The golden calf

New type of tree, wearing a towel.

I made a comment a while back where I mentioned Jamie Dornan’s calves. Here’s a picture of what I was referring to.

Jamie Dornan is a model/actor/musician whose best known turn was playing the kinky billionaire in the 50 Shades franchise. I haven’t seen any of those movies (or read the books) but thought Dornan was great in The Fall. I even preferred his performance to that of his co-star Gillian Anderson.

Dornan’s a good-looking fellow, and apparently was named “the Golden Torso” by the New York Times. What surprised me the most, however, were the scenes in The Fall where he shows his calves. I mean, they really stand out. I don’t think you can get calves like that from doing anything in the gym. They have to be genetic. And while they’re impressive, they are kind of weird to see on a model.

The high price of living (somewhere)

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about the affordability of homes in Canada, and whether we are experiencing a real estate bubble. A lot depends on location, as always when talking about buying a house. But the numbers on the ground where I live are concerning.

In March 2020 the average resale price of a home where I live was $590,176. A year later, March 2021, the price had risen to $744,775. A 26.2% increase in one year, which is a record-setting pace. The average house was appreciating in value over $10,000 a month. That makes for a very fluid marketplace. I was recently informed by a real estate agent that one local home had sold for more than $300,000 over asking. I do not live in Toronto or Vancouver, by the way.

I don’t know if this is a bubble, but it is a run-up that has to stop at some point. I don’t see how such inflation is sustainable. But will there be a collapse, or just a freeze or gentle deflating? And who is buying all these million-dollar homes anyway?

Iconography

I’m a card-carrying Luddite, and by “card” I don’t mean the kind of digital ID you put in a virtual wallet or display on a cell phone. My Luddite status can be established simply by the fact that I watch a lot of DVDs, which remain my preferred way of enjoying movies.

I do hope that DVDs will be with us for years to come, though I’ll admit to having doubts about this. I’ve heard rumours recently that some studios are thinking of abandoning the format entirely. It seems like everything is moving to streaming. But recently I’ve found even my love of DVDs is starting to be undercut by my inability to understand the language of icons. Evidence is here supplied by the “menu” to the DVD I recently watched of the three-part series they made out of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

What do these symbols mean? OK, the first you pressed to play the movie. I got that. The second? I don’t know. And I still didn’t know after I clicked on it. It took me to another page that I couldn’t understand the purpose of. I thought it might be scene selection, but I don’t think that was available anywhere. At least I couldn’t find it. The third button was for accessing the DVD’s special features. But how would you get that from an asterisk? The fourth looks like it’s meant to control sound settings, but actually it’s for languages. Which turned out to be superfluous since there was only one audio track and it was English. The fifth was for subtitles, though the only subtitles available were in English. Still, it did allow you to toggle whether you wanted them on or off (if you couldn’t do that from your remote).

Years ago, or really decades ago now, I remember the despair in some circles that arose when it was revealed that more and more automated services were being designed for people who couldn’t read even the simplest instructions. Meaning that menus were entirely controlled by buttons marked with icons. It now seems that, at least in some cases, we’ve lost written instructions completely, to be replaced by visual prompts and cues that are both unnecessary for overcoming language barriers (this particular DVD has no language options other than English) and confusing.

It’s a brave new world, and I’ve been left behind. Childhood’s end, indeed!

The end of anger

Angry, and not alone.

I’ve read and reviewed a lot of books on (mostly American) politics over the past few years, and one point that keeps coming up is anger. To be sure, anger has long been a key component in politics. It was in 1976 that Howard Beale (in the movie Network) gave his live rant about how people should scream from the windows that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. This famous line would be adopted by Dominic Sandbrook for the title of his political history Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right. So the 1970s seem like as good a place as any to locate when temperatures started to rise.

Gerald F. Seib picks up the story a little later on, tracking the genealogy of anger “from Reagan to Trump” in We Should Have Seen It Coming. He sources the main fount of anger, however, to the Tea Party movement, which launched in 2009 (kicking off with another live rant on television, this time not fictional). The Tea Party, in Seib’s account, “was the first political movement born on social media, and the first to show that anger was the special rocket fuel that could propel such a movement. It would not be the last.”

Before the Tea Party, however, Gavin Esler had described the 1990s as the seedbed of today’s angry politics in his survey of The United State of Anger. A very prescient take on what was coming down the pipe, and one with a precise and correct diagnosis of what was driving it. Remember the Angry White Males? They were much talked about at the time, and never went away.

In books about the Trump phenomenon there has been a lot of talk about anger. Obviously Trump himself is a very angry person, which made him the perfect vehicle for what a large segment of the population was feeling. Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage being a good on-the-ground account of what Trump was tapping into.

I find the historical analysis fascinating because it reflects what I’ve been witnessing happening first-hand. There is a lot of anger out there. I can’t recall a time when there’s been so much of it. I sit across from it at restaurants, see it when I go out shopping, and even encounter it when walking in the park. I have sat and been a sounding board far too many times in the past few years for someone venting about their family, their job, or just the world in general. We are living, as Pankaj Mishra puts it, in The Age of Anger (a must-read for these times).

A couple of observations that I’ve made before but that I’ll repeat here.

(1) The anger is not exclusive to white males without a college education, or those “left behind” by the new economy. Far from it. Many of the angriest people I know are wealthy, successful professionals or businesspeople. Not all of them are young. Many are older, and enjoying comfortable retirements. Many are women. Anger also possesses both the political left and right. It is, in short, not limited to any one demographic. In Twilight of Democracy Anne Applebaum makes the same point when describing former friends who have embraced populist politics. They are not losers but an elite. This has not, however, made them immune to anger. Is anger then part of, or connected in some way to the so-called “narcissism epidemic,” a condition where the whole world is not enough to feed our egos? The example of Trump suggests there may be something to this.

(2) The main factors that are pushing our individual and collective needles into the red are, in my opinion, growing economic inequality and social media. With regard to the former, I’ve written before about how the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to make things worse (and people angrier). With regard to the latter, Seib ends his book by interviewing Eric Cantor, a former House Majority Leader who lost his seat to a populist uprising. When Seib asks Cantor what has fed and spread the anger that eventually took him down he answers by pulling out his smartphone. Enough said.

Broader factors contributing to a politics of anger would include the fact that people find politicians and parties increasingly unrepresentative and unresponsive, as well as a more general sense of the world being outside their control and indifferent to their feelings. In any event, if I’m right about the role being played by inequality and technology it’s hard to come up with an optimistic prognosis. Economic inequality is going to get worse, perhaps much worse. Social media is not going to bring us together because it makes money out of triggering rage. Anger will grow, tempting more politicians to ride the tiger. Who can believe this will end well?

Anti-maskers vs. double-maskers

There are few groups that have been as widely mocked and vilified in the media during this COVID-19 pandemic as anti-maskers: angry gangs of ignorant yahoos and assorted scofflaws who decry the pandemic as a Chinese hoax and who just want to party or go to church without Big Brother telling them to wear a “face diaper” or in any way limit their freedoms of speech and association.

Much of this sneering contempt for the unmasked is well deserved, though I have some sympathy for those among them whose lives have been more than just disrupted by the impact of serial lockdowns. I find much less has been said, however, about a group I think of as the double-maskers: the officious and righteous who use the cover of fear as an excuse to act like idiots and jerks.

A lot of blame has to be laid on the media, which gets the currency of attention by beating the drum of fear. Every day begins with  reports of new risks we can’t afford to ignore and new precautions we need to take. The latest of these has been the call to double mask. This struck me as overkill, a feeling I had no reason to change after hearing Dr. Fauci on the subject: “if you use common sense and say, until we get the data, if a physical barrier with one mask works, it makes common sense that two layers or three layers — and you should have a double layer mask in one mask anyway — but if you want to put an extra mask on, there’s nothing wrong with that. . . . We can’t formally recommend it because we don’t have the science behind it. But I would not hesitate to tell someone if they want to wear two masks.” Hm. So no science, but it can’t hurt. Fauci himself wears two masks, but only because he likes the way they fit.

Another example of overkill are the social distance police in grocery stores. If everyone is wearing masks already and there is no physical contact, what are the chances of your getting infected by just walking past someone? And yet I’ve seen people yelling at other people to “stand back six feet!” Or getting angry because you walk down an aisle the wrong way. Most grocery stores now have aisles for which directions are indicated and I’ve never understood what the purpose of them is. I mean, in the first place there’s usually only two or three people in an aisle anyway, most often stopped and turned toward one or the other side. Second: what difference does it make if someone passes you in the aisle from behind as opposed to passing you going in the opposite direction? Why do people get exercised over this?

I’m sure there’s a common-sense middle ground. Every day I walk through a park where a group of people meet so that their dogs can run and play together. There’s usually anywhere from 5 to 10 people, including a couple of small children. People stand a little bit apart. Maybe six feet. Nobody wears a mask, though I’m sure they all do whenever or wherever one is required (as do I). And everyone is friendly and sociable. I know most of them and have never heard of any of them getting sick. Meanwhile, the people who (literally!) run away from you on the street, or who go into fits in the grocery store just strike me as so many bitter and anti-social assholes. A month or so ago I was walking toward one woman on a sidewalk and she scrambled in a panic through a snowbank to get away, tripping and sprawling awkwardly into the street. I was amazed and disturbed at the performance. People like this are deeply disturbed. I also suspect most of them are total hypocrites and don’t follow “the rules!” nearly as strictly as they expect other people to. Then again, a contractor I know told me that at one house he’d been hired to finish a basement in the owner had refused to allow his assistant to enter, which resulted in a doubling of the quoted price for the work to be done. Why? Both workers would have been wearing masks and gloves when in the house, and the contractor and his assistant shared a “bubble” so allowing the one in the house but not the other made no sense. But like the woman falling into the street, panic and anger had taken over.

The depressing conclusion I’ve come to is that between the anti-maskers and the double-maskers, and I know people in both camps, I actually like the anti-maskers a little better. They’re crazy (one of them I’m friends with honestly believes COVID-19 was developed by Bill Gates as a method of population control), but you can at least talk to them about other things and they seem, on balance, to be a lot less angry than the people who are going into hyperanxious, paranoid meltdowns and looking to phone the police every time they look out the window. The anti-maskers may be a bigger health threat, hating government and the medical establishment, but the double-maskers strike me as hating their neighbours, which I think is worse. Put another way: anti-maskers are nuts, double-maskers are nasty.

The other depressing thought I have has to do with the oft-asked question of what things will be like when people start getting vaccinated. How will these double-maskers ever get back to “normal”? Their special reality now seems rooted so deep in anger and fear I don’t think they’ll ever be able to pull back out. They’re mean and sad, and there’s no vaccine for that.

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.

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.

Buzzwords

I find it interesting when certain words and concepts get picked up by the media, who then ride them to the point where they become ubiquitous, sometimes with their original meaning greatly expanded or radically transformed. Why does this happen? Where does it start?

One example that became very popular during the Trump presidency was “empathy.” It got a lot of play because Donald Trump was seen (I think correctly) as someone lacking in it. But I suspect its mainstream adoption goes back to George Lakoff’s 2008 book The Political Mind, which popularized the idea that there are progressive and conservative modes of thought, with the latter characterized by authority and the former by empathy. At least the timing seems right.

The other big example, and one that I find a bit grating, is “existential.” Let’s face it, until recently the only time you would have heard this word being used would be in a discussion of developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy and literature. Today, however, it is used all the time by people who may have never heard of Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky, Sartre or Camus. What it means now is, simply, “a matter of life and death.” That is, any situation where one’s existence seems at stake. I’m not sure where or when this took off, but it has the feel of a fad that’s likely to burn out pretty soon. It just seems stupid to talk about a business having to make an existential decision, or if dining out at a restaurant during a pandemic might involve such a choice.

More thoughts (in isolation)

As pandemic life continues I thought I’d offer up some more random thoughts on how things are going.

Much as I disliked it the first time, shouldn’t Ontario be in lockdown again? Our numbers are as bad as they were when this took off, and experts say they’re only likely to climb as the cold weather hits. So why are gyms still open?

Is there some rationale behind rendering it COVID-19 instead of Covid-19? I see both used, but I’m not sure what the principle is. The “CO” stands for corona, “VI” for virus and “D” for disease, so it should be CoViD-19 or CoviD-19 (“Coronavirus Disease”). This is the way the virus that causes the disease is written (SARS-CoV-2).

Face masks have become our new plastic bags. You see them everywhere now. Even hanging from trees. I don’t imagine they’re very environmentally friendly either.

When we first entered lockdown it seemed like Amazon was one of the big winners. I’m sure they still are, but I think I’ve only ordered from them once since this started. Their prices for everything are higher and their delivery times (unless you’re on Prime) are slow and unreliable. I don’t even bother with them anymore. But then Costco is no fun either since they stopped giving out samples. The golden age of retail may be over.

So many small local businesses are going under. And where are these people going to go? Time for a Universal Basic Income, whether we like it or not.

Is every “milestone” a “grim” milestone? It seems no other adjective works, at least when it comes to the death count in a pandemic.

Why do so many people drive around with their masks on? People alone, in their cars. I’m all for wearing masks, but only when I go into some public place. Driving with a mask on seems overkill.

Schoolkids are getting screwed. I’ve been talking to a lot of teachers over the last several months. Public school and high school students aren’t even getting a second-rate education. I guess if the kids are really motivated they can still be doing the work and learning something, but I strongly suspect that many of them are basically taking the year off while still picking up their credits. In university I’ve heard that small classes work, since you can run them as Zoom seminars. But again I suspect a lot of students in larger, introductory classes are just floating along and not learning much. In programs involving lab work the amount of lab time is getting cut back. Again, it’s a second-rate sort of education.

And I think it’s even worse than that. With more emphasis being put on online learning we’re pushing young people into taking on even more screen time as a substitute for direct human interaction. Kids in Grade 2 are having to learn to navigate their school’s class portals. Which is a useful skill, I suppose, but I feel like we’re embarking on a giant social psychology experiment whose results we already know are going to be disastrous. Things have come to a sad pass when you start feeling sorry for young people, but I really do.

Up for renewal?

As the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown loosens but remains in place, thoughts have begun to turn not so much to when things will return to normal but what the “new normal” is going to look like.

Some things, I think, are going to be lost forever, while others, like the dead animals buried in the Pet Sematary, are going to come back changed. Here’s a partial list.

Handshakes and hugs: I’ve read some commentators already bidding a not-very-fond “good riddance!” to these forms of expression. Given our current state of feeling toward social distancing it’s hard to see them making a comeback. A hand stuck out at us today might as well be holding a gun, and a hug be interpreted as a form of assault. I’m not sure we’ll be seeing them again anytime soon.

Malls: the “retail apocalypse” has been a slow-motion extinction event for the past decade-plus, mainly due to the shift to online shopping. This is a trend that has only been accelerated. These properties are going to have to be repurposed.

Mass travel: I think people will go back to filling up cruise ships and airplanes again if only because for a lot of older, better-off people this is all they have left in life. But I don’t think the industry is ever going to return to pre-pandemic levels. Which is a good thing.

Hotels: connected to the collapse of the travel industry, but high vacancy rates are only part of the story. There are no conventions being held and hence no need for convention centres either, which are a big part of the hotel economy, especially in big cities.

Cash: a lot of stores have stopped taking cash, even for very small purchases. And those that still do have signs up saying they’d prefer you to use a card. This is another change that has been in the offing for a while now and it’s just been hastened along by recent events. We’re moving toward the cashless society. I don’t like this, if only because it means that every transaction will now be recorded somewhere. Which, in turn, means that we will more and more come to be identified and defined by our purchases.

Libraries: I think I read somewhere that 2014 was supposed to be “the end of tactile media.” That hasn’t happened yet, but I guess it’s another change that’s been taking place at its own speed. How eager are people going to be to sign out books that have been touched by other people’s hands, and been in other people’s homes? See above for what’s happening to cash.

Cinemas and theatres: I’ve only been to see a couple of movies in a cinema in the last ten years. It’s just not worth it (for my notes on one of these outings, to see Blade Runner 2049, see here). As for live theater, it’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve gone out to see a play. According to official statistics these are businesses that have recently been experiencing hard times, with higher ticket prices making up for declining sales. So this constitutes another sector of the economy that was already distressed, with this latest downturn likely to push it over the edge. I don’t know how the industry is going to respond. Are digital/streaming platforms going to make up the difference?

Restaurants: I assume restaurants will re-open and people will go back to dining out at some point. But many restaurants, especially those independently owned, are going to go under before then and I think it’s going to be a difficult way back to financial sustainability for those that survive, especially if they can only operate with restrictions on how many people they can seat. It’s a business where profit margins are thin, and who’s going to want to eat meals served by waiters wearing gloves and face masks? The experience of eating out isn’t going to be any fun for a while. As for buffets, they may be well on their way to extinction.

Gyms: Tough one. My routine was always to go to the gym in the wee hours of the morning when the place was almost empty. So I’d go back tomorrow following the same schedule. But most people, by definition, go to the gym during peak hours (just before and after work). And they take classes, which I don’t. Are those people going to come back? Some of them, but probably not enough for many gyms to stay in business. And how many personal trainers are going to be able to make a living out of Zoom fitness sessions?

It all adds up to a different world we’ll be living in. More than that, however, I’m afraid the long-term consequences of this lockdown are going to be staggering. Just recently I’ve been reading some books on the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout (Crashed by Adam Tooze, The Shifts and the Shocks by Martin Wolf) and it’s interesting to see how the repercussions from that were still playing out a decade down the line. Indeed, we’re still living in its shadow, if you count Trump as being one part of the fallout.

Well, the effect of this pandemic, on the economy and people’s lives, is going to be much, much worse. The bill that’s going to come due (and I’m not just speaking literally here) is something I don’t think a lot of people appreciate yet. But some are taking notice. A recent piece by Annie Lowery that ran in The Atlantic, for example, is headlined “This Summer Will Scar Young Americans for Life.” The damage, Lowery writes, “could last forever.” And this is for a cohort that aren’t losing their jobs because most of them haven’t entered into careers yet. Their parents may be in worse shape, and if their grandparents are in long term care . . . well, that’s another horror show. This may never be truly over.