December 22, 2008

Hear Again: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor.

On Thursday, December 22, Ludwig van Beethoven will have the honour to give a musical concert in the Royal Imperial Theater an der Wien. All the pieces are of his own composition, are entirely new, and have not yet been heard in public.

Two hundred years ago today, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) premiered his Fifth Symphony, one of the most popular and widely recognised pieces of European classical music. Its four-note — three short, one long — opening motif is frequently referenced in music, film, television, and was even used by the BBC during the Second World War as the call sign of all of its European services, evoking the Morse code for the letter "V" — as in "victory". But its premiere was far from successful, and the reception of the Fifth in particular far from rapturous.

One of the reasons was that the Viennese fortunate enough to have spied the inconspicuous concert announcement in the December 17 issue of
Wiener Zeitung (bottom right) found themselves freezing in an unheated Theater an der Wien from half past six to half past ten on the evening of December 22, all the while enduring the (rather loud) public debut of not only the Fifth but also the Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, excerpts form the Mass in C Major, a concert aria, and some piano improvisations.

Being a freelance composer, without reliable employment, Beethoven lacked not only the funds with which to provide the venue with heating, but also adequate rehearsal time for the performers. Which inevitably led to a break down: the Choral Fantasy, conceived as the evening's showstopper, ground to a halt following a mistake, at which point the conducting composer decided to try it once again, from the top, prolonging the proceedings even further. Due to encroaching deafness, caused by severe tinnitus, the untoward spectacle also turned out to be Beethoven's last public appearance as a pianist.

He had begun composing the
Fifth — his first minor-key symphony — in 1804, while still living in the very theatre building where it later premiered. It consists of four separate movements, though there's no break between the third and the final movement. The famous motif supposedly permeates the entire piece — though scholars viciously disagree whether this is intentional or sheer fluke. The motif itself isn't entirely original; it can be heard in Haydn's Symphony No. 96, or in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, seemingly a common part of the musical language among Beethoven's older contemporaries.

Beethoven was particularly influenced by Mozart, and modeled a number of his own compositions on Mozart's works; the two may in fact have met briefly in Vienna during Beethoven's first short visit there in 1787. In fact, the similarities extend beyond the famous motif: the
Fifth's third movement introduces a theme similar — though in a different key — to the opening theme of the final movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40. (This was first pointed out by Gustav Nottebohm, who discovered 29 measures of Mozart's finale copied out by Beethoven in a notebook used while composing the Fifth.)

Working on several pieces simultaneously, Beethoven often ended up with overlap in his material. Hence the famous motif of the
Fifth is rhythmically similar to the opening of the Fourth Piano Concerto, the transition between the Fifth's third and the final movement was first used in the Sixth Symphony (completed prior to the Fifth), with similarities appearing even in the Fourth Symphony. What is original about the Fifth is its immediacy and efficiency, particularly in the implementation of that much knocked about motif.

As to what it all means, there's very little agreement. The most popular interpretation, championed by Beethoven's fabulating factotum Anton Schindler, has the motif representing "fate knocking on the door". On the other hand Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny claimed the motif was inspired by a
Yellowhammer's song, heard during a stroll in Vienna's Prater Park. More recently it has been suggested that the motif might be derived from Beethoven's favourite contemporary composer Luigi Cherubini's Hymne au Panthéon. Considering the events during which the Fifth Symphony was written, it's perhaps not surprising that the "fate" interpretation is the one which has won the most supporters.

In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte was practically Master of Europe, threatened only by Russia, Great Britain, and the rise of European nationalism which he inadvertently facilitated. As an admirer of the French Revolution's ideals, Beethoven had initially been a supporter of the French leader, but was disappointed when Bonaparte turned to imperialism and crowned himself Emperor. To Beethoven's romantic contemporaries it clearly was much more appealing to imagine the
Fifth heralding fate itself knocking on the door to give Bonaparte a well-deserved kick in the pants, rather than something the composer had overheard a bird knocking out in the local park.

A major obstacle for the listener is the lack of an authoritative version of the piece. The composer isn't around to conduct, so what's on offer is somebody else's interpretation, and in the case of a piece as popular as the
Fifth, those interpretations differ wildly. In terms of tempo, Arturo Toscanini probably still holds the speed record set in 1945, at 26 minutes and 45 seconds — no doubt contributing to his somewhat unwarranted reputation as the speed racer of classical music. At the slower end there's Otto Klemperer, who managed to stretch "his" Fifth over 40 minutes on at least two occasions — once for a 1959 recording, and again during a 1969 performance.

For most listeners, recordings rather than live performances are the primary source of exposure to the
Fifth, but the array currently available — at least 80 different versions since the piece was first recorded in 1913 by Artúr Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic — can be daunting even to the initiated. The most commonplace recordings are probably those of the Nazi opportunist Herbert von Karajan, perhaps the most tyrannical, reviled, yet lavishly rewarded conductor in history. (Far from a profound musician, Karajan appears mostly celebrated for being enormously successful and enormously rich, shunning creativity and turning music into a luxury consumer item.)

The classical music beginner may as well turn to
Carlos Kleiber, a virtually invisible, self-effacing, content conductor, worth only a fraction of Karajan's reputed C$ 180 million fortune. Kleiber's 1974 recording of the Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is as good a starting point as any. Another option could be one of the period-instrument versions, which utilise smaller orchestras, lower tunings, and less powerful instruments, in order to recreate a performance that Beethoven's audience of two centuries ago could recognise. A good starting point among these is The Hanover Band's fairly leisurely recording from 1983.

Keeping in mind that the premiere essentially was an exercise in sight-reading and sub-zero endurance, few contemporary performances — whether live or recorded — of Beethoven's
Fifth can be said to lack distinction, polish, interpretive feeling, sensitivity, or warmth in comparison.

December 9, 2008

Mother of All Demos.

Networked collaboration, videoconferencing, digital text editing, hyperlinks, a pointing device (superficially resembling a rodent) called a “mouse,” surely are familiar to the average computer user today. But on this day, 40 years ago, some 1000 participants of the Fall Joint Computer Conference had their minds blown as they were exposed to all of the above for the very first time, during a 100 minute demonstration now known in hacker lore as The Mother of All Demos. At a time when most people thought computers were purely for computing, this was the stuff of an interactive future decades away.

The team that launched this point-and-click revolution in 1968 was led by Dr Douglas Engelbart, founder of the Augmentation Research Centre (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. Engelbart had spent twenty years trying to secure support for building a working prototype of an interactive, collaborative computer system that would allow people to work collectively to solve complex problems. What his team unleashed at the San Francisco conference was the oN-Line System (NLS), the very first attempt to put these ideas into practical form.
It was a gamble: Englebart and his team didn't yet have a fully developed system, and had used research funding without official approval.

The presentation wasn't only successful, but so far ahead of computing at the time, its technology so convincing, that it directly contributed to the personal computer revolution of the 1980s and the development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s. But while many of the NLS components and features, such as the mouse, hypertext, the graphical user interface, multiple windows, information organised by relevance, integrated text and graphics, two-way video and teleconferencing are now ubiquitous, the NLS itself was far too oriented towards extremely powerful systems and highly specialised operators to become the standard system its creators envisioned.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, Engelbart’s team wasn’t interested in automation but augmentation, not merely designing a tool but a system for working with knowledge. They strived to change the entire process of how we work, think and interact with data, as well as the machines we employ for that purpose. Today, the basic premise of the NLS permeates modern computing, but its scope is yet to be fully realised; while their presentation inspired much of the hardware and software now widely used, the manner in which the ARC team used the NLS to collaborate is presently just being introduced with the evolution of web communities and services like social-networking sites, video sharing sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies.

December 8, 2008

Know your rights.

December 10 marks the 60th anniversary of the UN adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first global statement of its kind. Outlining 30 basic rights to which all humans are inherently entitled, essential for us all to achieve our full potential, and to live a life free of fear and want, it affirms all humans free and equal, regardless of race, religion, economic status, age, gender, or personal characteristics, and pronounces these basic rights the foundation of peace, justice, and freedom in our world.

Along with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols – one creating an individual complaints mechanism, the other abolishing the death penalty – ratified (with the usual reservations) by 163 nations, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified (ditto) by 159 nations, the Declaration forms the International Bill of Human Rights. Unlike the Charter of the UN, the Declaration isn't a binding treaty itself; it complements the Charter as a fundamental constitutive document.

Created in the late 1940s, when it became apparent that the UN didn't sufficiently define the rights referenced in the Charter, in particular the “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights,” the Declaration was initially drafted by Canadian legal scholar John Humphrey. It provided a foundation for the Canadian Human Rights Act, which aims to inspire a vision for Canada in which “all individuals [free from discrimination] should have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have.”

So, take the time on Wednesday to rediscover the world's most translated document (into more than 360 languages), take part in local events, as year long activities around the theme Dignity and justice for all of us culminate, and make sure you know your rights. In Canada the day will likely pass quietly, as our political leaders enjoy their unscheduled work stoppage, following the Conservative PM's refusal to put the reactionary policies of his minority government to a vote.

But you can still remind the PM that his government's attempts to legislate away complaints related to pay equity, filed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, are an affront to the principles of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the international human rights standards that Canada is supposed to be upholding. An alternative to dealing with Mr Harper's impenitent band of redneck buffoons, is to Write for Rights with Amnesty International Canada, or simply adding your name to the Every Human Has Rights campaign initiated by The Elders.

December 2, 2008

Jørn Utzon, 1918-2008.

The Danish architect who designed the Sydney Opera House, has passed away. More of his designs can be seen here.

November 30, 2008

World AIDS Day.

This year, December 1 marks the twentieth anniversary of World AIDS Day, originated at the 1988 World Summit of Ministers of Health on Programmes for AIDS Prevention. Every year since, governments, international organisations, and charities around the world have organised campaigns dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection.

Since it was first recognised in 1981, AIDS has killed more than 25 million people, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in recorded history. Despite improved access to treatment and care, in 2007 the disease claimed 2.1 million people, among them 330,000 children. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has warned that the pandemic is so severe in some countries it should be classified as a disaster, fitting the UN definition of an event overwhelming the capacity of any single society to manage.

Over the past two decades significant progress has been made, but much more needs to be done as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the world. The theme for this year's World AIDS Day is
Lead - Empower - Deliver, a continuation of last year's Take the Lead theme, focusing primarily on political leaders delivering on their promises – such as universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support by 2010, and the
Millennium Development Goal to reverse the epidemic by 2015.

The AIDS pandemic cannot be reversed, and gains made cannot be sustained, without a reduction in the new infection rate. According to a study recently published in The Lancet, universal testing for HIV, followed by immediate treatment could cut the number of people developing full-blown AIDS by up to 95% in ten years time. While such a strategy could virtually eliminate HIV transmissions, the WHO has warned that the feasibility of universal testing is challenged by weak health care systems.

But money alone won't suffice to cure the world. Between 2001 and 2007 there was a six fold increase in financing for HIV programmes among developing countries, which has led to lower mortality and higher rate of prevention. However, the progress is uneven, and key to success in addressing the epidemic is further, immediate, worldwide reduction of the human rights violations associated with AIDS, the gender inequality, stigma, and discrimination acting as roadblocks, impeding effective, evidence- and rights-based responses to the pandemic.

Today the spread of AIDS has stabilised at an unacceptably high level. While the number of new HIV infections globally declined from 3 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2007 (that's still almost 7400 people a day), an estimated 33 million people were living with the disease in 2007 – more than half of them children. In sub-Saharan Africa, by far the worst-affected region, the pandemic has even begun to decline, but infections are on the rise in a number of places outside Africa.

The USA has one of the largest HIV prevalence rates in the world, with an estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV in 2005. In Canada, an estimated 58,000 people were living with the disease in 2005 – an increase of 16% since 2002 – with women's proportion of new HIV infections on the rise. AIDS continues to disproportionally affect African Americans in the USA and aboriginal people in Canada. The rate of new HIV infections in the EU has almost doubled since 1999, with particularly high prevalence in France, Italy, Spain and the UK – Estonia, Portugal and the UK having the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses. The ECDC estimates that almost one third of people living with HIV in Europe are unaware they are infected.

While globally the percentage of women living with HIV has remained at 50% for several years, women's share of infections is rising in several countries. Among children, the annual number of new HIV infections has declined since 2002, but an estimated 370,000 children under the age of 15 became infected in 2007 (over 1000 a day). Despite young people, 15 - 24 years of age, accounting for 45% of all new HIV infections, many of them still lack accurate, comprehensive information on how to avoid exposure to the virus.

Events marking the day will be held throughout the world (see
here for Canada), calling for universal treatment, care and support for people living with HIV and AIDS. But the most important action remains to educate and protect yourself and your loved ones. So, spread the word and enjoy sex safely.

November 28, 2008

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

William Burroughs' (1914 - 1997) and Jack Kerouac's (1922 - 1969) attempt to fictionalise a murder in their midst languished unpublished for over six decades. “It isn't very good, it isn't worth publishing,” said Burroughs of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Kerouac, perhaps always more committed to becoming a writer than Burroughs, returned to the killing both in The Town and the City and Vanity of Duluoz, but the collaborative effort was ostensibly held back – despite names and places being changed to protect the guilty – because the principal characters were still alive. Now, neither the authors nor others involved can object to those still benefiting from their efforts making a killing.

That said, Burroughs was largely right: … Hippos… is an interesting test run of Beat style but no long-lost masterpiece. Written some years before Kerouac went on the road and Burroughs dedicated himself to becoming a proper junkie, it's a drowsy account of some deadbeat proto-slackers, getting by on doing as little as possible in a mid-1940s New York kept busy by distant war. It could be read as intended, a light-weight variation of the back-to-back dime store crime novel, but it could also be read as two separate, intertwined novellas. The alternating chapters clearly designate their respective author, so separating the two is easy – in which case Burroughs' chapters hold up better.

Kerouac meanders more, gets distracted, while Burroughs already utilises the tough, clipped, “just the facts, ma'am” narrative more akin to witness statements than fiction. A style – gleaned during many adolescent hours from the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Jim Black – he would later so expertly cut-up and skewer.

All over America, people were pulling credentials out of their pockets and sticking them under someone else's nose to prove they had been somewhere or done something. And I thought someday everyone in America will suddenly jump up and say "I don't take any shit!" and start pushing and cursing and clawing at the man next to him.

The protagonists' detachment from each other, their insensitivity and lack of empathy is far more appalling than the concluding murder itself. Numbness permeates the proceedings. Burroughs in particular seems quite disenchanted and, given his well-publicised penchant, unusually hostile towards gays; a peculiar concession to the conventions of the time from a proud figurehead of the unconventional.

Burroughs' long time companion, secretary, and business manager James Grauerholz attempts to dispel some of the myths surrounding the real murder in the accompanying essay, and tries to clarify the origin of the novel's title. Wherever it came from, or whatever its creators wanted it to imply, it could be interpreted as a reflection on the beat(en) generation itself. Like the titular hippos, they were caught in the constraining tanks of reactionary middle-class values, broke and bored dropouts stewing in inactivity, as the pressure to conform slowly raised the heat to boiling point. Little wonder so many of them burned out.

November 18, 2008

Devils In My Details.

Kevin Ogilvie (alias Nivek Ogre), legendary industrial music vocalist, artist, surviving heroin addict, and now actor, has concocted a third album under the OHGR moniker with long-time collaborator Mark Walk. It’s a whimsy result of a prolonged jam-session, cut up in the manner of contemporary video game soundtracks, littered with references to psychedelia past and present. It spans from highly evocative melodic to harsh sound collage, stylistically moving between industrial rock (complete with some of the more pretentious symphonic trappings of the seventies glam rock that inspired it) to cabaret chansons. Essentially one (two on the vinyl edition), continuous invocation of the title's devils burrowing among Ogre's various guises.

The origins of the many masks Ogre's donned over the decades can perhaps be found under the stairs of the Ogilvie household in Calgary, where young Kevin holed up in the company of Syd Barrett, Alice Cooper, and Les Chants de Maldoror. In fact, the album's artwork appears to allude this. On one hand, close-up images of a refinery's bowels juxtaposed with snow-capped peaks could simply be read as opposites, the murky innards of man contrasted with his soaring ambition. One the other hand, they could be read as geographical markers of a youth spent in Alberta, where the Rockies are the sole redeeming feature of a province dominated by oil production.

My voice sounds like shit, Ogre declares in the flamboyant opening track. Not only explaining why he's obscured his voice for a quarter of a century, but also the title of an early demo by Skinny Puppy – the pioneering act he co-founded. From the very start Ogre didn't perceive himself as a vocalist proper. Ironically, now that his vocal style has become de rigueur for the majority of industrial rock vocalists, Ogre finally seems comfortable with – or has perhaps simply accepted – the sound of his own voice, relying somewhat less on gadgets and effects than in the past. Hence, this comment on his vocal abilities is no longer an indictment but an incantation, a first step in the exorcism that follows.

Yes, Ogre's a pretty average vocal talent, but so's Bob Dylan. Sometimes what you're singing is more important than how it sounds. And this is a very lyrical aural sculpture, buttressed by quotes from Oscar Wilde and William Burroughs – leaning somewhat more heavily on the Beat than the Victorian. Cult horror flick actor Bill Moseley, with whom Ogre appears in the recently released rock opera-musical Repo! The Genetic Opera (which hopefully will be screened near us before its January DVD release), adds spoken word passages in between the tracks making the connection between Ogre's chopped up poetry and that of the Beats perfectly explicit:

We've only just begun (Moseley drones,) and me left-handed/you fresh off the farm/smelling of buttercups/and ancient lace/Let's bop 'til we drop/then drag ourselves to Denny's/for the midnite menue/We've only just begun/this vegetarian pact/this life without cigarettes/maybe tonite we'll smoke the bacon/for old times sake/and maybe tomorrow/I'll get a job.

The finale combines a line from an early Marvin Gaye hit, Can I Get A Witness, with portions of Haze, one of the more poignant tracks on the most recent Skinny Puppy album, providing a dynamic backdrop for Ogre denouncing his detractors and, perhaps, embracing those devils. Details are important, and one should always endeavour to do what one does thoroughly. As is the case with this album, down to the last devil.

DIMD is available as a download, CD, and vinyl LP.

November 17, 2008

Quantum of Solace.

The successful renaissance of James Bond has Her Majesty's favourite agent finally facing plausible adversaries and obstacles, with his characteristic cynicism ultimately justified. Bond's contemporary opponents aren't diabolical masterminds who hide out in fanciful lairs, but common capitalists who operate in the open. They're not driven by an inexorable lust to control the world – they don't give a crap about the world – but plain, wanton greed.

Here, in the series' first direct sequel, Bond is out for vengeance, trailing those who may be accountable for the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd, and who may be responsible for attempting to murder his boss, M. Having earned his licence to kill, Bond's not afraid to exercise it: bodies fall left and right, disposed of as brusquely as the implements that caused their demise. His is a quest for solace driven by barely muted rage.

While Ms Lynd's fate acts as justification, it's the bond between Bond and his boss that is most surprising and intriguing. M's central presence (the character finally doing justice to the skills of Judi Dench) almost rivals that of the main protagonist. Her relationship with the headstrong agent is ever more reminiscent of a mother's patience for one of her more reckless offspring. Luckily, Bond's lust for blood also coincides with yet another opportunity to (ostensibly) save the world.

Much to the detriment of older fans – despite many winks and nudges aimed at them throughout the film – it's an irrevocably postmodern world. They will age themselves tremendously by
lamenting the loss of bases in volcanoes and escapades in space, the lack of chauvinist quips and floozies with daft names (while Gemma Arterton's character appears as Ms Strawberry Fields in the credits, in the film itself she's "just Fields"), not to mention the demise of a black and white order easily divided into 'good' and 'bad'.

Daniel Craig's Bond even betrays his working-class roots by carelessly taking on tasks many of his predecessors would have considered too much like work. Presently, Bond has no time for slick playboy antics and less time for seduction. Villains only behave like they belong to a different species; they look like average people (no distinguishing scars, steel jaws, or pesky pets). Damsels kick their own way out of a jam, and only find themselves distressed when out of ammo. Telling friend from foe – 'good' from 'bad' – is increasingly difficult. The humour, contained within a screenplay aimed at a more discerning audience, is many shades darker than before.

Even locales once considered exotic by Westerners now seem a lot less so (owing perhaps to discount holidays) and few of Bond's gadgets (the car, the togs, the watch) remain out of reach for mere mortals – quite a few (the laptop, the phone, the other car) are not only affordable but ubiquitous.

The title has endured much criticism, despite fitting effortlessly among a canon of the absurd (You Only Live Twice), the misleading (Diamonds Are Forever), the lewd (Octopussy), even the ludicrous (Tomorrow Never Dies). Though allegedly selected only a few days before being publicly announced, it had previously been touted prior to the release of Licence to Kill – another realistic entry about vengeance unleashed in an otherwise quite fanciful series of films.

Ian Fleming penned the short story titled Quantum of Solace, published by Cosmopolitan in 1959 and included in the 1960 anthology
For Your Eyes Only, as an attempt at more 'mature' storytelling. With that in mind, the title fits this attempt to portray a more 'mature' James Bond well – despite not being an adaptation of the story itself. An enjoyable action drama with plot holes no bigger than its geographical errors, it's short – the shortest Bond film yet – fast, and to the point. Just like Craig's Bond.

November 14, 2008

Mitch Mitchell, 1947-2008.

John Mitch Mitchell, the British drummer of The Jimi Hendrix Experience who was offered the drum spot in ELP, has passed away. He can be experienced here.

November 11, 2008

Je me souviens.

As Remembrance Day dawns we're once again subjected to chauvinistic platitudes and historical revisionism from various self-proclaimed defenders of peace, freedom of expression, and democracy. Media bring us tales of soldiers' "heroism", television tableaus overflow with gung-ho war movies. A day during which we could have reflected on the horror of war — and the 42 currently fought around us — is turned into a celebration of the armed forces and militarism.

What is ironic is how anti-democratic and stifling this trend is. Apart from distorting in the public mind the processes by which tolerant, democratic, and peaceful societies are actually forged (popular political organisation and action, as opposed to armed conflict), these simplistic ceremonies obscure the actual causes of war, and — worse still — serve as tools of indoctrination, insisting on absurd notions like the "necessity" of warfare. Notions aimed at turning future generations into willing recruits for further slaughter.

It's worthwhile then to remind ourselves of the grip that the martial sentimentalists still hold on our collective imagination, how for self-serving purposes they trample even the very things they claim we owe to their sacrifices. Things like the freedom to dissent, to express an opinion contrary to theirs, for example. It's nearly two years ago that the Royal Canadian Legion threatened the Peace Pledge Union with legal action for infringing on its "trademark" red poppies.

The PPU, founded in 1934, has for over seventy years been the distributor of the
White Poppy appeal, which the Legion suddenly felt threatened not only its economic interests, but apparently also its unique right to dictate history and influence current military policy. In its comment on the incident, the PPU reflected:

What was originally a meaningful ceremony of consolation for tens of thousands of bereaved quickly turned into a justification of a futile war, and every soldier became a hero. Those heroes, and the millions more who have died in war since then, continued to be 'honoured' and 'remembered'. But what does that mean? What is being honoured and remembered?

What was once a language of conciliation has become a language of obfuscation. When the victims and perpetrators merge into a meaningless whole, as in 'to honour those who have died in war', we know we are in fantasy-land. People go to war for many reasons — not all of them worthy of respect, let alone honour.

Tens of thousands rushed to the recruiting offices in 1914 for the adventure that the war might offer. Tens of thousands more, who did not want to go to war, were conscripted and signed up to kill — not to die. Why should we honour reckless or foolish adventurers because they were killed in a futile war? Why should we honour those who acquiesced with the state's order to go and kill — that is, to perform acts that are contrary to most moral codes and laws?

'Tell them of us and say "For your tomorrow we gave our today".' That inscription on a memorial to World War Two's Burma campaign is how the British Legion likes us to think of the war dead. It's a neat piece of sleight of hand, aiming to make us grateful, even a little uneasy. It certainly deflects deeper questions about the 'values' of war. It is this guilt-inducing meaning that the red poppy attaches to itself; and this is largely why so few dare to criticise its pernicious values. No one has died in war for me — or for you.
(The comment can be read in its entirety here.)

Let us then dare today to remember that in no other era in human history has so much time been spent talking about peace, and so little done for it. That there has never been more lies, more death, more destruction, and more despair than in our time. Let's remind ourselves of the human casualties, the millions of people murdered, as well as the material, economical, and cultural losses.

Let's remember how easily we can be deceived to lend our support to armed aggression in far away places, against people we don't know, who pose little — if any — threat to us. Most importantly, let's remember that when the battlefields finally fell silent on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, there was hope that one World War would be lesson enough for future generations. These things are worth remembering.

November 8, 2008

Jacques Piccard, 1922-2008.

The Belgian-born Swiss oceanographer, hydronaut and engineer, who developed underwater vehicles and explored the deepest point in the oceans, has passed away. His father, Auguste, a physicist and explorer, inspired Tintin’s professor Cuthbert Calculus, while his uncle Jean-Felix, a chemist and explorer, inspired Star Trek’s Captain Picard. Jacques Piccard's mesoscaphe, the Ben Franklin, which explored the Gulf Stream, can be seen in Vancouver.

November 7, 2008

Same but different.

There must have been much rejoicing in the capital when the final result of the presidential election was announced. People cheering, dancing, carousing in the streets, overwhelmed by the victory that brought the change they desired for so long. No doubt, in some quarters the mood must've been quite the opposite, strikingly quiet and grim. After all, some people's desire for stability and continuity had been quashed.

The run-off saw an activist lawyer squaring off against a former US Air Force veteran, the former representing new blood and fresh ideas, the latter experience and a connection to the past. As results trickled in, it was clear that from the very beginning Mr Toribiong, the lawyer and former senator, had defeated Mr Chin, the former combat pilot and current Vice President. Details are sketchy, for none of the three periodicals produced locally have a website. So foreign observers can at this point only guess at what actually took place in Palau on November 4th.

While considered sovereign, Palau (yes, it does
exist) is still very much a US colony, financially dependent, defended and tied to its master by compact. With a presidential system akin to the American, and a Capitol building modelled on Capitol Hill, the similarities extend beyond a curiously analogous choice of candidates - though one doesn't quite match Mr Obama's charisma, while the other was a much better pilot than Mr McCain. So why should non-Palauans care about the outcome of an election in the distant Pacific island nation? Perhaps for the same reasons so many non-Americans invested themselves in the recent American election.

Many of the non-American observers of the American proceedings would no doubt disagree, citing a multitude of reasons for keeping a close eye on the process leading to what is frequently dubbed "the most important job in the world." Yet, ultimately, the new American leader shares another similarity with his (new) colleague in Palau: both are only supposed to represent the people who elected them.

An American president's job, as the figurehead of the American administration, is to safeguard his fellow Americans and their interests. In that respect, Mr Obama will not likely be different from his predecessors towards non-Americans at odds with Americans or their interests. Which isn't to say that his election is insignificant, but being the first non-white elected leader of any Western nation doesn't extend the job description to suddenly embrace everyone on the planet. To non-Americans the result of the American election, historical as it is, is as much a curiosity as that of the Palauan election.

However, Mr Obama's electoral campaign also differs in having been much more publicised, consequentially raising the hopes of millions of people around the world tremendously. Criticising his policies therefore puts one in immediate danger of not merely being accused of being a buzzkill, but likened to the prats leaving the New York Young Republican Club on the night of the 4th, lamenting the inevitability of a "Muslim socialist" ruining their beloved nation.

A lot of Americans appear to believe that in choosing between a Democratic and a Republican candidate they actually face two starkly different choices. To most non-American observers the two parties are simply different sides of the same, conservative coin. If one were to parachute Mr Obama into, say, a riding in a German federal election, the only party likely to welcome him as a candidate would be the centre right Christian Democratic Union; the Social Democratic Party generally steers clear of candidates who list the Bible as one of their all-time
favourite books.

This difference in perception isn't a measure of how radical Europe has become, but how narrow the political spectrum and how immense the ideological ignorance is in America. From a non-American perspective, the Democrats are to the Republicans what Diet Coke is to The Real Thing: conservatism without the death penalty and with added conscience.

Throughout his campaign Mr Obama was the vendor of change, and in some respect his win already is – in others, it's merely status quo. Even President Bush's speech-writer referred to the historical moment as "a triumph of the
American story." Mr Obama's progress has confirmed the veracity of the “rags to riches” narrative that holds the American psyche hostage in its mythological grip, sustains it, and is the major underlying cause of many of that society's problems.

Do Mr Obama’s supporters truly intend for him to dare tamper with it, and boldly go where few of them are prepared to follow? Or does "change" for them represent a retreat into the familiar, greatest nation on earth, beacon of liberty, free enterprise, and pursuit of baseball, hotdogs, and mom's apple-pie America that only ever existed in their collective imagination? At this point the latter, the re-establishment of the "American Dream" may indeed seem like progress. Especially considering that,
statistically, a child born in Canada is six times more likely to make that fabled class-journey than one born in America.

Real change would mean ridding themselves of the debilitating malignant libertarian streak that always pits the rights of the individual against the rights of society. Real change would mean finally realizing that great societies aren't built by strong individuals but by strong collectives. In order to really change, Americans needs to pull it all down and start again, and in order for that to occur things need to get a lot worse before they can get any better. With Mr McCain as president, they could've got a lot worse faster.

Either way, the “American Dream” is for Americans only. The rest of us sleep well enough without it.

November 6, 2008

Tell no one.

Michael Caine's favourite film of 2007 (not a lot of people know that) has finally opened at a theatre near us – exactly two years after its première. Guillaume Canet's Ne le dis à personne is an adaptation of the Harlan Coben novel Tell No One, set in a France were people still smoke like it's healthy for you (if you're trying to quit or recently succeeded, the first half of the film will be torturous), with François Cluzet in a César winning turn as a paediatrician trying to cope with his wife's suspicious death eight years earlier.

Coping proves virtually impossible when he suddenly receives an e-mail apparently sent by her, and further corpses are found in the spot where she allegedly died. As the dumbfounded doctor delves deeper into painful events past, attempting to decipher the e-mail and discern its origin, he soon finds himself implicated in murder while rapidly descending into the gaping chasm that separates the established part of French society from its growing immigrant population.

The social commentary subtly conveyed via in-jokes and exchanges in banlieue milieus may be lost on an audience unaware of the French government's abysmal failure to integrate newcomers, and most of the cast will be unfamiliar to those for whom French films are a rare treat. But fans of Les Invasions barbares will recognise Quebecois Marie-Josée Croze as the allegedly deceased wife, and Marina Hands as the paediatrician’s naïve sister, while followers of The Transporter films can enjoy François Berléand portraying yet another sympathetic cop (though without the culinary bent).

Most certainly Kristin Scott Thomas' cover as exquisitely British will be blown for good, exposing her as the French actress she really is.
Director Canet may be an unknown quantity in North America, but he's a well-established actor (and heart-throb) in France, where this, his second feature film, clinched him a César for Best Director. Another César, for the soundtrack that impressively channels some of Serge Gainsbourg's more drowsy moments, went to Mathieu "-M-" Chedid – last heard here performing the theme to Les Triplettes de Belleville.

It's no stretch to imagine a North American adaptation, with Will Smith and Rosario Dawson leaping off tall buildings while increasingly impressive explosions, CGI, and wire-stunts compete to surmount them. But this is a European film in the understated tradition of small budgets scraped together from numerous sources, where special effects and smart product placement isn't as readily available to mask lack of talent or shoddy screenplay. Hence, here's a somewhat long, Hitchcockian whodunit, vaguely reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's Memento, about the lengths some people will go to protect their loved ones. A rare treat indeed.

November 5, 2008

Boobs making news.

One of the fascinating aspects of modern mass media is its ability to report news even when there isn't any. Another is its ability to deliver gossip when there's plenty of interesting, relevant, fascinating, and – appropriately – newsworthy things going on (i.e. presidential election in Palau last night, continued crisis in the Congo, Christian Science Monitor ceasing daily print publication, etc.).

For instance, readers of the local reactionary Journal learned today – as did readers of The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, New Zealand Herald, and Hindustan Times, to name a few – that British actress Kate Winslet appears nude in the December issue of Vanity Fair. (Don’t rush your newsagent’s, a simple Google reveals all.)

Even as gossip goes, this hardly qualifies as racy given Ms Winslet's proclivity for shunning parts that leave her clothing intact. If Ms Winslet appears in a movie, rest assured her boobs will too. This isn’t a complaint: in a world (cue Don LaFontaine again) ruled by teenage skanks exposing how little flesh they have left, the tasteful nudity of a mature middle-aged mother of two is indeed a welcome treat. But “news” only to those who've sleepwalked through decades of Vanity Fair issues.

November 4, 2008

Yma Sumac, 1922-2008.

The Peruvian soprano with the extraordinary range, whose career spanned over six decades, has passed away. The official site hosts selections from her catalogue.

November 3, 2008

McCain can still win.

The McCain-Palin ticket can still win. The Republican guard simply have to concentrate their last minute efforts on the ace planted up their sleeves by reactionary commentators over the past year, casting their Democratic opponent as the incarnation of the feverish Cold War nightmare dramatised in at least two movies and one Outer Limits episode: the candidate impostor!

(Cue voice-over in the style of the late
Don LaFontaine “He doesn’t believe prosperity trickles down! He wants to socialise your medicine and take away your guns. Obama – the Canadian candidate!”)

A quite plausible conspiracy considering not only the Democratic ticket’s centrist stance, but the ongoing clandestine usurpation of the USA by its northern neighbour; Canadians have actively sought to re-establish themselves and their values south of the border since the revolution.

The success of this “quiet invasion” is best measured by the average Americans (never mind Canadians) awareness of just how many hallmarks of American society and culture were – and continue to be – conceived by Canadians. From policy, to film and television, music, and everyday conveniences like the electric stove, plastic garbage bag, Blckberrys, Crocs, and local multiplex, the sinister Canadian touch can be felt in practically every single facet of America.

So, yes, McCain-Palin still stand a chance. By employing the time-honoured trick of distracting Americans from their domestic woes, and encouraging them to circle the wagons in a decisive stand against the Canadian
aggression and its counterfeit candidate.


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