The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: October 2008

The Idler’s Glossary

To celebrate the publication of Josh Glenn and Mark Kingwell’s excellent small book, The Idler’s Glossary, I asked Mark to offer glosses on a few of his favourite entries. His response is below. I urge everyone to buy this book; there’ll be nothing more curious and delightful published this fall. (Nor many as beautiful—Seth’s design work is lovely.)

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Hi Jared,

Here is a small sampling of the richness packed into our little book, The Idler’s Glossary. As I say in my introduction, the glossary is the idlest of all textual forms: no narrative, no explicit argument, no structure save the alphabet. And always that insistent, kooky circular imperative to see another word, or compare an entry elsewhere. Thus, the perfect vehicle for insights about idling!

In fact there are mini-narratives and brilliant little arguments scattered liberally through the entries. Like McLuhan’s probes or Nietzsche’s aphorisms, these are little mind-bombs that go off almost randomly, as the reader dips here and there into the book. (more…)

Posted in The Shelf  •  No Comments

Rock, Paper, Puritan

Rock, paper, scissors

My co-interns and I played rock, paper, scissors for the media tickets to this year’s Giller Prize readings at the International Festival of Authors. I lost. So I went to the Rock, Paper, Scissors Championships instead. Then the next day, I went to watch Sarah Vowell discuss her new book, The Wordy Shipmates, and how the founding of America was influenced by Calvinist ideas of predestination. Coincidence?

“Rock, Paper, Scissors is not a game of chance,” one of the Founding Fathers of the World RPS Society, Graham Walker, tells me, in the cavernous back room of the brewery where the championships are being held. Mathematically speaking, he’s right. In a coin-toss, the results are random: there is a fifty-fifty chance of heads or tails, and each flip of the quarter is an independent event. Even if the last hundred times you flipped the coin, it came up tails, on the hundred-and-first flip the odds are still fifty-fifty. It’s senseless. Meaningless. Non-narrative.

RPS, on the other hand, is a system governed by choices. Human beings, as anyone who studies probability knows, are incapable of generating random sequences. Our deepest brain structure won’t allow it. Like the decision to gather up the family and sail to the New World, the decision to throw “Rock” is not a random event. It’s all in accordance with a Plan. (more…)

Posted in The Haulout  •  No Comments

Japanese Comics Wish You a Happy Halloween!

To celebrate the second-best holiday (Thanksgiving’s got it beat), Four-Colour Words presents to you a lazy post full of, uh, singular images from horror manga! This one’s from Yusaku Hanakuma’s Tokyo Zombie! Don’t click for more if you hate fun or are easily grossed out or something! (more…)

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Posted in Four-Colour Words  •  Comments Off

Broken Hearted, Digital Bleed Out

It is Halloween so I guess I need to bring the horror. Real horror, not Old Media murder stats like 41% of Brits regularly read a blog, or that I don’t have a new Macbook Pro yet.

So I bring you Heartbreak Horror. Also known as how to break-up digitally once you’ve done it personally. This is the real terror, the days and weeks of re-discovered couple icons, shared webpages and worst of all un-following and changing your personal status all over the place.

For two hyper-connected people, the process is indeed nothing short of a horror show. So, as your dedicated Canadian Tech-Education Blogger, I am living through the process merely so I can provide you with a roadmap for your own bumpy future. Since, like it or not, heartbreak is something that just happens in life.

FACEBOOK
Just remove relationship status information. Whatever you do, never change your status to single. That is like emitting a beacon that commands all the people you don’t really know or like to contact you with questions like: “R U ok????” (more…)

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Posted in Web 2.0 Museum  •  1 Comment

IFOA: “America Votes”

For those of you who missed the Obama love-in that was the “America Votes” IFOA event this past Saturday afternoon, let me assure you that it warmed the hearts of every Democrat supporter in the room (i.e. everyone in the room). Postulating on the impending election hoopla were Hugh Eikin, senior editor of the New York Review of Books; economics writer Jeff Madrick, author of The Case for Big Government; and host Michael Tomasky, the colourful editor of Guardian America, who promised to resort to “cheap punditry,” should he be prodded to do so. He was and he did, making the wise suggestion to “choose the smart guy this time.” (more…)

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Posted in The Haulout  •  No Comments

Giving Your Kids a Green Education


When I was a kid, I sat every day in a concrete block without windows. The prevalent theory at the time was that windows were distracting (this wasn’t in the Dark Ages, but the 1980s). I like to think I turned out okay, despite my windowless education. But how much better could I have evolved if I had experienced a living classroom? A place where I could have hands-on experience in permaculture, and where I was educated in sustainability? What kind of education do our children need to meet the challenges of this century? More basically, how do we instill environmental values in our kids?

These were a few of the questions sparked in my mind as I walked through the campus of the Green School in Bali. Constructed largely in the past year, and just opened this fall, the Green School is one of the few places in the world that is making a calculated and passionate effort to tackle these kinds of questions.
(more…)

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Posted in Shades of Green  •  2 Comments

The Donkey and the Ninja

One of the problems with writing about developing-world technology is that all too often the sexy tech is useless, and the useful tech is deeply unsexy. Innovations that actually change lives in a profound and meaningful way are frequently grimy, clumsy, noisy and ugly. Like this donkey:

Donkey 1.0

That’s not quite a non sequitur. What you have in this photo (taken a four-hour walk from the nearest road in the foothills of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains) are two eras of technology, side by side: animal power, and in the hut behind it, hydro power.

Hill country is rough country. Think Appalachian hillbillies, Bosnian ethnic cleansing, Bolivian coups, Nepali Maoists, Papua New Guinea blood vendettas, Colombian paramilitary strongholds, the Rwandan genocide, Osama Bin Laden’s hideout: all lands of steep, barely accessible hills and valleys, bloody tribalism and abject poverty. (I’ll concede Switzerland as the exception that proves the rule.) (more…)

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Posted in World Fast Forward  •  2 Comments

The meaning of kids

On Thursday, I wrote about happiness and misery as they relate to children, a subject on my mind already because I have a two-year-old son and am expecting another baby any day (or hour) now, brought into focus by a section Paul Bloom’s essay “First Person Plural” in this month’s Atlantic that outlines how deluded parents are to think their kids make them happy. If you don’t feel like reading the entire original post, the gist of it was: kids are kind of the end of cheap thrills, but create happiness for most parents by giving their lives a sense of purpose.

To which commenter TLL responded:

While the raising of children is, I am sure, an enormously challenging and rewarding experience, I think it is unfortunate to think that people view their children as, and believe their children to be their reason for being. This would lead to the more general, though often unreconized belief that human beings exist entirely – or at lease principally – to procreate and populate. Or at least those who have children do.
Having a child is something that nearly every person on the planet can do. It is a shame that most people do not strive to achieve success – or ‘fulfillment happiness’ – in other good pursuits half so vigorously as they pursue child rearing.
Perhaps part of the delusion that having children makes us happy is that it involves another person, and we cannot cope with reliance on ourselves and our own fortitude as ways to bring about fulfillment. As social creatures, it is easy for us to fill the vacant parts inside ourselves with other people. And from what I understand, children are the least likely to leave those parts vacant once they are used to fill that hole.

I’m thankful for the comment. Of course, in the strictest sense, there’s a term for the “belief that human beings exist entirely—or at least principally—to procreate and populate.” We call it “evolutionary science.”1There’s also the biblical god’s first instruction to the prototype humans he created: “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), if you prefer that kind of thing, which I do not. Any understanding of our lot that does not consider procreation at least one of the primary purposes of our lives leads to some pretty ugly math for us as a species (the purpose of human life=the rapid extinction of human life).

But TLL’s point is taken—when I wrote about fulfillment, I wasn’t talking about fulfilling evolutionary imperatives2nor biblical ones, and neither, I suspect, is this commenter. (more…)

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Posted in Act Like A Man  •  2 Comments

Run To The Cure

PARIS—I don’t wear a watch anymore. Stopped sometime in 2002, I think. In the entire time I’ve been with my wife, she’s never once seen me with a timepiece around my wrist.

I don’t wear a watch when I run, either, which seems odd even to me. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time training for a marathon, running, trying to get faster and stronger. But I’m not really going to be able to measure my progress — I’m not going to go out there and lose a race one week and win a race against the same competitor the next. All I have to measure my speed against is the ticking of a clock. And yet I can’t be bothered to strap a Timex to my wrist. I’m stubborn like that. (more…)

Posted in Sportstrotter  •  No Comments

Q&A: David Bergen

Giller prize winner David Bergen’s new book, The Retreat, is among this fall’s very best novels. Instead of commenting on this myself, I’ll refer you to Danielle Groen’s review of the book from our October/November issue; she says most of what I have to say, and better than I could.

I spoke with David Bergen a few weeks ago in Toronto. He’ll return to town next week as a part of the International Festival of Authors, for a reading on October 31st and a roundtable hosted by The Walrus‘s own Jeremy Keehn on November 1st. Click those links to buy tickets, or enter a contest to win some courtesy of IFOA and The Walrus here.

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I know that your last novel sat with you for quite a while before it came to shape. How did this one arrive?

I suppose it came more quickly. With The Time in Between I had written a non-fiction piece previous to the novel, and I used the non-fiction work to create the novel, because the non-fiction stuff just was not working. I discovered I’m not a non-fiction writer, not in the way I want to be—not like a Bruce Chatwin. If only I could write like that, which really isn’t non-fiction I suppose, he bends the truth very much. But you can bend the truth more with fiction, so I decided to write the novel. Because I see my job—I see it as a job, and I see it as work, it’s not something where I wait for inspiration—so in this instance, The Retreat came to me as an image of a family driving across the country, arriving in Kenora, going to this commune. I began the story with the second section, called “The Retreat,” and the first section, “The Island,” came later, when I found Raymond. And when I say ‘found’ Raymond, I think it’s important to say that some of these characters, like Nelson and like Raymond, they were found, or sort of walked into the door, and I said, “Oh wow, here’s Raymond, here’s Raymond delivering fish and chickens to the Retreat.” And of course the unconscious is at work when that happens, and you have to allow it to open up, to be found. So that’s how the novel began. (more…)

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In Praise of University Book Sales II

There was a time, years ago, when I was working towards a thesis on the little-known but truly brilliant Canadian poet George Johnston. One of the obstacles to doing work on Johnston was that his books were out of print except for the collected poems, which contained some revisions and prevented one from considering the individual editions as artifacts of a given moment. So I’d like to second my friend and colleague Sean Rogers’s excellent essay on university book sales, which were a great boon during those years (and many other years, with less specific purpose). Johnston, you see, was an academic— among other things, he taught literature and Norse myth at Ottawa’s Carleton university—and so much of his books’ meager sales were to fellows in the trade. Exactly, in other words, the sort of volumes that turn up at University book sales, where much of the stock is donated by those affiliated in some way with the academic community.

I must have bought and given away at least four or five copies of Johnston’s first book, a magnificent collection called The Cruising Auk, which Oxford UP released in 1959. (The picture above, actually, was not from a university sale, but rather from a copy of 1966’s Home Free, gift given to me years ago by the very same Sean Rogers, included here because Johnston was also one of the century’s great handwriters.) (more…)

Posted in The Shelf  •  No Comments

Can Bacteria Juice Save the World?

If several smiling farmers offered you the choice between a drink of “brown rice coffee” or some “bacteria juice,” which would you choose?

I first tried bacteria juice during an afternoon tea break at Konohana Family, an organic community in Japan near the base of Mt. Fuji.  At Konohana Family, over fifty people live cooperatively, sharing housing, cars, finances, child care and food. For fifteen years, they have been farming organically; they now have thirteen hectares of land on which they grow all of their own food, plus plenty of vegetables and rice which they sell and deliver  over Japan. They were kind enough to welcome me and teach me about how they managed to create a self-sufficient, sustainable lifestyle. (more…)

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Posted in Shades of Green  •  7 Comments
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