Monday, December 31, 2007

N. American Workers Starving To Death

There is much discussion in the first decade of the new century about the “obesity problem”. And there’s no doubt that it is a problem that is growing fast. According to statistics more than a third of Canadians and Americans are overweight or obese. Break this down further and it looks even more grim:
* 58% of men aged 20-34 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 67.6% of men aged 35-44 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 71.3% of men aged 45-54 are overweight in the US 1999-2000)
* 72.5% of men aged 55-64 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 77.2% of men aged 65-74 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 66.4% of men aged over 75 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
Overweight prevalence statistics for women in the USA:
* 51.5% of women aged 20-34 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 63.6% of women aged 35-44 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 64.7% of women aged 45-54 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 73.1% of women aged 55-64 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 70.1% of women aged 65-74 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
* 59.6% of women aged over 75 are overweight in the US 1999-2000
50% of women aged 20 to 74 are overweight or obese in the US.

These numbers are frankly staggering and there is no doubt that the costs of this epidemic of bad health in human, emotional and financial terms is heavy indeed. It is, in fact, a peculiar example of human unconsciousness that we can normalize this deadly act of self-destruction. Someday, I am convinced, we will look back upon this moment in history and the overweight/obesity problem will be seen as an obscenity and a further condemnation of our death-loving culture.
However, there is a myth that our collective weight problem is one of over-eating; that it is a symptom of our prosperity. We North Americans, so the argument goes, and increasingly the whole planet are gorging ourselves on our wealth. It is another version of the old “humans are greedy by nature” argument that is used as an ideological prop for capitalism. It is also bunk.
The problem of obesity must, in fact, be understood as a nutritional problem rooted in economics. That is, there is a lack of nutritional value in the diet of the average US worker because they cannot afford it – and this has been confirmed by a recent study at the University of Washington.
According to researcher Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health nutrition, "The gap between what we say people should eat and what they can afford is becoming unacceptably wide. If grains, sugars and fats are the only affordable foods left, how are we to handle the obesity epidemic?"
Why is this happening? Because it is cheaper and more profitable to feed US workers the 21st century equivalent of saw dust. Processed food is jam-packed with nutritionless, cheap energy: literally, garbage. It is death and people eat it because they work too much and have neither the time, the money, the education nor the energy to prepare or purchase quality, healthful meals.
It is also a feature of the suburbanization of America, which forces everyone to get around via automobile - even to buy a candybar from the store, which is probably 5 kilometres away in a big box mall.
US workers drive to work - where they get no exercise or perform body deforming repetitive exercise - and then they drive home again where they eat the shit that is offered as food. Even the US government admits that the majority of the population are sedentary:
“The majority of persons in the United States do not engage in physical activities consistent with the recommendation of a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most days of the week. In 2001, a total of 54.6% of persons were not active enough to meet these recommendations.”
Some put it even higher: "Almost three-quarters of adults aren't active enough physically, according to the federal government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
US workers are increasingly overweight and obese because they are literally starving to death.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Golden Compass gets lost in cash


I really want to like Golden Compass. It is about a rebellious and courageous girl resisting an authoritarian and repressive regime. It has great CGI effects, including those spectacular polar bears. It has a Mark Twain character – the United States’ best known anti-imperialist, though this aspect of his career is mostly forgotten. And it features Nicole Kidman, of whom I am a big fan.
So, why do I dislike the film so much? Well, to start with there is something obscene about spending close on $200 million for a film in the first place. Not as obscene as spending $400+ billion on the military budget of the USA but it nonetheless speaks to the fact that Hollywood has its priorities ass backwards.
It is one more demonstration that the movie industry thinks that if it can throw a bucket of money large enough at a film then the audience will flock to the product. Sooner or later it is bound to blow up in their faces, if only because the potential audience isn’t big enough to cover the bill.
The hideously bad Beowulf is discovering the same thing and not even the almost exposed virtual nipples of Angelina Jolie can save that film.
What the filmmakers of Golden Compass – and Beowulf – failed to realize is that flash and pomp can only cover up so many story flaws. Eventually we are bound to notice that behind the swelling music and incredible visuals is an empty vessel.
The story of the film is potentially rich, and the book did well for a reason, I suspect. It is the story of a world in which a repressive regime, the Magisterium, wants to eliminate all critical thinking and opposition. To do this means nipping it in the bud while children are still young.
Strangely, the source of critical thought is somehow connected to space “dust”, which links together all the different, possible worlds in the many universes. This, I suppose, is meant to represent the different possibilities inherent in free will.
One manifestation of this dust, this free will, is in the souls of the people. In the world of The Golden Compass, unlike our own, people’s souls live outside of their body in the form of “demon” animals. And prior to adulthood, these demons are changeable and unfixed. But once they are adults, the space dust (free will) flows through their now fixed demons into the owners.
The Magisterium, with the usual obviously evil characters prone to the equivalent of mustache twirling and irrational violent outbursts, wants to eliminate free thought by separating children from their demons, sort of a demonectomy. They have set up a laboratory in the north pole where they perform experiments on kidnapped children, violently separating them from their demons.
Into this backdrop steps Lyra the orphaned niece of a controversial professor/explorer a la Indiana Jones, who is an expert in the cosmic dust. He sees the dust’s power to expose the lies of the government and set the people free. However, she discovers that the government wants to kill him. After warning him in time Lyra becomes entangled in a complicated plot driven, in part, by a desire to save her kidnapped friend from the laboratory and also by her desire to protect and help her uncle in his quest.
It this sounds like a mouthful of detail to try and cram into a 90 minute film, well you are right and the result is a massive amount of exposition by various characters to explain the world, the backstory, the plotline. For a film that spent so much on its production we spend a lot of time watching talking heads tell us the story.
This serious flaw is compounded by the fact that a key means of driving the story forward is the “golden compass” aka the “alethiometer”. This semi-mystical device, given to Lyra by the head of the university, is meant to tell those who know how to use it, the hidden truth.
Pretty much every key moment in the plot is resolved by Lyra falling into a sort of trance while staring at the golden compass, which then answers the problem or question at hand. It literally is the ghost in the machine – a force outside of the characters resolving the story on their behalf.
It is both sloppy and boring. After all, we’re there to see the story’s characters struggle using their own hard won skills and experience. If it’s done for them, well, what’s the point?
The filmmakers should have used some of the $180 million to pay for story editors.
I’m sure there are some who will agree that this is all true but be willing to excuse the film because, after all, “it is meant for children, isn’t it.”
But this is to disrespect children who, as the film itself explains, aren’t as silly as we might think. What’s more, we should be teaching our children using the best techniques of storytelling and technological flimflam doesn’t count.
If I may permit myself a final, more general comment, I’ve noticed in many of the politically inclined films of this year many of the same faults – a didactic tone, too much exposition, one dimensional characters, etc.
To be fair I think this is the result of a certain immaturity, a newness in attempting to tell socially engaged stories amongst a broader section of artists. They haven’t yet internalized politics in a way that it becomes organic to the story and not a club to beat the audience with. Redacted was an example of this. In spades.
This, I think, is a normal part of the politicization process. My only fear is that because film budgets are so high and Hollywood so terminally timid, that these failures of youth will be written off as failures of form. The political baby will be thrown out with the didactic bathwater.
I hope this isn’t the case. A bad Golden Compass, which valorizes both children and rebellion against unjust authority, is better than a (much) more entertaining Lord of The Rings, with its racist, War on Terror boosterism.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How 70,000 became 300

If you read some media, you’d think that Canadians are supporting our war against Afghanistan in growing numbers. Just all the nauseating hullabaloo about the “Red Friday” rally in support of the troops that happened at the CNE last week was enough to make you lose your lunch. It was going to be massive, they promised. They had the ruling Conservatives building the rally. They had the military. They had major media figures like perennial asshole Don Cherry and pre-publicity in the Toronto Sun and other outlets. This is gonna be big, they told us. Big like that “Save Canada” invasion of Quebec prior to the last referendum (that actually swung votes in favour of a “yes”).
“Organizers are hoping tens of thousands of people will gather to support our troops in a mass Red Friday Rally at the CNE grounds,” the Toronto Sun reported.
“Organizers are anticipating Friday's rally could bring thousands of red-clad supporters to the CNE. ‘If we can beat Ottawa (10,000 demonstrated in 2006), that's good news for me,’ Capt. Wayne Johnston told CTV News on Friday.”
On the Tuesday prior to the Friday rally the Toronto Scum had a headline, which screamed: “Organizers of this Friday's Support Our Troops rally at the CNE are hoping to see red. 70,000 are expected.”
Sorry guys. As you can see from the photo, they only got about 300 people. Coverage of the event said hundreds. Even the looming presence of leopard tanks couldn’t fill up the space they booked. Not too worry though, if you believe the movie of the same name, since it only took 300 Spartans in meat suits to turn the tide against those obscurantist Persians.
The utter failure of that rally shouldn’t be any surprise. The war in Afghanistan is remarkably unpopular, no matter what the government does to promote it. According to a July Strategic Counsel survey, 59% oppose sending troops to Afghanistan, as opposed to the 36% who support the policy. Between May 2006 and June 2007 the numbers of people who thought that the “price to be paid was too high” vs those who felt “that is the price that must be paid” did an absolute reversal. From 36% and 59% respectively the numbers switched to 60% thinking it was too high a price and 36% accepting it was the price to be paid. And is it any wonder, according to an Angus Reid poll, 49% of Canadians consider the mission a failure. Only 22% think the mission is a success. That’s only a little bit higher than the increase in this year’s opium crop in Afghanistan – at 17%. Of course the absolute decline of support would be anything but clear if you were to just follow the media. In fact, it would get downright confusing. For instance two articles, almost exactly the same word for word posted on canada.com on Friday. With the same information the headlines are totally different, with the first being "Canadians split on Afghan mission, poll shows" and the other headlined "Support for Afghan war effort stable, poll reveals." Somebody give Chomsky a call.
And for some reason the wonks, the politicos and the professional commentariat can't figure out why people aren't throwing themselves whole-heartedly into this Afghanistan thing. I guess we must just be stupid. “Mario Canseco, director of global studies for Angus Reid Strategies, said the numbers reflect a lack of understanding about the mission…”
It seems to me that Canadians understand things all too clearly.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Spinning Tories

I don’t remember who said that there are three kinds of lies - “lies, damn lies and statistics” – but surely we’d have to include opinion polls as a fourth kind of lie. For instance on the cover of today’s Globe & Mail newspaper is a half-page article on the "Stephen Harper paradox"; ie. how the Tories are doing great at solidifying support and winning us to their agenda but Harper can't quite win our hearts and minds. I will only point out here that the Tories now stand at 33% in the polls. However, in May, 2006 the National Post was creaming its jeans that the Tories - then at 43% - had enough support for a majority. Great job indeed.
With every day bringing more bad news from Afghanistan and the hardening of opinions in opposition to Canada’s involvement over there, it seems funny that the Globe & Mail – which made a special effort to lick Tory butt in the last federal election – decided that now is the moment to tout the "growing support" for the Conservatives. Funny as in suspicious.
So, I went and had a look at the poll on the Strategic Counsel website.
First of all the questions they ask are pretty vague in relation to the Conservatives. For instance “I disagree with the Harper government’s approach to Afghanistan” – 44% agree with the statement, 47% disagree. Well, Harper has been sending out mixed signals recently in relation to Afghanistan. He’s now saying that the troops will come home at the end of their mission in 2009 if there isn’t support. So, people go, ‘ok, he’s listening to the opposition and he’ll bring the troops home.’ And, of course the response from most of the opposition, NDP aside, is to say “oh yeah, well, you better bring the troops home in 2009.” Not exactly hard-hitting critique.
The same basic thing applies to the question on climate change: “The Harper government has shown that it is serious about starting to deal with global warming” – 48% agree and 46% disagree. Well, Harper has worked hard – and done a pretty good job with the help of a compliant media and pathetic parliamentary opposition – to deflect and diffuse their way out of the early controversy over their opposition to any notion of stopping climate change (remember when Harper claimed that Kyoto was a socialist plot? Ah, those were the good old days...)
However, what is more interesting than the confusion that these numbers indicate both because of the questions and the spin of the Harper Tories is how steady is the opposition to the main political thrust of the Tories – and this stuff is revealed deeper in the survey, after the meaningless nonsense about “Stephen Harper is somebody I like – agree or disagree”. Here people were asked whether their opinion would improve or worsen if the Tories did a series of things. The numbers were as follows:
Get us out of a combat role in Afghanistan immediately – 63% (vs 28%)
Standing up to George Bush – 77% (vs 13%)
Meeting Canada’s Kyoto targets to reduce global warming: a WHOPPING 83% vs 13% are down with the socialist plot. Even in Western Canada, that supposed bastion of oil burning conservatism the numbers were 78% vs 13%. So much for that myth.
Putting significantly more money in public transit – 78% vs 8%.
The list goes on. And it’s not all unproblematically left-wing – a larger minority would have their opinion of the Tories improve if they lowered corporate taxes than not (47% vs 39%). And, as usual, the fear of crime drives 81% to want to see the Tories get tough.
Overall, however, the results show clearly that the Tories are WAY to the right of the general population, even in Alberta. In fact, looking at a mid-July survey by the Strategic Counsel Tory support has fallen the most in two regions: Quebec and the West. In the West they have slumped from 49% in 2006 to 40% today – and remember, that’s in the middle of a massive oil boom in Alberta.
If you can’t hold your support in a boom, well, it doesn’t bode well.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Canada Out Of Afghanistan

The visit by President Bush to Ottawa on the weekend – and the magnificent demonstrations against him – reminded me of just what a mess these neo-con boneheads have gotten themselves into. Unfortunately, they’ve taken us down the garden path with them – by diverting social resources from extravagances like social programs and disaster relief (think: Hurricane Katrina) and into military spending instead and by sending young men and women to die in the service of imperialism. And it appears that even on their own terms it’s all been for naught as the British flee from Basra and have all but declared defeat in southern Iraq.
The same future, I would suggest, awaits Canada’s army in the quagmire known as Afghanistan.
This country, one of the poorest on the planet, has borne the brunt of imperialism for hundreds of years. Having the misfortune of being located at the boundary of empires – the Russian and British-controlled India and then between the Soviet and American spheres and now between the Russian, American and Chinese spheres – Afghanistan has been invaded, occupied, and manipulated seemingly forever. And yet it is a testament to the Afghan people that they have never surrendered to foreign occupation but have always resisted and pretty consistently defeated various imperialisms.
Alas, resistance has its price as long as imperialism continues to exist in the world. Ask the people of Haiti who continue to be punished for overthrowing slavery at the end of the 18th century. Or the people of Palestine. Those who resist must be made to suffer more than all the rest as a lesson. And for the people of Afghanistan they have the misfortune of not only supplying an object lesson to others who might pursue an independent path. They are also a key link in an inter-imperialist rivalry in that region. The Americans want/need to isolate and contain the growing Chinese threat. And they need to prevent the Russian empire from re-emerging and re-consolidating control in the Caucasus. Afghanistan has become key to that battle – it is the route through which gas and oil from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan need to pass if they are to avoid Russian control or passing through America’s arch enemy, Iran. And of course, to avoid China, except as a market.
Beyond the immediate resource needs, the America can’t hegemonize/dominate the Caucasus region if there is a restive Afghanistan at its rear. It’s a basic premise of military doctrine that you never leave your rear vulnerable. If the Russians or the Chinese or the Iranians could insinuate themselves into Afghanistan, the Yanks would be in trouble. And so, there we are, as part of the Yankee Doodle Democracy (gas pipeline) Brigade.
And the mess is getting bigger every day as we bomb, harass and dominate growing numbers of Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. With the machinations of global power politics behind our intervention in the region, could it have been any different. These are the reasons why Canadian troops are being shot at. These are the reasons the insurgency can't be defeated. You'd think after Vietnam - hell, after the drubbing that the Soviets go int Afghanistan in the 1980s - that somebody would figure this stuff. Apparently not.
Anyway, it’s heartening that a majority of Canadians now oppose the intervention in Afghanistan. We can only hope that sentiment can be mobilized to force our government to withdraw the troops before more die. Keep your eyes - and calendar on October 27, that's the next big national mobilization against the war in Afghanistan.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Feelin' Hot Hot Hot

Things are getting hot here on Mother Earth. Damn hot and there’s a very good chance that it’s going to get hotter before it cools off. And that’s very scary. It can seem to us mere mortals (as opposed to scientists) that it’s all very arcane, these debates over parts per million of CO2 or what effect an increase of 2 degrees will have on the planet. But a little reading makes it clear that these numbers matter and we better get to understand them very quickly.
One person who has done more than most to sound the alarm over global warming has been George Monbiot, a British writer. I would say, in fact, that he is the UK’s answer to David Suzuki.
Monbiot’s recent book Heat has gotten a lot of attention because it puts in plain terms the dangers that we face as a species and as a planet if we don’t get a handle on Climate Change. And fast. And he proposes a number of solutions. For these alone his book is worth reading.
In a recent response to a critique of his book, in particular his argument that we need to prevent temperatures rising greater than two degrees, he wrote the following (worth quoting at length):
“Two degrees of warming is the point at which up to 4 billion people could suffer water shortages, crop yields could fall in many regions of the poor world, mountain glaciers disappear worldwide and the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which could eventually raise global sea levels by 7 metres, is expected to begin. It is also the point at which several important positive feedbacks could be triggered. The permafrost of the West Siberian peat bog, for example, contains 70 billion tonnes of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. If all of it were released, its warming effect would equate to 73 years of current manmade carbon dioxide emissions. The methane that escapes due to melting would accelerate global warming, melting more permafrost, which releases more methane. A two-degree rise in temperatures could cause the runaway warming of permafrost throughout the Arctic Circle.”
I read this kind of stuff and it scares the bejeezuz out of me. Basically, unless we do some drastic shit, we're fucked. And Monbiot has done an amazing job of letting us know what kind of changes need to happen, at least in terms of reduction numbers.
For me though, there is also a side to the argument that must be based upon hope. And hope is always more attractive than fear. It is this: the destruction of the environment is part of a system that also destroys our lives or at least makes them miserable – who wants to be stuck in traffic for an hour each way to and from work? Who wants to live isolated in the suburbs with a heart condition because you can’t walk anywhere and the only practical food (after 2 extra hours of travel time each day) is processed food filled with body-killing garbage? We can imagine and put forward a better world, a more humane world with a greater, more pleasurable integration with nature. Our motivation doesn’t only need to be avoiding death but also enjoying life. That sort of program will resonate with people.
The thing with Monbiot's argument though, besides being rooted so much in fear, is that it approaches the problem with a "blame everyone equally" perspective - at least in terms of solutions. As he says:
"But my scheme... is not an attempt at social engineering. Let us hammer the rich by other means, but let us not confuse this programme (ie. hammering the rich) with an attempt to cut carbon emissions. Fighting global warming is hard enough already."
The problem is - we're not all to blame equally for the state of the environment. And the class question is not separable from the environmental question: corporations are the biggest polluters in every sphere. To condemn - even middle class greens - with failing to reduce their own consumption, as he does, is a little ascetic for my tastes. And it misses the point about the entire structure of communities, available transport, housing, heating, food production, etc. etc., which are social questions - not individual ones. It is about enforcing a redistribution of resources towards environmentally friendly development. Changing my light bulbs to fluorescent is, to my mind, a dangerous illusion, a diversion from the real action necessary to stop the destruction of the planet.
So, to me, Monbiot's argument for a carbon rationing system - where we all get an equal amount of carbon points to spend - as a radical solution is, in fact, just a repackaging of that old (conservative) populist saw: the flat tax. Hey, everybody pays the same, right - how can that be anything but fair. Except that it doesn't address the fact that resources aren't distributed equally. Well, this will redistribute wealth downwards, he says, as the rich purchase carbon points off the poor so that they can fly around in their private jets. In other words it fundamentally leaves in place the market dynamics and class divisions that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.
And, frankly, it's neoliberal because it is about individualizing redistribution when it should be social. The $50 I get for selling my excess carbon could buy me a carton of smokes - or pooled and centralized via government, it could fund better healthcare, more research into alternative fuels, building materials, etc.
It is simply confusing and it won’t work. It is a strategy based in panic and not in a vision of a different world. For that reason, I think it is a non-starter.
That isn’t to say, however, that Monbiot shouldn’t be read and supported in all sorts of ways. He, like Suzuki, is raising some difficult questions. We will have to answer them – or the world will answer them for us.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Head: Giving & Getting

I’m the kind of person who obsesses about things once they are sufficiently planted in my mind. So it is with death and its associated problems. You know, like the end of your identity and shit.
Anyway, I read a few years ago about an experiment where they transplanted the head of a gorilla onto another gorilla and that it survived for some period of time. This got me very excited. The idea of head transplants have always stayed with me. So, when someone says something about getting old or dying my stock response became something along the lines of: “I figure by the time I get that old they’ll have perfected head transplants, so, no problem.”
Well, now I’ve been thinking about death a lot this year for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I turned 40 this year. Now, I know that’s not particularly old, probably barely middle age these days. But, still, it means I’m now heading into the second half of my life. I’m on the downslope, as it were. Of course, being obsessive, I immediately began to develop all sorts of aches and pains – my guts hurt, pain between my shoulder blades, pain in my chest (the counter-effect of the shoulder pain), arthritis in my toes, tendonitis in my left arm, bad knees, weakening eyesight. Fortunately I don’t yet drool and my penis still works. Most of the time.
But this neurotic gift that I received for my 40th birthday (aw, couldn’t you have just gotten me a hair transplant?) was accompanied by the news that my father (and my uncle, and their uncle) have or had Alzheimer’s Disease. And, to top it off, it might be early onset Familial Alzheimer’s Disease, which they theorize is directly inherited (you can see my groaning on this stuff in an earlier post). Suffice it to say it was a very big log on my obsessive-compulsive fire about my looming journey to the after-life.
The point is this: I suddenly started thinking about head transplants again.
Now, the other day at school – I’m in the Writers’ Lab at the Canadian Film Centre – we were told to generate an idea for an ultra-low-budget feature film. I wracked my brains and there was the head transplant idea again.
So, I googled head transplant and discovered that, in fact, there had been a head transplant performed some years ago. The story goes like this:
During the Cold War, Uncle Joe Stalin sunk a whole load of bread into scientific studies in life extension – I suspect he was worried about his own mortal coil more than world domination here. Secret labs in the woods were established. The whole evil scientist thing. One of the scientists on the trail was Dr. Demikhov. He pioneered all sorts of techniques for organ transplants and has been forgotten for his efforts. Instead, we remember Marilyn Monroe. I’ll leave you to ponder the significance of this.
In 1954 Demikhov attached the upper body and head of a puppy onto the neck of a full-grown mastiff. Both survived, interacted, drank, panted, etc. The world was stunned.
And the Americans shit their pants.
Why, if the Russkies can transplant heads and we can’t, Communism will take over the world. Then who will buy General Motors vehicles? Who will buy IBM computers? Who will buy our guns? Hell, who needs guns when you’ve got multi-headed animals – maybe even multi-headed soldiers.
Never to be outdone, the Yanks sank some loot into the same research – head transplant research, that is.
Enter Dr. Robert White. A World War Two veteran, White was also a brilliant neurosurgeon by day. However at night (cue lightning and thunder), he was conducting experiments on brain removal with dogs; ie. trying to keep the brains alive outside of their bodies. He even transplanted the brain of one dog into the neck of another and kept it alive for some time. The trouble was, as he saw it, how could you tell if the brain was still thinking or not? The only way to know this is if the transplanted brain had some way of interacting with the world. Ah-ha, he thought, if I can transplant the whole head, then we’ll see.
He spent three years planning the head transplant operation with a monkey. A rhesus monkey by the looks of it. And he did it. He cut off the heads of two monkey and plopped the head from monkey A onto the body of monkey B, just like that. It opened its eyes and looked around. It ate food from a tube, etc. etc. Now, of course once you cut the spinal chord you’re screwed and so the monkey was quadriplegic. And, being a test animal that killed it a few days later (if anybody needs a union its test animals. Yipes!). But here was the world’s first total body transplant.
Anyway, this was in 1970 or 1971. And instead of making White a superhero of the science world, it made him something of a pariah. Animal rights activists freaked out and threatened him and his family so that he required police protection for a time. And that was that.
But, what if secretly, Dr. White kept a lab somewhere in Switzerland or something. And suppose he had this one patient, a very rich young man who had suffered a terrible accident in, I don’t know, 1976, which paralyzed him from the neck down. In fact, his body was quite destroyed so that in a short time he was facing total organ failure. He hires Dr. White to secretly perform the head transplant operation, removing the head of a brain dead man and transplanting the quadriplegic man’s head onto the body. Well, now he’s been living like this, with this secret, for 30 years. Every eight or ten years he needs to get a new body because the old one is failing him. Now, say it is 2008 and scientists somewhere discover a revolutionary way to re-grow nerve tissue. After all these years – and all these bodies – our paralyzed hero can now see the possibility of walking again. But first he once one final new body…
And there you have one tiny disturbing insight into the brain of an artist.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

When the Empire Goes Bust


Far be it for me to act as Chicken Little and suggest that the sky is falling. I’d hate to be accused to fear-mongering or hyperbolicity. (Well, actually the latter sounds fun.) But since I’m not the first to do so, I’d like to humbly suggest that the rusting hull of the USS Empire just cracked open a little more.
I’m of course referring to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown now gathering pace and zooming around the world at high speed.
There’s a bit of the chickens coming home to roost in all this – sticking with our initial metaphor. Well, actually, a lot of chickens. A whole coop in fact. In that there might be a certain amount of pleasure except that the people who suffered to create this mess are the same people who are going to suffer as a result of it, ie. US workers.
The recipe for this meltdown looks like this:
1) Impoverish large sections of your population by a two generation assault on living standards and union organization.
2) Sell the store to maintain a global empire through a massive military budget.
3) Lose your global economic supremacy because you spend all your surplus cash on guns instead of on productive economic expansion.
4) Borrow heavily from China and other countries to continue paying for the military hardware you have become utterly dependent upon to sustain your position because you no longer have economic supremacy.
5) Outsource as much productive economic activity as possible to cheap labour districts, like China, resulting in a deepening balance of payments deficit (you gotta buy back all those consumer goods after all).
6) Encourage scams, rip-offs and a casino economy at home to squeeze more consumption out of your population who don’t really have the money because of 1).
7) Light match.

The US ruling-class have so fucked-up their country through their imperial wet dreams that they are now almost completely hemmed in. As they discovered the other day they can’t even encourage productive investment in the US by forcing an increase in the value of the Chinese Yuan (ie. make Chinese goods more expensive so that there’s more incentive to invest in production inside the US). At the mere suggestion, Chinese leaders very publicly reminded Bush (or at least those around him who can understand) that they have the largest holdings of US currency and any attempt to mess with their currency will lead to them selling-off US dollars. A Chinese sell-off will lead to a global sell-off.
And if the US dollar drops, interest rates will rise to defend it, which will kill the US economy big-time. Never mind the effect of dislodging the US dollar as THE foreign reserve currency. This would be massive and I can’t go into it here.
However, If nobody will buy US dollar it means nobody will lend the US any more money to continue its spending spree. In other words this will also lead to an economic collapse. Talk about caught between a rock and a hard place.
So, the only choice that seems on offer for now is to make the ride go faster: Wall St. wants the US Federal Reserve to lower interest rates to boost consumption in the face of a collapsing housing market. But at a certain point enough people are going to point out that the emperor has no clothes – ie. that people are borrowing and spending phoney money.
Real incomes haven’t risen significantly in a couple generations. So, how can US workers consume more? It can only be against phoney value – eg. Housing market speculation: a bubble, which drives up prices even though there has been no increase in REAL value (like, you haven’t done anything to improve your house but it’s price goes up by $50,000). Sooner or later those bubbles burst. Last time it was tech stocks. This time it’s housing. One of these times it’s gonna be the whole shithouse.
When that happens, I suggest running to the woods and hiding in a cave because in a nation like America, with no viable political alternative at present, with so much racism, regionalism, fundamentalism, not to mention a megalomaniacal and sociopathic ruling-class with access to a lot of nuclear weapons – well, it’s gonna make the fall of Rome look like a game of bridge.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Beckham? Feck 'em!

Christ, it’s bad enough that we have to deal with the bloody British royal family and all their hijinx. “Ooh, look at little Prince Willie dressed up like a Nazi for his friend’s costume party.” “Gosh, I hope they don’t send Prince Harry into battle in Iraq.” Besides being fucking nauseating – after all close to a million Iraqis have died since the 2003 invasion, who gives a crap if that spoiled brat buys the farm? What’s more, it’s a complete and utter distraction from the real issues, uh, you know, things like: why is there a hereditary monarchy in a supposedly democratic country and why do they own, you know, half the land in Britain and why is Queen Elizabeth, that sour-pussed parasite, one of the wealthiest women in the world.
And now those bastard Brits have sent us Beckham and I can’t read the newspaper while taking a dump without having to see an article about David and Victoria. Christ. Fine, he’s a good soccer player, maybe even a great one – I’ll have to trust what other people tell me. But so fucking what: it’s SOCCER! Did the guy cure cancer? Solve world hunger? Create a work of art so astounding that it will live through the ages or a have a philosophical insight so deep that it will change the way our culture thinks about itself?
No. HE KICKS A BALL AROUND ON THE GRASS!
Jiminy Crickets people. And what about his wife? I can barely put word to page because it brings to mind her image, which makes me want to launch my lunch across the keyboard. Will someone give that lady a cheese sandwich and a beer?
I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on Victoria Beckham, after all she’s about as skill-less and useless as Prince Harry and his inbred ilk. Her claim to fame – other than marrying a cute guy with certain financially valuable sporting skills – is that she was part of an entirely manufactured girl group called The Spice Girls. Had these women even met before they auditioned for the band? Can they play any instruments? Uh, no. Did they write any of their own songs? Uh, no. In other words she is a fashion mannequin with a soundtrack. And now it’s been recognized by Glamour Magazine, which has just awarded her “Woman of the Year” for 2007?! What? Woman of the year? Her combination of anorexia and breast implants makes her look like a toothbrush. That’s glamorous?
I do have a certain sympathy, I suppose, for the self-absorbed git. She is the ultimate expression of sexism – women aren’t about their talents or hard-won skills, their value derives from their ability to provide sexual satisfaction to men. And that ability comes from two places, the completely arbitrary luck of the genetic draw and, with enough money, cosmetic surgery and a personal trainer. It’s the old story over again: the rich are beautiful because they can afford to be.
Now, maybe I should show more pity to this obviously psychologically unhealthy woman and her over-inflated, soon to be forgotten ball-kicking husband. Perhaps. But I won’t. They’ve gotten rich by riding the wave of the most important ideological con job of our times: envy us, emulate us because, with enough hard work, you could be us.
That’s right, don’t spit in your bosses eye or protest the government sending you overseas to get your ass shot off so the oil and gas companies can continue to fuck up the planet with environmentally destructive technologies. No, no, no. Instead sit slack-jawed in front of your fucking tv and wish that you had Victoria Beckham’s non-existent ass, or that you could kick a ball like Beckham and shag Victoria (and not your wife who’s as soft as you are from living in the burbs) and get invited to drink martinis at the Oscar party.
And while you’re at it, believe that if you only worked hard enough you could be David and Victoria. It’s the old rags to riches story. Suck it up and pull up your bootstraps and then you can be like these pathetic assholes. I mean do you really want the fucking paparazzi hanging outside of your house in the hopes of getting a shot of you taking a piss first thing in the morning? Do you really want every part of your body turned into a saleable object – Beckham shoes, Beckham pants, Beckham shirts, Beckham watches. Fuck, next they’ll have a Beckham shlong so you can fulfill your secret oral sex fantasies.
So, no, I don’t care if Beckham will play in the game vs Toronto this week. Frankly, I don’t give a shit if his plane power dives into Lake Ontario's polluted waters.
David and Victoria, kindly fuck off.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Gimme Yer Loot

This is only the first time that I've asked for money on my blog - but it won't be my last, I'm sure. However, usually when I'm asking for money it's for some political activist event. You know, like you come out to the even and pay to get in and in doing so help us oppose war and injustice, etc. This pitch is a little closer to home for me personally.

I've spoken about this before but I'll tell it again so you don't have to go back and dig it up: My father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. He is the second immediate relative to have developed the disease and the third suspected family member in direct line. There is also some suspicion that he has a rare form called Familial Alzheimer's Disease, which strikes young (50s) and is a directly inherited gene.

Now, I don't know about the medical world's near-religious faith in the idea that your genes absolutely determine your future - whether you have a drinking problem, violent tendencies, if you're gay or you're going to get Alzheimer's. I suspect it's a LOT more complicated than they think and that genes have become the new phrenology (the 19th century pseudo-science of measuring bumps on your head to determine personality and, in particular, criminality). But the news was still scary.

Anyway, Kathryn and I wanted to feel like we'd done something and weren't just sad and worried. So, we've decided to run in the Scotiabank Run For Charity at the end of September. It's a 5K run and, assuming Kathryn doesn't have to piggy back me across the finish line, a good opportunity to get healthy and raise some cash for Alzheimer's research.

If you're so inclined, we'd appreciate if you would sponsor us on our run. It's easy - just click this link and it'll tell you exactly what to do.

Any little bit you can give - even a couple dollars - would be appreciated.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Soy Is Making Us All Gay! Yippee!

How exciting. It seems this little bean is making us all gay. I suspect we'll discover that soy beans are behind socialism and the theory of evolution next. Gee, it seemed like such an innocuous little bean, jiggling so cutely as a block of tofu.
It would be easy to dismiss the idiot brigades of the right wing - always on the hunt for the source of deviancy. After all, stamping out deviancy is the first step down the road to preserving individual freedom. Right?
Well, the only thing is, it's true. No, not about soy making us gay - and who the hell cares about that anyway? If that were the case I'd say it's time to get rid of fluoride in the water supply and start pumping in some plant estrogens. If anyone wants to pursue this idea, just lemme know and I'll draw up a list of cities and even buildings that we can target.
What I'm talking about is the fact that soy production - industrial soy production - is exploding, particularly in Latin America. Nothing like capitalism to take a good thing and turn it into an overproduced Frankenstein's monster.
In Brazil and Argentina they're tearing down rain-forests (what'd we need those trees for anyway?) and driving farmers off of the land so that the big agriculture corporations (Monsanto anyone?) can stack up the profits. A lot of this soy production is for bio-fuels.
Never mind the obvious stupidity of replacing carbon-producing fossil fuels with carbon-producing biofuels (this is the answer to climate change?). Producing crops to power next year's SUVs, displaces food production, which drives up the price of food in those countries where people can least afford food inflation - the Global South.
I won't even get into the possibility that the Genetically Modified Soy that is being produced has possible side-effects on birth weight of newborns, etc.
I will only note the fact that Al Gore - Mr. Environment - was paid $170,000 to speak for 40 minutes at the First Biofuels Congress of the Americas, which was co-sponsored by the government of Santiago del Estero in Argentina. This government has been ordering the arrest of farmers who resist having their land taken from them. Way to go Al!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Films For Peace

So, tonight was the third installment in the Peace Reel Film Festival, organized by Artists Against War in Christie Pits Park, here in Toronto. It's been a great event, nothing quite like watching movies under the stars (or the barely visible spots in the sky that pass for stars in the city). There's no doubt that the event was a great success by all accounts (except that most elusive of accounts - money. We're not allowed to charge, only ask for donations).
The first screening in the series was the Canadian premiere of an incredible film about the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, Occupation 101. Things looked dreary on the day, to be honest, with a major downpour and looming black clouds into the evening. Not the kind of thing which brings people out to an outdoor event. But still the people came - nearly 200 of of them, which is a sure sign of how important this issue is to people, and to the buzz around the film. AAW flew one of the filmmakers up from LA - Sufyan Omeish - to introduce the film and take questions. He was extremely articulate on the issues (not surprising since he and his brother spent 6 years making the film).
The next week the crowd wasn't as large but still respectable at 80 people for Kanehsatake: 270 years of resistance. This film is now more than 10 years old so the fact that it can still draw people speaks to its power and to the issue. It's about the Indigenous occupation of a planned construction site on indigenous land at Oka in Quebec. With the recent national day of action for land rights, this film still has lots of relevance. It was preceded by a short film called Mohawk Smokes - about how the Mohawk community at Tyendinaga, in Ontario, have been selling tobacco to raise money for a traditional longhouse and for community services. One of the directors, Audrey Huntley, along with Doreen Silversmith, an indigenous representative from Six Nations, spoke to the films and the issues within them.
Back to tonight... It was bigger than last week with over 100 showing up to see the screening of The Prisoner: or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair - a film about a journalist in Iraq who was arrested by US troops and held for 9 months, including in the notorious Abu Ghraib. He was told that he was involved in a plot to kill British Prime Minister Tony Blair. If it weren't for the very real horror that Yunus, the subject of the film, and his brothers suffered it would be a comedy.
Anyway, there's just one more week to go in the Film Festival - which I believe to be Canada's only outdoor film festival. Next week will be the classic anti-colonial film, The Battle of Algiers. If you're in Toronto, you don't want to miss it. It's an incredible movie, so sharp on the issues and reality of foreign occupation that the Pentagon screened it for some of its officers as a lesson in what not to do. Apparently they weren't paying attention.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What do you mean I'm not immortal?

I've always suffered from the pathological belief in my own immortality. I can remember clearly as a thinking to myself: "I won't grow old. I won't die." A part of me has never really believed that a time would come when I would be feeble, or even more, that my consciousness would cease to exist. I can only assume that this feeling of mine isn't THAT out of the ordinary. That other people find it hard to believe their day will come. Assuming you aren't the first in your family and personal circle to bite the dust, the deaths of growing numbers of those around you as you grow older probably helps drive the point home.
But now here I am suddenly faced the possibility that I won't live forever, that I am, after all, only a mortal. Fuck. This Alzheimer's thing is fucking with my head.
I did some research online tonight about Early Onset Alzheimer's. It seems that where it runs in a family - as it seems to with my family: my father and uncle both suffer from Alzheimer's - the children of sufferers have a 50-50 chance of contracting the disease. It's a dominant gene on the 14th chromosome, so if you got it, well, baby, you got it. Fuck.
And the scary part of this is that it can develop any time between your mid-30s and 65, though it most commonly strikes people in their 50s. I'm 40. Am I shitting my pants? Yep.
What's more it's making me think about all the things in life I wanted to achieve. Stuff I wanted to spend the next 40-50 years experiencing. We want to have a child next year and I wanted to see them graduate university some day. My wife, who I love more and more every day, is 12 years younger than me. I wanted the opportunity to grow old with her - not to have her have to wipe my ass for me before she's even 50 years old.
My writing. I just got into the Canadian Film Centre's writing program. It's taken me close to ten years of focused development of my craft to reach the point where I could get some professional recognition. I can see my lifelong dream of a writing career - FINALLY! - opening up before me. And now I can see it's end as well. The brutal, amoral unfairness of it all is almost too much to bear. I feel a great anger, not at my father for his faulty genes, but at nature and even more so at the shameful waste of resources that could otherwise be spent trying to find a cure for diseases such as Alzheimer's. Instead a billions of dollars every week is spent bombing and shooting people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countries and drug corporations compete with one another rather than collaborating and sharing resources. It's madness.
And I'm angry that the very last of my childhood illusions has been utterly shattered. Does age spare us nothing?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Losing my mind

I've always knows that I was a little bit crazy, not playing with a full deck - all those metaphors that indicate my mental faculties are somewhat less than has been apportioned to
my fellow humans. But I didn't know precisely what that meant. Well, now I do.
Last year my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. His brother also has the same condition. From what I have read the medical community knows somewhat more than fuck all about Alzheimer's - but not much.
They do know that there are roughly two categories. One is the random distribution of the condition throughout the population - your typical, garden variety Alzheimer's. The other variety, affecting perhaps 10% of Alzheimer's sufferers - I forget the exact number (ha ha) - is called early onset Alzheimer's. This generally sets in between the 40s to late 50s. It is highly hereditary.
Guess what? Yup, it turns out, based upon the latest tests, that my old man has been suffering from the condition for perhaps 10 years. He's about 65 now. That means he started to develop it in his 50s. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out what that means.
So, now it seems I have been given my best before date and it is somewhere in the range of 10-15 years from now. That puts my shelf life somewhere between a bag of milk and a tv dinner.
Nothing is ever certain of course. I'm a red head and I'm left-handed. That makes me the kind of person who beats the odds, I suppose. We - my brother and I - still have to see a genetics counsellor, or whatever his title is. I think he will basically work the odds, like a bookie at the race track. Good thing I've got private health insurance. Good thing I don't live in the USA.
Not that I'll care when the time comes that I can't wipe my own ass.
In the meantime it infuriates me that our government - and even more so the US government - is spending billions and billions of dollars killing people in Afghanistan (and Iraq) - never mind Haiti, while there isn't enough funding for conditions like this, for cancer research. The truth is, the people who make the decisions in our society - they just don't fucking care. That's all there is to it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Who needs a blog?

Not a fucking soul. No one. The world is filled with blogs. Smart blogs, dumb blogs, political blogs, cultural blogs, blogs by assholes, blogs by really, really, nice people (the kind that make you want to throw rocks through their windows). WE DON'T NEED ANOTHER BLOG.
So, why am I writing one then?
I dunno. I guess coz I'm a writer and I think I've got something to say. And maybe to just ever so slightly to shift the blogosphere a teensy, weensy little bit further to the Left.
I admit I'm not a blog expert. I don't surf the net looking for them. I really only read one blog with any regularity: Lenin's Tomb (www.leninology.blogspot.com). So, my decision about what I'll focus on is made on the basis of complete ignorance and utterly arbitrary. In fact, who knows if I'll even still be writing on here one week from now. If I may give you one piece of of advice - only one - in your whole stinking life, it is this: don't bet on it.
So, on that happy and fortuitous note, I look forward to providing commentary on world events (or not), review and cultural critiques - particularly semiotic analyses of the more interesting bits of fucked-up-ness in our overwhelmingly fucked-up culture.
howzat sound to you? Meaty?
Brilliant.
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