The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: January 2009

Top of the Props (09 Remix)

PARIS—I’ve been waiting all year for this. No, I don’t mean the Super Bowl, the 43rd edition of the big game this Sunday being contested by the NFC’s Arizona Cardinals and the AFC’s (and Mlle Trotter’s) Pittsburgh Steelers. The local broadcast on France 2 is at 12:20am Monday morning, Paris time. I’m expecting the commentary to be … intéressant.

Nor do I mean the opportunity to make silly wagers on various and sundry wacky outcomes of said game via the Las Vegas Hilton’s inspired proposition wager list. I mean, I am excited about the wagering possibilities. Don’t get me wrong.

But here’s what I’ve been waiting for ALL YEAR, yearning for, aching for: the chance to recycle Sportstrotter column ideas… (more…)

Posted in Sportstrotter  •  2 Comments

Matt Groening’s Not Joking

In the first of our considerations of Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, Four-Colour Words looked at the inclusion of Groening’s work in the latest volume of the well-respected comics anthology Kramers Ergot. His presence in those pages, we saw, encourages a novel understanding of his place in contemporary cartooning, while his contribution itself points toward his work’s strengths and its difficulties, which often amount to the same thing. For this installment of our week-long look at Hell, we’ll see how Groening’s strips, like his anthology contribution, are often easy to gloss, but trying to read: like, that Kramers page may look busy and crowded on your computer screen, but matters don’t change much even when printed in the tombstone-sized book itself.

Remarkably, Groening is one of the few cartoonists in that volume who doesn’t approach the enlarged 16×21 inch canvas any differently than he would his regular work—any one of his strips, any week, at any size, could look just as impenetrable. This kind of sheer density is compelling, in an OCD kind of way, but the repetition and tedium of it all rarely yields any real yuks. To be fair, that’s sort of the point—what should we expect from a book called Work Is Hell other than a mind-numbing belabouring of the point that, well, work is indeed tedious, repetitive hell—but what lets Groening get away with it is how stylish his densely-packed work can be. (more…)

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Posted in Four-Colour Words  •  2 Comments

I haven’t had any death threats causing me to quit the social web. Nor have I been able to resist following brand new celebrity twitterers Demi Moore and Soleil Moon Frye. But that isn’t the worst news of the week: No matter what I do, I cannot get over being personally attacked by Twitter late last year.

You see, they took away my free SMS Twitter updates. They made me into a second-class Twitter citizen. I was ousted from the lifestream and became a treader of murky Twitter backwash instead.

But I have foiled you now Twitter! (more…)

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Posted in Web 2.0 Museum  •  9 Comments

Our sun-starved nation

Have you paused lately to consider how extraordinary it is that our bodies can turn sunlight into bone? Vancouver’s winter cloud blanket has prompted some nostalgic investigation into the process by which that takes place (or would if I were living somewhere else), with some surprising results.

Very roughly speaking, the magic begins when ultraviolet light waves strike our epidermis, where they become vitamin D through a process that’s about as well understood as photosynthesis in plants – ie, not really at all. We’ll gloss over that elephant in the room, since we must, and follow vitamin D as makes its way to the kidneys, where it’s transformed (much more transparently) into something known as 1,25(OH)2D. That little compound then helps calcium do its thing, and voila – bones develop in children, stay dense in adults, and nobody comes down with rickets. (more…)

Posted in Notes From Vancouver  •  No Comments

Who Dares Win

PARIS—And so what if I hate winners?

Does that make me a bad sports fan? A good fan? A bad person? A good person? Who knows. Mostly I think it just makes me a monumentally confused person.

I’ll admit it. All things being equal, all loyalties and betting interests aside, I’m cheering for the underdog.

I have two unconditional sports loyalties: the Canucks and the Blue Jays. You can add any Canadian team or individual competing internationally to that list. And that’s about it. In matters sporting, I’m an Aristotelian communitarian first, a Millsian utilitarian second. Because when the big dog wins, a couple of people are happy. When the little dog wins, it gives millions of little dogs around the world hope. (more…)

Posted in Sportstrotter  •  No Comments

Matt Groening: Cartoonist

Thanks to a couple of other comic artists I admire stumping on his behalf, lately I’ve been revisiting and reconsidering Matt Groening’s cartoons. Not his television cartoons, mind you, but his pen-and-ink ones, which feature a rotating cast of doomed and bickering rabbits and have been appearing in alternative papers since the early ’80s under the name Life in Hell.

I’ve gone back to The Simpsons, too, but the episodes I’ve rewatched have for the most part confirmed my earlier opinion of the show as complacent, predictable in its unpredictability, far from pointed in its social commentary, and comforting and permissive where it wants to come off as damning and critical. I had feared I would find the same schmaltzy problems in Groening’s comics work. It seems that, in the years since Toronto’s NOW ceased publishing the strip, and in the absence of any online presence or new print collections, I’d allowed Life in Hell to become unduly blackened by the Simpsons associations sullying my recollection of it.

I’d also started accepting much of the received wisdom I’d hear about the strip — that it lost its bite after Groening went commercial (it didn’t), that it looked xeroxed or repetitive or lazy or favoured text over art (well, it does, but those aren’t bad things), and that regular characters Akbar and Jeff kind of suck (um, okay, so they kind of do). But talking recently with Lynda Barry, and reading Sammy Harkham’s latest volume of Kramers Ergot, had me ready to approach Groening’s work from more sympathetic, less dogmatic directions. Reading Life in Hell in the specific contexts those two cartoonists provide, I’ve been rediscovering an incisive, authentically bilious strip carried off in distinctive visual shorthand. I value the strip not a little, and have ended up with not a little to say about it: this will be the first of three posts I’ll devote to Life in Hell over the next week or so. This time out, we’ll start with my latest “in” to Groening’s work—namely, his Kramers Ergot page. (more…)

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Posted in Four-Colour Words  •  1 Comment

The More Things Change

In the spirit of existential angst now gripping the journalism industry, I paid a recent visit to the future of our trade. The route there took me through Vancouver’s downtown east side, a colorful, Dickensian neighborhood known chiefly for the homelessness on display at street level. Is this it, I wondered, picturing the New York Times’ Sulzberger family huddled on the sidewalk, begging Carlos Slim for a quarter billion dollars – but no, not yet it wasn’t. The future was inside an office high rise, four floors up and named after a fish.

The Tyee is an online magazine dedicated to investigative journalism of the kind we’re seeing less and less of on paper. It focuses primarily on issues facing BC, but many of the stories it breaks are geographically diffuse (ever heard of the 100-mile diet?), making it one of the premier news-gathering institutions in the country. (more…)

Posted in Notes From Vancouver  •  2 Comments

Burn Marijuana, Burn!

At the end of last year, I traveled into the rural Wakiso district in Uganda with a team of police officers, to watch them destroy several acres of marijuana. The plants were slashed with machetes, put in three-metre high piles, and then set on fire. (more…)

Posted in This Is Not A Safari  •  1 Comment

Big Trouble in Little Africa

I recently travelled north to the Mongolian border and south to Guangzhou and Macao, working on separate stories about human trafficking and China’s African population. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing some short postcards from each of the cities, since I think they provide interesting snapshots of China today. This one is about Guangzhou, where the African community, China’s largest, is at a breaking point.

* * *

In Guangzhou, you can buy anything. On the chaotic streets of the old city there are stores selling over–sized stuffed animals, Christmas decorations, plastic trees, neon signage, bulk candy, and elastics. There are separate shops for plastic, paper, and reusable bags. Stationary. Wigs. Sneakers. Scooters. Jay-Z t–shirts. Whatever you could possibly want, it’s available here. Guangdong province – the “world’s factory” – is home to 28,000 industrial firms, including 15,000 overseas–funded business. It makes 75% of the world’s toys and 90% of its Christmas decorations (in a country that doesn’t celebrate it). In Guangzhou, the provincial capital, it’s all available for purchase, direct from the source. (more…)

Posted in Letter from China  •  33 Comments

One Laptop Per Child: What Went Wrong

One Laptop Per Child

In January 2005, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Nicholas Negroponte announced the One Laptop Per Child project, with the stated goal of giving every poor child in the world a “rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.”

Last week OLPC laid off half of its staff. Sales of its XO Laptop to developing nations are far, far below initial projections in the millions; in the third quarter of 2008 it shipped a mere 130,000 units, a trivial 2.3% of the world’s low-cost, small-screen “netbook” laptops. Meanwhile, the income from their 2008 “Give One Get One Free” drive dropped 93% from 2007. What went wrong? Any number of things, including bad timing, production delays, poor management, and superior competition. But if you ask me – and I feel bad writing this, given all the hard work and good intentions that went into One Laptop Per Child – its fundamental problems are twofold:

  1. It was a bad idea to begin with.
  2. The XO laptop is a piece of crap. (more…)
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Posted in World Fast Forward  •  45 Comments


So-called citizen journalists broke The Miracle on the Hudson aka Canadian Geese: Terror In The Skies! on Twitter. A Floridian on one of the tour boats posted the first picture of the rescue. It was a crappy picture and he was more excited about being able to be a journalist on his iphone than communicating important details. To quote jkrums: “Crazy.”

I am not inured to the exuberance epidemic sweeping popular culture about social media. This week Hoda and Kathy Lee got on Facebook and are beside themselves about it. If you pitch investors and drop the Twitter-bomb the economic depression we’re in get’s blown to bits and money rains down. But does socializing media and creating a different way to communicate that is more immediate make all of us in the world into citizen journalists?

Calling twitterers journalists is the usual boogeyman for paid journalists. Understandable because as our print news goes out of print and careers are lost the final hurrah of old-fashioned journalists will be bloody and moaning. But I’ll call anyone a journalist. Even my dog. (more…)

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Posted in Web 2.0 Museum  •  2 Comments

Tangerine Dreams

A local saying lists three things Jeju is famous for: wind, stone and women. The island certainly has all three in abundance — the wind, in particular, is strong enough to tear off your scalp. In truth, though, the thing Jeju is most known for in Korea is tangerines (also known as Mandarin oranges). Winter marks the beginning of tangerine season, and these days it’s hard to drive a kilometre without passing an orchard tucked behind low stone walls, blazing with thousands of bright orange globes.

I once laughed outright at a hapless young American who’d purchased tangerines at the grocery store, and although I’ll admit it wasn’t very nice, my mirth was justified; in tangerine season, almost every social or commercial transaction conducted on Jeju commences or concludes with a gratis exchange of the juicy little devils. Taxi drivers hand them to you as you climb into their cabs; buckets of them sit out in the staff rooms at school; waiters bring trays of them as dessert; and any kind of major purchase — a jacket, say, or a torque wrench — will just as likely as not be augmented with a couple shopping bags bulging with fruit. It’s a friendly time of year, when Jejuites are visibly proud of the island’s most valuable and abundant crop, and the heaps of tangerines making the rounds seem to contain the very nectar of goodwill within their dappled, vivid skins. (more…)

Posted in World Famous in Korea  •  2 Comments
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