Tag Archives: The Atlantic

Stupidity on the rise


Do the humble and picturesque Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scoria and Newfoundland and Labrador finally have something bold to teach the world – like, how to get along?

It seems clear that a good portion of western society is entering something opposite to the Age of Aquarius. In a provocative piece for The Atlantic magazine this month, entitled “How American Politics Went Insane,” writer Jonathan Rauch observes, “(Donald) Trump. . .didn’t cause the chaos. The chaos caused Trump. What we are seeing is not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome.”

He continues: “Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers – political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees – that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal – both in campaigns and in the government itself.”

Then, of course, there’s the recent Brexit vote to leave the European Union. If nothing is done over the next two years (and, really, at this point what are the credible options?), Britain will go it alone in a continent that is becoming increasingly retrograde, isolationist and angry. Already, great swaths of so-called “leavers” are regretting their decision in last week’s general referendum.

Former editor of The Sun newspaper, Kelvin MacKenzie, was one of England’s most prominent voices urging the exit. Prior to the vote, he penned a column headlined “10 reasons why we must vote Brexit,” citing the near and happy certainty that Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne would, at last, retire.

Here’s what Mr. MacKenzie has to say for himself today: “When I put my cross against Leave, I felt a surge as if for the first time in my life my vote did count. I had power. Four days later I don’t feel quite the same. I have buyer’s remorse. A sense of be careful what you wish for. To be truthful I’m fearful of what lies ahead. Am I alone?”

To many of us in Atlantic Canada, these developments – firmly rooted in an almost hysterical fear of immigrants, ginned up by political demagogues –have been downright mystifying. After all, Great Britain – that mother of democracy – has been, for generations, a beacon of tolerance and good sense. With notable exceptions, so has the United States.

Lest we go down that same road, we, in this part of the world must be ever watchful of the inflammatory rhetoric that passes for informed opinion and reasonable commentary – the irresponsible and often hateful words that occasionally drip from the lips of the “I’m just saying” contingent. Fortunately, most of the time, we are.

We still recognize that immigration is one of the keys that unlock this region’s social and economic potential. We still understand that we are far stronger by working together than by freelancing our fortunes independently.

Mostly, though, we still respect and honour the shared and common public institutions that protect us from the heavy hands of the bloviating windbags who would, in their own, arched self-interest, raise alarms over trivialities or, in fact, nothing at all.

Does this make us better than everyone else, or just luckier? Who knows? But for now, as Canada Day approaches, it seems that we do finally have something bold to teach the world.

Tagged , , ,

The quiet joy of a smart summer read



I approach The Atlantic magazine’s annual “Ideas Issue” the way a fan of Beatles’ music approaches a vintage vinyl of the “White Album”, which is to say: reverentially, lovingly and oh so carefully. 

After all, in both, there’s so much to appreciate, comprehend and, of course, misapprehend. 

Truly, consider the fun that can be had by all in the breaking nights of a martini-soaked summer by arguing the significance of Helter Skelter’s lyrics (“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide/ Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride/Till I get to the bottom and I see you again”) and the fact that this year’s “Ideas” edition of The Atlantic features line drawings of both John Lennon and Paul McCartney on its front cover. 

It’s kismit, baby. 

And so, apparently, is innovation, even in magazines these days.

Explaining why he chose not one but three covers to grace his publication this month (one after another), The Atlantic’s creative director, Darhil Crooks, writes, “The theme of The Atlantic’s annual Ideas Issue this year is creativity – which is a hard concept to define, let alone to illustrate. We could have gone with an illuminated lightbulb, or photographed Brad Pitt painting at an easel, but those options didn’t seem very. . .creative. Most of the time, we derive our cover image from one specific story. But this time we thought, why not produce a collection of covers, using each one to showcase a different approach to examining and conveying creativity?”

Why not, indeed? 

Cover Number One features the iconic songwriting duo from the sixties and asks whether genius is a solitary encumbrance, or a shared misery. Cover Number Two examines the science of creativity and whether mental illness and IQ are inextricably linked (something I’ve wondered for just about my entire life). Cover Number Three recounts “tales of creativity”, the “breakthroughs, borrowings, revisions, and bold decisions behind the work of highly creative people, from Beyonce to the lead designer of Google Glass.” 

In a monolithic media industry that believes it enhances itself by repeating itself (think Toronto Star and Rob Ford), The Atlantic manages its originality almost defiantly.

Here, there’s James Parker on “The Twee Revolution. . .a terrifying aesthetic” that is “taking over America.” thanks to the likes of filmmaker Wes Anderson, actress Zooey Deschanel and “Brooklynites on bicycles”.

Here, there’s a piece by Joe Pinsker on “punctuated equilibrium” in which he asks whether “autocorrect” will “save the apostrophe, and slow language’s evolution. . .(because) our brains seem to become less vigilant when we know a grammatical safety net will catch us.”

A somewhat more sober article by Gordon Goldstein, a former member of the U.S. delegation to the World Conference on International Telecommunications, asks whether the Internet, as we know it, is fated to go the way of the dinosaur. 

“The World Wide Web celebrated its 25th birthday recently,” he writes. “Today, the global network serves almost three billion people, and hundreds of thousands more join each day. If the Internet were a country, its economy would be among the five largest in the world.”

On the other hand, he notes, “fierce and rising geopolitical conflict over control of the global network threatens to create a balkanized system – what some technorati, including Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, have called “the splinternet.’”

That would be a shame. Without the free research and weird facts and figures literally at my fingertips, I’d probably have to stop scribbling for a living and do something honest if as equally unremunerative, such as farming.

Still, The Atlantic always manages to put me in touch with my inner reader, the one I knew well as a kid growing up without the benefits ample screen time. 

The Internet has taught us how to scan for information quickly. We’ve forgotten how to drink deeply from the well spring of ideas that a good, slow summer read offers. Thank God, we still have a few old-fashioned, paper-bound magazines like The Atlantic to remind us. 


Tagged ,

A tale of two urban legends



In his illuminating piece on American cities and why they work, (in the current edition of the Atlantic) national correspondent James Fallows observes a renaissance, of sorts, in the ranks of strong mayors.

This, in turn, leads him to a rather shocking conclusion, given the political distemper that plagues other levels of government in the United States: “Once you look away from the national level, the American style of self-government can seem practical-minded, nonideological, future-oriented, and capable of compromise. These are of course the very traits we seem to have lost in our national politics.”

He then names some of the country’s more successful, recent big-city mayors, such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg, Boston’s Tom Menino and Chicago’s Richard Daley who, “even with their excesses. . .have been. . .the people who could get things done, while presidents and legislators seem ever more pathetically hamstrung.”

Even the nation’s more modestly sized cities, he says, deserve praise, including Greenville, South Carolina, where noting its “walkable and gracious downtown is like mentioning that Seattle has good coffee,” and Burlington, Vermont, a community “so liberal that it elected a socialist mayor” who, nevertheless, “overrode resistance to clear the waterfront, bring back the downtown, and attract businesses.”

Reading this account of Mr. Fallows’ happy adventures along the main streets of his nation, I can’t help but feel a might bewildered. 

American cities aren’t supposed to be paragons of anything. In fact, they are supposed to be dystopian hell holes where elected officials are in the back pockets of organized criminals, the cops are on the take, and murder and mayhem lurks behind every street corner. 

Canadian cities, on the other hand, are supposed to be legendarily well-ordered, well-managed and. . .well. . .boring. Typically, its mayors are supposed to be either courtly older gentlemen or feisty older ladies whose affection for controversy begins and ends with zoning restrictions in exurban subdivision developments.

Well, aren’t they?

Rob Ford was in the news the other day. It appears that Toronto’s mayor was “visibly upset” after being barred from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s board of directors’ lounge at the Air Canada Centre during a hockey game. At least, that’s how his companion described the chief magistrate on Saturday. 

“To the extent possible, yeah, they (security staff) asked me to keep him under control,” Toronto Councillor Frank Di Giorgio told the Globe and Mail. “That was one of things I hadn’t anticipated my having to do, let’s put it that way. I think if his older brother had been there, it would have been easier to control him. . .(He was) certainly visibly upset.”

Was he drunk? Was he high? Nope, hizzoner said, not this time. 

Sure, over the past year, he has admitted to smoking crack (after having lied about it) in a drunken stupor. Yes, police documents, unsealed last month, describe the a mobile phone video in which the mayor is “holding what appears to be a glass cylinder in one hand and a lighter in the othe . . .At one point Mayor Ford holds the glass cylinder to his mouth. Lights the lighter and applies the flame to the tip of the glass cylinder in a circular motion. After several seconds Mayor Ford appears to inhale the vapour which is produced, then exhale vapour.”

But last Saturday, he was as clean and sober as a Tibetan monk, even though, as the Toronto Star reported yesterday, the incident at the hockey game “marked the fourth occasion in the past three months that the mayor has been filmed acting erratic in public. In January, a video made at a fast-food restaurant showed him slurring and making disparaging remarks about the chief of police. In early February, he was seen drinking and speaking ‘gibberish’ at a British Columbia pub. And on St. Patrick’s Day, Ford was again taped stumbling and swearing outside city hall.”

For all that, Mayor Ford is just an average guy. At least that’s what he told the profile writer from Esquire last month: “I’m very humble. Some people call it shy. I am who I am. I love my football, and I love my family, and that’s pretty well it.”

Should Mr. Fallows want to write a Canadian follow-up to his excellent essay on American mayors, Mr. Ford is almost certainly available to oblige with an interview. 

Just as soon as he nails down that reality show.

 After all, for the mayor of Canada’s largest city, priorities are everything.


Tagged , ,

What’s wrong with Gen Y? Their parents



Wrapped in caution tape and kept far away from even the least consequential threats mankind invents on a quotidian basis, our children are forever doomed to lives of neurotic self-absorption. Forget saving the planet from the depredations their parents and grandparents have bequeathed.

At least, that’s the thinking, these days, among certain leftish-leaning editors, writers and, presumably, readers who bemoan the softening of youthful spines across these vast and trust-fund-encumbered lands.

Funny that – the thinking, I mean; as it seems so down-to-earth, not at all like the vaulted prose the bloody-minded right wing assumes progressives embrace with relish (and sometimes dijon). 

But there it was, in all its small-l liberal glory: An article brimming with genuinely fretful observations about lost childhood in sea of otherwise confident, consumer-driven print journalism for upwardly mobile adults.

“Hey parents, leave those kids alone” demands the display copy in Hanna Rosin’s cover story in April edition of The Atlantic. “In the past generation, the rising preoccupation with children’s safety has transformed childhood, stripping it of independence, risk-taking, and discovery. What’s been gained is unclear: rates of injury have remained fairly stead since the 1970s, and abduction by strangers was as rare then as it is now. What’s been lost is creativity, passion and courage. Now a countermovement is arising, based on mounting evidence that today’s parenting norms do children more harm than good.”

So, let me get this straight. The generation of parents who think that offering youngsters metal-spiked lawn darts and the opportunity to play helmut-less hockey is tantamount to child abuse is, nevertheless, reconsidering its position on the subject of juvenile risk-taking – as in, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to let junior remove the training wheels from his trike. 

In other words, this generation of parents is suddenly worrying too much about worrying too much. Does anything say “baby-boomer” better than that?

“It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation,” Ms. Rosin writes. “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ‘70s walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap – are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of ‘children’s independent mobility,’ conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 per cent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to nine per cent, and now it’s even lower.” 

Another piece in the same issue of the magazine quotes from a “ground-breaking study” that recently found parents to be responsible for their kids’ lousy performance in school: “Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire – regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education. . .Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.”

How much of this actually rings true for most people, and how much is actually phantasmagoria fueled by an increasingly rarified combination of generational guilt and healthy disposable incomes is hard to say. 

But we of the chattering classes do like to see perils and trends (indeed, perilous trends are among our favorite preoccupations) where none actually exist, or, at least, manifest themselves much in the general population.

Looking out my office window onto my residential neighbourhood, heavily peopled with rug rats of various shapes and sizes, I see games of tag, war, hide and seek; occasional punching, slapping and kicking. I see scraped elbows, skinned knees and bruised foreheads.

     I don’t see pampered darlings under escort to various play-dates. I don’t see adult authority figures brokering cease fires on the battlefields of childhood dreams. 

All of which is to say that “the overprotected kid” might be more myth than reality. On the other hand, “the anxiety-riddled adult” is all too common, indeed.


Tagged ,

The many-splendored sources of innovation


No compendium of great inventions would be complete without a nod to the personal computer. Naturally, those born after Blondie first warbled “Heart of Glass” will almost certainly rank the device as mankind’s No. 1 brainchild.

Clearly, the scientists and historians who contributed to The Atlantic’s Technology Issue (this month’s edition) are somewhat longer in the tooth than the average computer geek. For the cover story, “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel”, they relegated the near-ubiquitous machine to 16th place.

Meanwhile, the top spot went to. . .wait for it. . .the printing press, because, in the words of one judge, “the invention was the turning point at which knowledge began freely replicating and assumed a life of its own.”

In other words, Gutenberg’s invention (circa 1430) is, arguably, more significant in the history of innovation than a box of transistors and capacitors, because, without it, the pace of technological advancement would have remained stuck in first gear.

That’s oddly comforting to an ink-stained wretch such as myself, who was still writing magazine copy on a Royal portable typewriter as late as 1991.

But, The Atlantic’s exercise, and others like it (The Smithsonian magazine is just out with is “101 Objects That Made America”), is more interesting for what it says about how we perceive innovation than for its actual choices.

Indeed, writes lead contributor James Fallows, “One aspect of the results will be evident as soon as you start looking through them: the debatability of the choices and rankings once you move beyond the first few.”

He continues: “For instance, anesthesia, which, on its debut in 1846, began to distinguish surgery from torture, barely made the top 50, and that was only because one panelist pushed it hard. If I were doing the ranking, it would be in the top 10, certainly above the personal computer. In this case the test for me is: Which would I miss more if it didn’t exist? . . .I rely on personal computers, but I got along fine before their introduction; I still remember a dental procedure in England when the National Health Service didn’t pay for novocaine.”

Here, in Canada, the policy debate about innovation and technology has drawn a line in the sand between researchers and scientists, on one side, and bureaucrats and politicians, on the other.

The thinking, becoming ever more prevalent, in government is that innovations must be “useful” or “relevant” and replete with everyday applications to justify public investment. The National Research Council (NRC),  the Government of Canada’s “premier research and technology organization (RTO)” puts it this way: “RTOs are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life.”

Its vision is “to be the most effective research and development organization in the world, stimulating sustainable domestic prosperity.” Its mandate is to work with “clients and partners” and “provide innovation support, strategic research, scientific and technical services to develop and deploy solutions to meet Canada’s current and future industrial and societal needs.”

The language signals a recent and deliberate shift in the NRC’s position in society – one that’s more closely aligned to the interests of industry than to those of academia. And that worries many in the research community.

“You can’t convert a government research agency into a contract research organization,” Peter Morand, former dean of science and engineering at the University of Ottawa and a past president of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council told the Globe and Mail last May.

Added David Robinson of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in the same article: “It’s a very sad day for science in Canada. . .(The NRC) “was established to develop Canada’s basic research capacity and did perform admirably.”

Still, the root causes of innovation – especially of the technical varieties – are notoriously difficult to pin down. It is more often than not the case that hard science and applied research dance a stately minuet, from which emerge everything from nuclear fission and the telephone to the personal computer and the printing press.

Tagged , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: