Friday, August 30, 2013

Bottled up

A bottle's purpose is simple enough: to keep stuff inside it from escaping and getting mixed up with stuff outside it. Not an inspirational mission, although a necessary one. Try imagining the world without it.

For most of human history, bottles weren't exciting. In fact for a long time they were rare -- things were contained in jars. Such bottles as existed weren't fancy. In the ancient world, empresses and prostitutes kept perfumes in simple glass bottles. Glass itself was a luxury.

In fact, as far as I know, it wasn't until the Art Deco era that perfume bottles -- especially those designed by Lalique -- became art objects in themselves.

Beyond that, though, bottling remained in its own stone age. A beer bottle was a beer bottle. Wine bottles were limited to a few cliché shapes. The classic Coca-Cola bottle was a refreshing attempt to break out of the routine, but it didn't start a trend. Who can remember clearly what a Royal Crown Cola or Canada Dry bottle looks like?

Nowadays, though, glass (and even plastic) bottles are enjoying a Golden Age -- well, a Translucent Age. They've become aesthetic pleasures; minor and transient, perhaps, but pleasures.
What has made the difference? Designer water.

A few decades ago it became fashionable, then (for some) a necessity to consume only natural spring water. Tap water was for the poor we have always with us. Gold Card Hippies weren't about to insult their insides by drinking any hydrogenated oxygen other than the ideal Platonic utopian mondo perfecto item.

Merchants saw a bottle ... er, a need and filled it. There was one problem. The Pure Water industry has low barriers to entry. You can import water from Fiji or New Zealand glaciers or 25,000 feet up Mount Everest, but pure is purely pure. Than which there is no whicher.

Which left only one marketing ploy: the bottle.

Hear my confession. I love many of the containers designed for absolute water (not to be confused with Absolut Vodka, as if you could). I've paid too much for water just because the bottle increased my enjoyment of it. The phenomenon is illogical but real. Long may it live.

But will familiarity eventually breed contempt? Will our Green Puritans ban these flights of fancy because much of the human race still must import its water from wells in wooden buckets, or from bacteriologically differently abled streams?

Already there are signs that the designer bottle is reaching its fin-de-siècle, decadent stage. A chap in England named Alan Bennett has created one analogous to a Moebius strip, with neither inside nor outside.

Drinking from it is not recommended. But if you do, give my greetings to the White Rabbit.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The rest is noise

Media commentators have no end of explanations of why our society seems to lack creative, or even sensible, ways to deal with national and international problems. We can't find a reasonable compromise or solution that sort of works: in the now-inescapable phrase, we "kick the can down the road," go for a holding action that will stave off the debacle a little longer.

This tendency is blamed on bad education, low-information voters, the debasement of politics to the level of professional (i.e., show business) wrestling, and numerous other factors. All those probably play a part, but there's another that may be even more basic -- noise. Life gets louder, sound more pervasive all the time, and noise keeps us from thinking.

It's hard to imagine now, but only a few hundred years ago, the environment (except in wartime battles) was close to silent. Nothing was much louder than human voices, and they were spoken at a lower volume than today, not having to compete with so many other sound sources. Nowadays it's not unusual when an exterior shot in a period film, complete with expensive actors, costumes, and props, has to be cut in the middle of a take because a jet plane flies overhead.

Noise pollution began with the Industrial Revolution and the factory system, but even their racket carried only so far. They say that horses' hooves and the metal wheels of carriages made for quite a din as they struck stone pavement, and possibly today's cars are quieter -- but big trucks and construction equipment aren't.

We entered a new era in the lifetimes of many of us when designers began deliberately creating environments to maximize noise. Restaurants used to have carpeted floors and sound-absorbing curtains, but now so many create a space where you have to shout to be heard thanks to bare stone or concrete floors and walls.

This trend is based on an untested assumption, that customers who grew up listening to rock music associate loudness with having a good time. That's probably true for some people, but what percentage? Has anyone ever done an objective focus group on the subject? Has any bar or restaurant experimented to see what the reaction, if any, would be by pumping down the volume?

Consider an analogous phenomenon, the TV monitors that are now in every public space, as if occupants will go mad without a telly around. Here we can get clues just by watching behavior. My observation is that, say in an airport lounge, almost no one pays attention to the idiot boxes -- all the more so now that smart phones, iPads, and tablets are typically among the clobber travelers carry. Even anyone who might otherwise be captivated by the big screens (almost inevitably tuned to CNN) can choose his own selected entertainment.

Getting back to the ubiquitous noise ... doubtless some people like it, or expect it. But unless someone does a methodologically sound (for once, no pun intended) study, we'll never know how many hate it. Introverts and the psychically sensitive "feel" noise powerfully; too much of it, and too loud, makes them tense. And while they may think so, introverts are not a tiny fringe of the population. For that matter, most people are at least a little psychic whether they realize it or not. It's just that our culture doesn't recognize this segment's needs because the entrepreneur/builder types are extraverts. 

If the designers of public spaces were as fanatical about creating quiet zones as they are about no-smoking zones, thinking and reading and quiet conversation would have a better chance. And so would our future.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The writing on the wall

Rembrandt: Belshazzar's Feast

As many as six Colorado counties may vote to secede from the state.

Not since West Virginia split from Virginia, to side with the Union in the 1861-1865 war, has part of a state taken its leave.

The bi-coastal commentariat will find the idea a hoot. Even if all six counties vote for separation, they'll say, it's meaningless symbolism. The state legislature and Congress  (both dominated by the Leftist Politburo) will have to ratify the move. Not bloody likely. If by some remote chance that came to pass, the federal courts would waste no time declaring it unconstitutional.

So why does it matter? It matters because this is how landslides start, with a rolling pebble. It matters because it shows The Resistance is more than just talk. That there are still people who intend to hold the line against the cancerous growth of Washington's control of American law and life.

The alliance of the banking patriarchs with political commissars has attained a domination unknown in the nation's history, embracing every institution from grade schools through the media to the thousand-geared regulatory bureaucracy. What could it possibly fear?

Only a few words on the wall.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Canadian capers

Your blogger at a town called Niragaga or something.
There's supposed to be a waterfall here, but never
could find it.

One more posting about What I Saw in Ontario, and then my latent merciful qualities will kick in and there will be no more concerning the recent visit. Even this entry has no specific subject -- it's just an unorganized series of perceptions, almost certainly including some that are wrong. Observing an unfamiliar place is registering narrow slices, like an MRI scanner. (True of familiar places as well, but the slices add up to a bigger picture, also like a series of MRI images.)
Southern Ontario is the economic heartland of Canada, so it is one of the more developed areas. It hardly looks different from the United States -- the high-rise buildings, shopping malls, restaurants, and many of the retail shops will be familiar to Yanks. It's not the place to go for an exotic vacation (and we understood that beforehand, so it was no disappointment).

Most of my human encounters involved people in the tourist trade, who had a commercial motive for being agreeable; still, it seemed genuine. Almost everyone was polite, and some friendly. Many Canadians dislike the U.S. and Americans, but in no case did it spill out into rudeness. This civility is Canada's most appealing quality for me.

Restaurant meals were good at their respective price points.
Toronto is full of gleaming new skyscrapers, but thanks to an online acquaintance who lives there, I had a list of historic buildings remaining downtown. They are dwarfed by the modern construction and you probably would miss most of them without guidance, but these remnants of the early city (called, incidentally, York in the old days) escaped the wrecker's ball and seem now to be restored and esteemed. My wife and I had a drink in the lounge at the Royal York Hotel, a well-preserved 1920s structure where I stayed the only previous time I was in town, for a conference. 

The hotel I booked for this visit was "uptown," in the Yorkville area near the Royal Ontario Museum. Yorkville is cool and fashionable, seemingly inhabited and visited by bourgeois bohemians. A pleasant but not distinctive part of town -- why do people who have money to blow insist on shopping and looking just like those of the same social stratum everywhere? You'd think wealth would give them the freedom to be different. But despite paying over the odds for clothing, massages, hip bars, etc., they are more conformist than ordinary people.
Nothing can diminish the majesty of Niagara Falls; everyone should make an effort to see it at least once. But the commercial district in the town of Niagara Falls, Canada, is appalling. (Niagara Falls on the U.S. side, which we didn't visit, might be worse -- no, couldn't be worse.) Trashy stores and "attractions" line Clifton Hill Road, pounding out loud pop music and carnival-like recorded pitches to come in and come out with lighter pockets, which plebs by the thousands seem happy to do. The vulgarity of the scene is enough to convince you, if you're not already, that there is zero hope for civilization.

The city or the provincial government or whoever is responsible for zoning has obviously decided that the falls are a cash cow that must be exploited to the full. In pursuit of sales and hotel tax revenue, they have turned the surroundings into a playpen for juveniles of all ages. We can only hope that someday good taste will level almost everything on Clifton Hill Road and nearby streets.

Although the city of Niagara Falls is a magnet for the dregs of two nations (not to mention from every continent), a few miles away is Niagara-on-the-Lake, which draws the carriage trade. It's beautifully landscaped, the old houses and stores preserved and restored. Restful for the eyes, but almost as crowded as Niagara Falls in season.
The Queen Elizabeth Way follows the Lake Ontario shore between Toronto and Niagara Falls. Thanks to industrial and office development, the lake is obscured for much of the distance. However, the lovely town of Burlington -- about 20 miles from Niagara on the western curve of the lake -- is less pretentious and "twee" than Niagara-on-the-Lake but as attractive in its way. Among its pleasures are several lakeside parks, in addition to the one right downtown. 

We had a park almost to ourselves. It was the former grounds of the mansion (still standing) of a captain of industry, who could look across the lake to Hamilton and admire his steelworks. But the immediate surroundings were peace itself. Black squirrels cavorted, ducks (one followed by three cute ducklings) glided over an inlet from Lake Ontario, swans arched and dipped their periscope necks. Sun reflections created a shifting meshwork of light on the water's surface.
Road signage is terrible. Canada is globalized but the highway department hasn't caught on; they still assume it's the local traffic of 50 years ago. Don't go without a good map (which you'll have to buy; even the tourist offices just give you booklets that show you where the businesses are). The highways are shy even about telling you which one you're on, let alone what's up ahead and where you need to turn to get to, say, the Toronto Pearson Airport. The only exception is pointers to tourist sites, including wineries (I had no idea there were so many in Ontario). Why do tourism bureaus spent millions of dollars advertising in magazines and on TV to lure visitors, and then can't be bothered to help them find their way around? Penny wise, pound foolish.

Speaking of money, just about everything is eye-wateringly expensive, mainly because of taxes: as best I could calculate, about 15 percent on everything, plus an add-on at major tourist destinations. Filling three-quarters of the gas tank of the rental car (a mid-size Chevy Cruze) before returning it cost CDN$75 (a buck or two cheaper in U.S. money).  I hope Canadians appreciate how much I contributed to funding their "free" medical care. Maybe that's one reason they were friendly.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Can Canada succeed as a multi-cultural country?

The evening we arrived in Toronto, our taxi driver took us on a roundabout route through Forest Hill, a residential district of million-dollar houses, many with the Tudor-ish look of old England. Very passé, though obviously still popular with some of the city's movers and shakers. The driver explained that it was the next-to-last day of the Caribbean Carnival and many streets were blocked off to accommodate the bejewelled and befeathered dancers and bongo pounders, necessitating our detour.

He was a friendly chap and wanted to make us feel good in wonderland. "Our schools have kids who speak 160 languages," he said, and said it with pride, as Canadians do. It struck me as probably an exaggeration, even if you assume he meant lots of different kids rather than a handful who could converse in 160 tongues. Still, with Canada's bid to become the world, maybe it was the simple truth.

I guess Toronto is the most multi-cultural city on earth. For variety of ethnicity and national origins it beats even New York. Except for the residue of native-English-speaking occupants, everybody speaks with a foreign accent (even when speaking English, or something resembling it) that has to be quickly analyzed and interpreted by the visitor if any communication at all is to take place.

In most U.S. cities, you grow accustomed to standard American English plus a handful of variants: black speech, latino speech, maybe Asian or something. In Toronto, not only do you constantly encounter foreign accents, but dozens of different ones, in quick succession. You have no sooner adjusted or tried to adjust to one manner of speaking than you are quickly dealing with a different manner. And of course you're constantly surrounded by non-English spoken and written languages.

I cannot say how Torontoans react to this, but for the visitor from a less-advanced country than Canada, one that still has a dominant culture, the psychological effect is peculiar indeed. At the same moment, you could be almost anywhere, but you're nowhere at all in particular.

The locals believe that it works, that they've found the answer to all social ills involving ethnicity. And it's probably true that if multi-culturalism can work anywhere, Canada is that place -- for the following reasons:

1. Canada has a long history of being divided into two cultures, the English and the French. For a while, in the '60s and '70s, it looked like heating up into a moosehead version of the Irish Troubles. But although there's still a wide cultural and political gap between the "two solitudes," a certain amount of common sense has prevailed, mainly because the Québecois get all kinds of financial aid from the federal government. A break-up would put paid to the arrangement so favorable to the French, and the dwindling English population thinks it would be the universe's last day if Québec seceded.

2. I don't know if it applies to French Canada, but English Canada has never had much of an identity. At most it was a watered-down Britishness. Unlike Americans, English Canadians have never been emotionally committed to a historic ideal.

3. English Canadians are mild and polite, like the English English used to be, and don't know how to say no when they should. They've inherited one of the less attractive traits of the British, deference to superiors (whether government bureaucrats or immigrants). They quickly learn the party line and are happy to regurgitate it.

Learning what is expected of a good Multi Cultist is made much easier by The Globe and Mail, which bills itself as "Canada's National Newspaper." Its political correctness reaches comical heights, and it encourages (perhaps requires) the same in readers who send letters to the editor. Herewith, a published letter urging the establishment of a national holiday to be called "Multiculturalism Day":
Few of us have a single culture in our families any more and even less of us will have them going into the future. We're not just seeing records broken in the number of immigrants but in the scope of their national origins, and I think that is something to be proud of. More than anything else, I see Canadians as a patchwork, it's getting more intricate by the day and that comes from celebrating each other.
I saw no evidence of Canadians celebrating each other; what I observed was each ethnic group celebrating itself and white Canadians celebrating everyone other than themselves. It appears that there is little overt friction between the patches referred to by the correspondent. As far as I could determine, Canada and even Toronto lack the constant background of racial violence that Americans enjoy. On the surface, calm reigns. 

The question is, what lies under the surface? Genuine acceptance and goodwill, or surrender to government repression?

Toronto has a subway system, whose virtues (like those of the Washington Metro) are that it is less filthy than New York's and it moves masses of people squeezed together. James Howard Kunstler would love it, since it strikes a blow for high density against the horrors of suburbs.

At the station entrance nearest our hotel, and doubtless at all stations, there is a notice from both the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Tribunal (tribunal! Hello, Citizen Robespierre!). It spells out the usual multi-cultural boilerplate, about all people being entitled to respect and freedom from offense regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, previous condition of servitude, hair color, sports team supported, etc. Anyone with an IQ in triple digits understands the code, though: if you offend an immigrant or member of the "First Nations" (those who used to be called Eskimos in the bad old racist days) your life will be made miserable from then on by the Commission and Tribunal and various other enforcers.

At the moment Toronto is in the sweet spot. It seems prosperous, and many of the immigrants are new enough that they haven't had time to learn how to game the system to their advantage. Currently the signs are in English and French; what happens when the Middle Eastern Muslims demand that they be in Arabic? When the Chinese and Koreans demand their own schools? When Africans want state-supported African community centers? Check back in 10 or 15 years before concluding that Canada's diversicrats have squared the circle.

A country whose people have the benevolent feelings toward one another that the international and inter-racial cheerleaders insist will be the fruits of their policies would not need a Human Rights Commission or Tribunal. Smooth relationships among all the groups would come about naturally and organically -- if the population replacers are right. We'll see about that "if."

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Mesopotamia" at the Royal Ontario Museum

The various cultures (Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian and loads of others) collectively called Mesopotamia stretched over a period from about 3,500 BC to the conquest by Persia around 500 BC. About this big-time civilization (or if you prefer, these civilizations) most of us are woefully ignorant. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has set out to bring it to life for us, and I was glad to have the chance to visit the exhibition last week. I'm not sure whether the artifacts collected for the show, some on loan from the British Museum, added a great deal to my understanding but they enhanced my apprecation.

Mesopotamia means "between the rivers" (in Greek, I think), and although the area extended farther in its heyday, it was generally centered on the Tigris and Euphrates, which the unhappy country of Iraq now occupies.

The items on view included pottery, most of which I confess having been indifferent to; jewelry -- it's amazing how similar it remains from era to era, the only significant difference being that it used to adorn men as well as women; and above all, sculpture.

The Mesopotamian cultures, especially the late Babylonian one, had a remarkable flair for cutting rock and bricks to produce images of power, violence, fantasy, and magic. Some of those at the British Museum are so massive that it would not have been feasible to bring them to Toronto, but the ones displayed in the ROM exhibition are as bold as you could ask for.

Among other things, they show warfare of times well before what we usually think of as the ancient world. The technology has changed drastically, but in essence what they picture is -- alas -- not unlike what you can see today in movies and the TV news. 

One of the sculptors' artistic devices was to show scenes from a battle in successive images. (Medieval Italian painters often used a similar technique, showing important episodes in the life of a saint in the same picture.) The exhibition designer cleverly had someone make animations of these scenes, realistically colored, so you could follow the story better. There was also a large-screen digital animation taking us on an aerial and ground tour of Babylon with its ziggurat terraced palace and the famous Ishtar Gate.

The ROM is a hodge-podge of art, paleontology, gems and minerals, and more. Without the time or energy to see all the museum's contents, I decided to check out the classical galleries. The Roman section wasn't up to much, but the Greek collection was surprisingly comprehensive. Not quite up to the standard of the Met in New York or the British Museum, let alone the Archaeological Museum in Athens, but your attention is amply (or amphorically) rewarded. It's hard to believe so many splendid painted vases from ancient Greece have survived. And amazing to consider that what remains is surely only a small fraction of what was created.

But I was also dissatisfied with some aspects of the ROM. I won't go into the architectural vandalism represented by the new, edgy, cool modern addition that literally cuts into the Renaissance revival facade of the old building. Blockbuster-exhibition museums, or "destinations" in the language of tourism marketers, have lost the plot. They don't know where to draw a line that needs to be drawn if they are to be more than entertainment venues.

Their biggest sin is giving the viewer too much information. Too much text painted on the walls. Videos with sound tracks of talking heads explaining stuff, interspersed with the exhibits. Museums should be -- used to be -- places to go and look at things in a contemplative atmosphere. They've been turned into classrooms without seats.

But a museum can't, and ought not to try to, make you an expert on what you're seeing. It should be stimulating but not overstimulating. Some brief informative notes are helpful, but that's enough.

These shows like "Mesopotamia" tend to take the mystery out of the artifacts, leaving little room to connect imaginatively with them. We owe the forces of nature, craftspeople, and artists the respect to let them speak for themselves.

Saturday, August 03, 2013


On vacation for the next week, back August 10. Posting will probably be light until my return.

Friday, August 02, 2013

House guest

This little fellow is staying at our house while his owner is dealing with some trouble. He's called Homer, after the Greek poet, and has the energy of a jet engine. He's a few weeks old, and nothing is safe from his playful attention. 

Below is a photo of a remarkable event: Homer snuggling up to Matisse. The two normally wrestle with and chase each other around -- pointless to wonder if they're playing or fighting: neither concept means anything to cats. But it's heartening to see them together resting peacefully.

The world is in no better shape today than it was at the time of the last posting, but I just don't feel like writing a view-with-alarm entry. Other creatures remind us that there is a natural world beyond our concerns and opinions. Cats are neither kind nor wicked. They are cats, and I'm glad that whatever source created everything made them.