Saturday, December 08, 2007

My Ideas of 2007

A few of the ideas I caught this year, a la New York Times Magazine's Year in Ideas:

- Computational Photography. This is a new photographic technique in which you can merge dozens or hundreds of different photographs (and angles, lighting, etc) into one composite image. “One powerful way to do computational photography is to take multiple shots of a scene and mathematically combine those images. […] Compared with a single photo, a sequence of shots taken with different exposures can capture a scene with a wide range of brightness, called the dynamic range.”

- Semi-Electronic Book, The. A new digital/non-digital book called blueBook, created by designer Manolis Kelaidis, was recently demonstrated at an O’Reilly conference on the future of publishing. If you find a word or image in a blueBook text that you want to know more about, simply touch the word/image and the electrically conductive ink sends a message, via Bluetooth, to a nearby computer/laptop, which then provides additional information. The idea is that the technology is a mix of ebook and paper book, instead of the usual either/or.

- Screen Clutter Detection. This is a piece of software that determines when a map, visual display (like say a radar screen), or a computer desktop is growing too visually complex to be navigated with ease. “A team of MIT scientists has identified a way to measure visual clutter. Their research, published Aug. 16 in the Journal of Vision, could lead to more user-friendly displays and maps, as well as tips for designers seeking to add an attention-grabbing element to a display.”

- Famous For Almost Nothing. A recent Sunday Styles article profiled someone whose fame (such that it was) was due to his clever and prolific comments on the blogs of others. Add to this list the “Don’t tase me bro” guy who was crowd controlled at a John Kerry event, and the YouTube video of the fellow pleading for people to stop being mean to Britney Spears. There is famous for being famous, but these examples demonstrate that even a microscopic accomplishment can be leveraged into the trappings of celebrity.

- Wireless Electricity. Scientists are now able to transmit/transfer electricity over short distances, safely, without wires. Recharging our numerous gadgets represents one large application of this breakthrough.

- Robot Code of Ethics, The. “South Korea is drafting an ethical charter to govern how robots will function alongside humans. The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said the government plans to issue a "Robot Ethics Charter" for manufacturers and users to cover the ethical standards that must be programmed into the machines.” Such a notion was first articulated by Isaac Asimov in a 1942 short story.

- Convincing Corporate Apology, The. After the JetBlue debacle earlier this year, David Neeleman, the CEO of the airline sent a heartfelt, open and honest apology for the distress and inconvenience he caused customers. I have a copy of the email he sent to JetBlue customers, and it is striking for its lack of corporate speak (“We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry. […] Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that we caused. […] You deserved better—a lot better—from us last week.”).

- Interactive Movie, The. The film Late Fragment, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, revolves around different three characters, and viewers at a special console can decide which of the three characters they want to focus upon, along with choosing what order their stories are told.

- Risk-Taking is Situational, Not Personality-Driven. “New research shows that not all risk is created equal and people show a mixture of both risky and non-risky behaviors. […] The University of Michigan research refutes the standard theories of risk that group people as either risk-seeking or risk-avoiding, and suggests that we can have a mix of both risky and non-risky behavior depending on the type.”

- Talking Fashion Mirror, The. Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan launched a talking mirror this year. The interactive mirror features a camera that relays live video images to an Internet site where online participants can view outfits.

- Frozen Wall For Oil. Shell is attempting to get at oil-shale deposits in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming using a huge, frozen wall of water. “Shell is spending $30 million to create and test a massive "freeze wall" that would extend from the surface to 1,700 feet below the ground. The walls would be 30 feet thick in a shape 300 feet wide by 350 feet long. It is designed for a dual purpose: to keep groundwater from infiltrating Shell's oil-shale wells, and to prevent produced oil from contaminating nearby groundwater.”

- Waste Heat Makes Sound Which Makes Electricity. “A team of doctoral students led by University of Utah physicist Orest Symko have constructed a device that "converts heat into sound and then into electricity." They believe it could work as an alternative to photovoltaic cells and be in production in two years. The project was funded by the US military as a way to harness the waste heat produced by radar systems and power electronics in the field.”

- Prenatal Search Engine Optimization. Newest on the list of concerns for status-conscious parents-to-be is the search for a baby name that will Google effectively.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Less Tender Walrus Edit

(Yet again, something I wrote in 2007 that I'm only now posting in 2008).

I put on the kid gloves for my recent edit of a Field Notes piece that appeared in the Walrus. I will not extend the same courtesy to the unpolished turd that was dropped into the September 2007 issue.

Creative Destruction
The bright side of roadwork

BANFF — When David Bledge [Who is Bledge? A tourist? Somebody? Nobody? Help me out here] arrived in Banff from Scotland, he was greeted by everything the town is famous for — mountain views, unspoiled wilderness, and elk grazing on the golf course. But he also found the postcard view of Cascade Mountain at the end of Banff Avenue marred by earthmoving machines and piles of freshly excavated dirt, as the town replaces its century-old sewage and water pipes. “Well, I suppose it’s necessary,” Bledge said philosophically. “We’ll enjoy it the next time we come.” [Great first paragraph, except for the fact that Bledge is a mystery man.]

But the town wants its four million annual visitors to enjoy themselves right now. So a million-dollar spin campaign, “Banff Refreshing,” has been launched, featuring “street-ambassadors, way-finding signs, business liaison and in-destination marketing.” [From what are you quoting from? The reader might get more of a charge out of knowing that this is a pamphlet or a press release or what have you.] “Enjoy as we refresh!” urge the banners posted along Banff Avenue, which is lined with blue construction hoarding and roars with diggers. It’s not an easy sell. [Other than the quote with no attribution, this paragraph is also fine. Not sure what you’re building toward, but that’s cool. I sense that the payoff is coming soon.]

The $22.8-million project, which began in March and should finish next spring, includes a cosmetic makeover of Banff’s downtown core. Rest spots, landscaping pickup/drop-off zones, and new lighting will make Banff’s streetscape more reflective of its National Park setting, not to mention pedestrian friendly, we are told. [Told by whom? Big brother? Weird, ominous tone introduced, as if the spin campaign were lying to us.] In the meantime, welcome stands offer refreshing [Ha! You’ve repeated the word refreshing. Very clever] guides to the 172 shops and services in the Refreshing Zone, [ha-ha, you repeated refreshing again, albeit this time referring to an official section of Banff] where street performers, fluorescent-suited traffic directors, and hard-hatted construction workers compete for visitors’ attention. Mountain-themed photo backdrops allow visitors to pose on a putting green, a mountaintop, or a ski slope without having to leave the (in)conveniences of town. [The brackets around (in) aren’t the strongest thing in the world. I’m also starting to wonder about where this piece is headed. Is the entire article about the attempts to distract tourists from the fact that Banff is updating infrastructure? Or is this article about the fact that Banff Inc. would rather have visitors stick to the downtown core, spend all their money, and (irony of ironies) not actually bother looking at the scenery?]

One public relations tactic has caught on with both the locals and the tourists, however — the Banff Refreshing [There’s that word again. Not quite as funny the third time, methinks] squirrels. Clutching their assorted cleanup tools, Gillroy, Abigail, Rochelle, Peter, Herman, and Penelope [Listing all the names is funny and clever] represent the various squirrel species in Banff National Park. Their tracks, painted onto sidewalks and pathways, guide visitors into the Refreshing Zone. [Fourth time on the refresh button.] Just kitschy enough to be hip, the squirrel signs posted around town were promptly stolen or vandalized. When the town council of nearby Canmore seized Gillroy, the Crag & Canyon, Banff’s local paper, ran a photo of an RCMP officer returning him to Banff’s mayor. The surviving species now have to be squirrelled away at night. [Take this the wrong way: the squirrel pun is weak. You’re in Reader’s Digest or Ziggy territory here.]

Law-abiding sightseers can “earn” [What is with the f**king obsession with quote marks in “humour” articles? They aren’t serving their “intended” purpose] squirrel buttons whenever they shop at designated stores downtown. The “porn pin” [Argh!] — a squirrel clutching a tape measure that extends like an erection — is especially popular. [How positively naughty old chap. You sir, got the edge right there.]

“Visitors love the squirrels, especially the kids,” says Neil Wedin, who works at the Banff Books & Art Den on Banff Avenue. When they come in grumbling about the maze outside, he offers them a conciliatory button, and they calm right down.

Local interpretive guide Kevin Gedling [That would be the third person you’ve introduced into 650 word story. Not the smartest idea] has also volunteered to take visitors on a ninety-minute walk he calls “Welcome to Banff: Always a Construction Zone.” And for anyone intrepid enough to venture out of town, [Ha, ha, ha. The tension of the piece revolves around the fact that the piece has no tension! That anytime you want to escape the work being done in Banff, you can just *leave* the downtown area and commune with nature. This is a non-story, written in a non-compelling fashion. How very clever indeed!] it’s a five-minute walk to the quiet trails along the Bow River. No spending or banners or buttons required. Now that’s refreshing. [I was hoping you’d combine a squirrel joke with a refreshing joke, but I got greedy. Just so you know, like an Andy Kaufman meta-comedy riff, “refreshing” was really, really, really funny the fifth time you used it. Hilarious, in fact.]

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Smart Set and Helvetica

A new journal published my Helvetica piece. (link). This makes me happy.

I'll hopefully have a few more substantial postings in the next few weeks.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rage Against the Rage

A significant part of me wants to agree, unreservedly, with Stephen Marche, and his rant against CanLit. (link) But I’ve read a bunch of versions of such rants before, and so, at the very least, the novelty factor has evaporated for me. I hope Nathan Whitlock over at [TK] has the time to interrogate Marche’s rage thoroughly. For now, I offer a few, polite bullet points.

* If Brooklyn does it better, then stay in Brooklyn. I’m not being glib when I type this. I mean it. Both of Marche’s books have been reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. If Canada isn’t willing to celebrate him, then move to NY permanently, cause Canada ain’t changing anytime soon.

* The entire major prize scene for CanLit is a rickety hunk of crap that cannot be trusted to dole out awards based on merit. Kinda like the Oscars. I realize that in terms of recognition and sales, it’s all fiction writers in this country have, but you can’t be shocked (shocked!) to discover reverse ageism in the Gillers. It is disingenuous for someone as smart as Marche to suggest otherwise.

* McSweeney’s has done as much good as it has done bad. I haven’t read either McSweeney’s or the Believer for a long time. I’m glad they exist, but I’m even gladder I don’t have to read them anymore.

* There is more innovation in CanLit then Marche gives credit to (Coach House, and, um, Coach House). It’s just that innovation isn’t always linked with recognition and sales and big prizes. Sometimes the reward of being innovative is the knowledge that you’re being innovative.

* Foer’s second book was horrible. Really horrible. Innovation by itself is not necessarily a useful virtue.

* Although it is lame to rebut an argument by coming up with an example that runs counter to the rant, I will point out that there is a man named Douglas Coupland who publishes fiction in this country. As I understand, he sells more than a few copies of each of his novels. While perhaps he isn’t Foer or Franzen, he isn’t Atwood either.

* Most interesting sentence to build a fresh argument around: “The question is really whether CanLit as a phenomenon is more than one generation long.” Now there is a question worth answering. That grabbed me. There is a good thesis for a future essay.

* I enjoyed the part where Marche attacks the Gillers and CBC for being too boomer-centric, but omits the part where Heather O’Neill won the CBC Canada Reads competition. Whoops.

* Also, attacking the boomers is the worst type of straw man argument. It was valid nine years ago. Now it doesn’t ring true for me.

There are a tremendous number of things that are not right with fiction in this country. But I think we can debate these wrongs in a more effective way. I agree with Marche in principle, but not with the way he has decided to argue his points. Both of his books have received plenty of attention, and both were published by major publishing houses. He’s very young (31!) and very talented. He’ll get his Giller nod one day, hopefully on his own terms. But for now, be patient Marche.

Or move.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Tea, Coffee or MMP?

My friend Dennis Pilon had an excerpt from his new book on voting system reform in the Star yesterday. (link) It is worth reading.

Dennis is also block-rocking the (link)

If you are so inclined, vote for MMP this Wednesday. If you are not so inclined, you're a silly-head.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My Zombie Ate My Homework

(Again, written last year but posted only now.)

Mark Kingwell, Globe and Mail column, September 15, 2007:
Or take the recent spate of updated zombie movies, such as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later or Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. In contrast to the original George Romero classics, these films feature the so-called fast zombie, which can move with the speed of a cheetah and materialize in seconds to begin a feast of the victim's brains.

Josh Levin,, March 24, 2004:
It wasn't long ago that the cinematic undead obeyed the first law of corpse locomotion: A zombie might bleed on you, bite you, or rip out your ribcage, but wouldn't beat you in the 40-yard dash. Along with the Dawn remake, this new breed of souped-up zombie has appeared in recent movies like 28 Days Later (2002), Resident Evil (2002), and House of the Dead (2003). Why, all of a sudden, are the walking dead in such a rush? (link)

A good trend is like the undead, forever among us.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Will Ferguson, Ferguson Refrigeration

Will Ferguson has a short piece in the current issue of the Walrus (link). It is funny and well-written. It also serves as a free ad for his new novel. Ferguson does this sort of thing quite often, and it used to bother me tremendously. Specifically, he wrote an exceedingly irritating and self-serving piece in the Globe a few years ago, berating Canadians for not being clever enough to appreciate his crappy debut novel.

But when I read his Walrus piece, I realized that Will Ferguson is in the Will Ferguson business, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop him. In his defense, perhaps Canadian authors should learn from his self-promotional abilities.

But what really helped me remain calm was four simple words: Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. If you’ve seen The Office, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And once you realize Bob Vance and Will Ferguson are the same thing, it’s hard to stay mad at Ferguson’s cult of Ferguson.

NYT Vs. Karen Von Hahn

From the August 26, 2007 New York Times (Ten Things to Do Before This Article Is Finished by Alex Williams):
Evidence of the lists’ surging popularity is all around. The travel writer Patricia Schultz currently has two “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” books lodged on The New York Times paperback advice best-seller list, two in an avalanche of recent life-list books, like “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” and “101 Things to Do Before You Turn 40.”

In December, Warner Brothers will release Rob Reiner’s “Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as cancer patients who set out on a series of life-list adventures, including a Harley ride on the Great Wall of China.

Multiple life-list oriented social-networking Web sites have cropped up, inviting strangers to share their lists and offer mutual encouragement. Even Madison Avenue has chimed in. Visa is currently running a print campaign built around a checklist called “Things to Do While You’re Alive” (and credit-worthy, presumably).

From the September 15, 2007 Globe and Mail Style Section (1,001 things to buy before you die by Karen Von Hahn):
There are books, from Patricia Schultz's 1,000 Places to see Before You Die - which has been lodged for weeks on bestseller lists and is, rather off-puttingly for those about to board a plane, a current fixture in airport bookstores - to possibly 1,000 other BYD guides to getting the most out of your dwindling existence (things you must eat, movies to see ... perhaps someone should do a guide to the 1,000 things you should read BYD next).

The same ghoulish list-making has inspired a novel (The Next Thing on My List) and a Rob Reiner film called The Bucket List, about two terminally ill buddies, to be released to weepy, sugar-loaded audiences at Christmas. And, of course, there are Facebook applications: In My Life lets you "find people trying to reach the same goals in life as you ... anything from riding a polar bear to walking on water."

I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: WE HAVE THE INTERNET HERE IN CANADA. Why is Von Hahn being paid a significant amount of money to badly recycle a much better article published in a much better newspaper? And why is it taking her two weeks to re-type said article?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Plug for My Journalism Course at UofT Starting Oct.1

Hello. I'm teaching The Freelance Writing Business this fall at UofT SCS. Monday nights, eight sessions, starting October 1. This course is designed to help writers make the transition into full or part-time work as a freelance writer. It's a mix of writing tips and business advice. Fun and practical.

Please visit for more info.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Chatelaine Part 27

(This was supposed to be published months ago, but I did a draft and somehow forgot to post it. Enjoy my stale, stale jokes.)

In lieu of in-depth and thoughtful commentary about editor Sara Angel being removed from Chatelaine, I instead offer the following pair of Onion-style headlines. I realize that a fake news headline is the cheapest laugh out there, but I'm lazy and I'm tired of chewing on the fat of a dead horse:

• Chatelaine Masthead Now Printed on Dry-Erase Board

• Rogers Media Begins Exhaustive Search For New Chatelaine Editor to Hire, Fire.

I will say, however, that I found the latest issue of Chatelaine quite clever. In lieu of the Editor's letter (since there is no more editor) the magazine published a photograph of all the other editors at the magazine. As if to say, "Sure, we no longer have an editor-in-chief anymore, but we have plenty of editors, plural."


C’mon, Tell Us What You Really Think T.F.

From today’s Globe, a book review by T. F. Rigelhof about Michael Winter’s new book, The Architects Are Here:

'The novel can do simply everything," Henry James wrote under the heading, The Future of the Novel, more than 100 years ago. [...] What Henry James wrote then is worth remembering now when you read Michael Winter's The Architects Are Here, because this flamboyant gem of a novel is so wide-angled and crowded with dramatic incident that it's likely to stretch even an unusually generous reader's literate mind and loving heart beyond normal limits.

I think he likes the book. And, apparently, it will blow your mind. Like, literally. You've been warned.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Plug for Someone Who is Not Me

My friend Jessica Westhead launches her debut novel on September 25 at 7:30pm at the Gladstone. I would recommend you check it out.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Big Ideas in Little Packages

Due to space restrictions, my piece in the Star on Sunday about radical architecture magazines was trimmed slightly. I'm posting the full version here, but the only material that was lost was Ezra Pound talking about little magazines and a quote from Derek Webster's piece on the same exhibit in Maisonneuve.

Enjoy or ignore, as you see fit.


Nearly 25 years ago, in March of 1983, novelist Nicholson Baker published an essay in the Atlantic entitled “The Size of Thoughts.” Alternating between wit and lunacy, Baker argues that, “Each thought has a size, and most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product.”

Baker goes on to advance three theorems regarding large thoughts. The first is that “All large thoughts are reluctant.” The third theorem is that “Large thoughts depend more heavily on small thoughts than you might think.” But it is Baker’s second theorem that is most relevant to radical journals, regardless of content or stripe, that being, “Large thoughts are creatures of the shade.”

Since the early 1900s, one of the most reliable instruments for the generation of idea shade have been little magazines. Referring to the literary and critical journals that appeared during and after World War I, the term little magazines refers not to the physical dimensions of a given title, but a small circulation publication that spoke with a big, confident voice that belied its size.

Publications such as The Little Review, Criterion, Broom, Poetry, The Egoist, Partisan Review, American Mercury and Blast provided shade for thoughts of various sizes and shapes, from ideas six-feet tall, to mid-sized and subcompact musings – even the floating of an occasional thought bubble. (Sometimes the shade was not sufficient, however – The Little Review was banned for its attempts to serialize James Joyce’s Ulysses.) Writing in The English Journal, in November 1930, Ezra Pound argued that a good little magazine provided a place where “tennis about ideas could be played.” Pound goes on to describe small magazines, variously, as “fugitive periodicals”; “impractical magazines”; “eccentric magazines” and “apparently tawdry and freakish.”

The mechanics of the little magazine remains remarkably stable across decades and genres: give an angry or impatient young woman or man enough shade, and they will try and change the world. Ulysses may have little in common with parabolic arches and crenellated roofs, but during the 60s and 70s, architecture dove into the shade. The result is Clip/Stamp/Fold 2, which is currently being exhibited at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in a show that runs until September 9. Subtitled “The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X – 197X,” Clip/Stamp/Fold 2 was born at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, and is the result of two years of seminars and interviews conducted by Ph.D. students, a project overseen by Professor Beatriz Colomina. The material and research collected by the Princeton students has been augmented by archival material from the CCA’s special collections.

Taken together, the exhibit offers, in the words of architectural critic Reyner Banham, a whole lot of “Wham! Zoom! Zing! Rave!” Banham’s onomatopoeia appeared in issue #3 of New Society in March of 1966, a left-leaning British magazine of social inquiry. Banham went on to explain that “these sound effects are produced by the erupting of underground architectural protest magazines.”

As if to acknowledge the volatile aspects of these magazines, the CCA has chosen to display some of its holdings inside a cluster of two dozen clear plastic bubbles that balance upon metal tripod legs. The bubbles evoke a fire alarm behind glass, and they seem to whisper: in case of architectural emergencies involve stodginess or ossification, smash the plastic and distribute the manifestos, ultimatums and colourful vocabularies of protest within.

The bulk of the Clip/Stamp/Fold 2 exhibit, however, involves an undulated wave of clear plastic that wobbles across the walls of the CCA’s Octogonal Gallery. The long wave serves as a timeline as it displays 70 different covers of key publications, along with contextualizing captions written by the Princeton students. (For a virtual version, visit The covers of these magazines serve as a window into their contents and attitudes toward architecture.

These magazines were avant-garde in both design and content. Issue #8 of the London-based magazine Archigram, for example, contained a Do-It-Yourself “Megastructure Model Kit.” As Dennis Crompton, an editor at Archigram during the 1960s explained in a recent interview for the Clip/Stamp/Fold project, offset lithographic printing allowed small publishers “to take either typewriting or handwriting or sketches or drawings or whatever, and to reproduce them. So small magazines only became possible when the printing technology became possible as well.”

Experimentation became an imperative and these magazines innovated through design, jiggling size, layout, format and typography. Wild colours and fonts abound, along with strange collages. Clip-Kit, a British magazine published during the 1960s, did Archigram one better– the entire publication required assembly. As Irene Sunwoo, one of the Princeton students involved in the exhibit writes, “the magazine was comprised of three installments of A4 pages published over a six-month period. Readers could ‘clip’ the magazine pages into a plastic binding manufactured by M&M Binding Ltd. Company, who paid for advertising within Clip-Kit and provided the editors with free samples of the clip in order to promote the new product to architects.”

Meanwhile, Marxism spilt across magazine pages like so much red wine, along with articles by cutting-edge theoreticians like Paul Virillo, Guy Debord, Umberto Eco, Charles Jencks, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard. And radical content meant radical editorial approaches. Craig Buckley, another Princeton student involved in the exhibit, writes that the first two issues of the Parisian magazine Utopie “emphasized dialogue: a marginal column ran though the magazine allowing members of the editorial committee to comment upon each other’s texts.” (At the risk of being snarky, it is telling that this innovation did not survive. Attaining utopia under most circumstances is tough enough. Utopia via committee is all but impossible.)

Not only did Utopie (which published its first issue in May of 1967) cut through its own text, it also attempted to cut across disciplines with an editorial board that mixed urbanists, architects and sociologists. Other magazines, meanwhile, debated fine gradations of topics and subtopics, burrowing deep into the shade.

But despite the serious work required to deconstruct mainstream architecture, some of these little magazines found room for humour. The cover of Bau #1/2, a Vienna journal that was published in 1968, included a photo illustration of a huge chunk of yellow Emmenthal that dwarfed the Vienna skyline. As Craig Buckley writes, “If the cubic globular structure of the cheese appears strangely contemporary from our own point of view, the selection of Emmenthal was at the time polemical, literalizing a local expression commonly used to describe ‘bad’ architecture.” (These days, contemporary architects, like Wil Alsop are inclined to take a huge chunk of marble cheese, elevate it with industrial strength toothpicks and leave it hanging over OCAD.)

The Italian magazine Casabella, meanwhile, featured a gorilla on the cover of its July, 1972 issue and two years later published a cartoon of the Chrysler and Empire state building laying in bed, clearly post-coital. And ARse (short for “Architects for a Really Socialist Environment”) was designed to give the Architectural Review a kick in the trousers.

Clip/Stamp/Fold 2 demonstrates that little magazines, be they architectural or otherwise, can act in ways that larger magazines are unable. Little magazines are more nimble and their smaller circulation and specialized focus allow them to fail gloriously, if the occasion demands it. As James Wines, a contributing editor to On Site, wrote in #5/6, the magazine’s final issues, “We were criticized for being too flippant, too serious, too esoteric, too radical, too ambiguous, too funky, too sleek, too big, too small.”

At their best, little magazines generate new conversations, and usher into existence writing and ideas that would otherwise not exist. Little magazines respond to, reply and challenge one another. In so doing they create the shade required for new approaches to germinate. Editors help cultivate ideas until they are ready to be released into a larger arena. The influence and success of little magazines is not earned in spite of their small circulation and relative obscurity, but precisely because of it.

The Clip/Stamp/Fold 2 exhibit also offers the notion that because of the “Zoom” and “Zing” generated by these architectural magazines, professional and mainstream publications also experienced “moments of littleness.” This challenges, in some ways, the notion that little magazines must, by necessity have a limited circulation, but it does reinforce the importance of the attitude and engagement a magazine has with its readers. Sometimes larger magazines and newspapers can offer a good game of idea tennis too.

After spending a few hours with these magazines, it’s hard not to leave the CCA wondering about the state of little magazines today. “Clip/Stamp/Fold demonstrates how implacably economic forces have shaped publishing and architecture from the 1980s onwards,” writes Derek Webster, in the current issue of Maisonneuve. “Just as surely as politics has moved away from idealism, magazines have become leaner, more focused vehicles for advertisers’ needs and readers’ specialized interests.” It’s a valid complaint, but not a particularly new one. Already in 1930, Ezra Pound was complaining that the system of publishing a magazine for less than its printing costs, and recovering the shortfall through advertising, was having a detrimental effect on the culture of ideas. “In the new system the contents were selected rigorously on the basis of how much expensive advertising they would carry,” he writes in The English Journal. “They leave a need for intellectual communication unconditioned by considerations as to whether a given idea or a given trend in art will ‘git ads’ from the leading corset companies.”

Little magazines, it should be pointed out, do not have a monopoly on shade. Nicholson Baker provides no explanation for where large thoughts come from, or how they form or coalesce, but he does observe that, “Small thoughts are happy to run around in their colorful swimwear under the brutalest of noons, but large thoughts really must have sizable volumes of cool, still air.”

What happens when we remove a vital source of shade? Perhaps it is telling that there are no Canadian architectural magazines included in the CCA exhibit. This might help explain, at least in part, the regrettable Toronto architecture of the 1970s. This is not to suggest that shade fixes everything, but a well-placed chunk of cheese can sometimes work wonders.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Ken Alexander Needs a Vacation

On June 24, the Sunday Star published a list of Sizzling Reads as recommended by various “celebrity bookworms.” (Their words, not mine.)

Based on Ken Alexander’s response, I think he needs to take some time off, because overwork and the hot summer sun is taking its toll:

As I have been granted no leisure time; as the barbarians are permanently at the gate; as we have no air conditioning; as the world is spinning on an axis few can behold; and as the children feel entitled to their time, this summer, like all summers, I will escape to a park and sit under a tree’s canopy to read, contraband beer in a brown paper bag by my side.

Get some rest Ken. Apparently the future of the free world depends upon it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Few Editing Suggestions

(I wrote this in 2007, but again, neglected to post it.)

I have noticed that the Walrus is working hard to attract marquee bylines. I would be happier about this if the magazine had a stronger mix of up-and-coming writers and the big guns, but what are you going to do? Sure, Adrienne Clarkson might catch the eye on the newsstand, but I’m not going to buy the magazine because of her. (The problem, of course, is that the Walrus target demographic is considerably older than me, and nothing I can say or do will change that.)

There is of course, a danger in soliciting the big names. The danger is that they will say yes. When a writer reaches a certain level of success, a magazine is paying for the name as much (if not more) than the actual content. And in the interests of maintaining a good relationship with the Big Writer, the publication tends to edit lightly, if at all -- even if the magazine is given a less-than-stellar piece of writing from a Big Name Canadian Writer.

As a case in point, I’m going to provide some editing comments on a (not very) recent Walrus piece, a Field Notes. I feel that my editing suggestions are, in fact, reasonable. I’m not trying to be a snotty prig here. Really. If this piece were submitted to a major magazine, I humbly suggest that these are the sort of editing suggestions that the writer might expect to receive back.

[All editing comments in square brackets refer to the sentence preceding.]

QU’APPELLE VALLEY – In the summer of 2006, a miniseries adaptation of my novel The Englishman’s Boy went into production in Saskatchewan. Since half of the drama is set in the American and Canadian West of 1873, it was decided that a crash course in equitation [Editor: Is this the right sort of tone/diction for a light piece about learning to ride a horse?] was necessary for the actors. When I learned this “cowboy camp” [Editor: Why is this in quotes? Not sure it needs to be in quotes.] was being convened in the Qu’Appelle Valley, north of Regina, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. [Editor: As written, the pun is clear, but the pun is also a cliché. I’m not sure that you provide a sufficient wink or acknowledgement to the reader that this cliché is being used as anything more than a cliche. Might I suggest something like, “In the words of esteemed hirsute philosopher Gino Vanelli, wild horses could not drag me away.”] For males of a certain age, who galloped their mothers’ brooms over backyard ranges in the fifties, holstered cap guns flapping against their thighs, the fantasy of playing cowboy is lethally attractive. [Editor: Somewhat AWK.]

On the first morning of instruction, I arrived wearing a pair of boots I had bought in Dallas fifteen years before and worn only once or twice since. My middle-aged feet had spread like the rest of me, forcing me to mince about camp in a most unmanly fashion. The wranglers in charge of teaching horsemanship were former professional rodeo riders and ranchers – laconic, leathery types given to unfathomable stares, most of which I felt were directed my way. [Editor: This reminds me of the movie City Slickers. Might it be worth making a humourous aside/nod to the film?]

The first course was a safety primer, covering topics such as how to approach a horse from behind without getting kicked into the bleachers, or what to do if you find yourself on a careering runaway. For instance, don’t scream. It might further panic the horse. [Editor: You could combine those two sentences without losing any effect.] Next, each actor was assigned a mount and spent time currying and feeding it and performing other ingratiating services meant to encourage it to, if not like you, tolerate you. [Editor: Somewhat AWK. Could this be smoother?] I lingered hopefully on the fringes like a kid awaiting the call to join a pickup football game. Invitations were not forthcoming. [Editor: Delete final sentence in paragraph – stronger without it.]

By the time the actors were engaged in learning the rudiments of steering, stopping, and accelerating their new four-legged friends, [Editor: cliché/weak style.] I was in a desperate state of unrequited desire. [Editor: ???] Making meek, supplicating motions, I approached a wrangler who had just ridden up and identified myself as the writer. Like Richard III, I abjectly begged for a horse.

“Take mine,” he said and, dismounting with catlike grace, [Editor: I find the animal metaphor jarring, especially since a human is dismounting the horse. The animal to animal metaphor is not as vivid or appropriate as it could be.] left me to claw myself aboard, joints grinding and creaking. This was a mistake. Wranglers’ horses are not like the ones assigned to actors. They are provided with the most docile horseflesh [Editor: Using ‘horseflesh’ here comes across as overwriting.] available, because injury to the talent would be a catastrophe. But what happens to the writer is not a cause for concern.

On the ensuing trail ride, the grin soon melted off my face as I wrestled to restrain my high-spirited steed. If it bolts, I reminded myself, resist the urge to shriek. Better to die in silence than in disgrace.

In the next few days, I found myself aching in places I didn’t know I owned and walking like an animated wishbone. [Editor: Great image. Love it!] Meanwhile, the actors were soldiering on, growing ever stiffer, sorer, and more chafed. They were also learning that horses, like thespians, sometimes exhibit quirks, foibles, and temperament. [Editor: Parallelism seems AWK. Quirks and foibles are pretty strong, so I’m not sure if temperament is necessary.] One morning at breakfast, I asked one of the actors, who sat morosely stirring his fruit cocktail, what was the matter. He blurted out, [Editor: Both ‘morosely’ and ‘blurted out’ appear overly dramatic. At the risk of sounding like an intro fiction professor, try to show instead of tell.] “My horse hates me. He knows I’m from Toronto and I’m wearing pantyhose.”

It was a charged, confessional moment. [Editor: Again, show, don’t tell. If this was a charged, confessional moment, it should be fairly obvious to the reader without you having to guidepost it so heavily.] Only later did I learn that all the other actors had also donned pantyhose. The wranglers had given them a “tip.” [Editor: Again, why is this in quotes?] Hosiery minimized saddle friction, preventing flesh from getting rubbed to hamburger. [Editor: Strong image, great language, light touch. Great work.] They had descended on a womenswear store to get outfitted.

Too soon, I had to leave, despairing at having notched only a single ride. When I returned weeks later, all the actors from Vancouver and Toronto had developed a blasé competence around horses and were now being glamorously referred to as “the posse.” [Editor: Again with the quote marks. I’m also not entirely sure how glamorous this is. I could use more on the masculine mystique of horse riding here. Perhaps a reference to Deadwood? I don’t think references to pop culture solve every problem, especially not in a short piece, but I’d like to better understand your inner hunger for horse riding.] As a Westerner, I seethed at the unfairness of it all. [Editor: This could be clearer and more precise.] But one afternoon, when an actor was somehow occupied and his horse needed to be ridden to a location, I was called upon. “Guy, take Michael’s horse. Go with the posse.”

Michael happens to be considerably shorter than me, but there was no time to adjust the stirrup lengths. Off I went, an overweight, superannuated [Editor: Again, is this the right word or tone? It strikes me that Westerns and novels tend to rely on sparse, clean, clear language. I understand the juxtaposition between the writer and the wild west, but I feel as though the rhythm of the piece is being compromised by word choice. This is, in its essence, a story about a man wanting to ride a horse. I think closely-observed details will carry the piece better than a specialized vocabulary.] jockey, knees hovering near my armpits. [Editor: Great. Funny and clear and simple. See previous note.] At the top of a hill, I halted to take in the scene. By squinting my eyes, I was able to banish the craft-services vehicle and other cinematic impedimenta [Editor: Again, this is too writerly for the light tone this piece should be striving for.] below. In the valley, teepees glistened in glaring [Editor: Delete ‘glaring’ and just use “the sunshine.” The alliteration isn’t necessary here.] sunshine. Raked by a breeze, a grove of poplars flashed silver. [Editor: A perfect sentence. This is great. More of these would strengthen this piece considerably.] Insects hummed in the heat. The posse filed down the slope, costumed and armed. I drank it all in. [Editor: This is a cliché and unnecessary. Delete.] By marrying movie illusion with psychological delusion, my fantasy was fulfilled. At age fifty-five, better late than never, I had become a high plains drifter. [Editor: Ending could be stronger, but I think it’s close.]

Monday, June 04, 2007

Thank You So Much

I suffered through an irritating bout of unproductiveness today, but I cheered up when I saw this CBC story about Eckler suing the makers of Knocked Up (link).

Frank magazine is going to eat her alive. ALIVE!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Good Writing Praised

From Katrina Onstad’s review of S3:

"His most impressive new foe is Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), an ex-con named Flint Marko who wanders into a Particle Physics Test Laboratory – a sweet nod to the innocent logic of comic books — and finds his insides sucked out and replaced with grains of sand, turning him into a gigantic, ill-tempered egg timer."

That is funny and well-written. Onstad's writing is everywhere these days, and our magazines are all the better for it.


Monday, April 30, 2007

What It Feels Like… to Get Caught Blatantly Ripping Off Another Magazine

I enjoy watching Chatelaine flail, not because I am a cruel person, but because rare is the opportunity to see a magazine so boldly announce to their readership that they lack both a clear visual and a clear editorial mandate. Normally you might see one, or the other, but never both at the same time, and never in a name-brand, highly profitable, marquee publication. There is such a lack of consistency in the magazine from month to month that I can’t help but read it – it’s like a pack of minor surrealists were accidentally hired to run a major publication and are going for broke. It’s never the same magazine twice.

Anyway, my point is that in all the experimentation and whatnot, I’ve noticed that Chatelaine clearly raids other magazines for inspiration. No shame there, plenty of magazines “borrow” ideas from other publications. Generally, of course, the borrower adds their own spin on things. So when Chatelaine started their own version of Domains, the New York Times Magazine feature (link), I wasn’t very concerned, especially since Saturday Night also borrowed the very same idea before they disappeared into the gloaming.

But open your brand new copy of Chatelaine (June 2007) and flip to page 109. There you will find a feature entitled “How it feels …” It’s a series of short interviews with different women who have endured/enjoyed a variety of unusual events or circumstances. It is also verges on outright theft – namely, Esquire’s long-running series of “What it feels like…”

Esquire’s WIFLike is so-well known, so proprietary that they’ve published a book with the same title (link). So why has Chatelaine decided to steal from Esquire (OK, to be fair, they did change one word and delete another) and call it their own? I don't know. What I do know is that I wish I was the one getting paid $60K or more a year to push start on the idea machine (AKA the photocopier).

In lieu of further commentary, I conclude by typing the two titles over and over again.

How it feels…
What it feels like…
How it feels…
What it feels like…
How it feels…
What it feels like…
How it feels…
What it feels like…

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Globe Trotting

I’ve been wanting to blog about the Saturday, April 14 Globe and Mail for quite some time, but between work and travel, it just didn’t happen.

I realize that in a day or so, the newly redesigned Saturday Globe will be landing on my porch. I can hardly wait – will the books section look better? (It can’t look any worse.) What will happen to all the white space of the Focus section? Will the new look reinvigorate my flagging desire for the paper?

More important than appearances, however, is the content. What will the new Saturday Globe read like? As a benchmark, then, consider my A to T guide to the April 14 Globe.

Section A (News)
A2. Greenspon hypes the new and improved Globe. More interpretation, insight, “ferreting out” and context. Great. I hope he means it.
A3. Mumps in Nova Scotia.
A6. Justin Trudeau’s ass receives five paragraphs in Jane Taber’s Ottawa Notebook.
A21. Susan Swan writes open letter to Stephen Harper describing the importance of creating a global market for Canadian writing, and the financial struggle a first time Canadian author faces.

Section B (Report on Business)
B3. Article on Crocs. P.S. They’re a fad.
B8. The Financial Facelift is somewhat dull this week.

Section D (Books)
D1. Fairly ugly cover, which would be forgiven if the designer was allowed to weave the cover concept throughout the section, a la the New York Times Book Review. It would not be too much prettier, but the visuals would at least be integrated and have coherence and cohesion.
D4. Lynn Crosbie reviews the new thriller by Joy Fielding. Crosbie’s decision to write the review in common English is a welcome change of pace, and for that I applaud her. (Her recent Tie Domi feature in Toronto Life is also in common English. A good career move.)
D12-D13. Jessica Crispin reviews Lost Girls by Moore and Gebbie. The book is not exactly Globe-friendly, so all the better.
D12. Laura Penny has tone and style to spare. She reviews two books about sex. She is a very talented writer, and a sharp thinker. Still, I wish she would dial it back one notch, so that her writing becomes a perfectly equal mix of style and content, instead of the 60-40 ratio she enjoys. A little less alliteration would be a nifty start.

Section F (Focus)
F1. Crack in Ottawa. I wanted to read this feature. I had every intention of reading this feature, and yet… every week I suffer the same problem. Either I start a Focus piece and never finish it, or don’t bother in the first place. It’s me, not you Focus. Really.
F2. Laura Penny’s column starts strongly, so much so that I find myself reading it, not skimming it like I usually do. I start to skim when she abandons the Imus issue, which would have made a fine column, and switches to CNN and Anna Nicole wherein she loses force and momentum. She should be in the paper every week, however, not every two. More female voices in the Globe is a good thing.

F3. I read Doug Saunders four times a year, whether I need to or not. This was not one of those times.

Section L (Style)
L1. Are You Canada’s Most Stylish? Fuck Off. No, really, I mean it, fuck off. A prime example of why the rest of the country laughs their ass off at Toronto.
L6. Butterfly trend piece.

Section M (Toronto)
M1. The funniest thing I have read in the Globe and Mail in at least a year appears on the front page. R.M. Vaughan defends Toronto while taking hilarious and well-crafted swipes at the rest of the country. I laugh repeatedly. I wish I could be guaranteed something this sharp every week in the Saturday Globe.

Section R (Review)
R1. Yann Martel explains how Stephen Harper does not like artists. Really? I had no idea. He immediately loses my sympathy with his hectoring, Frankfurt schoolmarm tone. I urge you to read the witty deconstruction of his article here. I would add to this, however, that Martel had an opportunity to make a political intervention of material consequence by shouting “Do we count for nothing, you philistines?” in the House of Commons. (In his article, he mentions that he wanted to do so, but he has “no talent for spontaneous prophecy.” In other words, he was too scared). Martel was in the inner sanctum, and could have chosen civil disobedience, which would have meant something. Shouting at Harper from the visitor’s gallery is a spontaneous act of resolve; whining about him from the comfort and safety of your computer screen means nothing. Hope you donated your Globe and Mail cheque to the Canada Council.

While I’m on the topic, Martel mentions how the $18,000 he received from the Canada Council in 1991 has been recouped through the income tax he has paid on Life of Pi. You idiot. By allowing yourself to discuss the function of the Canada Council as an investment that should/will pay future dividends, you’re letting your enemy (the Tories) control the discourse of the debate. Does it not strike you that talking about grants in the language of appreciation and investment means you’ve internalized the very Tory ethos you pretend to abhor? (Margaret Atwood did the same thing on Tuesday when she attacked the Tories and said: “Would they like to guess how much Yann Martel's novel The Life of Pi generated abroad? Would they like to know … how much my foreign editions bring in?” Let me say it a second time: idiot. This will not help our cause. Read this.)

R5. Q&A with Johanna Schneller and Ondaatje. Sample excerpt:
JS: What is it like being a genius?
O: Shrugs off fawning question and discusses his craft with verve and intelligence.
JS: No, really, what is like being a genius?
O: Once again shrugs off fawning question and discusses his craft with yet more verve and intelligence.
R21. I liked the article on Mr. Bean. Really.

Section S (Sports)
Don’t read this section. Sorry.

Section T (Travel)

If you made it this far, congrats. Let’s meet back here in a few days, after the new Saturday Globe has been fully digested.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Any Way You Cut It

If I wanted to be smarter,
I'd watch a book.

- Ad for the new Slice network, spotted in the subway.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Do We Really Need a Gang-Rape Joke on My Name is Earl?

Apparently we do. On Thursday’s episode of MNIE, after Crabman complains that sex in the walk-in freezer of the bar caused his scrotum (yes, that’s my cute little allusion to this) to get stuck on a keg of beer, tongue on flagpole style, Joy says:

So we'll just wait till this place closes and you can do me on the pinball machine like in that porno Jodi Foster did.

(From Season 2, Episode 18.)

Now, I assume the crux of the humour derives from the fact Joy has misinterpreted the brutal gang-rape scene from The Accused
as hardcore pornography. I “get” it. But how funny is “it”? I found the line shocking, but not funny. I actually paused the episode and said “I can’t believe they got that onto a mainstream network comedy.” I thought MNIE was better than that – at least the first season seemed to suggest this was the case.

I am also left wondering: Is the line supposed to reveal Joy’s inability to distinguish between coercive and consensual sex? Is it an expression of a rape fantasy? Is it a comment on the Hobbesian sexual practices of hicks? Or is it simply MNIE creator Greg Garcia (who wrote the episode) seeing if he could get a rape joke on mainstream television? The thrill of sneaking something past the censors perhaps?

I remember reading about how in the bad old days, you would have a network censor (Standards and Practices) who would read the script, and tell you what to remove. Anticipating this, you would stick something outrageous into a script, in order to ensure that your compromise joke would make it into the script. And that compromise joke was, in truth, the joke you wanted to use in the first place.

To me, the pinball line was a self-imposed challenge on Garcia’s part to see if he could make a rape joke without making it sound like, you know, a joke about rape. A writerly bet to see if he could do the impossible. I’m reminded of George Carlin:

Well, sometimes they'll say, well you can talk about something but you can't joke about it. Say you can't joke about something because it's not funny. Comedians run into that shit all the time. Like rape. They'll say, "you can't joke about rape. Rape's not funny." I say, "fuck you, I think it's hilarious. How do you like that?" I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See, hey why do you think they call him "Porky," eh? I know what you're going to say. "Elmer was asking for it. Elmer was coming on to Porky. Porky couldn't help himself, he got a hard-on, he got horny, he lost control, he went out of his mind."

What the Joy line demonstrates is how thoroughly uncensored network TV has become. (Christ, I sound like a social conservative at this moment, and I lack the time and patience to nuance my argument a little more effectively. Whoops.) And I think this is somewhat of a shame, because I honestly think the joke shouldn’t have made it to air. (The Accused is based on a real-life rape, which for me puts that extra bit of inappropriateness into the mix.) And I realize what a hornet nest that places me inside of. Having recently completed a thesis on Vice for my Master’s, I also realize that the moment you isolate or name a taboo, you create a cultural scenario in which someone will transgress it. As I was doing research for this post, I stumbled across Borat’s reference to The Accused as a sex comedy. I’m also reminded of Sarah Silverman’s rape joke oeuvre.

There is so much more to say here, but I’m still trying to puzzle through the Borat/Silverman cultural ascendancy in a meaningful way. I promise that in the future I will be better able to articulate what their particular types of transgressions mean. For now, I’ll stick to the undoubtedly unpopular stance of wishing NBC had censored a rape joke.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Toro Goes Belly Up

That's a little joke there -- Toro is tuna belly in Japanese. The fact that Toro is dead, however, is not as funny. The press release was sent out today (Feb. 12) announcing that Toro is no more. The gist of the press release was that the best a high quality Canadian men's magazine can hope for is breaking even. After four years, the investment no longer appeared to be a smart one for publisher Chris Bratty.

Toro was distinguished for its lack of staff turnover. Editor Derek Finkle lasted four years in an industry that few would now describe as stable. Toro wasn't perfect, but it was a good place for good writing. I suppose I should insert something profound about the Canadian magazine industry here, but everyone with a pair of eyes and ears knows that prestige publications that pay writers a living wage are going the way of the dinosaur. This is not the observation of a pessimist, but a realist. It's not the canary in the coal mine (nor the tuna) but Toro dying should tell us something about the state of the glossy world. Something not so good.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bigge (Trouble) in Little China

Yesterday I received an email from someone claiming to be the Chinese translator of my humour book A Very Lonely Planet. The poor translator was having understandable difficulty with North American sayings such as “rip off Kinko’s” and “indie-rock sad sack.”

I emailed Brian Lam at Arsenal Pulp Press and made sure this wasn’t a hoax. It turns out it isn’t – the rights to my book were recently sold in China. I emailed the translator back to let her know I’d be happy to help her as best as I could. Today she thanked me and wrote, “The hardest nuts I will put in the list and send it to you.”

It’s all very surreal and flattering, especially since the book was published in May of 2001. I promise to scan and post the Chinese cover the moment I’m able to do so.

And although this will sound small and petty of me, as an agentless writer I am obliged to say it: take that Ann Mcdermid.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Reminder Regarding My Feature Writing Course

I successfully defended my Master's thesis on Friday, which was an enormous relief. What this means for those who still read this blog is that I'll be able to update more often -- starting in two weeks or so.

In the meantime, I would like to remind you, dear reader, that starting February 6, I will be teaching Freelancing the Feature at the University of Toronto's SCS. Details here.