Monthly Archives: February 2010

“Your opinion matters” (and low flying pigs such a nuisance)

It’s difficult to feel too curmudgeonly when one is in Paris, wandering around at exhibits and stopping for a coffee at decent intervals (usually when the last cup of coffee has caught up with one), but it seems as though the entire Occident – Paris included – is run by bureaucrats and administrators taking stupid pills. Or maybe they are simply individuals imbued with an inveterate desire to meddle, change things, fix what ain’t broke: insisting to the universe that yes, “we exist” and can make the changes to prove it.

Once upon a time here in Paris the RATP, the transit authority, had these terrific little bus maps. You could pick up a copy at the metro or wherever you got tickets; often they were on the flip side of the blindingly useful (and simple to read) metro map. Well, they are now gone. Are no more. Someone, somewhere decided they were just too useful and had to go.

Why they had to go is a mystery to me – particularly since it is not just tourists and visitors who used them; locals also occasionally made forays into unknown areas and needed a hand figuring out the best route. And this little piece of paper one could stuff in the back pocket of one’s jeans made that mega simple. But I guess today we are all supposed to use our smartphones or Blackberries or what-have-you. Never mind that reception can be spotty and batteries die and often you have to have the app for that. (And for those of us who are also “roaming” – well, we’d rather not pay any more thanks very much.)

Place St. Sulpice, Paris

So here’s my theory. Alphonse – or Jean-Phillippe or some other blighter sitting in some back office somewhere decided to muck about with a winning formula, perhaps to save on paper or printing or whatever. (And yes, I deliberately used male names because frankly I cannot believe that a woman would be such a nitwit. So it’s sexist. Sue me.) He grandly called a meeting to discuss the matter and somehow, sitting off in some conference room somewhere, it all seemed like a terrific idea. And poof! The little maps are gone. Making the front line personnel even more churlish and cranky than usual because now people are hounding them about the little maps they no longer have. (And they wonder why they go on strike.)

The problem, as I see it, is that the disappearing bus map is part of a larger trend, that of people meddling in the handful of things that actually work pretty well. Heaven knows there are enough things that don’t work – you’d think people would  have their hands full getting on figuring out how to fix those (not to mention building earthquake-proof housing in Haiti and dealing with malaria and TB in sub-Saharan Africa; hunger and human rights; girls getting an education etc. etc.). But noooo. Those are too difficult. So they turn their beady little bureaurat gaze to the handful of things that do work, the things most people like quite a lot, and decide to do away with those. Even though most of us really do appreciate thoughtful, well-designed, simple innovations like a bus map.

Corporations and institutions often talk of the exalted state of “customer loyalty” and spend much time and effort trying to figure out how to achieve it. What they seem to forget, as a friend of mine perspicaciously says, is about their loyalty to us, their customers. So, nobody consults us when a perfectly good product is “improved” (and magically costs more) even though the old version worked just fine. Nobody cares that some of  us actually used that thingamajig they’ve discontinued because too few people used it to make it cost-effective. (So raise the price a bit, already.)

Oh sure, everybody cares about our opinion and wants to know how we feel about the experience of having been crammed into that tiny airplane seat, how we liked that soggy sandwich, whether we enjoy shopping in their shiny new mall. In multiple choice form everyone wants to know how I felt about the damn experience. Unfortunately, nobody wants to know what I think.

Perhaps thinking, particularly the critical variety, is no longer fashionable – much like that bus map.

Winning at all cost seems vaguely inelegant

Sport, said George Orwell, is war minus the shooting. It brings out the worst in us: violence, jealousy and boastfulness. As I’ve watched bits of the coverage on the many screens around town (difficult to avoid no matter how hard one tries) it seems to me the only noun he missed was “irony”.

Here we are, tens upon thousands of us, queuing up to watch the athletes compete, hooting and hollering when “our” lot wins – in a manner so unseemly, if not outright rude, that it is difficult to recall what the spirit of the Olympics, and Olympians, was even supposed to be, no matter how many speeches IOC officials make.

Shouldn't we all have fun with sport?

Now to say that I’m no athlete is to understate understatement: I was one of those scrawny kids always picked last and under duress. And if the dodge or base or whatever ball ever did wend its way towards me, by that point I was usually off in my own world, “dans la lune” as my grandmother called it, and missed it (to the anguished shrieks of “Su-SAN!” from my exasperated teammates). So I am no expert on sport – well, not winning sport anyway.

Nevertheless, even I managed to find a sport (figure skating) that I could do alone, in my own time (which means slowly – I am nothing if not slow when it comes to sport). So, I figure that if I can manage to find something to enjoy, oughtn’t everyone? Particularly given that exercise and movement are two of the few things our bodies were designed to do that can actually (somewhat) help us keep healthy?

When it comes to the biggest sporting event in the world, however, I am having trouble deconstructing precisely how this incessant talk of gold and medals and winning somehow equals some kind of grand social uplift. Particularly – as a friend who is watching the coverage, points out – as any athlete beneath the top three gets zero coverage or mention. For heaven’s sake, these are athletes who made it all the way to the Olympics. Surely, even if they don’t win a medal they’re still pretty good, no?

I am nonplussed at how all this gloating too many Canadians seem to be engaged in (surely, Canada, we’re better than that?!) on how we won gold (and are so great we’ll win more, heck all the gold) constitutes “sports”manship. Or how this pageantry – for which we will end up paying, in actual money, for many years – is anything other than a very large party for a handful of people and largely meaningless, at least as it exists now, in the grand scheme of things.

Most of all, I wonder how we are glorifying sport and movement and the human body by sitting on our duffs in some stadium waving flags and hollering ourselves hoarse.

Exercise is no panacea, contrary to what the cheerleaders of the “wellness and prevention” model of health care seem to think (they always come out of the woodwork when there is any talk of altering the existing model of health care in any way); it is, nevertheless, one of the few things we can do to make a difference in our overall health. True, it won’t ward off most cancers or prevent the auto-immune disorders we tend to get as we get older – Parkinson’s, arthritis, diabetes – or matter as much as socio-economic status, but keeping fit, keeping oneself moving does bode well on many levels, both physiological and psychological.

Mastery over our own body, however miniscule (and believe me, I understand this) allows us to keep our bones strong and gives us a sense of strength and control which may well translate into feelings of autonomy in other areas of our lives, from work and career to friends and family. For women, it allows us the internal strength to open that jar or stuck window without needing to call for help and that is nothing to sneeze at. Knowing you can do things. It’s subtle and nuanced but it matters.

Even I, who always dropped the ball, know this.  I am not sure these Olympics as they have been presented do.

Flamin’ heck

I serendipitously saw the Olympic torch today.

Not what I saw but you get the picture

I was heading to an appointment; I usually take the bus but today I had some things to do (plus it was rainy and cold), so I took the car. At Oak and 25th traffic came to a dead halt – and sirens blared, lights flashed and lo and behold, a gaggle of burly motorcycle cops authoritatively slid their massive bikes into the intersection in slick, circular movements that would have done a stuntman proud. Still, I couldn’t help thinking they looked a bit like alien visitors, these police men and (presumably) women, however asexual they seemed. (And I don’t mean the warm fuzzy kind, like ALF or my favorite Martian but the creepy ones in “V” – here to conquer the planet and eat earthlings for lunch.) Maybe it was their shiny yellow rain gear or those black helmets with the visors. In fact, next to them the small group of bicycle cops looked positively cherubic.

As people got out of their cars and reached for their camera phones even I began to realize Something Was Up. And in a few minutes, there it was, the Olympic flame, carried by a pretty young woman in a white ski suit. No idea who she was but then again, I don’t know such things.

I tried to muster up some enthusiasm – it really seemed too bad of me not to be swept up by all this excitement. I think I lack the fun/pageantry gene, like most curmudgeons. Oh well, maybe one of these days one of those dandy new gene “technologies” that so far have only managed to kill people will find a cure.

But I digress. So, the torch went by and it was just terrific and all that.

Then, some 20 minutes later, as it headed off it seemed we might be able to move. Given that I was the first car in my lane, I gingerly moved forward – unsure as to whether or not I was doing the “right” thing – and, given the massive police presence, what it would mean if I did the “wrong” thing. A ticket? Handcuffs? Worse? That’s the problem when security outpaces our ability to understand or communicate its meaning; for months they’ve been telling us about various restrictions but in such general terms that (other than knowing there’s some kind of cool “central command” to coordinate security) we have no idea what any of it means.

This got me to thinking of  lecture I had watched on cable television the night before, the proceedings of some meeting or conference titled “The Right to the City: The Economics of the 2010 Olympics” – specifically a talk by the BC Civil Liberties’ Michael Vonn. In calm tones she explained how mega events such as the 2010 Olympics which are about to begin in Vancouver, create an environment, under the guise of safety and security, that essentially “militarize’ civil society.

People who would normally never agree such things under normal circumstances – be it large numbers of surveillance cameras, scanners and weapons grade technologies (like that sonar thingie the Vancouver police just got – even though apparently they are not allowed to use it) – agree that the event must be kept safe. So the militarization begins, as do the limitations on free speech and various civil liberties. Vonn related how at that last large conference in Copenhagen, some 1000 potential protesters were arrested before they did anything. In case they did. (“Yes, in Denmark.”)

And of course the security that’s put in place never does manage to get dismantled after the event. It was a terrific talk and it’s available on line at  Stuck behind the procession, I thought of this. Then, a little kid happily waving his maple leaf in the rain even seemed to think I was part of it, cheerfully calling out, “Hello person in the car! Are you an athlete?” OK, that was cute. But cute only lasts for 30 seconds; surveillance is forever. But, being the curmudgeon that I am, I began to wonder what this event would mean for this child’s future liberties and his democratic rights.

Yes, that’s cynical, particularly at a time when even people who weren’t all that keen on the Olympics are sighing and saying, “What the heck, we’re going to pay for it anyway so we may as well enjoy it.”  But cynicism, as Lillian Hellman once said, is really just an unpleasant way of speaking the truth.

Now if we could just speak truth to power.

There is a thin line between genius and insanity

“There is a thin line between genius and insanity,” said the curmudgeonly Oscar Levant, “and I have erased this line.” We have too – unfortunately, we went straight to crazy without so much as a pause at intelligent, never mind genius.

It seems like only yesterday when a modicum of civil discourse was possible – and one could engage in the odd conversation or commentary on the environment or the economy or health care without people going all apoplectic (or reducing the argument down to infantile levels: t’is too, t’is NOT). Then again, it seems like only yesterday when taking a bottle of water on a plane didn’t set off alarm bells and only crazy people walked down the street waving their arms about and talking to air.

Ah, the good old days, circa 2002  …

So what happened? How did we descend into babbling incoherence without so much as a telethon or ribbon to commemorate the day when sense, like the whales in Hitchhiker’s Guide Guide to the Galaxy, just up and left (without so much as a note saying “good-bye and thanks for all the fish”)?

Maybe it’s just information overload: our 24/7 ability to stay connected, in touch, on line and on top of every gloomy  bit of news as it happens – all in High-Def in all its ugly, excruciating, migraine-inducing hues and garish detail. Or those minor but constant irritants, like having to press 2 and 6 every time we call some company (and end up talking to a nice man in the Philippines who can’t help). Maybe it’s all those cameras everywhere (according to The Economist the number of surveillance cameras in the UK averages out to one per 14 people) or that horrible fluorescent light we’re now suppose to embrace (even though they make everyone look diseased and their flicker gives the rest of us headaches). And don’t get me started on those ghastly SUV’s in the city and those horrid, ugly little cars with great mileage and mean little headlights. Or my favorite: reality shows. Thousands of years of story arcs tossed aside in favour of watching nasty people snipe at each other in contrived situations on desert islands. (Where’s Dr. Moreau when you need him?)

Most of all I object to the sheer, unrelenting dreariness of it all, especially that 24-hour news cycle. All presented with such gravitas that Brangelina’s possible breakup becomes as much of a tragedy as Darfur or Haiti. Sure, the spotlight occasionally goes to some natural disaster that brings tears to our eyes but the resultant overkill is almost as bad. Once we’ve made the donation to Medecins sans Frontieres we can feel better and go watch Avatar.  (I must confess to a modicum of cynical glee when I read the MSF and other charities had asked that Haiti donations be halted as they were unable to use them.)

Not that we ever get the followup. Anyone know what happened with that tsunami thing? Because I sure don’t.

Moreover, we don’t protest or argue, just take it all at face value; rarely if ever questioning the perspective or veracity of those authorative sound bites. So we end up shallow and flat and two-dimensional, just like our technologies.

We forget there’s a world of history and culture out there, the backdrop to those uncontextualized blobs of information we’re fed. The economy or even the markets aren’t just rows of video ticker-tape symbols at the bottom of the screen. Borders did not magically appear on the map – they were the result of years of conflict, colonialism and hardship (not to mention warring interests and powers). Real life is messy, complex and oftentimes boring, containing, as Walt Whitman said in a different context, “multitudes”. It’s not neatly reduceable to a 90-second segment.

And when it’s s not ‘out there’ it’s us: our genes, our aging bodies, our addictions, our telomeres or whatever those stupid things are called (the ones that shorten as our cells regenerate and end up making us old and dead). Not to mention our blood pressure and lipids and body fat index and bones that – any minute now – will fall in on themselves and make us disappear altogether (perhaps a not-so-hidden metaphor for how we tend to disappear in this culture as we age).

This last while it’s been epidemics. Of obesity, of type 2 diabetes, of cancer – and of course the epidemic-epidemics. The ones where viruses are described in metaphors that liken these little chunks of protein to an invading army, lurking, like Stephen King’s Chucky, waiting to pounce on the unwary.

Frankly, I’m surprised more of us aren’t standing on street corners holding placards reading “Abandon All Hope” or “The End is Nigh”.  (Or “night”, given how badly everyone seems to spell.)

So for now I plan to skulk here, in my curmudgeonly corner, making the odd attempt to bring some sense and sanity here and there when things particularly irk me – maybe debunk a bit of  nonsense or two from the mounds of information all over the place: information that’s largely shrill, reductionist, sensationalist, biased and just plain wrong. Not that that ever stops it from streaming out, all assured and authoritative.

Progress, said Paul Fussell, is one damn thing after another.  Well, someone has to say something.

Spanish Flu – not

If I hear one more smug, well-dressed public health expert threaten us with the Next Great Pandemic, be it swine flu, avian flu or H1N1, with its inevitable comparison to the 1918 Spanish flu that “killed millions and millions”, the top of my head will blow off.

Presented in the metaphor of war, the virus is no longer a miniscule chunk of protein that requires a living, breathing body to reproduce but a rampaging army, mowing down everything in its path. Conveniently forgotten is that just as important as the “strength” of the virus is the health and immuno-competence of the host. Which brings me to the Spanish flu.

First off, it wasn’t “Spanish” – viruses not being good with national borders (plus most of them don’t have passports). The flu began somewhere in Europe at the end of a long and bloody war which you might recall: World War I.

The Allies, however (us, I mean, aka the Good Guys fighting the “Hun” and keeping the world safe for capitalism and democracy and whatnot) heavily censored news of the flu, thinking it would cause panic and pandemonium. (As if the war hadn’t already done that.)  So news of the flu trickled in from Spain, neutral during the war, which did not censor its news. Hence, people assumed the flu came from Spain.

Generally speaking, 1918 was not a good year, coming as it did after four years marked by new weapons and a war machine the likes of which the world had not seen before  – which is why WWI was also known as “the war to end all wars”. Millions of of young men died: cannon fodder for tactics devised by generals schooled in the gentlemanly art of 19th century war in what became known as the start of the 20th century in all its technological splendour.

Faded sepia photographs are all we have left of the many who died; dressed in those ugly boiled wool uniforms that make you itch just looking at them. Boys, really, living and dying in muddy trenches: damp, mouldy underground passages where micro-organisms proliferated as did gangrene and fungus and rot. And if anyone objected they were shot as a traitor.

I don’t tend to get sentimental about war but I confess that I wept when I saw the monument at Vimy. (“Every day they die among us,” said Auden, “those who were doing us some good.”) An entire generation lost to trench warfare.

That was the context for the Spanish flu: war, rationing, weakened immune systems, shell shock, malnutrition; the constant noise of cannons, stress, and injuries too horrible to contemplate; amputees in the hundreds of thousands. As ugly a situation as it gets. And no social programs, remember – those came much later, after the next great war. Everyone suffered, not just the military.

Medicine had little to offer: no antibiotics, no ventilators, no ICU’s, no potentially life-saving surgeries. Had there been, fewer people might have died (since it is the immune reaction that kills, not the virus), though we have no way of knowing – any more than we know how many people actually died of the “Spanish” flu.

(I suspect a fair amount of  hyperbole has crept into the numbers – particularly given the sheer number of agencies, drug companies and individuals that currently stand to gain in power and prestige from the scare tactics, not to mention funding and/or profit.)

Certainly in 1918 there was no way of testing for the virus, and even today, when we can (if we do), easily half the people diagnosed with the flu turn out not to have it. Experts call it “flu like” illness because they have no idea what it is. People just get sick when the weather gets cold, some worse than others.

So you’ll forgive me if I don’t get into a lather every time this pandemic business comes up with its inevitable reference  to 1918. Today, conditions for the majority of us in the developed world are so different as to make such comparisons  meaningless. Epidemiology shows us that the risk of getting any disease is higher if one is poor, malnourished, stressed, immune compromised; if one does not have ready access to clean water and air, nutritious food and decent  living conditions, jobs and hope. This means some Aboriginal reserves  in Canada and various pockets of poverty  throughout the United States, Europe and Japan, as well as most of the developing world.

Not the rest of us for whom hardship means our internet is down.

It wasn’t really a vaccine and a multi-million dollar PR campaign we needed last fall. Particularly since the massive expense will no doubt mean future cuts in less glamorous public health programs like suicide prevention for at- risk youth and the like. What we really needed were clear-eyed, long-term initiatives to fundamentally ameliorate the conditions of those communities on our own doorstep where people live impoverished, hopeless lives, in circumstances somewhat more similar to those of 1918.

There’s a public health program I would support. But, I doubt anybody would be interested. It wouldn’t make good TV.