Crummikub

I don’t know if any of you play the game Rummikub, but when you get tiles like this you know you’re in for a tough slog.

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Zombie chic

Perhaps he just wants to keep his shirt clean.

Why do the people in The Walking Dead wear body armour? I could understand heavy, metal-mesh gloves like butchers wear. Or some kind of padding or shielding for arms. Think of the way people use such protection when training attack dogs: you hold out your arm and let the dog grab hold of it. Even greaves for the lower legs would make sense when wading through a herd of crawlers. But why armour for your torso? When has a zombie ever gone for someone’s chest or back?

Everyday rudeness #4: Telemarketers

Of course telemarketers and telescammers are annoying. But when they’re rude as well their behaviour is, even more than in the literal sense, uncalled for.

I’ve developed a special technique for dealing with them. Once I know I’m being contacted by a telemarketer (usually a delay on the connection is enough) I only respond by speaking Old English. Specifically, since I don’t really remember much Old English, I quote the opening lines of Beowulf in the original. I repeat them in a quiet but confused and questioning voice, pretending to be someone who simply doesn’t understand English and doesn’t know what the caller is saying.

I started doing this because I was curious as to how the callers would respond. I figured they would just give up, maybe apologize (though probably not) and then hang up. After all, I get the impression that English, in most cases, is not their first language, so I thought they might have some sympathy.

This has not happened. Indeed, after only exchanging a few words I have been told on nearly every occasion to “fuck off” or “fuck you.” Then the caller hangs up. I honestly find this surprising. They are that mad at someone they don’t even know, who they have targeted for their annoying (and often fraudulent) scam, just for not being able to speak English? Shouldn’t I be the angry one?

Yesterday, upon my standard opening of “Hwæt? We Gardena?” I got an immediate “Fuck you, motherfucker.” Really. It’s bad enough they have to do such an annoying job, but do they have to be so rude?

Just visiting

Somebody took a wrong turn.

You never know what you’re going to see looking out your back window some mornings. When I lived on the farm this wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but I live right in the heart of the city now. I hope the little fellow made it home.

What killed criticism?

Arts criticism — whether we’re talking about the film and book reviewing you read online or in newspapers or essays in a more academic form —  is going through a period I would describe as worse than a bit of a rough stretch. My own opinion is that it is a genre of writing (separate and independent) that is dying, and it won’t be coming back anytime soon. Since I’ve spent the last twenty years being a critic I’ve had to do some thinking about what has happened. Here are a few of the things I’ve come up with.

(1) Irrelevance: beginning a couple of decades ago we started hearing about certain blockbuster films and books that were “critic proof.” What this meant is that they were going to be successful regardless of what any reviewer thought of them. Since then, this is a phenomenon that has only advanced. Near universal critical condemnation of the Transformers film franchise or the Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight novels has been laughed at, when not met with outright hostility, by “poptimists” (those who believe that commercial success is the only criterion for artistic merit).

(2) Information overload: I remember a book editor once telling me that back in the early 1980s it was possible to read every new Canadian work of fiction that came out. I don’t know if that was really true, but it’s the kind of thing that might be taken as expressing his sense of a now-lost, more innocent, less crowded, time. The fact is, there is no way to keep up with the avalanche of material that comes out of the publishing and film industry today. Especially if you want to do a responsible job. I mean by this that it’s still possible to go out and see every movie that’s worth seeing, but then there’s the background work you have to do. You can watch Psycho and Citizen Kane, but you can’t read everything that’s been written about these classics. And this is a situation that is metastasizing without remission. I love listening to DVD commentaries, but films like Fight Club and Hostel have four each. Then you have to make at least some attempt to familiarize yourself with what’s been written about these movies online. One person can’t keep up. Which leads to . . .

(3) The rise of the hive mind: in order to deal with information and opinion overload various review aggregators bring together as many reviews as they can find and condense them down to a simple score. Think of Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic, GoodReads, or Amazon reviews. These sources can be helpful, but they have two unfortunate results: (a) they erase individual voices in a giant whole-population melting pot (no single voice, however expert in its judgment, is worth very much); and (b) they tend to flatten out extremes so that most books, films, and songs end up with scores or rankings in the mushy middle.

(4) The end of evaluative criticism: is this book/film/painting/song any good? For years, answering this basic question has provided reviewing’s reason for being. But starting about a quarter-century ago the universities – the basic training ground for most professional critics – gave up on trying to answer it. “Good for what?” they asked. Everything was relative. Critical attention drifted elsewhere, in particular into the field of identity politics and what Robert Hughes dubbed the “culture of complaint” or victimology. As a result, the principle role of the critic was abandoned. Left without any function or purpose, not to mention audience, critics withdrew further into irrelevance.

(5) The economy: just how many professional critics are there today in Canada? In North America? Not many. It’s another job that has become part of the freelance or gig economy. Decent-paying, even semi-permanent positions have dried up and disappeared along with review sections and book pages. Hard times for journalists and the news media in general is, of course, going to mean hard times for movie and book reviewers. We’re not high on the masthead.

(6) Public indifference: this is either included in or an effect of much of what I’ve already said. For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned, and no doubt others as well, people really don’t care about what critics think, or do, any more. And a lot of the time I can’t blame them. Too many critics have resigned themselves to being little more than writers of ad copy for the system, leading to a massive loss of public trust. Reviewers have, in turn, met this increased public indifference with professional cynicism, leading to a downward death spiral.

Well, should we care? I’m sure most of us don’t, but should we?

I realize times are changing, but I do think something is being lost. I think it’s important that we try to think critically about everything, all the time, and arts criticism is a great way to exercise our critical muscles and to show how it’s done by way of practical, public demonstrations of the critical mind in action. And I don’t think it’s being at all alarmist to point out that it’s a slippery slope that leads from giving up on criticism of the arts to giving up on criticism of just about anything else you can think of. This leaves the field open for anyone with something to sell – whether it be a book, a car, or a political platform – to operate free of annoying counter-voices.

Critics are not expendable or superfluous parts of some bigger machine. Criticism has a function that it should perform with an integrity all its own, as much as some people don’t like to hear that. We need nay-sayers now perhaps more than ever. We need critics, even if we don’t want them. This is why I am concerned about their current endangered status. It’s the weakest of predictions to make, but nevertheless I’ll prophesy that we’re going to miss critics dearly when they’re gone.

The silence of the Internet

This week the popular film site IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) closed its message boards. Apparently this was because commenting was “no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide.” I don’t know how true that is. I spent a lot of time reading those threads. Sure there was some trolling, but less than you might imagine, and a lot of the conversations were well informed and informative. Roger Ebert even used to quote from them in his later essays.

I’ve also heard that the message boards made less income from ads and were costing too much to run, which sound like more accurate reasons for shutting them down.

In any event, I’ll be very sad to see them go. A year ago I wrote a post about how large parts of the Internet were turning away from the model of an open forum by disallowing comments on news stories. A lot of the backlash has latched on to the figure of the villainous troll, and how anonymous haters spreading fake news and all the rest of it represent a clear and present danger to civil society. I’m not defending the trolls, but that seems like a massive exaggeration to me, and I suspect it’s just an excuse being used to stifle different points of view. I’ve certainly had comments I’ve made at various news sites deleted by moderators over the years, all of which were just expressions of political opinions (that is, non-obscene, non-personal, non-threatening). Sure there were silly posts on the IMDb boards, but I suspect what’s really happening here is that advertisers didn’t have any use for them and the site operators found them uncontrollable, so they had to go.

Is this the Internet 3.0 taking shape? I don’t like it.

Canada Post humour

I don’t think mail delivery is that boring a job. I’ve never done it, but it can’t be as bad as, say, working on a line in a factory. Even so, I guess mailmen do have to find ways to amuse themselves, just to get through a dull day.

As evidence, I present this:

Well played, Canada Post.

Well played, Canada Post.

As someone who reviews books, I get a lot of books in the mail. Some come in boxes. This box apparently just fit into the small parcel slot in my community mailbox. A very snug fit indeed. Getting it in couldn’t have been easy! Removal, of course, proved to be impossible, even with the use of a screwdriver and other tools. You can’t tell from the picture, but there’s  a lip over the edge of the parcel slot once the main mailbox door is closed, so there really was no way to retrieve the package.

I have to admit, I just laughed when I saw this. Of course, right next to the small parcel slot is the large parcel slot, which was empty (I shone a light in to check). Well played, Canada Post. Well played.