Maigret to the rescue

In the coming weeks I’ll be adding some brief thoughts here on Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, currently being published in English translations by Penguin. I think of this as a pandemic project, though with luck we’ll be out of lockdown before I’m done.

Lockdown 2: The sequel

Today, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak, my hometown and province is entering its second emergency lockdown.

I don’t see how the response to the pandemic in this country can be seen as anything less than a chaotic disaster (to borrow the language former president Obama used to describe the Trump administration’s response in the U.S.). We are in a much worse situation than we were when all this started. A year’s worth of sacrifice has been wasted.

The medical response hasn’t been bad. Vaccines were developed faster than most experts thought likely. The vaccine rollout hasn’t been very impressive thus far, but I’m hoping we can get up to speed soon. Reports that some snowbirds were flying to their winter homes in Florida just to get vaccinated are damning if true.

The political and economic response, however, has been catastrophic, and will only lead to even worse results before things start getting better. The bill to pay from all of this, as I’ve previously warned, is going to be huge.

We need to look ahead. Experts have been warning of pandemics for decades. We should consider ourselves lucky that COVID-19, for all the people it has killed, is not itself a particularly deadly disease. The survival rate is very high. That can’t be counted on next time. And there will be a next time. We need to learn from the mistakes that have been made.

We might begin with studying why some countries have been so successful in dealing with COVID-19 where others have failed so completely. Why were we unable to implement effective measures to test, track, and trace? Is there something about neoliberal attitudes toward government that has frustrated our taking effective action? Lessons must be learned.

Media gardening

Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website you can read my review of Richard Stursberg’s The Tangled Garden. This is a book about the impact that the new digital giants (or FAANGs, to use the acronym) are having on Canadian news media. In brief, that impact has been catastrophic, leaving nothing but “losses as far as the eye can see.”

I share many of Stursberg’s concerns, as well as his more dismal conclusions. In my review I’m left to wonder how many people even care. It makes me think of the current state of the CBC. I believe in the CBC’s mission, and think they have some good people working there, but whenever I watch their local or national news programs or go to their website I end up feeling that they’re just not doing it right. And given how badly they’re faring in terms of their ratings and market share I’m not alone. I think the CBC does well in Quebec, and CBC Radio still has a lot of listeners, but they just don’t seem to have any clear identity as a broadcaster, sliding from paternalistic to aggrieved and back again.

Still, I want them to succeed. I do think Canada needs them.

Little green men

All he wants is his gold.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve just finished off the unheralded Leprechaun franchise. I’m a little impressed that they made 8 of these, but then there have been 8 Children of the Corn movies too. I guess the brand is worth, or has been worth, something. Warwick Davis was OK in the role in a couple of the early movies. The 2014 reboot, turning the title figure into a growling beast, was a woeful mistake. Linden Porco in 2018 actually showed some promise, but I don’t know if we’re at the end now anyway.

Leprechaun (1993)
Leprechaun 2 (1994)
Leprechaun 3 (1995)
Leprechaun 4: In Space (1996)
Leprechaun in the Hood (2000)
Leprechaun 6: Back 2 Tha Hood (2003)
Leprechaun: Origins (2014)
Leprechaun Returns (2018)

Unaccountable, Part three

From  “Americans’ acceptance of Trump’s behavior will be his vilest legacy” by Robert Reich:

Nearly forty years ago, political scientist James Q Wilson and criminologist George Kelling observed that a broken window left unattended in a community signals that no one cares if windows are broken there. The broken window is thereby an invitation to throw more stones and break more windows.

The message: do whatever you want here because others have done it and got away with it.

The broken window theory has led to picayune and arbitrary law enforcement in poor communities. But America’s most privileged and powerful have been breaking big windows with impunity.

In 2008, Wall Street nearly destroyed the economy. The Street got bailed out while millions of Americans lost their jobs, savings, and homes. Yet not no major Wall Street executive ever went to jail.

In more recent years, top executives of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, along with the Sackler family, knew the dangers of OxyContin but did nothing. Executives at Wells Fargo Bank pushed bank employees to defraud customers. Executives at Boeing hid the results of tests showing its 737 Max Jetliner was unsafe. Police chiefs across America looked the other way as police under their command repeatedly killed innocent Black Americans.

Here, too, they’ve got away with it. These windows remain broken.

Trump has brought impunity to the highest office in the land, wielding a wrecking ball to the most precious windowpane of all – American democracy.

The message? A president can obstruct special counsels’ investigations of his wrongdoing, push foreign officials to dig up dirt on political rivals, fire inspectors general who find corruption, order the entire executive branch to refuse congressional subpoenas, flood the Internet with fake information about his opponents, refuse to release his tax returns, accuse the press of being “fake media” and “enemies of the people”, and make money off his presidency.

And he can get away with it. Almost half of the electorate will even vote for his reelection.

A president can also lie about the results of an election without a shred of evidence – and yet, according to polls, be believed by the vast majority of those who voted for him.

Trump’s recent pardons have broken double-pane windows.

Not only has he shattered the norm for presidential pardons – usually granted because of a petitioner’s good conduct after conviction and service of sentence – but he’s pardoned people who themselves shattered windows. By pardoning them, he has rendered them unaccountable for their acts.

They include aides convicted of lying to the FBI and threatening potential witnesses in order to protect him; his son-in-law’s father, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion, witness tampering, illegal campaign contributions, and lying to the Federal Election Commission; Blackwater security guards convicted of murdering Iraqi civilians, including women and children; Border Patrol agents convicted of assaulting or shooting unarmed suspects; and Republican lawmakers and their aides found guilty of fraud, obstruction of justice and campaign finance violations.

It’s not simply the size of the broken window that undermines standards, according to Wilson and Kelling. It’s the willingness of society to look the other way. If no one is held accountable, norms collapse.

See here for Unaccountable, and here for Unaccountable, Part two.

What happened to Amazon?

I used to buy quite a bit of stuff, mostly books, on Amazon. Mainly for the convenience, but also because they had the cheapest prices and free shipping. In the past year, however, as their stock price has gone through the roof and they’ve solidified their position as king of online retailers during the pandemic shutdown, I think I’ve only ordered a couple of things. And at this point I can’t see myself ever shopping there again.

Two reasons for this stand out. In the first place, their prices for almost everything have gone up, to the point where they are no longer even close to the best deal available. I’ve had conversations with friends who shop in other departments that back this up. They have similar complaints about how there are “no longer any deals on Amazon.”

I don’t know if this is because the pandemic has placed their operations under extra strain or if they are only using that as an excuse. Or perhaps it’s just the natural next step in their dominance of the marketplace. Since they really aren’t in competition with anyone, why not jack prices up? Even this year’s Boxing Day sale prices were double, or in some cases triple, what they were for the same product just five years ago.

The second big thing I’ve noticed is the huge number of sponsored products, or ads, that come back with every search. There are now as many of these as there are regular search results, and none of them have any bearing on what I’m looking for. Shopping on Amazon has become like searching for something on Google: not just a crapshoot, but a very unpleasant experience.

I doubt this matters much to Amazon. Nor am I sure if it even has any bearing on their game plan is now, their next step on the way to establishing a global media and retail monopoly. But they’ve lost me as a customer. Not for any political reasons (of which there are a few that are serious) but because they suck. There are better places to shop.

Books of the Year 2020

I have to begin with a disclaimer. I read a lot of books in 2020, but not very many new books. And in particular not a lot of fiction (outside of SF). This is something that I’ve noticed is only getting worse. I’d like to read more new fiction, but much of it seems to be getting lost in the shuffle of pages.

Best fiction: I don’t think Clifford Jackman’s The Braver Thing is a perfect book, but it is challenging and different, which is saying something. A pirate ship becomes a social-science lab for experiments in different forms of government. As with S. D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid (see below) it’s a political allegory. Something must have been going on at this time that was turning people’s minds in this direction . . .




Best non-fiction: Trump dominated my non-fiction reading for most of the past year, as he did throughout his whole depressing reign. Is it over now? I suspect that after a wave of books about the 2020 election land it mostly will be. But we’ll have to see. One non-Trump title I really liked was William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist, which takes a look at the collapse of the arts economy and how it’s being felt on the ground. I think I was most impressed though by the final volume in Rick Perlstein’s epic chronicle of the rise of the American political right, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980. Not a Trump book, though the arrogant New York City real estate maven does have a cameo and you don’t have to look too hard to see where America’s right turn was heading. A fascinating read, despite its heftiness and a ton of typos.

Best SF: I could go with a number of different titles, but S. D. Chrostowska’s The Eyelid sticks out the most. Not so much for the story as for the way it projects politics and even theory into a fantasy realm which is still relevant and interesting. One of few contemporary SF titles I found myself wanting to read again right away.

Will they come back?

In an earlier post I wondered about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic might have on various industries. One of these was cinemas. This past week WarnerMedia announced that they were going to be releasing their full slate of 2021 films simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max. Writing in The Atlantic, David Sims was left to only express some hope that “Once a vaccine is widely distributed, a pent-up desire to return to normalcy could be unleashed. I, certainly, crave the collective experience of movie-watching; I’m sure I’m not the only one sick of seeing things from my couch. If other studios go the way of WarnerMedia, theaters will be hanging their hopes on that nostalgia.”

I don’t share any of his wistful optimism, or his nostalgia for movie theatres. And while I think he’s right that some people would love to return to the way we were, I also think that cinemas will find they’ve lost a lot of their market permanently. What’s more, I don’t know how well they’ll be able to do going forward given this new reality.

Another question I’ve been wondering about with regard to returning to normal has to do with higher education. A lot of universities are offering their courses online during the pandemic, turning many campuses into ghost towns. When I asked one academic what he thought about students coming back after the “all clear” is been given (which may not be until September 2021) he thought they would rush to return, not wanting to miss out on the “university experience.”

I’m not so sure. That university experience is something enjoyed most by the most popular students, who are not always the best, or a majority. Meanwhile, university has become very expensive, to the point that living at home (however depressing this may be) can be a real relief to one’s finances. Why relocate to another city, pay rent, and put up with all the other hassles, when you can just do your courses from your bedroom?

One should rarely bet against comfort and convenience. I’ve been indirectly related to an adult learning program for a few years and in 2020 they moved to a system where they presented all of their live lecture series online. Recently there was a straw vote among the various regional boards about what to do when things went back to normal. The vote was overwhelming (over 90%) for staying online. This saves money on renting locations to hold lectures, as well as the inconvenience experienced by people having to drive somewhere and pay for parking, etc. Plus, people were finding the lectures online superior in many ways to those attended in person. For myself, I’ve found I enjoy the ability to nod off and have a nap during the dull ones. Then there is the fact that people can register from all over the country, and lecturers can broadcast from all over the world. So you can even listen to the courses you want while on vacation (listening to an instructor who may be on vacation too).

In other words, I wouldn’t be so quick to think that university is ever going to return to normal and that students will all want to come back. Or that, if many do come back, universities will be able to continue business as (pre-COVID) usual. No doubt some, perhaps many, moviegoers will return to cinemas, and students will return to classrooms. But how will the system accommodate the no-doubt significant number who don’t? Will some sort of hybrid system work? I think it will be impossible to go back to the way things were.

Super keto fail

As you know, I’ll watch or read anything that has to do with zombies, so I’ve been working through The Walking Dead at a very sedate pace for several years now. I’m still only up to the fifth season. Among the many things that get me about the show (I’ve mentioned another already) is the way that nobody seems to be losing any weight. Given the survivors’ diet and lifestyle it seems like they all should be emaciated by now. But they’re all carrying a few extra pounds. Even the hefty Tyreese hasn’t slimmed down a bit.

I guess it would be impossible to expect an entire cast to get extra-skinny and keep the weight off during the course of a multi-year project like a cable series, but it’s another one of those things (like the ability of all the survivors to kill every walker with effortless head shots every time, like the most expert marksmen) that makes the zombie apocalypse seem like not such a bad thing. Nobody ever gets cold and there’s lots of snack food lying around.