a week off, I dipped a toe back into the Twitter. For all its flaws, it is a good way for me to find out about things that I care about, that simply don’t make the headline news. (Queen and Adam Lambert have done a live version of “Lucy”! Rainbow Rowell is writing a sequel to Carry On!)

And all that G7 crazy-ness was pretty interesting. Until… I found myself getting kind of anxious about it.

And then… I closed the app.


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Finding time to listen

I have found a new (to me) podcasting app Pocket Casts and it’s very good. It has solved all my podcasting problems: It gathers all podcasts in one app, whereas before I was bouncing between iTunes, Google, SoundCloud, and a browser. It keeps my spot in each podcast I’ve started, even when switching devices or playing through Sonos or Chromecasting. It can even cut silences out of each episode, making it each one slightly shorter.

Wait, did I say it solved all my podcasting problems? There’s one it’s likely only exacerbated, even with the seconds or minutes saved by cutting out silences: finding time to listen to all the ones I’d like to.

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Some people do this by listening on what they call chipmunk speed, playing it at a faster speed than recorded. I tried that, but I just don’t like the weird sound that results, even at only 1.5x faster.

I can’t attend to a podcast while reading, or having a conversation, or working (because fortunately my job’s not that boring), or writing, or anything else in which I have to attend to my thoughts. My commute is extremely short, which is wonderful in most ways, but means that it’s really not enough time to make much of a dent in a podcast episode.

And I just don’t want to give up my daily habit of listening to music while making dinner. I also don’t think they would be as good as soundtrack to my Monday night cleaning routine as my “high-energy songs” playlists.

“Know what would make my life better? Listening to music less often.”

— No one, ever.

So I found myself seeking out extra chores I can do, for which a podcast would be a useful adequate. Now, anything that can motivate me to do some tidying up is beneficial. But I still prefer cooking to tidying, so I also find that I’m now trying out more dessert recipes. The value of that is debatable.

(On the other hand, you can definitely overdo this podcast thing, as revealed in this article: I Listen to 35 Hours of Podcasts Every Week. Is That … Bad? Answer: yeah, kind of… And towhich I say… 35 hours a week! Jesus. When do you do… anything else?)

There seems to be podcasts about every topic under the sun, and I’m not always sure how I stumbled upon the ones I try to listen to semi-regularly. But here’s a sampling of them and what I like about them.

Psychology

These are nice because, being less attuned to current events, you can more cherry-pick through them and feel less pressure to listen to them soon after their posting date.

Under the Influence

Good old CBC Radio—the original podcaster! This particular series is by Terry O’Reilly and is on the subject of advertising, or “the art of persuasion”. Recent episodes have covered jingles (with a WKRP reference), use of celebrities (early Ellen Degeneres!), brand myths (no, little Mikey from the Life cereal commercial didn’t die of pop rocks + coke. In fact, he’s alive and works in advertising). I’ve always loved this show, but rarely catch it on the radio. Podcasts to the rescue.

Hidden Brain

Hidden Brain is by NPR: the CBC of the US! This is how it describes itself:

Hidden Brain helps curious people understand the world – and themselves. Using science and storytelling, Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.

One three-part series that actually changed my own behavior a little was on the subject of sleep: The “Swiss Army Knife” Of Health. It makes a pretty compelling case that while sleep feels like a waste of time, it’s really important. And that while those who routinely get only 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night might think they’re managing just fine, they actually aren’t. They just no longer notice how tired they are all the time. But they are chronically under-performing, both mentally and physically. To be at your best, you need an “uncompromising 8 hours of sleep.” Every day.

Pop culture

Pop culture stuff is timely, but not that timely, especially since I almost never see movies on opening weekends, read books when they first come out, or watch TV live (love my PVR). So I can go back a few weeks on the pop culture ones without them feeling irrelevant.

Backtalk by Bitch Media

This one, hosted by two young women, looks at all aspects of pop culture—music, TV, movies, podcasts, books, magazines—from a feminist perspective. I’ve gotten some really good recommendations from it, along with some great insights; for example, their episode about the movie Get Out pointed out a whole lot of racial metaphors and symbols that I had missed, and made me admire the movie even more.

The only issue? And I don’t know how to say this without coming across as a disapproving granny, but wow, they sure swear a lot. I know, there’s a lot for American women to be angry about right now, and you gotta speak your truth. I just feel the arguments might be a bit more effective if the colorful language was applied more judiciously.

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The Americans Podcast

Where Backtalk is very broad; The Americans Podcast is super-specific. It’s not about all the people living in the country to the South, but about the FX TV series by that title that tells the story of Russian spies in 1980s who pose as an all-American couple, complete with all-American children. As previously reported, Jean and I love it.

It’s currently in its sixth and final season, and I have just discovered this podcast, which contains interviews with the cast, crew, and creators of the show, and thus is strictly a post-episode listen, as it’s rife with spoilers. This season is setting up to be epic.

Politics

Political stuff, especially American, is just moving with break-neck speed these days. These are the ones I don’t like to wait too long after post date before listening.

Lovett or Leave It

Crooked Media was a response to the election of Trump. Most of its members used to work for President Obama in some capacity. So they’re not unbiased, but the aim is to have “better conversations about politics.” They have a ton of podcasts, and I’ve sampled various ones. But my favorite is Lovett or Leave It.

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Some sincerely cool Crooked Media merch

Lovett or Leave It is taped live Friday nights in front of an audience, who participates in some segments. It’s a humorous, improvised look at the week’s stories in US politics. To add to the many other sources of humorous looks at US politics. What’s different here, I guess, is that it’s a lot of super well-informed people cathartically doing things like playing a clip from Fox news, saying “OK, stop”, and responding to the stupidity. Or turning the ridiculousness into a game. Or spinning a wheel to decide which topic to rant about.

It’s partly informative, it’s partly therapy.

Oppo – Canadaland

This is a relatively new one, and it’s about Canadian politics! I was drawn to it because they seem to be especially covering wonky issues I get somewhat obsessed with, like carbon pricing, why doesn’t the NDP seem more viable in Ontario, and what’s up with Sikh politics.

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It features journalists Justin Ling and Jen Gerson, who are supposed to in “opposition” from left and right positions, but it took me two episodes to realize that was the idea, because neither of them is really that extreme or partisan. Which I think is good (and also kind of Canadian).


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I have not completely forgotten how to read

This Globe and Mail article, called I have forgotten how to read, was posted some weeks ago now, but the opening sticks with me [bold added by me]:

Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!“ he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

I identified with the gist of the remainder of the article, which is that the Internet has rewired our brains and made it difficult for us to focus on extended text, such as a book. Heck, even a brief Internet outage (maybe 2.5 hours) one Sunday left and my husband and I feeling like lost, disconnected souls, missing our regular jolts of online distraction.

But still, that opening example… You literally can’t sit and read one chapter? That just seems impossible. Like, how boring was this book you were trying to read? Maybe don’t go for Moby Dick or Middlemarch. Try some hot fiction. A lively bio, maybe.

On the other hand, if actually true, it’s made me feel slightly superior, because despite my web-addled brain and Twitter addiction, I still manage to read a book chapter pretty much every single day.

Sure, it takes a bit of conscious effort. No screens in the bedroom (other than an eReader), TV off by a certain time. And quite deliberately having at least two books on the go, so that my Internet-addled brain has variety and choice. Normally, I try to make sure it’s at least one fiction and one non-fiction on the go.

Here’s a few I’ve gotten through—or am working on—recently.

Caught by Lisa Moore

Nobody I’ve talked to seems to have of this book, even though it was supposedly a best seller. It’s a Canadian novel, set in 1978, about a young man convicted of drug dealing who escapes from prison. He then connects with his former partner in crime, who evaded incarceration, for another possible job. But he might not be evading the law as well as he thinks….

This was a well-written novel, with each chapter acting like a short story in itself, with its own suspenseful arc.

I was pleased to see that CBC has adapted the novel as a mini-series, and even more pleased that they’ve changed some plot elements in an interesting way. Now I don’t know how this version will end, as I’m thinking it can’t be the same as in the novel…

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Yes, it was about time I read this, and yes, it came to mind because of the popular mini-series, even though I only watched the first episode of that, because then the free Bravo preview ended, plus I found it kind of dark.

Compared with that one episode of the mini-series, the novel was not as depressing as I’d expected. The episode quickly presents the story of Offred’s capture and “orientation” into the life of handmaiden; the novel spends more time with her immersed in that life, with flashbacks occurring only later on in the book. And it’s overall less graphic, I suppose.

I “enjoyed” reading it, if that’s the right word? It kept me engaged, anyway. And not having seen the rest of the mini-series, I didn’t know how everything would play out.

Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK by Bonar Menninger

This a non-fiction work about what I think is the most convincing take on the Kennedy assassination: that the President was accidentally killed by one of his own security men. It documents the work of ballistics expert Howard Donaghue, who was asked to prove whether Oswald could possibly have fired three times in the necessary time span for him to have acted alone. Donaghue managed to replicate that feat, but wanted to do more research before giving his own stamp of approval on the official account. Hence begins years of research.

He discounts some of what conspiracy theorists insist prove their case; the “magic bullet” problem. He explains that by how Kennedy and Connolly were seated relative to one other, and by the type of bullet used. But he couldn’t buy everything about the official account, either, concluding, for example that the first shot did ricochet onto Kennedy but not Connolly. And he was especially troubled by the fatal head shot: both its trajectory and its effect. Leading to his eventual conclusion that it was actually fired from a different location and type of gun.

I know exactly nothing about gun and ballistics, of course, but the evidence laid out here just works better for me than any other I’ve heard. The official story, about one deranged man acting alone, makes it hard to explain why so many officials did act in such weird, suspicious, cagey ways—breaking Texas law by stealing away the body, later losing the President’s brain (!). But arguing that Oswald was either just a patsy or a party to some government conspiracy doesn’t work that well, either; he really did seem the deranged loner type to try something like this, and he did murder officer Tippet.

But that Oswald alone tried to murder the President, and that one of the security men reacting to the shooting tripped and accidentally fired? And that officials didn’t want the world to know that accident happened? Yes, that makes sense to me.

There was a documentary made about this theory in 2013. (The book was published in 1992.) Trailer below, but the whole thing seems to be posted on YouTube.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Someone had recommended Jo Walton to me as an author, and I picked this particular novel because it was the only one immediately available for borrowing (as an ebook) from my library. It’s a novel about a woman whose life starts off on one trajectory, then splits off in two directions based on a pivotal decision. After the setup chapters, the book alternates between what happens when she says “yes” versus what happens when she says “no”.

It’s not only her own personal life that veers in different directions in each case, but world history itself. Early on we learn that in one case, President Kennedy (him again!) was killed, while in the other he was not. So you initially think that one life will take place in “our” world vs. an alternative one. But no. Kennedy is killed is different way, and a whole other history follows (such as his brother not being assassinated and instead becoming President himself).

With the mix of two personal stories and two alternative world histories, I got totally caught up in this. My original plan was to read what I could doing the three-week borrowing period then check it out again later, but no, I found I really wanted to finish it! The only downside to that was that it meant reading the later chapters in rapid sequence, which got pretty confusing—there was so many characters (friends, children, partners, grandchildren), not to mention varying historical facts—to try to keep straight in each “life” at that point.

I was wondering how this would all come together in the end. The answer wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I didn’t regret the journey one bit.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

The current read, one I am still working on. (Plus, it’s a book club book, so discussion is to come.) Early part is a really sad story, told by a very funny person.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

Just anticipating this will be my next fiction read, as that is the Oscar-nominated movie that really had my heart this year. Whereas my brain said Get Out might have been the best in terms of ideas. But the Academy thought Shape of Water, of course—it was also good. Jean and I liked The Post also, but it was more conventional than the other five nominated movies I saw.

I did not watch the actual telecast, beyond the opening monologue. I had reading to do.

 


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100% fresh

We saw Lady Bird last weekend. This indie film is most famous for having attained a record 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that it got positive notices from all 195 critics who reviewed it.

It would be nicely contrarian of me to report that I didn’t like it… but I did. Set in 2002, it’s about a young woman named Christine (who prefers to be called Lady Bird) negotiating her last year of high school in Sacramento, California. Nothing epic or bizarre occurs. She tries to boost her college changes with extracurriculars. She dates boys for the first time. She abandons old friends for new. She consistently fails to please her mother.

But it works because her character and the supporting characters are so strong and appealing, with great acting that makes them all believable. And, because it presents a time of life and experiences that most of us (at least most North Americans) can relate to. Even Jean, who definitely prefers plot-driven films over character-driven ones like this, was able to enjoy the ride. For me, it didn’t hurt that it was centrally a story of women: Christine, her mom, and her best friend are the main characters. Dad, the boyfriends, the brother, were all supporting cast.


Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a new-ish Freddie Mercury biography called Somebody to Love, by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. It’s hardly the first Freddie biography ever written (or that I’ve read) and I missed the fine print that this one would be particularly looking at his life in the context of the AIDS crisis. Which I pretty quickly decided was not the context I prefer to focus on. Sure, it was sort of interesting finding out just how far back the disease’s origins can be traced, and that Freddie had had an encounter with “patient zero”, and that Reagan wasn’t quite as bad on AIDS as they say (though he was pretty bad), but overall I found myself skipping over the pages discussing increasing death rates or what symptoms Freddie developed when, preferring the parts that talked about the music and the important relationships in his life.

Those parts were a reminder, though, of the extent of critical slagging Queen endured throughout their career. The reviews were not just negative—they were scathing.

A Day at the Races, 1976: “I hate this album…. All of these songs with their precious impotent Valentino kitsch mouthings on romance, their spotlight on a vocalist so giddily enamoured with his own precious image—they literally make my flesh creep.” NME. (Hey, NME: Homophobic much?)

The Game, 1980: “Less obnoxious than Queen’s last few outings, simply because it’s harder to get annoyed at a group that’s plugging away at bad rockabilly than with one blasting out crypto-Nazi marching tunes.” Rolling Stone (Yes, Nazi comparisons are always apropos.)

The Miracle, 1989: “Addresses the question how much bad taste it is possible to cram onto one album.” The Times.

Few critics at the time seemed to recognize that Queen wrote songs that would endure, become the soundtrack of people’s lives. That in the multi-layered vocals, they developed a sound unique to them. That they four song writers each capable of writing hit songs. That they had one the best rock vocalists. That this band would come to be seen as one of all-time greats.


Both of which got me thinking of the state of professional criticism today, compared with the pre-digital era. For movies, while the influence of any individual critic has diminished compared with the heyday of the likes of Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane, and Siskel and Ebert, as an aggregate, they seem to have Hollywood spooked!

I find it fascinating that Rotten Tomatoes, a site I’ve been using for years, has recently become this force: How Rotten Tomatoes became Hollywood’s most influential — and feared — website

Decades ago, the only way to evaluate a movie before its release was to read reviews in major publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker or the Los Angeles Times. Today, moviegoers rely on the Tomatometer, a number that shows what percentage of critics recommend the film.

It’s no coincidence that the few breakout hits of the summer box office all have scores of 80% or higher… And for lesser films, a very low score can be fatal.

But for music? Aggregate sites do exist, like Metacritic—but I had to look up that fact, because I don’t use them, even though I do listen to music regularly. And the only thing I’ve read about recent music criticism is that it seems to be overly positive now. The original WSJ article is pay-walled, so here’s a report on (and critique of) that article: No, There Weren’t Only 8 Bad Albums in the Last 4 Years.

Why the difference? Well, movies are still something of an investment, aren’t they? Of time, if nothing else: two or so hours you won’t get back if you hated, hated, hated that movie. But often of money also: people still go to theatres to see movies, buy them on disc, pay to rent them, subscribe to movie channels. And they’re still expensive to make, so there’s only so many of them released each month. And there’s no Spotify of movies, really: Current movies are not in constant competition with movies of the past. If you’re into movies, you can focus on and make a decision about each.

But albums? They’re no longer distributed on vinyl discs you can play only on your home stereo system… And it’s really just about songs now, which are short, and you can listen to those anywhere, and (if you don’t mind the ads) it’s free to do so. Who needs to be warned away from a bad album when the skip button is right there? The danger isn’t in wasting time (or money) on bad music; it’s on missing out on great music because there is just so much music so easily available now. Of course music reviews are mostly positive: Recommendations are all we need.


So yeah, Rotten Tomatoes got me out to see Lady Bird, and I’m glad it did. I would point out that its 100% score doesn’t mean that all 195 critics thought it was the best movie ever, only that all agreed it was a good one. I would say that too. I liked it, but I don’t know if it’s the best movie I saw even this year: Get Out was so creative, The Big Sick did a great job of balancing the tragic and the comic. But Lady Bird was also a worthy two hours.

As for Queen, all those crappy reviews at the time never deterred me—I’m not sure how many I would have read, anyway, in the pre-digital era where British music magazines weren’t easily available. But the band read them, and yes, despite their success, it did bother them. So I’m glad that most of the group has survived to see the tide of opinion change, and that they can still play to sold-out arenas around the world (to positive reviews, at that). It’s just really tragic that Freddie didn’t live to see that, as well.

Fun way to end this:

Most of these kids actually have heard of Queen, which likely in itself says something of their legacy. But the most fun is the one little girl who hasn’t. “That’s the same band?” she comments, amazed, hearing “Killer Queen” right after “Radio Gaga”. “What is this?” she says, eyes wide, of “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

That, my dear, is probably the greatest rock epic of all time.