Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ask the Cards a Question, the Answer is Murder

    Marcia Muller. Ask the Cards a Question (1982) Nice little potboiler in which PI Sharon McCone deals with an alcoholic friend, two murders in her apartment block, her intermittent relationship with Lt Greg Marcus, theft, a couple of sad sack husbands, and so on. Well plotted, undemanding narration, with a bit more edginess would make a good TV series. The title refers to two kinds of cards, one of which is the clue to the motive that leads to the murderer. I like this series, but don’t go out of my way to find the book. **

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Candide, a puppet

     Voltaire. Candide (1759. This edition, 1930, Illustrated Editions Co, New York) I first read this book some 50 years ago, and couldn’t remember a single thing about it. In fact, I knew the famous “Let us tend our gardens” line that ends it only from 3rd party discussions and references. So you may think that re-reading would be a revelation.
     Well, the revelation is the reason that the book was a blank: it’s the most boring, uninvolving, mechanically constructed “story” I’ve ever read. I suppose in its day it was daring, provoking, a poke in the complacent citizen’s eye, an insult to the philosophers, and so on. But that’s just a reminder that there wasn’t much reading matter available in Voltaire’s day, and the average was pretty low. It didn’t take much to effort to jump over the bar, and Voltaire did not exert himself. Or else the book proves that fiction is somewhat more difficult than essays.
     I just didn’t care about Candide or any of the other characters. It’s clear I was supposed to react to the horrible things that were done by various evildoers, and to laugh at Candide’s naive insistence that despite these horrors the world was the best it could be, and so on. But the characters are mere ciphers. They are satirical theses with labels attached.
     Compare Candide with Gulliver’s Travels, published about 30 years earlier, and known to Voltaire. What a difference. Gulliver, a naif like Candide, is fully rounded. We believe Gulliver’s reactions and feelings because they spring from his character. What’s more, he changes. He moves from one naivete (that the world is as it should be) to another (that there’s nothing good in the world).  Candide is a badly made puppet, and Voltaire an unskilled puppeteer. Voltaire is also inconsistent: people cheerfully steal the treasures Candide brings back from Eldorado, cheat him when he sells parts of it, renege on their promises, but he always has a few more diamonds to sell. Why doesn’t someone just beat him up and rifle through his pockets? In the fantastic world that Voltaire has posited, that omission is flat out incredible.
      I took four evenings to get through this book. Overrated. *

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Polaroid SX-70

An ad in the May 1975 Esquire says "Polaroid's SX-70. It won't let you stop." Right. If you could afford it. In today's money, each print cost $2 to $3. Way beyond the average person's disposable income bracket. But then digital photography became cheaper and better than film, that promise was fulfilled.

A lot of analogue tech of the 60s, 70s and 80s prefigured digital tech. Or: Digital tech to a very large extent fulfills the yearnings and promises that anlaogue couldn't.

On reading old magazines

Recently, I discovered three boxes of magazines from the 1970s that we’d moved from our old house to this one over 30 years ago. They’re headed for the recycle box, but I decided to look through them first. I found time machines. The magazines are Saturday Night (Canadian, published from 1897 to 2005), Esquire (American, still published), and Omni (American, 1978-1995). I’ve been (re-)reading Saturday Night and Esquire.

Some impressions: I’m surprised, but shouldn’t be, how quickly celebrities fade. Very few writers (for example) that seemed so important 40 years ago are still read these days. Hemingway may stand for writers who are important because they articulate the anxieties of the time in a way that feels authentic to their readers. Now they are of historic interest, and nostalgia triggers for the elderly, who vaguely recall the intensity of reading those books. But attempts at rereading them usually fail. I couldn’t get past the first half-page of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, for example.

The same is true of movies: Godard, Truffaut and others of the French New Wave Cinema had a huge influence on movie-making, but my vague recall of their films doesn’t translate into a desire to see them again.

But politics have staying power. The same issues that propelled Trump to the White House were the stuff of comment and argument in the 1970s. Some writers (Kenneth Galbraith chief among them) warned that capitalism was morphing into something destructive. “Trickle down economics” was a fraud perpetrated on the voters, as was globalism. Both were used as covers for a massive transfer of wealth to the 1%. The magazines offer both starry-eyed defences of these new economic arrangements, and dire warnings. The left-right divide was not yet as strong as it is now; “liberal” was still a positive label. But “new” conservatives were gaining respectability. Terrorism came mostly from the far left, not the far right.

One of the most prescient articles is “A Few Lessons in History from Harry Truman”, by Merle Miller (Esquire, January 1973). Miller provides extended quotes from a series of interviews, done as preparation for a biography. Truman was a reader, as a boy he “always had his nose in a book.” He knew American history and the Constitution probably better than any President before or since. The article summarises his views of the Presidents; his judgments are blunt. Most relevant for today:

Miller: I gather you think the system can take a bad President now and again and still survive. Truman: Maybe so, and [Taft] might have been a good one, but I’m talking about the Presidency of the United States. And the fact that during the four years Taft was in the White House the country started going to hell.

It went to hell because the “money men” got hold of the government. Taft’s economic policy was trickle down without that name. In general, Truman sees the political divide in the USA as between the money-men and the people. Recent events confirm his view, I think.

Most ads were “lifestyle”. Cigarettes and alcohol were sold as experience enhancers and status signifiers. Your choice showed that you were an expert of some kind. The same appeal to display in expertise shows up in the ads for amplifiers, speakers, cassette players, TVs, cars, clothes, travel destinations, all touted as must-have pleasure machines for the social striver. Ads are both more subtle and more blatant these days. Plain vanilla advertising has pretty well disappeared. But many ads back then were different only in the brand names. For example, brandy as a sign of taste and status: the ads not only make the same appeals, they look much the same, with a an elegant young man holding his snifter while a nubile female lounges at his feet holding hers. He’s looking straight out at you, it’s the power-stare. She’s looking up at him. The setting is some kind of semi-outdoor space with large windows and the kind of furniture that’s sold as increasing the elegance of a room.

Some of the tech was ahead of its time. “Quadraphonic” was an early attempt at what we now call surround sound. I heard a demo in a record store, it was awesome. But without at least four speakers, and the room to put them in, the effect was lost. That expense doomed it. There were small, pocket-sized 35mm cameras, but their small lenses limited their usefulness. And there was Polaroid’s SX-70, the best “instant camera” until digital cameras.

There’s fiction, too. In the mid-70s, both magazines published one or two stories per issue. Some of the authors have lasted (eg, Atwood), most were merely fashionable (eg, Barthelme), some were considered classics of the time (eg, O’Hara). About half are still readable. Most still had the kind of knotted plots that had become the standard for pulp-fiction, but mostly without the gore.

It was/is strange to read articles about current events and issues that I now think of as history. That’s perhaps the greatest charm of old magazines. There’s an online Esquire Archive. One month free, then $4.99/month, about half the single copy price.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Human Computers and the Space Race

     Hidden Figures (2016) [D: Theodore Melfi. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, et al.] Three black women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) working at the Langley Research Centre  as computers (human calculating machines) figure prominently in the calculation of the  numbers needed to plan and fly the first US manned flights into space. This history was until recently known to very few people.
     The movie does a good job of telling their story. Sensibly, I think, it focuses on the work they did, with enough backstory about their families, and references to the racial tensions that a few years later erupted into the civil rights movement, to give some sense of them as real people.
     The movie shows us what it’s like to do a good job. Like Sully, it’s about people doing their best, managing to achieve their goals despite the social and psychological constraints that burden us all. The movie makers knew how to convey the tension of actual and incipient failure, and the relief and joy of success. The human interactions are touched on lightly. One thing that comes across very well is the awareness that small errors (inevitable when calculating results based on numbers with built-in measurement uncertainty) could kill. We also see that professional pride and competitiveness may endanger the people who rely on those calculations to keep them safe. A rocket is a slow-burning bomb. Riding one into near-Earth orbit is always dangerous.
     I liked the movie. It’s depiction of Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary is perhaps a tad too self-congratulating (I think the sheer grind of being black in a segregated State was glossed over), but on the whole the movie had the ring of truth. Above all, it's a movie about work. The "hidden figures" faced obstacles that many, perhaps most of us, would not have even tried to oevrcome, but they did. They did so because they wanted to do the job right. Their greatness lies in their refusal to let anything get in the way. The greatness of the white characters, especially Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) the team leader, is that they shared that passion for getting it right.
     It’s a feel-good movie for sure. It takes us back to the days when America tried to be the best it could be, and when we formed the memories that make us pine for the days of greatness. ***½

Monday, February 06, 2017

Mystic Landscapes

[At the Art Gallery of Ontario, extended to February 12 2017]
     An educational show, arranged to lead the viewer through a contemplation of how landscape and landscape painting may satisfy spiritual longings. As such, it works, but I was far more interested in the pictures themselves than in the curator’s notions of mysticism and spirituality. So I did not listen to the audio guide (free), and avoided reading the introductory comments in each room.
     So then, as a collection landscape pictures, how well does it work? Variable. You will see Canadian and other impressionists, Harris of course,  some modern emulators of medieval and renaissance painting, abstract and realistic pictures, expressionists, in short a pretty good survey of styles. I was especially impressed by the large paintings of Eugène Jansson (here’s one), and a dark landscape by Schiele, which was not easy to read, but had a powerful effect on me. The disfigured landscapes painted by war artists also moved me. There were two Monet haystacks, they look like cupcakes.
      Besides Jansson, a number of other painters were new to me. The last room, about “cosmic forces” or something like that, showed brightly lit pictures mounted on dark walls. It felt gimmicky to me, but two small Georgia O’Keeffes and a couple by Arthur Dove (new to me also) were satisfying.
      The show is worth seeing. The thesis of the show is a good excuse to bring together a wide range of styles. The opportunity to see artists that most of us would otherwise ignore, tyrannised as we are by the concept of importance, is a bonus. Some pictures ****, most ** or ***, the show as a whole ***½

Sunday, February 05, 2017

King Donald

Wow! It looks like Trump and I agree on one thing, anyhow: The US President is an elected monarchy. That perception isn't mine, but I agree it's the best way to understand a head of government who is also a head of state.

But Trump is a but fuzzy on the concept, to put it politely. His claim that the President has a "sovereign prerogative" shows he thinks a King has absolute power. No mere judge may criticise, let alone set aside, an executive order.

I doubt very much that Trump came up with phrase by himself. So who's the power behind the throne, pulling the strings?

Friday, February 03, 2017

Politics 101: Proportional voting

Thd kerfuffle has died down, but I suspect that the rage of the extremist supporters of proportional voting will resurface during the next election in 2020. (2017-02-27)

Right now, there’s a kerfuffle about Justin Trudeau’s backtracking on changing Canada’s electoral system. He promised that 2016 would be the last election using first-past-the-post or  plurality voting. Some form of proportional representation would replace it.

A lot of people don’t like plurality voting. We have three strong parties: Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic, each with regional strengths and weaknesses. The Green Party regularly gains 3 to 5% across all ridings (1), and wins in one. In addition we have the Bloc Quebecois, a purely local party, but which has won large numbers of Quebec seats in the past. Each major party wins majorities in some seats, and all have widely varying regional support. The Liberals tend to win in the East, and the Conservatives in the West. The NDP is mostly urban.

The result is that national support between 35 and 40% is enough to form a government. (2) If enough people vote their support rather than their opposition, we tend to get minority governments, in which no Party holds a majority of the seats.

People give various reasons for thinking this is an unfair system. Chief of these is this observation: with roughly 40% support and a roughly 60% voter turnout, about 25% of voters voted for the government, while 75% voted against it. It seems manifestly unfair that only one in four voters determine who governs. Worse, the distribution of seats does not reflect popular support. What about the values and views of those whose vote was cast differently? They will not be heard, it seems. What about people who voted for a losing party? Their vote doesn’t count, it seems. So why vote?

Let’s dispose of the unfairness argument immediately. There is in fact no fair voting system. Several mathematical proofs and demonstrations show that all systems can (and therefore sooner or later will) produce results that most voters do not like. Some will do so most of the time.

Plurality with three or more strong parties magnifies the difference between popular support and distribution of seats, which practically guarantees voter dissatisfaction.

Ranked voting tends to favour second and third choices, practically guaranteeing weak support for the government. Weak support translates into dissatisfaction very quickly.

Runoff voting, like plurality, magnifies the difference between popular support and seats won, since it masks low support for the eventual winner.  Like ranked voting, it guarantees weak support for the government.

Proportional voting almost always results in minority governments, which usually require formal or informal coalitions. Coalitions magnify the power of minority views and values, and of single-issue parties, which tend to be extreme. (3)

In short, all voting systems will skew the vote one way or another. They all cause different kinds of mismatch between what people want and what they get.

So the question becomes not, What kind of voting system do you want? but rather, What kind of skewed voting or unfairness can you accept, and why? And the complementary one, What kind of unfairness can you not tolerate, and why?

I do not like “proportional representation”, as its supporters usually term it. I have two reasons, the magnification of extreme views, and the magnification of the power of the Party.

Proportional representation with three or more strong parties results in minority government. That forces collaboration and even coalition. That’s a good thing, and if politics were on the whole a process for reasonable people to figure out what they want to do and how to do it, I’d have no qualms. But politics is about power, and in the pursuit of power people are not reasonable. The government may have to act on extreme views from one or more small parties to ensure the votes it needs. If it can’t do that, there’s instability. (4)

I don’t like extreme views. They are always held by a minority, thus do not reflect the majority. Holders of extreme views are incapable of admitting the validity of different ones, not even those that are similar. That’s a recipe for trouble, of political and civil divisions, and, too often, bloodshed. Any voting system that gives extreme views more effective power than their numbers warrant is bad. (5) Proportional representation encourages people with extreme views to form Parties, knowing that the odds are that they will get at least a seat or two, and with luck may use those few seats to exert influence on the coalition.

Proportional representation always means slates of candidates, one way or another. (6) Slates are determined by Parties. This means that the power of the Party machine becomes stronger. The Party machine does not like local control of candidate selection, since that makes it easier for a group of  determined local voters to frustrate the will of the Party. Slates make it easier for the machine to prevent that.

I prefer the plurality system, despite its flaws, because it magnifies local control, and it forces all parties to appeal as best they can to the average voter, the so-called mushy middle. There we find a variety of political views and values, ideas that often contradict each other, and the human inconsistency that makes collaboration not only possible but necessary. Parties that have to appeal to that mushy middle don’t drift too far to the left or right. When they begin to do so, they are replaced by the other party.

Bottom line: I don’t mind that Trudeau backtracked on his promise. If I had to choose another system, I’d go with runoffs. Ranked voting does not predict run-off voting, which forces the voter to think twice, which tends to change people’s minds.

(1) A riding is an electoral district. We elect “Members of Parliament” who sit in the House of Commons. We do not elect Senators.
(2) The Party that wins the most seats forms the government. If it has less than half the seats, it’s a “minority government”.
(3) Neither the Bolsheviks nor the Nazis won a majority of seats before they came to power.
(4) See Italy, which changes its government about every 18 months.
(5) See Israel. Most Israelis want peace with the Palestinians, but the government is hamstrung by extreme right-wing nationalist parties whose votes it needs.
(6) Slates are ranked by the Party. If your Party wins 10 seats, you’ve voted for the top 10 members of the Party list, whether you want them all or not.