The big dig rig

Taking a really big bite out of Mother Earth.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve posted my thoughts on the Edward Burtynsky film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. Well worth seeing, with stunning visuals carrying an important message. One of the many showstoppers was seeing a ginormous bucket-wheel excavator (BWE) operating in an open-pit mine in Germany. If this is the Bagger 493, which is used at this mine, then it’s the largest BWE ever made, and the heaviest terrestrial vehicle according to Guinness.

Impressive, but depressing too when you think of its job.

Piquant pecans at the pyknic’s picnic

Reading a book about Søren Kierkegaard yesterday, I came across a description of the Danish philosopher as “of the pycnic type,” something that “would lend a piquant touch to his psychological profile.” The word pycnic (more commonly spelled pyknic) completely stymied me. I don’t think I’d ever seen it before, and thinking it was a typo for picnic simply didn’t make sense given the context.

Pyknic is a word that’s very rarely used today. Derived from the Greek pyknos (for dense or thick) it refers to a body characterized as short and stocky, powerful but given to fat. It’s of recent vintage, with its first recorded use being in 1925. Since then I’ve heard that it’s been replaced by endomorph (a coinage from the 1940s), but it seems to me that endomorph — round and fat — isn’t quite the same thing.

As I say, it’s a term that’s fallen out of use, along with much of the science of classifying body types. I doubt I’ll have much occasion to use it, but it’s an interesting one to file away.

Getting it wrong

With the handing down of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last week the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overruled their long-standing decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) making abortion a Constitutional right.

I don’t know what the fallout from Dobbs is likely to be, aside from making Margaret Atwood a prohibitive favourite to win this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Nor am I up to making any kind of legal critique of the majority opinion in Dobbs. What the decision does force me to do, however, is consider how I got things so wrong.

I’m referring to an earlier post, from 2015, where I had this to say:

[The] problem with the Republicans may be that a particular historical strand of American conservatism has played itself out. In terms of cultural conservatism it seems as though the “culture wars” are, if not over, at least moving into a new, yet-to-be-determined phase. The right to an abortion is now settled, and the fight over gay marriage mostly is too. Human-driven climate change is a fact accepted by everyone who is not a complete idiot. The idea that the U.S. can build a wall separating itself from Mexico (or Canada), and somehow round up all its illegal immigrants and send them back to their countries of origin is laughable. And yet all of this can be found in the platforms of leading Republican candidates.

I returned to this point in a lengthier post a year later, where I talked a lot about “the end of the conservative road.” I didn’t think the Republican Party was dead in the U.S., or that Right-wing politics had passed its expiration date, but it did seem to me that a particular style of politics had had its day. I was wrong. The “new, yet-to-be-determined phase” of the culture wars was going to lead into a time warp.

Obviously I misjudged badly. What did I not anticipate? The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election and his stacking of the Supreme Court with radical ideologues, just for starters. But the Trump years were symptomatic of a deeper malaise that I seem to have missed. In particular, there are two points that I didn’t pick up on at the time.

The first is the importance of anger as a political driver, and the way parties of the Right so successfully branded themselves as the standard bearers for so much resentment and hate. I’ve already written about this here, and won’t add anything more aside from asking if there are any angrier or more bitter people in the U.S. than the likes of Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh. The rage just seems to radiate off these guys, which puts the lie to the idea that anger is solely the province of men without a college education, or of the powerless “left behind.”

The second point has to do with how successful the Right, and in particular the Republicans in the U.S., have been at their demonization of their political opponents. This has become so extreme that I don’t think I would have credited it in 2015. But what has happened, and this may be the biggest transformation in American politics in its history, is that one of the main political parties now sees the other as being entirely illegitimate.

This is no longer the province of looney outliers and people who believe in conspiracy memes like Frazzledrip. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever a majority of Republicans continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen. They simply do not believe it is any longer possible for another party to be fairly elected.

But it’s even worse than that. Demonization is now taken literally.

In the world view adopted by Republicans, Democrats/progressives/liberals are not just seen as the lesser of two evils but as evil incarnate. They are terrorists, or lizard-headed aliens, out to destroy the country, enslave the population, and looking to kill and eat everyone’s babies (after they have sex with them and tear their faces off). And again, this is not a fringe belief. At the highest level, a second Trump presidency is endorsed not because of any love for Trump but because the alternative is seen as Satanic. Trump’s attorney-general, Bill Barr, was one such Christian apocalypticist, and his chief of staff Mark Meadows another. Meadows even tweeted to Ginni Thomas (wife of a Supreme Court justice) during the January 6 coup attempt that “This is a fight of good versus evil. Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs.”

One may ask how much of this is sincere and how much is just trying to justify or rationalize the GOP’s own slide into darkness. As Peter Wehner put it, writing in The Atlantic:

The sheer scale of Donald Trump’s depravity is unmatched in the history of the American presidency, and the Republican Party—the self-described party of law and order and “constitutional conservatives,” of morality and traditional values, of patriotism and Lee Greenwood songs—made it possible. It gave Trump cover when he needed it. It attacked his critics when he demanded it. It embraced his nihilistic ethic. It amplified his lies.

The only way to make this somehow come out right is to paint the Democrats in ever darker shades of black. What has resulted goes beyond polarization, and helps explain not just the radicalization of the Supreme Court but also why even the revelations of the January 6 commission aren’t doing much to move the needle. In 2015 I had no idea this level of extremism could have become so entrenched. I’m sad to say I was wrong.

Maigret: Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse

It’s sad evidence of how played out the Maigret series was getting that this one begins exactly the same way as the previous installment (Maigret and the Lazy Burglar): with the detective chief inspector being woken out of a dream to answer the phone, and a call which draws him in to deal with an especially tricky case. Plus there’s the fact that he’s starting to seem even more of a grumpy old man:

He was keen for the summer and the holiday season to be over, for everyone to be back in their place. He’d frown each time his eye lighted on a young woman in the street still sporting the tight trousers worn on the beach, feet bare and tanned, nonchalantly treading the Paris cobblestones in sandals.

If you’re so old you can’t appreciate nice things like a pretty girl in beach clothes than you really have turned a corner in life.

The title refers to a family of very good people. Things kick off with the father being found dead in his study. By most accounts he didn’t have an enemy in the world. But, as Maigret grumbles, “it’s the good people who give us the most trouble.” After a while the repetition of “good man” wears on him.

A crime had definitely taken place, because a man had been killed. Only it wasn’t a crime like any other, because the victim wasn’t a victim like any other.

“A good man!” echoed Maigret with a sort of anger.

Who would have had a reason to kill that good man?

It wouldn’t take much for him to start loathing good people.

You see what I mean about turning into a grouch?

The twist here is that there is no twist. You’ll be expecting some dark revelation about how the good people aren’t so good after all, but as it turns out they mostly are. Then the explanation for what happened only gets dropped in at the end in a tired manner, and it barely makes any sense. It also isn’t arrived at by any special power of deduction or observation, but just comes about when Maigret stops into the right bar to ask for a drink. I’m still hoping the series has a few more gems, but by this point Georges was mailing them in.

Maigret index

Got you covered

A popular type of post on personal blogs are the ones with music links. I’ve never done one of these because I figure everybody already knows what they like. But just for a break I thought I’d link to a few of my favourite covers here.

“Subdivisions” Allegaeon

A metal version of Rush’s classic “Subdivisions”? I was highly sceptical at first but boy did these guys nail it. The guitar work is great and the vocals on point too. As they say about the best covers, they really made this song their own. I love it!

“Sympathy for the Devil” Motörhead

Motörhead’s covers vary a lot in quality, but I thought this really worked. The opening drums get things off to a great start and Lemmy’s voice is a perfect fit for a weary and scarred Satan.

“The Waiting” with Eddie Vedder

This isn’t really a cover since Tom Petty’s here playing and singing back-up. Basically it’s just Vedder coming on stage and doing lead vocals. But does he ever kill it. I like this version even better than the original.

Maigret: Maigret and the Lazy Burglar

But why is the burglar lazy (le voleur parreseux)? I only recall his mother as being described as carrying with her “a touch of laziness.” Honoré Cuendet is a hard-working professional, providing not only for his mom but for his lover too. He’s not lazy, just unlucky.

Maigret, meanwhile, is feeling more and more like yesterday’s man and griping about the new order, where beat policemen like himself have become subordinate to well-educated, bureaucratic paper-pushers.

The world was changing. Paris was changing, everything was changing, men and methods. Retirement might seem frightening, but if he didn’t retire, wouldn’t he end up adrift in a world he no longer understood?

At least in this case he’s on familiar ground, looking to find out who murdered a not-so-lazy burglar he’d known for years. Except that’s not the case he’s supposed to be working on, at least according to his so-called superiors. Instead, he should be trying to catch a gang of bank robbers.

I spent most of the book figuring the two plot lines would end up being connected in some way, but they’re not, which leaves both stories feeling rushed at the end. This was too bad, as the the burglar’s murder had some potential, relating to another rich family with some dirty secrets hidden behind the façade of their Paris mansion. By this point, however, I think Simenon was getting a bit tired of the series and was looking forward to retiring as much as Maigret.

Maigret index

Internet porn, the early years

From Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) by Philip K. Dick:

“Your – everybody’s – sexual aspects are linked electronically, and amplified, to as much as you can endure. It’s addictive, because it’s electronically enhanced. People, some of them, get so deep into it they can’t pull out; their whole lives revolve around the weekly – or, hell, even daily! – setting up of the network of phone lines. It’s regular picture-phones, which you activate by credit card, so it’s free at the time you do it; the sponsors bill you once a month and if you don’t pay they cut your phone out of the grid.”

“How many people,” he asked, “are involved in this?”


“At one time?”

Alys nodded. “Most of them have been doing it two, three years. And they’ve deteriorated physically – and mentally – from it. Because the part of the brain where the orgasm is experienced is gradually burned out. But don’t put down the people; some of the finest and most sensitive minds on earth are involved. For them it’s a sacred, holy communion. Except you can spot a gridder when you see one; they look debauched, old, fat, listless – the latter always between the phone-line orgies, of course.”

Maigret: Maigret and the Old People

A retired diplomat is found dead in his study, body riddled with bullets, drawing the detective chief inspector into another one of those situations where he’s stuck among the inhabitants of a mostly closed social circle that he has trouble relating to. In this case that means a bunch of old-school aristos. Maigret’s method, or un-method, is to immerse himself in a particular social milieu so he can understand it from the inside, but rich people always put him off his game and make him feel at a disadvantage by knocking him back to his own childhood as the son of a provincial estate manager. This dynamic has been at work in so many of these novels that I’m starting to wonder why it still affects Maigret the same way. At some point, you’d think he’d get more comfortable around “these people.” I also raised an eyebrow at his own judgment that he is just a “regular” guy. We all think that, more or less.

The behaviour of this particular bunch of French aristocrats seems particularly odd to Maigret because it involves a man who carries a torch for an old love of his who went out and married the wrong guy. This isn’t that crazy, but he carries the torch for over fifty years, which is a bit much. But then “these people” (Maigret always thinks of them like this) are repeatedly likened to characters in a novel, where they are more common. Here I was thinking of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. The book begins with Maigret and Dr. Pardon musing over who might understand people the best: a psychiatrist, a schoolteacher, a novelist, or a policeman. By the end, Maigret thinks a priest has to be added to the list. By my own reading of what’s going on I’d say the novelist might come out ahead.

Maigret index

Thoughts on Empire (the TV series)

Oi! Thas ma hoom!

I watched this BBC series in tandem with reading the book, which I talked about in a previous post. The series received pretty good reviews, though tackling such a subject at such a time inevitably led to it being criticized for not taking a hard enough line against empire. I can see that (the book felt a bit tougher), but overall I found it an interesting enough show to finish all five episodes.

The second episode begins with host Jeremy Paxman explaining how, “Everywhere they went, the men and women who built the empire created a home away from home. From the wastes of Canada, to the fertile highlands of Africa, and the hill stations of India.” This seemed to me to be a bit tough on my home and native land. Overall, I think Canada offered a more congenial climate for British settlers than Africa or India. Nevertheless, Paxman later returns to the Great White North, calling it one of the most “thinly populated if inhospitable places” to build empire. He says this with an opening shot of him trudging alongside a snowy river. I was expecting to see “Canada” come up on the screen, but it more specifically locates the river as in “Ontario” (a.k.a. “the wild and snowy lands of British Canada”). Drilling down deeper, the place we visit is Fergus, Ontario, which is a ten-minute drive from where I live. I guess the producers thought it irresistibly picturesque, as it’s not mentioned in Paxman’s book.

Anyway, Fergus has a “harsh climate” that particularly challenged Scottish immigrants when the winters turned so cold the wheat froze, “which made the scones pretty chewy.” I didn’t know Scots were so soft, or so particular about their scones. It’s bad on me though that while I knew Fergus’s world-famous Highland Games, and even attended them one year, I didn’t know anything about the town’s founder, the pride of Perthshire Adam Ferguson. He named the place after himself.

Thoughts on Empire (the book)

Backyard tent.

Empire by Jeremy Paxman is a sweeping historical and cultural survey of the history of British imperialism that was published as a companion to a BBC series of the same name (hosted by Paxman). When reading it I came across the following passage about the discovery of the source of the Nile by the Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke that had some personal resonance for me:

Does any of this matter now, other than as a ripping yarn? The waterfalls which tumbled out of Lake Victoria, through which Speke intended to offer the Marquess of Ripon immortality by naming them Ripon Falls, largely disappeared when a dam was built in the 1950s. If the name of Speke is known at all, it is more likely to be as a deprived area of Liverpool, once home to the Bryant and May match factory  and the Triumph sports-car plant, both long-gone British brands. Richard Burton has his splendid tomb in a Mortlake cemetery in the shape of an Arab tent, but mention the name and you are likely to have to explain that you’re not talking about the Welsh actor twice married to the actress Elizabeth Taylor.

This made me sit up for a couple of reasons. First of all, as a schoolboy forty years or more ago now I remember writing a report on Burton and Speke and their discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story I’ve never forgotten, and since then I have always known about Burton and Speke. Now I’ll admit I may be an outlier, but what Paxman says is an interesting reflection on the sort of thing that falls out of public awareness and “doesn’t matter now.” And it makes sense. I mean, is there any way to quantify what parts of history matter now?

I guess knowing who these two guys were isn’t going to impact the life of anyone today, so I agree with Paxman’s wry take on matters. But isn’t he being a bit provincial, or at least limited to his own experience, in thinking that anyone outside of England would know that Speke is a neighbourhood in Liverpool? I’ve never heard of the place, or of Bryant and May matches. Even Triumph sports cars are only a name that rings a distant bell. I can’t remember ever actually seeing one, or knowing where they were made. The way we understand history is such a personal thing.