Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Time's 100 Best Albums of All-Time

Best of lists tend to float through the air this time of year like confetti at a wedding, with everyone pitching in. Time Magazine has offered their own version of the best of list, but rather than going with the year in review, they want to span "all time."

The short-lived Gear Magazine did such a thing back in early 1999, as if to offer a perspective on twentieth century popular music. There is no readily apparent rationale for Time choosing 2006 as a year of retrospection. Furthermore, the Gear list also acknowledged that the idea of the "album" only existed since the mid-1940s, and with all practicality, only began in the 1950s. The only real recognition that Time gives in this direction is through it's selection of a Hank Williams Best of Compilation, an artist who largely recorded singles only. However, the Time list is viewwed sort of a-historically, even though its arranged by decade. Rather than suggesting the most important/influtential albums of the decade, the Time list is comes off as more a recommendation of what to buy. Rather than trying to decide which album or album's of Elvis Presley are "important" why not just buy Elvis: 30 No.1 Hits, or Sunrise, ditto for Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, or Phil Spector. It's like saying the Immaculate Collection is somehow more important than Like a Prayer in the larger scheme of Madonna's career and popular culture in general. We don't think anyone is out there hiding copies of Elvis: 30 No. 1 Hits under their mattress afraid of it being found by their parents.

So what does one get then in Time's 100? Given the amount of overlap between the two despite the seven year gap, there seems to be a consensus growing as to a musical "canon" for popular culture. The Beatles top the list with five albums, six (or maybe a half) if you throw in the Plastic Ono Band. Dylan's down for three and a host of groups have two: James Brown, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead, U2, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, aretha Franklin, and Prince. Hard Rockers aghast that the Stones only have two entries and Zeppelin and the Who only have one apiece (and it ain't Tommy) can take some comfort in the fact that Black Sabbath finally makes it onto such a list. Also surprising is the inclusion of Dj Shadow's Entroducing, an album that is still a perennial fave at The Daily Office. More baffling than surprising is the exclusion of the Smiths in favour of The Stone Roses. Most people would have this the otherway around.

Such lists though are often notable more for what is not on the list than on it. The compilers make much of the fact that they give Pink Floyd the snub, as they do the Grateful Dead, but more troubling perhaps is the omission of a single electronic or dance album. Jazz is represented by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, while the Ella Fitzerald Songbook is absent. Clearly Time is not a lover of jazz. Meanwhile, is one to assume that that the naming of Garth Brooks as the lone country album of the last twenty years is to agree that Time also wants to avoid the morass that is New Country? While punk is represented by The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, one could argue for the inclusion of Iggy Pop's Raw Power or the Buzzcocks, but one has to wonder if Green Day's American Idiot would show up if the pollsters were five years younger.

Finally, 1971, a year that saw famed rock critic Lester Bangs lament the death of rock, has nine albums from it alone . . .

Wheat Kings

Stephen Harper's turbulent relationship with the Canadian Wheat Board has given us an excuse to delve into the nebulous world of economic theory. Like any good Albertan, the Canadian Prime Minister believes that a free and open economy is beneficial to all, and that free trade in farm products will inevitably create a better agricultural industry. Perhaps he is taking a longer view, but it is not one shared by many farmers, particularly those in the West, outside of Alberta. In recent Wheat Board elections, farmers outside of Alberta chose to elect candidates who believed in upholding the Board's current policies. The sacking of the head of the Wheat Board for failing to introduce open market reforms provided a politically infused backdrop to the elctions.

What is at stake here is conflicting beliefs in the directions that the Wheat Board should go. Currently, farmers across Canada sell their wheat to the board, who then market it internationally. A small coterie of Albertan farmers have found that they can individually negotiate better deals with buyers than the price they receive through the Wheat Board. This may be true, and we at The Daily Wenzel do not pretend to understand fully how the Wheat Board arrives at its prices. However, we consider that by pooling wheat nationally, the Wheat Board limits the size of contracts that it would consider, a sort of minimum purchase requirement. This is in turn creates a scarcity and demand for wheat among small to medium-sized consumers. Under this model, indivudal farmers with much smaller stock sizes, would be able to meet the artifically high demand for wheat among this smaller class of consumer. Thus, evidence from the Alberta farmers' group would indicate they are correct in saying that laws requiring the sale of wheat directly to the Wheat Board prevent them from maximizing their profit.

However, as is typical perhaps in a conservative viewpoint, a wider perspective is traded for a much narrow individual focus. These few farmers are benefiting from the gaps created by a system they hope to abolish. Higher prices from small-to-medium sized consumers exist only as long as the Wheat Board is unable or unwilling to meet their demand while satisfying the demand of large-scale consumers. In the absence of the Wheat Board, the purchasing power would shift to the large-scale consumers, forcing small-to-medium sized producers into the reverse situation, competing against one another to fulfill large orders, giving the large-scale consumers the ability to drive prices down.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Knowledge is the new Capital

It was an interesting story that we read in Wallpaper Magazine #94 about the changes occurring in the luxury goods market. In "The New Luxe", Nick Compton quotes Dutch designer Hella Jongerius as saying "The stories behind products are the luxuries" and this reminded us of David Brooks' 2000 book, Bourgeois Bohemians, and the importance placed on the details surrounding household items.

What we find interesting is the possibiltiy that we are in the midst of change in metaphors and guiding principles. Cultural ages tend to have "big ideas"that provide a frame of reference for much of their thinking. During the feudal era, God and religion provided that arch, whereas the economy, and capital, have proved to be the guiding framework for the last few centuries. While new ideas can co-exist with old ones for awhile, each metaphor tends to back different social groups, and requires alternate mobilization of resources in society. Once a new idea reaches a critical mass, it can no longer peacefully co-exist and a struggle for society will ensue.

We are clearly not at this point yet, but it will be interesting to see where this develops as more and more aspects of society adjust to the flood of information, facts, and knowledge that are readily available.

A Word of Christmas Cheer

Granted, we do not want to gloat or make good at another's misfortune, but a rumour reported in a tiny news article in the Calgary Sun a few days ago suggested that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be re-shuffling a few of his cabinet minisiters, starting with Minister of the Environment, Rona Ambrose. Ambrose's performance has been less than even lacklustre and given the prominence that Liberal leader Stephane Dion is expected to place on the portfolio in the coming election, her presence in the ministry could no longer be tolerated. It is suggested that Harper will move from Jim Prentice, our very own MP for Calgary Centre North, head of the operations committee and Minister for Native Affairs, to the Environment. Harper is then expected to place another minister in Prentice's former position, with Ambrose being relegated to a more junior position.

Podtastic!

No, this isn't a posting about podcasting, though it is something the boys and girls here at The Daily Wenzel are considering adding in the New Year. Instead, we are testing out Illy's P.O.D. system of espresso delivery. The results are, quite frankly, amazing. Yes, it does take some of the artisanal flair out of coaxing the perfect cup of coffee from your machine, but boy it tastes good.

In deciding to try the new system out (which only works well with Nancy, our Rancillio - it's a horrible mess with Guido, our Gran Gaggia), the office quickly became a buzz with the art vs. science debate of espresso making. As we have said in earlier posts, making the perfect cup of espresso requires the correct proportioning of coffee grounds, water, pressure, temperature, and for some, sugar. Dissolved substances in your water can affect taste, as can freshness of the beans or fineness of grinds. To get all of these variables consistently correct takes quite a bit of craftsmanship, and some people justifiably take a small degree of pride in doing so. However, as our science camp argues, surely there must be a way to make the process simpler and easier to accomplish. Better engineering and better understanding of the physics and chemistry of coffee-making ought to take some of the luck out of it. The creation of the pod seems to move in this direction.

As good as the pod is though, we have not found a way to use it to make double espressos, or multiple cups, a common occurrence at The Daily Wenzel, but this is a step in the right direction!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Comes Early For Alberta Liberals

Newly chosen party leader and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach chose a cabinet last week that left many observers surprised. Under the Klein government, urban critics often complained that rural districts were over-represented in the legislature, having ridings that average several thousand people fewer than urban areas. If Edmonton and Calgary ridings had the same population size as rural ones, they would say, both cities would gain two more MLAs each. The government, however, would point out the number of urban cabinet ministers as a way that the urban dominance of province that's three-quarters urban manifested itself. With Stelmach's new cabinet however, each city was given one cabinet minister. Furthermore, female ministers were reduced down to two, from at one point nine under Klein, and no visible minorities were given appointments.

The Liberal tendencies of the major urban areas in Alberta has been steadily increasing, even under Klein, with seemingly staunchly conservative Calgary electing Liberal MLAs in the last election. If Stelmach's new cabinet does not express some kind of provincial vision capable of speaking to urban moderate conservatives, the Liberal Party could see big gains in the next election.

Friday, December 15, 2006

We ain't got no class

Our Marxist friends may shrug and play coy, sheepishly refusing to let go of their cherished notion of class altogether, we at thet Daily Wenzel, are under no such compulsions. We do not believe in class. Or at least, we do not believe that economics plays as great a role in group identity formation as our Red friends would have us believe. While much has been written about the formation of group identities and the shifting and ovelapping nature these identities may have with one person feeling they belong to several different social groups at once, the primary basis for social cohesion has always been common experience. The explosion in multiple social identities in recent years has been in large part because of the continued fragmentation of daily life.

In feudal societies, social groups were divided in large part due to status; rights and privelleges gained or purchased from the state and recorded in law. While most of us are familiar with the three basic divisions (first, second, and third estate to borrow from the French usuage). These were not monolithic blocks however, as each one was intensely sub-divided and at various times, the boundaries were somewhat porous. It was only after the French Revolution wiped away many feudal distinctions, that class began to develop as a social construct. In many ways, this was due to the decline of the journeyman craftsmen under the emerging industrial system. Rather than functioning in part as independent owner/operators, journeymen who could not afford to open their own shop, or eventually convert their shop into a factory, found themselves working in factories with other labourers.

When we recall that throughout much of the nineteenth century factory workers tended to spend anywhere from ten to sixteen hours at work, would often eat meals together, and spend a few hours at a pub together, the idea of a shared experience forming group identity becomes apparent, with work becoming the single biggest element. Add to this the fact that until late in the nineteenth century, many workers in the same occupation or trade lived in the same basic neighbourhoods. This was especially true in the emerging factory and company towns common in North America. However, the explosion of the suburbs following the Second World War dramatically reduced the amount of common experiences that particular workers would have.

Rather than place emphasis on class then, we would suggest that experience forms a particular outlook or mentalite (to borrow a term from Francois Furet). Classes exists where workers have enough commonalities, be it experiences, greivances, or future goals, to bring them together. Experience can include the same past-times or shopping patterns. Witness the Canadian coffee divide by comparing location and clientele of Tim Horton's and Starbucks. Aspirations and self-image play as large a role as basic economic background.

We are quite intrigued with this notion, so look for more updates in the future.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Truthiness, or, The Post-Modern Condition

Stephen Colbert's tongue-in-cheek "truthiness", loosely defined by the satirical talk show comedian as "truth unencumbered by facts" and "truth that comes from the gut, not books", was recently named word of the year by Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people. The award is to recognize words that manage to capture a sense of the passing year. At The Daily Wenzel we feel that truthiness speaks to a much larger social phenomena at work in today's society. The abundance of infromation, as well as the proliferation of "Research Institutes" backed by corporate interests, as led to a situation where individuals are awash in information, rich in detail and "facts", often contradictory and at cross-purposes. While these individuals may choose a particular argument and its encompassing rational structures, ultimately their choices are made based on what resonates strongest with their personal experiences and beliefs, or in Colbert's terms "gut."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Music Update (Musical Nostalgia)

Aside from watching the Serge Gainsbourg collection Serge Gainsbourg: D'autres nouvelles des etoiles, compiling vintage televised performances from the famed French chanteur. As with our attraction to Gainsbourg, who became noted for his Left Bank Beatnik jazz sense of wordplay, and later as something of a bad boy ladies' man, most of our musical selections this week seem decidely focused on the past.

First off, we After Our Misspent Youth by Ontario's The Machines. Like the Strokes on Is This It?, the Machines are in love with the early 1970s New York sound with guitar work echoing that of Johnny Thunders, albeit with far more polish. The band even goes so far as plucking a song title ("Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory") from a chapter heading out of Punk journalist Legs McNeil's account of the New York scene, Please Kill Me. Unfortunately, whereas the Strokes managed to make their highly studied approach seem fresh, the Machines are very much like their namesake and one gets the feeling of going through the motions.

The Thermals meanwhile, have are well-positioned to have a critical hit on their hands with The Body, The Blood, The Machine. While the Portland, Oregon band's sound may be more Chapell Hill than East Village, the rambling, chaotic, lurching noise that the band conjures up easily evokes the earnest energy of the early punk scene. Appearing on numerous Best of 2006 lists, we picked this up last week and it's been on the stereo nearly non-stop.

Speaking of the East Village, we are in the midst of a two-part retrospective on the New York Dolls. Having recently acquired two DVD documentaries on the subject, we have watched the first, All Dolled Up, filmed by Bob Gruen during the 1970s, and are looking forward to viewing New York Doll, about the quiet Arthur Kane. Watch this space for our emerging thoughts.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Murderball

It’s funny where we draw our inspiration from, but a recent column in Sports Illustrated about the decline of recess in the United States, brought about in part from fear of liability and bullying, has prompted us the revisit a conversation about one of our childhood games; Murderball. Originally cloaked in the nostalgia of youth, our new conversation centred around the construction of self-identity and the development of peer conflict-resolution strategies in children. As a side topic, there were also some musings on the relative prevalence of violence, or the threat of violence, experienced during childhood.

Firstly, Murderball. We did not invent, nor name this game, but learnt it from older kids at school, and were most enthralled by it around age 10. In Murderball, small groups of children throw a ball, usually a tennis ball, against a wall. It is allowed to bounce once and then is caught by another child to be thrown again. There are two pivotal moments in Murderball, the first being when someone catches the ball before it has bounced once. When this happens the original thrower races to tag the wall as the catcher hurls the ball back. If the ball hits the wall before the runner, then the runner must assume “the position”. Typically, “the position” meant standing facing the wall, as your compatriots lined about some ten feet away and proceeded to throw the ball at you. As we got older, variations were introduced to moderate the number of people who could participate in throwing of the ball. Furthermore, one could choose to face the crowd, with the option of attempting to dodge the ball and earn the opportunity to turn the table on an individual thrower. The other moment is when someone drops the ball. If another player catches the ball before it bounces, then all is fine, but if the ball is dropped and allowed to bounce, then the chase is on.

To us, it would seem that Murderball is a form on consensual violence. Participants often emerge from recess with welts and bruises. Even the name oozes violence. Many other games played by children also seem to contain a certain element of violence, such as early forms of unrefereed football, hockey, and soccer. In fact, during the turn of the last century, authorities in England attempted to ban unorganized soccer because it was perceived as too violent. Violence, it seems is never too far in childhood, at least that was our experience growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. There were always groups of older children who we could identify as physical threats to our well-being. Similarly, this view was reinforced by older images in popular culture.

With the recent attempts to eliminate bullying, we are curious whether this perceived level of violence still exists. Do children in fact feel safer from each other? Do children still participate in, invent, and play games such as Murderball? In our own time Murderball enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship to the authorities, at times being actively routed out and tennis balls confiscated, while a blind eye was turned at others. We can easily see Murderball being proscribed as part of an anti-bullying campaign. However, we also feel that such activities help to form identity and conflict resolution strategies. The key point in Murderball not being the violence, but rather the unsupervised nature of the activity as it was a competitive activity in which all participants had no recourse to a higher authority. Any dispute that arose in Murderball could only be resolved by those playing in the Murderball session.

We are not saying that these skills are absent from today’s children, but rather we are curious as to how these skills are being developed in a climate that dramatically increased the role of adult supervision while simultaneously decreases the opportunity for non-technological play.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Post-Gutenberg Galaxy

We here at The Daily Wenzel are sometimes invited to discussions with Barb Brown, of the Barb Brown Technology blog. Usually these discussions centre around the use and adoption of new technologies and have got us re-visiting the work of Marshall McLuhan, particularly The Gutenberg Galaxy. Surprisingly while you can access Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, one of our favourite and most influential books, as an e-text, McLuhan's work is nowhere to be found.

At any rate, the line that resonates with us most was that technology was not just a tool that man invents, but also a tool by which man is re-invented. This is especially true when we consider how we have a tendency to reshape our lives in the context of a new technology - Time Magazine's article awarding YouTube the Invention of the Year award is perhaps a prime example. Most notoriously, in our minds, is the example of Frederick Taylor, the turn-if-the-century efficiency expert who exported the assembly line model to various craft industries. In the process he destroyed centuries of craft traditions, eliminated much worker control over the nature and rate of output, and also directly contributed to the relative de-skilling of many occupations as the complex jobs performed by a single artisan were reduced to a series of repetitive movements for a several workers.

In another work, Understanding Media, McLuhan suggested that electricity would take us back to a pre-print oral culture. In print cultures, McLuhan argued, meaning was fixed and static as books could last a long, long time. The oral tradition however, was susceptible to subtle shifts and changes, with the stories slowly evolving over time. In all likelihood, McLuhan was thinking of radio and television at the time, but the ephemeral nature of most blogs and websites only adds to his thinking.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Professional Society vs. the Populist Society

A recent story from the CBC about patients rating their doctors has brought to fore what we consider to be an ongoing tension in contemporary society. The website, which is run by the same people who started ratemyteacher.com and ratemyprof.com allows users to post anonymous comments and rank their doctor, teacher, prof, out of five (five being the highest). Many doctors, like teachers and profs before them, appear annoyed at the service, while the websites argue that they are providing information about the professionals they rank.

The problem rests in the belief of the website owners and users that the users themselves have enough background information into what makes an effective doctor, teacher, or prof. These professionals meanwhile, argue that they contain sophisticated training and education that is not apparent, understood, or perhaps appreciated by their clients. They may explain that the client is not in the proper emotional state, or that they are acting in a manner most conducive to getting the client to perform a certain action that is in the best interest of their client, but for which the client has little motivation to perform. Thus, the professionals feel that what is being ranked is not their competence, but solely their interpersonal skills.

However, as Michel Foucault would argue, what is at stake here is the ability of professional groups, any professional group, to position itself as the possessors of some arcane skill set and the sole interpreters of the uses of those skills. On the otherhand, we have a group that believes contemporary society, regardless of its inherent complexity, is nevertheless egalitarian in that all people, and their opinions, are of equal value, despite their inequal experiences and knowledge in certain areas.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

And another has gone

Some people have asked us why we haven't posted anything on the Alberta provincial election. Since we've been appeared to be so keen on who gets elected as Liberal Leader, why haven't we been so concerned who ends up leader of the Alberta Conservatives. It's a good question, especially when asked by people who live outside of Alberta. The simple answer is that we are not convinced that "Honest" Ed Stelmach, viewed by many of our colleagues as the best possible choice, will offer any improvement over the buddy-buddy populism of Ralph Klein. Just as Klein allowed himself to be used by various elements and interests, nothing about "Steady" Eddie gives us an impression that he would somehow be different, except of cours that he is a farmer, salt-of-the-earth, downhome and practical. Our experiences in the dusty Stampede parking lots have not endeared us to farmers and they won't endear us to Stelmach.

We are reserving our judgement on Stelmach and are hoping to be surprised, but in a province that has voted Conservative for the past 35 years, largely on the strength of the rural vote, Stelmach's victory may best be hoped for a return to "normalcy" now that the debt crisis of the 1990s is over.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

One race down, another to go

Earlier today the Liberal Party of Canada elected their eleventh leader in Party history. Since early summer, we here at the Daily Wenzel had thought that Ignatief would take it - while the unfolding drama surrounding Dion caught us by surprise, we did mention in an earlier post that Quebec would be a turning point for the leadership campaign and the federal election that can now only be months away. What will be interesting to discover is the extent that this is true. Leading into the convention, it was felt that Dion was actually less well received inside Québec than elsewhere in Canada, though there were many questions asked regarding Ignatief's appeal in la belle province as well.


0f course, Dion's victory made it apparent to us that we should have picked him at a much earlier date, based soles on the Liloerals penchant for historical patterns:

Dion-French
Martin-English
Chrétien - French
Turner - English
Trudeau - French
Pearson - English
St. Laurent - French


Who knew?

A Good Cup Deserves Another

The stars were magically aligned last night as our Nancy brought forth, not one, nor two, but four perfect cups of espresso. Thick crema and sweet taste, not a hint of bitterness. In an interview with Wallpaper magazine some years ago, the head of Illy commented that there are several hundred flavour ingredients in a coffee, making it difficult to have them all aligned and each cup rather unique. Thus, our surprise (this is not to say the Nancy spits out inferior coffee as a rule).

Our bean of choice this week? Big Mountain Coffee Classic French Roast, and recalling the words of Ewan MacGregor in Black Hawk Down, "The secret's in the grind."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Recent additions

You've probably noticed a few changes to The Daily Wenzel, largely as a result of reader comments (your text is burning into my eyes!) to change the background colour. We are currently looking for a masthead and logo and would welcome submissions (elvisbonaparte@canada.com).

Please note, an RSS feed is now available so you can repost The Daily Wenzel or else simply stop worrying that you'll miss something.

Again, we're very keen to here more comments.