Pumping up

Mamdouh Elssbiay (left) and Brandon Curry (right).

The 2021 Mr. Olympia contest is in the books and Egypt’s Mamdouh Elssbiay (known as “Big Ramy”) has repeated as champion.

I used to follow bodybuilding a bit, but recently haven’t been paying as much attention. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been getting older and my only fitness goals now are directed toward downsizing and working on things like cardio. I’m also put off by the drug regimens these guys are on, all to build themselves up to a point that obviously isn’t healthy. Of course drug use isn’t new, but I keep looking at these guys now and thinking they’re going to drop dead on the stage one of these days.

Another point is that recent bodybuilding champions have been getting a lot of flak lately for looking less “conditioned.” They’ve even been called out by veterans of the sport.

What lack of conditioning mainly means is less definition generally and the swollen bellies often associated with HGH (Human Growth Hormone) use. To be sure, this latter condition — dubbed “HGH gut” — looks gross. It seems like at least some of the guys are avoiding it though (the belly, I mean, not the HGH).

I think these criticisms are on target. I actually didn’t think Big Ramy looked that good this year. I would have rated Brandon Curry (the 2019 Mr. Olympia and runner-up this year) higher. Curry most often gets picked on for his skinny calves, but I thought he looked better proportioned and more defined. Actually, I could say the same for some of the other contestants as well. Curry isn’t perfect, but I think he’s a cut above Ramy, who to my eye is just big. Then again, I remember them saying the same thing about Dorian Yates when he was on top, and he’s considered a legend now. Probably just as well I’m not judging these things.

Panama, Paradise, Pandora

There’s been another, even bigger data dump of the financial dealings of the rich, famous, and very well-connected. As the CBC reports:

Much like the Panama Papers leak in 2016 or the Paradise Papers the following year, the secret files provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how certain global elites — or in other cases, high-profile criminals — take advantage of financial wizardry or opaque corporate structures to either shield assets, wriggle out of their tax obligations, or hide wealth entirely.

I was surprised how angry this story made me. I mean, it’s really just more of the same. Even the Panama Papers were no revelation. We all know this is how the super-rich secretly arrange their affairs, and the real disgrace is that little of it is actually illegal. The perfect crime, as the saying goes, is the one that isn’t a crime.

What I think bugged me the most this time was reading all the stories about the people involved. They aren’t entrepreneurs (except some of the outright crooks) or people who have any socially-valuable skills. Instead, many are celebs, politicians who have presumably made fortunes out of their ability to work the levers of power, or else people who just happen to be very well placed. Apparently Vladmir Putin’s baby mama has been given tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from Vlad, who many people suspect is actually the richest person in the world. And where did he get his money? You probably don’t want to know. King Abdullah II of Jordan is monarch of a very poor country, but it hasn’t stopped him amassing a large portfolio of luxury real estate. Tony Blair? Nobody knows how much he has, or quite where he got it, but there are reports that he’s piled up a personal fortune of over $100 million just since leaving office. Doing what? Giving talks?

This is the global elite: secretive, parasitical, and useless. Those in the political class have gotten rich on the back of the state they have served, and now return the favour by seeking to hide their wealth from that same state. Would it be so hard to shut these offshore tax havens down and try to regulate some of this financial legerdemain? It seems we really need to do something. Here is Oxfam’s statement:

This is another shocking exposé of the oceans of money sloshing around the darkness of the world’s tax havens that must prompt immediate action, as has long been promised.

Bravo to the whistleblowers and journalists for shining a light into this secret parallel system of capital, one open only to those with fat amounts of money and the greed to hoard it all untaxed, and those who facilitate it.

This is where our missing hospitals are. This is where the pay-packets sit of all the extra teachers and firefighters and public servants we need. Whenever a politician or business leader claims there is ‘no money’ to pay for climate damage and innovation, for more and better jobs, for a fair post-COVID recovery, for more overseas aid, they know where to look.

Tax havens cost governments around the world $427 billion each year. That is the equivalent of a nurse’s yearly salary every second of every hour, every day. Ordinary taxpayers have to pick up the pieces. Developing countries are being hardest hit, proportionately. Corporations and the wealthiest individuals that use tax havens are outcompeting those who don’t. Tax havens also help crime and corruption to flourish.

Governments’ promises to end tax havens are still a long way from being realized. We cannot allow tax havens to continue to stretch global inequality to breaking point while the world experiences the largest increase in extreme poverty in decades.

That breaking point seems to keep coming closer every day.

Maigret: Maigret’s Memoirs

An odd entry, even by today’s standards of metafiction. But it seems a truism that any serial or franchise that goes on long enough  will take a turn toward, or at least dip a toe into, this sort of playfulness.

The idea here is that Maigret has taken over authorial duties, wanting to set the record straight. This fellow Simenon with his “semi-literature” (a sort of halfway house between pulp fiction and serious literary novels) has done a good enough job, and sold a lot of books, but he hasn’t really gotten inside Maigret’s head. So the chief inspector takes the time here to give a fuller account.

Which means we have two Maigrets, both fictional creations of Georges Simenon, with this one being a device used to comment on the one we’re more familiar with. Except I see the two as basically joined at the hip, and what’s really happening is we’re getting a deeper dive into the same character.

Despite the fact that there’s no mystery, or even plot at all, with the book only providing a collection of biographical notes, I found it quite interesting. Maigret talks a bit about his joining the police as a calling, imagining himself as being like a doctor in understanding and treating people’s lives. And at times this turns into something even more grand:

I had the obscure feeling that too many people were not in their rightful places, that they were making an effort to play roles they were not suited to, and that consequently, the game, for them, was lost in advance.

I really do not want it to be thought that I had any pretensions to one day become that kind of God the father.

But in an earlier novel Simenon had suggested the connection between Maigret’s understanding of the lives of the people involved in a case as being akin to that of God the father. Is Maigret trying to correct this impression now, or is Simenon underlining it? Or both?

Simenon, who we actually get to meet at the start of the book as Maigret gives him a tour of the Quai des Orfèvres, tells Maigret that he isn’t interested in professional criminals or even crimes of passion. Maigret later returns to this, saying that the sorts of crimes “that interest novelists and so-called psychologists, are so uncommon that they take up only an insignificant part of our activities.”

And yet it is those that the public knows best. It is those cases that Simenon has mostly written about and will, I assume, continue to write about.

I mean crimes that are suddenly committed in places where you would least expect them, and that are something like the end-product of a long-hidden period of fermentation.

Yes, that is the sort of crime Simenon is most interested in. But it’s the sort of crime Maigret responds to most vigorously as well. It’s also a bit the same for Poirot, who says at one point that he has no interest in maniac killers, but only those driven by the two main engines of murderous passion: sex and greed. But for Christie mystery-solving is all about unraveling the twists in a crazily complicated plot, whereas for Simenon it has more to do with digging into a character’s past and that long-hidden period of fermentation.

Maigret index

Bowling alley time machine

Not the alley I was at, but close.

This weekend I went bowling. It was part of an outing to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I hadn’t been bowling in thirty years! I can date it because I remember the last time was the day of a friend’s wedding.

I think I’ve only bowled three or four times my entire life. So I’m not a good bowler. I can still recall that day thirty years ago and how bad I was. Which made it all the more enjoyable this time, because I was much better. Indeed, I was the only person in our group who bowled a strike! Such satisfaction. I had a great time and I think bowling is fun.

Of course, taking a thirty-year break also led to a bit of culture shock. Hence the title of this post.

Do you recall the bowling alleys of your youth? Or on screen in such movies as Kingpin and The Big Lebowski? Well, I’m sure they’re still out there, but the only bowling alley in my city is part of a larger “Family Fun Centre.” Which basically just means there’s an arcade as well. I thought being linked to an arcade was apt because everything had been done to make the actual bowling alley look like a video game.

In the first place, it was all dark, with lighted strips on either side of each alley in all kinds of crazy colours. There were disco lights over the alleys as well, but luckily they weren’t turned on. Above each alley was a monitor that showed various messages and displayed your score, and a screen by the ball dispenser that you entered your name into and that also kept your score. So much for those scorecards we used to use!

This wouldn’t have been too bad, but the big monitor over the lane wasn’t in synch with the screen by the ball dispenser, so it was always displaying the wrong scores, and in mixed-up order. Plus they kept changing the screen and running various animations on it so you could never just look at it and get any idea of the standings. I also thought it a sneaky bit of business in that, being logged in, it wouldn’t allow you to start off with a few practice balls. Nope, you had to sign in on the computer in order to get the pins to set and after that every ball counted. The system also kept track of how long you’d been playing, so that when your time was up that was it. The system just shut down. Which I guess does the job, but seems a bit tight-assed. Basically the computers are running everything now. They tell you when to start and when to stop and that’s it. I thought bowling was supposed to be a more relaxed atmosphere than this. We were really trying to go fast at the end to get another game in. We didn’t, quite.

Call me old-fashioned, but I much preferred bowling with all the lights on and just keeping score by pencil. The scoresheets were a lot easier to look at and to understand than all these screens.

The other thing that really stuck out for me was the expense. Wow. This is really pricey entertainment. With shoe rentals, a party of four came in at somewhere between $125 and $150 for an hour of bowling. Now admittedly I’m sure the guys running this place took, and are still taking, a huge hit from COVID. And I’m also figuring there’s some significant overhead. But there were only three or four lanes in use when we were there (out of more than 20 available), and it was a Saturday afternoon. That’s not good.

I have to think the lack of attendance is partly being driven by price. It’s a fun game to play for people of all ages and levels, but I can see why, at that price, bowling went into a tailspin in popularity (to the point where it became the central metaphor for Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone).

But this is a problem a lot of places are facing now. Prices are going up everywhere, while the actual goods and services being purchased ain’t what they used to be. We’re paying more and more for less and worse. I’ve talked before about the gym. The same membership rates (if you’re lucky) are being charged for gyms that are cutting back in hours, offering fewer amenities, and making you wear a mask. No thanks. And who wants to eat in a restaurant now with all the regulations and rules you have to follow? Everybody is just getting take-out. Shopping? More and more people have been buying stuff online, but prices at my favourite sites have spiked by around 20% over the last year (something that Amazon led the way on).

Like I say, I can understand why some businesses have to do this, but still the new normal that’s taking shape looks pretty grim to me.

Federal election 2021: After

Voting wasn’t a lot of fun this year, but I got out and did my civic duty.

The voting station I had to go to was divided into 12 different polling sections. Lucky me, I was in the section where all the university students were dumped. So I had to stand in a long line for half an hour to vote while at least six of the other sections didn’t have a single person vote the whole time I was waiting. One of my neighbours was working as an elections official and I remarked off-handedly to her that the planning was terrible. She insisted that it was actually working really well, the only problem was that all the students were in my voting section. I thought this sort of made my point. No one had planned for this? For one section having ten times as many voters as all the other sections combined? I wasn’t sure if she’d understood so I said again, “Well, that’s bad planning.” She dug in deeper, pointing to all the desks for the sections where no one was voting and where the officials were sitting back doing nothing and looking bored. “You see,” she said, “some of the sections aren’t busy at all.” At this point I was glad I had a mask covering my face so that she wouldn’t see my gawping. “Yes,” I tried again. “I can see that the other sections aren’t busy. But there’s a line with sixty people in it for this one. That’s poor planning.”

“No it’s not,” she said. “You’re only saying that because you’re in the line with all the people in it.”

Like I say, voting wasn’t a lot of fun.

I begin with this anecdote to make a couple of points. First: voting is still too big a hassle. One old fellow who came in while I was waiting in line got vocally angry and took it out on the officials, telling them it was a disgrace before stalking off without voting. The second point follows from the first: the lines were just another thing to piss people off. I thought calling an election was a stupid move. The Liberals clearly figured they were going to upgrade to a majority government, but I don’t see how that was ever in the cards. I’ve written before about how we’re living in an age of anger, and the pandemic has only made people angrier. Why would a party in power want to test an angry electorate? Poor planning!

Now on to the election results.

As expected (and I predicted) it was a tight race but Toronto and Montreal came through for the Liberals again. The new house will look almost exactly the same as the old house. The Liberals will again have a minority government.

I can only think of this as a Pyrrhic victory, as it doesn’t put them in any better position than the one they were in, underlines the pointlessness of the whole exercise (which cost upwards of $600 million), and I think sets the Liberals up for the kind of massive backlash the Tories experienced in 1993 after Mulroney won an improbable majority in ’88. They are less popular now than they were and are going to have to wear this. Trudeau immediately claimed a “clear mandate” but early results had the Conservatives actually receiving a larger percentage of the popular vote. That’s not a very clear mandate to my eye.

I think the Conservatives had the right idea in tacking to the left — however insincerely — though their “Secure the Future” campaign, with a logo that looked like a bunch of interlocking padlocks, seemed kind of threatening, especially given that I think the target demographic skewed older and more affluent. And securing their future means something different than securing a decent future for the rest of us.

Erin O’Toole was not an inspiring leader, but he played his cards the right way I believe. American-style, right-wing nuttery won’t work here, for various reasons. Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada didn’t have the regional base that the old Reform Party (now the Conservative Party) had, and in a first-past-the-post system it’s impossible to make any kind of dent on the two-party status quo.

Meaning that the NDP unsurprisingly failed to achieve any kind of breakthrough, again, while the Greens disappeared (with Annamie Paul finishing fourth in her own riding). I don’t know what the Greens should do at this point. Not only are they never going to have any kind of voice in FPTP, they aren’t even going to have any influence on shaping policy going forward. The environment as an issue simply isn’t a priority for any appreciable part of the electorate.

So there you have it. An election that nobody wanted ending with a result that will make nobody happy. Which will lead, I am sure, to more anger. A forecast of sunny days ahead.

Maigret: Madame Maigret’s Friend

If you thought, as I did, that this was going to be a book where Maigret’s wife (first name Louise, in case you ever get quizzed) was going to play a central role, you would be mistaken. No, she’s still the model housewife here: doing the grocery shopping, cooking Maigret his meals and fetching him his slippers and pipe at the end of the day. But she does do a bit of investigating at one point, wearing out some shoe leather in tracking down an important lead. After which she can go back to making dinner.

The rest of the book is just as disappointing. It’s another one in the series where the villains are mainly kept off-stage, so we only hear about them second-hand. There’s also a messiness to it that’s perhaps the result of Simenon trying to tie two plots together in an awkward way. Some occasional low-key humour helps out, but otherwise I found this to be one of the least distinguished instalments in the series.

Maigret index

Federal election 2021: Before

In 2015 I did a pair of before and after posts on the federal election, in which I made a prediction that was totally wrong (yeah, I thought Harper would be re-elected). In 2019 I did the before and after thing again, only with a more accurate forecast. Since I’ve been doing the “before” posts a week out from the election itself I guess it’s time to post an entry for what’s happening in 2021, even though I’ve already commented on the calling of a snap election, and the fact that it’s a snap election means there hasn’t been a lot of time for the picture to develop.

I think calling the election was a mistake. The plan was for the Liberals to upgrade from a minority to a majority government and I don’t see that happening now.

And that was all the plan the Liberals had. Asked multiple times to explain why an election had been called — a question they should have had been ready for — Trudeau couldn’t come up with anything very convincing. In one of the French-language debates he could only say that they needed “a clear mandate . . . to understand what Canadians want for the next years.” That’s weak, and I’m not sure it even makes sense. A mandate to understand?

As far as policy goes I don’t think there’s that big a gap between the Liberals and the Tories. Instead there are “optics.” This is where celebrity politics gets you: you live and die by the leader’s personality. Unfortunately for the Liberals, Justin Trudeau has not worn well. Even people I know who started out being supporters of him now feel quite disillusioned. He has not grown into the job. I find it surprising that he is still so bad at answering questions that take him off script, and being able to project confidence or competence. I know it’s an easy dig to say he’s all just fantastic hair and striped socks, a mere pretty boy playing at being a prime minister, but the shoe fits.

The various scandals surrounding his administration haven’t helped, reinforcing the sense that the Liberals are arrogant grifters. Allegations of hypocrisy and corruption have been hard to dodge, with the controversy over Raj Saini being just the latest example. Meanwhile, Jody Wilson-Raybould’s revenge was well timed. Hell hath no fury like a cabinet minister scorned.

Will the NDP be able to capitalize on voter disenchantment, or will voters duly fall into line, as they do every election, and vote for our Natural Governing Party? Never underestimate the timidity and steadfast resistance to change of the Canadian voter. Never.

I don’t know what happened to the Greens. I didn’t follow any of their leadership squabbles, but it’s depressing to think it came down to a disagreement over showing support for Israel. Why are we fighting over this? Annamie Paul seems bright and capable but hard to warm to. That may be why she hasn’t been widely embraced and the party has disappeared. I don’t think it’s racism, as people seem very fond of Jagmeet Singh. Heaven knows the environment should have been a strong issue to run on this year, but it hasn’t happened. I’m beginning to wonder if it ever will.

How well Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives do may depend on how many votes Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada draws away. I don’t think many. People who hate Trudeau will vote for the guy they think most likely to get rid of him.

Personally, I’ve been feeling quite alienated from politics. This is the first election in a while that I’ve seriously considered not voting in. I think on election day it’s going to come down to how long the lines are at the polling station. There are enormous challenges that we face, both in this country and globally, but so-called culture-war issues are in the driver’s seat. Why? Because cancel culture, wokeism, and identity politics crap really plays online. In short, it works. This is the form Western politics has taken in the twenty-first century. I blame the Internet.

Prediction: I have a hunch the Liberals get back in with another minority government, helped mainly by the Toronto vote. But a week out it’s really too close to call. I don’t think the NDP will do as well as forecasters have been expecting. The Greens are going to be annihilated.

As I’ve done previously, I’ll be back in a week with a post-mortem, when I’ll hopefully have some more to say.

Eighties house party

Making a comeback?

The American social critic Kurt Andersen has a thing about the present age being a culture of nostalgia, one that is no longer creating anything new. One of his favourite examples is today’s music, and whenever I read him going on about this I find myself doubting how strong an argument it is. It has an air of “grumpy old man” about it, complaining about all this noisy rock ‘n’ roll that isn’t real music. I mean, I liked, and still like, the music I listened to in high school and university, but I assume kids today have moved on.

This past week saw students moving back in for the start of university in my home town. A house behind me that sold a couple of months ago is apparently going to be party central, filled with a lot of good-looking young people. On Saturday night they were having a house party, and I was sleepily listening to the tunes they had cranked up. After a while I started noticing something, and began making notes on the party playlist. Here’s a stretch of what I heard:

“Hungry Heart” Bruce Springsteen (1980)
“Come On Eileen” Dexy’s Midnight Runners (1982)
“Bust a Move” Young MC (1989)
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” Tears for Fears (1985)
“Groove Is in the Heart” Deee-lite (1990)
“Freedom” Wham! (1984)

Wow. I have to say this really surprised me. Kids at university were literally playing the same songs thirty years ago. I think the only thing I missed was Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and I might have just nodded off before they got to that. If they’d started up Black Box’s “Ride On Time” I think I may have had to go over and introduce myself.

What gives? Is Andersen right? Don’t today’s young people have their own music to listen to? I’m not complaining, but I don’t think the music I listened to as a young man was anything special. I just like it because it’s what I grew up with. Shouldn’t something have replaced it by now?

Electioneering

Last night was the first, and only, English-language leaders’ debate for the 2021 federal election. It was a complete waste of time. At least the first hour was, which is all I could watch.

The medium of television led to the replacement of debate with the sound bite, a snippet of a few seconds of speech taken out of context. From the evidence on display last night this is getting worse. Brevity was strictly enforced by the moderator, as the leaders had only thirty seconds at the most to answer questions, and that not without interruptions. All of this just meant that they were trying to repeat slogans and catchy phrases as quickly and clearly as possible, without saying anything of substance that might get them in trouble.

Questions weren’t answered. People talked past each other. There was the usual empty virtue signaling. Impossible, to my eye, to pick any clear winners or losers. I watched a breakdown of the “highlights” again this morning and found they were moments that hadn’t registered with me at all.

Green Party leader Annamie Paul came across as strong, but also fatalistic. She talked about having to come together across party lines to work on addressing environmental issues, which seemed to be conceding to reality. Maxime Bernier of the People’s Party of Canada wasn’t allowed to join the debate because the PPC didn’t meet the threshold for voter support, even though they are apparently polling ahead of the Greens now. I’m afraid it’s not looking good for the Greens this election, or for the environment as an issue moving forward.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet wasn’t worried about being likeable, so he didn’t even try. Which was actually kind of fun to watch.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was the most assured and articulate and it didn’t matter much. In the first hour anyway he was the only one I recall making a clear policy statement, about ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. That’s something I would have liked to hear some debate over, but things had to keep whipping along.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole hit his talking points. He’s not a charismatic or inspiring personality, but at least doesn’t come off as an arrogant jerk, which is something the Tories have struggled with recently. This isn’t a party with any new ideas though, and it’s not as if their old ideas were any good.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau hasn’t changed in six years, which isn’t to his credit. He still has a lot of trouble speaking off script and can’t explain why this election is happening.

It’s come to this

At a time when only just over half of all Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19 there has been a sudden interest in use of the drug ivermectin, a horse dewormer, as an antidote. This madness hasn’t stopped at the border, with a run on supplies of the livestock drug in Alberta and Amazon Canada including warnings on search results for the drug on its site (even though Amazon doesn’t sell it).

In the U.S. the Federal Drugs Administration posted the following on their Twitter account: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.” Nevertheless, celebrity podcaster Joe Rogan recently admitted that he was taking the drug after having come down with COVID.

This is stupid on the level of the Tide Pod Challenge, where people would eat packages of laundry detergent. The Tide Pod thing was performative jackassery that I assumed was being done just to get clicks and views on social media and it didn’t involve more than a couple of dozen cases, at least as far as I can tell. Is the use of ivermectin any different? Are people just doing this to get attention? Or as a way of publicly declaring their pathological distrust of all authority and expertise? It can’t be just because they’re stupid, because I don’t think they all are. At least I don’t think they’re all this stupid.