Lockdown

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to dominate the news.

It really is remarkable, and a bit depressing. Every day is like Sunday, with the streets nearly empty and most of the stores closed or only open for reduced hours. School has been suspended and I wonder what the kids are doing. Are they all online? I think they must be.

I don’t know if all of the precautions that are being taken actually work. My sense is that they’re less effective than we’re led to believe. For example, I had to go the bank yesterday. They had cut back the hours of service so it didn’t open until 10 (the other bank I had to go to opened at 11). In addition, people were only being let into the bank proper one at a time. The waiting area was the vestibule with the ATM.  Because of the reduced hours and the one-person-at-a-time rule a bottleneck was created so that more people were packed together than usual, in a smaller space, waiting for longer just to get in. I couldn’t see this as being helpful except as a way to discourage people from coming to the bank in the first place, which really wasn’t helpful at all.

I’m not that worried about catching COVID-19 myself. What does worry me is the amount of damage this is going to have on the economy (meaning people’s jobs) and how long it is going to last. I had a dentist appointment this week that was canceled and they asked if I wanted to reschedule in three weeks’ time. I asked, in some amazement, if they really thought this would all blow over in three weeks. They could only respond that this is what they’d been told. The public library system has also said that they will be closed for three weeks. I think it’s going to be a lot longer.

Angry voters

Over the last few days I’ve been watching the ESPN Films documentary O.J.: Made in America. All of that craziness went down nearly twenty years ago and I can still remember it clearly. I think if you are of a certain age it will always be with you. It’s hard to imagine another media event capturing the world’s attention to that degree again. Nearly 100 million people in the U.S. watched the highway procession (not a chase) in the Ford Bronco. And then there was the trial. Or trials. I was actually in Los Angeles during the civil trial. I waited outside the courthouse but there was a lottery to get tickets to go in and my number didn’t get called.

The documentary is a solid bit of reportage, and kept me interested throughout it’s almost 8-hour running time. The only part where I turned against it a bit was at the very end, when Simpson is given the last word, pleading with his fans to remember the good O.J. This struck me as being false, or at least ironic, since O.J. seems to have never changed. So what was the good O.J.? The football player? The celebrity? The idol? However you slice it, I didn’t get the sense that the good O.J. was the real O.J.

What I found most interesting though was the way the politics played out in ways that really foreshadowed the rise of today’s anti-elite populism, only from a different perspective. From interviews with jurors it’s clear that sides were taken early on, and that no amount of evidence was going to change anyone’s mind. African-Americans in Los Angelese saw themselves, with justification, as a group oppressed by the system, leading to feelings of cynicism and even nihilism. The game was totally rigged and no facts presented by the Man, no matter how clearly demonstrated, could be believed. Acquitting O.J. would even be “payback” for a history of racist law enforcement.

Today we usually associate this kind of attitude with Trump voters, so it’s instructive to see how it has played out in other contexts. Either way, people were voting angry. The results speak for themselves.

Highs and lows

Every year I go to the annual Friends of the Guelph Public Library Giant Used Book Sale. Three years ago I posted some thoughts on the experience where I referred to the sale as “both fun and a bit depressing.” That was my feeling again this year.

The fun part was the same. It really is heartening to see so many people, especially so many young people, lining up to buy books. I know that in the grand scheme of things these crowds don’t add up to much, but they still give one hope.

The depressing bit was something new. For a while now I’d been hearing of cellphone apps that allow you to scan the bar code on a book and pull up prices, either from some online bookseller or price aggregator. This year’s book sale, however, was the first time I’d seen these in action. At the table where I was spending most of my time there were three individuals simply going through everything: pulling a book out, scanning the bar code with their phones, looking quickly at the screen, and then either putting the book in one of their boxes or tossing it back on the table. They worked very quickly, able to do all the scanning and scrolling functions on their phones with one hand while pulling the books with the other.

I get that the used book trade is a business and that this is what apps are for: making things quicker and more convenient. Still, the way these guys worked a table, like the filleters working on the line at a fish processing plant, was depressing. Here was the digital economy moving in, jackal-like, to further cannibalize the remains of our culture. Its foot soldiers were robotic. Quite obviously they didn’t have any interest in the books they were methodically scanning. I’m not sure they could have told you what section of the sale they were working at the time. They were just doing data entry.

But while whatever program they were using to get a quick price check might serve as a rough guide, the fact that they didn’t really know the merchandise meant they were probably missing out on a lot. A couple of years ago I found a book at this same sale that I picked up for a dollar. I later saw it advertised online for over $800. And it wasn’t a copy in as good shape as the one I got! (By the way, it really was just curiosity that led me to check out what it was going for online. I didn’t resell it. I still have it sitting in my “to-read” pile.) The thing is, I found that book on the third day of the sale, after the book scouts and used-book buyers had already been through.

The same thing was happening this year. I thoght the book scanners were missing a lot, whatever their app might have been telling them. This made me think of something David Mason, a veteran used-book seller, had to say in the most recent issue of Canadian Notes & Queries:

Supposedly the great equalizer, the internet is in fact the worst offender against informed judgment . . . An experienced dealer looking at internet entries nowadays often finds five to ten copies of a book offered by dealers they’ve never heard of before they see names they know and credible prices. It takes just one ignorant fool putting a ludicrous price on a book to give other ignorant fools something to copy. They usually price their own copy ten percent or so less, assuming they’re being clever, when what they’re really doing is adding to the general ignorance. The blind lead the blind into the bog of imbecility, all of which makes the internet a dangerous cesspool.

Sadly, I don’t think anyone cares about the internet being a cesspool as long as it’s a profitable cesspool. The question is how well, in a business like this, such an approach really works.

Like hell

France, 1916.

One of the most common comparisons you’ll hear made by reporters and commentators on news programs is that some natural or human disaster is “like something out of Dante’s Inferno.” I don’t think the people invoking Dante like this have actually read the Inferno, or are familiar with the illustrations by Gustave Doré that have done so much to shape the way we visualize the poem. Instead, what is usually meant is something hellish. Meaning lots of flame, and possibly dead bodies. This despite the fact that the lowest levels of hell in Dante are actually frozen over.

It was not always thus. In World War One, during the battle of Verdun, an American aviator could be more precise:

During heavy bombardments and attacks I have seen shells falling like rain. Countless towers of smoke remind one of Gustave Doré’s picture of the fiery tombs of the arch-heretics in Dante’s “Hell.”

Now this is the way a classical analogy is supposed to work. Dante’s Inferno actually varies quite a bit between its different levels, in terms of the landscape and the punishments meted out. Here, however, the comparison being made is exact: to the sixth circle and the flaming tombs of the heretics. If one knows Doré’s illustrations one can understand, can see, what the airman is talking about.

Today hell is just hell, whether Dante’s or Doré’s or whoever’s. It’s become more generic. This is both a cultural leveling and a leveling of the imagination. We’re poorer for it.

What is womanhood?

As this year’s federal election draws nearer I’ve been receiving campaign literature in the mail. This week I got something from the Christian Heritage Party candidate that was all about protecting women from various forms of “insidious abuse.” It includes an essay written by the candidate himself where I found this: “I will work to strengthen the dignity of females of all ages and womanhood through offering courses to empower women.” I have to say I pulled a total blank on what he means by womanhood here. It’s hard not to think he has something specific in mind, but what? What are the degrees of womanhood?

Don’t know much geography

Whose flag?

It was an oft-repeated criticism of American involvement in Vietnam that the U.S. was waging a war in a country that few of its citizens would be able to find on a map. That was a zinger, then and now, though, in the American public’s defence, at the time Vietnam was only twenty years old (it had most recently been French Indochina).

I was thinking of this recently when preparing my notes on the movie They’re Watching, which was set in Moldova. This threw me. Before finding out this little tidbit of information, if you’d asked me if there was a country of Moldova I would have said there wasn’t. I associated the name with a province in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and thought that the filmmakers were invoking it as an imaginary place like Ruritania or the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. But actually Moldova is a sovereign state, having been one of the Soviet Socialist Republics and gaining independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.

This was humbling. I thought I knew enough of the basics of world geography that the existence of a European country I didn’t know of came as quite a surprise. But as I went flipping through a pocket atlas recently I found other examples of my ignorance of how the world is divided up. Just as surprising to me as the existence of Moldova was the discovery that there’s a part of Russia that isn’t connected to any other part of Russia (what’s called an exclave). This is the Kaliningrad Oblast, the old Prussian Königsberg. Who knew? Well, probably a lot of people. But I didn’t.

Political boundaries are often in flux, which justifies the printing of new atlases. I found several such boundary issues in my browsing. Suriname, for example, claims big chunks of both Guyana and French Guiana (the countries to its west and east respectively). I have no idea how valid these claims are, but on a map they look significant. Meanwhile, Western Sahara has been administered since 1979 by Morocco, but is still considered a (huge) disputed territory. I knew nothing of this.

The upshot is that I don’t have the right to make fun of anyone else’s ignorance of geography. There are plenty of places I not only couldn’t find on a map but that I’ve never even heard of. I guess I’m not a man of the world.

Mistakes? I’ve made a few

It’s a testament to something that every time I happen to re-read a previous post I’ve made at one of my sites I find something that needs to be corrected. Usually this is just a typo or some infelicity. But in the last couple of weeks I came across a pair of glaring factual errors that were absolute howlers. One was in a review of a book and the other of a movie.

The nice thing about running a blog is that you can immediately correct your mistakes. And once they’re fixed you can pretend as though they were never made. You can’t do that with print. Still, I’m depressed to find so many goofs. I actually do try to make sure that a post is clear of errors before I publish it online. But still the fact is I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything, in over twenty years, that didn’t have at least one mistake in it. As I’ve said, I find them all the time. They turn up like stones in a field.

Perhaps it has something to do with writing for the Internet. Or perhaps it’s just my own carelessness. As for the nature of my mistakes, my opinions, I find, change less and less. But my expression of those opinions is always in flux. This makes a blog a perpetual work in progress. Thanks for bearing with me!