Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Open letter to Marion County (Indiana) Prosecutor Terry Curry

Dear Mr. Curry,

I am writing this open letter for the purpose of suggesting that you reconsider pursuing the death penalty in your case against Major Davis Jr. in the shooting death of Officer Perry Renn. As you yourself have indicated, executing Mr. Davis probably won't deter further acts of violence and murder targeting police officers, a hunch borne out by FBI statistics showing that states with the death penalty experience a much higher rate of violent crime (by a margin as high as 46% in some years) than those without.

 (I should clarify that it does not appear that Mr. Davis was ‘targeting’ Officer Renn per se, as online reports indicate the officers on the scene fired first, and that Mr. Davis was simply firing back in what he may have believed was legitimate self-defense. Please correct me if my understanding on this is wrong.)

Therefore, if not serving as a deterrent, what reason could the state possibly have for ending a citizen’s life? If it is for the purpose of ensuring that justice is served, as you have also stated, I would ask that you clarify what you mean by ‘justice’.

If you mean ‘justice’ in the commonly misunderstood sense of “an eye for an eye”, you should think again, as this is revenge, justice’s hot-headed second cousin. While there may be some shared DNA between the two, one is not synonymous with the other. Revenge is an appeal to anger and emotionalism, rather than reason, and by setting such an example for your constituents, you infantilize them.

If you mean ‘justice’ in the dictionary sense, consistent with Merriam-Webster’s definition, “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals”, I would urge you to think again on this point as well. While Mr. Davis may deserve a sentence appropriate to the severity of his crime (if found guilty), the crime itself occurred within a milieu where a vastly disproportionate amount of violent crime is committed by young black men with limited prospects and a strong sense of alienation from mainstream society due to socioeconomic factors.

The extent to which these factors play a role in this case is for a jury to decide, though recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, as just one example, indicate that America has a racial disparity problem with serious public safety implications. As I’m sure you already know, Census Bureau figures show that an astounding 86% of those on Death Row are either black or latino. And given that death penalty states for the most part also happen to be ones that spend less on education than the others, it is evident that there are underlying social issues needing to be addressed beyond the personal guilt or innocence of someone like Mr. Davis.

By not addressing poverty and inequality, does the state do right by its citizens? What social costs are exacted in the name of austerity policies that reduce access to quality health services and education among those who happen to go on to commit the lion’s share of violent crime? And is it really fair to judge and punish Mr. Davis as if his alleged crime occurred in a societal vacuum, with something as final and brutal as the death penalty?

I’m not saying it’s up to you to rectify all of these social ills, as they are above and beyond your station as prosecutor. What you can do, however, is take a broader look at the situation and ask yourself if all of your constituents are truly being served by having yet another black man face state execution, an outcome you have already admitted will do nothing to save lives.


James Deagle
Ottawa, Canada

Saturday, August 23, 2014

News headlines should not editorialize

The following is a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Sun, as submitted on August 22, 2014. A shortened version was published on August 23.


Your relentless consistency in discouraging readers from making up their own minds about the issues of the day simply amazes. A case in point, for two different reasons, is the front page headline for August 22, which read "A PROTEST FOR ALL: 2,000 clog downtown streets to rally against this, that and the other thing".

Firstly, before the reader has a chance to read the story, you've told them what to think with a headline that rolls its eyes in disdain, and implies that the demonstration was a nuisance characterized by intellectual meandering.

Secondly, the headline is dishonest. While the event featured groups and speakers representing a wide range of concerns, it had a very singular focus. Those who took the time to read Kelly Roche's accompanying article would have been able to determine that much, at least, despite a front page headline that seemed to discourage the effort.

It is disrespectful to the reader and the reporter that you taint the article with front page editorializing, thus transforming responsible journalism into propaganda-by-association.

James Deagle
Ottawa, ON

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Presidents are not free to misrepresent their organizations

The following is a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Sun. I should note here that I have no vested interest in nor connection to the party in question, and that any sentiments here would apply to all political parties.


Re: Green Party shows its true colours

Eric Duhaime does your readers no favours by presenting such a skewed take on the Green Party's reaction to their President's recent comments vis–à–vis the Israel-Palestine conflict. He would have us believe that the party is exhibiting an aversion to democracy, as well as its central pillar, freedom of speech, and that this points to the evil incarnate of...socialism! (Cue sinister music.)

Nowhere does he mention that when Paul Estrin is speaking in his capacity as President of the Green Party, his audience could reasonably assume he is representing his party's policies, as democratically arrived at via regular policy conventions. If Mr. Estrin is uncomfortable with his membership's policies on the Middle East or any other issue, then he should indeed take his leadership skills elsewhere, rather than misrepresent his organization.

What we really have here is a political party doing what it needs to do to control its message on behalf of its card-carrying members in order to uphold their democratic will.

Lastly, socialism itself isn't predicated on stifling expression or curtailing democracy - all political ideologies are susceptible to being corrupted by factions jockeying for power. Just because Josef Stalin twisted communism into a brutal form of left wing authoritarianism doesn't mean all schools of thought under the "socialism" umbrella are inherently prone to the same evils.

Your readers deserve more even-handed analysis, and less bumper sticker politics built on lies of omission.

James Deagle
Ottawa, ON

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Matinee at the Imaginary Bijou

This afternoon I was introduced to William Grant Still's Poem for Orchestra while listening to KTEP, the NPR affiliate in El Paso, Texas. The piece evokes postwar Hollywood, and in response my brain projected a ten-and-a-half minute trailer on the inside of my head for some old black and white melodrama I've never seen, and only exists in the nostalgic vapors wafting up the nostrils of my imagination with each swell of music, complete with large captions like DANGER!, FOREIGN INTRIGUE!, and TRAGIC TEMPTATION WEARS A FEMALE MASK! splaying across the screen at visually-opportune moments.

In keeping with its silver screen aroma of yesteryear, Poem for Orchestra builds to a dark and cynical crescendo that cajoles my mind into seeing THE END in gigantic letters, with Filmed in Hollywood, U.S.A. in smaller script below, overlaying the final image depicting a denouement where most questions have been answered, and justice of a sort has been served, but with an evil little curl of smoke escaping from Pandora's Box before it is closed once again, portending moral accounts yet to be paid up.

Journal entry
July 31, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The junk science of homophobia

The following is an email sent to the Family Research Institute, an organization whose "one overriding mission" is "to generate empirical research on issues that threaten the traditional family, particularly homosexuality, AIDS, sexual social policy, and drug abuse."


Dear Dr. P. Cameron and Dr. K. Cameron,

I was reading your March 2014 blog post, Are Gay Parents More Apt to Commit Incest?, and couldn't help but notice that you make use of so-called 'survey' data from thirty ago that has since been called into question. In The Cameron Group's Survey Studies: A Methodological Critique, Dr. Gregory Herak listed what he believes are six fatal errors in the 1983-84 survey you continue to reference, namely:

  • Mischaracterized sample (r.e. not truly 'national' in scope, as claimed)
  • Unnacceptably low response rate
  • Unreliable analyses due to small sub-samples
  • Questionable validity
  • Biased interview procedures
  • Researcher's biases publicized during data collection

As Dr. Herak concludes,
...an empirical study manifesting even one of these six weaknesses would be considered seriously flawed. In combination, the multiple methodological problems evident in the Cameron group's surveys mean that their results cannot even be considered a valid description of the specific group of individuals who returned the survey questionnaire.
Because the data are essentially meaningless, it is not surprising that they have been virtually ignored by the scientific community.
In light of the above, as well as other similar critiques of your methods, it would appear that you are peddling advocacy research as scientific research. (The fact that you had already lobbied against anti-gay discrimination laws by the time the survey was carried out, and while it was in progress had publicly stated that it would "provide ammunition" for anti-gay advocates, is evidence enough that the survey was contaminated with your bias from the start.)

As I'm sure you're already aware, childhood sexual abuse is a very serious topic, and one deserving of solid research carried out in an objective manner for the sake of discovery, and for the cause of improving life for everyone involved. Therefore, I question the morality of your use of other people's childhood traumas as cheap political theater for the purpose of spreading anti-gay fervor, and providing "ammunition" for those who hate.

Such an affront to sex abuse survivors (and science itself) is not only indefensible - it's just plain sick.


James Deagle
Ottawa, Canada

PS: This message will be posted on my blog, as will any response received from your organization.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Vengeance or forgiveness?

One of the key arguments in favor of the death penalty is that it gives the families of victims some measure of closure and 'justice' by way of vengeance. While this may possibly be true in some cases, there are other families who have found solace by taking steps in the opposite direction. Witness the following recent news stories:
  • Chad Grossman, of Madison, Wisconsin, forgave his mother's and sister's killer, opting instead to blame inadequate mental health care funding. "Without proper care," he said, "things like this can happen." (The killer had previously sought help for mental health issues.)
  • In Iran, a man named Bilal was seconds away from being hanged for killing another man in a street fight when the victim's mother stood on a chair in front of him, gave him a wallop across the face, said "Forgiven!" and then proceeded to remove the noose, thus halting the execution.
  • Lucille Patrick, the mother of a slain Miami police officer has forgiven her son's killer, even though there are as of yet no known suspects. "When he left this world," she said of her son, "he gave me peace."
  • Confronting her son's killer in court, Newark mom Pamela Lighten said that, guided by faith, she has forgiven him. Nevertheless, she upbraided him for allowing "street violence to consume your soul. Black-on-black crime has to stop." Before taking her seat, she said "May God have mercy on your soul."
Fortunately for me, I have no idea how difficult it must be to muster the moral strength it takes to offer true forgiveness in the face of a devastating loss, nor do I want to ever find out. However, it would seem to be a much bigger way to honor a loved one's memory than simply compounding one murder with another.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Education, not executions: an open letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin

Dear Governor Fallin,
As a Canadian observing the recent events surrounding the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, I am bemused and stunned that one of your citizens, regardless of the heinousness of his crime, would suffer such a barbaric and inhumane death at the hands of the State of Oklahoma. As of this writing, it appears a second autopsy will be performed, which will hopefully go a long way to determine exactly how and why this happened as well as result in amending your state’s execution practices in the near future.
In a more general sense, however, this case points to the ethical difficulties involved in capital punishment. Before we go any further, consider the following facts:
·       As I’m sure you’re aware, FBI crime statistics show that states without the death penalty experience consistently lower murder rates than those with the death penalty by a margin of 46% in some years.

·       There is a sharp racial disparity among those sentenced to state execution, according to the Staff Report by the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights Committee on the Judiciary (1994). According to the summary of that report, “Analysis of prosecutions under the federal death penalty provisions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 reveals that 89% of the defendants selected for capital prosecution have been either African-American or Mexican-American.” 

·      Despite conventional wisdom, there is evidence showing that the death penalty does not provide the victims’ families with a sense of justice and closure, and in fact can exact a painful toll on them. 
To me it seems too simplistic to assume a one-to-one relationship between a state’s murder rate and the existence of a death penalty, although I’m sure there must be something I’m not aware of that can explain the correlation. Nevertheless, I think the correlation vigorously dispels the notion that capital punishment is any kind of deterrent for would-be murderers.
It occurred to me that perhaps state spending on public education may play a role in alleviating the social conditions that lead to violent crimes, especially murder. Consider the Census Bureau report on education spending per-student by state, in which eight of the top ten states were those without the death penalty, with the others generally being clustered in the top half. Conversely, states with the death penalty monopolize the bottom ten in education spending, and generally dominate the bottom half of these figures. As you may or may not be aware, Oklahoma students finish third from the bottom on the list.
Taking all of the above into consideration, wouldn’t it make more sense, from a public safety perspective, to invest in public education rather than state execution, particularly given its demonstrated ineffectiveness as a deterrent, what appears to be its inherent racial bias, and the unhealthy effects it has on many victims’ families? Furthermore, at what point is the state knowingly complicit in future murders if a better deterrent isn’t sought?
Best of all, investing taxpayer money in education rather than execution would help the State of Oklahoma avoid the moral ambiguities involved in punishing murder with murder.
This letter will be published on my blog, as will any response, verbatim, that I receive from you. Thank you for your time and attention, and for considering this issue of conscience.

James Deagle
Ottawa, Canada

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bullying, micro and macro

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

-Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
It is encouraging to see how far our society has come in recognizing the harm caused by bullying, both to the victims as well as the community. I can remember a time when this was hardly the case. The memories of multiple instances of being shoved around and tormented by older kids in the schoolyard at recess, as the teacher on yard duty looked directly at me with vacant eyes and then simply walked on by, still haunts me all these years later. That feeling of my stomach being knotted in helplessness and rage is something I pray neither of my sons ever experience for themselves, particularly while under the supposedly watchful gaze of an authority figure, such as a teacher.

So, it was hardly surprising to read about the findings of a recent study by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, where 20% of bullying victims reported bringing weapons to school. While I don’t agree with weapons of any kind being brought into our schools, it at least seems like a given that despair can lead to a person making very bad decisions.

At a very basic level, it’s easy to empathize with the impulse to fight back against an oppressor, and likewise it’s hard to feel sorry for a bully when they experience unintended consequences (or, blowback) for their actions. In reality, however, following through on said impulse can have very tragic consequences, particularly in an age where mass shootings at schools are sickeningly common.

On the one hand, children need to be taught to respect the human dignity of all their peers, and on the other they should be given the tools to cope with bullying in all of its variations: 
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. 
I have generally found, however, that what occurs on the schoolyard also occurs in the office, in the halls of power and on the world stage. Is it much of a stretch to imagine a segment of the population, or a race, or even a nation facing unwanted, aggressive behavior when an oppressor leverages a real or perceived power imbalance? And even when the 'blowback' takes a tragic turn, does this excuse the bullying that caused it?

For all the talk about bullying at the micro level to mean anything, we should also be conscious of it, and hold it in just as much contempt, at the macro level. Otherwise, to various oppressed groups, we become the disinterested school teacher on yard duty, and thus through inaction we join the bullies’ ranks.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

When the personal becomes non-political

If you read enough material on a variety of topics, you’ll occasionally find a passage from one source that resonates strongly with another passage from somewhere else, despite the topic of one being ostensibly different from the other. I was struck by an example of this recently.

In January I borrowed Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots ofCountry Rock by Peter Doggett from the Ottawa Public Library. I’ll spare you a book report, except to say there is a chapter in which he notes that the protest music of the mid- to late-1960’s had, by the mid-1970’s, given way to the more confessional approach of the so-called “singer-songwriter” tradition. Doggett opines that while the confessional stuff is to be lauded for its artistic value, it should also be criticized for being a retreat from concern for the wider community to something much more insular. The upshot of this, he says, is that the singer-songwriters (and in turn their listeners) became depoliticized, or at least much less radical, just in time for the 1980’s and all that decade has come to represent in popular memory. (The mantle of musical radicalism was happily and ferociously taken up the Dead Kennedys, but I'll save that for another time.)

As of this writing I can only recount the above by memory, as I returned the book, paid the overdue fines and moved on to other things. The passage was brought back to mind  last week, however, when I read an essay by Megan Behrent entitled The personal and the political: Literature and feminism in the Spring 2014 issue of International Socialist Review. In this piece, Behrent makes an observation about the trajectory of the feminist movement that seems analogous to Doggett’s opinion vis–à–vis protest music. In discussing the oft-used catchphrase “the personal is political”, she says that it initially referred to “…the need to understand the social, economic, cultural, and political oppression of women as the basis for all 'personal' problems that afflicted individual women.” Over time, however, the meaning of the term had changed. She writes:

In its later years, as the feminist movement itself collapsed amid myriad internal divisions, increasingly “the personal is political” came to represent an ideology that consciously advocated for individual or personal change as a solution to collective problems. Thus, whether one shaved one’s legs, wore makeup, or spelled women with a “y” was political and determined one’s relationship to feminism. This caricatured understanding of feminism’s legacy is part of the reason that subsequent generations have distanced themselves from second-wave feminism, becoming what is sometimes characterized as the “I’m not a feminist but…” generation.

The overlapping wisdom of these two passages seems to be that it is not enough to simply focus on yourself if you want to change the world – at some point you need to engage your fellow human beings and think beyond your own perfection. Put another way, a world that could really use your help will pass you by if you’re too busy gazing into the mirror.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Clayton Lockett and the capital punishment deterrence myth

The recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett, whereby the accused regained consciousness and then died of a heart attack, got me to thinking about capital punishment in general. 

FBI crime statistics show that states with the death penalty have a consistently higher murder rate than those without the death penalty by a margin as high as 44% in some years, thus disproving any notion that the death penalty is a deterrent. Therefore, shouldn't anyone truly concerned for victims be committed to finding a truly effective deterrent to prevent more murders from occurring in the first place? 

At the same time, the Staff Report by the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights Committee on the Judiciary (1994) showed that 89% of those on death row are either black or latino.

In light of the above two findings, I wonder if deterrence is really ever the point of capital punishment to begin with?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Athens moments

Greece is a southern European gentleman with the exotic perfume of the Middle East on his collar...


At first my lungs struggle to acclimatize to the leaded gas vapors permeating this part of the city, and my North American belief in rules and straight lines is stunned by the Formula One chaos in the street, and by the occasional motorcycle on the sidewalk.


We are lunching on the second floor of the McDonald's across the street from Syntagma Square. We notice the police starting to form a line along the sidewalk out front, and assume there must be some important motorcade en route to the Parliament building. As minutes elapse, the police are now shoulder-to-shoulder, double file, and officers with dogs are scurrying about.

A McDonalds employee suddenly appears at the top of the stairs and yells "Everybody out! Everybody out!" I glance at my watch and reason that these people must take siesta seriously. Seconds later, a machine-gun wielding soldier bursts into the room and barks "Everybody out! Now!" In the crush of people pushing their way down the stairs, we manage to hear someone say that this building is the target of a bomb threat.

Outside, the air is electric with jangled nerves and militarized emergency plans snapping into action. As ordered, we cross the street to a sidewalk cafe. Part of me wonders if perhaps we've ended up in the Gaza Strip by mistake. My legs feel like rubber. Meanwhile, a local languidly takes a drag on a cigarette. "Bomb threat?" he says, and then casually looks at his watch and says "About time."


We quickly learn that you always ask how much something is, even when a price is clearly posted. If it says five euros, you ask anyway. "For you, my friend, three euros." In this part of the world, a price tag is only ever the opening bid.


A big beefy guy with stubby fingers and an expensive suit puffs on a huge cigar as he entertains a couple of high maintenance ladies. The trio are seated in lounge chairs around a low poolside table in this candle- and torch-lit evening. With his slicked-back hair and fast company, he appears to be a Hellenic take on Tony Soprano.


We pass some time sitting in the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, communing with an audience long lost to the winds of history. For me it is is something like a religious pilgrimage, as I had played Creon in a local production of Antigone, and here I am at the site of its premiere five thousand years earlier.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Suburban Wildlife: A Very Short Primer

My wife saw a deer amble down the middle of the road on the evening of the day we moved into our townhouse. She told me all about it after I returned from the apartment with one last carload of our stuff. We both thought that was neat, being close to nature ‘n all. I even made an uninspired crack about how we had traded one form of wildlife for another. (Audience groans, comedian apologizes.)

Our former apartment building is in the west end of our city’s inner core. While tame compared to its equivalent in larger cities, our neighborhood was a little scuffed and worn for this government town. It wasn’t unusual to see derelicts of all sorts whenever we stepped out the door. And every now and then, one of them would get loose inside our building. It was that, as well as our shrinking living space, that made us decide to move out to the suburbs, to a neighborhood just one subdivision over from the one where I grew up, to raise The Most Beautiful Baby Boy You’ve Ever Seen.

Out here on the greenbelt’s outer rim you’d be hard pressed to find the homeless. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

But then I think back to my teen years, hanging out at a coffee shop that used to be not too far from here, where one day a rather down-in-the-heels man, a real live hobo, walked in and asked he could use the restroom. The store manager answered this query not with yes or no but with a firm request for him to leave the premises.

“C’mon,” he said, “I really gotta use the bathroom.”

With that the manager picked up the phone and called the police, and the hobo stomped outside and plunked himself down on the sidewalk just outside the coffee shop window. Soon enough, not one but two squad cars were on the scene, and a heated discussion ensued. The hobo waved his hands about, and the cops were holding theirs up in a gesture that seemed to say “Alright, buddy. Just settle down.”

This went on for some time as the hobo’s emotions escalated. From my somewhat close proximity from within the shop, I could see tears in his eyes – of rage? of sadness? of some cumulative weight bearing down, years in the making? We’ll never know, as he was cuffed and put into the back of one of the squad cars. 

Don’t mess with suburbia.

Just up the main thoroughfare from our new house, a large swath of greenbelt has been razed, and a large sign heralds the impending arrival of yet another neighborhood, Coming Soon! 

I hate to see this constant encroaching on nature, but here I am endorsing it by choosing to live here. Whenever I drive down the road, I feel like I’ve clicked on an unseen I ACCEPT button just underneath Coming Soon! 

At a time like this I should be thinking about (and relishing) my family’s new home, and anyway isn’t it swell to be seeing a real live deer walking past our door? Instead, my thoughts are on homelessness and the vagrants of the world, human or otherwise.

Journal entry, July 2012

Friday, April 25, 2014

Schiphol moments


Schiphol is an exercise in protestant European orderliness. A female voice over the P.A. system drones on in a friendly, unwavering monotone about which flights are arriving and departing at which gates. Somehow, this exact same voice cautions "Watch your step" every time we step on or off the moving sidewalk. I wonder if they are twin sisters working in tandem, Bertildis and Betje. Or maybe androids? Over the hours of our stopover, the voices never vary in pitch or cadence.


Hedonism is permitted, if strictly regulated. I see a small group of men smoking cigarettes in a tiny glass box. Meanwhile, the airport gift shop openly sells ash trays and all sorts of items emblazoned with a cannabis leaf.


Our return stopover here is unbearable - an eight-hour wait. We opt to steal some sleep at a nearby hotel with hourly rates. A free shuttle bus takes us through five minutes of Dutch countryside, and along the way we see adult cows with short, stubby legs. If Darwin had it right, we can assume their legs would be longer if they really needed to be. Unsurprising that in this part of the world, they are efficiently constructed and engineered, with no bone or muscle wasted.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Things I Can Live Without: Ideology

The following was submitted to the Ottawa Sun as a letter to the editor.

Re: Conservative view of Flaherty legacy, April 16

Ideology is an invitation to stop thinking for yourself, and can lead to intellectual dishonesty. Witness John Robson as he reflexively gags on the notion that Keynesian economics helped see our country out of the financial crisis.  “As a conservative doctrinaire,” he writes, “I still think those deficits harmed us.”

Merriam-Webster defines ‘doctrinaire’ as “one who attempts to put into effect an abstract doctrine or theory with little or no regard for practical difficulties.” It would seem Mr. Robson wishes we had put ideological purity ahead of the economic well-being of our country.

When he tries to convince us that John Maynard Keynes got it wrong, is he telling us the truth as he sees it based on careful analysis, or is he simply upholding a dogma at any cost? (Keynes predicted that the severity of reparations imposed on Germany would result in chaos in Europe. As the subsequent rise of Hitler teaches us, he most certainly got it right.)

As for other countries’ stimulus spending, he doesn’t consider whether it was sensibly applied, nor does he consider mitigating factors. The problems with the United States’ economy, for example, run too deep to assume a direct correlation between the size of a stimulus-incurred deficit and the extent of the recovery.

Any practical conservative would agree that we need clear-headed pragmatists with a wider view to guide us to prosperity, and not knee-jerk zealotry.

James Deagle

Monday, April 21, 2014

Things I Like: Beachwood Sparks

I hope you had a great Easter. For the foreseeable future, all blog posts (starting with this one) will contain a clue that will add up to an 'Easter egg' for those nerdy enough to put it all together. The clues will make no sense on their own - you'll have to check in on a regular basis and look at them in sequence. Also, don't just look in the body text of any given post. Look in all of the elements, from the headline on down to the comments. The only other clue regarding the clues (the meta-clue, if you will), is that each post's respective clue will always be in the same spot. 

This will be the last mention of this endeavor until someone posts the solution in the comments of this particular post.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program...

If you're like me, you don't find much to rally behind in today's pop music, nor in the deluge of pop music being marketed as 'alternative' or 'indie'. A certain something just seems to be missing in most (if not all) of what you hear on Top 40 radio. As a result, I'm guilty of falling back on oldies of one sort or another, music from a time when songwriting and musicianship meant something.

There comes a point, however, when one must stop living in the past and find that which is vital in our own time. Thus, I concentrate much of my music listening on other avenues, particularly shows like Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW, an NPR station broadcasting out of Santa Monica College. 

If you're also willing to scour the Internet, you can also make some startling discoveries. One such find happened while I was on a website devoted to jam bands, trying to find some contemporary equivalents of the Grateful Dead. I happened upon a review of the then-new Beachwood Sparks reunion album, The Tarnished Gold, and it was like a revelation. From the opening acoustic strum of Forget the Song giving way to swelling keyboards and steel guitar and then to soaring vocal harmonies, it was like a bracing gust of fresh air after being cooped up inside.

While not a Grateful Dead pastiche, they certainly hark back to an era that encompassed what I consider the Dead's golden era, namely from 1969 to 1974. More accurately, they continue the tradition of Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds, as well as the mellow 'country rock' typical of the so-called Laurel Canyon scene of the time.

And although their self-titled debut album from 2000 is awash in Byrdsian 12-string guitars, they are not specifically a nostalgia act. The Tarnished Gold in particular shows a maturity and confidence that comes with experience and craftmanship, and features a sound that is not so easily pinned to their iconic forebears. While the songs therein are great for when you want to drift away on some good vibrations, it is also music that stands up to repeated listening, and offers something new each time around.

In these days of smug sarcasm and ironic detachment, it's refreshing to hear music that comes straight from the heart.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Things I Like: Public transit

Beyond the carbon footprint-reducing environmental benefits, commuting by public transit has much to offer, namely:
  • time to read, contemplate, meditate, or even grab a catnap, 
  • the chance to be exposed to a more varied mix of people, including those from outside of your caste, 
  • the possibility of communicating with said people in ways that don't involve laying on a car horn and raising a middle finger, 
  • did I mention catnaps? 
  • a justification for being able to say to a co-worker "My driver is picking me up at 4:17", 
  • watching the same ol' landscape for something new (and there's always something new), 
  • a reason to embrace slowness as a moral imperative in a stressed-out world, where saying "I'll get there when I get there" could be construed as a treasonable act, and
  • a way to extend the life of your car while sticking it to the gasoline cartels. 
Yes, I ride the bus to work, and offer no apologies to those car-centric elitists who would cast aspersions.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Things I Can Live Without: The culture of anti-smoking

Full disclosure: I am a former heavy smoker who hasn't touched a cigarette since September 2005, with the exception of lighting a cigarette for a gentleman who had fallen after slipping on some ice in January 2010. (As the first responder, it was my next order of business after calling the ambulance.) Far from triggering a relapse, that brief puff only reinforced how glad I am to have left that filthy habit behind.

With that out of the way, let me say that I find our society's fixation on demonizing smokers highly suspect, as I believe very little of it has anything to do with saving lives.

Can cigarettes cause cancer? Absolutely. On the other hand, we live in a world that is chockablock with known carcinogens, or things that could be shown to be carcinogenic if the powers that be had the appetite to get to the bottom of it.

What about the other things that cause illness and misery, such as the overconsumption of alcohol? Where are the scary warning labels on booze? "This product can destroy your family." "Alcohol consumption can lead to transgressive or abusive behavior." "This is a liver bloated by a lifetime of liquid lunches." (In fairness, there is a movement here in Ontario for such labels, but as far as I can tell it is still just that - a movement rather than a sanctioned cause.)

How about the stress the average person takes on while pursuing their required alotment of status symbols? Years ago, my old family doctor told me that easily 80 percent of the cases coming through his practice were stress-related. If his observation is representative of the public at large, then why hasn't stress been declared a wide-scale public health emergency? Where is the movement to unilaterally ban its biggest causes? (My own belief is that there are some who work themselves sick, and others who benefit economically from that unwarranted level of loyalty and commitment, but that's a whole other thing.)

In the end, cigarettes are an easy target: they're stinky, they discolor human tissue after prolonged exposure, and are unhealthy enough to distract the populace from asking serious questions about other sources of illness.

Instead, we have ever more graphic warning labels that I presume are meant leave us with the warm and gooey feeling that comes with knowing that cancer is being eradicated, one supposedly grossed-out smoker at a time.

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NEXT - Things I Like: Public transit

Monday, April 14, 2014

Things I Like: General interest magazines

In recent years I have cooled to the idea of special interest media. That's not to say I don't ever seek out an all-music radio station, an all-news TV channel, or magazines geared to a narrow topic - it's just that I've become more open-ended in how I approach my media consumption.

The biggest reason for this shift from special to general interest is a desire to be caught off guard by unexpected topics or perspectives, to be pulled in a direction I didn't know existed. A good example of this is demonstrated by a change in how I buy and read magazines.

There was a time when I would hunt down whatever magazine scratched a very specific itch, be it guitars, cameras or poetry, to name a few. And prior to making a purchase decision, I would accumulate a shortlist and then pour through the contents of each until I determined which one would give me maximum reading pleasure for my money.

This seemed to work for a number of years, even though it meant I usually knew exactly what was coming next, and, ironically, often found myself skipping over entire articles.

Fast-forward to the present, where my tendency now is to simply grab a title I know and love (such as Harper's, The New Yorker, or the Saturday Evening Post), and do my utmost to not glance at the table of contents or even study the cover too closely before sitting down to read it from cover-to-cover.

In this way, I now make a much heavier demand on a magazine - whereas before it only had to satisfy whatever nich whim I was following at the time, now I expect it to do nothing less than open up whole new worlds to me.

That's a pretty tall order, but when it is met, reading becomes the thrilling adventure it was always meant to be.

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NEXT -  Things I  Can Live Without: The culture of anti-smoking

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Deagle's Law

If it is true that everyone has a twin somewhere in the world, then it follows that everyone also has a mother with some explaining to do.