Sunday Evening Epiphany

I was walking around at the University of Guelph yesterday, enjoying the wind and sun, and the crackling of dry leaves, when a young woman appeared on the cobblestone walkway coming towards me. She was wearing dark, tight jeans, and a black shirt open to just about where I like it, and she was carrying a backpack. She was walking alone. And a number of things about her made the day a little less unremarkable.

1. the cheerful way she walked, though she was carrying a heavy pack

2. the way her hips swayed slightly, gracefully; the way of a woman who walks confidently, but not without a sense of style. What I’m trying to get at here is how unshowy yet mesmerizing her walk was. Smooth and graceful.

3. she was partly business– shoulder-length hair, pulled back, just a little make-up–and partly show–little silver earrings that I couldn’t quite make out, and the generous display of neck.

4. she looked directly at me as she walked by and smiled and said “hi”.

It was the “hi” finally, that tingled. College students! Some strange guy appears from nowhere, right in your path, so, of all things, you say hi, hello, good evening, who are you? Her face was entirely free of parochial suspicion or feminist contempt. She looked directly at me and acknowledged that I had entered her carefree orbit.

I, who normally spend most of my time with adults or employees or whathaveyou, was slightly taken aback. I don’t spend enough time at college campuses, obviously. I walk past dozens, maybe hundreds of people every day. No one greets you, least of all with a guileless smile and cheerful “hi”, unless, perhaps, if you are directly in their way, or they’re trying to sell you something.

Hi, she said. Who are you? Do I know you? Should I know you? Are you a person I will come to know? There are possibilities here and I am listing a million of them with two letters: h-i. Hi. Hello. I see your eyes, do you see mine? We are facing each other. You are looking at my body. Do you like how I dress? I have the energy to stride down this walkway with confidence and purpose– I am going somewhere, but I see you facing me, not directly in my path, but you are there, and I am telling you that I recognize another human being who may have a million possible adventures tomorrow and I have a little smile on my face because I, too, might have a million adventures tomorrow, and for one second, I am telling you that your adventures are mine, and my adventures are yours.

Hi, I can’t stop, I have to go, and I don’t know you, so I won’t stop, but it is possible to know me, and it is possible to know you, and there’s a lot I can tell you about myself with my two letters and my stride and the way my jeans make me feel like I am sleek and purposeful, protected but free, as if these are the kind of jeans that I can slip out of in two seconds if you took my two letters and built cathedrals out of them some evening when, after my “hi”, you said “hi, what’s your name”, and I told you. And I might tell you because when I see you in my path the only thing I can think of to say to you, a perfect stranger, is “hi”, leaving open all the infinite possibilities of you saying “hello… what’s your name?”

And in a few seconds she was past me, looking ahead again, thinking ahead, perhaps about the person she is going to meet, or the room she is headed for, the comfort, the envelope of arranged bed and sheets and tooth brush and over-sized t-shirt, and a moment of wonder, perhaps, about the possibilities of people she might or might not know.

I’ve been thinking about this all night. I am obsessed with a question. If I had said, “Hi. What’s your name?” Would that have changed things? Maybe she would have laughed for the sudden improbability of the question coming from a passing stranger, and answered “why?” or “I don’t give out my name to strangers”, but maybe she would have laughed and answered reflexively, using her good manners, and then said, “Why?”. Or maybe she would have laughed and looked away quickly and walked on, and everything would once again resemble “real” life, which is what we call that phony groveling most of us offer as an excuse for social life nowadays. And maybe she would have looked away quickly, a little frightened, alarmed, or nervous.

Maybe she would have called the campus police: “He asked me my name!”

If I could do the moment over again, I would ask her name. I’d say “hi”, the same way I did say “hi”, but this time, quickly, “Excuse me– what’s your name?” and put on my friendliest possible face. And if she gave me her name, her Ann or Lisa or Renee or June or Tara or Katarina or Natasha or Mary or Maryanne or Elizabeth or Roxanne, then I would say, “I just wanted to say that your walk and your face and your ‘hi’ have added a halo to this evening. I’ll bet you don’t know how beautiful you are. I just wanted to tell you that.” But I would not tell her how much it aches just to watch her walk by.

Well, that’s my Monday morning thought. I think I’ll go back to sleep at my desk now.


[Written about an evening when I brought Paul to Guelph to rehearse with Bruce of a progressive jazz combo.]

The “Heroic” Captain Smith

Almost every movie version of the Titanic renders Captain Smith the same way. Grey-bearded and reserved, dignified, and ineffably tragic. Pictures of the real guy, in uniform, seem to confirm the impression. He had a sparkling career until the Titanic disaster.  He ran his ship into an ice berg in the dead of night in calm seas. A small blemish, to be sure.

Edward J. Smith.jpg

We prefer J. Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line, as the villain of this story. Writers and movie-makers have moved heaven and earth to make it appear as though he was responsible for the disaster, by urging the Captain to go faster. The Cameron movie version blithely sidesteps one precious little detail: the Titanic was not capable of going faster than the “crack” Cunard ships. The Titanic was built for luxury, not speed. There was no chance of it setting any records. Cameron knows that, so he merely leaves Ismay to impress upon Captain Smith that it would be nice if they could arrive a day early. At least some movie-goers, however, are easily confused, and I’ve heard people say, after seeing the movie, that it was Ismay’s fault, for trying to break “the record”.

So, we can put that to rest. Ismay may have urged speed, but the Titanic had no dreams of breaking the record.

That leaves Captain Smith. On the high seas, the Captain has absolute authority. Ismay or no Ismay, it was Smith’s decision to proceed into an area known to be inhabited by large ice bergs at the Titanic’s top speed of about 22 knots. The Titanic had received numerous warnings during the preceding days, from other other ships in the area. Smith’s precautions consisted of posting two look-outs, usual practice on White Star ships. The look-outs did not have binoculars– they had been lost before the ship even reached Cherbourg– but then, binoculars were considered an accessory, not a necessity, at the time. A good look-out was simply supposed to have good eyes.

Nobody will ever know whether the look-outs should have seen the ice berg sooner. The ocean was extremely calm, the sky was very bright. Under those conditions, ironically, ice bergs are a greater hazard, because there is almost no wash at their edges, to make them more visible. Anyway, no one knows if Frederick Fleet was really paying attention or not. We do know that he eventually saw the ice berg, signaled the bridge, and the bridge immediately ordered the engines reversed and the helm brought about. Fleet’s testimony (he survived the disaster) about how far the berg was from the ship when he first spotted it is inconsistent.

He didn’t have a happy life, by the way, after the disaster, and he committed suicide in the 1960’s.

The Titanic was poorly designed. It was a long, cigar-shaped ship, with an undersized rudder. It didn’t respond very quickly to sharp turns. It responded enough to avoid a head-on crash, but then it grazed the ice berg under the water line. The first five compartments of the ship were breeched. Within minutes, Mr. Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, knew that it was doomed. The rest is history.

It is here, however, that we are able to take the true measure of Captain Smith. But before we assess Captain Smith’s performance, it is worth, for comparison’s sake, taking a quick look at the actions of Captain Arthur Rostron, of the Carpathia, the ship that picked up the survivors of the Titanic disaster.

Captain Rostron received word of the Titanic disaster around midnight, long before the Titanic sunk. He immediately issued numerous orders. First, to the engine room, to stoke up the boilers and get under way immediately in the direction of the Titanic. Secondly, to the stewards, to roust blankets and supplies. Thirdly, to his officers, to ensure space for the survivors, and calm aboard his own ship, and to prepare for receiving the lifeboats. Fourth, to the wireless operator, to signal Titanic that they were under way. He followed up on his orders to see that they were carried out efficiently. The Carpathia steamed towards the disaster site at full speed, well-prepared to deal with whatever awaited it.

Onboard the Titanic, it was a different story. Smith seemed bewildered, lost, inadequate. His officers came up to him one at a time and asked permission to send flares, prepare the life boats, roust the passengers. He seemed to have no particular views on what should be done. According to testimony at both the British and American inquiries, he generally seemed to nod his head and go, “yes, yes, good idea.”

What should he have done? He should have immediately summoned all of his officers and staff. He should have emphatically specified that each life-boat was to be filled to capacity. He should have dispatched stewards to the third class compartments to arrange for the women and children to reach the boat deck. He should have instructed the officers to ensure that at least four men with some ability or experience were dispatched to each life boat. He should have declared the bar open with free drinks for all the men. Well, just kidding. Maybe. You see, at least one drunk survived a few hours in the sea, probably because the alcohol had thinned his blood.

If he had taken decisive steps, at least 500 more people could have survived the disaster. As it was, only 705 survived out of 2200. The official capacity of the 16 lifeboats was 65 each, or 1040 total. In addition, there were four “collapsible” boats, with a capacity of 24 each, making 96, or 1136 total. With calm seas– and the seas were calm–  and a some ingenuity, they could easily have squeezed in an additional 100 above that.

So why do directors and writers continue to portray him as something of a hero? One reason and one reason alone: he went down with his ship, like all good captains do. Going down with the ship is the Captain’s way of saying “Ooops. I made a mistake. I’m really very sorry.” A captain who survives is basically saying, like Ismay, “What? I suppose you’re going to blame me for this?”

We are always willing to forgive those who say I’m sorry.  But we also have this blather, from passenger Roger Williams Daniel:

“I saw Captain Smith on the bridge. My eyes seemingly clung to him. The deck from which I had leapt was immersed. The water had risen slowly, and was now to the floor of the bridge. Then it was to Captain Smith’s waist. I saw him no more. He died a hero.”

He died a what?

I think what Daniel is actually saying is, “having contributed nothing in a moment of great crisis, he made up for it by at least not taking up space in a half-filled lifeboat that wasn’t lowered until it was almost too late.”


A man named Bob Trottier, who worked for a telemarketing firm a few months this spring, wrote an article for today’s Kitchener Waterloo Record defending Telemarketers. “Businesses and many other services have to use telemarketing because it works, whether you grit your teeth at the intruding phone calls or not”.

This is one big piece of horse manure. Nobody has to use telemarketing. Telemarketing didn’t even exist thirty years ago, and nobody was the wiser. What Trottier really wants us to believe is that telemarketing creates new demand for products. This is good for the economy, you see. In fact, the advantage of telemarketing probably only lasts as long as it takes until a competitor with the same product starts to use telemarketing. It’s like Sunday shopping. Where’s the advantage if all the stores are open on Sunday? Thus we are led by the nose by our own short-sightedness.

The biggest mistake you can make with a telemarketer is to listen. The simplest, most effective thing to do is hang up, immediately. Don’t listen. Don’t wait for the telemarketer to shut-up, don’t ask yourself if you might actually want what they’re selling (believe me, you don’t).

I don’t necessarily believe that telemarketing should be banned. I think it would be more effective to make a law that says that the owners of a telemarketing firm must spend at least eight hours a day doing the same thing his employees are doing, calling people and pestering them in their homes. They should hear what people really think of pests.



Robert Crumb is famous for a number of cartoons he created in the 1960’s and 70’s, the most celebrated of which was the Keep on Truckin’ schematic, which became a trademark of sorts to the Grateful Dead. He is also the originator of the Fritz the Cat character, which became the subject of a full-length x-rated movie by Ralph Bakshi. Crumb disapproved of the movie.

In 1994, Terry Zwigoff, a friend of Robert’s, made a disturbing, brilliant documentary called Crumb, about Robert, and his two brothers, Charles and Maxon. (Crumb’s sisters declined to take part in the film. You may wonder about that by the end of the film.)

rcrumb2.jpg (37467 bytes)

I say “disturbing”. Searing might be more like it. The Crumb brothers pull no punches. At times, you almost can’t believe they are saying the things they say on camera. Don’t they realize how shocking they are? Yet this is no television talk show. The brothers are never coy or evasive, and don’t really shift blame away from themselves, or try to cast themselves as unwitting victims. If there is one attractive quality about these brothers, it’s their honesty and their sense of personal responsibility.

Crumb’s father was brutally strict, and his mother over-compensated, and the three boys had some kind of weird chemistry going. From the time they were little, they became obsessively fascinated with comic books. They were extremely gifted at drawing and Robert even organized the three brothers into a production company and they created their own variations on Treasure Island.

All three were also severely socially dysfunctional. Charles, though in his forties, lives at home with his mother, almost never leaves the apartment, rarely bathes, and uses prescription drugs to keep from becoming “homicidally disturbed”. According to Robert and Maxon, he has never had a sexual relationship with anyone but himself. He had made several suicide attempts before the documentary was made, and, a year afterwards, finally succeeded, providing the film with a poignant postscript.

[Update 2022: read that paragraph now, it occurs to me that a big part of Charles’ troubles may have been the side-effect of the prescription drugs.  If he stopped taking them at any time, the effects of withdrawal would have produced “symptoms” that would like be attributed to his personality, instead of to the drugs themselves and the effects of withdrawal.]

Maxon lives alone in an apartment and has been arrested several times for sexual assault. He swallows a long length of cotton cloth every three weeks to cleanse his bowels, feeding it like string slowly into his mouth, and likes to sit on a bed of nails and meditate. Like Charles, he is, frankly, a slob. He describes, with helpless amusement, how he followed a girl wearing tight shorts into a drug store and could not resist the urge to pull them down while she was waiting in line at the checkout. Unlike Clinton, there is no evasion, no excuses, no hypocrisy. He confesses to a repugnant act, but you almost like him.

Robert, who at first appears to be seriously maladjusted, eventually emerges as the sanest of the three. He manages to make a living from his drawings, develops relationships with women, marries, divorces, marries again. He has two children, years apart, one by each wife. Yet you can see that he’s not too far removed from Maxon and Charles. The difference may be that Robert succeeded in transferring his anti-social impulses into his art.

Crumb is one of the most brutally honest documentaries you are likely to ever see. The three brothers talk openly about their father’s abusive discipline, their sexual preferences and fetishes, their own hopeless perspectives on themselves and each other. Robert’s comics have always been controversial, and the film includes interviews with editors and fellow cartoonists who express their own misgivings about some of his more controversial stories. In one, for example, two characters enjoy the sexual favours of a woman with no head. They consider her perfect, since they don’t have to make conversation with her afterwards. In another, an outwardly normal, All-American family, is actually rife with incest. An editor allows that she is not sure that Crumb actually disapproves of the incest. A third example is a parody of consumerism, describing a new canned meat product called “Niggerhearts”.

When challenged, Robert Crumb, like his brothers, is not very evasive, arrogant, or apologetic. Who knows, he seems to say. Maybe I should be locked up. I don’t know why I have to draw those things but I do. They’re in me. Implied, of course, is the idea that many of these ideas are in us as well. Considering the number of awards this documentary has garnered, you would have to admit that many critics and film-goers acknowledge this. How else could you stomach such a man, or a film about this man?

It is unclear, at times, whether Crumb is parodying himself or society in general or those who think they understand society. His stories are hardly simple parables.

Another example: a black woman is convinced by several businessmen that performing degrading acts will make her a superior human being. She doesn’t outsmart them, though she realizes she’s being put on. Some readers interpret this to mean that Crumb thinks she is as foolish as the white businessmen think she is. Or is this a parody of the businessmen, and the way they attempt to turn even social oppression into material advantage? Or is it an assertion that materialism is itself the most oppressive force in our society? (I favour the last one).

Is it a sin to be truthful? Only if your truth is different from everyone else’s. Is our society ready to admit that otherwise “decent” people can harbour obscene fantasies or racist beliefs? Is our society ready to admit that even victims can be stupid?

I don’t think we are. It’s too difficult. We are far more comfortable believing that blacks are inferior and that women suffocate men or that blacks are innocent victims of racism and that women are morally better than men. We don’t like being thrown a curve. But remember that the most powerful abolitionist tract of the 19th century was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Today, even black activists are mostly contemptuous of its simple-minded moralism’s. Why? Because someone like James Baldwin had the nerve to attack one of the most sacred icons of progressive and religious humanism in existence. And you know what? He was right.

So is Crumb merely ahead of his time?

Well, what really is outrageous nowadays? I think it is obvious that some of our values are completely screwed up. We find the Clinton-Lewinsky affair outrageous, but not the deaths of tens of thousands of Moslem Serbs. We are outraged by a school boy killing his class-mates with a high-powered rifle, but not by an organization that spends $80 million a year to promote unrestricted access to every kind of weapon imaginable. We are outraged by a school teacher who has sex with a Grade 6 student, but not by a talk show host (Larry King) who has been married five times. We are outraged by someone who clubs a gas station attendant over the head to steal $15, but not by a securities seller who rips his clients off for a billion dollars. We are outraged at a seventeen-year-old kid who breaks into houses to steal money to feed his drug habit, but not a pharmaceutical industry that is doing its level best to make us all dependent on drugs. We are outraged at Mexicans crossing the border to seek a better life in the U.S., but not at the economic imperialism that turns self-sufficient Central American economies into impoverished coffee growers for Starbucks. We are outraged when the United Nations wants to include the U.S. among the nations accountable for war crimes to a new World Court, but not when Congress continues to subsidize an Israeli government that denies the most fundamental human rights to its own Palestinian population. We are outraged when a protester burns a U.S. flag, but not when U.S. negotiators refuse to believe that fish stocks on the west coast are in danger of extinction if over-fishing continues. We are outraged when an artist puts a crucifix into a jar full of urine, but not when the record companies routinely cheat artists out of the royalties they are due by jiggering their accounting records. We are outraged by a doctor who helps terminally ill patients die without pain and in dignity, but not by doctors that routinely recommend expensive and useless surgeries to elderly patients who are likely to die within months anyway. We are outraged by cloned sheep, but not by attempts by corporations to patent human DNA sequences. We are outraged by homosexuals seeking benefit coverage for their partners, but not by the fact that we are denying AIDS treatments to impoverished African nations to protect our own patent rights.

What exactly determines our outrage? What is it that most excites us about someone else’s sin? Isn’t it probable that when we proclaim our outrage, especially when we do it in the strongest possible words, we thereby hope to impress others with our own purity, and deflect suspicion away from ourselves? Since no one suspects us of murdering children in Rwanda or robbing old women of their lives’ savings, we don’t get too excited about those crimes. But if someone were to suspect us of sexually harassing an attractive secretary…. well, we’ve probably had a thought or two about it, haven’t we?

What is most telling about this analysis is not that we seem to be so defensive about certain human failings. It’s that the human race, in general, doesn’t really care all that much about starving children or ethnic cleansing or torture or exploitation. We really don’t. But we badly need to pretend that we are virtuous, so, by common consent, we identify certain transgressions as worthy of our hysteria. We draw lines in the sand, and then go ballistic when someone crosses one of them.

I don’t really like Robert Crumb. At best, he is a maladjusted misogynistic misanthrope. But he is articulate and honest, and his cartoons are the work of a genius. There is a soft underbelly to American public morality, and Crumb pokes a sharper stick at this underbelly than anyone else.

She’s a Femme Fatale: Raging Hypocrites

It was sort of inevitable, don’t you think?

hyde_lap.gif (17035 bytes)

Henry Hyde’s “indiscretion”.

It has just been revealed that the Republican Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde, had an affair with a woman named Cherie Snodgrass, about thirty years ago. She was married, and so was he. We have also been informed that Dan Burton, one of Clinton’s harshest critics, fessed up that he has fathered a child in an extramarital affair. And Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho has also confessed to an illicit liaison. Well, let’s not be disingenuous here: they didn’t voluntarily fess up– they were caught. Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, of course, are not with their first spouses anymore. Any details, Newt? Come one, Bob, let’s get this out into the open.

Ah, you say. But isn’t the issue perjury?

burton.jpg (8097 bytes)

The trouble is, for the Republicans, that they have had to justify Kenneth Starr’s report on the basis of the argument that Clinton’s personal sexual behaviour is relevant. And whenever these clowns appear on TV to argue for impeachment, they don’t talk much about legalities: they talk about trust and morality and values and leadership. Besides, Clinton’s perjury occurred during testimony which was eventually ruled “immaterial” by a judge in the Paula Jones case. That’s a pretty thin case for impeachment. But you understand the two-track strategy of the Republicans. They know that the public will not be outraged by the perjury which gives them the legal pretense to impeach, but they think the public might be outraged by the sexual relationship, which, however, cannot be the basis for an impeachment. So they are trying to blur the distinction. You are supposed to be so outraged at Clinton’s personal conduct, that you will consent to impeach him on a trivial legal issue Well, that’s how they got Al Capone. The well-known gang-meister was finally indicted for…. yes, tax evasion!

There is only one solution: Henry Hyde, Dan Burton, Helen Chenoweth, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and whoever else comes out of hiding soon enough, should all be impeached.

burton.jpg (8097 bytes)

If I were Henry Hyde, who is in charge of the committee for impeaching adulterers, I’d do the honorable thing and impeach myself first, just to show the American Public that the judicial system doesn’t play politics, and that the Clinton thing is not just a partisan Republican pogrom against a Democratic President, but a reflection of the Republican Party’s earnest devotion to purity and decency in government. So long Henry. Nice knowing you Dan. May you find healing and fulfillment Helen. I hope something comes along for you Newt.

The Republicans, by the way, have demanded that the FBI investigate whether the White House had a hand in getting these stories to the public. Think about this. The Republicans, who have just insisted on publishing extremely intimate details about the President’s sexual liaison with a 21-year-old intern, are outraged, I say, outraged, that someone should expose, with no detail whatsoever, the adulteries of some of their own. Who do they think is buying this? It’s too much! It’s insane! It’s a crazy world!

One last piece of craziness: the Republicans are arguing that the public needs to know these details, and that the impeachment proceedings should hear the evidence in public, and that all the information Kenneth Starr has gathered should be released, because it is important that justice been seen to be done publicly.

All of these decisions were made in a closed session of the Judiciary Committee Meeting.

* * *

While the Republicans were busy rationalizing themselves, Lou Reed, former leader of the Velvet Underground, was putting on a performance of his own. Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground was quite possibly the most aesthetically progressive rock band of the 1960’s. Listen to their stuff: you can’t believe it was recorded thirty years ago. It has a visceral rawness to it, the kind of edgy authenticity so-called alternative bands would die for. Nico, the lead singer on some of their most haunting ballads, is now dead, destroyed by years of drug abuse… not. She died in a bicycle accident. Lou Reed has found a second career walking the border between revision and nostalgia.

So where do you think they performed? At some dark night-club in New York? No, in the White House. President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia was Bill Clinton’s guest this weekend. I wonder if Reed performed one of his better tunes, “Femme Fatale”:

Cause everybody knows (she’s a femme fatale)
The things she does to please (she’s a femme fatale)
She’s just a little tease (she’s a femme fatale)

If you would have told me, thirty years ago, that some day the Velvet Underground would be playing the White House!

Well, … actually, that is kind of what I thought thirty years ago. After all, we knew that we were all going to be fifty some day, and none of us really believed we were going to start listening to Frank Sinatra or Perry Como after we turned 40.

Now if you would have told me that Congress, in solemn session, would be listening in rapt devotion to intimate details about the President’s affair with a young intern– I would have thought you were mad.

Anyway, it’s happened. The most anti-establishment rock artist of the 60’s has played the White House. This has cosmic significance. As soon as I can think of what that is, I’ll try to write about it.

That Wild and Crazy Green Party

The Green Party in Germany has some really interesting ideas. In the past year, they have proposed the following:

  • no one is allowed to make more than one trip by aircraft every five years
  • all men must be inside by 10:00 p.m., to make the streets safe for women
  • the gas price should be tripled

Don’t you wish that we had a Green Party? Actually, I think we do, but they never seem to win any seats. Maybe their ideas are different from the German Green Party, adapted for North American sensibilities, and thus too drab and boring to attract serious attention. But think about this: Joschka Fisher, the leader of the Green Party, has just quit smoking, changed his diet, and now jogs six miles a day. I think that’s the kind of guy I would like to have as a leader. Lots of self-discipline and self-control.

I really think we could learn from the Green Party of Germany. We need to have more imagination. We need to think of more different things that we haven’t tried before. Like, instead of one leader for as long as the party stays elected, why don’t we rotate the leadership among five or six colorful individuals? Do you think we’d ever have a black or a woman as prime-minister or president otherwise? Not a chance. Well, wait, we did have a woman prime-minister– Kim Campbell– for about six months. Maybe we’re crazier than I give us credit for.

But how about these for some imaginative new ideas for the next election:

  • let’s all drive on the left side of the road for a year or two. Why? I don’t know. Just to see how we like it. For one thing, we’re missing all the scenery on the left side. This would give us a year to see it. Then we could go back to normal.
  • ban bicycles and pedestrians from our downtowns. Let’s let cars use the sidewalks and bicycle paths and see if it improves the traffic flow. Let’s make a rule that you can only drive on the sidewalk if the road is really busy, otherwise pretty soon the sidewalks will be crowded too. This goes for parks too– what are we saving the grass for anyway? The dogs and geese? And so what if it gets muddy: at least the SUV owner’s will finally have a reason for that four-wheel-drive, if they actually know how to engage it.
  • Did you know that once they make a law, it never goes away by itself? It practically never goes away at all: they just keep amending and adding provisions and stuff. This worked fine when countries only lasted a hundred years or so, but we’ve been around a long time and we still have all those laws from ages ago, plus all the new ones they’ve added since them. So none of us really understands the law anymore. Let’s get rid of all the laws and start over. On a chosen Friday, we will announce that all of the laws are cancelled. Then we’ll take a whole weekend and write up new ones. And no lawyers will be allowed to take part, so everyone can understand the rules. No more “whereas” and “notwithstanding” or any of that crap. Let’s just clear them all out, burn the law books, and then sit down and make up the new laws that we really need.

I’ll bet we only need about five:

No stealing. No killing. No cheating. No lying. If you make a mess, you have to clean it up yourself.

  • ban polkas. This would be great. All the polka-lovers would be out there demonstrating, marching with their tubas and accordions. Then we could look real stern and say “maybe”. After a year or two, we could pretend to give in and allow some polkas. Why? Because I think our society would be safer with people demonstrating for polka music than with people demonstrating for more grunge or punk rock, or, heaven forbid, guns, or abortions, or stuff like that.
  • no chief executive can earn more than ten times what the lowest-paid employee earns. Do you really think that any chief executive is worth more than ten times what you’re worth? Well, what exactly are you worth?
  • declare a statute of limitations on all crimes, injustices, wars, and sexual harassment. A woman recently sued her cousin for sexual harassment that occurred 45 years ago. The native peoples keep asking for money for treaties we broke hundreds of years ago. Japanese-Canadians didn’t get compensated fairly for having their property comfiscated and being moved into camps during World War II. And women keep complaining that in the times of the Romans they were treated like property. Fine. We acknowledge your status as victims. But if we go back far enough, even the Dutch have a few gripes. It’s getting too complicated to figure it all out. If everybody has a gripe, then we’re all even. Let’s promise not to do it again and get on with our lives. My statutes of limitations:
    • broken treaties – 50 years
    • murder – 25 years
    • assault – 15 years
    • robbery – 10 years
    • harassment – 7 years
    • pay equity – 5 years
    • polluting the environment: for as long as the effects of the pollution are detectable. If the corporation responsible is defunct, the shareholders are responsible. If they are dead, their descendants are liable.

Hey– if the descendent of writers and musicians can collect royalties on their works, then the descendants of shareholders can pay for the cost of cleaning up their messes.

But I see I’m being inconsistent. The effects of other crimes also obviously last a long time. So I say even pollution will have a statute of limitation of, say, 25 years after the pollution occurred. But in return, all shareholders of any company that creates any kind of toxic substance as a result of the processes used to create their products must put a bond to guarantee any possible clean-up costs if the company goes under. Better yet, they all pay into a clean-up insurance fund.

You buy a new computer.  You turn it on.  A screen pops up:

Installing Windows 98

You may have told the computer vendor that you didn’t want Windows 98: that’s just tough.  Microsoft essentially taxes every computer purchased at mainstream outlets by forcing the vendors to buy a copy of Windows for every computer they sell regardless of whether or not the purchaser wants it.

Anyway, suppose you are going to install Linux instead.   Suppose that when the copyright notice pops up asking you to click “OK” to agree to the terms, you just click “NO”.  Will you get your money back, like they promise?  Not if you buy your computer from Dell.

More importantly, if you do click “OK”, have you made a contract with Microsoft in which you agree to their copyright terms?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

You see, it is well established in law (under Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code, which governs interstate commerce in the U.S.) that whenever you buy a product from any vendor, there is an implied contract, a “warrant of merchantability” that states that the product is fit for ordinary use.  Now, I don’t think anybody in their right mind would say that Windows 98 is fit for “ordinary use”.  One of the most profound miracles of modern consumerism is the way everyone just accepts that Windows is the best we can do, because, after all, it comes with the computer, and the computer people must know about these things…     Just today, for example, on my computer, it messed up the graphics in a computer game, and disabled all the hotlinks in my web browser.  This is only about the 744th problem I’ve had with Windows.  This month.

So, can you get your money back?  No.  Because Microsoft, in their software agreement, disclaims all “implied warrants of merchantability”.  Well, wait a minute…  maybe you can.  You see, such disclaimers are not valid unless they are agreed to before purchase, by the vendor and the customer.  So maybe you can.  But you won’t.  Microsoft will simply refuse to give you your money back.

Now I imagine that if you got your lawyer after them and made a lot of noise about it, you probably would get your money back.  But how is that possible?  Don’t these big corporations know what the law is?  And how can Microsoft get away with making it a condition of purchase of Microsoft Agent that none of the little animations may be used to “disparage” Microsoft Corporation?

* * *

If you listen long enough to people like Jack Valenti (the Motion Picture Association of America) you might get the impression that Copyright has existed forever, and, indeed, was passed down to us by God himself on Mount Sinai.   Jack Valenti is the guy who had incredible fits about the fact that the Canadian government tried to encourage a home-grown film industry when Hollywood was quite capable of providing culturally enriching products like “Earnest Saves Christmas” without any help from Canadians, thank you.

Something like copyright was first invented in 1557 by the Guild of Printers in London, England, and made into law by Queen Mary.    What she did was give complete control over all printed text to The Stationer’s Company.  It was more in the nature of a monopoly than legal protection.  These printers even had exclusive rights to print the works of dead authors like Plato and Aristotle and Gore Vidal.  In exchange for this monopoly– get this– the printers were to assist the Crown in preventing the distribution of seditious and heretical works.  That includes works that question the application of copyright law.   Sounds like the FCC’s philosophy of television licensing.

They were addressing a real problem.  According to Adrian Johns, of the University of California, there were 80 pirated copies of Martin Luther’s work for every legitimate one.

In 1710, after the pleadings of noted writers like John Locke and Daniel Defoe, Queen Anne revised the law to give more rights to the authors.  The monopolies didn’t give up without a fight: they took their case to court.  They won a few concessions.  The important thing is that such a thing as “copyright” now existed.

Here is where a very interesting debate took place, and a signal ruling was made by the British courts.  The monopolies argued that intellectual property belongs absolutely to whoever “owns” it.  They argued that intellectual property is essentially similar to physical property.  If I own a table or a chair, I can keep it, or I can sell it to someone else, or I can burn it so no one else can ever use it.  And the same goes with my words and ideas.  If I choose to, I can stop anyone else from ever using them.  On the other side, Samuel Johnson argued that society rightly benefits from the free distribution of ideas, therefore, it is in the public interest to limit the scope of copyright.  The products of the human mind belong to humanity.  Samuel Johnson didn’t argue, but should have, that ideas are by nature a communal activity, and therefore, cannot be imprisoned by one individual under the name of “copyright”.

In 1774, the House of Lords agreed with Johnson and declared that, for the general good of society, intellectual property belongs to the general public.   However, to promote the creation and improvement of these works, some temporary rights over distribution of these works can be granted to the author.

The Founding Fathers of America didn’t like copyright as a matter of principle, because, again, they believed that ideas belong to everyone, but agreed that a short-term monopoly over distribution served the greater public interest of increasing the store of knowledge, so they also agreed, in 1790, to a 14-year copyright period with the option to renew for one more 14-year period.

Those wild and crazy revolutionaries in France had the cool idea– 200 years before Wired Magazine– of abolishing copyright altogether.  But this had the peculiar effect of reducing the number of published works.  Since a publisher couldn’t prevent others from copying his works, he couldn’t make money, so he simply wouldn’t publish.  So many important works fell out of print.  Eventually, Robespierre and his gang restored the old copyright law– probably just as they were about to pen their own memoirs.  It’s too bad they gave up so soon.  It would have been interesting to see who things would have worked out over a period of fifty or one hundred years.  Chaos theory, you know.

Well, publishers and authors didn’t just sit back and accept the current state of affairs.  Over the years since 1790, they have been wheedling away at Congress seeking greater and greater copyright protection, and they’ve succeeded to a large extent.  Copyright now extends to the life of the author plus 50 years, and has been extended to everything from music to computer chip diagrams.  The descendants of the great writers of the early 20th century are especially keen on extending this period: they get to collect royalties from Grandpa’s work as long as the copyright is in effect.  The copyright on “Gone With the Wind”, for example, would have and should have expired in 1993.  Congress has generously extended it to 2032.  Generously to somebody (the author, Margaret Mitchell, is long dead.).  And don’t assume they’ll stop there– the trend is clear.  By the time 2032 rolls around, they’ll have extended it again, because they are not listening to consumers or the average citizen or those really smart people who insisted all copyrights should be temporary.  They’re out on some yacht owned by Houghton Mifflin.

Richard Stallman at MIT founded the first anti-copyright organization, since the Reign of Terror, in 1984, the Free Software Foundation.   John Perry Barlow founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is an advocacy group for electronic civil liberties.  Barlow used to write for the Grateful Dead.  The Grateful Dead defied the more anal-retentive music establishment by encouraging their fans to record their concerts and copy their tapes for personal use. The interesting result was that they increased their audience, sold more concert tickets and albums, and did quite well, thank you.

Facts cannot be copyrighted.  DNA, according to the U.S. patent office, can be copyrighted.  Data bases could not be copyrighted until recently, because they were believed to be collections of facts.  So if you published a list of phone numbers of people on your block, anybody could copy it.  What an outrage!   Then everyone would know who lived on your block!  Well, Congress is in the process of fixing that one up: they will allow publishers to copyright their “collections” of facts.

What does this mean exactly?   The publishers argue that it means that instead of just copying someone else’s list of your neighbors and their phone numbers, you will have to go door-to-door yourself and collect the information over again.   Why do I have a feeling that pretty soon, that won’t be legal either.  The copyright police will be out there beating up Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Some companies in the U.S. have won the right to publish court verdicts exclusively.  So, in essence, they are copyrighting the law.  This could have some advantages.  The next time someone charges you with infringing on their copyright, tell them that that law is copyrighted and they can’t use it. If that fails, tell them that you have copyrighted the story of how you stole their copyrights and they can’t use this information without your permission.

The trouble is that Congress chooses to accept loads of input from owners of various copyrights, like Disney and Time Warner, but almost no input from consumers or consumer groups.  Or, more accurately perhaps, they ignore the input from consumers.   Consumers, you see, don’t put out the big bucks for election campaigns.  The new laws being passed all favour copyright owners.

What really irritates me is way these “improvements” are presented as if they will help the poor, struggling “artists” to be paid fairly.   That’s the pr campaign.  This is completely untrue.  These new laws will help big corporations, who have been ripping artists off for years, rip off the consumer as well.  The artist, you see, only gets about $1.00 or so per CD, if they are really lucky and established and they had a good lawyer when they signed their first contract.  The record company gets a much bigger chunk, so they will gain the most.   Some of the most successful recording artists are, in fact, up to their ears in hock to their record companies.  How can that be?  They are selling millions of recordings?  Well, it’s those clever little contracts.  You’re a young artist.  Your fondest dream is to be a “recording star”.  A record company says, “we’ll make your dream come true.  All you have to do is… sign… here.”

In Canada, they are about to impose a .50 per cassette “tax” on blank tapes in order to compensate copyright owners for the money they are supposedly losing through home taping.  This stinks for several reasons.

  1. nobody has proven that they have lost a penny through home taping.   If the experience of the Grateful Dead is any indication, they have, in fact, made more money through home taping, through the “free advertising and trial product” effect.  Check out your own collection: don’t you own a lot of CD’s by artists you first heard on tape?  Now, maybe people who listen to Celine Dion and Walter Ostanek are not as honest as people who listen to the Grateful Dead.  That’s their problem.

  2. a lot of these tapes are used to make copies of CD’s so the user can play the music in the car, or make “compilation” tapes, of selections from various CD’s.  This is perfectly within the rights of the consumer under established copyright law.  And remember– it is the publishing industry that wants to insist that copyright applies to the intellectual material, not the physical disk (so they could argue against piracy in the first place).  If that is true, than anyone certainly has the right to make as many copies as he or she wants to for personal use.

  3. what if I happen to like taping my own original songs?  Not only do I have to pay extra for my blank tapes even though I’m not stealing anybody’s music, but I don’t get a share of the booty.  You might argue that I don’t have any recordings out there that people won’t buy because they can tape my music off the radio instead.   But the truth is, they don’t know if anybody would have bought a Celine Dion record either.  They really don’t.

So what we have is a bunch of big powerful businessmen making a money grab, and the government goes along with it because the average consumer doesn’t have a high-priced lobbyist in Ottawa to argue our case.

[more later…]

For a terrific discussion of software licensing, click HERE.


I’m not sure where I’m going to go with this yet, so bear with me.

I just read a brochure for something called “Landmark Forum: An exceptional Opportunity”. The Landmark Forum says that it is “a breakthrough in living. The Landmark Forum is a means of gaining insight into fundamental premises that shape and govern our lives– the very structures that determine our thinking, our actions, our values, the kind of people we can be.” Elsewhere it promises to “bring(s) a new dimension and cast(s) a new light on the situations and events that make up our lives.” You can “step beyond the limits of your identity”. Landmark claims to be based on “original theories and models of thinking”. It will give you “enhanced sense of vitality and spirit along with a greater experience of your worth”. Of course they used the word “enhanced”. Well, thank God, they at least didn’t use the word “paradigm”.

The Landmark Forum takes place over four days. You meet for three hours, break, meet, have lunch, break, go home, do it again for three more days, then go on to your “new worlds of opportunity”.

Landmark Forum, for all it’s claims of originality, is actually rooted in Werner Erhard’s EST movement of the 1970’s. It’s also related to “Large Group Awareness Training”.

I tend to puke when I read language like the stuff in the Landmark brochure, especially when I see words like “enhance”, “potential”, “effectiveness”, “results”. This is a self-improvement course. You are you. Why? Nobody knows. But we can help you be better. When we are done, you will be new and improved. You’ll be more valuable, happier, more productive. People will love you. You will have more power. You will rule the world.

I don’t know if you can make people better. Most scientists think that you are pretty well the result of your genes or your upbringing and that’s about it. Nobody has added a third category: shaped by self-improvement courses.

What happens at these seminars? You hear somebody say something like, “your life is full of people who waste your time by trying to draw you into their own petty little battles and dissatisfactions. Can you help them? No. Can they help you? No. They’re wasting your time. You need to tell this person, ‘Look, you are wonderful person and I really value you, but I can’t help you with this problem and you can’t help me, and I really have some fulfilling things to do so I can’t waste my time listening to you any more.'” And the people at the forum go, “Wow! That’s great. Why didn’t I think of that!”

I once saw a tape of the magnificent Barbara Colorosso speaking on child discipline. She draws up a scenario: your teenager wants to die her hair orange and wear baggy trousers. Everyone in the audience groans. They know about this problem. How do you get your teenager to dress the way you want them to? Barbara says, “Is it physically harmful for them to wear baggy pants? No. Is it morally harmful for them to wear baggy pants? No. Let it go. Forget about it. Why waste your authority capital on issues that don’t really matter?”

The audience goes “Wow! Why didn’t I think of that!” That’s a good question. My question is, if the audience is so smart as to know that this is good advice, why do they have to pay someone else to give it to them? Were these people so dumb that they never thought of this solution?

Part of the problem is that the problems Colorosso uses to illustrate her fool-proof methods of child-rearing are very simple and unambiguous. She is a good communicator and she gives her little mini-drama’s a remarkable sheen of elegance and simplicity that may not exist in real life. If you could talk the way Barbara Colorosso can talk, I don’t think you’d have very many problems with your kids. And I think people love her not because she solves problems for them but because she is such a good talker. She’s funny and entertaining and seems to have everything solved. She would be a good movie.

My bottom line. My main point. My theme is… no number of workshops or seminars are going to take dumb people and make them smart.

And anyway, doesn’t this sound a lot to you like religion? Take bad people and make them good. Give people a sense of meaning and purpose. Make people feel good about themselves. You would think that church people would walk right out of these seminars thinking to themselves, “No thanks, I already have some.”

Whenever I read through these materials, I always feel a bit like an alien. I’m not sure what the real point of it is.

Pope in a Box

Some people, like the late Frank Sinatra, like to travel “heavy”. They take lots of suitcases and equipment and ride around in expensive armoured limousines or private jets. That makes sense for these people, in a way. Frank Sinatra was a vain, pompous, crass, self-important Las Vegas entertainer. He used to make large sums of money singing to old, over-weight women in ugly pant suits, God bless ’em. If you had asked Frank what it was he relied on to see himself safely through another day, he would have pointed to Turk and Otto, his steroid-enhanced Austrian body guards.

The Pope never performs in Las Vegas, and hardly ever sings in public at all. If you asked him who he trusts to see himself safely through another day, he would answer “God”. Furthermore, he likes to tell the 700 million Catholics around the world not to use birth control. “But we are poor,” the people reply. “How can we afford to support large families?” Trust in God, says the pope.

Does the Pope follow his own advice? Not really. He has body guards too. And when he wants to be seen by the public, he travels around in a bullet-proof “Pope-mobile”, just like Frankie used to. Doesn’t the Pope think God will protect him from assassins? I guess not. That is too bad. One in six people on this planet are Roman Catholic. If there is anything our age needs, it is someone like Frank Sinatra or the Pope to come right out and say, “I don’t need any body guards or bullet-proof limos… I trust in God to keep me safe.”

Gordon Lightfoot’s Greatest Bestest All-time Hits of All Time

I buy a lot of CDs and I used to buy a lot of LP’s. I normally avoid “Greatest Hits” type albums, because you are not often getting a collection of the best songs by an artist; merely his most popular songs.

Gordon Lightfoot made a career by not issuing any albums whatsoever except for Greatest Hits Collections. It’s true. His first album, released in 1966, was called “Gord’s Greatest Hits”. Nobody knew who Gord was. He had no previous recordings of original material. But since he had a greatest hits album, and went by his first name, we all figured he must be important and we added him to the collection.

His next album was “Best of Gordon Lightfoot”, which was a collection of songs that were well-known for being on his “Greatest Hits” album. You had to have it. All of the songs sounded familiar, but then, after all, it was the same artist. Almost nobody noticed that it was exactly the same collection as the first album, because, after more than 30 seconds of any Gordon Lightfoot song, most listeners fall fast asleep.

Lightfoot’s third album was, “Solid Gold: Volume I”. These were songs that had become pretty popular because they were on his first Greatest Hits Album, but also included a few songs from the “Best of” album, for variety.

“Best Golden Treasures – Gordon Lightfoot’s All-time Greatest Hits” was released three weeks later. By this time, the scam was going so well, that there wasn’t even a vinyl album inside the cover– just a slip of paper saying that most of the songs would be available on the boxed set due to be released at Christmas, right after “Solid Gold: Volume II”. Gord’s career was going so well that nobody actually bought the album for the music; just for the cool picture of Gord holding his 12-string and gazing lustfully at Sylvia Tyson on the album cover displayed next to his on the record rack.

One year later, Gord issued “All Time Greatest and Bestest Most Treasured Hits Played Live With Previously Unheard Studio Cuts From His Early Albums”. That took a little nerve: I mean, how did Gord know that nobody was actually listening to any of his earlier albums and that, therefore, many of those records were previously “unheard”? But at least, this release contained some new material, consisting mostly of fake applause and assorted funky voices shouting “huh”, “get down”, “go for it, Gord”, and “hey, isn’t that Buffy Ste. Marie?”. Anyway, to make a long story short, with the assistance of my nubile intern/assistant Ms. Fricker, I was able to uncover the following facts:

1. Gordon Lightfoot issued 37 Greatest Hits Collections between the years 1966 and 1973.

2. During this period, he actually recorded 3 different songs.

3. Most of Lightfoot’s Greatest Hits albums consist of these same 3 songs arranged in different order and dubbed at different speeds, or, sometimes, backwards, or with fake audience sounds. In at least one case, a John Denver recording, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, was inserted by mistake. Denver sued, but a jury awarded Lightfoot $6.3 after his attorney convinced them that some people in the future might see John Denver perform the song in public and think they were watching Gordon Lightfoot.

4. A careful study of archival video tapes and films reveals that Gord’s live performances also featured the same three songs performed over and over again, in different order, and, sometimes backwards, or a capella. At no time does the audience appear to have noticed the deception. Lightfoot is occasionally seen leaving the stage for a smoke as the music continues to the accompaniment of a metronome.

5. Desperate for a hit in the late 1970’s, after having exhausted all possible titles, including “Greatest”, “Treasures”, “Live”, “Best of”, “Classic”, “Golden”, “Big Hits”, “Big Big Hits”, “Classic Gold”, “Classic Treasures”, etc., and every other possible permutation, Lightfoot wrote a new song about a ship that sank, called “The Wreck of the Titanic”. However, after he discovered that James Cameron had copyrighted the word “Titanic”, and also that he was two syllables short, so he located a ship with a long name and paid members of Greenpeace to sink it during a storm in Lake Superior.

I would be ever so grateful if anybody reading this has a copy of the Ian and Sylvia album from the 1960’s in which Sylvia shows the best cleavage of any folk singer in the history of tragic Mary Hamiltons. Please let me know, and, if you could, send me a scan of the cover.