The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: July 2010

Weekend Links No. 30

Recommended browsing from The Walrus Blogroll

Recommended holiday browsing from the blogroll: “You can really smell the oil”

YouTube Video of Michigan Oil Spill” by Robert Mackey | The Lede
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a ruptured pipeline has leaked more than one million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River — a figure far greater than the data supplied by line’s owner, Calgary’s Enbridge Inc. Hmm… an oil company downplaying the environmental impact of a spill. Where have I heard that one before?

Educating Michael Ignatieff” by Jane Taber | Bureau Blog
This week on his cross-country bus tour, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff caused quite the uproar by claiming that he received a “publicly funded education” — despite famously attending Toronto’s prestigious, private Upper Canada College. So what did Iggy actually mean? Taber explains (a party flack’s less-than-convincing explanation).

Wikileaks source suspect Manning transferred from Kuwait to Quantico, VA” by Xeni Jardin | Boing Boing
PFC Bradley Manning, the twenty-two-year-old American soldier suspected of leaking the “Collateral Murder” video and “Afghan War Diaries” trove of classified information to Wikileaks, has been transferred from Kuwait’s Theater Field Confinement Facility to the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. In advance of a potential court martial, he is set to remain in pre-trial confinement indefinitely.

Insurance Companies Profit From Fallen Soldiers” by Marian Wang | UTNE Reader
A Bloomberg news investigation has revealed that insurance companies, by using so-called “retained-asset accounts,” are turning healthy profits off the deaths of US soldiers — all the while paying smaller benefits to their families.

Swimming pool or toxic brew?” by Jennifer Shike | Futurity
According to a study conducted by the University of Illinois, disinfectants used in pool water may be contributing to chronic health problems such as asthma and bladder cancer. Such disinfectants interact with sunscreen, cosmetics, and other consumer products — then become chemically modified toxic agents. So, some kid peeing in the corner: no longer the worst thing to worry about at public pools. (more…)

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Sold Out?

Debating the legacy of Pop Art: Is it avant-garde or is it kitsch?

Debating the legacy of Pop Art: Is it avant-garde or is it kitsch?

Presented by the National Gallery and The Walrus

Art has sparked controversy for centuries, and in June, The Walrus continued the conversation by co-presenting “The Walrus National Gallery Debate” in Ottawa. In front of a sold-out auditorium, Robert Enright, senior contributing editor of Border Crossings magazine, and Blake Gopnik, chief art critic for the Washington Post, squared off in a heated debate on contemporary art as part of the Gallery’s blockbuster summer exhibition “Pop Life: Art in a Material World.” The debate was moderated by CBC Radio’s Carol Off — and is now available to all for online viewing.

You can watch this and other exclusive clips in’s new video gallery.

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Posted in Events  •  1 Comment

Weekend Links No. 29

Recommended browsing from The Walrus Blogroll

More recommended browsing from The Walrus Blogroll, featuring BP, the RCMP, and GWB

BP Altered Image
© BP p.l.c.

BP Creates a Flickr Set of Its Own Deception” by Andrew Price | GOOD Blog
This week, after being caught photoshopping press pictures of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, BP created a Flickr gallery of the doctored photos. The company’s description of the set includes a slick passing of the buck: “Although BP is a private company, we’ve instructed the photographer who created the images to refrain from cutting-and-pasting in the future and to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.” What a relief! I feel so much better about the planet now.

Scots Defend Lockerbie Convict’s Release” by Robert Mackey | The Lede
The Scottish government is rebuffing American efforts to investigate a bizarre rumour: that BP lobbied for the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, in an attempt to curry favour with the Libyan government. BP representatives deny the claim — and they’d never lie to us, right?

Helena Guergis wants meeting with Harper” by Gloria Galloway | Bureau Blog
Having been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the RCMP, the former minister of state for the status of women is demanding face time with Stephen Harper. The PMO, however, is still defending its decision to sack Guergis, saying “several factors” contributed to her ouster from the Conservative caucus.

The Bechdel Test for women in movies” by Lisa Katayama | Boing Boing
Think about the last major Hollywood movie you watched. Now ask yourself these questions, first posed in 1985 by cartoonist Allison Bechdel: (1) Are there two or more women in it that have names? (2) Do they talk to each other? (3) Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? As this clip from the blog Feminist Frequency points out, a tremendous number of popular films fail this simple test.

Inception, Explained” by The Mark | The Mark
Speaking of Hollywood, if you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s Inception, chances are you’re a little confused by everything that happened, especially the ending. If that’s you, check out this round up of the web’s best explanations. (And if that’s not you, spoiler alert!) (more…)

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How Do You Like Me Now?

Like, retweet, and the hyper-simplification of online expression

Like, retweet, and the growing hyper-simplification of online methods of expression

Thumbs Up

In the course of our day-to-day lives, it can be easy to forget that, a mere couple of decades ago, most of us could not use computers to talk to people. Widespread internet access has since revolutionized communication and entertainment with astounding speed for an ever-expanding slice of the world’s population. Reactions to this kind of radical novelty generally fall into either of two camps: those who fear (or, occasionally, hope) that enveloping ourselves in new media environments will cause dramatic, unforeseen changes in our minds and lives; and those who picture us less as helpless recipients and more as autonomous users of a set of changing tools that we could pick up or put down as we please. As with most such polarized debates, there is truth to both ways of looking at it. The effects our social media have on us, and the ways we choose to use them, make up a feedback loop in which each influences the other. Services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube reshape our lives and minds, not by enslaving or coercing, but largely just by giving us what we want — and, in turn, shaping what we want.

The practice of “retweeting” — copying another person’s tweet, with attribution, prefaced by “RT” — arose organically out of the nascent Twitter community. By late 2009, this bit of etiquette had become so ubiquitous that it was formalized as a built-in function of the site, allowing users to retweet with a single mouse click, and also see how many times a given tweet had been repeated. Now, observe here an intriguing commenting behaviour, on a wholly different website, in which the users paste in a previous comment and put a number beside it to indicate how many times it’s been repeated. (more…)

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Posted in The Haulout  •  7 Comments

Weekend Links No. 28

Recommended browsing from The Walrus Blogroll

Recommended browsing from The Walrus Blogroll

Al Jazeera English

Oil Stops Gushing Into the Gulf” by Henry Fountain and Liz Robbins | The Lede
…for now.

Oil Spill Flow Stops, But Will The Cap Hold?” by John Hudson | The Atlantic Wire
It took almost three months, but on Thursday at 2:55 p.m. local time, oil stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Although, as BP COO Doug Suttles put it: “It’s far from the finish line… It’s not time to celebrate.”

The Air You Breathe, the Water You Drink, the Google You Search” by Peter Suderman | Hit & Run
Also on Thursday, the New York Times published an editorial arguing that since Google is “the main map to the information highway,” it functions like a public utility. Therefore, the US government should have some measure of oversight on the company’s search algorithms in order to ensure fairness in the internet economy. The question, Suderman asks, is how much oversight?

US: Ratify Women’s Rights Treaty” | Human Rights Watch
On July 17, 1980, Jimmy Carter signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Thirty years have passed since that day, yet the US Senate still has not ratified the treaty. HRW calls on the Obama administration to take action on this issue.

A Grilling on Oil Dispersants” by Matthew L. Wald | Green Inc.
The use of oil dispersants in the Gulf is both “troubling” and “unprecedented,” according to top Obama administration officials testifying before a Senate subcommittee. The good news? There has been a 72 percent drop in their use since May, and now that the oil has stopped flowing, the cleanup effort can stop using them altogether. (more…)

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South Africa™: Now What?

The World Cup is over. What of the tournament’s promise of a better life for its hosts?

The World Cup is over. What of the tourney’s promise of a better life for its hosts?

Photograph by digitalrob70

Under a low bank of clouds, the Indian Ocean thundering before me, I stand looking at a Soccer City made of sand. Facsimiles of the major World Cup stadiums are dotted along Durban’s Marine Parade, and the rangy young architects expect coins in return for their work.  Here’s Green Point, there’s Port Elizabeth*, and, behind a gory faux-naif piece entitled “Big Leopard Bites Poor Man,” Durban’s own Moses Mabhida Stadium. In the morning, of course, these works will be swept away with the tide; one doesn’t have to be Jimi Hendrix to locate the dread metaphor inherent in this small slice of beachfront: World Cup 2010 South Africa. Chimera.

The last time I visited Durban, I sat in a dusty, dying colonial-era gentleman’s club in the heart of downtown, interviewing one of South Africa’s ranking captains of industry. His mottled drunkard’s nose was testament to the fact that our mid-morning gin and tonics were a habit rather than an anomaly, and he told me the following: “This country’s major resource is its people and their energy. Soon, my kind will be dead. Then the blacks running the show will have a choice: use the energy, or squander it. This place can go to shit in a hurry. Or it can be the greatest nation on earth. But make no mistake, South Africa is a marketer’s dream — the easiest sell on earth.” This was 2007, and he undoubtedly had the World Cup on what remained of his mind.

I’d left the club, picking my way through a city that was crumbling in on itself, a great dystopian mess battered by a furious southwesterly. Durban: holiday town of my childhood. During apartheid, the city was a seaside playground; in 2007, it was on the verge of ruin. But flash-forward to present day, and I properly understand what the old fellow was talking about. Durban is temporarily reinvented: crime-free, clean, temperate, ebullient. The city’s nature — Zulu meets Indian meets Edwardian English — once subverted, is now fully expressed. It’s real, not the whitewashed sham of the apartheid years, nor the neglected post-transition orphan-apolis. The blacks running the show have done a fine job. The easiest sell on earth, indeed.

Now what? (more…)

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Posted in Foreign Correspondence  •  2 Comments

Wonder Boy

An interview with Miguel Syjuco, author of Ilustrado

An interview with debut novelist (and Summer Reading 2010 contributor) Miguel Syjuco

Image courtesy of Miguel Syjuco
Courtesy of Miguel Syjuco. Click to expand

At just thirty-two, Miguel Syjuco — who contributed a new short story, “Stet,” to The Walrus’s Summer Reading issue — has written one of the most inventive, challenging, and entertaining novels of recent years, Ilustrado. And now it’s a bestseller, too. He spoke with The Walrus in Toronto this spring, a few weeks before the book’s publication.

To start, can you tell me about how Ilustrado formed, and how it’s developed over the years you’ve been working on it?

The book came to be, in my head, when I was doing some fact-checking at The Paris Review and living in New York. They were putting their Writers at Work series online, so they wanted to make sure whatever was in their archive was right. They had us freelancers hitting the library stacks, and I was looking at all sorts of different sources — literary biographies, interviews, profiles, articles, introductions to the authors’ books. Say for example I was doing Jack Kerouac, and I was finding out all these really interesting things about him, from the factual — where he was born, when he died — to his writing style, everything. And I thought, that’s a really interesting way of getting a portrait of an artist. It struck me as a method that was really organic, because our way of grasping reality today is precisely through fragments of sources. When you find out about, say, the Icelandic volcano, you hear from friends, someone text messages you, newspaper articles, internet, blogs, whatever. So I wanted to write a book that did this, in a sense. But I didn’t know how — it’s my first novel.

I was writing Ilustrado as part of a PhD at the University of Adelaide — it’s the creative component. So I thought, I’ll make this portrait of an artist, Crispin Salvador. I’ll create all his work the best I can, and I just did it linearly; it wasn’t as fragmented as it was now. But I couldn’t crack it — it was thick, it was difficult to get through, and it was 200,000 words. I pity my poor PhD supervisor. I didn’t know how to do it. I just kept writing, and writing, and writing. It didn’t feel right. (more…)

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Posted in The Shelf  •  1 Comment

Revenge of the Sexy Nerds

The cult of Lady Gaga and the mainstreaming of outcast culture
Lady Gaga photo by petercruisepetercruise (Available under Creative Commons license)

“Do you think I’m sexy?”

Lady Gaga, covered in fake blood, squeezed into a black bustier, poses this question in her best rock-arena growl. The Toronto audience, easily 15,000 strong, roars its positive response as she flips back her crayon-yellow hair and semi-pornographically writhes on the floor.

“I wasn’t very cool in high school, so sometimes I abuse this part. Do you think I’m sexy?”

This endearing admission, made to a crazed, capacity crowd at the Air Canada Centre, easily sums up why the cult of Gaga has risen to rapid glory. She is that awkward, misunderstood high-schooler all grown up,  raising a big ol’ fuck-you middle finger to everyone who said, “No, you can’t because you’re too ugly/fat/stupid/uncool.” Submerged in the spectacle and decadence of her Monster Ball, she’s still very much that moody teen reject because, despite her all triumphs, she needs us to tell her we adore her. And when we do, she’s so genuinely in awe of the crowd’s frantic adulation. It seems like she has no idea how and why this all happened, how she went from bedbug bites in her New York apartment to God-like status in such a short period of time.

I’ve been trying to figure out “what Gaga means” for months now, using my decade-old Women’s Studies degree to try to decipher how her torn fishnets and Kermit-coat fit into this big, sugary mess we call pop culture. Yes, I love Lady Gaga, and it’s hard to write about something you love so much when you don’t really understand why you love it. An obscure music-snob at heart, I’ve already given my pedestrian Gaga-passion more deliberation than I’d like to admit. Hell, after eighteen straight viewings of the homoerotic, militaristic, sex-fighting BDSM homage that is the “Alejandro” video, I’ve actually developed entire sociological theories of dominance and submission based on her shoe choices. (more…)

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Posted in The Haulout  •  14 Comments

Everything I Needed to Know About Religion I Learned in Tai Chi

In training martial arts, a student comes to understand faith through fealty to form

In training Chen-style tai chi chuan and other martial arts, a student comes to understand faith through fealty to form

Taijiquan form
Taijiquan form (Taijiquan Taolu) — Associació Catalana de Choy Li Fut, Tai Chi Chuan i Chi Kung (Source:

Although I have dabbled in a few since, Chen-style tai chi chuan is the martial art with which I had my formative experiences. Training in the evenings during high school not only gave me exercise and taught me coordination, but granted me some unexpected insight into the world of religion as well. In both realms, followers may seem to accept the received wisdom of their traditions with a strange credulity — but, I found, the point of the practice is in its form, not its content.

Chen is the originating school of tai chi, a centuries-old martial art frequently pictured in the West as a sort of Taoist geriatric health exercise. In this and many other traditional martial arts, a large chunk of the practice consists of learning and perfecting one or more forms — choreographed sequences of the discipline’s techniques, the details of which are carefully prescribed from start to finish. Tai chi forms are trained at a mostly slow, deliberate pace, intended to force the practitioner to take care in performing each movement correctly. Students learn the routine by following along behind teachers and senior students, who also pass on explanations for the parts of the form as well as general rules of movement. In these, my group tended to eschew esoteric talk of chi energy or yin and yang in favour of practical concerns: you need to sink your elbows or else your arm can easily be put in a lock (“Thusly!”); the curled position your fingers assume during Single Whip can be used to strike at a pressure point; et cetera.

I only noticed later what a charitable sort of exegesis this was: we always began with the natural assumption that a move was included in the traditional form for good reason, and proceeded from there to give explanations for it. Sometimes these would change or even contradict one another, but the general feeling was that a great wisdom lay behind the form, and so its moves could be effective in many applications. With the form, as with a holy book, we could find confirming interpretations wherever we sought them, and so each lesson redoubled my trust in the rules and motions I was learning. (more…)

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Posted in The Haulout  •  4 Comments

Ain’t No Party Like a Black Stars Party

After Ghana’s exit from the World Cup, a gathering of football heroes, Heineken, and hope in suburban Joburg luxury

After Ghana’s exit from the World Cup, a gathering of heroes, Heineken, and hope in suburban Johannesburg

Under a bruised sky and a gathering chill — as un-African a tableau as imaginable — a crowd gathers. Fourteen barely clad tribal dancers pronk around a stage in an artfully cobbled square, ringed by wine bars and meze bars and high-end food outlets. This is Melrose Arch, a luxury outdoor mall compound in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. Built during the peak of the city’s post-apartheid violent crime wave, it has the simultaneous feel of a hyper-modern shopping emporium and a walled medieval city. Over the course of the World Cup, Melrose Arch has played host to one of Joburg’s most popular fan parks — or fan jols in FIFA-approved local parlance. Ghana’s Black Stars — recently defeated by Uruguay in a nasty quarter-final match that was stolen from them by the devil’s hand — are scheduled to drop by and say, “Thank you, South Africa, and adieu.”

The Black Stars have organized this encore appearance because locals, since the first-round elimination of Bafana Bafana, have embraced the team as their own. Indeed, it seems as if the whole continent has banded together, donning Ghana’s gold, red, and green, blasting those accursed vuvuzelas in an approximation of the Ghanaian national anthem. This pan-Africanism, having nothing to do with leaders the likes of Muammar Gaddafi or Ghana’s first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah, feels like the genuine deal. Such is the power of football; it has united a disparate continent, at least for a week or so.

Melrose Arch is the second of two scheduled stops on this impromptu whistle-stop tour, the first being Soweto’s Orlando West district. The drive the Black Stars are undertaking is weighted with symbolism. From Soweto to the northern suburbs: a half-hour trip through the South African divide. From the have-nots to the haves, and everything in between. (more…)

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Posted in Foreign Correspondence  •  5 Comments

The Long Tail of “The Long Decline”

Critical responses to André Alexis’s critique of Canadian literary criticism

Critical responses to André Alexis’s critique of literary criticism

Illustration by Neil Doshi
Illustration by Neil Doshi

The current, July/August issue of The Walrus includes an essay by André Alexis, “The Long Decline” (excerpted from House of Anansi Press’s forthcoming collection, Beauty and Sadness), which voices concern about the current state of Canadian literary criticism. Our newspapers publish less and less of it, and this loss, Alexis argues, robs our literary culture of an integral element: the communal activity of considering and evaluating literary works. Moreover, according to him, what remains of Canadian criticism has undergone “a kind of populist critical rebellion,” after which, “Our reviews have become, at their worst, about the revelation of the reviewer’s opinion, not about a consideration of the book… Reviews have turned into a species of autobiography, with the book under review being a pretext for personal revelation.”

Alexis singles out novelist and critic John Metcalf as a major instigator of this backlash against the supposedly elitist tradition of aesthetic critique, as Metcalf has “encouraged reviewers to vividly express their opinions, especially their unfavourable opinions, in the belief, first, that it leads to discussion and, second, that a pungent put-down is more entertaining.” Pungent put-downs and other unreflective expressions of opinion are now, Alexis laments, par for the course among the current generation of Canadian critics; he suggests that they move away from this sort of literary subjectivism and back toward the idea of shared aesthetic standards. The essay’s polemical tone and naming of names seemed sure to provoke — and certainly have. We document excerpts from the resultant, ongoing kerfuffle below. (more…)

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Posted in Chapter and Verse  •  10 Comments

Weekend Links No. 27

Recommended browsing from The Walrus Blogroll

Recommended browsing from the blogroll, featuring Octopush, G20 fallout, and potential disaster beneath the Grand Banks

Octopush — Underwater Hockey — Will Haunt Your Dreams” by Zach Dundas | GOOD Blog
Octopush is the strangest sport I’ve seen in a long time. The game is played almost exactly as you’d imagine underwater shinny — provided you imagine snorkelling, swimming-trunked combatants with miniature sticks trying to score a weighted puck into trough-like goals at opposite ends of a pool.

Canada’s year in the limelight, are we any cooler now?” by Louise Elliott | Inside Politics
The year is only half over, but 2010 is already a big one for Canada. We’ve hosted the world twice — first for the Olympics, then for the G8 and G20 conferences— and our banking system is the envy of a world still recovering from recession. As Elliott explains, however, there is a certain “smug” gap between how Canadians think of ourselves and how the rest of the planet perceives us.

Airplane! Turns 30: The Internet Reminisces” by John Hudson | The Atlantic Wire
Airplane!, recently counted among the greatest slapstick comedies of all time, recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday: and I swear the internet nearly crashed due to the glut of critic’s mash notes for the film. Hudson compiles the best of the bunch (and several ha!-ha! video clips).

What Is the Public Works Protection Act Anyway?” by Jean-Marc Leclerc | Slaw
The author, a partner at Toronto business law firm Osler, Harkin & Harcourt LLP, explains the Public Works Protection Act, the previously little-known Ontario law that became notorious during the G20 conference, when it was invoked to declare vast sections of downtown Toronto as “public works” — and therefore help police conduct warrantless searches of activists, anarchists, and everyday people.

Four journalists file police complaints” by Dana Lacey | J-Source
Pardon me: I almost forget journalists. Four reporters who covered Toronto’s G20 protests say they were beaten, arrested, and even threatened with rape while in custody. So much for the protective power of the press pass. (more…)

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