The recent Occupation Toronto protests initially occured without much comment, but as the days grew shorter, so, it seems, did the tempers of several of my facebook friends and occasional readers of this blog. And so, gentle reader, here is my attempt to make sense out of the anger and vitriol expressed over the last few days. I appeal to you to help me understand, weak man that I am.
1) Words such as "anarchy" and "revolutionary" were used to describe the Occupiers. Anti-Occupation signs accused them of being whiners, spoiled kids with no future prospects, burned-out hippies, homeless and insane. A bunch of losers and misfits.
Gentle reader, you must be right. That would explain all the molotov cocktails hurled at passers-by during the Occupation. And youth with no future prospects? Well, what do they have to complain about? Recent statistics show that 80% of young Canadians have jobs. Shame on the nearly 20% who don't because jobs are being shipped off to China or are being done by automation. Adapt or die, slackers !! Homeless and insane? Surely, they have nothing to complain about either, especially in this tropical paradise where all you need to do is sleep out under the stars on a warm beach and pick bananas or oranges from the trees. Life is good, so why complain?
2) The Occupation destroyed local business.
Right on, reader !! Around St. James Park is the veritable hub of Canadian enterprise. There is a Starbucks, a Coffee Time, an Indian restaurant, and several pawn shops. Oh yes, and we must not forget that bastion of capitalism, the Anglican Cathedral Church of St. James. The Church will need years to recoup the financial losses from the Occupation.
3) The critics dispute the 1% vs 99% numbers.
Well, my friends, you must be part of the 1%! Your economic future is secure because of your hard work, superior intelligence, family connections, and good fortune. Those in the 99%, who struggle to keep their jobs, keep a roof over their family's head, afford their kids' education, try to keep their cars on the road with climbing gas and insurance prices so they can do a job that pays less and less in real purchasing power and might just disappear when their boss learns what they pay workers in China, are completely ignorant of the macro economic realities of the times. Thank goodness, though, you understand completely.
4) The Occupation was illegal. There is no camping on city property.
Right again, gentle reader. We frown on illegal activities such as camping on city grounds .... and also fighting in hockey, parking in disabled parking spots even though noone in the car is disabled, not scooping after your dog poops, possessing more than 30 grams of weed, illegally downloading favourite songs or movies or software, having open bottles of alcohol in your car, and shooting Osama Bin Laden. I assume, since you were outraged at the Occupiers' flagrant violation of the law, that you agree with me that the above activities must be stopped at once, to the fullest extent of the law!! Right? Right?
5) The Occupation couldn't be taken seriously. It was disorganized and sloppy looking. Who was in charge? What was their message?
Again, gentle reader, you have hit the mark. After all, an activity that was supposed to promote democracy should have been rigidly controlled, supervised, with all actions under close scrutiny by the powerful leadership of the "occupier bosses". Their message was unclear because it was unscripted and untested in a focus group. These Occupiers ... what a bunch of losers! They should learn how to lead a democratic movement like the federal Conservative Party: or maybe Rob Ford: now THAT'S democracy.
5) The Occupation churned up St. James Park. Now the taxpayer is on the hook for thousands of dollars to rehabilitate and clean up the park.
Absolutely correct !! My, you are unbeatable in any type of debate !! And, by that logic, I'm sure you are now ready to join my campaign to end the violent activites of football and soccer in all city parks. These terrible activities cost taxpayers untold thousands of dollars each year fertilizing, cutting and weeding the grass: not to mention the cost of putting the lines on the field. But you are with me, aren't you? Imagine the howls of anger from all those unionized parks and rec workers when their lazy-ass jobs are yanked out from under them. And, while we're at it, join me in outlawing family picnics in G. Ross Lord Park or on the Beach Boardwalk. Who do these people think they are? How dare they use our public land for their personal use! Bastards!
6) The park is public land. Citizens couldn't use St. James Park during the protest.
Aha, you have the right of it !! That explains why I haven't seen you over the past several months: you were in St. James Park, enjoying the serenity and peace of that green oasis. But, of course, when the Occupiers, who claim to be members of the public, set up camp in the "public" land, municipal by-law officers arrive ready to evict them from "municipal property".
Hmm.... I'm confused, gentle reader. Help me on this. Just who, exactly, owns public land? Ah, I get it now. YOU own the land!! And, because of this, you are perfectly in your right to call in the police ( and are willing to pay their overtime, don't forget ) to evict these trespassers !! Thank goodness you're here !!
I'm glad we had this little dialogue. My mind is now at peace. The next time there is some type of social upheaval and people take to the streets or parks to voice their concerns, I'll look for your comments on facebook and elsewhere to help me to understand the RIGHT way to do things.
Thank-you so much !!!
Thursday, October 20, 2011
In 1975, while I was in my first year at Western , I took a long train ride from London to Toronto. It was not a particularly happy occasion because I was going to a funeral. But what stands out in my mind was the appearance of Toronto in the dark evening as I approached Union Station. I hadn't been to Toronto in a good long time and it was quite a sight.
The bright lights of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, the recently completed centre-piece of the expanding city skyline, glared almost defiantly at me as I craned my neck looking out the train window. Commerce Court and First Canadian Place were nearing completion. New tall buildings stretched north from the TD out to the curves of the city hall. To the south, the dome and pods of Ontario Place glistened like a jewel on the lake front. And, dominating the scene, like a sword in an anvil, was the ambitious CN Tower, proclaiming to the world that Toronto had arrived as a great metropolis.
To a twenty year old kid from Brantford, Toronto stretched like an endless horizon into the eternity of the future. Later achievements like the Eaton Centre, waves of new Canadians from all corners of the world, the creation of festivals in the arts and culture, combined to inspire a belief that the city would become great.
Nicknames like "the city that works" and "megacity" evoked size, energy, and progress. Peter Ustinov, the British actor and wit, claimed that Toronto was like "New York run by the Swiss." Everything seemed bright, efficient and positive.
And then, just as surely as my train ducked under the stale old roof of Union Station and obscured my view into the future, the lustre of the "world-class city" vanished. Today, Toronto is crowded, congested, ugly, nasty, and soul-less.
In the November edition of The Walrus , writer John Lorinc describes the decline in "Where Toronto Went Wrong", an article that excellently chronicles the downward spiral. I will not attempt to paraphrase the article here. I suggest that, if you are curious, you read it on line at http://www.walrusmagazine.com/ . It is long, but well written, and, most importantly, correct.
For me, however, the article crystallized what I have observed for a long time. Toronto, despite the busy activity of the financial sector, in spite of the many festivals and concerts, the tall buildings dwarfing the TD Centre, has not lived up to its promise of greatness.
Other cities in the world have caught up and passed it. Chicago has a better waterfront: so too, do Cardiff, Sydney, Liverpool, Cleveland, and Reykjavik. The nightlife is better in Austin, Montreal, Dublin, and Newcastle. The scenery is better in Vancouver. People are more enthusiastic and joyful in Rome, Philadelphia and Havanna ( where they have little to be joyful about). The sports teams are better in Boston and Buffalo. The traffic is worse than Los Angeles. The transit system is older and more unreliable than London or Paris. The politics is as trivial and devoid of creativity as any city or town in Latin America. And the crime, though not as bad as many believe, is rife with guns, gangs, frauds and drugs.
Toronto built a new opera house recently. It looks like a high school: no soaring sails like Sydney or golden undulations like Cardiff. The concert hall, built in the 1980's by a Vancouver architect, has terrible accoustics. The museum completed a highly publicized renovation that looks like dry wall exploding from the classic stone walls of the old building, and not with the daring, futuristic lines of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, ironically designed by a Torontonian architect named Frank Gehry. The current building boom is cookie-cutter condominiums. There is no train link to the airport. Our stadium, once an engineering marvel, is no longer unique, and has empty spaces where restaurants once gleemed: it only has a capacity of 52,000 and is rarely that full: Cardiff's Milennium Stadium, with retractable roof and 80,000 seats is often full. The CN Tower is now the "second" tallest free-standing structure in the world. The current mayor wants to redevelop the old harbour, known as the Donlands, with a monorail, a shopping mall, and a ferris wheel. The zoo and libraries will probably be sold or shut down in an effort to save money and get off the "gravy train". We settled for the Pan American Games and forgot about the Olympics.
I think of myself at 20 emerging from the depths of Union Station and staring up. What I see when I do this now is harried commuters rushing for late GO trains. The soul of the city core is made up of well-dressed bankers who have the good humour of people with severe constipation. The old suburbs are made up of recent immigrants who have escaped their old hell-holes and still have the thousand yard stares of those places. The middle- and working-classes are gone, fled to the 905 and are forever caught in the gridlock of a "rush" hour that never ends.
I could go on. Suffice to say that, whenever I think of all this, I can comfort myself with the truth that Toronto is at least not Detroit. But the decline is there, plain as day. Toronto is at a cross-roads in its history. It can never go back to the safe, satisfied, orderly days of the provincial backwater it once was, controlled by a dour and parsimonious Orange-order elite. But it has lost the promise of the young, emerging, talented and forward-looking city is was supposed to be.
Who has the vision, strength, and courage to pull it back together? Rob Ford? Don Cherry? John Derringer? Marilyn Dennis? The Rogers family? Brian Burke? Bank CEO's? Dalton McGuinty? Police Chief Bill Blair? Snow? The ghost of Timothy Eaton? Executives from Nortel or RIM? Chris Bosch? ......
Detroit, here we come !!
Monday, October 3, 2011
When I was still in high school, I was uncertain about my future profession. Like so many teens, I changed my mind every few days about what I wanted to be "when I grew up." But, in my grade 13 year, a profession began to hold my interest. It was journalism. It seemed a natural fit for me: my strongest subject at school was English, I loved to write, and I was pretty good at it. All my essays and stories earned high marks, and my friends encouraged me to continue writing. So, with high hopes and shining visions of the future, I sent off my applications and marks to Ryerson and Western, both schools with journalism faculties. I visited Ryerson with some of my writing, met one of the profs there, took a tour and seemed on the verge of becoming the next great reporter. Then, I went to Western, toured around and Ryerson became a thing of the past. When it came time to choose my first year subjects, Journalism 20 disappeared and I majored in English and History, headed for a career in teaching.
But my interest in journalism never wavered. I suppose I held on to it as a possible second career, should teaching ever fall by the wayside. Happily for me, teaching proved to be my only true love and I continued in it for almost 30 years. During that time, though, I managed to keep my interest in journalism going. I taught journalism in my English Writing classes, and, along with my esteemed colleague Ben Korczynski, launched a newspaper at my school.
In those classes, I tried to teach my students the importance of journalism in a democratic society. I taught that we depend on a free and objective journalist class to inform us, provide truthful coverage of the day's events, and to promote honest and unfettered exchanges of ideas. When our political or economic masters make errors, I taught, it is up to journalists to point them out and hold their "feet to the fire" in order to keep them honest and not allow them to steamroller their agendas on us, or, worse, abuse their power. I tried to make my students aware that the so-called "fourth estate" was an honourable profession with high standards of ethics and excellence: any type of media which fell short of these standards was considered tabloid trash, pandering to base and titillating sensationalism, and not true journalism.
I also taught that , in order to perform these vital tasks, a journalist had to write with honesty, intergrity and in a completely objective manner. It was a journalist's task to lay out the facts and challenge the reader to interpret and form opinions. The journalist had to leave himself completely out of the picture, and had to answer, to the best of his ability, the 5 w's and H: who, what, when, where, why and how. In so doing, the journalist served the public well.
The reality, of course, is that, today, journalism is a highly competitive business. Profits are paramount, and, in the changing and fast-paced world we live in, traditional forms of journalistic media are hard pressed to exist in the face of newer, faster, more democratic media, such as the one you're reading now. Such competition has become cut-throat, resulting in less attention paid to the ethics of journalism, and more paid to competitive success, and to attention-grabbing stories masked in the guise of journalism, but more in line with entertainment, all of which is designed to grab the public's attention, and get them to buy the product. Journalism has become more of a commodity and less an honourable profession.
When the Toronto Star launched its investigative series on teachers who have dishonoured their profession and committed unprofessional and sometimes criminal acts, one could hardly criticise the importance of the information. The public has a right to know of these unprofessional teachers and has a right to know what has been or is being done about the offending teachers. The public wants to be assured that their children are safe from harm and are being well taught by the teachers we trust with the children's care. Fair enough.
But The Star took a turn that not only brought suspicion on all teachers, but brought out the low and utterly sensationalist depravity that journalism has sunk to. "BAD TEACHERS" screamed the banner headline, followed by "Ontario's Secret List". A photo of one of the accused bad teachers, a bald, pudgy man wearing the Canada Post uniform in a slovenly fashion, graced the page. A list of eight offending incidents followed, along with the note that a principal and vice-principal did not act on complaints of misconduct. This was followed by the assertion that "scores" and "dozens" of cases exist outside of those cited. The impression created in the article was one of widespread abuse and criminality, a veritable tidal wave of predation and professional misconduct worthy of the last days of Rome.
I do not doubt the truth of the cases cited. Nor do I suggest that the public should not know of it. We need to know about bad teachers, just as we need to know about bad doctors, bad nurses, bad lawyers, bad engineers, bad dentists, bad bankers, bad accountants, etc. I am angry whenever I read about a teacher who has dishonoured my profession. But there is greater anger in this situation. My true anger is directed at the way the issue was presented to the public.
One must ask what the purpose of The Star's front page layout was. Could it have been to inform the public, offer fair and balanced reporting of the on-going process of disciplining teachers who run afoul of the code of proper conduct? Or was it attention-grabbing , fear inducing paranoia with which our society now seems to be drunk ? "Parents," a single-sentence paragraph read, "these people could be in your school." What possible good is achieved by that statement? What impressions are created in the minds of the public, a public already prejudiced against the teaching profession? And what does this type of writing do to the morale of the teaching profession itself? It is undermined to the extent that doubt and suspicion are directed to the tens of thousands of honest, well-motivated and completely professional teachers who try each day to provide a vital and necessary service to the public. What was the motive, the intent of the reporter and, more importantly, his editors when they decided to present the story to their readers?
The teaching profession is periodically savaged by politicians who need to score easy points with the public at crucial election times. Apparently, teachers are now easy targets for craven journalists who wish to make a name for themselves as crack "investigative reporters", or newspapers who find themselves in tough competition for the public's patronage and are willing to sink to the levels of tabloids, pandering to our basest fears and emotions, in order to sell copies of their "reporting".
It is dishonourable, demeaning and unethical for them to do this. The Toronto Star in general, and Keith Donovan in particular, may feel that I have written this sentence about teachers: not so. That sentence is directed at the hack reporter and his yellow rag of a newspaper who pays him. Harsh words? Perhaps, but will the Star ever do a piece on members of its own profession who sink to levels of unprofessionalism by exaggerating, spinning the truth to serve their own ends, and scaring and manipulating people? What about the legendary stereotype of the hard-bitten reporter, drinking on the job, doing all kinds of questionable things in order to "get the story", paying off people, hounding and harassing, pestering, and even lying?
I eagerly await Keith Donovan's series on BAD JOURNALISTS. I suggest he begin his piece by looking in the mirror.
Monday, August 15, 2011
I have never read Marcel Proust's massive work "Remembrance of Things Past." The work contains 7 volumes and approximately a million and a half words. But I do know that it is widely considered a modern masterpiece. When I taught, I used an essay in my OAC English class that contained a reference to an episode from the work. In it, the narrator describes his experience attending a party given by an old aquaintance and attended by numerous people from the narrator's past. He is especially moved when he meets a woman whom he had loved when both were much younger. His reaction seeing this woman, after so many decades apart, is poignant and provides the narrator with an important epiphany on the fleeting nature of youth and love.
We know intellectually that we cannot go back in time. We are told this in songs, poems and stories. Yet, deep inside us, is the self-image we all carry, and that image is rarely of the present. In our mind's eye, we see ourselves as forever young, vigourous, happy and always forward-thinking. We see ourselves as running free, unencumbered by the ravages of time and age, looking always to a new day full of promise and potential.
The opportunity to visit the distant past comes rarely. When it does, as in the case of the recent 100th anniversary of Brantford Collegiate Institute and it's accompanying reunion, we often go to the visit hopeful of seeing people and sights that we remember fondly and simply take up from where we left off. But, after the decades, we enter a room full of vaguely familiar strangers. Surely these people don't belong here: they must have gone to the wrong address. We expected to see classmates still young, still wearing the clothes of youth, still laughing and making smart-ass comments about parents, teachers, jobs, and the future. What are all these grey-hairs doing here?
But, after a few uncertain moments, the faces become those of past friends. True, lines in faces tell of a lifetime of achievements and set-backs, and the minis, platform shoes, and bell-bottoms of the past have given way to golf shirts and sensible shoes. But you can see them staring at you and search: it only takes a few seconds for them to find you, deep inside the middle age. And you look back at them and see that there are only a few layers covering the high school brightness. Yes, it's us, we're still here: we're just a little shy now, a little more quiet than we used to be. Laughter, hand shakes, hugs and back slaps give way to stories of the decades' long battles in families, schools, jobs, kids, marriages, and divorces. Sad stories emerge of those who are no longer here. How can that be possible? The last time I saw them, they were only teenagers. Suddenly, the truth comes clear: the kids in the yearbook pictures are all gone, all of them. And for a moment, you wonder who you are talking to: is it really you?
But, it's still us. As Proust said, it is out of the youth of the past that old men and women are made. Old? Us? Never !!
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
We're told that smell is the strongest sense for bringing forth long-lost memories. I believe it.
There is a certain smell that I associate with summer. It is a smell that is dank, and sour, and very old. It is largely sweat and struggle, and permeates everything: walls, floors, chairs, glass, and people. It is the smell of competition and victory. And, when it invades your nostrils for the first time, it never ever leaves.
The memory came back with full force last night at the Iroquois Park Arena in Whitby. I decided to visit some ghosts and drove down to watch the Brooklin Redmen play the Brampton Excelsiors in the second round of the OLA's Major Lacrosse Series playoffs. Both teams are historic entities in the world of Ontario lacrosse: the Redmen began life back in 1966 in the small village of Brooklin, north of Whitby, and played in the old Luther Vipond Arena for years, labouring in obscurity except for the small, but loyal following who drove to the village on hot summer nights: the Excelsiors are even older, dating back to 1912, and have a storied past that includes several Mann Cups: they are the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers of lacrosse. Brooklin had won the first two games in the series, so Brampton needed to win to stay alive.
The game itself was astounding, given that the players performed at a high tempo in the sweltering conditions. The first period was even, and the teams emerged with a 3-3 tie. In the second period, Brampton played the type of lacrosse I always associated with the OLA: fast , long passes from the goalie to players running down the floor behind the Brooklin defenders, a lacrosse equivalent of the long bomb of football. This stretched the Brooklin defence and Brampton won the period 5-1. By the time the third period played out, both teams had settled into the heat of the building. Brooklin mounted a come-back with persistent long range shooting that finally found the mark, but Brampton sealed the deal with a costly Brooklin turn-over late in the game to snuff out the Redmen rally. Final score: 11-7 for Brampton.
But it was more than the play and score that caught my imagination. The sparse crowd, the ugly old barn of an arena, and that unforgetable smell took me back to 1971, when the Brantford Warriors were the toast of the lacrosse world. There's something strangely bonding about people who gather in harsh conditions deliberately to watch something they're passionate about. Lacrosse is still a fringe sport to most people, but to those who truly love the game, there's nothing better than sweating it out with the players, who chase glory and passion more than they chase fame or the ball. It's the smell, I guess. Ugly as it is, when it gets inside you, there's no turning back.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
If you read enough literature ( a crime to which I plead guilty ) you're sure to come across a version of the King Arthur story. The legend has existed for centuries, and has become a steady source of pleasure for those who enjoy historical/fantasy/mystery/military fiction. Scratch the surface of many of these types of stories, and chances are that the King Arthur myth plays a role in inspiring the tale.
There are many who believe that the stories of King Arthur are more than myth or legend. A school of thought teaches that Arthur, or a version of him, was a Celtic warlord who may have lived in the fifth century in eastern Britain, now consisting of Wales or Cornwall. This Arthur is far from the romanticized, chivalric and sanitized version of Chretien de Troyes, Mallory, Tennyson, T.H. White and others: he is more accurately characterized in the novels of Bernard Cornwell and Jack Whyte. While no concrete proof for Arthur's existance has been uncovered, or is ever likely to be uncovered, the very notion of this warrior-statesman-visionary is attractive, especially in the modern world with its dearth of such leadership.
If you believe in the possibility of Arthur, then it follows that there must have been a real "Camelot" or capital where he lived, worked, and tried to fashion a civilized society in the wake of the retreat of the legions of Rome. Again, the romanticized versions of Camelot, complete with Disney-like turrets, banners, damsels in distress, and jousts and jugglers is best left to the cartoons and pot boilers.
The real Camelot must have been a place of comparative civility and amenities, given the time period, but it would have been far from Disneyland. If Arthur existed in the fifth century, he would most likely have used an abandonned Roman garrison town to place his capital. In Britain, there were only three garrison towns large enough to fit his requirements. York, Gloucester, and Caerleon are the three. Only one of them is in Celtic Britain, so the nod goes to Caerleon.
Caerleon today is a peaceful and tranquil town in south-eastern Wales. The Roman ruins that are visible are impressive and evoke a thriving and bustling town that gave comfort and wealth to the Romans stationed in Wales, and, to a large measure, to the local people who lived close by. When the Roman legions were withdrawn in the fifth century, the town would have been almost deserted, dismantled by farmers who needed the stone work for their farms, and fallen into some disrepair. But not to the point of becoming ruins: far from it. If Arthur and his forces chose to locate in Caeleon, they would have been able to repair much of it, using plans and technology only recently left behind by the Romans. Running water, sewers, public baths, and a large amphitheatre could have easily been used by Arthur. The legion's headquarters, now lying under St. Cadoc's Church, could have been Arthur's headquarters and personal barracks: it would have been a large structure, capable of accommodating several officers who would meet to plan training and campaign strategy ( using a round table? ). The Amphitheatre would have been spacious enough for training and for tournaments and competitions, including the timeless competitions in Wales for singing and poetry.
Other towns in Britain claim to be Camelot. They include Winchester, Salisbury, Cadbury Castle ( an iron age hill fort ), and Tintagel in Cornwall. All sites make their claims, but the claims are not plausible: the archeological evidence is either too small or too flawed to sustain the claim. Only Caerleon, situated in Celtic Wales, near a major river, surrounded by productive fields and hemmed in by protective hills and mountains, with a large and established administrative and military town already on site, can sustain a claim. For my money, I believe that I have found Camelot.
Is this important? Probably not, but, in a world increasingly cynical, in societies increasingly bereft of visionary leadership, in a world being swallowed up by the same mindless economic collossus, it would be nice to know, that, for "one brief shining moment", there was a place and a man who could inspire people with the purity and unity of his vision.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Fourteen thousand, four hundred and eighty-eight came to bear witness. It was an event that held drama and significance far beyond the scope of a single game. There were many subtexts to the event, but, for most, it would be the chance to see a favourite son play his last game, with the highest stakes possible.
What happened on Sunday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre is the stuff of Hollywood movies. Combine such films as "Rocky" with "The Natural", throw in a little of the Knute Rockne legend, and you come close to the National Lacrosse League Champions Cup game between the Toronto Rock and the Washington Stealth. Two excellent, well-coached teams clash: a repeat of last year's final: the Rock hoping to reverse last year's result on home floor: unfinished business. But the biggest chapter in the story was the final game of the great veteran goalie, Bob Watson.
Watson has excelled at his craft for fifteen years at the professional level. He has been named Goalie of the Year twice and earned playoff MVP honours, and all-star appearances. But, for an athlete, the awful truth began to assert itself with each accomplishment. Time, the greatest opponent, was stalking, and would be sure to exact its toll at some point.
Yet it can be argued that Watson somehow cheated time of its reward. He became arguably a better goalie each passing year. And the proof came in the Championship Game.
Watson faced the Washington Stealth's onslaught in the second half as though he was a one-man stone wall. The Stealth increased their shots on goal totals in each of the four quarters of the game, which meant that the seemingly safe lead the Rock had built in the first half was under severe attack. The Rock's offence, meanwhile, had gone cold, and their shot totals began to diminish: also, the quality of the Rock's offensive thrusts grew less and less.
Washington began to creep closer. But Watson continued to make saves. It became apparent that the championship was his to lose. Two Stealth goals were of the "five hole" variety and the crowd wondered if Watson would unravel. But, instead, he dug in. Save after save, some of the near miraculous variety, stymied the Stealth attack. Instead of losing the championship, Watson held firm and allowed his team to claim victory.
If it is possible to be born for a single act of greatness, if it is somehow in the plan to save one's finest act in one's final act, then Bob Watson achieved the most rare of accomplishments. He grew younger as his final year unfolded. Such glory is the stuff of legends.
Long live the legend of Bob Watson.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
We're heading into the home stretch of the current federal election campaign and, I must say, I am quite underwhelmed by the content and quality of the "debate" that is not happening. As most of you know by now, I have tendencies to support the Liberals over the other parties. So, with that knowledge, you would be forgiven for assuming that I have nothing but criticism, even contempt, for the Conservative campaign so far. And you'd be right! But the offerings of the other parties haven't left me eager to embrace their campaigns either. Both Liberal and NDP seem quite content to get down in the gutter with the Conservatives and sling mud and call Stephen Harper names and warn us of the dire consequences of voting for him. Don't get me wrong, I think Harper is a bad Prime Minister: anyone who is formally held in contempt of Parliament doesn't deserve anyone's vote. But Jack Layton's puppet shows are not even entertaining, and Michael Ignatieff's own scare campaign make me almost ashamed to be liberal, and risks having me so ticked off that I might just consider not voting.
It is a phony campaign, and it treats all Canadian voters as though we are scared children, or a collection of village idiots. At some point, I would love to ask the parties a series of 5 questions on things I'd like to hear them speak to. (Why 5 you might ask? Well, it's a good number for our Prime Minister, so why not?)
It is a phony campaign, and it treats all Canadian voters as though we are scared children, or a collection of village idiots. At some point, I would love to ask the parties a series of 5 questions on things I'd like to hear them speak to. (Why 5 you might ask? Well, it's a good number for our Prime Minister, so why not?)
1) Why haven't aboriginal issues been addressed? We have approximately 2 million aboriginal citizens in Canada. Many of them live in poverty that rivals third world countries. Few have the means to join in the educational and employment sectors that are wide open to other Canadians. Land claims and treaty obligations have been ignored for generations. When will the federal government start taking these issues seriously? I have suggestions, of course, but I would love to just hear what the parties would do for these people.
2) What, exactly, is our foreign policy? If we don't have one, what would the parties do to implement one? We seem to be eager to join in multinational efforts to intervene in world conflicts without clearly stated goals. What, exactly, are we going to do in Afghanistan when our combat mission ends this year? When do our troops come home? What is our strategy in Libya? If we are willing to get involved in Libya, why not in Yemen, the Ivory Coast, Darfur, the Congo, Syria, or North Korea ? Surely those countries deserve as much support in striving for democracy as Libya does. Or, if they do not, then why choose Libya to make our stand in promoting democracy in the world?
3) What will the parties do for our larger cities? We get mumblings every once in a while, but nothing concrete from any of the leaders. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and other large cities have responsibilities in maintaining infrastructure, transit, health care, police, social services, yet do not have sufficient ability to raise the revenues needed to meet these responsibilities. The federal and provincial governments are fond of downloading responsibilities on municipalities, but dole out money with eye droppers. Is this what our senior governments want? Most Canadians live in cities, so the parties must start paying attention to them.
4) What are the parties saying about land use, food production, and the water supply? I haven't heard a peep about this, yet I constantly see woodlands and farm land taken over for new residential or commercial development. I see subdivisions, golf courses, malls and farms encroach on water systems we need for our very survival. I see trash, litter, and piles of fill surround our towns. Land is being wasted, yet Canada is rapidly becoming an importer of food, when we used to be one of the world's great agricultural nations. Do the parties want this to continue?
5) Do the parties have reasonable policies on science and technology and innovation? Canada used to lead the world in several technologies: nuclear technology comes to mind. Nuclear is now frowned upon ( probably rightly so, given what is happening in Japan ), but are there other technologies we are involved in? And, if so, what are the consequences of being involved in these? I have recently become interested in the move to create true artificial intelligence: to my knowledge, no country on earth has tackled the philosophical and ethical implications of this headlong rush to create AI. While the research and development in this field will not be stopped, surely a discussion is needed as to how we SHOULD proceed in this field. Or are the parties blissfully ignorant ,and do they wish to keep us that way too?
I could go on, but Mr. Harper probably wouldn't let me. So, I'll stop at 5.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
In 1982, "Blade Runner" , a strange film combining elements of sci-fi and film noir, and directed by a relative unknown, Ridley Scott, was released. It received generally lukewarm reviews and garnered some underwhelming recognition and reviews. Since it's initial release, "Blade Runner" has become something of a cult classic, and is now generally recognized as one of the finest films ever made, placing on many "top film" lists. It was based on a quirky and difficult-to-read novel with one of the most bizarre titles: "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep" and was written by sci-fi kingpin Philip K. Dick.
One of the most haunting aspects of the film is its depiction of a future world involving "replicants" or machines with human qualities and superior capabilities. Replicants were manufactured by the fictional Tyrell Corporation, whose corporate motto was "more human than human." Replicants were seen, in this future world, as being a threat to humans, and were employed in "off-world" colonies doing tasks that humans would not or could not easily do. They were kept in check by the fail-safe mechanism of a four year life span.
The concept of artificially created intelligence, of course, is not new to literature or movies. A list would include such classics as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and films such as "2001: A Space Odyssey", "The Matrix" series, and "The Terminator" series. Television shows such as "Star Trek" ( original, Next Generation and others ), "Battlestar Galactica", "Knight Rider" and even "The Jetsons" would make that list. It is a genre of sci-fi which fascinates us. The story of creating life forms that imitate and even exceed us can trace its roots back as far at the Old Testament, when Adam and Eve acquired knowledge that was forbidden to them, and then through literary history to "Paradise Lost", where Lucifer leads an almost successful rebellion against God, and to the legend of Doctor Faustus, who attempted to acquire knowledge that would equal him to God. Simon Magus in the New Testament's "Acts of the Apostles", and Maurice Conchis in John Fowles' "The Magus" complete this partial list.
As students of such works, we find the characters both horrifying and fascinating. They attempt to do the impossible, to attain lofty heights of achievement hitherto reserved for deities. They usually fail in their attempts, or, if successful, are plagued with curses beyond imagination and suffering. Immortality, perfect knowledge, and supreme physical beauty and accomplishmet are the goals: regret, revulsion, pain, and guilt at unleashing forces beyond control are often the rewards.
Science fiction is often the precursor to science fact. We all know of Jules Verne's predictions of submarines capable of traveling the depths of the oceans, and voyages to the moon. We know too, of Leonardo da Vinci's fanciful sketches of tanks, helicopters and other strange devices. Undoubtedly, they were greeted by derisive laughter when their ideas and stories were first made public. But, in the fullness of time, science caught up to creative imagination, and such devices are commonplace.
Ray Kurzweil writes, in his landmark book "The Singularity is Near", that all knowledge is exploding exponentially, especially in areas such as genetics, nanotechnology and robotics ( the new "GNR" ) to the point that the creation of a new type of life form, the "Singularity" is coming soon. This life form will be the completion of all technological work done to this point: computer science, biomechanics, genetic engineering, energy creation and other disciplines, and will outstrip all the creations and intelligence of the entire history of humanity on the planet.
To be fair, much of what Kurzweil writes about is perhaps wishful thinking, but so much of what he covers in his massive book is already present, or is quivering on the horizon. Kurzweil says that not only is the amount of knowledge growing exponentially, so to is the pace of acquiring this knowledge. It is staggering to contemplate that, at present, technical knowledge doubles every two years: very soon, it will double every year, then every six months , then ..... you get the picture.
Will the Singularity be a benign entity, co-existing with we humans? Or will it be so powerful, so quick in its intelligence, that it will see no need of us any longer and work against us. Will machines ultimately control us, keeping us as bright and entertaining pets, as the band Porno for Pyros once suggested about aliens coming to earth? Or will they finally destroy us, either deliberately as in "The Terminator" series, or accidentally with some new genetically engineered form of nano-life that would grow out of control in our environment, becoming toxic to us when it infests us ?
At present, there are a multitude of non-governmental organizations who are discussing the advent of the Singularity. To my knowledge, however, no governments have actively become involved in the discussion. What is needed is a summit of world leaders to discuss this issue. The discussion will not, and should not, be about whether to go ahead with the research: that has already gone ahead, and cannot be stopped. Instead, a debate is needed at the highest political levels as to how to utilize the new technologies, to control them, and to prevent the opening of a Pandora's Box from which the human race may never recover.
Far-fetched science fantasy? Do you really want to bet your children's or grandchildren's lives on it? The Singularity will be here, according to Kurzweil, in 2045.
Monday, February 21, 2011
I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees,
I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees,
Asked the Lord above, have mercy now,
Save poor Bob if you please.
It is one of the greatest legends ever. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson, perhaps the greatest guitarist to have ever lived, is said to have met the devil at the crossroads somewhere in rural Mississippi before the Depression. In his quest to become the greatest bluesman ever, Johnson sold his soul and grasped a talent unknown before him. So great was his talent, that, decades after his mysterious death at the age of 27 in 1938, some of the greatest guitarists of the modern era, like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, pay homage to him in their styles and lyrics. Johnson himself liked to play the legend up, as witnessed in his most famous song "Crossroads".
In many ways, another Robert, Toronto Rock goaltender Bob Watson, is inspiring the same incredulous admiration. Watson is nearing the age of 41, an age where professional athletes should be well into retirement, perhaps commentating on TV or cashing in on their fame at autograph shows, or, in the case of lacrosse players, going to work everyday at their real jobs.
Instead, Bob Watson at the tender age of 41 is having arguably his greatest season ever as a pro. Half-way through this current season, he ranks second in the leage in minutes played ( over 513 minutes ), first in shots faced ( 404 ), first in goals against average ( 8.42 goals allowed per game ), and first in save percentage ( a goal every .822 shots ). These statistics are staggering, and he is far ahead of many rivals in these categories, rivals who are more than ten years his junior.
The numbers only tell part of the story. The Rock are enjoying a spectacular first half of the season. Their record of 7 wins and only 2 losses are league best. They play with a confidence not seen in Toronto for several years. Teams going against the Rock are intimidated by their complete play: in several games, opponents manage to stay close for the first half, but fade badly in the second half, the part of the game where the truly better team is supposed to take over. The Rock play with superb confidence because of one man: their goaltender, the man who will come up with the big save when needed, the man who allows his teammates to play with little regard for the crucial transition game, so important in lacrosse, because they know that, if caught out of position, Watson will make the important save, allowing the Rock to maintain their lead,and snuffing out any chance the opposition has of coming back.
It is a superb performance so far by a virtuoso, a master at his craft.
There is only one explanation how a man who should be "put out to pasture" in this tough, fast, demanding, sometimes brutal game, can be so dominant.
Bob Watson has obviously been to the crossroads. He has been given an incredible gift. And, as long as he plays, he will be admired by fans, teammates, and opponents alike.