High Maintenance

Between HBO, AMC, and Netflix, I’ve apparently been missing out on a whole world of web series. But thankfully, I’ve finally been turned onto one good enough to recommend. High Maintenance is a short web series based loosely around a pot dealer in New York, and it brings a refreshing, masterful touch to a “genre” that suffers from, for lack of a better word, stupidity.

After getting up to date with their 15 short episodes (between 5 and 15 minutes each, with more episodes to come), I browsed a few reviews of the series online. While most reviews were absolutely glowing, I noticed a striking similarity with respect to the authors’ (and presumably society’s) preconceived notions; almost all the reviewers had low expectations.

Pop culture has fed us a consistent diet of stoner stereotypes; from the indelibly bad stoner-face of Jim Breuer in Half Baked, to the inept goof-off James Franco played in Pineapple Express, the popular opinion of pot enthusiasts is that they’re inevitably lazy and incompetent.

Being inundated with these stereotypes seems to have paralyzed people into an Anslinger-era position on the evils of cannabis. Take this ridiculous opinion piece from The Windsor Star, for example. Devoid of facts (or any relevant information, for that matter), this article is full of nonsense and media-fed stereotypes. The article’s author reinforces the outdated and false picture of pot smokers with a confidence only ignorance can provide.

I’m so bored of clichés, as we all should be. I don’t want to watch a show about black people “acting black,” or gay people “acting gay.” There is more fodder for storytelling in treating black people, white people, gay people, pot smokers, etc. as real people who have more going on than what gets dreamt up by lazy writers.

Which is what makes High Maintenance so great. It’s hilarious, moving, awkward, and irreverent because it focuses on the various individuals that cross paths with this pot dealer (who is himself so likeable I’m thinking of calling him up). Each episode is a little slice of life, brimming with authenticity and originality. Creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld step outside the expected tropes and in each episode round out a great narrative.

Watch High Maintenance on Vimeo.

Arts vs. Crowds

If you’re the type of performer who finds a comfortable venue in small clubs and bars, particularly if you’re a musician or standup comedian, you’ve had to deal with obnoxious crowds. It’s just a fact of the business, like late hours and occasionally free beer.

Performers should want the crowd to feel engaged and enthusiastic about what it is they’re doing and sometimes they even goad the audience into participation, but some nights the vibrations in the room or a slight miscalculation of pints-per-hour can send certain types right over the edge.

Hecklers can be nice-and-annoying, but more often are annoying-and-annoying. Screaming “Canada loves you!” at Bill Maher might seem nice—it is a compliment, technically—but this eruption means little or nothing to a man performing for thousands. My bet is that the standing ovation will clue him in that at least some small part of Canada (heckler included) loves him.

Some hecklers seem jealous that lights are pointed at the comedian on stage, and they try to compete by being obnoxious and loud. These people, presumably attending the show of their own free will, find it easier to antagonize the performer than to just walk out. That combative approach would be intimidating if it wasn’t draped over their desperation for some small piece of the limelight.

Some people yell “Freebird!” at every rock show, which wasn’t funny when I was a kid and hasn’t become funny since.

Usually artists have planned their material. Doing the odd request is fine, but it seems a bit condescending to me that a member of the audience would rather hear something familiar than something the artist has planned. If the artist has something worth saying, I don’t want them to digress for one loud person.

I suppose comedians have special purview here, since the role of the heckler is perfect for comedic riposte. That being said, I can’t wait to yell “Freebird” at Todd Barry this Friday.

Ontario Beer “Facts”

Ontario Beer Facts PamphletHave you seen these pamphlets yet? Apparently, somebody thought about privatizing alcohol sales, and then there was a murder. It opens into a tryptich display of a woman being robbed at gunpoint. They say that safety comes before profits, eluding that good, clean, wholesome people should be very afraid of privatization (but disregard public safety when it comes to cigarettes sold at convenience stores). Then the pamphlet directs us to www.ontariobeerfacts.ca to learn more. It tells us to get the facts.

For a pamphlet from a group that call themselves Ontario Beer Facts, surprisingly, this pamphlet contains no facts. Not one. I assume if privatization led directly to crime, there would be piles of statistics, figures, anything. But there isn’t. So, on to their website.

The website claims Ontarians pay some of the lowest prices in Canada for beer after adjusting for tax rate differences. Vague fact, maybe, but we’re getting close. They then claim that the average price per case of bottles is $32.08. So if you’re an Ontarian who regularly shells out between $36 and $45 dollars for a case of beer, realize that you’re actually paying less than that through the magic of tax adjustment!

They urgently claim that prices will rise with privatization, as they did in Alberta when the province privatized, failing to mention that prices rose in Ontario as well during the same time period. There is a tedious study that first claims how valuable it (the study itself) is, then goes on for dozens of pages but fails to realize that everything sold at convenience stores is marked up because we pay for convenience. Happily.

What about selection? The Beer Store sells 420 brands of beer. But sadly, they follow up that stone cold fact with the line, “space-constrained convenience stores and gas stations would have little space for local and craft brands.” This is not a fact, nor is it even an intelligent opinion. When Alberta privatized alcohol sales the selection of brands blossomed many times over.

My favorite fact from the website is at the very bottom, in significantly finer print than anything else on the page. It reads: “Ontario Beer Facts is brought to you by Canada’s National Brewers (CNB), a national trade association representing Labatt Brewing Company Ltd., Molson Coors Canada and Sleeman Breweries Ltd.”

Now look back at the pamphlet. Doesn’t it strike you as the sort of symbolic scare tactic you’d see coming from the mob boss of a huge drug cartel? “Eh, <sniff> I really hope nuthin’ terrible happens to your family this weekend if you even think of privatizing.” In fact, considering the direct appeal to fear, and the complete lack of information, I’d say a scare tactic is all it is.

Rated R – For Ridiculous

The MPAA movie rating system really baffles me. I’ve always found it totally amazing that The Blues Brothers (1980) is rated R. A few swear words, an N-bomb (spoken by Cab Calloway), and some mild blasphemy must be the reason for the rating since the mild violence is comedic and there is no other questionable content. Are these really the ideas we need to protect young people against?

Compared to the average R-rated comedy these days (think The Hangover or The Wolf of Wall Street), Blues Brothers is mild in the extreme. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has the same rating and features several gut wrenching rape and torture scenes. The MPAA, the supposed moral authority on these matters, feel the content of Dragon Tattoo is just as risky for young viewers as The Blues Brothers.

What’s more confusing is that in the U.S. a child can see an R-rated movie as long as he or she is accompanied by a parent or guardian. An 18 year old can take his 12 year old brother to see most horror movies. It’s only when you get into the NC-17 rating that these supposedly condemnable contents are truly off-limits to younger minds. That is, younger minds without internet access.

Because a child is accompanied by a guardian, he or she must be psychologically sophisticated enough to separate fact from fiction and come away from the movie unscathed. Or do they think that guardian will tell them exactly when to avert their eyes and plug their ears? Or do they think the contents of a movie like Saw couldn’t really be damaging to a child? No more damaging than The Blues Brothers, I suppose.

I don’t think the MPAA should try harder to keep kids out of the theaters. I agree with them that the onus should be on the parents, but those parents will be able to do a much better job when the ratings make consistent sense.

Now everybody go watch The Blues Brothers.

The Blues Brothers

How To Suck At Commercials

For a while I’ve been enjoying these stupid smear ads run by the Conservative Party against Justin Trudeau. They seem like the work of high school girls who are pissed Justin didn’t ask them to prom. Every ad uses the same clip of Trudeau taking off his shirt.

These ads are mysteriously hard to find online, but you can watch and learn all about them in this nice Huffington Post article. They also point out that the clip of Trudeau taking off his shirt is from a mock striptease at an Ottawa charity fundraiser, not that it should matter.

Someone was kind enough to post twelve seconds of one to YouTube:

All the commercials have been exceedingly dumb, but my favorite is this one about marijuana. Trudeau has said he is in favour of legalization and regulation. The commercial asks us to “Imagine. Selling marijuana just like cigarettes and alcohol,” while on screen it reads “MARIJUANA available in stores. More accessible to KIDS.”

Would any conservative argue that we should make cigarettes illegal because they are too accessible to kids at the corner store? No, because the age limitation and the policing of it are part and parcel of the legalization.

We all know smear campaigns are the lowest form of politics, so the conservatives are at least being upfront about being grimy. But what blows me away is their incredulous “Selling marijuana just like cigarettes and alcohol.” Could you pick a better sentence to prove you’re divorced from reality?

Let me embellish the sentence with a fact or two. “Imagine. Selling marijuana, which causes 0 deaths every year and which users have described as ‘pleasant’, just like cigarettes and alcohol, which cause over 40 000 deaths per year (in Canada), and which we are happy to sell to your 18 and 19 year old kids because we make sweet, sweet profits from it.”

I do not understand the mentality of the target audience of these commercials. Who, sitting at home on a Tuesday night, sees this commercial and is struck with horror at the thought that marijuana might be sold alongside cigarettes? Most modern research has show marijuana to be mostly benign and medically beneficial. There is obviously some deviously idiotic dogma at work here.

It’s true; Harper’s generation inherited their beliefs from a massive propaganda campaign to smear marijuana, and maybe conservative old dogs don’t learn new tricks. So despite every piece of available evidence and good sense, they want to go on selling cigarettes and alcohol but suppress cannabis because they just “know it’s bad.”

So here is what I get out of these conservative ads: Conservatives are willfully ignorant of “empirical evidence” and “truth”, they feel morally superior and they’re willing to play dirty to get what they want. I’m not generally a political person, but they’ve got my attention now. And that’s how to suck at commercials.

Evolving Computers

My oldest brother was born at just the right time to participate in the groundbreaking new world of home computing. My dad bought the family a Commodore 64 and I invested huge swathes of time playing games, occasionally learning very basic computer programming from my brother. A 386 (one of the first modern PCs) and later a Pentium processor found their way into our home. Soon after that, the internet was born. My brother stayed with the developing technology and is now a programmer at Google.

His kids, on the other hand, have never known a world without the internet, PSPs, streaming video and Bluetooth. Technology has insinuated itself into the fabric of their lives, and they may never experience such a severe paradigm shift as home computing or the internet made when I was a kid. (To give you a sense of my age, I remember the world without the internet, and I remember being frustrated when this new thing called Windows triumphed over my familiar text-based DOS. I also remember the command prompt: LOAD”$”,8,1)

For kids today, computers are second nature. They cannot fathom the complexity of these devices because it is masked by the ease of use. A child has no need to consider the circuitry, the silicon, the programming language or the million increments in technical achievement that accumulated to this incredible moment in history, where we can summon seas of information with the click of a button.

But just because they can’t understand the million steps leading to such ease of use, they will suffer no handicap when it comes to understanding future computers. Indeed, they are already experts, of a sort, and the evolutionary history of computing hardly matters; the outmoded technologies both mechanical and programmatic are not useful any more except to historians or theoreticians. When was the last time LOAD”$”,8,1 did anything useful for me or the people at Google? (Playing Dig Dug on an emulator doesn’t count.)

We might think that kids today are spoiled, reaping rewards accumulated by generations of brilliant minds without fully appreciating it. But this has been the case with all technologies since the wheel. And this time binding faculty of humankind extends to more than just “technology”.

We are all guilty of this ignorance, for example, with our own bodies. We don’t consider the incredibly complex specialization of our eyes, how perfectly the lens focuses light onto the retina, how the rods and cones react, and how our brains parse information about shape, colour, shade, edges, depth, context and so forth. We just see a red curtain and go about our day.

Everything in our bodies is in fact the end result of innumerable biological adjustments, mutations that have been use-tested and refined through the ages by our ancestors’ survival and procreation. And not one of us needs to know these millions of stages of evolution in order to use our own biocomputer at least decently.

There will always be those who have a passion for the specifics, the evolutionary biologists, art historians and so forth, and we need them to impart their knowledge on the next generation of hungry minds. But you can’t blame someone for being born too late to really get it. It’s all we can do to work with what we’re given, do research when necessary, and move forward. Even my brother, currently on the cutting edge, was born about 150 years after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.

New Holidays

I’ve written before about my inability to connect with a lot of popular holidays. In Canada, we’ve just had two of these in Valentine’s Day and Family Day, a statutory holiday inaugurated in Ontario in 2007. While I respect, for the most part, the emotions these holidays are meant to evoke, I find these celebrations arbitrary and unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily take the day off.

Holidays motivate the economy in dependable ways and give people an emotional framework to relate to one another, but the attendant values promulgated for each are not usually values that I hold. I have trouble getting into the spirit of many holidays and find myself feeling like I’m basically just along for the ride.

In case the ruling Illuminati ask me what holidays I’d prefer, I have a few ready.

Reading Day

There is already such a thing as Canada Book Day (April 23rd) and the intentions behind it are similar to what I would propose, but on a larger scale. People remind themselves of the importance of books and more importantly, of reading, arguably the most important activity in the development of human intelligence. But I want a day off. A whole day to read, talk about books, and remind ourselves as a society that we can connect with each other across cultures and generations through words. The economical benefits of a day devoted to books could compete with the economical benefits of Valentine’s Day. A book costs $20, a Valentine’s Day card costs $5, and chocolates go equally well with either.

Day of Silence

In the interest of global sanity, I’d like to see everybody take a vow of silence for one day a year. Such a thing already exists in the GLBT community as a protest against discrimination, but what I’m after is silence for the sake of silence. One can learn a lot about oneself doing this practice; the habits we unconsciously carry out through language come into the spotlight when they are not an option. When we stop worrying about filling the awkward silences between us, we start to observe the emotions that drive us to inane chatter. Besides, with so much noise in our society, wouldn’t it just be nice? Again, here, I want a day off.

Day of Debate

Get together with friends and enemies and have a civil conversation with the goal of analyzing your own beliefs. It’s so easy to feel complacent in our beliefs and we spend a lot of time finding arguments for beliefs we already have. That’s why debates are important; our opposition, if they’ve done their homework, are bound to point out something we hadn’t considered. A day like this might help our myopic, partisan culture to share ideas in a productive way. Granted, most debates don’t solve anything on the spot, but sometimes when we hear an argument against our position, it takes root and develops over time. And naturally, one cannot be expected to work on the Day of Debate.

Yoga Day

This would be a day to cultivate yoga practice around the world. The physical and mental health benefits of yoga are undeniable, but the practice turns off a lot of people because of a maelstrom of misconceptions. I currently know of no particular day dedicated solely to yoga (the closest I found was World Healing Day), but one day per year devoted to serious education and practice would help dissolve these misconceptions and turn people on to this gentle, invigorating, ancient art.

Fast Day

Corporations would try to kibosh this before it got off the ground, but the health benefits of one day of fasting per year would probably have such a dramatic trickle-down effect on healthcare that it might be worth considering even from a purely economic standpoint. Unless you’re working a demanding physical job where you need calories, you can survive one day of fasting. It flushes out the system, gives the digestive tract a break, and points out all those instances during an average day where we reach for food simply out of habit.

Weekend of Absolute Hilarity

I joked about this previously but I do think it’s a good idea. I try to have a few of these per year. Just do what it takes to laugh your stress away. It’s a cliché, but who doubts that laughter eases our emotional tensions and leads to better health?

Drink It In

If I expect a good cup of coffee in the morning, I go to bed excited for it. Everything about coffee appeals to me. The aroma of coffee is one of the most compelling I can think of, and the flavour of a really good cup lives up to that aroma. So for years it has boggle my mind that most people tend to drink coffee like this:

Tall French Roast

Congratulations, you have successfully robbed yourself of half the pleasure of coffee. It isn’t a fluke that when we raise a glass for a drink, our noses are in that glass. That’s just good evolution. If all you want is the caffeine, you can get that in a pill. Likewise, drinking beer out of a bottle is only a good idea if you don’t want to fully taste it.

Our senses are not as cleanly delineated as our language implies. The sense of taste is an overall impression made up of multiple brain processes. The taste from the taste buds is part of that impression, but the olfactory receptors play a vital role as well. Similarly, when we listen to music, the bass drum thumping in our chest and the vibrations through the bottoms of our feet contribute strongly to the experience.

This is why you cannot beat live music. To be inside a physical environment tailored for live music, to hear the music loudly, to feel the music and to see it performed in front of you – this is to experience music fully. The more nerve centers we can engage, the more sense data our brains have to build up our experience.

So-called holy sites can really evoke sacred feelings in people because these places are full of sights, smells, sounds, textures, and all the other sensory paraphernalia correlated to holiness. In places like these, brains simply have more to work with, more “food for thought” that can be used to build up a holy experience.

Of course it also helps to pay attention. Our senses and brains have evolved to extract meaningful data from a noisy environment. You can be inside that concert hall–band wailing away, laser light show twirling all around you–and remain totally oblivious because you are watching a YouTube video on your phone. And with all that noise in your environment, how deeply can you expect to be engaged by that YouTube video?

Mindfulness exercises teach us to connect with experience, to tone down distraction and stay present with the task at hand. Whatever we turn our attention to has the potential to completely fulfill our experience. A fully engaged experience doesn’t want for anything; the more fully we are engaged, the further we must be from worry, depression, and pain.

You can make an exercise in mindfulness out of your morning cup of coffee. It might change your life. Turn all your senses to your task, and drink it in – with the lid off.

Whole Foods Coffee

P.S. These days I roast my coffee from green beans on my stove, then grind the beans into a French press with filtered water I’ve heated to just shy of boiling. It makes for a great cup, but it takes time. Obviously this can only be worth my while if I know I’ll have the time to relax and enjoy the drink fully. You may wonder how much time I spend on coffee. The answer is…don’t worry about it.

Journals, Art, Journeys

When I was young my oldest brother Jeff showed me what an amusing pastime it was to keep a journal. I’ve found this essential. Without keeping a record of the day’s events, we forget most of the coincidences, oddities, and revelations of our lives. Even when we remember the facts of our experience, it’s impossible to recapture the exact feel of events. Most of my life I’ve kept some kind of book on the go, whether it’s just funny lines or ideas or scenes from movies I’d like to see.

It seems important because of this main fact: memories are not real. When you think about an event in your past, (spoiler alert) your brain does not magically go into the past. Our brains attempt to reconstruct our reactions to that experience, but our brains are different now, so the reconstruction is imperfect. Plus, memories can be bent and changed.

Regular journal entries give us a window into our state of mind at the time. This is crucial if you want to understand your life as a journey or narrative, or if you want some sort of proof that you’re getting closer to your goals or developing intellectually.

The same can be said, on the macroscopic scale, of art and science in culture. Art expresses the zeitgeist while science improves our understanding of each moment. We could never have had The Wire without ancient Greek literature, and we could never have invented smartphones without first understanding how radio waves work. This only works when people write it down.

Occasionally an artist makes a conscious effort to draw our attention to cultural development by retelling ancient, fundamentally human stories with current language and culture. The best example is Ulysses by James Joyce. The story is not about a guy named Ulysses in ancient Ithaca, but a man named Leopold Bloom in 20th century Dublin. The title and structure of the novel showcase thousands of years of human values in flux.

“This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It can be great to read old, embarrassing journal entries because it means you’ve grown. Without writing it down we have no proof. And without a record it’s sometimes impossible to understand how we could have believed the crazy notions we’ve outgrown. This blog is likely full of ideas I’ve outgrown. I’m fine with that. Years from now I’ll be glad I was observant, honest in my assessments, and most importantly, that I wrote it down.

 

P.S. There will be no blog post next week because I will be busy eating food. Happy Holidays everyone.

Memetic Evolution

Most of us have a general sense of how biological evolution works. Simple organisms differentiate, mutate, and replicate. Some new traits prove to be good coping mechanisms and help organisms outlive and proliferate further than those organisms with traits ill fit for the environment. Over millions of years the biological changes that take place are increasingly complex. The survivors win. Their reward is life.

But evolution can explain more than biology. Memetic evolution, for example, happens upon almost identical lines. Simple ideas, the kind that represented simple objects or situations to our unintelligent ancestors, were encoded in spoken and pictorial languages (dubbed “memes” by Richard Dawkins). These ideas are sent from one mind to another, and just like genes, they differentiate, mutate, and replicate into other minds.

Some ideas take hold because they provide a benefit to the organism using them.  An early human who learns how to use a club has an advantage over one who hasn’t learned to use a club. A man who knows how to fashion a sword will do well in a fight against that club-wielding guy. Someone who learns how to string a bow and fire an arrow can stand back in the trees and kill the man with the sword with little risk. And the man who communicates all this information proficiently can show up with a gang of hundreds, each with a homemade bow, and so on, and so on. Now we have nuclear weapons.

As our human powers of rational thinking developed, we had an increasing ability to think abstractly, which had far-reaching benefits. Humanity went from understanding individual problems to understanding types of problems. When we figured out how to handle one type of problem, the individual problems of this type no longer required as much investment in thought. As our knowledge outgrew its abstractions, our memetic evolution accelerated exponentially. In relatively no time, our memetic, semantic, cultural reality was infinitely more complex than our biological reality.

Humanity seems like the only species with the ability to continue abstracting beyond the first few levels. Even when we teach lower primates sign language, we can prove that they think, but they tend not to read Bertrand Russell or discuss the plot of a good sitcom.

Memes replicate as aggressively as possible, just like genes. Particular genes can pass around the entire world, but it takes generations, decades of effort and luck. Ain’t nobody got time for that! By contrast, how many people know about the Sweet Brown meme since it appeared in the world?

As memes mutate and grow more complex, they push the boundaries of the semantic world outward into various specialized niches. This is obvious in our internet-soaked world culture. Nobody can keep up with all the facts of our world. Nobody can even keep track of all the relevant facts to their particular field of specialization at our current rate of memetic growth.

New insights gained from trial and error continue to expand all fields of knowledge. If you can combine ideas into something novel, you have pushed the boundary of our semantic world. Notice how ideas normally don’t just appear out of nowhere? Ideas are almost always build upon the foundations of previous ideas.

So wouldn’t it be great if there were a tool that organized memes into easily understandable fragments, and we could each curate our own stream of information so that the knowledge relevant to our interests could be scanned easily as well as studied for detail? Welcome to the world of Twitter.

Twitter acts as an exploder button for memetic evolution. Think of all the Sweet Brown remixes! But seriously, I want a genetic scientist to have all the specialized knowledge available from around the world so progress can continue. I curate my own feed and my knowledge of worthwhile writing and music and film has increased in a dramatic way. Plus it allows us to stay current, so our cultural developments remain on the cutting edge.

The internet has brought us together in unexpected ways. It’s easy to see how much time is wasted on sites like Twitter and Facebook. But it isn’t like that for everyone. Most of the gene swarm on planet Earth died off before our ancestors replicated successfully. Think of how much of Earth’s matter has been incorporated into our 7 billion neighbours. We give our particular genes a great success rate, so it’s a good thing for them that they made us. As for Twitter, could memetic evolution ask for a better medium of proliferation through human minds?

Memes, like genes, want nothing more than to replicate, and they do so in a very chaotic way until they find a best-fit pattern for the environment. We invented Twitter to share information. But our inventions are always on the shoulders of past ideas. So our semantic, memetic world has guided us to invent Twitter, the ultimate replicator (so far) for memes. Are we in the driver’s seat here, willfully directing memes for further progress, or are we being directed by our memes? And anyway, what’s the difference?