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Marshall McLuhan, Her, and the Operating System

I have had difficulty putting together a review I wish to write for the 50th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.   The book is already a classic for many reasons, one of which is the proposition that “the medium is the message,” another being the idea of a global village, of a planet of individuals brought close together electronically.    There is so much going on in the book — How often does one find MAD magazine referenced in the same book as E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India and T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock? —  that I will leave a longer treatment for later.

Wake Up (2008) 20x24"

Wake Up (2008) 20×24″

This morning the light bulb that is normally switched off above my head lit up and prompted this current, preliminary review.   For some reason I was thinking of Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her.  When I watched it a week or so ago I thought it was rather ingenious for the fictional way it depicted the real dependence many of us have on our laptops, smartphones, or whatever our preferred telecommunications gadget might be, but ultimately on our “operating systems.”  Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian, “In Spike Jonze’s postmodern pastoral about a man who dates his operating system, digital affairs are as sensual – and heartbreaking – as the real thing”.   If I may be so bold, I believe McLuhan would have recognized that “digital affairs” are the “real thing,” real life examples of precisely what McLuhan meant by “the medium is the message.”  And they are not “affairs.”  They are weddings of the most sacred order.  The suggestion in Her that many of us have become so dependent upon our “operating systems” that we cannot live without them is not a metaphor.  It is a fact of life.  A breakdown of our operating systems — just one or two hours without access to the Net — will  enrage some individuals, a possibility that is more intense and just as real as the sad discovery for others (such as Her’s  Theodore Twombly) that their girlfriend, boyfriend, or significant other, is calling it quits.   Thus the genius of Jonze’s film, and the brilliance of McLuhan’s Understanding Media.

But before leaving this preliminary review there is a more local (Vancouver) event that I would like to relate to Understanding Media.  It is the forthcoming “Car Free Day” on June 15, a.k.a. Father’s Day.  McLuhan had wonderfully insightful things to say about the impact of the mass-produced automobile on society by 1964.  In his view, the most overlooked aspect of the gas-powered car was the fact that it made humans ‘supermen,’ in the sense that it allowed them to travel at inhuman speeds for great distances.  Although it might have been a status symbol for a while, it was a social equalizer of sorts insofar as most engines could take most cars as fast and as far any other (assuming everyone could afford to keep the tanks filled up with gas).   So whether one had a Lincoln or a beater, everyone got to travel fast and far.  The “lower class” became the pedestrians and the bicyclists.  Writing of the 1930s McLuhan wrote, “All the rhinos and hippos and elephants in the world, if gathered in one city, could not begin to create the menace and explosive intensity of the hourly and daily experience of the internal-combustion engine.”

Like our contemporary “operating systems,” many in our society have developed real relationships with their automobiles.  Bike lanes are beginning to entice a few drivers into an alternative lifestyle, if only seasonally, which is great.  But on Sunday, June 15, let’s get on our feet or pedals and take in the fun along Main Street and Commercial Drive.  I’ll be somewhere on 21st Avenue and Main, flogging that same book I’ve been flogging for a while now.  (Whew, my arms are so tired…).  I hope to see you there.


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So Long to another SUV in Calgary

Wow.  This morning Karin Klassen, a writer for the Calgary Herald, said her “final goodbyes” to downtown Calgary.  How upsetting, perhaps, for downtown Calgary, but how happy for Canmore, where Klassen would rather meet her downtown Calgary buddy for dinner now.IMG_1020 (2) (1024x768)

What was this last straw? you might wonder.   No.  It’s not all the condos in Calgary’s geographical core, many with their lights out, or the tumble weeds rolling through the streets, or poor urban planning.  It’s the fact that last week Calgary’s city council approved a trial run for bike lanes that will run through the downtown core.  God forbid.

Klassen seems content with the bike lanes in her district, wherever that is — a community alive with “banana seat meanderers” and “Lululemon moms with baby buggies.”  But those lanes that will appear downtown just don’t seem to make any sense.   She wonders aloud at the kind of consumers these lanes will attract: bike customers who “strap purchases to their backs with bungee cords, limit their buy to pannier size, dine in tights?”  (Imagine the nerve of a cyclist purchasing a small item, especially one as small as a diamond ring: what a colossal drag on the economy).  Whoever these peculiar new consumers might be, Klassen will  avoid them altogether.  She is looking forward to online shopping and “fabulous, cheaper suburban dining.”  Plus, she will now drive her SUV on “major arteries” to get from point A to B, and get to point B faster, although these major arteries add “10 times” the physical distance to get there.   “So much for using less gas”, she writes, though I’m not sure what she means by this.  Is it that the increased downtown traffic congestion that will accompany the new bike lanes will force her to take major arteries and therefore use more gas, or that she will  now use less gas because one gets better gas mileage on less congested arteries?

God only knows, but I do think the medical community would concur that bicycling is better for unclogging arteries at any distance than sitting in an SUV for ten times that distance.

But enough about Klassen’s disgruntled adieu to Cowtown’s downtown.   Calgary may be going through a “painful process of retrofitting to some idea of what a city ought to be,” to use Klassin’s words, but the very point of contemporary urban planning in cities like London, England, and Vancouver (probably the only city in Canada where Lulumenon-wearers outnumber car drivers), is to restrict the amount of vehicular traffic in central hubs or downtown cores.   These cities don’t want people driving their gas-guzzling SUVs into the hub.  Londoners are required to pay a Congestion Charge and are therefore encouraged to take the Tube or the double-decker buses.  Last time I looked (a week ago) Calgary had an extensive public C-Train system that went through the downtown core.   The City of Vancouver charges exorbitant downtown parking rates, thereby encouraging citizens to use public transport.

When someone visits Calgary from elsewhere (except perhaps from T.O.) the amount of vehicular traffic he or she encounters is staggering.  SUVs and large trucks are the norm, or at least appear to be by their comparative size.  Throughout history the comfortable majority of any society has always been reluctant to give up a little bit of comfort, a little bit of elbow room — a little bit of their rights — to accommodate legitimate interests and liberties of those in the minority.  Cyclists will forever remain a minority among road users in North America and elsewhere.  That’s as certain as taxes and one needn’t get maudlin or mushy about it.  However, to think that this slight accommodation that the City of Calgary is about to afford cyclists — to get around downtown in safety and with no fossil fuel emissions (well okay, perhaps a bit of natural gas through the backside of Lululemons) — could be plainly unacceptable to any Calgary driver is a compelling sign that not all Badlands dinosaurs are mere fossils.  Some of them are still alive, squeezed into large vehicles, driving around Calgary with GPS devices, hoping a major artery will get them home sooner than later.






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A Penny Saved for a Pounding Headache

I’ve just returned from southern Alberta, having done a signing of Tough Tiddlywinks at Chapters Bookstore in Lethbridge, an interview on Radio AM 1140, and a reading of Tough Tiddlywinks at Pages Bookstore in Calgary.   On my flight from Vancouver to Calgary I could tell when my plane had crossed into Alberta airspace because the wild roses were in bloom everywhere, even after such a protracted winter.  (This week’s attempt at political humour).

CriticalMass 001 (2)On my arrival in Vancouver today I learned from media sources that Rob Ford is taking 30 days off the job, to deal with what ails him.  I hope to God this means that at least for 30 days I won’t have to hear Rob Ford remind journalists and detractors just how many pennies he has saved Torontonians.  Last week we saw that Alison Redford was also away from her legislature, in Edmonton.   Some complain that she should have been sitting, but in fact she was, on a bicycle in Palm Springs (a much more humble mode of transportation than first-class air travel).   Ford, Redford and the Harper government share a categorical commitment to fiscal conservatism.  With such troublesome developments in municipal and provincial politics of late, and the skewering of the federal Fair Elections Act proposal in recent weeks (see my last post), one can only wonder it will take for a prevailing electoral obsession with saving pennies to end and an electoral interest in anything else — physical and mental health, the state of public education, whatever — to take hold.   I wonder if Torontonians, with those huge bags of pennies they have saved, can now afford more than a Ford?

Don’t ask me because I don’t live there…but to return to Tough Tiddlywinks, last Saturday the Calgary Herald published an interview with me (just click the link), as did the Lethbridge Herald, which can be read below:

LethbridgeHeraldTTW 001

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Democracy at Home and Abroad: Let’s Double-Face It


AllIsFairJBCropToday The Windsor Star quoted Canada’s Employment Minister, Jason Kenney, as saying that Canada was showing its disagreement with Russia by strongly supporting “free and fair” elections in Ukraine.  Apparently the Harper government will show its enthusiastic support for democracy in Ukraine by sending hundreds of delegates to monitor the presidential election there next month.

This sounds like good news for Ukrainians, but one can only wish that the Harper government had such enthusiasm for democracy in Canada.     A wide variety of respected, intelligent and most democratically-minded analysts have roundly criticized Bill C-23, the Harper government’s current “Fair Elections Act,” as being a veritable impediment to Canada’s established democratic processes.   On March 28th of this year Andrew Coyne wrote in The National Post that now Canadians “face the likelihood, as incredible as it sounds, of the government using the majority it won in the last election to pass a bill widely perceived as intended to fix the next — and contesting that election in the shadow of illegitimacy the bill would cast.  It will do so, what is more, not in spite of the opposition it has aroused, but because of it: because it has convinced itself that all such opposition, from whatever source, proceeds from the same implacably partisan motives as its own.”

With this elegant description of the low opinion that Canada’s reigning government holds of the electoral process on its own terrain, one is readily reminded of how easy it is to preach without practicing.  Whatever gift for democracy the Canadian delegation intends to give Ukrainians, hopefully it spares them lessons in morality.



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Aversion to “You’re Version”

Godzillawallstreet 001I’m almost certain the global economy did not collapse in 2008 because reporters for the Wall Street Journal confused contractions with possessive adjectives — although many contractions were clearly felt at the time.  And far be it for me to suggest that literacy has ever played a role in corporate enterprise and all the accumulation of wealth that takeovers and mergers entail.  However, I have noticed for some time that spelling and grammar in the on-line versions of established journals and newspapers such as the WSJ have deteriorated significantly.    The title of Patrick McGroarty’s story on the Pistorius trial, “You’re Version’s a Lie,” jumped out at me today as another fine illustration of this trend.

Silly indeed, except that as a teacher I am routinely encouraging my students to read.  It would be nice to know that when they do, they also take a cue on how to write properly.

P.S.   I thought it was a perfect addition to this post that the Chicago Sun-Times reported today that about 30 Northwestern University journalism school diplomas misspelled the word “integrated.”

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Adams’ Rib, or is it Rub?


FrankguiltyRyanfreedgrayscale 001 (2)Here’s a quick newsflash for everyone around the world who is interested in Canadian federal politics — that’s right, all six or seven of you, please pay attention.  There’s been a development of biblical proportions.

Eve Adams’ rightful place in the Garden of Eden is being questioned.  With all those oak trees on Parliament Hill as canopy, the suspicion is that the fallen MP indulged in a piece of tempting, low-hanging fruit herself — something to do with the nomination process for the Oakville riding (could politics get more nail-biting?) — but we’ll have to wait and see what the investigation reveals.

My guess is that, Canadian federal politics being what they currently are, the investigation will confirm the central parable of Genesis:  If born from a rib there must be a rub.






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Interview on Joseph Planta’s “The Commentary”

On March 21, 2014 Joseph Planta interviewed me about Tough Tiddlywinks on “The Commentary.”   You can listen to the interview here.

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Post-Opening Pre-View

Ana Mateescu of Green Waves Video Production made this exquisite 3-minute video to promote my art opening and book launch at Havana Gallery.

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Painting Exhibit is Underway

My paintings are now on display at Havana Gallery on Commercial Drive.  They will remain on display through April 2.  As I have mentioned previously, the opening for the exhibit is this Sunday, March 23, from 4 -7 pm.   Today the Vancouver Sun ran a  piece by Tracy Sherlock on Tough Tiddlywinks, the illustrated novel I will be launching at this art opening.  Please check it out.

The same article also ran in The Province  and The Edmonton Journal.


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An exhibit of Christopher Nowlin’s paintings


The launch of his illustrated novel,

Tough Tiddlywinks

Havana Gallery  March 23 from 4 to 7pm

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