Friday, December 25, 2009

The Re-Up

Chandler Levack quits Facebook:

My friend Kevin will often describe the way he’s feeling as “internet” — as in, “I’m feeling internet today.” That feeling, we decided, is a combination of boredom, overstimulation and hypomania that comes with having too many options and yet returning to all the same places you know. It explains how I can sift through a photo album of my ex-boyfriend on an interpretative theatre sojourn to Europe, poke my Mom and then become a fan of socialism.

Jonathan Goldsbie provides intelligent commentary:

Chandler Levack does the self-indulgent thing better than her colleague (and sometime boss?) Kate Carraway does. Though her writing is no less self-consciously self-conscious than Carraway’s, no less a part of a long-term identity-construction project in which she assumes we are all interested, what makes her a superior professional masturbator is an understanding of the emotional rhythm of writing.

Milton Berle once explained the cadence of comedy to Richard Ouzounian by “tapping at the script like Morse code: ‘Dit-dit-dit-dot, dit-dit-dit-dot, dit-dit-dit-joke.’” You could break down Chandler’s writing as irony-irony-irony-Klosterman, irony-irony-irony-Klosterman, irony-irony-irony-ohGodI’mlonely. And you know what? It works. It’s effective. It’s the approach I took when I used to write primarily about myself (though of course my allusions weren’t to Klosterman but rather my own adolescent pop heroes). The witty detachment renders the soul-baring honesty more affecting.

And so although the majority of sentences in her epic feature on Facebook elicit predictable eyerolling and the urge to utter snarky things on Twitter, they are interspersed with admissions of vulnerability that I both sympathize with and respect her for making. Maybe it’s because, unlike with Carraway, I (kind of?) know Chandler in real life and thus see her writing as the product of a concrete person rather than a shrill abstraction, but her occasional moments of sincerity come across as plausible (if deliberate) ruptures in the vocational-hipster persona.

Jason Richards provides painfully unfunny "satire":

When you try to attempt to quit Hotmail, a window appears on the screen that says "Internet Explorer has shut down unexpectedly." Ignore it. 30 seconds later, the window will close on its own and the affable voice of an Australian man says: "OK, you got us. We were just trying to distract you. Good job, mate."

SMAD provides Richards with a new orifice via NOW
comment board:

Wow. Do you feel like a big man, Jason? Do you? What a total fucking smug whistling rectum you are. You tried to rip the shit out of a 23-year-old who wrote an article to try to pay her rent. If you worked for Harper's and you were subtly deconstructing a New Yorker article, that would be one thing. But you work for NOW-FUCKING-MAGAZINE. You are pointless editorial copy that supports escort ads. Go get an intern to lick your balls under the table at The Rhino whilst enjoying a Zlatopramen you pathetic, shitty, horrible fuck.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Two Months Late to This, But Still Funny

When he got back to his computer, Twitter was still broken. He pulled the blue plastic tarp off his laptop, then folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup. He spread the small tarp they used for a table on the ground and laid everything out and he took the pistol from his belt and laid it on the cloth and then he just sat watching the laptop go into sleep mode. He'd pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets. He watched the laptop and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day. The laptop hummed quietly in the blankets. Then its screen went bright. Hi, Papa, the laptop said.


Monday, November 16, 2009

My Spacing Article About the Sex Appeal of Women on Bikes

This article appeared in the Summer-Fall 2009 issue of Spacing. The photos did not.

The Bi(ke) Curious
Two-wheeled sex machine

Ryan Bigge

In the summer, if you are both observant and fortunate, you will spot a woman on a bicycle wearing heels. The point of her shoe will suspend in mid-air as her legs trace precise circles. If she is wearing a sundress, even better.

A woman pedaling a bike is alluring – wind in her hair, smooth, carefree grace, firm calf muscles. But is this because attractive women ride bicycles? Or does the very act of bicycling bestow a seductive aura upon a woman? This might seem a trivial question, but trying to locate the erotic frisson of bicycling is not straightforward.

Take the recent World Naked Bike Ride, held in early June, which offers plenty of evidence that pedaling can be utterly unerotic. Hollywood, meanwhile, treats a man on a bicycle as a punchline, at least in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Ditto the TV show Arrested Development.

And yet a “not” can be turned into a “hot” through proximity to cranks and gears. In an October 2008 Toronto Life article, Richard Poplack discovered that infamous bike hoarder Igor Kenk “had a string of lovers over the years, most of whom lived nearby and were seduced by his combustive mixture of charm and profanity, his masculine unpredictability and un-Toronto-ness. One neighbour told me, ‘There were always beautiful girls talking to Igor, getting their bikes fixed for hours.’”

Three years ago, some Portland, Oregon perverts decided to push the erotic logic of cycling to its ultimate conclusion and create a Bike Porn film festival (link). The festival showcases user-submitted sex-positive short films that make the cycling fetish explicit (as does the Peaches video “Lovertits,” featuring Feist and another girl making out with and on their bikes).

Meanwhile, photoshoots with bicycles are becoming more frequent on alt pin-up websites like SuicideGirls and DeviantNation. There is also a Toronto girl bike gang called The Deadly Nightshades (link) who, unlike the suicides and the deviants, produce photographs that are captivating and safe for workplace viewing.

Whether bike porn and cheesecake pin-ups are empowering or the same old objectification is not an easy question to answer. More importantly, it might be the wrong question to ask. In his May 31 New York Times Book Review of Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, musician and artist David Byrne (himself an avid urban cyclist since the late 1970s) argues that more high heels on pedals could help reduce our carbon footprint.

“I can ride till my legs are sore and it won’t make riding any cooler,” he notes. “But when attractive women are seen sitting upright going about their city business on bikes day and night, the crowds will surely follow.”

In Case You Missed Them

Book review of 8x10 by Michael Turner: (link).

Book review of Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (Kaya Oakes) and And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture (Bill Wasik): (link).

The Wasik book will help explain balloon boy. The Oakes will explain the crippling success of indie culture: (link).

Globe and Mail Article on Microstores

It's not the size, it's what you do with it
Globe and Mail (Toronto Section) | October 10, 2009 | Ryan Bigge

Located on a quiet stretch of College Street near Lansdowne, it's easy to miss Industtrees, a new 340-squarefoot art gallery and trinket store. Featuring small, cartoonish paintings by New York artist Gea, along with Vladmasters (handmade View-Master reels for grown-ups), the latest issue of The Believer and a tiny analog synthesizer called the Stylophone (David Bowie used one on the album Space Oddity ), this microstore appears be an anomaly in a big-box world.

But Industtrees, along with Cubeshops (400 square feet) and Sam James Coffee Bar (280 square feet) represent an intelligent expression of entrepreneurial ambitions during a recession. Toronto had a tiny perfect mayor (David Crombie), so why not tiny perfect retail? “It's boutique-esque,” says 24-year-old co-owner Cameron Kowalchuk, describing the retail aspect of the gallery, which opened in early July. “You're forced to focus.”

As last Sunday's New York Times pointed out, the latest trend in retail is “curating” items: supplying a few choice objects instead of a surfeit of choice. The microstore can be thought of as a hip experiment in subtraction, rather than a pragmatic response to economic circumstances. Meanwhile, lower rent allows owners to take risks and remain true to their niche sensibilities, rather than rely on volume.

Hence the design store Cubeshops, which opened in early August. (Despite the plural, there is only one location, on Baldwin Street, beside The Little Video Shop). With its focus on limited edition, functional art pieces from Japan, Cubeshops resembles an even more tightly curated version of Queen West fixture Studio Brillantine. The colourful dinosaur-shaped rubber bands, clothespin chopsticks and staple-free staplers pop from the white walls, while the fishbowl-style front window encourages gawking. “We're trying to maximize the impact of our minimalism,” explains co-owner Sid, who demurs when asked for his surname, perhaps worried it will take up too much room.

Many micros hide macro ambitions – Mr. Kowalchuk hopes to be in a bigger (and more foot-traffic friendly) location within a year. But others shrug off temptations to expand, afraid of losing the unique charm that keeps customers loyal. The Smart-car-sized Blood and Bandages at College and Dovercourt, which opened in 2007, has two barber chairs crammed into under 100 square feet and would be just another snip shop at any other size. Whether it's the result of an aversion to greed, or a touch of laziness, a small but steady profit is often preferable to an ill-fated attempt at world-domination.

For 25-year-old barista Sam James, who runs the Sam James Coffee Bar (his shop's cheeky name aside, the proprietor's actually quite modest), thinking small is baked into his business model. “If you're not in a high-volume location, you can focus on quality coffee without compromising,” he argues. “And I think people will go out of their way to seek out that quality.” His three-seat coffee spot opened in early September at Harbord and Clinton, and coffee aficionados regularly spill out into the sidewalk on weekends.

Cozy can even become a way of life. Having just survived working 30 days straight, Mr. James took a well-earned break from the daily grind last Tuesday, during which he slept in, ate cheese and got reacquainted with his cat. He also decided to patronize another microstore – Speakeasy, a new tattoo shop that just happens to be located right next door to his coffee bar.

It is, after all, a small world.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Comment Boards Are My Favourite Thing

This was a few weeks ago, but I forgot to post. The source material is linked below, but the comment speaks for itself. Rational public sphere indeed.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

When In Doubt, Ask a Canadian Celebrity For Medical Advice

I think Annabel Lyon is a phenomenal writer. That said, I don’t give a rat’s ass about whether or not she’s getting the H1N1 flu shot. Her new novel is about “Aristotle's relationship with Alexander the Great” according to the Globe. How does that make her medical decisions any more or less relevant than those of "ordinary Canadians?"

For more of The Globe and Mail doing what it does best: (link).

My Obligatory, Bi-Annual Potshot at Russell Smith

Thank you, Mr. Smith, for writing in such a way that my making fun of you is entirely unnecessary.

Exhibit A: TwitterTits

Exhibit B: Unboxing Trend Three Years Too Late

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Really Crazy Estate

When Amanda Cohen and Noah Segal received multiple offers on their semi-detached downtown Toronto home Sunday, one stood out. Along with a written bid, the potential buyers included a video presentation with a unique message.

"They showed their baby 'signing' the offer and told us how much they loved our place," says Cohen. "I thought it was brilliant. We were really moved."

Chocolates. Maple Leafs tickets. Handwritten notes and personalized videos. Bidding wars for Toronto real estate are once again percolating, with desperate buyers trying to make an impression however they can. The phenomenon, say real estate insiders, speaks volumes about the city's housing market.

"People are now making audition tapes begging you to let them buy your house, and by the way, they'd also like to give you more money than you asked for. How outrageous is that?" says Bernard Lang, a Toronto investor in rental properties.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Depressingly Honest Letter From the Editor

I thought the recession was supposed to eliminate the need for such awful self-parody. Apparently not. The only thing edgy about this magazine is a potential paper cut from it.



Saturday, October 17, 2009

So Very Wrong

It's less the costume itself than the frat guy giving the thumbs up while the more refined woman tries to retain some measure of dignity. The male-female dynamic, in microcosm.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bored To Death of Bourbon

I blogged a little while ago about how Blanton's appeared in the pilot of Bored to Death, albeit very subtly. I wondered if it was product placement or not.

Well it was, as episode four proved:

I still haven't decided how I feel about this, given that I like said bourbon but dislike product placement.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Co-Owner of Café 668 Was So Rude to Me I’m Blogging About It

Dear Café 668,

This is painful to write, because we go way back, and I used to like you a lot. My wife and I used to visit you, at your old location, fairly often. When you moved west on Dundas, and opened a beautiful new restaurant, we were really impressed with both the décor and the food. It’s hard to find good vegetarian food in Toronto, and you were doing it exceedingly well.

I’ll admit we didn’t visit you as often as we should have – a few times a year. But we brought friends sometimes, and mentioned it favourably to a number of people.

I thought we had something special between us, co-owner Hon Quach. You used to be so nice to us at the old location. And I acknowledge you were either busy or short-staffed on Saturday night (October 10, 2009) when the four of us arrived. Things started okay -- you took our order quickly, and brought us our wine, and everything was good. The soup was wonderful.

And then the first dish arrived, and it wasn’t what we had ordered. We wanted the Singapore Curry Vermicelli (#55). I know the number, because I ordered for the table, and I said the number of the dish, along with its description. What we got, as it turned out, was #65 (Vegetarian Curry).

Now, maybe you misheard me or I didn’t enunciate quite enough. But when I called you back to the table, and asked about the dish you’d just given us, you insisted, in an incredibly rude and curt manner, that it was what we had ordered. And then you refused to take the dish away.

I had to get up from the table, walk to the rear of the restaurant, and talk to you a second time about the misunderstanding. I opened up a menu and tried to suggest that you had confused #55 with #65. And you were having none of it. “I remember what you ordered,” you said, and then went on to insist that the first thing I had ordered was the Vegetarian Curry. Which was not true. Finally you relented, took away #65 and soon replaced it with what we wanted.

Now, I don’t believe the customer is always right, but instead of being a jerk, you could have at least entertained the possibility that there had been some kind of mix up. Because here’s the thing – rectifying the error in a pleasant manner costs you four bucks in ingredients, tops.

Instead, because you were such a jackass about the situation, I’m never going to eat at Café 668 again. (We will redirect our vegetarian money to King's Cafe instead.) The two friends we brought with us, who are vegetarian and live nearby and are new to Toronto, might also never eat at your restaurant again. That’s a few hundred dollars a year, down the drain.

Here’s a final tip – literally. Being nice about the mix-up would have resulted in us leaving a 15 percent tip, instead of the 3 percent you received Saturday night. I can’t imagine being rude to us was worth it. Literally.


Another N minus One Cheapshot

N plus one is to thinking as a Renaissance Festival is to warfare.
-- Tom Scocca


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

But What Do You Really Think? (Or, N minus One)

Let me slow down here and make this point clearly, because people have a terrible habit, especially in New York, of refusing to believe this sort of thing and throwing around all kinds of silly chaff–accusations of bad faith and pandering and whatnot–to avoid it: I disliked the piece.

On its merits, I disliked it. I know very little about you as a person, and I know even less about Mark Greif. There were words, arranged into an essay. I disliked the way the words were arranged and thought that the ideas they expressed were not well considered. It seemed to me that the author was assuming a stance of moral, political, and intellectual superiority that he had not, based on the contents of the piece, earned. In fact, it seemed to me that the morals, politics, and ideas expressed in the piece were bad.
-- Tom Scocca, The Awl


Monday, October 05, 2009

Women Apparently Aren't Funny Redux

In other diversity news, Leno’s and the rest of the nighttime comedy shows are bizarrely lacking in women writers. Did a bomb go off and kill all the women comedy writers and leave the men standing? The other night on the Emmy Awards broadcast, the names of the nominees for best writing on a comedy or variety series were read, and, out of eighty-one people, only seven were women. Leno has no women writers on his show. Neither does David Letterman, and neither does Conan O’Brien. Come on.
-- Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Now Let's Go On To Something Ruder

Ah, but does your car mechanic neighbour choke your throttle? That's the real question.


Friday, September 25, 2009

If Only John Tory Could Stay on Message, He Might Have a Chance

John Tory, who lost to Miller in the 2003 campaign, issued a statement late this morning thanking the mayor for his public service, and hinting at another mayoral run of his own.

"I would at this time like to thank the hundreds of people who have been contacting me on the street, by email, Facebook and other means, encouraging me to run," Tory wrote. "The next election will be about renewal of the city. People tell me they are looking for vision, competence, better services, and better value for their tax dollars. I look forward to continuing to discuss these issues with people across the city."


John Tory, who lost to Miller in 2003, praised Miller's record of public service over the past 15 years while saying that people are urging him to run in 2010.

"They love their city as I do, (but) they think our city can be better. They think that we need better services, better value for the tax money, more hope. And they are encouraging me to take a look at it, which I've said I will do," Tory said in a television interview.


But until he declares whether he's a candidate, Tory said he's not prepared to discuss what his priorities would be.

"What I will say is this: People are correct in saying they're not getting good value for the taxes they are paying.

People are correct in saying they're not getting competent government. We've seen this week these instances where $200 million mistakes are kind of shrugged off," he said.

"I think you've got to focus on how you get competent government, better value for the tax dollars, which I think will help to create more hope in people and help us to do more in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods which I passionately believe we have to do."


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blanton's is Bored To Death

Here's what I should have done to begin with -- blogged about this strange bit of not-quite-product-placement. Instead I mentioned it in a FB status update.

Anyway, I find it interesting that unless you own a 46 inch TV, it's damn tough to figure out what Ted Danson is drinking in episode two of Bored to Death. So, does that make it product placement or background noise? It's not like a small batch bourbon (that happens to be oh-so-good) has much money to try and get itself into television shows. The bottle looks great, which might be one of the reasons a props guy chose it.

Anyway, it feels like there's a larger point here, but it's just outside my grasp. Is it that I'm disappointed that I finally saw something I heartily endorse, on television, and it wasn't blatant product placement? Is it that at this point, I've lost the ability to determine what did and did not pay its way onto the screen? That my increasing paranoia about commercial intrusion will ultimately leave me shivering in a heap five years from now?

There is only one answer, at least in this instance -- a small tumbler full of bourbon. Delicious Blanton's bourbon that is.

Two Screen Grabs On The Journalistic Ethics of Tweeting

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Course, The Freelance Writing Business Starts October 5

Hello. The usual reminder that I'm teaching a course on freelance writing and business aspects of writing for a living. The course is Monday nights, and begins October 5, so if you're interested, I recommend registering soon. Former students have gone on to publish articles in a variety of magazines and newspapers.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Selling Ice Cubes to the Northwest Territories

And now for what we found the most startling figure of all: three times as many people are concerned with crime as with transportation—this after Transit City, streetcar purchases, bike lane disputes, and the apparently civilization-ending decision to sometimes, every so often (but not oftener) allow non-drivers to, you know, get around too. Transportation has been the centrepiece of Miller's second term in office, and Transit City is intended to be his major legacy project. Yet people simply aren't biting.

This is taken from a good article by Hamutal Dotan on Torontoist that argues Miller does good things but is unable to sell his vision for the city effectively. My only fear is that people aren't biting because they don't want what Miller is selling, regardless of his perceived lack of salesmanship. I just got back from Montreal, where I am always impressed with not only the bike lanes (and the new Bixi rent-a-bike setup) but the general culture surrounding alternative transportation. I've house-sat in Montreal three times, each time for a month, so I feel as though I have some handle on the place. And there is clearly both a push for alternate forms of transportation, but also a demand for it. A psychological predisposition toward it. Yes, taxes are higher, but you can also see (or at least I can see) where that money is going.

I find this not to be the case in Toronto. While I suspect that an effective system of protected bike lanes would encourage more people to bike, which in turn would help make the case for spending money on biking, Toronto is a horrendously car-centric city. Any attempt to infringe upon the car brings the embedded car entitlement to the surface. And that is bred into the culture of the city, through a process I'm not entirely clear on. One of the best examples I can give is a June 2008 article by Philip Preville in Toronto Life. (I should mention I've met him a few times.) It's a smart, well-researched article about the tensions between bikes and cars in Toronto that concludes by suggesting instead of more bike lanes, we need to redesign intersections along the naked streets model proposed by some Dutch dude, wherein traffic lights and other markings are stripped away and commuters, be they bike or car or pedestrian, must establish eye contact to negotiate who is going to cross when.

The problem with the article, (which I've read and re-read a few times) is that it essentially leaves the reader feeling as though there is no actual solution to the bike problem. Montreal's protected bike lanes are a hassle to maintain according to Preville, but he also admits that the naked streets idea is unlikely ever to be implemented. For now, the status quo will have to do.

Spacing and the like are doing excellent work (I'm probably biased, since I contribute occasionally to Spacing), and the bike union is a great step forward too. But from my unscientific and occasional skimming of CBC and Toronto Star article comments, there is definitely a contingent of the city (how large, I'm unsure) that doesn't care about cyclists in the least, and lacks the psychological leanings to support anything new or different or communal. The individualistic ethos of the city is very clear as compared with Montreal and Vancouver, which results in a different relationship with the environment, etc. Amalgamation doesn't help.

The lesson, sadly, is to follow the Lastman approach: promise not to raise property taxes much and funnel money toward the cops. For a selfish city allergic to change of any kind, this is the ideal platform, as it allows people to buy more stuff, and ensures that stuff is less likely to get stolen.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Don't Envy These Green Authors

Elizabeth Kolbert runs a cement trunk through a half-dozen enviro-conscious stunt books, smacking three Canadian authors real damn hard.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

It's Funny Cause It's True

"Colder Than Most People From Toronto." (link).

Sadly, it's being taken down.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Toronto is Little Better Than a Photocopy of a Proper City

"This is a familiar Toronto syndrome, the nagging certainty that what's happening in Toronto is nothing more than a subpar pantomime of some authentic, spontaneous, amazing totally better thing happening elsewhere."

- The Party Girls, Mireille Silcoff, Toronto Life, September 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fictional Critiques of British and American Phone Booths

Martin Amis via London Fields, you have the floor:

[T]here was a telephone box at the very junction of Lansdowne Crescent and Ladbrooke Grove … There was no one in the telephone box. But there was no telephone in it either. There was no trace of a telephone in it. And there was no hint or vestige of a telephone in the next half-dozen he tried. These little glass ruins seemed only to serve as urinals, as shelters from the rain, and as job-centre clearing-houses for freelance prostitutes and their clients. In widening circles Guy strayed, from one savaged pissoir to another. He hadn’t used a telephone box in years, if indeed he had ever used one. He didn’t know what had happened to them and to vandalism – though a serious glance at the streetpeople who glanced at him so mirthfully, as he rummaged behind the dark glass or stood there shaking his head with his hands on his hips, might have told Guy that vandalism had left telephone boxes far behind. Vandalism had moved on to the human form. People now treated themselves like telephone boxes, ripping out the innards and throwing them away, and plastering their surfaces with sex-signs and graffiti …

Representing Team USA, here’s Jonathan “The Corrections” Franzen:

He marched two blocks in the rain before he found a dial tone. At the first twin phone bank he came to, one instrument was castrated, with colored tassels at the end of its cord, and all that remained of the other was four bolt holes. The phone at the next intersection had chewing gum in its coin slot, and the line of its companion was completely dead. The standard way for a man in Chip’s position to vent his rage was to smash the handset on the box and leave the plastic shards in the gutter, but Chip was in too much a hurry for this. At the corner of Fifth Avenue, he tried a phone that had a dial tone but did not respond when he touched the keypad and did not return his quarter when he hung up nicely or when he picked the handset up and slammed it down. The other phone had a dial tone and took his money, but a Baby Bell voice claimed not to understand what he’d dialed and did not return the money. He tried a second time and lost his last quarter.

He smiled at the SUVs crawling by in ready-to-brake bad-weather automotive postures. The doormen in this neighborhood hosed the sidewalks twice a day, and sanitation trucks with brushes like the mustaches of city cops scoured the streets three times a week, but in New York City you never had to go far to find filth and rage. A nearby street sign seemed to read Filth Avenue. Things cellular were killing public phones. But unlike Denise, who considered cell phones the vulgar accessories of vulgar people, and unlike Gary, who not only didn’t hate them but had bought one for each of his three boys, Chip hated cell phones mainly because he didn’t have one.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

TOFU Graffiti Article from Toronto Star

The tofu-graffiti mystery
August 15, 2009 | Ryan Bigge | Toronto Star

I first noticed the strange four-letter word written in black spray paint in Liberty Village, during last year's Nuit Blanche. On the shins of three concrete plinths near the south end of the Lamport Stadium parking lot, in uppercase letters, was the word TOFU. It was simultaneously funny (what sort of miscreant selects soybean protein as their semiotic weapon?) and enigmatic (how best to respond to such a non-sequitur?) Still, it held my interest, despite having viewed an evening's worth of competitively creative contemporary art, so I took a quick photograph and forgot about it.

But it turned out that TOFU was not a one-off conceptual prank without a punchline. The word has appeared frequently on walls throughout the city during the last few months. The lettering might be small – polite by the standards of graffiti, though no less illegal – but the tagger has been persistent, depositing little blocks of TOFU throughout the west end: the Brock Street railway underpass, a street sign near Dundas and Brock, a storefront near Bloor and Ossington, a green pole in Trinity-Bellwoods. An occasional variation in colour (white and pink) and altitude (the tagger enjoys both horizontal and vertical lettering) is the only thing that separates the tags.

Then came the TOFU tipping point, when this curiosity went big. The rear brick wall of the public washroom in Fred Hamilton Park, adjacent to the bocce pit, was struck with a half-metre tall version of the word.

No longer ignorable, the outsized headline was a provocation that forced anyone who passed to try to wring meaning from a word that seems chosen for its ability to deflect any deeper meaning. As Toronto novelist Lilian Nattel wrote on her blog in late May, "what kind of streetwise graffiti-ist inscribes TOFU on the walls of park buildings?"

Perhaps the best way to analyze TOFU is to determine what it is not. It does not seem to be a street-level marketing campaign. Many advertisers use teaser campaigns that blend street art and advertising into something that is both and neither.

But it's impossible to believe someone would try to infuse this milquetoast substance with underground cachet and give the product some edge. (As a lapsed vegetarian, I've earned the right to speak insultingly about my bland white frenemy). And one word, repeated ad nauseam, is not likely to convince anyone to buy a block of herb tofu anytime soon.

As pure artistry, TOFU also fails – even if the paint is, as I hope, vegetable-based. Stylistically, it refuses to echo the curved, bubbly letterings of high-style graffiti. Being so unadorned, it cannot carry itself on style. And with but one simple word, it is lacking in substance as well. The decision to be vegan or vegetarian is often informed by political or ethical leanings. Surely a few more words are required to make a coherent argument.

Or perhaps not. Michael Portnoy set the low bar for vegan civil disobedience back in 1998, when he snuck onto the stage and danced shirtless beside Bob Dylan. Scrawled on Portnoy's chest, in black greasepaint, was the phrase SOY BOMB. Over a decade later, it's safe to say his plant-based protein bomb has yet to detonate.

While neither advertising nor art nor coherent political protest, TOFU has managed to cut through the textual clutter of urban life. The irony, of course, is that tofu absorbs the flavour of whatever it comes in contact with, blending into food like vodka in
a cocktail.

Documented and puzzled over on Toronto blogs and Flickr accounts, the TOFU mystery has earned our attention, even as it frustrates an explanation.

Is it an acronym? The latest bit of slang? Yet another visible secret of urban life, like shoes draped over a powerline?

Through repetition and prominence, TOFU speaks silently to anyone willing to listen.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Free? No Thanks.

I received this very pleasant email on Monday:

My name’s XXXXX XXXX, and I’m the editor of the Perspective section at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas’ statewide daily newspaper. I am interested in reprinting your article ”A Brief History” from March ‘09 in the Perspective section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I found it on the Smart Set site today, and I enjoyed it a lot. Which is one of my main criteria for deciding what to publish in the Perspective section.

Perspective is a weekly section that focuses on more in-depth analysis of issues, culture, life, society, history, art, literature...well, you get the idea. We would, of course, give credit where it’s due, plug the blog and Smart Set, etc.

Please feel free to go retro and give me a call. If calling the office is just too old-fashioned, my cell is XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
(xxx) xxx-xxxx

So I, of course, asked the fine people at FeatureWell to deal with this reprint request, since the article was syndicated through them. You'll notice, of course, that nowhere in the email is any mention of payment. This also occurred the last time I received a very pleasant email from a very pleasant newspaper editor wanting to reprint my very pleasant twitter article. However, FeatureWell managed to get a small fee out of that newspaper (less than $100).

This time, however, no dice. The Arkansas D-G refused to cough up payment of any kind. That's more than a little sick and disturbing, in my estimate.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Addendums to my Globe Travel Piece

This is my first travel piece. I learned a bunch of things, including the fact that certain things are out of your control. And so I wanted to make two addendums to my article. The first is that one of the big draws about getting married in New York was the fact that getting there via Porter is so pleasant. In my original draft I wrote:

The woman had my sympathy, since there were only two clerks processing licences that day – my fiancée and I spent less time on our Porter flight from Toronto to Newark, N.J., than we did at City Hall.

The second thing was that my original sidebar recommended two hotels:

Where to Stay
The Loews Regency Hotel (540 Park Avenue) is two blocks from Central Park and nearby to hair salons and florists. The Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park (Two West Street) is minutes from the new bureau and has a wedding concierge on staff.

Adjust yourselves accordingly.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Gee Whiz

As Tim Falconer pointed out, Mr. Gee is not an inspired choice to cover City Hall.

How right he is.

Monday, May 25, 2009

So, Tell Me Ryan, Why Do You Hate Toronto?

Jarvis St. is a major north-south thoroughfare, with five lanes accommodating an estimated 28,000 cars daily. The route is made especially efficient by a reversible centre lane that changes to accommodate morning and evening rush hours.

This would no longer be the case under an ill-thought-out $6 million "streetscape improvement" plan to be considered by Toronto City Council as it meets today and tomorrow. Proponents of the redesign want to do away with the centre lane on Jarvis, which would leave only two lanes running in either direction. Sidewalks would be widened, trees would be planted, and there would be a bike lane.

There is a very real risk that these largely cosmetic changes would add to gridlock in the downtown core. The city's own traffic analysis indicates that travel time along Jarvis St., between Bloor and Queen Sts., would increase from eight minutes to 10 minutes. While admitting that's a large jump, on a percentage basis, staff concluded that the actual addition of just two minutes of travel time is "relatively minor."

I'm really quite comfortable with the Globe being against everything, but The Toronto Star? Really?

This makes me frustrated and angry, and it's an anger and frustration that's 10 years in the making. I want to say more, but it's not worth it -- my complaints will sound petty and stupid. I think I'll try and move to New York instead.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Biggest Ideas * The Smartest Men

Keep forgetting to blog this: about a month ago, ideaCity announced its first 21 speakers. Four are women.

You might ask yourself why I keep writing about gender imbalance in relation to idea and essay based journalism. The short answer is that a few years ago, I was an associate producer for CBC's Go. Every week, once we were close to finalizing the line-up, there would be a conference call. Brent Bambury would ask a simple question: how many women do we have on the show this week?

Invariably there would be few or none. The two main producers were male, I was (still am) male. Only Elizabeth, the other associate producer, was female. And without trying, each week we managed to reproduce invisible gender bias. It really stuck with me.

So when the Walrus relaunched with almost no female bylines, I thought back to my Go experience. Fixing the problem can be as simple as saying "how many women do we have in the magazine this month?" This is not a quota system, or some other form of affirmative action that enrages the right. It's a simple act of reminder and repetition, but it produces results.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Former SCS Students In Print

In the last few months some of my former U of T SCS students have had their work published. Congrats! Congrats!

Here are the associated links.

Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments

London Times, book excerpt on pirates in Somalia

Torontoist, about art and Honest Eds

Saturday and Sunday Insight Now Reprints Web Content

In a strange attempt to save money, the Saturday and Sunday Insight sections of the Toronto Star are now reprinting hefty amounts of web content in their print editions. This seems strange, when they could simply provide links to the articles on the Star's website.

Like this:


That takes only one column inch, instead of the dozens of column inches they used to reprint those same articles in their newspaper. I am interested to see how readers react to this. If nobody really notices or cares that Insight is now curating the best of the web and putting it onto newsprint, a significant chunk of my soul will wither and die.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Next, National Post Switches To Phones Without Fives On Them

Remember that old Steven Wright joke, about having a phone without a five on it, and not knowing how long he's had the phone, because his calendar has no sevens? Hard not to think of that when one hears that the National Post won't be publishing on Mondays this summer.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In Case You've Forgotten

Long story, but I've been listening to a friend's iTunes collection on random for the last two months. I completely forgot about this bit of lovely from Radio Free Vestibule until I heard it again yesterday. I remember hearing this song when I lived in Vancouver. Back then, a small part of me thought the lyrics might be true. Having lived here almost ten years, I can report that they are, mostly, in fact, true.

I don't want to go to Toronto
I don't want to go
All of the blocks are square
None of the streets are twisted
None of the streets are paved with bricks
There's too many elevators in Toronto
Not enough stairs in Toronto
Not enough stairs
All of the food in Toronto is made of edible oil products
They don't have bagels in Toronto
They have doughnuts
Doughnuts made of edible oil
I don't like doughnuts
They don't have bagels
I don't want to go to Toronto
People don't have faces in Toronto
They have cigarette ads instead
They listen to your phone calls
There's a tower in Toronto that controls people's minds
It's illegal to possess brightly coloured balloons in Toronto
Illegal to own brightly coloured balloons
All of the children in Toronto must wear suits
Even the girls
Three piece suits
The buildings in Toronto have no windows
I don't want to go
Everyone lives in sub-terrainian caverns
Filled with doughnuts made of edible oil
I don't want to go
Nobody goes to the bathroom in Toronto
They have a special operation
They have it removed surgically
There's a tax on all wicker goods in Toronto
There's huge buildings with no windows
And streets with no curves
And inside you find little girls in suits
Running around with black balloons
And munching on edible oil products
The kids don't have names
They have numbers which are assigned to them at birth
They're called three hundred and eighty seven point seven
Four hundred and twelve point nine
And they all have cigarette ads instead of faces


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Consider Signing up for The Freelance Writing Business (starts April 20th)

Hello. If you live in Toronto, like my journalism, and are thinking about trying to freelance either part or full time, I would recommend my course, which begins April 20th at U of T SCS. A bit more information available through the link below.

(link to course and registration info).

Classes tend to be small enough so that students receive plenty of feedback, and I tailor courses based on student feedback. Please email me any questions you might have: ryan [dot] bigge [at] utoronto [dot] ca

I will return to regular programming forthwith.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Ponderous Thoughts

Chris Scott calls The Book of Absolutes “ponderously titled.” He then goes on to write the following:

* “postmodern zanies”

* “emit distinct whiffs of reactionary powder”

* “He has many other devices tacked to his banner.”

* “The opening concessive clause of this clumsy sentence is a misplaced modifier of Mill's work.”

* “Postmodernists arrogate terms like relativity and evolution from physics and biology, overlooking the fact that in the humanities they are at best metaphors, at worst tendentious amplifiers of left-wing posturing.”

* “Thus, from a heterodox scattering of isms, a new and terrible orthodoxy slouches towards Parnassus, trumpeting its Nietzschean transvaluation of values from the tops of ivory (or red-brick) towers.”

* “in what may be termed the negative side of his Thomist dialectic”

Pretentious? Ponderous? Moi?

I did like this, however:

“lays siege to cloud castles”


A Well Written Novel, Except When It’s Not

Here are two hallmarks of a Globe and Mail book review of a major new novel. The first is fawning over the author until reader nausea is induced:

I should admit to being a fan, to having done all the same things that people do upon first reading Fugitive Pieces. I read pages aloud. I underlined passages, went back and asterisked them, then went back and underlined them again.

And I waited for a second novel. But none came. It has been 13 years. Now, finally, like something exhumed from the distant past, comes The Winter Vault.

Has it been worth the wait?

It has.

The second is a brief burst of valid criticism near the end of the review that has the potential to undermine or even contradict all the fawning praise that has preceded it, followed by an immediate retraction/justification/rationalization:

The Winter Vault is a beautifully written though somewhat difficult book. Michaels's prose is sometimes faulted — wrongly, I think — for being too lyrical or overly poetic, the kind of thing that has no business in a novel. Indeed, we feel Michaels sometimes straining against the form of the novel, and such strain is not easily borne in every instance. A single example may suffice. Avery is watching Jean as she gazes out over the changed Ontario landscape: "Her head, he was sure, was bursting with thought" — even granting poetic licence, it is an unfortunate line.

But The Winter Vault can justify its excesses.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Kinda Big Deal

Professional asshole Keen tweeted about me: (link).

My twitter and brevity piece, originally in the Toronto Star, was reprinted (with permission, all legal-like) in the very wonderful journal The Smart Set. (link). It seems to be getting a bit of traction, which is always very cool and, er, keen.

I suspect more people are reading it from The Smart Set simply because it's almost impossible to find the Star's Insight section online.

A brief history of brevity (but more than 140 characters)
Is Twitter nasty, brutish and way too short or part of a literate tradition of concision?
March 14, 2009 | RYAN BIGGE | Toronto Star

Less is more.

Omit needless words.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Offer very little information about yourself.

There's a temptation to create some tenuous, half-baked linkage between the recession and a newfound desire to be economical with words. But concision, be it motivated by pragmatic or aesthetic reasons, is hardly a 21st-century invention. Proverbs and aphorisms trace back to the ancient Greeks, and koans first appeared in China during the 5th or 6th century. These short bursts of wisdom were designed to be easy to remember, an important quality in cultures that were primarily oral.

By the early 17th century, Shakespeare was praising short and snappy punchlines in Hamlet. Later that century, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho became a haiku master thanks to his immortal frog-pond-splash trifecta. By the 20th century, the telegraph made it possible to send your thoughts around the world, but curtness was an economic imperative since you were charged per word. The modern equivalent of the telegraph, thumb-intensive cellphone SMS (text messaging) also makes pithy thoughts a necessity. And overdiscussed Twitter imposes a 140-character limit on your genius, which works out to 20 or 30 words, depending on the sophistication of your vocabulary.

Concision has a long, proud history, but pundits are now blaming the brevity of tweets for attention-span erosion that will hasten our descent into duh, stupidness. Last week, Tom Tomorrow suggested in his This Modern World comic that blogs will soon be replaced with single-word tweets ("happy," "bored," "sad"). The Daily Show's Samantha Bee took the same joke one step further with talk of Grunter ("not all my followers have time to read my entire tweet") and the equally sub-syllabic Voweller.

Although Bee and Tomorrow are satirists, behind every joke lurks a grain of truth. Why waste precious time formulating a reasoned counter-argument to something you disagree with online when "meh" or "FAIL" will suffice? But if one-word tweets or grunts suggest a dystopic Idiocracy, what about communications consisting of a lone character? In a telegram exchange attributed to both Oscar Wilde and Victor Hugo, the curious writer inquires about sales of his recent book by sending his publisher a lone: ?

The response, of course, was: !

The concision of telegrams created poetry and wit born of economy. "STREETS FULL OF WATER. PLEASE ADVISE," is what humorist Robert Benchley sent his editor at the New Yorker upon arriving in Venice for the first time. Coincidentally, Benchley's telegram is six words – exactly the length imposed upon the memoirs published in last year's anthology Not Quite What I Was Planning. The New Yorker's Lizzie Widdicombe attended the book launch and filed an entire Talk of the Town dispatch in sextuplets: "There was Summer Grimes, twenty-five. She's a hairdresser in St. Paul. She had written the book's title. It took `two minutes,' she explained."

Another, more profane, but no less compelling example of effective terseness appears in the first season of The Wire. In episode four, two homicide detectives re-investigate a six-month-old apartment crime scene on a hunch. This sounds bland and straightforward, except the dialogue between the two cops involves variations on the f-word, and nothing else, for four minutes. Just as with Mandarin, a language that relies upon inflection in pitch to make the same syllable convey different meanings, actors Wendell Pierce and Dominic West turn the word around in their mouths, using it to register disgust, anger, frustration and surprise. And without any exposition, the viewer is able to understand how a vital piece of evidence was overlooked.

The Wire, the six-word memoir and the wordless telegram suggest that constraints generate creativity and that the utility of concision depends on context – one of the biggest commitments many of us will ever make is made possible through two little words: "I do."

But being laconic can also belittle – nothing conveys the limitations of a book like a pat summary. For almost 10 years, John Crace has written The Digested Read column for the Guardian, where he trash-compacts a given book into 700 words or so, mimicking the author's tone and style in the process. Acknowledging our hyper-accelerated era, the column now concludes with "The digested read, digested." For Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey, this meant: "James gets lost in La La Land."

Concise book reviews can be funny, but books that succumb to shortness of breath is a more serious development. Even the most progressive literature buff will find their heart hurting after learning about the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan. As Dana Goodyear reported in The New Yorker this past December, "Unlike working in longhand, which requires that an author know the complex strokes for several thousand kanji, and execute them well, writing on a cell phone lowers the barrier for a would-be novelist. The novels are correspondingly easy to read – most would pose no challenge to a 10-year-old – with short lines, simple words, and a repetitive vocabulary."

Beyond being simple, being succinct is not always bereft of ideology. "Omit needless words" is writing advice from the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, echoed by Orwell ("if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out") in his essay "Politics and the English Language." But Orwell also described the danger of condensed language in his novel 1984. According to Syme, one of Winston Smith's co-workers at the Ministry of Truth, "The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."

Advertising slogans also take advantage of concision, generating a different type of thoughtcrime. The quicker picker upper and the breakfast of champions are capitalist proverbs, memes designed to burrow into your brain and encourage you to buy. Our constant exposure to these epigrammatic selling propositions might explain why Twitter lends itself so well to self-advertisement.

But the most insidious aspect of selling yourself short is described by Noam Chomsky in the documentary Manufacturing Consent, who notes that appearing on television necessitates the ability to speak in thought-bites. "The beauty of concision," Chomsky explains, "is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts." If you want to make a seemingly outlandish claim (Chomsky's examples include "education is a system of imposed ignorance") you have to provide sufficient evidence or no one will believe you. "But you can't give evidence if you're stuck with concision," Chomsky says, tracing the perfect circle formed by brevity's Catch-22.

Which is not to say short can't be smart, or at least smart's second cousin, clever – Oscar Wilde and Victor Hugo anyone(?)(!) Artist Jenny Holzer built her career around short, occasionally cryptic statements called truisms: "Abuse of power comes as no surprise" or the aforementioned "Offer very little information about yourself." (Conveniently, a seminal figure of text-based conceptual art, Lawrence Weiner, debuts new work at the Power Plant Gallery starting today, including the phrase "MORE THAN ENOUGH" writ large on the gallery's smokestack.) And what is poetry, after all, but an attempt to remove unnecessary words. Henri Cole won the 2008 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his book Blackbird and Wolf, which was praised by one judge for its "art of violent concision."

Toronto writer Ian Garrick Mason, in a recent blog post on Sans Everything, offers balm for those who fear brusqueness, noting that, "Our communication and entertainment formats have been multiplying and diversifying, not getting shorter." The sitcom, he observes, has not supplanted the opera. Similarly, Twitter will not replace the paragraph, only publicly demonstrate concision's vices and virtues. Naysayers seeking an example of the latter should try following The Mime. Here, in full, are his three most recent tweets:



Sunday, March 22, 2009

Come, Thou Book Reviewer

I have many pet peeves in regard to book reviewing, and one of the larger ones is referring to the dust jacket. I cannot think of a lazier maneuver. If you have 800 words or so to talk about 400 pages of novel, why waste time talking about superficial wrapping paper. It’s akin to commenting on the trailer when doing a film review. (link) I understand judging a book by its cover, but not by the words on the dust jacket, surely:

* I disagree with the book jacket's assertion that it may be a “small mystery,” and I'm puzzled by the assertion in the publicity materials that its main narrator, Audrey Flowers, is “IQ-challenged.”

* It immediately becomes clear that the book jacket has failed to adequately synopsize Audrey's (and Winnifred's) adventures.

* Certainly there is much more going on in this book than the “small mystery,” or Uncle Thoby's eventual decampment for England, which the jacket describes as being the central events of the narrative.

Another pet peeve is overabundant praise:

Come, Thou Tortoise had me from Word One.

Referring to my copy of said novel, I see that Word One is: “The.”

Cue the Monty Python:

And the crowd goes quiet now as Hardy settles himself down at his desk, body straight, shoulders relaxed, pen held lightly but firmly in the right hand, he dips the pen in the ink and he’s off! It’s the first word, but it’s not a word, oh no, it’s a doodle way up on the left-hand margin, it’s a piece of meaningless scribble and he’s signed his name underneath. Oh dear, what a disappointing start! But he’s off again and here he goes, the first word of Thomas Hardy’s first novel at 10.35 on this very lovely morning, it’s three letters, it’s the definite article and it’s "the," Dennis.

(Voice of Dennis) Well, this is true to form, no surprises there. He’s started five of his eleven novels to date with the definite article. We’ve had two of them with "it", there’s been one "but," two "ats," one "and" and a "Dolores.” Oh, that, of course, was never published.

(Globe review as discussed above).

Full disclosure: (I reviewed the same book for the Star).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Men Are Sure Smart

So, last month, the new, redesigned Walrus appeared. Inspired by a listserv debate, I tallied male and female bylines in the new March 2009 Walrus. Of 14 articles, one was written by a woman. That didn’t seem right to me.

So I’m pleased to report that the April 2009 issue of the Walrus does a much better job of gender equality – roughly an equal number of male and female bylines. However, there are still some hiccups, as the Editor’s Note by John Macfarlane proves:

Last year, the American magazine Foreign Policy and the British magazine Prospect co- published a list of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals — men and women whose ideas have changed the world. It included … four Canadians: New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell; human rights theorist and Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff; Harvard linguist and experimental psychologist Steven Pinker; and political philosopher and Kyoto Prize winner Charles Taylor. In its year-end review, Prospect also nominated Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood, whose book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, was a 2008 bestseller; and social critic Naomi Klein, whose most recent book is The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.


Canada can claim, if not a hundred, then certainly more than six. Among others, and in addition to those already mentioned, the list would include Michael Adams, Maude Barlow, Conrad Black, Michael Bliss, Michael Byers, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Robert Fulford, David Frum, Jack Granatstein, Allan Gregg, Rudyard Griffiths, George Jonas, Tom Kent, James Laxer, Stephen Lewis, Irshad Manji, Roger Martin, John Polanyi, John Ralston Saul, Janice Gross Stein, David Suzuki, and Ronald Wright.

Not to mention Mark Kingwell,
who writes a dazzling essay in this issue on the leadership of Barack Obama.

Macfarlane lists 23 brainiacs, of which three (3) are female. To put that in perspective, there’s undoubtedly a better female to male ratio in the Oak Leaf Steam Baths.

I also like that the feature (The Other Porn Addiction: Why are ordinary women exposing themselves online?) is written by a dude. Call me crazy, but I thought Ariel Levy did a pretty job with the book Female Chauvinist Pigs. Levy, by the way, is now a staffer at the New Yorker, a magazine of ideas that includes many female writers. Just saying.


I Dream of Globe Focus & Books

"Genie back in the bottle" appears on page F7 and F9, used to describe free newspaper content and dual citizenship.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Jesse F. Keeler's Star Alliance Gold card remains a mystery to all

Thanks to the April 2009 issue of Toronto Life for that bit of trivia. Turn to page 85, where The List includes a scan of Keeler's elite aeroplan card, with the name and number quite visible.

Whoops! 678 912 345 is a fake number. Boy do I look silly now.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Kate “Fuck & Shit” Carraway

Full disclosure: I know Kate Carraway. She gave a great guest talk in one of my journalism classes last year. She’s ambitious, and writes well. She also swears like a longshoreperson. I’m no prude, but I find a little goes a long way. When swearing becomes a predictable tic or habit, it loses a lot of its power to shock or convey tone or style. But that’s just me.

In order to ensure it wasn’t my imagination, I decided to do some content analysis. My friend recently lent me a wide-screen Mac, which makes this kind of thing much faster and convenient. Anyway, as of Friday, Feb. 27, 2009, I found 68 articles written by Carraway on the eye weekly site. Of those, 29 include swearing. Decide for yourself:

* them and us
BY KATE CARRAWAY January 09, 2009 15:01
“the shunned and the shunning, the fucked and the fuckers,”

* 2008 media round-up
BY KATE CARRAWAY December 23, 2008 21:12
“You know who had a fucked-up year? Journalists.”

* A bah! on all your humbugs
BY KATE CARRAWAY December 17, 2008 21:12
“shit didn’t get shate on December 25th”

*A decade of adulthood
BY KATE CARRAWAY January 14, 2009 21:01
“A decade! Surely in a decade you’ve figured some shit out, got some shit done. Once I saw a talk show where the hot and possibly batshit Cameron Diaz”

* Aussie Rules for Canadians
BY KATE CARRAWAY September 11, 2008 13:09
“To an outsider, Aussie rules football is essentially a crazy-violent fucked-up version of rugby,”

* Bonfire of inanities
BY KATE CARRAWAY August 25, 2008 06:08
“Regularly shit on for its Rosedale-coloured glasses”
“It's shit, but fun.”
“Here, we don't value each other's social contribution enough to give half a shit,”

* CanCon 3-D!!!
BY KATE CARRAWAY January 14, 2009 21:01
“will already fuck with your head a little.”

* Duff day afternoon
BY KATE CARRAWAY December 01, 2008 15:12
“Today, the first of December, is not only a day of shitty half-rain made bleaker by the oppressive Mondayness of it all,”

* First past the post
BY KATE CARRAWAY January 28, 2009 20:01
“where anyone who knows anything doesn’t give a shit if you’re Jewish or Indian or whatever.”

* Freeconomics: how to live on $60 a week
BY KATE CARRAWAY January 07, 2009 21:01
“Dizzy shopaholics can fuck off:”
“It’s fucking gnarly.”
“It fucking sucked,” types itself before I think about it.
“Sick of apples and shitty protein bars,”

* Henry Rollins
BY KATE CARRAWAY October 22, 2008 12:10
“I ask Rollins, a committed feminist, what he thinks about the media shitstorm surrounding Sarah Palin.”

* Imperial Tattoo
BY KATE CARRAWAY September 26, 2008 16:09
“Going home on a packed Dufferin bus wearing a ludicrous, borrowed, children's raincoat, I accidentally dropped the splurgey Champagne on the downhill sloping bus floor and chased after it shouting "Shit! Shit!",”

* Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience
BY KATE CARRAWAY February 27, 2009 10:02
“(or maybe Kevin’s? Or Nick’s? I don’t fucking know)”

* Libraries need love
BY KATE CARRAWAY August 18, 2008 07:08
“Renewed, I stuck around to sneak-read some shitty magazines”

* Lustless love affairs
BY KATE CARRAWAY February 11, 2009 21:02
“the richness and radness of no-fucking friend-romances are usually undervalued,”
“Shit is not to be fucked with.”

* Mia's Munky business
BY KATE CARRAWAY December 02, 2008 17:12
“(you know, genocide and shit),”
“(Translation: "Fuck your face, Bolton.")”

* Nuit, Blanched
BY KATE CARRAWAY October 06, 2008 11:10
“It’s a smooshy clusterfuck,”
“Fuck “collective secular prayer,” for now.”
“which is loud as fuck and barred by security personnel”
“1:56: It’s fucking cold.”
“and get the fuck out of there.”
“and lose my shit.”

* Samantha Ronson holds Court
BY KATE CARRAWAY December 04, 2008 16:12
“after a too-long technical fuck-up that stalled her entrance.”

* Social hibernation
BY KATE CARRAWAY January 28, 2009 21:01
“But socialize, in the winter? Fuck it.”

* Taddle Creek tattler
BY KATE CARRAWAY October 24, 2008 13:10
“and several others that I haven't read yet because fuck, this just happened on Wednesday.”

* Ted Rogers' footprint
BY KATE CARRAWAY December 04, 2008 13:12
“Bloor Street's businessy clusterfuck,”

* The Yonge/Bloor disconnect
BY KATE CARRAWAY December 29, 2008 12:12
“north-east corner's pigeon shit-dotted concrete slab”
“where long blue construction fences have been fucking up car and foot traffic for months.”

* The art of Scarborough
BY KATE CARRAWAY December 12, 2008 14:12
“re-purposing our neighbourhood with pranks and fuckery”

* The bonfire rages on
BY KATE CARRAWAY November 03, 2008 16:11
“Modesty can fuck off, basically:”
“a few of my media-savvy friends gave me the “You’ve finally gone and fucked yourself” pity eyes.”
“not for an endlessly brutal, tail-swallowing clusterfuck.”

* The happy hoser
BY KATE CARRAWAY February 25, 2009 21:02
“Pro: Seamed hose are hot as fuck, but subtle.”

* The ladies who breakfast
BY KATE CARRAWAY September 15, 2008 13:09
“Sometimes, when our nights are full of stupid and distracting shit like work and family and relationships,”

* What a Drake it is getting older
BY KATE CARRAWAY February 11, 2009 13:02
“took hold of the city's give-a-shit classes.”
“has hosted a variety of usually shit-on artists and creators”

* What work means now
BY KATE CARRAWAY February 25, 2009 21:02
“and it’s Athenian, biblical, Shakespearean shit.”
“for coffee and cookies and shit-talk.”

* Style tips: Feb. 12
February 11, 2009 21:02
“For a holiday that’s tangentially about fucking,”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why I Think This Commercial Stinks

Occasionally one runs across a piece of analysis so sharp and absolutely correct that it never leaves your brain. This is such an example:

But That '70s Show and That '80s Show are different. Suddenly, you no longer have to remember an era in order to enjoy its revival.
It's ironic that we've chosen our own culture's most fleeting and disposable elements as the touchstones by which we memorialize past eras. For those who actually came of age in one of those decades, these elements endure because they're rooted in a deeper understanding of the time. For example, Wall Street's Gordon Gekko persists as an Eighties-era icon because the character's oversized greed seems emblematic of the decade's Zeitgeist.
On That '70s Show and That '80s Show, however, trends, hairstyles and catchphrases don't represent anything -- they are an end unto themselves. When someone drinks a Fresca on That '70s Show, it's meant to be funny not because Fresca symbolizes something, or even because the viewer might remember drinking Fresca himself. It's funny because, well, people drank Fresca in the Seventies. Get it? The reference alone is the set-up to the joke and the punchline, all rolled into one.
-- Adam Sternbergh, March 9, 2002, Saturday Post, emphasis mine

If you happen to agree with Adam, as I do, then every time you see something like this Virgin Air 25th Anniversary commercial you have a tidy explanation for why you feel so emotionally disinvested. The huge cellphone and the weird hair and the classic videogames in the Virgin ad aren’t even tired jokes – they’re not jokes at all. They’re establishing shots, setting the historical era, but little else. Maybe the ad isn’t supposed to be funny – maybe I’m misunderstanding the commercial. Maybe the brilliance is in its ability to flawlessly evoke the recent past, in the same pornographic exactitude that Mad Men trafficks in.

But if it is meant to be funny, it reminds me of the painfully endless number of advertisements each Christmas that use the inedible nature of fruitcake as a punchline. How many times can we be reasonably expected to laugh at a joke that is premised on the equation:

fruitcake = sucks

Three times in an entire lifespan? Tops?

What was so appealing about the British version of Life on Mars was how it tried to do something clever with the clash between present and the past. My favourite being this little exchange in Season 1, Episode 3:

"Why would anyone turn a factory into a block of flats?"

“It's supposed to look nice.”

"Factories should be factories. Houses should be houses. I mean things are built for a purpose. It's ridiculous."

Monday, February 02, 2009

And, the 2009 Toronto Book Award Should Go To … Girls Fall Down

This posting is meant to heap praise upon Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig. But first, a brief history lesson.

[L]et me describe some recent events in my neighbourhood. They're really incredible. One of the Italian restaurants on my favourite street of crowded Italian restaurants was bombed. The bomb didn't do much damage -- it went off outside, and so only blew the windows out.
There is much gossip about who or what this is all about, and I don't know what's true. [...] Whatever the case, something odd is going on. You'd think it would be rich material for storytellers.
Now here's my point: State, quickly, which Canadian novelist would be most likely to take on this milieu? Quick, now. Name a name. I cannot think of one who would be even interested in weaving fiction out of this event-filled environment. (Except me, of course, but I confess I haven't attempted the world of petty crime yet. I will try.) I can, however, think of a lot of readers who would read such stories.
-- Russell Smith, Dec 11, 2002 Globe column

[R]ussell Smith, the Globe & Mail columnist [...] Not a bad fella, but one who's prone to making some fairly ridiculous Torontocentric pronouncements from time to time.

To wit: After a bomb went off in an Italian restaurant on Toronto's College Street last December, Smith decried -- as he does every couple of months or so -- CanLit's failure to engage with the burning issues of the present day. He accused Canadian writers "of being so lofty-minded that they are unwilling to sully their hands with contact with the corrupt and superficial City." Why, Smith asked (mere days afterward, mind you), had no-one made use of this "overheated and violent and pretty great material? Quick, now. Name a name. I cannot think of one who would be even interested in weaving fiction out of this event-filled environment."

And then, stepping up to the plate, Smith wrote without irony, "Except me, of course, but I confess I haven't attempted the world of petty crime yet. I will try."
-- Noah Richler, Feb 13, 2003 NPost column

Why am I wasting your time with these two clowns, when my main point is to inform you of how blown away I was with Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig? An excellent question. Because while Noah and Russell were swinging dicks, Helwig quietly went off and utilized the raw material discussed above (that being the December 2002 explosion at Coco Lezzone):

On Monday night he was walking west on College, towards his apartment, with his hat pulled down to his eyebrows and his scarf over his nose, and then sirens were coming from all directions at once, and the street became a sea of red light, fire engines and ambulances and police cars all meeting at a point on the north side, a restaurant with a broken window.
Alex didn’t want to know what it was about but he was reaching into his camera bag nevertheless […] and he was packing his camera away when something came towards him out of the dark, shining and unpredictable, a fluttering thing, and before he knew what he was doing he had put out his hand and caught the string of a gold foil balloon in the shape of a star.

Then the whole cluster of balloons tied to the restaurant’s patio fence broke free and were swept up in the wind, into the bare branches of the overhanging trees, into the awnings along the street, a flock of golden stars reaching out of the damage. Alex stood in the street and held on to a string.
“A very miniscule bomb, though,” said Evelyn, poking at the casserole with a knife. “And of poor quality. Nobody was really hurt. They don’t have access to the good explosives at the low end of organized crime.”
-- from the superexcellent novel Girls Fall Down

And there, in microcosm, is a perfect illustration of gender relations: the men argue pointlessly while women actually get things done.

And, in this case, get it done much better than a man might have. Here’s Helwig on the Distillery District:

He stood with Susie in a long channel of mud, under the heavy brown-brick walls of the abandoned Victorian factories, slabs of wood laid over the wet dirt where there would someday be cobbled walkways. The sun came over the high buildings in shards of cold brightness, breaking out from a soft dense sky. It was a good day for light, slightly diffused through cloud, not too harsh.

Here and there, new businesses had already opened – a coffee shop, a microbrewery, a small art gallery. But most of the space was still inchoate, forming itself out of the memories of fallen industry, sweat and dust and darkness.

Here’s Andrew Pyper (The Killing Circle) on the same place:

Takes another turn into the grounds of the old Gooderham & Worts distillery. A few clustered blocks of Dickens’ London shoehorned between the expressway and condo construction sites. Long, Victorian brick barracks with smokestacks at their ends like exclamation points.

The past slows me down. It’s the cobblestone streets that turn anything faster than a walk into a tiptoed dance. During daylight hours, the doors on either side open into galleries and cafes, but they are locked now.

Yawn. Helwig’s version is so superior that further comment demeans us all.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about fictional representations of Toronto lately, and I read The Killing Circle to see how Pyper would bring Queen and Bathurst and Kensington Market to life. I found his attempts at conjuring place less than successful, whereas Helwig makes the landscape her own. Pyper wrote an article for the Star last year, explaining how magical, important and mysterious his neighbourhood (Queen and Bathurst) is, and why it was the perfect setting for a novel. But like a newlywed, Pyper seems to lack critical distance or perspective about his better half, and is thus unable to articulate the source of his passion for Toronto.

If Helwig doesn’t win the Toronto Book Award for Girls Fall Down, it will be a crime of a far greater magnitude than the homicides committed by the serial killer in The Killing Circle.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Biggeidea Now Available in Inconvenient Tweet Format

I'm giving Twitter a stab, but suspect I'm not the target audience for said service. (link). I'm listed as private, which can only hurt me.

Also, I'm not yet in the tumblr habit, so don't get all anxious about that particular information delivery system.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Take a Tumblr With Me

I'm going to move link-only material to tumblr as a time-saving move. Less analysis, but hopefully more updates on tumblr. Slightly longer and hopefully more thoughtful material will remain on this blog.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Dufferin subway shark cage attendant for being nice to me yesterday. That has to be an incredibly thankless job, and she was very courteous about the lack of one-week passes.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Peter’s Rules

I’ve written for Peter Scowen, both when he was at the National Post (Toronto Section), and at the Star (Sunday Ideas). I like him very much. However, I suspect his heart and soul is not in this video.

I also find his enunciation and delivery uncomfortably close to Steve Brule, of Brule’s Rules fame.

I’m not picking on him. I have a point here. I don’t think it’s right to expect that writers and editors should also be good at video. I’m certainly not brilliant in front of a camera. Either give newspaper people the right training, or don’t bother with a video at all. This messy middle option is no good for anyone.

I hope the Globe’s new fancy online books section works out, although I can’t say the Globe’s website has ever appealed to me. Anyone remember the good old days when the Globe’s site would crash if you tried to load it on a Mac?


Excuse me while I reminisce about my iMac and 56K dial-up days.

Attention Detail Good

I got a subscription to Fast Company last year. Having now spent some time with the magazine, my review is: okay at best. Wired at its worst is more compelling than Fast Company at top speed. (Charles Fishman’s articles for FC are nothing short of brilliant, however.)

What signals to me that the magazine is not about innovation and risk-taking is the title of a recent “Made to Stick” column by two trendologists. The column is about slogans. The title of the piece is “Kill the Slogans Dead.”

What an uncreative, wimpy, focused-group splash of dishwater. The Raid slogan, as you might remember, is “Kills Bugs Dead.” Apparently this is ungrammatical, but so is “Think Different.”

If words are your business, have the bravery to write Kill Slogans Dead. That “the” sounds to me like every out-of-touch oldster who says “I love The Pavements new album.” Removing “the” says your readership is smart. Inserting it says you’re as tone-deaf as the companies that sloganeer unnecessarily, as per the column complaint itself.


I'll Show You the Life of the MindTube

In his December 24, 2007 New Yorker article Twilight of the Books, Caleb Crain (an N+1er) wrote something that has stuck with me:

It is easy to notice inconsistencies in two written accounts placed side by side. With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information. The trust that a reader grants to the New York Times, for example, may vary sentence by sentence. A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching. Like the peasants studied by Luria, he thinks in terms of situations and story lines rather than abstractions.


I haven’t had time to think of a counter-argument to this, but it feels as though Clive Thompson touches on this problem in his January 2009 Wired column on YouTube:

A bigger leap will occur when we get better tools for archiving and searching video. Then we'll start using it the way we use paper or word processing: to take notes or mull over a problem, like Tom Cruise flipping through scenes at the beginning of Minority Report. We think of video as a way to communicate with others—but it's becoming a way to communicate with ourselves.


I’m not sure if he’s completely right, but my hope is that if students now entering university are less inclined to read, their fluency in other mediums will compensate for this to a certain degree. I’d like to see a compelling argument that says certain modes of thought that we associate with reading might be able to reproduced through video. I’m not entirely convinced of this (for example, I consider Everything Bad is Good for You pure shite) but being optimistic about YouThink is more helpful than my preset of ‘the world is dumbifying.’

Zut!! Frites Alor!!

A moment of pity and compassion for poor Joanne Kates, who has suffered terribly from tuber-culosis, two weeks in a row. Who knew that being a restaurant critic could be so debilitating? I hope she’s able to overcome these two potato-related traumas and find a way, somehow, to continue eating $150 dinners for two.

Jan 10, 2009: “House frites are fab - sweet, crisp and fresh - but no mayo is proffered for dipping.”

Jan 3, 2009: “If so, the AGO had better hope for a lot of tourist trade. Perhaps they will not notice how dry and bland are the salt cod fritters, or that the frites with the mussels are overcooked and somewhat hard.”

(Both quotes from the respective Saturday Globe and Mails).