Privacy? What privacy?

Last week, the Toronto Transit Commission announced plans to install over 10,000 security cameras throughout the city’s transit system by next June. Every one of the TTC’s 1.5 million daily riders will be photographed on streetcars, buses, subways, and at every exit of each TTC station.

No sooner had the plan been announced than did public outcry arise about the “invasion of privacy” the cameras supposedly represent. London-based activist group Privacy International filed a formal complaint with Ontario’s privacy commissioner, and people flooded message boards to complain that “Big Brother is watching us” and “1984 is coming true.”

While it might sound cool in that “Hey I’ve read a book!” kind of way to liken TTC chairman Adam Giambrone to Orwell’s Head Comrade, the analogy simply doesn’t hold up. Totalitarians, both real and fictitious, surveil their citizens in order to eliminate the part of their lives which is private, ensuring that they must always act as model citizens.

But the TTC is not invading anyone’s private life by installing these cameras, because in case you haven’t noticed, there’s never been anything private about riding the TTC.

During a 30-minute rush hour ride, a Toronto commuter is seen by thousands of people, who are able, should they wish, to discreetly watch you and think all kinds of creepy things. Not only do your fellow passengers see you, they may actually touch you too, not to mention breathe/slobber/fart on you. A guy actually licked me in a subway station once. And no, it wasn’t because I asked him to.

TTC riders have about as much privacy as cattle in a feedlot. Will a few more pairs of eyes watching us really make a difference? Besides, the cameras’ won’t be monitored regularly. The tapes will only be reviewed should a crime take place on the TTC. Only police will have access to the footage.

Privacy International is claiming that the new cameras aren’t in the public interest because they will do little to deter crime. Whether or not increased surveillance actually leads to lower crime rates is up for debate— they certainly didn’t prevent terrorist bombings in London, one of the most heavily monitored cities on the planet, and regions’ crime rates don’t necessarily correspond with the number of cameras per capita.

But it’s hard to imagine the TTC’s new cameras won’t help catch criminals after the fact. This past April, a 21-year-old man was stabbed to death on a subway at Victoria Park station. In that case, security footage led to an arrest. Last week, a man randomly stabbed four people on Queen Street. He was arrested within hours because he was captured on the security cameras of local businesses.

If the police and the TTC think that 10,000 cameras will help fight crime, who cares? What’s the difference if the guy across the aisle wasn’t the only one who saw you pick your nose at that last stop?

Red Sox change style

After falling to a 3-1 deficit in the American League Championship Series, Manny Ramirez, left fielder for the Boston Red Sox and post-season philosopher, wondered what all the fuss was about.

In a television interview with FOX, Ramirez said, “Why should we panic? We’re just going to go play the game, and move on. If it doesn’t happen, who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like the end of the world or something.”

While it is easy to dismiss Ramirez’s comments as another case of “Manny being Manny,” the outfielder actually has a point. In fact, this is one of the first times in Red Sox history when losing in the post-season isn’t a big deal.

Prior to winning the 2004 World Series, the Sox spent 86 years desperately trying to capture the title of World Champions—and failing miserably. Boston’s ubiquitous post-season failures even inspired the “curse of the Bambino”, a superstitious theory that the Sox’s epic playoff woes resulted from selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in1918. Every error, every miscalled play, and every deficit became another sign of the curse and the impending “end of the world” for Red Sox Nation. For Boston, the only consolation was that futile promise of next year.

But after reversing the curse in 2004, the team can finally abolish that apocalyptic attitude, relax, and just play ball.

Naturally, it was Ramirez and his laid back attitude that boasted two home runs, 10 RBIs, and a .409 batting average in the ALCS, that ultimately led the Red Sox to victory over the Cleveland Indians. As Boston continues to surge in the World Series against the Colorado Rockies, it has become apparent that the team has undergone more than an attitude adjustment in the past three years.

Sweeping changes in the Red Sox have drawn comparisons to their archrivals, the New York Yankees. Both have been accused of using their inflated payroll to buy championships.

But their $143 million payroll isn’t the only thing fueling the Sox this postseason. If anything, they have been successful in spite of their big-budget acquisitions. Shortstop Julio Lugo and pitcher Eric Gagné have been disappointments, and outfielder J.D. Drew was the most hated man in Boston until his $14 million, clutch grandslam in Game 6 of the ALCS.

The real stars of the Red Sox are the homegrown talent. Potential Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia, star first baseman Kevin Youkilis, and lights-out closer Jonathan Papelbon, who came out of Boston’s minor league system, have carried the team throughout the year. Notably, Pedroia is hitting .444 in his last 27 at-bats, Youkilis batted .500 in the ALCS, and Papelbon has pitched nine shutout innings this postseason.

These three key players’ salaries, combined to total a dismal $1.23 million, barely enough to make a dent in that overblown Red Sox payroll. Add up-and-comer outfielder and post-season contender Jacoby Ellsbury to the equation, and the Sox’s future looks bright and reasonably priced.

Another change in the Red Sox’s favour came in the form of their dynamic pitching staff. Boston had previously been known as an offensive powerhouse. But with likely Cy Young candidate Josh Beckett at the top of his game, Curt Schilling looking as good as ever, the aforementioned Papelbon, and the addition of Hideki Okajima to the bullpen, the Sox are virtually unhittable.

With such security in the rotation and bullpen, Boston no longer needs to rely on offensive power. Now, the Sox can depend on Manny Ramirez’s words as much as his potent swing.

Although a World Series win would be nice, a post-season loss for the Red Sox will not signify the end of the world. At the very least, there’s always next year.

The new Wikidemocracy

I have mixed feelings about the Internet. I find myself constantly aware of Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “allatonceness” (the idea of being perpetually connected to a medium) because, let’s face it, I’m almost always online. This is not to say that I am necessarily using the Internet, but with DSL and an ever-present wireless line, we can’t help but remain constantly connected—a stark contrast to the days of dial-up. The ability to go from writing an article to checking one’s Facebook account is constantly present. With the click of a button, I can go from passively connected to actively connected.

This constant state of connectivity gives us a false sense of interaction with the outside world; in reality, when we use the internet we’re only interacting with ourselves. However, the Internet has great potential to further human knowledge and growth, and that potential is probably expressed most fully in Wikipedia, the online, public-written encyclopedia. Wikipedia is poster child for the Internet as mass-communication. It can be edited by anyone, and within certain boundaries (growing stricter every day) anyone can create an article and share their knowledge. There’s never been a better way for people so physically removed from one another to share their collective wisdom.

Although the Internet is a 20th century invention, Wikipedia recalls medieval times in its form and methods. In the Middle Ages, scholars would often create and keep a glossed text of an original material, usually the Bible, with their notes in the margins and directly over the text itself, thereby “glossing” it—expanding the material and contributing to new knowledge. The gloss would pass from one scholar to another, each contributing more and more. A welltraveled text could potentially represent entire systems of thought on a particular topic. This is the spirit of Wikipedia. Each user has the same opportunity to contribute as any another. In a way, we are continuing the medieval tradition of the glossed text in our digital age.

However, unlike the indelible notes in glossed texts of old, users’ entries are increasingly being deleted from the digital universe as Wikipedia attempts to address concerns about its legitimacy. The encyclopedia often comes under attack for its democratic editing process and lack of scholarly standards, but Wikipedia is not intended as an academic source because it, like other encyclopedias, does not contain substantial analysis of its topics. The online articles do not have a thesis or an argument because they are only intended to present a broad picture of what many users know.

No doubt, Wikipedia can be used in a negative way. The CIA has allegedly manipulated entries, Dow Chemical reportedly edited articles to falsify its history, and of course students happily plagiarize from it. But this is part of the Internet’s nature as a medium, and lying is as old as speech. Wikipedia represents the height of what the Internet can achieve: the democratic sharing of collective wisdom. Each time we access its knowledge, we perpetuate history.

The Shortcomings of Adrian Tomine

For someone who reportedly hates being labelled an “Asian hipster Woody Allen,” cult graphic novelist Adrian Tomine sure fits the bill. Hanging out at his hotel room before his highly anticipated International Festival of Authors appearance (Tomine visited the festival three years ago, sandwiched between two political novelists), all the signposts of a serious New York artist are present—the thick-framed glasses, the sweetly meditative work about a self-obsessed youth in a distressed, long distance relationship, the jibes about West Coast culture. Tomine is a recent California expat, and his move from Berkeley to Brooklyn (spurred by a marriage to a longtime New Yorker) is the undercurrent to his first long-form graphic novel, Shortcomings, in which thirtysomething Bay-area resident Ben Tanaka must confront his friends’ and lovers’ “total hard-on for New York.”

“It’s on my mind a lot,” admits Tomine. “Especially as I was mulling over the decision to move. I kept going back and forth on these trips where I’d visit New York in the summer and think, ‘Oh my god, the weather here is awful and I can’t stand the humidity,’ and then travel back to Berkeley and complain, ‘Oh, there’s only three restaurants that I like to go to here.’”

“It’s an observation I’ve made from living in the Bay Area for so long. There’s always been this idealization of New York there, it seems to be the place where most people from the Bay Area go on vacation or want to move to, but then again, New York has always been the most mythologized American city. It’s made up for people like me, who’ve spent their childhoods seeing movies and reading books about it and have this fantasy version of the big city.”

Tomine began his particular brand of sharply outlined, intimately personal novella-like renditions of tortured relationships (both real and idealized) when he was 16, mailing copies of Optic Nerve to Montreal’s prestigious Drawn and Quarterly Press (publishers of Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, and Seth). The press ignored his letters for years before printing a small run that eventually grew to an exclusive contract with the artist. His mini-comics offered glimpses into the lives of protagonists you didn’t want to admit you (desperately) related to. Take Hilary Chan in Optic Nerve’s “Holidays in the Sun”—a pessimistic Delia’s mail-order operator who begins placing hateful phone calls to strangers as a kind of vicious entertainment. As a critic from Time revealed, “I worry about Hilary Chan in a way that I don’t worry about other fictional characters.” Said a fan in the next issue, “Poor Hillary…what a sad little bitch she is.” Now Tomine is illustrating full-page covers for The New Yorker.

Tomine’s portrayal of compromised humanity continues in Shortcomings. Ben Tanaka pursues his harbored fetish for white women once his Japanese girlfriend leaves for a New York internship. (Asks one woman: “Don’t you think is this just a sublimated form of assimilation?”) For Tomine, labelled a “Twinkie” by his Asian dorm-mates at Berkeley, he’s just speaking honestly on obvious racial issues that others would rather sweep under the rug—including an unfair stereotype about Asian penis size.

“For as long as I can remember, my work has always had a strangely polarized response… People either seem to say, ‘I fucking hate this! It’s garbage!’ or ‘It’s so great! I really loved it!’— and I’m always freaked out by either response. After ten years of this, it was really good preparation for how this book would be received…

“I first published this story in a serialized form in Optic Nerve, so I’ve received a responsein- progress—which isn’t always a good way to finish a work. There’s been a whole range of responses, really. Especially with Asian- American readers, people have come up to me at signings and said really negative things. No one is having an idiotic response; they think my take on stereotypes is at least…interesting. But instead of saying, ‘you’re a racist, Adrian!’ or even, ‘You’re an idiot!’ they’re asking, ‘Why did you even bring that up? Isn’t it better just to push it aside and not even address that?’”

Tomine spent four years creating Shortcomings, from illustrating Flatbush Avenue in twopoint perspective to sketching out the pages in stick figure form to making sure it would fit the page count. During this time, Adrian’s life changed immensely—including a move to New York, a marriage, and adjusting from his introverted “vampire” hours to his wife’s nineto- five work schedule, so he can’t help that the novel encompasses his own shortcomings, as much as those of his fictional character.

“Especially in the world of alternative comics, every step of the way is made by the same hand, and that is perfectly suited to the world of very personal storytelling. I mean, sure, other people have managed to convey very personal stories in other media, but to me it seems that the more hands that touch something, it can’t help but be compromised or diluted. The way someone experiences a comic is very personal, more so than sitting in an audience with a hundred people watching a screen…

“There are enough autobiographies strewn throughout my work. No matter what I do, people seem to read it as a straightforward autobiographical story of my life. A lot of people have approached Shortcomings that way—that I’m Ben Tanaka and that’s it. But it’s my own thoughts and personality that are spread out within all the characters, even the more minor ones.

“I certainly don’t abide by the saying that these characters started to write themselves and took on a life of their own…There was really specific ground of who Ben had to be, how he had to move within the story. But the Alice character was definitely inspired by friends of mine, especially the relationship she has with Ben. I’ve always had female friends that are much more outgoing, much more open, and often had better luck with girls than I have. It’s definitely a dynamic that I’m familiar with.”

The write stuff

“I think there’s something funny about abject misery,” Daniel Handler told Kenneth Oppel in a darkened auditorium last Saturday while readers of all ages listened in, keen for glimpses at fantastic worlds of imperilled orphans and outcast bats. Handler, author of the popular series Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Oppel, best known for the Silverwing trilogy, appeared as part of the 28th annual International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront.

“Misery can build and build and build,” Handler illustrated, drawing a steep slope with his left hand before letting it fall, “and there’s a place where it’s suddenly not miserable anymore.”

“Yeah, sometimes there’s just death,” quipped Oppel.

Too maudlin for kid lit? Not on your life. The authors pooh-poohed the idea that children’s fiction should be cheery, light, and pedagogical— standards that certainly don’t apply to adult literature and art.

“No one says, ‘Michael Ondaatje, you really need to put a more profound moral in The English Patient so people can know how to live their lives.’ When you’re young, you’re given completely idiotic examples [of right and wrong] that will never happen in real life,” said Handler.

The best-selling authors offered insights for would-be writers.

“The early stage of the creative process—I call it daydreaming—is a total avoidance of work,” Oppel admitted. “Then comes the planning.”

Handler offered up the real tricks of the trade: eavesdropping and plagiarism. “I steal a lot from other books. I believe it’s called inspiration.” But, he cautioned, “The thing about eavesdropping is that you should come up with an excuse before you are caught. Because you will be caught and you want the excuse ready.”

Oppel demanded a demonstration.

The key, explained Handler, is to weave a story with the aid of an object. “The first thing that I’d do is knock over that glass of water,” he gestured. “And then I can say, ‘What happened to it? I’m so clumsy! If you could get a towel, I believe you were just saying they’re in the closet …’”

Oppel, successfully diverted, wondered aloud at the aversion to endings. In reply, Handler argued that finishing a good book “is like taking a small child out to the backyard and shooting it.”

“If you’re honest with yourself, you want the very best for your heroes,” said Oppel, who nonetheless killed off the main character of Firewing, his third book. “You want them to get their heart’s desire, you want order restored—that’s what every reader wants.”

“And the question is, does the story deserve that kind of ending? You feel cheated if the world that you had been immersed in didn’t allow for that kind of ending.”

Respectable Radio

Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio is an inside look at the narcissism of late night talk-show host Barry Champlain (played by the talented Alex Champlin) on fictional Cleveland radio station WTLK, and the spiritual void of his callers.

The show opens at the end of a call-in business show hosted by Sid Greenberg, (Kat Letwin in a bright yellow, shoulder-padded blazer). This taste of the 80s is one of the great technical achievements of the show. As Letwin leaves the stage, the “Night Talk” crew arrives: ex-hippie producer Pam Noonan (Emma Baasch), station manager Dan Woodruff (Andre Havrylyshyn), and Barry’s assistant and sometimes lover, Linda MacArthur (Sophie Patterson).

Finally, Barry himself arrives. Champlin exudes his characteristic presence. His performance, however, took 30 minutes to really take off. While Champlin may be the most talented actor currently at U of T, this show, unfortunately, does not deliver his full potential. There are moments when his natural ability shines through, usually in the acerbic comments he makes to callers, but the character of Barry off the air was not differentiated enough to make the character as compelling as it could have been. This has more to do with the direction Champlin received than a deficiency in his talent— the entire show felt overacted. The tortured, dissatisfied Barry I had been waiting to see for the entire show finally comes out to full effect during his final monologue.

As the show progresses, each character turns to the audience and tells of their relationship to Barry. Havrylyshyn delivers a naturalistic monologue that represents some of his best work, and was one of the few moments in the show that wasn’t overacted. Patterson, who was the brightest light of the whole show, constantly caught the audience’s attention with her superb “on-air” reactions to callers and her chemistry with Champlin.

The callers were another high point: Pippa Leslie, Alex Rubin, and Mika Rekai mastered the Midwestern accent, and demonstrated great timing in their delivery. Their timing reflected what I thought the mood of the show should be: understated absurdity. The script is such that if all the characters were to take themselves seriously, the overall comedic effect would be great.

First-time director Tim Lindsay’s strong technical background was evident with good overall design work. He lacked the same prowess in his direction. The sound design by Lindsay and TCDS veteran Emma McKee was a huge compliment to the show, especially the pre-recorded callers. Both Champlin and the sound operator made this challenging idea work very well, and the audience never knew if the callers were live or pre-recorded. Lindsay made a very respectable showing for a first-timer, but the show could have benefited from a seasoned assistant director to work exclusively on character development. Lindsay should have trusted that the show is funny in itself, without pushing the actors to overdo it. That being said, taking into account that the whole show was produced in about a month, Talk Radio is a solid piece of theatre.

Falun Gong makes noise

Over 500 demonstrators blocked the right lanes of St. George, Bloor, and Yonge streets on Sunday to protest the Chinese Communist party’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners. Organized by the Global Human Rights Torch Relay, an international campaign created to draw attention to China’s poor human rights record, the rally aimed to push the Chinese regime to improve its human rights policies before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The HRTR lit its flame in Athens on 9 Aug. 2007, the start of the one-year countdown of the 2008 summer Olympics. In 1999, the Communist party’s leader, Jiang Zemin, banned Falun Gong in China. Since then, severe persecution of Falun Gong practicioners has raised international alarm and a push for human rights. Protest organizers claimed that 66 per cent of torture victims in China are followers of the Falun Gong movement.

In 2000, Amnesty International released a statement the regime’s campaign bears “an eerie resemblance to the horrifi c attacks against the Jewish people in Nazi propaganda.” The Human Rights Walk-a-Thon began after a press conference at the Toronto Chinese Consulate on St. George St. set off, leading marchers, cheering “Free free Falun Gong!,” all the way to Dundas Square, where an open concert was performed until evening, at the time when an open screen movie, Good and Evil, was shown.

Several guests also spoke out against the crimes committed against the Falun Gong—including the Honourable Consulate General of Estonia for Toronto, Laas Leivat.

“We thought that exposing human rights violations in the Soviet Union eastern bloc was a difficult job. It was much much easier to do that than this today,” said Leivat of the battle against China’s regime, and making reference to his incomparable involvement in the Soviet Union.

Included among other speakers was Dr. Gerry Koffman, a Toronto family physician, and the Canadian coordinator of Doctors against Forced Organ Harvesting. Koffman spoke about the Chinese government’s collecting organs from executed Falun Gong practitioners, often selling them to desperate transplant seekers.

In 2006, a Canadian MP report confirmed that Chinese state-run websites were advertising organs for sale for up to $160,000. International observers allege that China’s state-run hospitals are killing practitioners for their organs.

The Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falon Gung was also brought up, which sent letters to China’s communist leaders, asking them to stop the execution of Falun Gong practitioners, and to allow the CIPFG to enter China and investigate the persecutions.

Philip Pullman breaks down fundamental particles

Philip Pullman picked up a pitcher and poured some water into a glass. The prolific children’s author then spent the next hour discussing what he had just done, in a far-from-dry lecture that united physics and fiction.

Fundamental particles of matter, from atoms to electrons, neutrinos, and quarks, are constantly redefined as new discoveries break through. Pullman is more concerned with fundamental particles of narrative, which he identified as the smallest events we can find— journey and separation, pouring from one vestibule to another.

“There is an overwhelming Niagara Falls of information pouring into our eyes,” he said, and templates, patterns in sensory experience, help us make sense of them.

Pullman presented a series of visual art that, unlike language, don’t have the advantage of sequential displacement to evoke a story’s temporal action.

From New Yorker cartoons to Rembrandts, from a rotund Prohibition- era man tipping homemade moonshine into his coffee to a haunted figure pouring lamp oil to bring light, the action of pouring held a piece of the narrative puzzle.

Children used to be considered empty vessels into which knowledge was poured, like plants that had to be watered in order to grow, said Pullman, moving from literal actions to symbolic significance.

Dismissing publishers who clamour for the next “hotter than Potter” children’s book, Pullman advised young writers to write what they want.

Technology for the comic strip existed by the fifteenth century, but not until the nineteenth century did they appear, said Pullman, illustrating his point that invention is based on prior ideas as well as new territory.

Positing himself as the literary Muhammad Ali, the author took a line from the boxing great: “I read like a butterfly and write like a bee.”