Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reading, Memory and Review: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel pt. 1

I just started A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, a favourite author of mine after reading and listening to his 2007 Massey Lectures, The City of Words. Already there are so many things I find interesting, not sure where to start. Did you know that books were mostly read aloud until (not sure when and the book is not close at hand, but I think around 1000 CE)? This means that libraries were not quiet places of study, but noisy, bustling places of learning.

Manguel touches upon the power of books and writing to scare those in power, to scare them enough to censor, ban or even burn books. In Ray Bradbury's brilliant Fahrenheit 451 (which I'm going to go re-read now), people are left to memorize books after they are burned.

He then goes on to explore this phenomenon of people memorizing books, intertwined with ideas of re-reading for pleasure, recalling favourite passages and such. I found it challenging to recall even the author he had written about in the previous chapter, and I generally have an excellent memory. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in a movie store (bear with me). The friend never watches movies twice, while I often watch favourite movies over and over. I do the same with books: I've read some maybe 20 times. Most of these, though, are not difficult or complex works, they are enjoyable fiction, and often fantasy. The friend was surprised to have me compare movies to paintings or music, art that you would never consider experiencing only once if you enjoyed it. For me it's the same with books.

But books are a different art-form than movies, paintings or music. While I would never claim that they are passively enjoyed, they are generally less... engaging? than books. However, my memory of books is far less How often does my enjoyment stem from being able to lose myself in a book that I don't remember that well? I've noticed that often I can't tell you the names of the principle characters in any work of fiction I'm reading. I rarely notice chapter names. Since I've become aware of this I now actively try to remember these and other details, and I've noticed an improvement, albeit a small one.

And just to take this post as far away from medieval reading practices as possible... I don't remember phone numbers anymore now that they're stored in my cell phone. Or rather I remember a select few. Books replaced our memory of stories, now computers (and Google and Wikipedia in particular) have replaced our memory of nearly everything else.

The other night I wanted to watch a movie but didn't have enough time to start a new one that I would want to finish, so I started Casablanca, my favourite movie ever. It is beautiful, clever, romantic, hard-boiled, almost every adjective. I've seen it probably 10-15 times. Every scene is familiar, no line is a surprise, but I couldn't tell you the names of more than a couple of characters. Is is because we don't see the names, we only hear them?

I would say that I have a very good memory; at times it feels photographic or eidetic. That extends to sounds on occasion: I will imagine exactly what I heard and let the sounds replay until they are clear. If it's not that, then, is it the mind skipping details that it doesn't find compelling or necessary to a narrative? Am I reading for plot more than character?

And finally (and I think more interestingly), what does this imply about our ability to comprehend and assimilate anything non-fiction that we read? What does it imply about societal memory?

PS: more to say on this book later.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Somaliland - The Rodney Dangerfield of the international community?

I recently bought a magazine called Monocle. It's a renaissance magazine, to say the least, dealing with architecture, household products, defence armaments, travel, and so on. In last month's issue there was a small piece on Somaliland. Somalia? Nope, Somaliland.

Somaliland, bordered by Ethiopia to the south, Djibouti to the northwest, and Somalia to the east.*

Now, most of us will have never heard of Somaliland. It's the northwestern portion of Somalia that declared independence in 1991 after the fall of the Barre dictatorship, but has never been recognized as a sovereign state**, even though it is far more stable in relation to the troubled Somalia to the south. And they're about to have a general election. How is this possible in the gun-totin', pirate-haven, Marine-killin', Blackhawk-Downin' ultra-dangerous Horn of Africa?

I first became interested in Somaliland while writing a paper on bottom-up state building in Somalia. This was before the Islamic courts were enforcing their authority to any great degree, when business, gang and religious interests were semi-cooperating to form and employ quasi-official groups to attempt to police the dangerous streets of Mogadishu, keep order at the port, and provide some stability for business. This piece here from the Economist, March 2004, should demonstrate that any success they were having was minimal and tenuous.

In contrast, their neighbours (and supposed subjects) to the north in Somaliland were holding elections, building hospitals and schools, establishing a central bank, and so on. The government has an official website,, on which you can find news of the soon-to-held election or how to apply for a visa.

So, please, check out Somaliland. Discover its treasures, its tribulations, its people and their culture. I originally planned for this to be a piece on Monocle, then on state-building, but it's just really interesting that Somaliland even exists. And maybe more interesting that it remains unrecognized by the international community. One would think that as a successful, self-made, post-colonial African state, Somaliland would be held up as an example of what can be accomplished. There are all sorts of cynical thoughts rolling around my brain right now.

* Somaliland shares (or rather contests) a border to the east with Puntland, another pseudo-independent state making up the northeast third of the old Somalia. It's interesting that Puntland is not mentioned on the Somaliland government website.

** Except, in a wonderful piece of political gamesmanship, by Wales, itself not a sovereign state.

Tourism in Somalia

This piece is originally from The Economist, March 2004, and is one of the funniest pieces of journalism I have ever read:

Tourism in Somalia

Far from the madding crowd

Mar 4th 2004 | MOGADISHU
From The Economist print edition

Well, far from other tourists, anyway

HE HAS perhaps the world's hardest job, but very little to do. Abdi Jimale Osman is Somalia's minister of tourism. His inbox is always empty; unsurprisingly, given that his anarchic homeland has not had a single officially acknowledged tourist in 14 years.

Somalia is not without attractions. The sun shines, the beaches are sandy and you can dine on lobster on the roof of the Sharmo Hotel, which commands a splendid view of the capital, Mogadishu. It is not safe, however. The Sharmo advises guests to hire at least ten armed guards to escort them from the airport.

Since civil war broke out in 1990, Somalia has been divided into some two dozen warring fiefs. But Mr Jimale is undaunted. “Tourists can still go and see the former beautiful sights,” he says. “The only problem is they're all totally destroyed.” Your correspondent admired what was left of the cathedral. Graffiti outside warned “Beware of landmines”.

Mr Jimale wants donors to help rebuild Somalia's national parks, though they mainly lie in areas the government does not control. “Most of the animals have disappeared too,” he concedes, “Because we have eaten them.”

Brave tourists can find unusual bargains in Mogadishu. In the market, a hand grenade sells for $10, a Howitzer for $20,000. For those who remain unconvinced, Mr Jimale is reassuring. “I'm sure tourists would leave Somalia alive and I'm hopeful they wouldn't be kidnapped,” he says. “At least, we would try to make sure they were not kidnapped, although it can happen.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dr. Fixed-love, or How I stopped worrying and learned not to rely on Mac Station

Those of you that have been following my trials and tribulations with my laptop will be please to know that there has been some resolution. I am happily typing this on my newly reconfigured computer, as functional as can be. I wasn't able to save my data, but I did back everything up a few months ago, so I should be fine. I probably lost some pictures, some random files, some music, but nothing too important.*

I'm going to call the manager of Mac Station tomorrow and see if he's even heard of my case and whether they've considered any sort of action. I'm not too optimistic. In the meantime I guess I'll start going through my back-up files and see what's worth keeping.

This is a pretty boring post, sorry. Lesson learned, though. When taking a computer in for service, find a store with a good reputation, get some sort of guarantee of service, i.e. "We'll look at it and call you Monday.", and get it in writing if possible.

Pre-posting update:

Oct. 22nd - I called and left another message for the manager, didn't hear back. Guess I'll try again tomorrow.

* What I really wanted to save was six months of Football Manager.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Never, ever, ever go to Mac Station. Ever.*

* Unless I get a phone call from the manager in the next few days and he offers me a new laptop at half price, that is.


Six weeks ago a movie-watching program on my iBook G4 froze up, and didn't respond to the Force Quit function. So I restarted my computer (I was in the middle of an episode of Weeds, I believe, and wanted to continue right then).

A funny thing happened on the way to the... whatever is analogous to the Coliseum, I guess. I was asked to log in to my user account, something that has never happened to me in four years of using it. So I did. And nothing happened. I tried again, and again, nothing. So I restarted it again, only to be faced with the same log-in screen.

Several days later (Friday, September 4th, to be exact), after some internet searches for problem-solving tips (all failed, and one leaving me worse off than before (mistake #1)), I took my putey into Mac Station in Vancouver (mistake #2). I left thinking it was a hard-drive issue, fine, may take a bit to rescue the data and order in a new one, etc.

Six weeks later (yes, you read that right, SIX WEEKS later), on October the 16th, I went and got my laptop from Mac Station, and not only was nothing fixed, but the keyboard and mouse button were also broken. What? How did this happen, you ask? I'm confused myself, but this is what I know:

Timeline of events (some dates are estimates):

Sept. 4th - dropped laptop off.
Sept. 9th - called to ask what was wrong (note: they didn't call me to tell me); unfortunately technician C (who was dealing with my computer) had left for the day, I should call back tomorrow.
Sept. 10th - technician C told me my OS wasn't working so good, he could do a data back-up and re-install for $127; seemed a bit steep, I thought I would ask a friend, who counseled spending the money.
Sept 11th - I called back, said go for it, and while they were at it why not change the hard-drive to something a little bigger, as had been suggested to me by them (that was mistake #3).
Sept. 16th - According to someone in sales (service wasn't answering their phone), the hard-drive was ordered and should be in in the next two days (note: again, I had to call; repeatedly.)
Sept. 19th - left message on answering machine.
Sept. 21st - left message on answering machine.
Sept. 23rd - left message on answering machine.
Sept. 25th - talked to manager A, who apologized for the delay, he would ensure that it was looked at right away, etc etc, he would make sure I would see a discount; I felt very reassured (mistake #4).
Sept. 29th - emailed manager A t0 follow up; never heard back.
Oct. 2nd (a Friday, four weeks in) - talked again to manager A, who apologized again, said he would get the technician on it right away; technician M called me in the evening to say his goal was to get me my computer the next day, but that there may be an issue with something, but at the very least he would call to tell me how it went; felt optimistic (mistake #5).
Oct. 3rd - not a word.
Oct. 4th - nothing.
Oct. 5th (may have been 6th) - I called; technician M apologized for forgetting to call; he would do his best to get my computer fixed as soon as he could.
Oct. 10th - called and talked to technician M, told him that the situation was absurd; he gave me tons of reasons why the work wasn't done, some entirely valid, I'm sure, and that he would try to get to it soon but he was really busy (would TRY to get to it? really?); I told him that I would come and get my computer the following Friday regardless of whether it was fixed.
Oct. 15th - phoned to ask if it had been fixed, told no, they couldn't, they were going to wrap it up so I could pick it up.
Oct. 16th - picked it up in worse shape than I left it (see above); left message with store manager asking him to call about the service I had received; haven't heard back.

So, what do I do now? What do I say to the manager if I ever get in touch with him?

Friend R is coming by tomorrow and we're going to try to rescue the data, then wipe the hard-drive and re-install the OS. If that doesn't work, I'll take it to someone that will actually try to fix it (I know, what an odd approach). In the meantime, tell all your Mac-using friends: Never, ever, ever take your computer to Mac Station. Ever.

UPDATE, Oct. 19th:

A Mac Station employee posted a comment below at 12:58pm on Oct. 18th. Here is some of it:

Hello Brenton,

I work for Mac Station (in another department)...

I don't even know the complete details of your work order, but there is no reason a job like this should take that long...

I have forwarded this post to the people that can make decisions at that level...

I expect that a course of resolution will be presented to you very shortly.

It will be interesting to see if anyone does contact me. Thanks for the comment, anonymous employee.

Oct. 20th - nothing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Vision Vancouver fundraiser

I attended the Vision Vancouver fundraiser on Tuesday as a volunteer (with student loans like this, who needs enemies?) and was treated to a lovely evening of good food, entertainment, and some good old fashion politicking. A wonderful evening, all in all. I'll leave a more full and entertaining description of the event to Jonathan Ross over at; I just have a few notes.

I've heard some grumbling about its location at the Wall Centre, but as far as I can tell it was there because the Walls (are they ever called the Walls?) donated some serious cash and the use of the room (Gregor thanked them personally), and when you're holding a fundraiser you probably don't turn that down. Especially when you know who your audience is.

I attended a similar function last year during the nomination campaign as a guest of a candidate, when no one really knew what Vision stood for, when ex-Parks Board Commissioner Allan De Genova was a real contender for the mayoral nomination. There was some money there (apparently De Genova sold half the tables), but there were also quite a few union tables, and candidate supporters tables.

The big difference this year (apart from the presence of contortionists), and it wasn't that big but enough so that it was quite evident, was the amount of money in suits that came through the door. I'm not sure what the guest list looked like, but the event was sold out and it seemed to me that most tables were corporate buys. Simple conclusion: now that Vision are in power, there are more people interested in making nice with them. I don't mean to imply that there is anything wrong with this, just an observation, and I was surprised that Jonathan Ross didn't make note of it, in his otherwise excellent and entertaining post on the fundraiser.

Aside: former NDP premiers Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark were in attendance, as was former COPE/Vision city councilor Jim Green; all were recognized by Gregor in his speech. As was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and I think Premier Gordon Campbell and BC Housing Minister Rich Coleman were as well.

City of Vancouver budget update

From CKNW News:

City Hall shortfall dwindles
Janet Brown | Email news tips to Janet

"What a difference two weeks makes.

At the end of september the City of Vancouver announced it was facing a 61-million-dollar shortfall.
The preliminary budget numbers are now in for 2010 and the budget shortfall is now pegged at 28-million-dollars, down from the 61-million just two weeks ago.

At 28-million homeowners would face a property tax hike of five-per cent.

However staff say they're aiming for a tax hike of two percent at the most.

They say there are more cuts to be made.

A service review underway by the city has been looking for ways to save money and make the entire organization more efficient."

Wow. How did that happen? $32m in savings found in two weeks?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gentlemen of the Road, or Swashbuckle this, Brian

"All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one's home"

Rather than write a book review, I'm simply going to track the words that I have to look up as I read Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. It's a playful book, and Chabon's vocabulary might come across as pretentious except for that. I've skipped some words that are clearly singular items with little relevance beyond their place as a noun (though I've included some of the same).

p. 4 - bambakion - "In his quilted grey bambakion with its frayed hood" - A padded leather or cotton under-garment; Byzantine.

p. 17 - perspicacity - "Perhaps the span of breath remained to the intruder for the enjoyment of his perspicacity" - having a ready insight into and understanding of things; from Latin perspicac- seeing clearly.

p. 19 - fleam - "with their scalpels and bloodletting fleams" - a kind of lancet, as for opening veins; late Middle English fleme from the Greek phlebo meaning vein.

p. 20 - contumelious - "He was nearly as gifted at languages as the contumelious myna." - scornful and insulting; from Latin contumelia, perhaps from con- ‘with’ + tumere ‘to swell.’

p. 28 - mezair - "With a mezair and a cut to the left" - a movement in which the horse makes a series of short jumps forward while standing on its hind legs; from Italian mezzaria, middle gait.

p. 28 - caprioles - "and a cut to the left and a pair of caprioles" - a movement performed in classical riding, in which the horse leaps from the ground and kicks out with its hind legs; from Latin capreolus, diminutive of caper, capr- goat.

p. 38 - impasto - "squelching through mud that was an impasto of dirt and blood" - The process of laying on paint thickly, from the Italian for paste.

p. 42 - maunderings - "I would rather... than suffer through a month or more of listening to your maunderings." - talk in a dreamy or rambling manner, perhaps from the obsolete maunder, to beg.

p. 43 - affiant - " and affiant now to that failure and to the ruin of his gods" - a person who swears to an affidavit, from the Latin fidus, meaning trusty.

p. 57 - plangent - "and with it the plangent cry of a soldier-muezzin calling his saddle-weary brothers" - loud, reverberating, and often melancholy, from the Latin verb plangere, meaning to lament.

p. 108 - caviling - "though Joseph would hardly miss the Venetian's caviling or tendency to whistle tuneless tunes all day and night" - to raise irritating and trivial objections; find fault with unnecessarily, from L deriv. of cavilla: jesting, banter.

p. 112 - integument - "scrutinizing the elephant as if seeing through its rough integument to its giant organs" - a natural covering, as a skin, shell, or rind; from the Latin teg(ere) to cover

p. 113 - arrant - "he often finds himself in receipt of the most arrant gossip imaginable." - thorough; unmitigated; notorious; from Middle English, variant of errant.

p. 126 - gonfalon - "revealing a gonfalon of russet hair" - a banner or pennant, esp. one with streamers; from Italian gonfalone, from a Germanic compound whose second element is related to vane.

p. 126 - bartizans - "along the battlements and bartizans of the walls of Atil" - an overhanging corner turret at the top of a castle; from 17th-cent. bertisene, Scots variant of bratticing [temporary breastwork or parapet,] from brattice ; revived and reinterpreted by Sir Walter Scott.

p. 128 - caparisoned - "caparisoned in purple silk and cloth of gold" - be decked out in rich decorative coverings; from obsolete French caparasson, from Spanish caparazón ‘saddlecloth,’ from capa hood.

p. 147 - chiromancy - "a wandering eastern people skilled at chiromancy" - the prediction of a person's future from the lines on the palms of his or her hands; from Greek kheir hand.

p. 161 - dolmen - "Imposing and forlorn, a grave marker, a dolmen, the eyrie of some august raptor." - a megalithic tomb with a large flat stone laid on upright ones; from French, perhaps via Breton from Cornish tolmen hole of a stone.

p. 170 - attar - "a faint ribbon of some rank attar in the air." - a fragrant essential oil, typically made from rose petals; Persian from Arabic 'aṭir fragrant.

p. 171 - asphodel - "whose smell of bitter asphodel" - a Eurasian plant of the lily family, typically having long slender leaves and flowers borne on a spike; from Greek asphodelos.

p. 177 - tenoned - "a monstrous thing of heavy timber and tenoned wheels" - join by means of a tenon (a projecting piece of wood made for insertion into a mortise in another piece); from Latin tenere.

p. 182 - termagant - "whether the Northmen were better endowed by their greedy and termagant gods for commerce or slaughter" - a harsh-tempered or overbearing woman, also historical, an imaginary deity of violent and turbulent character; taken to be from Latin tri- ‘three’ + vagant- wandering, and to refer to the moon “wandering” between heaven, earth, and hell under the three names Selene, Artemis, and Persephone.

p. 186 - carillon - "chiming over and over like some kind of bellicose carillon" - a set of bells in a tower, played using a keyboard; from Old French quarregnon peal of four bells, based on Latin quattuor four.

p. 192 - vinous - "his breath vinous and his emotion nettlesome" - of, resembling, or associated with wine (I guessed that but wanted to be sure); from Latin vinum wine.

So there you have it. He knows his words, he does.

Chabon tells a fantastic tale, but it's nothing particularly special. I had high expectations after Kavalier & Clay, but I think maybe I initially missed the point. It's "genre fiction", as he hates to say, and it is a swashbuckling adventure told well. He relies on some stock characters that tend to populate the genre, but with sufficient differences to keep them interesting (the big dumb warrior isn't so dumb and plays a mean game of chess-ish).

As usual (and as demonstrated above), Chabon demonstrates a playful attitude towards language. If he's not making up words he's mining history books and old dictionaries. His two merry men reminded me at first of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, verbose and too clever, but thankfully their wordplay is toned down after their introduction.

This novel was fun to read, whereas Kavalier & Clay was inspiring and touching and fun and huge. Well worth it for fantasy fans, probably worth a go for all readers. I can't help but fall into the (I hope) old paradigm of genre fiction, and I hope this book inspires all readers to give fantasy fiction a go.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

Politics, schmolitics, I'm writing what I want to write.

I just finished reading a few books and watching some movies, so I think I'll get started on a few reviews.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

This is the best book I've read in a while. I quickly followed it up with a collection of essays by Chabon called Maps and Legends, about growing up, the creative impulse, boundaries, adventure, comics, writing, reading, and so on. Both are brilliant.

Chabon begins his collection of essays, Maps and Legends, with a bitter-ish treatise on the state of genre fiction. He believes all writing is for entertainment: “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period.” Fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc. All genres offer entertainment and insight, in varying degrees, and literature proper shouldn't have a monopoly on literary respect. He has stuck to his guns, producing a hard-boiled mystery (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) and a swashbuckling adventure in serial (Gentlemen of the Road) after his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

The amazing* Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an epic American novel, spanning 16 years (1939-1955), in the lives of two Jewish cousins who meet in pre-war New York. Joe Kavalier escapes from the Nazis in Prague, makes his way to America, and with his cousin Sam Clay (anglicized from Klayman) collaborates on a brilliant Golden Age comic book, The Escapist. They also make small fortunes, fall in love, lose loved ones, then ostensibly fight more Nazis, and raise a family and fall in love all over again.

The origin of the Batman, from 1939. For a great intro to Batman, or any comic, check out this site.

I grew up reading comics, though none from the Golden Age**. First old Jonah Hex, ROM and Sgt. Rock comics that a family friend had; then the hero variety: X-Men, Wolverine, Spiderman and Batman; and finally darker, character-driven "adult"-oriented comics like John Constantine: Hellblazer, the Sandman, Preacher, and so on.

And while the subject matter is fairly dear to my heart (I still regularly read comics, but I don't buy many anymore), Kavalier & Clay is by no means a book about comics. Michael Chabon has done an amazing job of taking a childhood obsession for many of us and using it as a backdrop for a very human tale of heartache, loss, hope, amazement and love.

Chabon's writing fits everything in the book perfectly. There are sentences that are reminiscent of comic writing, Bam-Powing across the page. I wanted it to be a true story; indeed, Chabon has had people writing to him asking for information on the K&C's creation, the Escapist.

I am a little reluctant to recommend this to people that didn't grow up reading superhero comics, but if given half a chance it wraps you up in a world that you want to learn more about.

* I meant this first one. It is amazing.
** The late 1930s to late 1940s. From Wikipedia: "The period saw the arrival of the comic book as a mainstream art form, and the defining of the medium's artistic vocabulary and creative conventions by its first generation of writers, artists, and editors."