Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reprint of Graham Rawle Profile (author of collage novel Woman's World)

Using disconnection to invent meaning
Using 40,000 text fragments from women's magazines, British artist Graham Rawle challenges the conventions of the novel
March 16, 2008 | RYAN BIGGE | Toronto Star

Intellectual property, a term that barely existed 35 years ago, along with peer-to-peer file-sharing have become flashpoints in the debate around the nature of ideas and innovations in the 21st century.Time magazine’s selection of “You” (a reference to the people behind user-generated content on the Internet) as their Person of the Year (2006) may be viewed as the tipping point of Internet participation. Blogs and podcasting are challenging traditional media and information-delivery models. Time magazine’s decision to spotlight the participatory Internet leaves little doubt that the issue has moved from the edges of cyberspace into the mainstream. But in order to create new works, artists need to build upon works from the past. And according to representatives from the Canadian publishing, music, television and film industries, Canada is far too lenient when it comes to protecting the intellectual property of its artists.

Let’s stop right there. Notice anything strange or curious about the opening paragraph? Not so much the groovy colours, but the sentiments expressed by the text? You would if you were Toronto Star reporters and contributors Chris Young, Michael Geist, James Motluk or Brett Popplewell. Because the above paragraph is not my own. The first and third sentences belong to a May 22, 2005 article about fair use and creative expression by Young. The second and fourth sentences come from Geist’s Jan. 8, 2007 column about copyright legislation. The fifth sentence is from Motluk’s Jan. 2, 2008 article about free of expression and corporate trademarks. And the final sentence is courtesy of Popplewell, who wrote about Canadian laxity toward piracy on Jan. 25 of this year.

The Toronto Star's digital archives, plus a bit of nip and tuck, allowed me to graft together a reasonably coherent paragraph about intellectual property and its relation to Web 2.0. Now, try to imagine writing an entire novel in this fashion, by physically cutting and pasting words and phrases taken from more than 1,000 British women's magazines of the early 1960s. British artist Graham Rawle did exactly that. The result is Woman's World, a full-length novel consisting of 40,000 text fragments.

Rawle began by writing a rough draft of Woman's World in the traditional way, using computer and keyboard. At the same time, he started collecting bits of text from his collection of magazines, organizing them by theme into a large, numbered scrapbook. He then transcribed the magazine text into the computer, tagging each sentence with the appropriate scrapbook page number. A million words later, Rawle had an electronic database to work from.

Next, he began to replace his own words with approximate matches from his found-text database, a few words at a time, changing tenses and swapping "she" for "I." Once his story had been overwritten by the magazine text, he gave the resulting manuscript to his publisher for editing to ensure the novel held its own. "If the story doesn't work, then it is the most spectacular waste of time known to man," he explains from his studio in London, England. "It's like you've built the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks."

After editing, Rawle started pasting together the book, using the page-number tags imbedded in his word-processed version of the novel as a kind of map to help retrieve the fragments of text stored in his scrapbook.

From start to finish, Woman's World took five years, including 18 months of paste-up, each page requiring three days. While laborious, this final stage was, Rawle found, the most rewarding; he likened it to knitting. Since every word had already been decided upon, he was merely eking his way toward The End, one tiny piece of paper at a time.

"THE WHOLE POINT of doing this, I think, is that you have to be more inventive in the way that you construct a sentence," explains Rawle, 52. "You put two seemingly unrelated sentences together and they come together to say something completely new, something that neither of those sentences had intended to say originally."

Rawle, a graphic designer and artist who teaches at the University of Brighton, admits that the constraints he imposed on the creation of Woman's World forced him to be more creative and inventive with language.

At the same time, he had to avoid the temptation of relying too heavily on the curious language of the recent past.

This is not the first time Rawle has incorporated magazine text into his prose. His previous book, Diary of an Amateur Photographer, is a murder-mystery that includes fragments of found text to supplement the musings of a slightly crazy fellow. In putting together Diary, Rawle started to wonder if it was possible to write an entire book from magazine text.

Divided into 23 short chapters, Woman's World catalogues the adventures of fashion-obsessed Norma Little and her delivery-truck driving brother, Roy. Rawle recombines bits of advertising text, fashion advice, and housekeeping tips into a charming and suspenseful tale involving a job interview, a burgeoning romance, a creepy photographer, and a nosy neighbour.

(Spoiler alert!)

Eventually, it is revealed that Norma and Roy are the same person, and Roy struggles to suppress his transvestite tendencies in order to woo the girl of his dreams.

Part of the reason for using the language of woman's magazines is that protagonist Roy is trying to find a female voice for his alter ego Norma. As Rawle points out, a transvestite living in suburban England in 1962 would otherwise find it difficult to discover how to cross his legs demurely or properly apply lipstick.

"But when you look at women's magazines from the time, they're pretty much a how-to manual for cross-dressing men."

While the novel's narrative arc is relatively smooth, the words on the page are the visual equivalent of jazz, resembling fridge-magnet poetry or an old ransom note. Font types and sizes, along with upper and lower cases, swap every few words, creating a herky-jerky rhythm and tone, akin to listening to an audio book that switches narrators and volume every couple of seconds.

The novel echoes the famous 1956 collage "Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?" by British artists Richard Hamilton, John McHale and John Voelcker. "So Different" features a male bodybuilder clutching an enormous Tootsie Pop, while a burlesque dancer in a lampshade vamps before a coffee table with a large tin of ham on it.

Collage, with its unexpected juxtapositions, was, in the words of the 19th century French writer Lautréamont, "Beautiful like the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table." It has been a dominant motif of 20th century art, playing a central role in avant-garde movements such as Dada and Surrealism. As Low Life author Luc Sante writes on his blog, Pinakothek, collage "was a symbolic enactment of revolution: taking apart the detritus of the old order and refashioning the pieces into constituent elements of the new."

But since the 1990s, our digital culture of remix and Photoshop has inured us to the revolutionary potential of cut and paste. The result is what Sante calls "denatured surrealism." It's now more difficult to explain why the umbrella and the sewing machine don't belong together than the inverse.

Literary collage, revolutionary or not, is rarer. In the 1960s, William S. Burroughs experimented with cut-ups, which involved taking paragraphs or chunks of his work (and others) and rearranging his thoughts at random. In 1966, inspired by Burroughs, British artist Tom Phillips spent four years re-writing W.H. Mallock's 1892 novel, A Human Document, scratching out words in the original book with a pen and painting imagery to create a new text he called A Humument. Since then, Phillips has continued to rework the book, adding new layers of text and image.

During the 1990s, oddball actor Crispin Glover published Oak Mot and Concrete Inspection, books that reworked texts from the 1800s with overlaid ink drawings and new words.

More recently, Montreal comic-strip artist Julie Doucet has incorporated the occasional word or phrase taken from newspapers or magazines into 365 Days, her frenetic visual diary, which was released late last year. The cover of her book has the title arranged in newsprint letters and, as she writes beside it, "I have spent hours trying to find a 3 that would fit with my 6 and my 5. No joke."

While Rawle's cut-and-paste aesthetic makes reference to artistic strategies of the early 20th century, his work also reminds us of just what it is that makes today's fiction so postmodern, so appealing (or, perhaps for some, so unappealing).

WITH ITS BORROWED language, Woman's World makes literal the arguments of literary theorist Roland Barthes' influential 1967 essay "The Death of the Author." He argues that every piece of writing, or text, is a palimpsest of hidden influences, drawing inspiration from a variety of cultures, slang, modes and styles of writing.

That the author of a novel appears to create a seamless and unified voice is, for Barthes, a fiction in itself. As he writes, "The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture."

To be clear, Barthes is not accusing all authors of being plagiarists, but instead suggesting that an author cannot dictate or assume a fixed, singular meaning or interpretation of their text by readers.

While we're on the topic, I should admit that using a plagiarized paragraph to make a point about cut-and-paste culture is, well, also a kind of plagiarism. Last year in the February issue of Harper's, novelist Jonathan Lethem published "The Ecstasy of Influence," an essay that weaved together the writing of David Foster Wallace, William Gibson and Lawrence Lessig, among many others, to argue against the restrictive aspects of intellectual property enforcement.

Lethem even admits that he is not the first to redeploy the quotations of others to create a collage text, citing Walter Benjamin's unfinished The Arcades Project, the collage-novel Kex by Eduardo Paolozzi, and the essays of David Shields.

Rawle's next project is a coffee-table edition of The Wizard of Oz, featuring L. Frank Baum's original text from 1900, and illustrated with pictures of miniature sets populated by old toys and dolls.

Meanwhile, he's waiting patiently for Woman's World to appear on the big screen. Optioned by Columbia (his book was published in Britain in 2005 but is only now appearing in North America), a script is in the works, with Jean Doumanian (a former executive producer for Woody Allen) as co-producer.

No word yet if the film will be cobbled together from existing bits of film stock.

(Woman's World excerpts courtesy Graham Rawle)

Graham Rawle's website
Richard Hamilton at the Metropolitan Museum

Graham Rawle's cut-and-paste novel Woman's World includes phrases from more than 1,000 British women's magazines of the early 1960s. As a result, the book is full of colourful metaphors and similes, along with anachronisms, new idioms, and the plain, old weird, including:

  • "With my heart racing like a little boy in a sack race."

  • "My voice a light and airy soufflé, straight from the oven."

  • "Red rage rose within me like mercury in a toffee thermometer and I knew I had to leave before I reached the boiling point for fudge."

  • "Roy nodded encouragingly, though his concentration had drifted out to sea in a small dinghy."

  • "His words had flung open the French windows of my mind and forced me to step out on to the balcony of indiscretion."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thinking of Being a Snotty Bartender? Not Tonight My Man.

“Let me tell you something. This right here isn’t about researching your next role. It’s a job. In fact, we’re paying you. And I’m gonna tell you something else. It’s proactive. Customers don’t come to a bar for the drinks, they come for the bartender. Any bartender worth a shit knows this, but you, you stand there, got a one-word answer for everything: huh, uh, duh, yes, no, maybe. You make people feel like losers, like they’re your punishment from a jealous God or something. I swear, Cleveland?” Nodding to the Rastahead at the far end now. “The guy makes a martini like he’s got hooks for hands, but he’s twice the bartender you are because he works it. Everybody’s a regular with that guy, and he never stops moving, never comes off like this gig is some demeaning station of the cross on his way to the Obies. I mean, watching the two of you back here tonight? It’s like a blur and a boulder. And to be honest, right now even with the traffic the way it is, I’d rather cash you out on the spot, have him work a solo, or draft one of the waiters or even come back there myself than let you pull this ‘I’d rather be in rehearsals’ crap ten more minutes, you hear me?”

"Yeah." The guy had gone pale.

-- From Lush Life by Richard Price

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Less Than Kind is More Than Awesome

This really says it all. It's from the finalists list of WGC Screenwriting Awards for 2009:

Episodic half-hour

Less Than Kind "The Daters." Written by Garry Campbell

Less Than Kind "Fun." Written by Jenn Engels

Less Than Kind "Happy Birthday Sheldon." Written by Marvin Kaye & Chris Sheasgreen

Less Than Kind "Careers Day." Written by Mark McKinney

Corner Gas "Shirt Disturber." Written by Kevin White & Norm Hiscock


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reprinted Review of American Photobooth by Näkki Goranin

A picture and a thousand words
They kissed, and kissed again. How in the public-private space of the automated photo booth we let our guard down, and got a truer picture of ourselves
March 30, 2008 | RYAN BIGGE | Toronto Star

If a picture is equivalent to 1,000 words, then dividing this strip of four photobooth images into 250 words apiece is too tempting to resist. Starting at the top, we see a couple looking at each other, instead of the camera lens. This polyptych is taken from historical photo collector Näkki Goranin's new book, American Photobooth, and like the other little squares of humanity that comprise her collection, this couple is anonymous, the photo undated.

More is known, however, about the history of the machine that took this couple's picture. The first photobooth, known as the Photomaton, cost 25 cents to use when it debuted in September 1925 in Manhattan (at 1659 Broadway, to be precise). Invented by Anatol Josepho, a charismatic photographer from Siberia, it produced eight images (in eight minutes) instead of the four seen here.

Less than two years later, in March of 1927 at the age of 33, Josepho received a million dollars for the North American patent rights to his Photomaton from a group of businessmen led by American Red Cross co-founder Henry Morgenthau. Since Josepho's Broadway location drew crowds of up to 7,500 per day, the payout was a savvy one, and soon the Photomaton spread across America. As the December 1927 issue of Photo Era magazine reported, "You need no longer be dull in Boston if you have twenty-five cents and a face. Go to the new Photomaton, in Filene's Basement, some noon and see how romance and adventure have been injected into the hitherto grim business of having your pictures made."

Not only did the Photomaton eliminate the stilted tableau of formal portrait sitting, its flimsy curtain and corresponding privacy encouraged adventures of a romantic nature. Which helps explain the intimate, passionate kiss seen in the second square. Given the couple's boldness, it is likely that this image was taken after 1934, the year the attendant-free Photomatic first appeared, a gorgeous, art deco-style booth that was sleeker than the original Photomaton.

Previous to the Photomatic, white-gloved assistants were required for maintenance and crowd control. As Photo Era's reporter described it, "From twelve to one is the busiest time for the Photomaton. Then the attendants at the three booths become automatons, herding the prospects in one line with one hand, guiding the immediate sitter with another, while muttering directions to both."

As these attendants disappeared, so too did certain inhibitions and restraint. Without a human photographer or attendant as witness, the mechanized procedure of the coin-in-the-slot photobooth allowed people to challenge (or at least tweak) the conventions of traditional portraiture.

"Just picture yourself!" was the Photomaton's slogan and, safe in the dark, private displays of affection could be preserved for posterity.

Of course, the freedom of the booth was fragile, since these machines were almost always located in public settings such as department stores or train stations. At the same time, this probably added a frisson of danger and excitement.

The couple remains lip-locked in panel three. As we wait for them to run out of air or film, it might be a good time to mention a more recent incarnation of the photobooth. In February of this year, condom company LifeStyles introduced the Makeout Booth, a promotional photobooth that toured a dozen Manhattan hotspots and dispensed both black-and-white photographs and condoms.

The intent of the promotion was only to foreshadow the evening's possibilities, rather than promote immediate incitation. As LifeStyles spokeswoman Carol Carrozza told New York's Daily News in January of this year, "We don't mind a little snuggling and that kind of thing, but there won't be too much more going on right there."

LifesStyles is hardly the first to realize the booth's erotic potential. As Goranin writes in American Photobooth, during the mid-1950s, the Auto-Photo Company started receiving complaints that "people, especially women, were stripping off their clothes for the private photobooth camera." Many Woolworths stores soon removed the booth curtains to ensure that patrons kept the proceedings G-Rated.

Lest you think Goranin is peddling smut, numerous images in American Photobooth feature lone sitters, haunting the mechanical eye with their solitary gaze. As David Haberstich, an associate curator at the National Museum of American History, notes in the foreword, "Many images in this book portray the loneliness of solitary figures, testimonies to the human condition, preserving sad moments, in fleeting or permanent features. Some of the grimmest are the most memorable, the most strangely beautiful."
The final image. The couple faces the camera. Giddy. Triumphant.

Perhaps the couple planned their poses beforehand, in the process creating a flip-book movie with only four frames. Boy meets girl, they kiss, they kiss again, and acknowledge the camera. The end. Roll credits.

The photobooth is as much about ritual and process as result, which helps explain why these machines have survived into the 21st century, where they remain surprisingly popular. (For a North American booth locator, visit The photobooth is iconic if no longer ubiquitous, immortalized in films such as Amélie and books such as Beautiful Losers, in which Leonard Cohen describes the Main Shooting and Game Alley on Montreal's St. Lawrence Blvd.: "The Photomat was broken; it accepted quarters but returned neither flashes nor pictures."

Although the photobooth endures, the images it produces are often considered temporary, a disposable record of passing whims, fashions, moods or paramours. While it is advertised as a device that converts coins into small, portable, low-resolution memories, Goranin wants us to think of it instead as an art machine, deserving of its own coffee-table book.

American Photobooth preserves another example of vernacular art, suggesting that informal imagery can often tell us more than the work of professional photographers. Through these self-portraits, we picture ourselves – perhaps our true selves – four at a time.

(Picture courtesy of AMERICAN PHOTOBOOTH)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Reprinted Review of Phonesex by Philip Toledano

A Picture and a Thousand Words
In an era of DVDs and Web cams, phone sex is regarded by some as an endangered species of erotica. Now, a new book looks at the faces and forms behind the disembodied voices at the other end of the line
November 30, 2008 | RYAN BIGGE | Toronto Star


This is Emma. Or perhaps Jean, Stephanie, Trixie, Ashley, Lindsey or Victoria. It depends on her mood – or more realistically, the mood Emma's gentleman caller is in.

If this were a movie review, here is where the Spoiler Alert would appear. Because this woman is a phone-sex operator, one of 30 or so men and women documented in photographer Phillip Toledano's new book, Phonesex. Some are zaftig like Emma, others thin; some are men who talk dirty to women, or lesbians who hot-talk to straight men. They might differ in shape or age or sexual orientation, but they all earn a living one breathy minute at a time.

Toledano's choice of subject matter requires the viewer to confront the disjunction between fantasy and reality, or what he calls "a contract of mutual self-delusion." At the same time, Phonesex preserves what many would consider an endangered species of erotica. Radio used to be described as "the theatre of the mind," back before television and the talking picture came along and ruined everything. Today we live in an explicit era in which gaining access to an X-rated theatre requires neither mind nor imagination, thanks to triple-X DVDs and peek-a-boo webcams.

Yet phone sex persists, with numerous ads populating another antiquarian medium, the porno mag. And its successful deployment still relies on techniques from the old radio dramas of yesteryear. A gentleman in Toledano's book explains the art of phone-sex SFX, including "knocking a chair against the table" (to simulate a bed rocking) and eating a peach (to simulate, um, well, you get the idea).

Emma, in the brief statement that accompanies her portrait, echoes this sense of artistry, calling her work "painting that picture in their mind for them."

Related to the tension between fantasy and reality is the barrier between public and private. In a recent article in The New York Times about Manhattan's Hustler Club, Alan Feuer observes that, "In any act of fantasy – from a feature film to a political campaign – there is a hidden place where the dirty work gets done, where the make-believe is made." While gaining behind-the-scenes access to anything magical or mysterious will invariably tarnish it, our curiosity still overwhelms and compels us.

The irony around the demystification of phone sex is that although these men and women talk constantly, we know almost nothing about them. Spouting very hot air on command requires a mixture of empathy ("You have to be an all-around counsellor"), altruism ("I try to heal the wounds that our closed-minded society inflicts") and pedagogy ("I feel like I teach them how to please themselves").

One woman compares her first few sessions to dating jitters: "Fixing my clothes whenever I got a call, spraying perfume on myself and applying lip gloss every five minutes."

A phone-sex operator wearing lip gloss might sound strange, but that's plain vanilla ice-cream in a drab white bowl in comparison to the fantasies they are asked to fulfill.

"There was a guy who wanted to be my puppy," notes one woman, who complains that creating an hour's worth of dog-related mind theatre is even more difficult than it sounds.

Perhaps such requests help explain why phone sex persists. Despite the nichification of pornography, it is somewhat exciting (and horrifying) to realize that there are still fetishes so rare as to be unremunerative in visual formats. It's a tidy inversion of the classic Penthouse Forum letter cliché. Instead of, "I couldn't believe it was happening to me," puppy guy prompts the response, "I can't believe you would want that to happen to you."

But rather than focus on the contents of our twisted desires, we should instead consider why our capacity for fantasy exists at all. For his recent book Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head?, British psychotherapist Brett Kahr oversaw 23,000 anonymous questionnaires and conducted a significant number of one-on-one interview sessions as part of his seminal Sexual Fantasy Research Project. His conclusion? "I cannot identify a so-called `normal' fantasy."

Or, as one of his anonymous respondents put it, when commenting on their own favourite scenario, "It's a pretty sick one, but I'm sure you've had worse."

Kahr's most intriguing explanation for the existence of sexual fantasies is that they are "extensions of our capacity for creativity, the very imaginal creativity that assists novelists in developing convoluted plots, painters in conceiving new art works, composers in crafting new melodies and harmonies."

A 60-year-old woman captured in Phonesex would no doubt agree. "I'm Scheherazade," she explains. "If I don't tell stories that fascinate the pasha, he will kill me in the morning."

Normality and creativity aside, certain fantasies in Kahr's book are so perverse and discomfiting that their owners are tempted to seek professional help. But after reading case studies in which Kahr details the numbing psychoanalytic detective work required to uncover the unconscious roots of our repressed desires, most would be forgiven for choosing a 976 number over 50 minutes on the couch. Talking cure indeed.

But the 976 solution, alas, is a temporary one, and hundreds of years of human history suggest that fantasies more often control us than vice-versa. (See, for example, Messrs. Spitzer and Clinton.) In the introduction to his book The Plague of Fantasies, critical theorist Slavoj Žižek refers to 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch (from whom the book's title is derived), as he describes "images which blur one's clear reasoning."

For Emma, at least, the reasons for enabling the fantasies of others is that she is able to augment not only her bank account but also her self-esteem. Adds another woman, "Let's just say I have found myself and my sexuality through this."

If the standard critique of pornography is that it objectifies women, then phone sex serves to disembody the operator altogether. In putting a face to the voice, Toledano provides glimpses into the personalities of men and women who are constantly asked to be someone they are not.


It's Marche. Just Cut and Paste His Name to Ensure Correct Spelling


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Your Red Tape is Double-Sided

Here is the City of Toronto trying to ruin something awesome, in this case Dufferin Grove Park, yet again:

Lines of communication are strictly laid down. The recreation supervisor is told to stop working with his on-site rink staff directly. On-site staff are told to work only with the “recreation programmer.” If rink users ask the rink staff when the zamboni crew is coming to resurface the ice, rink staff are not allowed to ask the crew directly -- they must call the Recreation Programmer, who calls the Recreation Supervisor, who calls the Parks Supervisor, who calls the Zamboni Foreperson, who radios the crew and then calls the Parks Supervisor back, who calls the Recreation Supervisor, who calls the Recreation Programmer, who calls the rink staff. Yes, really. Every time.

Beyond the fact that anyone with eyes can appreciate how great the park is, property values in the surrounding park area have dramatically risen because the park is great. So anyone who tries to mess with Dufferin Grove will have to contend with both concerned citizens and concerned homeowners. And in this city, you don't want to mess with the homeowners.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Reader Request: Old Marketing Magazine Column

I received a DM from @sillpillow wondering if I could re-post the following article. Here it is.

The incredible moreness of everything
When too much product novelty damages product credibility
Marketing Magazine | September 23, 2002 | Ryan Bigge

With the thirsty days of summer now over, it's time to assess the latest cola war skirmish. According to a survey, Vanilla Coke is doing slightly better than Pepsi Blue. One anonymous wag asked, "...can anyone tell me the appeal of a beverage that looks like Windex?" Ouch. The victor isn't doing much better: "It was quite delicious as the vanilla removes the battery-acid flavour regular Coke has."

This battle is ultimately meaningless, but the trend it illustrates isn't. In a Harper's essay published in April titled "The Numbing of the American Mind," Thomas de Zengotita wrote about the side effects of too much of a good thing. "The moreness of everything ascends inevitably to a threshold in psychic life. A change of state takes place," he argues. "The discrete display melts into a pudding, and the mind is forced to certain adaptations if it is to cohere at all."

We have developed a psychological immunity to excess stimuli, argues Zengotita, and thus we surf from moment to moment, product to product, without pause or reflection. We have to–supermarkets have twice as many SKUs (stock-keeping units) as 1985. The number of produce items has gone from 65 in 1975 to over 250. Magazine shelves groan with niche titles. Et cetera, etc.

But is this orgy of consumer fetishism actually satisfying? Yes and no. Back in 1975, Steve Sanger (now CEO of General Mills) was in charge of Lucky Charms cereal. He introduced a blue diamond-shaped marshmallow. Sales increased noticeably. The same trick worked again in 1984, with purple horseshoes. He later did likewise with Cheerios, introducing apple cinnamon and honey nut options.

Why did the death of cereal monogamy work so well? The answer might be found in the Coolidge Effect, which refers to a reduction in the sexual refractory period of the male when a new mating partner is introduced. According to an apocryphal story, President Calvin Coolidge was visiting an egg farm with his wife, Grace, in the 1920s. Taken on separate tours, Grace learned that roosters procreate dozens of times daily. "Please tell that to the President," she said to her guide. When the President received his wife's message he asked, "Same hen every time?" The answer was no. "Please tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," he replied.

The Coolidge Effect can be quite powerful. Male rats will copulate to the point of exhaustion (sometimes even death) if supplied with enough new female rats. But the consumer equivalent of the Coolidge effect most commonly results in what author Douglas Coupland calls Option Paralysis: "The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none."

Even selecting ketchup–until recently a fusty but reliable condiment–is now as numbing a decision as toothpaste selection. Heinz now offers Roasted Garlic, Hot & Spicy and Sweet Basil & Oregano flavoured ketchup, plus an organic version. That's in addition to "Blastin' Green" and "Funky Purple" coloured Ketchup in an E-Zee Squirt bottle. Once the only choice regarding ketchup was family or regular size. Soon, there will be 57 Keinz of ketchup, including tartar control, fluoride and mint varieties.

Buried within the seemingly innocuous ketchup experimentation is the more damaging trend of blurring product definitions. There is already a red-coloured sauce that is Hot & Spicy and made by Heinz. It's called BBQ sauce.

Heinz isn't messing around with something as arcane as sub-brands, flanker brands or sidekick brands. Rather, it is trying to turn a food staple into an impulse item. Potato chips? Sure. Candy bars? Of course. Perhaps even salad dressing can fit within the umbrella of impulse. But after 126 years of loyal service, ketchup is as much a staple as flour or sugar. In attempting to make ketchup into something it is not, Heinz risks brand stability and customer loyalty.

Sometimes shoppers like things that are plain and puritan. Not every product has to tart itself up to encourage a tryst with our cupboards. Customer loyalty can often be maintained through product stability. It's the difference between the comforts of marriage versus the fleeting pleasure of one-night stands.

My solution, however, is to encourage, not discourage, product propagation. For once, I plan to profit from increased confusion by opening a supermarket called Sputnik. In my Cold War, Soviet-style shopping environment, I will offer only one brand of each item. Of course, it was the lack of consumer durables and sundries that contributed to the collapse of Communism. But it turns out that the free market isn't problem-free either.

Thoughts on The Non-Private Person

Openness is becoming the default social norm
Toronto Star | February 14, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

If you're curious, and you have $20, you can now pre-order a copy of the 2009 Felton Annual Report. When published next month, this limited-edition, 16-page dossier will reveal, among other things, that last year New York graphic designer Nicholas Felton consumed 12 different types of nuts (including pistachio), 65 different vegetables (including dandelion) and 50 flavours of beer (including Red Stripe).

Felton has been crunching and graphing his personal data into whimsical reports for the past five years, promoting his design skills and making oversharing aesthetically pleasing. But these reports also mean that Felton, at least according to writer and transsexual activist Andrea James, is a "non-private person."

If the phrase "non-private person" sounds like a sinister sci-fi label for an undesirable category of extra-terrestrial, you're half right. In a Jan. 6 guest post on, James argued that "The reason Kim Kardashian and the Jersey Shore denizens have risen to positions of prominence in popular culture is because they each epitomize the non-private person. They have nothing to hide, so nothing that becomes public knowledge can hurt them."

There's nothing particularly wrong with being a non-private person (although calling yourself "The Situation" is downright silly) provided you avoid private people. Or vice-versa. James suggests that the previously private Tiger Woods was caught cheating on his wife because he began consorting with non-private people. Adam Giambrone, meanwhile, discovered that a seemingly private person can be convinced to go public given the wrong mix of deceit and heartbreak.

Giambrone might take some solace knowing that secrecy and decorum won't be a problem for much longer. As Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg noted in early January, "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people." Zuckerberg claims that being public, not private, is the new social norm – although even he adjusted his settings last December after Gawker published personal photographs taken from his Facebook page.

Zuckerberg's punishment didn't end with the world being able to see him hug his favourite teddy bear. In mid-January, social media researcher danah boyd responded to Zuckerberg's comments on her blog, arguing that "Privacy isn't a technological binary that you turn off and on. Privacy is about having control of a situation."

(In the spirit of non-privacy, I should mention that I met boyd briefly at an NYU conference in the fall of 2006. We both spoke on a panel about social networks. Afterwards, out by the snack table, she said, "You rock." To which I replied, "No, you rock." Such is the heady discourse of young academics.)

Boyd also chastised Zuckerberg for failing to understand the power, privilege and "huge social costs" involved in living one's life in public. She also noted that "No one makes money off of creating private communities in an era of `free.' It's in Facebook's economic interest to force people into being public, even if a few people break up with Facebook in the process." Or, to put it another way, Zuckerberg's approach to profit and privacy does not "rock."

Andrea James also picked up on the financial aspects of privacy in her post, isolating a dichotomy between "privacy as a commodity, vs. privacy as a right." For Felton and his annual report, the divulging of his private life is a literal commodity, albeit a manageable and humorous one. Reality TV stars like Jon Gosselin or octomom Nadya Suleman rent access to their private lives in exchange for fame and money, selling a bit of themselves each episode.

There is no guarantee, however, that becoming a non-private person will be financially remunerative. Toronto's Raymi the Minx (aka Lauren White) has spent the past nine years blogging her every move without quite becoming a household name. But the moment Raymi stopped being public by failing to mention the dissolution of her engagement, The Globe and Mail wrote an article about her sudden silence.

As part of a guest lecture at Ryerson last fall (the spoils of fame for a Canadian blogger) Raymi answered students' questions. "I reserve the right for my own privacy when the time calls for it," she said in a quasi-transcript she posted online. "People are always expecting more and more and then they call you a [expletive deleted] narcissist once you acquiesce. You just can't win, basically."

The inverse of the commodification of privacy is also true. Which might explain why Eliot Spitzer spent $4,300 for a prostitute, instead of a more recession-friendly $100.

"I'm no sex-trade expert, but surely the sex couldn't be 43 times better," wrote Rob Horning on his blog Marginal Utility back in March of 2008. "Spitzer had to pay an extreme amount to ensure the prostitute's silence and trustworthiness. Sort of the same reason umpires make a lot of money, to discourage them from fixing games."

Given his recent admission that he had multiple affairs, Giambrone might want to wait a year and release a tell-all 2010 Annual Report. I suspect he'll sell more than the 2,000 copies Felton offers each year.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Photo Caption That .1% of Toronto Life Readers Will Get

Yes, sure, Kool Thing was somehow smuggled into Guitar Hero III. And Goo was released on a major label. But they're not exactly The Eagles. How many people who subscribe to Toronto Life will get the reference to the Sonic Youth lyric seen below? Less than 20?


Monday, February 08, 2010

A Crowd-Sourced Book Review

Andrew Pyper uses Facebook to write a tidy chunk of his February 6 review of the new DeLillo:

Until about a week ago, I figured Facebook was good for little more than checking out how your high-school sweetheart is looking these days, being “poked” by near-strangers and convenient (if useless) one-click political protests. And then I came across a colleague's status update alerting his friends to the publication of Point Omega, Don DeLillo's new novel. The comments this announcement attracted were (unlike those relating to, say, the werewolf kid's abs in New Moon) thoughtful, respectfully contentious and, based on the publisher's description of the book, a little anxious.

The concern was based on the trend, over the past decade or so, of DeLillo producing increasingly static fictions, stories free of story, in which characters are stuck: stuck in revisited death (The Body Artist), stuck in traffic (Cosmopolis), stuck in midair (Falling Man). Some commenters speculated that 9/11 had stolen DeLillo's ability to look ahead, the point of view of his arguably greatest works (Ratner's Star, Underworld). Others wondered if the author's decision to populate his recent books with conceptual-artist main characters was showing where he wanted to go: less action and more theory.

For me, the worry was that DeLillo, one of the finest sentence-makers of the past half-century, had given up on being a novelist altogether to become an art curator. Far worse, he had started writing like an art curator.

From this Facebook pregame warm-up, I opened Point Omega to be immediately met by a discouraging scene: people entering the “cold dark space” of an art gallery to take a look at a work of conceptual art and then walking away moments later, unmoved.

Sure wish we could get a peek at the debate he refers to:

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Slacker Article: Insert Pavement Lyrics Here

How we fell out of love with slacking
Poor George Robitaille. Fifteen years ago, the sleepy TTC ticket-taker would have been embraced by Gen X
Sat Feb 06 2010 | Ryan Bigge | Special to the Star

At the risk of sounding like a cranky, aging Gen-Xer, whatever happened to taking pride in not doing your job? These kids today, with their optimism and ambition, make me sick. As journalist Katrina Onstad noted in a May 2009 Toronto Life article about the surfeit of confidence Millennials have exuded during the economic downturn, "Generation X's expectations out of university ranged from low to zilch, and we were right, met by an early '90s recession and several years of humbling McJobs."

Which is to say that 15 years ago poor George Robitaille (the TTC ticket collector caught sleeping in his booth) might have been considered a hero, at least to the Lollapalooza nation. Being a slacker used to be a good thing. In January 1998, cultural commentary Hal Niedzviecki extolled the emancipatory and creative potential of stupid jobs in THIS magazine: "Set your mind free. It isn't necessary, and it can be an impediment. While your body runs the maze and finds the cheese, let your mind go where it will."

For Niedzviecki, underemployment promised perks such as "daydreams, poems scribbled on napkins, novels read in utility closets." He was not the first lazybones to suggest as much. While defending his 1991 film Slacker, director Richard Linklater, argued that: "Daydreaming doesn't sound very productive, but it's where many of your breakthrough thoughts come from. It's in this daydreaming state that you can imagine an ideal life for yourself or the ideal society you want to live in."

Not every slacker was content with passive resistance, however, as the publication of Sabotage in the American Workplace in 1992 suggested. By 2000, a few years after Niedzviecki argued that stupid was smart, Naomi Klein argued in No Logo that career instability had a political aspect: "It is in the ranks of the millions of temp workers that the true breeding grounds of the anti-corporate backlash will most likely be found."

And then the impossible happened – work became fun. The dot-com era transformed the workplace into a big party replete with rec-room décor. But hedonism came at a price. Clive Thompson, writing in Shift back in 1999, noted that: "By making work more like play, employers neatly erase the division between the two, which ensures that their young employees will almost never leave the office."

After the tech crash, Richard Florida's creative class emerged, free to wear tattered jeans to work or freelance from cafes. But now, instead of making work like play, BlackBerries and abundant WiFi have eroded the psychological and geographical boundary between work and home. We can work anywhere, at any time. And we often do.

Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr are pulverizing the final distinctions between work and play. As Rob Horning noted on his blog Marginal Utility last month, "social networks are harvesting and reselling the details of our cultural cry of self, conveniently translated already by our volunteer labour into terms of brands and trademarks already on the market." This process even has a cute neologism – playbor, which was the focus of "The Internet as Playground and Factory," a recent academic conference in New York. "Social participation is the oil of the digital economy," explained organizer Trebor Scholz on the conference website. "It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between play, consumption and production, life and work, labour and non-labour."

While slacktivism is currently receiving a significant amount of negative attention, the bigger problem is a failure to realize that we are always already working when we're online. Everyone can agree that TTZZZzzz worker George Robitaille cannot effectively perform his job while asleep (even if he was daydreaming a solution to the current shortcomings of our public transit system). But when it becomes impossible to determine where work stops and our lives begin, then perhaps some slack is in order.

At the very least, we should remind ourselves that all jobs are stupid. In his 2005 book How To Be Idle, Tom Hodgkinson argues that: "The idea of the `job' as the answer to all woes, individual and social, is one of the most pernicious myths of modern society." This is a nicer way of repeating something Douglas Coupland (author of Generation X) wrote back in 1992 for the foreword of the Slacker companion book: "People gripe that it's some horrible crime against society not to work in a creepy job that has no loyalty to you and is killing you, anyway."

In other words, less work might be more. Last February, Gen-Xer David Scharfenberg used the recession to vindicate his decade-long experiment with the slacker lifestyle in a Boston Globe article: "In retrospect, it's clear that we did something right. We lived a smaller life, a life we could afford... As the nation rebuilds a crumbling capitalism, it could use a little perspective, a little wisdom. Bet you didn't think you'd get it from us."

Being a loafer is also an effective protective mechanism. Slackers long ago realized that vaulting ambition can overleap itself. Look what happened to Gen-Xer Conan O'Brien. After toiling away for years on the night shift of a dead-end job, O'Brien was finally given his big break, only to have it snatched away by his mortal enemy: a Baby Boomer. True to Naomi Klein's predictions, O'Brien the temp worker fomented a mighty anti-corporate backlash against NBC. "All I can say is I plan to continue putting on a great show night after night," he said in one of his final monologues, "while stealing as many office supplies as humanly possible."

Hark! The slacker uprising is upon us. Let the workplace sabotage and revolution begin ... right after we finish our coffee break.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Cyclonic is a Great Word

Here’s what Fox has done, through their cyclonic perpetual emotional machine that is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: They have taken reasonable concerns about this president and this economy and turned it into full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao.

-- Jon Stewart does O'Reilly

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Real Life is Hard to Beet

Chris Nuttall-Smith is an exceptional writer. His Toronto Life feature on why the ROM stinks ( The Curse of the Aluminum Crystal ) was one of the best things to appear in the magazine in a long while. Don’t take my word for it though – the piece also won a National Magazine Award.

Anyway, Chris N-S has a feature about lunatic control-freak chef Claudio Aprile in the current issue of Toronto Life. Like his other work, it’s well researched, well-reported, well-written. The only thing it lacks is a clear sense that Chris N-S finds the molecular-foodie ambitions of Aprile absolutely ridiculous. I suspect that Chris N-S prefers to be subtle, giving Aprile enough rope to hang himself, while allowing the reader locate their own conclusions. But at the same time, by giving Aprile so much attention to begin with, the reader is left to deduce that he’s a serious, important person. As you read the following passage, try and remember that it is not an except from Russell Smith's latest satirical novel. This actually happened, and, equally importantly, we’re supposed to care:

“What I’m thinking about, to make a statement, and to differentiate from Colborne Lane, is to serve a big, fat beet. Like, just one big beet, peeled, served whole on the plate, right? With everything on top of it. So it’s not sliced, it’s not fanned out, it’s not pretty.” This is Aprile talking, in a menu meeting a few days after what he’s begun to refer to as “the foie gras meltdown,” with Steve Gonzales, whom he calls Steve-O, and whom he’s tapped to become chef de cuisine at Origin.

“So it’s, like, straight up, with accompaniments?” Gonzales asks.

Aprile draws a picture. It looks like something Roz Chast would do: big, round head, frizzy mop on top. “There’s your beet, and then just dump everything on top of it.”

“Makes sense,” Gonzales says. He’s eager. Gonzales has been ready for Origin to open for months.

“So, like, it would be bold. People would go, ‘What the hell is that?’ And we’d be like, ‘That’s your beet.’ ”

“But if you’re eating it, I’m sure it would be great,” Gonzales says.

“Because then you’re getting the meatiness of the beet, and so basically everything—the goat’s cheese, braised red onion, dill, saffron vinaigrette, beet chips—everything’s sticking on top of it.”

There’s a pause. Aprile sees Gonzales differently than Matt Blondin. At 34, Gonzales is eight years older, and he’s been working with Aprile on and off for more than 10 years. He doesn’t push the way Blondin does, either. Gonzales is a good cook, but he’s also laid back—Aprile calls him the guy who all the guys want to have a beer with and all the women want to bed.

“The other thing that would be cool, but again, we’re getting a little trippy if we do it, is to syringe the vinaigrette into the beet,” Aprile says.

“That wouldn’t take long.”

“So we get syringes and the saffron vinaigrette goes right inside it. Because the problem with serving it whole is that a big part of it is not seasoned.”

“So that way it’s all seasoned.”

“No gels, there’s nothing funky. It’s just straight on—”

“Just a fucking beet.”

“A beet. And if we can even, if we can get really professional about this and, you know how the beets have, they have the little stringy root that comes off?”


Aprile draws another picture, with the root this time.

“Wouldn’t that be amazing if we could leave that on there so it comes out so beautiful, so rustic. It makes a real statement.”
The beet, however it evolves between now and the restaurant’s opening, will make Claudio Aprile’s statement. Steve Gonzales will execute it faithfully.


Monday, February 01, 2010

The Croissant Detail is Journalism At Its Finest

What he did not address was the chief concern on everyone’s mind: two days earlier, without warning, he had fired the magazine’s well-liked editor, Roger D. Hodge, in a five-minute conversation as Mr. Hodge was finishing his breakfast croissant.

But was the pastry filled with jam or chocolate? Way to miss the real story, newspaper of record.

I also like how the croissant detail is meant to infer that Hodge is yet another effete, French-loving liberal.