Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Year of the Podcast

I blame my boss.

It was our staff Christmas party last year, and our Christmas bonus for the second year running was an iPod. Now before you say something obvious-ish about getting iPods from the same person two years in a row, be informed that last year's iPod was a Video Nano, while the previous year was a Tie-clip shuffle.

I can't explain why the shuffle didn't have the effect that the Nano did, but upon receiving it I launched myself into a personal experiment in podcast listening (and viewing) which almost immediately turned into a full-on addiction. The amount I use my iPod for listening to music is a small fraction of the time I have my ear buds in place. I'm going to hazard a guess at 5% music, 90% podcasts, and 5% other uses.

For those who don't know the term, podcasts are essentially downloadable shows (audio or video), usually made by independent content providers (I.E. people in the comfort of their living rooms) but increasingly by small companies which manage to make money off of advertizing within podcasts and even by major media outlets (CBC is a leader in podcast access with many of their shows available for download.) They vary in length from a minute to over an hour. They vary in quality – not necessarily in line with the level of provider. They vary in content – the 'niche' audience aspect of podcasting is a key element, you can find shows on very specific topics. (Just go to the iTunes store and put any odd word into the search bar... a podcast will come up in the results.) They vary in frequency from daily, to "X" per week on no fixed release schedule, to once a week or once a month, or "whenever we feel like it". In many cases any given show's back-catalogue of episodes remains available for download online. And of as much importance as almost any other aspect, yet easily overlooked, iTunes has excellent management software, the details of which would take up a post of its' own. The simplest summary of what a podcast is that I have thought of is 'TiVo for talk-radio.' I know I just lost those for whom short-cutting the tech by referencing TiVo, is no shortcut; and those who have no love for talk-radio (podcasts are predominantly talk-based, but not exclusively.)

Okay, enough framing. That's not why I am writing. What I want to do is recommend my favourite podcasts for others to check out. A bit of a year-end list... made appropriate as I've just passed the one-year mark as a fan and advocate. I can't tell you how many different podcasts I've checked out over the last year, there are dozens which never lasted past the first few episodes. There are others that I liked at first and eventually bored or even outright sick of... "Sci-Fi Surplus" I'm looking at you. There are still others that had limited runs for reasons ranging from being serialized novels; to, the providers ran out of material; to, the hosts reached the end of their inspiration to continue – I will include a few of there in my honourable mentions, but to make my top recommendation list it must still be producing new episodes on some sort of schedule, no matter how informal. Another rather arbitrary rule – which I will practically break further down – I'm not including any TV shows that are made available as podcasts. I do download The Hour, Real Time with Bill Maher, and the Global BC News Hour, but this is the only time I'm mentioning them. I will however include a few radio shows that were originally available as podcasts. I will also be including video podcasts (technically vodcasts, but that's such a stupid name) that are purposed as podcasts. Anyhow, enough 'rules'! On with it!

First up, a few podcasts that are practically every day podcasts for me:

CBC Radio 3 Track of the Day – A mixed bag, but that's why I like it. It's always Canadian music, but beyond that it's up in the air. Each day one of the hosts picks a track, briefly justifies their choice, and then plays it. Sometimes 2 or 3 will back up on my iPod, but I always listen eventually and in a few cases I've found an artist who I've been inspired to find in the iTunes store. My latest discovery thanks to the track of the day – Zoe Keating. Check her out. Every noise you hear is cello... and it's all done with loops, so she can actually play each song live. Amazing stuff.

AC360 – I said I'd break the 'no TV' rule. But this is a slight difference. Anderson Cooper's CNN show is re-cut and re-purposed for podcast. Some content is podcast only. It's my preferred way to catch up on international (with a strong lean towards American) news analysis on a daily basis. The podcast format isn't particularly good for breaking news... at all. But it's a good way to start my day with a bit more of an in depth look at what happened in the world yesterday.

Canucks Video Podcast – Well, it's not quite daily, and days after games there are usually two podcasts. It's pretty much the same video material that is posted on their website, but it saves me the effort... oh the luxury of RSS.

Onion News Network & Onion Radio News – Again not quite daily, but between the two podcasts it's rare that one isn't available. If you aren't familiar with the Onion, do yourself a favour, check out their website. The funniest faux news-source available. And their podcasts are the cream of the crop. Particularly ONN. Each episode usually provides at least one true howler, and several subjugate chuckles as well. ORN is less reliably funny I find, and often (like their print material) the joke is the headline, so the rest is kind of a waste of time... but at 60 seconds an episode, I can afford to chance it.

60 Second Science – Scientific American's daily update on one item of Science News. Concise, usually delivered with a bit of whimsy, and pitched to be understood by someone with only rudimentary scientific knowledge. I have other sources for getting details, but this is usually where I hear about discoveries first.

Moving on...

The kind-of Top Ten:

Not really ordered beyond "My Absolute Favourite", "Six I'm always giddy about when a new episode arrives", and "Three more really good ones that I can round out a top ten with."

In reverse order...

"Three more really good ones that I can round out a top ten with."

The Moth – A rather new discovery for me, but apparently The Moth has existed for ages. It's a live storytelling event in New York and Los Angeles. It's now available as a podcast – one story a week, I believe, though I don't pay too close attention. The stories are usually 15 to 20 minutes long, often have no actual point and are regularly structurally flawed. But they are almost always amusing or touching. Some storytellers are charismatic. Many are Famous. Some storytellers are utterly off putting, like the Jewish comedienne who screamed her tale of woe about a lousy boyfriend, or the guy who told about being raised to be weird... and damn did it sound like the rearing had been successful. For the most part though it's a reliably satisfying listen.

It's All Politics – I rode this one through the primaries and right into the US election. It's been less entertaining since then, but for a weekly encapsulation of the political scene south of our border, its good listening. It's definitely left-leaning (which places it right of most Canadians) but manages to cover the good and the bad on both ends of the spectrum with good humour.

Savage Love – I've been a fan of Dan Savage's syndicated column for over a decade, but I have always found it hard to read on a regular basis. But his podcast version is far more entertaining. Imagine the same bleeding edge sexual advice being doled out in actual conversations. Dan actually phones the people on his podcast, he doesn't just write up a snide couple of paragraphs. He actually calls them and usually treats them with great respect... but not always – and that's often when it's most fun, 'cause usually they deserve it.

"Six I'm always giddy about when a new episode arrives" (In no particular order.)

TED Talks – Perhaps you are familiar with the TED Conference? I wasn't. Apparently, (I have totally gleaned this from context, not from actual facts.) every year a bunch of people gather together and share lectures with one another. The people are the greatest minds in their fields and they just get together to share ideas. I don't know who or how they get invited, and the scope of discussion is remarkable. Presenters have included; Al Gore (Before it was ever a film, An Inconvenient Truth was a TED Talk), Rick Warren (yes, THAT Rick Warren if you are up on current news – I just wanted to highlight the variation of speakers right off the top), to Thomas Dolby (Science!), Richard Dawkins, Steve Jobs, Dave Eggers, Jane Goodall, Bono and a bajillion (I exaggerate) other folks who you have never heard of. TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design" – though it doesn't seem to be that strict. One talk per podcast with a backlog of talks videotaped back to 2002. My one complaint... that by monetizing the podcast (I.E. Adding advertisements to the end of each.) after initially posting them, the old episodes are now seen as new episodes... which means iTunes wants to re-download the entire 400+ episodes all over again, and I can't faithfully recall all the ones I've already seen – particularly the ones I was least interested by. Argh.

This American Life – Chicago Public Radio's best loved program with good reason. As host Ira Glass explains each week "...we choose a theme and then bring you a variety of stories based upon that theme." The scope is spectacular. Every single week I hear a story that makes me think 'THAT is a film.' This past week, the 'film' was the true story of how the American Union of Real Bearded Santa Clauses (I shit you not) had a very disturbing and un-Santa-like internal political schism. Imagine – you can experience that kind of unbelievable reality every week.

Radio Lab – I kind of see Radio Lab as the This American Life of science... but that's not quite right. Each week they choose a subject – say 'time' or 'memory' or 'perception of self' or 'armageddon' or 'distance' or ' language' or ' DNA' (you get the idea) and then they do their best to come at it sideways. Often the subject itself is one that can really only sort of be attacked for popular consumption by abstracting it. Yet at the same time there is always an undercurrent of science. It's not hard science, it's not rigorous science. That would be hard to maintain when producing a seeming stream of consciousness exploration of a topic. Regardless, when Radio Lab is in its 'off' season, my listening options are not as fulfilling.

Movies You Should See – Sometimes you have to take issue with the show's recommendations of what 'Movies You should See' ("The 'Burbs" – are you kidding me?) but of all the shows in my top ten, it is the one that will give me the most reliable laughs. It is also one of the two podcasts in my top ten that is not professionally produced. Four Brits sit around their living room and talk about the chosen movie of the week... and whatever random discussion that follows from the core discussion. My one criticism of the show is the levels of 'IN' you need to have to fully appreciate it. But trust me; you'll 'get' it eventually. I could even try to help explain some of the in jokes – like how Bloom (Shorthand for Orlando Bloom) is such a bad actor that he actually sucks good acting off other actors who are nearby – he is a black hole of acting... as is 'Mannequin Skywalker' (Hayden Christensen to those of you on the 'out' side of things.)

To the Best of Our Knowledge – The triad is complete. This American Life, Radio Lab and To the Best of Our Knowledge. TTBOOK, as it is called, sits somewhere between the other two. It's the Radio Lab of social sciences. It is based more upon interviews than reporting, and is far less limited in its subject matter, both overall and even within its weekly theme. Unfortunately it is currently on hiatus and is re-airing some of the best shows of the past year... which isn't such a bad thing really except that it's a podcast, so if I wanted to hear the old episode I could just go download it. (Not everyone has fully grokked the nature of podcasting – even the providers who are transitioning from Radio to internet delivery.) To the Best of Our Knowledge might actually be my favourite of the three similar shows. I'm not sure why though; I just want it to come back soon.

Filmspotting – Another Chicago Public Radio offering. It's little more than a weekly movie review show. There are a few additional features – such as a top five list such as 'Top Five Films About High-School' or 'Top Five Actors Who Died in their Prime' and a weekly challenge to identify a snippet of dialogue from a beloved film as performed by the non-performer hosts. Occasionally the hosts travel to the TIFF or SXSW or Sundance and come back with interviews which they dole out at appropriate times too. For upcoming and current movies Filmspotting is my favourite source.

"My Absolute Favourite"

My number one favourite podcast is The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. It was one of the handful of podcasts I first downloaded without really knowing what I was getting into and if there was a podcast I listened to before it, I have forgotten. I was randomly searching the iTunes store for interesting stuff to sample and in the Science and Tech category I found a podcast name that intrigued me – Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. I had no idea what I was in for.

I could have decided to label 2008 as the year of rational thought – as it was my other big 'discovery' this year. I have clearly been a rationalist practically all of my life, but didn't realise it or that there is a formalized movement of rational thinkers in the world. Skeptic's Guide was my gateway drug. So, as it was podcasts that led me to my big awakening of the year, I choose to give them the honour of being the catalytic paradigm of note for 2008.

I began listening to the SGU in mid-December 2007 and was 'caught up' by late-April. Their early episodes were rough, but they soon found a groove. I found that the various personalities on the show evoked a variety of responses from me. I hated Perry originally, but later found that I laughed uproariously at his sense of humour more than anyone else's. (The show has never quite recovered from losing his presence.) I immediately loved Skepchick Rebecca (as did every geeky guy listener in the world, it seems) but as she began to believe in her own superstar status, I began to find her more and more tiresome. I don't think I could be alone. About the time I wrote an email complaining about her smug self-importance she seemed to calm down a bit – coincidence? (Oh ho! Rationalist humour!) I expect I could not have been alone in wearying of her egocentric legend. The lead-host Dr. Steven Novella is extremely well spoken and intelligent. His well practiced ability to dissect any argument down to its core principles is laudable. His younger brothers, the uber-geeky Bob who sports wood at the mention of the prefix 'nano', and my favourite, Jay who has a puerile sense of humour but is always the first to congratulate the others on a job well done. Last but not least there is Even Bernstein, who also puts time into producing the SGU's companion podcast "SGU 5x5" – a shorter, tighter, weekly podcast that alternates with the main one.

I have cried listening to the SGU (I won't spoil it for you; you simply have to listen in order from the beginning. I cried shamelessly, on public transit.) But more often I laugh and I always find it interesting if not usefully informative. Their guests have ranged from Richard Dawkins to President Jimmy Carter and included many names that would be familiar to the rationalist community and even a few names that any media savvy person would recognize. It is very conversational and feels like sitting in on a weekly chat with friends about the week's more preposterous 'science' and the social politics surrounding it.

Some Honourable Mentions for those of you who really just can't stop reading:

I could have filled up my top ten with Skeptical podcasts (Notice how I slipped SGU 5x5 in?) but I didn't feel it was good use of space. Skeptoid is perhaps a bit brash. Host Brian Dunning is very no nonsense, perhaps to a fault. But for 'just the facts' analysis of a range of topics, Skeptoid is excellent. Skepticality is kind of the 'touchy feely' skeptical podcast. Some excellent interviews – I particularly enjoy their ongoing relationship with secular lobbyist Lori Lippman-Brown, but the real highlight of Skepticality came from tragedy. Originally Derek was much more outgoing than his co-host Swoopy. But then – while at a podcasting conference dinner – he had a stroke. He survived. But it was left to Swoopy to continue. Swoopy blossomed, and while Derek is still a part of the show – and the show indeed was part of his recovery – Skepticality is Swoopy's show now. Listening to Derek's recovery and Swoopy's chrysalis unfold on the show was awesome. Also The Amazing Show is quite entertaining. Not consistently about skeptical thought, but it features the mac-daddy of skeptics, James Randi usually imparting some anecdote which occasionally has something to do with skepticism.

CBC has many podcasts as I noted earlier. Most have a lot to offer and I listen to about six of them, but only one makes my top ten. Podcasts of "As it Happens" and "Morning Edition" are merely single highlights from the most recent daily show. "Vinyl Cafe" – I largely listen to for Dave & Morely stories. "Ideas" was a limited series that I am slowly working my way through. "The Hour" is a truncated and chopped up version of the TV show.

Wait Wait Don't Tell Me – Chicago Public Radio scores again with NPR's current events quiz show. It's usually very funny, and occasionally I pick up a piece of news I'd previously missed.

Astronomy Cast – They posted their first episode the week Pluto quit being a planet, and slowly, week by week they have tackled a new astronomical subject. Sometimes I find it hard to fully understand – I've never fully appreciated the wave/particle duality except in a superficial kind of way. Other times it has clarified things I only mostly 'got' – The Theory of Relativity... I thought I understood it, but then listening to one episode I suddenly realised how cursory my knowledge of one aspect was. And still other times it expands upon the now outdated high-school astronomy (from the ground-based telescopes to the edge of the universe) that got me listening to the show in the first place.

Crash Test Kitchen – The lowest tech video podcast I watch. It's a very irregularly posted cooking show. Hosted by Woz and Lennie – a globetrotting pair of Aussies who have delivered episodes from no less than four countries (including Canada... actually, come to think of it they might be better characterized as 'Commonwealth trotting') from various kitchens where they have made all kinds of meals... some not very successfully and rarely without pissing each other off. Oh, the schadenfreude!

Geek Brief & Epic Fu – Two podcasts that are as market savvy as they are informative. Cali and Zadi, respectively, are each hotties who dish out a sampling of tech and web-culture news. Cali is more tech, Zadi more web. Put a scrumptious lady in front of a camera for the nerds to drool over as they get a fix on the news that is most important to them. An excellent choice. Cali has 3-5 minute shows a few times a week. Zadi is 10-12 minutes once a week. I'll watch them anytime... occasionally I'll listen to what they are saying.

In Our Time – A BBC radio show. Each week a group of experts is provoked into giving a much briefer explanation of the subject of the week than any of them ever seem comfortable giving. They would much rather expound about their specific sub-category of knowledge, but host Melvyn Bragg cajoles them on.

And finally, four shows that are on notice:

Slice of Sci-Fi – If I could find another shorter and less self-indulgent show to get my sci-fi entertainment news, I'd ditch this one in a moment. It's the THIRD podcast on the subject that I've tried, and certainly the most successful, but there is an air of unwarranted intellectual superiority about the geeks who want to do these types of shows that grates my last nerve. The consistent worst problem? They always seem to think that 'because I like it' should trump any networks business decision to cancel a TV show that isn't producing numbers. Doesn't mean the system isn't broken, but the underlying premise of their argument is just as broken.

Stuff You Should Know – Interesting, but I've had to quit calling it informative. You would think that a show called 'Stuff You Should Know' would have some rigour. Yet they give pseudo-science the journalistically corrupt 'equal time' and often have obvious gaping holes in their research. This past week – the proverbial straw – they were talking about plane crashes. They got around to the infamous Uruguayan rugby team who crashed in the Andes – the subject of the feature film "Alive," and mentioned that there was a documentary being made about and they'd have to see it when it comes out 'whatever they call it.' Well, it came out LAST YEAR and is called 'Stranded.' I saw it last year. I found it on line without using the title. A two word google search: "rugby cannibalism". I could go on with further damning detail, but the essence is clear... shamefully lazy reporting.

The Productivity Show – The irony of this podcast is remarkable. The original episodes, though not terribly focussed were quite useful and interesting. But gradually the regularity of release stretched further and further. Then the show was taken over by another host... who was less interesting, but more regular... for a while. I suspect no new episodes will ever surface. It has been months since the latest one.

John Cleese Podcast – Delightful. Such a mixed bag. Some short new sketches. Some direct to web-cam anecdotes. Some excerpts of lectures. Not one wasted moment in the entire batch. But I suspect that it too will never air another episode.

I have over 1200 backlogged podcasts on my hard-drive, and listen to an average of about 15 per day, but at least ten new ones download on the average day... and most of the backlogged podcasts are over 30 minutes in length, while at least ten of the 15 I burn through in the average listening day are under ten minutes.

It's going to be a long hill to climb. I thank my boss.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A New Farewell

It was an unusual weekend.

Exhausting, emotionally wrought, and yet I can't imagine not doing it.

This time last week word got to me that the Father of one of my best friends had suddenly passed away.

For me it was one of life's benchmarks. Not many parents of friends have died before now, and those who have passed away have done so in tragic and premature circumstances. This was different. John was 70. Still younger than one would hope, yet old enough that it is hard to make the argument that he didn't have a good run. On top of it, last year he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's had nothing to do with his death, he had a stroke. I am only speaking of myself, I would not presume to speak for John's family – my friends – when I say that on some level his sickness had sub-consciously prepared me for the eventual and the inevitable, but this was no less than years earlier than expected. It was a shock to hear he was gone, and it hit me hard. I underestimated how much it was affecting me when I called Demetri, Ruth and Frances. As I left a message for them on voicemail, I spoke out-loud for the first time some of the things that were racing through my mind, and that made them real, and I barely... okay, hardly at all, held myself together as I extended my condolences to them. While trying to throw out a buoy of support I was simultaneously discovering the mortality of my own parents. If I could do it over and save that phone call 'til after my own soul crushing realization, I would.

The next two days dove-tailed with my best Christmas present ever & the Trevor Linden jersey retirement (they are connected, directly and may be their own blog post), making for an emotional few days.

Friday night I hopped on a plane home to Prince George to attend the funeral service. The plane was delayed by nearly two hours due to weather. At the time that was a pain, but by now the weather across the country is keeping people stranded at airports for days, like some twisted hybrid of Kafka, The Terminal, Planes Trains & Automobiles and Castaway. I'm betting that Christmas Day at YVR is not what people had planned. I feel a bit cheap complaining about the two hours of lost sleep I had, considering the hassles some people are having.

Saturday morning came early. I had thrown out lines to a few people I don't normally see when I'm in PG, thinking that habits would persist and at best I'd only connect with one. It was a busy morning. Breakfast at 8am (after getting in at nearly 3) after which I squeezed in the obligatory shower and shave, followed by the proverbial second breakfast... okay it was really just coffee.

On my way to the service itself I had the realization that as sombre and occasion as it was, it was bound to be an awkward reunion with many people I had not seen – in some cases for twenty years or so. Dad pointed out that I had better get used to the idea, 'cause that is what life is going to keep doing to me, and that in many cases the people who I am reunited with will be people who I don't see again until the next funeral. Hadn't really considered that, but he's right. Don't feel guilty about it. It's the way it is.

I arrived at the church with minutes to spare. Got one of the last seats, seated beside a friend who I hadn't seen in five years or more.

The service itself was a first for me. Practically the first time I've been to a liturgical service. I have been to one vaguely religious funeral, but it was mostly lip-service – definitely lacking in ceremony. In any case this was definitely my first Trisagion – if that was indeed what it was.

Many of our theatre traditions find their origins in either the Catholic Church or Greece. That said, a Greek Orthodox Funeral is not particularly compelling theatre. But I did find it interesting in its own way. I definitely don't feel the need to attend another one in order to hone my appreciation though. Most significant to me was the music. I think technically it was chanting. I'm sure that someone better schooled in such things might delight in telling me just how wrong I am and that the subtleties are far from subtle, but it sounded an awful lot to me like music from a bit further East along the Silk Road. This is an old ceremony. Traditions that can be fairly qualified as 'ancient.' In my mind just more evidence of how close... how similar we all are, despite superficially different theistic traditions. Does it really require stepping outside of the theology to see it? It shouldn't.

It seemed that most of the people in attendance were not Greek Orthodox, though certainly that must have been the faith of the greatest number of attendees. One woman within arm's reach of me seemed to know the service very well and chanted along, crossed and bowed at what seemed every appropriate customary moment. I felt a bit guilty that it unnerved me so much. It must be an accepted part of most religions in the world now that we are so homogenized as a society that where once an entire village would attend the same church, that now in the most moderate sized western towns the variety of belief is wide and the intermingling so inevitable that there must be an acceptance that non-believers of some stripe are going to desire to come and show their respects and support to the bereaved. I have no great insight here – I am simply mildly curious what the development and history of this has been over the centuries.

If you have missed it, I am an atheist. Perhaps to be perfectly intellectually honest I'd have to call myself an agnostic or preferably a teapot or tooth-fairy (my preference) atheist. But it must be said that the church(es) make some really beautiful rooms. Garish, for sure – there's no way I'd want to have a shrine, let alone a chapel, for my living room – but it's hard not to appreciate the effort that goes into the decor. Fittingly this particular church was designed by John.

The eulogy was delivered by Demetri, and not too surprisingly it was the best eulogy I have ever heard. I have delivered two eulogies in my life. Two grandparents. It's a daunting proposition to try to sum up a lifetime in ten or twenty minutes. Undoubtedly impossible. Watching Demetri I appreciated why he – and I – are those in our families who are expected to do such things. Writing and presenting are our trades. But that should not be confused with neither the entitlement to the honour, nor the actual ease of the responsibility. I expect to be expected to deliver again, and I now have seen the bar raised and will try to do better than I ever have before, and without an underlying feeling of disgruntledness (yeah, whatever – even writers experience a failure of vocabulary on occasion) or anger at the belief that I should be the one to do it. (Indeed if and when the time comes that I am asked again and there is someone fitting who is up to the challenge, please step forward, I look forward to sharing the responsibility with others as much as possible.)

Back to Demetri. His eulogy did everything it needed to. It provided a brief & essential history of John's life; identified the core of his character; made us laugh; gave personal and heartfelt insight (the real payment for giving a eulogy is the opportunity to share these); and provided us with guidance in how to fill the space where John was with the best memories and lessons of his life. But on top of it all, Demetri aspired and reached a level of art in his structure. By the end he had seemingly effortlessly returned to his starting point from a new direction, simultaneously tying in the most personal sentiment – which had appeared at approximately the 1/3 mark – as he reached his final sentence. It had been pitched at a near perfect emotional level and the people gathered could have gladly listened for as long, yet again. Without the structural flourish it would have been excellent and dynamic, and perhaps I am the only one to have noticed – or appreciated it technically... and to feel a tinge of guilt at analyzing it, but that extra level elevated it to a true work of beauty.

Although we didn't get into it, I expect that my companion on my walk to the reception at the family home also noticed the structural divinity of the eulogy. He too is a writer. Paul and I walked together. It's not far, but it was -27c. As Prince George ex-pats we had to do the trip in two parts, stopping for coffee and heat roughly half way.

The house was very full when we arrived, and sure enough every third person was someone I hadn't seen in years. It was an odd layer of joy to add into the mix.

After the reception – when I left with a group of three there was a single couple left – I went home to dinner with my Dad and his wife, Kay. A damned good dinner too. Simple, but very hard not to go back for seconds. It's Christmas, it's best to avoid the extra helpings right now.

After dinner we watched some hockey and curling – how Canadian – before bed. Pretty much as I arrived in the bedroom Demetri called. He came over for a few quiet hours. I had come primarily to support him (and his Mom and sister) and the understandable chaos of the service and reception had naturally limited our opportunity to talk. A week earlier we had expected that we'd see each other in Vancouver in the new year (and may still, but it will be extremely truncated) but circumstances have changed, resulting in both an entirely new category of things to share and a paucity of time to do so in. It was good he came by, despite both of us being exhausted and neither of us having a night ahead in which we could get much sleep. He had an early morning breakfast with visiting family. I had an equally early flight to catch.

The talk was good. We didn't even talk too much about the preceding week. Some. Not much. We'd spoken a few times while in the thick of it, and I'd got a chance to glean where he was at – what he was experiencing. I expect there will be more once the season has passed and there is time for processing. It could take years to really get it all.

As far as 'being there for him' I felt like most of the evidence of what I had come there for was in the procession out of the church. I gave his Mother a hug – she was remarkably cheerful, I suspect the sheer out-pouring has been an on-going process and the number of people there at the church was a lift to her spirits – and then I proceeded to Demetri. We didn't say much. We just hugged and his voice broke as he thanked me for being there.

Zoi se mas.

My flight home was delayed. It was too cold. The de-icing fluid was freezing.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"Well, tonight, thank God it's them, instead of you."

Twenty Four years... damn.

I remember whern I first heard 'Do They Know it Christmas?' I was in my grade 10 Algebra class and because we'd collectively done well at a recent quiz we got to listen to the radio while we worked on our latest set of quadratic equations.

Some kids in the class had already heard the song and word passed around quickly that it was a song by a bunch of British musicians to raise money for starving people in Africa.

I recall thinking that it was rather partonizing and had to think 'wait a second... there are large portions of Africa which while poor are hardly starving' or something to that effect. C'mon, I was fifteen, there was no internet, while not really anymore accurate than the information I was getting from the song, the essence of what was going on in my head was right.

Let's also put into perspective that beyond having grown up with Unicef ads telling me that I could sponsor a child in Bangladesh for less than 50 cents a day, I was really not in touch with third world suffering. Yes, I do know Bangladesh is not in Africa - but I don't know that I knew the difference in 1984. And that is part of the point... I didn't know. Over the next year I - like so many - would learn a lot. The short term legacy of that song would be phenomenal.

The effect in Ethiopia specifically was, as we now know, minimal. Some lives were saved, or at least prolonged, but an enormous amount of money was lost to logistical failures in distribution and localized corruption. But awareness was raised. A spirit of humanity was evidenced that has never really disappeared. The song has been rerecorded twice since. Various similar projects like "We Are the World" (talk about patronizing) and "Tears are Not Enough" (the Canadian artists' response.) appeared to do their part. And of course there was Live Aid.

Live Aid itself could fill volumes. From the career making performance of U2, to the follow up Live8 (where Bob Geldof recognized that awareness was more valuable than money & didn't even try to raise funds with it.)

The long tail of 'Do They Know its Christmas?' is truly remarkable. I wonder if Midge Ure and Bob Geldof had a clue when they put it together?

But the legacy that I think may actually be the most important, is that they created a song that would transcend it's origin to become a genuine non-secular carol. Non-secular? Yes. I contend that it is, despite the title of this post, and a reference to prayer in the lyrics. It's a song that goes beyond those cursory and largely metaphorical images and speaks to the things that many agnostic and atheists - I'll even go so far as to say 'non-Christians' - find in the yultide season.

It's a time of expanding our awareness to think of the plight of those less fortunate and to celebrate the abundance each of us has for ourselves and our families. These are all standard Christmas platitudes, and I don't want to get buried in my own maudlin musing, but the chorus of "Feed the world... Let - them - know - its - Christ - mas - time..." is hard to hear without singing along and or getting it stuck in your head. And it bears more of the spirit of the 'reason for the season' than the typical non-religious carol - most of which are seasonal novelty songs (Eg. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer", "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" or "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.")

Considering how bastardized the entire holiday has become, it's nice to have a cornerstone upon which the loftier morals of the holidays can be built without having to turn to the ecclesiastical. 'Cause "in our world of plenty, we can spread a smile of joy."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Prorogation – Right or Wrong, is it even smart?

I really really have to stop myself from teeing off at length about Stephen Harper's various declared mistruths and fallacies to the Canadian public over the past several months. (To say nothing of anything he actually did before and immediately leading up to this autumn's election.)

I am not happy with him as our Prime Minister. I would not be happy with Stephane Dion as our Prime Minister either. I don't even really consider Jack Layton or Gilles Duceppe as realistic options regardless of my feelings.

Any contention that a coalition is unfair, unjust or (this one really just fucks me off) illegal is either misguided, misinformed or an outright lie.

I don't think a coalition would be particularly functional, but there is only one way to know. Apparently it works really well in Switzerland. So let's assume that it's hasty to assume. One thing that is for certain is that a coalition is perfectly legit. It has been a part of our Parlimentary system from the outset and while it has been nearly 70 years since Canada last operated under one it has been a valid option under every minority government since Confederation.

While I'm on the subject of how our political system works, and before I get to my main point, there is a pair of polemic fallacies that are being lofted by each side. The boiled down version of each are as follows. On the pro-coalition side of the debate: "The majority of Canadians did not vote for Harper." On the anti-coalition side "No one voted for a coalition." Both of these statements are correct on the surface, but the implicit argument of both is utterly false for exactly the same reason. That is because of how our government is elected. This is important and it seems easily overlooked. It appears as though through a combination of common parlance (Eg. "I'm voting for Harper." Or "I voted for Trudeau.") and associative assumptions gleaned from the highly visible elective process of the United States, that people seem to not realise who/what they vote for. Think back to October 14th. On your ballot, did you see any of the following names? Stephane Dion, Steven Harper, Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe, Elizabeth Green? The answer is "no" (Unless you happen to live in – respectively; Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, Calgary Southwest, Toronto-Danforth, Laurier-Sainte Marie or Central Nova; and even then you only would have had one of them on your ballot.)

We in Canada vote for our local representative in the House of Commons. They (typically) each belong to a party. Collectively they determine who the government is. If there happens to be a majority of one party's representatives (MPs) it's pretty much a given that they will declare that they will declare their party leader as Prime Minister. Otherwise, it is all up for grabs. Under MOST minorities the party with the most seats is able to leverage an agreement with at least one of the lesser represented parties to agree with them in principle and support the leader of the better represented party as Prime Minister. This works under the understanding that more Canadians supported that party's representatives than any other. But this is nothing more than a courtesy. There is NO obligation to do this. It in itself is the simplest form of coalition. There is nothing stopping any other combination of parties – or even individuals if they desire to split from the party lines – who believe that they can collectively act in the best interest of the Canadian public from appointing a Prime Minister from among their ranks (presumably the leader of the largest party group within them) if they have the political will and force of numbers (I.E. a majority) to do so.

So, back to those two statements. "The majority of Canadians did not vote for Harper." True. Of course the only Canadians who could live in Calgary Southwest. But at it's heart, the unspoken premise of this argument is "Canadians did not elect a majority of Conservative MPs." Which is essentially irrelevant. We elect MPs of whatever stripe. THEY determine what the make up of the government is, no matter what constitutional avenue is excercised to do so. On the other side, "No one voted for a coalition." Again, this is technically correct. Put aside all facetious arguments such as "Of course not, 'Coalition' was never on the ballot." (Sorry Mom, I know that particular witticism was yours.) This is a false attempt at attacking a straw man... which I believe makes it a straw man in it's own right. It argues that 'coalition' was never an option. This is, frankly, complete bullshit. Coalition is ALWAYS an option. It just happens to be an option that is not often used in the sense that the people using the argument mean it. It may not be on the ballot, but tacitly it is a standard part of our political process. Furthermore, it is precisely what would allow Harper's minority government to exist – a coalition. Arguably a less stable one than what was planned by the opposition parties this week. Harper's minority government would be operating at the pleasure of the opposing parties, and thus would require agreement from at least one of them on any given vote – a defacto and ever shifting coalition without officially agreed upon terms (unlike the agreement proposed for coalition this past week).

Neither argument is really saying what it actually means. This confuses the issue as such equivocation results in a lot of wasted effort arguing about meaningless frivolities rather than getting to the point.

A coalition, like it or hate it (there doesn't seem to be much 'love' for it) is a valid and legal option. AND... before the anti-coalition side jumps down my throat for apparent non-partizanship... to the best of my understanding, so is proroguing Parliament.

However, I think proroguing Parliament is a worse choice.

For starters, delaying action on the current financial crisis is a mistake. We seem to be one of the countries who are least affected by ('least', not 'un' affected) and we are not only allowing it to gain traction within our borders, but we are losing our advantage without. This is merely my limited perspective. I am no economist, it is also hardly germane to my main point.

From Harper's position, what is he thinking? It strikes me as a singularly cowardly approach. Does he actually expect the other parties to back down in January? It doesn't look good on him, and can only put him in danger of squandering the limited advantage he has. For what? To hold on to his vestige of power another six weeks? If he had simply allowed the coalition to take control, it would have had a limited shelf life. It's inevitable. That would only have made voting for a stonger Conservative government look like a good option to a large number of Canadians. Yet by throwing the equivalent of a political hissy fit, he does nothing to improve his image. (Much to the long term delight of the other parties.) At best he is merely putting off the inevitable and making himself look worse in the eyes of the majority of Canadians who did not vote for him, and alienating the fringe of those who did. By proroguing Parliament he will find himself facing either an election or a coalition in January. The latter will lead to an election in the end too, but his party will be best served in either case to not enter the next election with him at the helm. Again... what was he thinking?