Monday, October 8, 2012

Doghouse in the house.

My old roommate once described my modus operandi as "Run Fast, Stand Still." It's taken from a Ray Bradbury article that likens fiction writing to how geckos move--long periods of complete immobility, followed by sudden and blindingly quick movement. It was meant as a reassurance, as I was going through an extended period of dithering, indecision, and unproductive farting around that was causing me, in my late twenties, to question the directions I had chosen in life and my suitability for a career in the creative arts. He meant to say that I spent a lot of time "doing nothing" but when I did get to work--drawing comix, writing screenplays, cutting and assembling photomontages--it happened all at once in a highly productive burst.

In practice, since I ended up leaving the ranks of the Creative Class and he stayed, maybe RFSS isn't the best approach. Patrick--the marathon runner to my sprinter, or perhaps the R2-D2 to my C-3PO--was a sedulous grinder-out of plays, rewrites and rewrites of rewrites, writing every day, filling shelves with text that grew incrementally better with every draft and, by the sheer volume and perseverance and doggedness, became an excellent writer who (against all odds) now makes a good chunk of his living through creative writing.

In any case, when it comes to creative stuff, I'm still prone to lots of dithering--followed by sudden, precipitous leaps of Just Doing Stuff.

Last week I bought an upright bass off Kijiji. This is one of those things I've been wanting to do for at least a decade. I played electric bass in high school, part (and, it must be said, the weakest part) of a teenage loogan band banging out Stones covers, but gave it up in university. But since then I found genre after genre of music--jazz, jump blues, mid-century R&B, and rockabilly--that I really wanted to play and that all called for the distinctive, resonant sound of an upright bass. The electric bass just doesn't cut it.

To tell the truth, I would have done this a long time ago... if not for the Left Handed Thing.

The Left Handed Thing is the bane of all naturally left-handed would-be musicians. (Well, not all, but anyone seeking to play something with strings anyway.) If you're left-handed, your natural tendency is to want to finger the strings with your right hand and pluck or strum with your left. This means most instruments are "backwards" relative to how you'll be playing.

If you're a lefty, you know it right off the bat, the first time you play air guitar and find yourself mirroring the motions of the right-handed player on TV.

Some lefties end up learning to play right-handed, generally at the behest of music teachers who insist that they go against their instincts. Some of them succeed in doing so, though it's a lot of extra work in what is already a bit of a learning curve. I can see the practical benefits of this, since most instruments are right-handed and in the long term learning to play that way will make life easier. But on a philosophical level it bothers me--like those de-queerifying camps run by the religious right, who, if you're concerned your kid might be, you know, you can send them there and they'll straighten him right out.

When I started playing in high school, I started by just turning my second-hand flea-market right-handed bass upside-down and playing it that way 'cause, well, I didn't know any better. But after awhile, a friend recommended that I get it restrung, making it a true left-handed instrument. The reasons for this were and remain unclear--something to do with being able to make chords. But I did it and was henceforth a left-handed player--an early instance of what would prove to be a lifelong habit of outsmarting myself in various arenas.

It's relatively easy to take an electric bass and reverse the strings and nut to make it left-handed. And there are plenty of reasonably-priced left-handed instruments available in music stores. It's inconvenient but manageable.

But when you decide to play an upright, all that goes out the window. Upright basses are expensive--orders of magnitude more expensive to begin with. You spend thousands of dollars, not hundreds, for an entry-level instrument. And while I'm sure they make left-handed uprights, the cost must be crazy.

You can get a right-handed instrument and get it reversed, but this involves going to a luthier--a master craftsman, applying woodworking techniques and a sophisticated understanding of acoustics and resonance and tone established on an intuitive level at least in ancient Greece and refined over generations with a quasi-monastic dedication to keeping ancient knowledge alive--in short, a cat who knows what the hell he's doing.

Plus, if you're a true lefty player, you face what I call the Marty McFly Problem. What if you learn to play left-handed on a left-handed instrument, and you're somewhere and for whatever reason you want to sit in on someone else's (almost certainly right-handed) instrument? (Answer:  Well, if Marty McFly had been left-handed, he'd'a been fucked, now wouldn't he?) And the bigger the instrument, the more likely that's how it's going to shake out. If you're a flautist you can casually bring your flute to the party and if everyone's just playing Monopoly or whatever, no problem--but you can't cart your doghouse across town on the bus just in case, not if you don't want to be a complete tool, one with a slipped disc in your back to boot.

So this all bounced around in my head for years, leaving me paralyzed like a robot with a bad piece of code, Program A Says I Must But Program B Says I Must Not, does not compute, error error 00111101011101001010 (smoke).

But in the past six months I learned--and this is kind of the point of this post--you can actually pick up a right-handed bass and learn to play it backwards. Unless you're planning to become some kind of virtuoso classical musician, if you just want to play for fun, you can do it. Actually, it's kind of odd how long it took for me to find this out, given the Internet and all. It's part of why I wrote this post, so that if someone Googles a string like "can I play a right-handed bass backwards" or "left-handed upright bass can I play backwards" or "why does God hate me" they'll arrive here.

After seeing several left-handed players whale on a right-handed instrument (including the left-handed lead guitarist for the Space Cadets, borrowing his brother's right-handed upright at Viva Las Vegas 15, and Paul McCartney in this video) it occurred to me that it's just not that big a deal. This was confirmed a few weeks ago by my friends Randy and Symphony, who are two-thirds of the RV-dwelling, guitarist-kidnapping psychobilly trio The Living Deads. These two assure me that there are many, many left-handed rockabilly bassists who just picked up a right-handed instrument and play it goofy-like.

So that's what I'm doing. Since it's been forever since I've played, I sort of have to learn all over again anyway. But it's been a lot easier than I expected. I'm looking forward to a long winter of practicing and making up for lost time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hire learning

Some weeks ago I wrote an editorial for the Moncton Times and Transcript, about the ongoing student protests in Montreal and some of the reasons for same. I actually have no idea if they ran it. New Brunswick's media monopoly, owned and operated by the clan of beloved patroons that owns everything worth owning in the province, now has a fee-for-access model for all their newspapers. So I can't access their site to see if my free labour has been duly exploited or not.

Anyway, I'll re-post it here in the next day or so.

In the meantime, on a related note, I recently attended a gathering of alumni from the more illustrious of my alma maters. It was one of these donation-soliciting events disguised as a celebration of our storied school, steeped in tradition, from whose hallowed halls sprang so many people who, I dunno, did important stuff or something.

The real hook, though (aside from the free drinks at the Chateau Laurier) was the promise of a discussion on the future of The University. Given the goings-on in Montreal, I was looking forward to a lively discussion.

In the event, the discussion actually took the form of a panel of August Personages from the institution--the principal, one of the better-known professors, and a retired Member of Parliament and alumna.

The audience's participation was to take the form of an electronic voting device, with which we could answer a multiple-choice poll after each round of discussion by the August Personages. The results would show up on the screen after each round, echoing the time-honored academic traditions of Family Feud.

The first question had to do with the role of higher education, and whether universities should be training people for the workplace or teaching them to think and be enlightened citizens.

In the ensuing discussion it was agreed that the needs of the economy are changing so quickly, why, we can hardly imagine what it will need even a few years from now. This led inevitably to the conclusion that the citizen thing is more important.

Leave aside the central assumption, the either/or discussion of whether it's possible or necessary to do both. Presented with the question of training people for employment that is gainful enough to pay off the debts incurred in getting a degree, the answer was basically, "Well, that's hard to do, so it shouldn't be our job."

Imagine if you had cancer, and you went to an oncologist who said something like, "Well, curing cancer is really hard and we're not sure we can do it successfully. So I'm going to read you some poetry I wrote instead."

What I wanted to ask them was, "If a university degree isn't about training for the workplace, then why does essentially every middle-class or better job require one or more degrees as a minimum qualification?" Either university education is relevant to the job market or it isn't. If it isn't, someone should tell every human-resources department in Christendom. If it is, well, someone should tell these August Personages that if you're getting paid a lot of money to do something, you should expect that that thing will not exactly be easy.

Unfortunately this response was not one of the four options offered by the electronic voting device.

No matter. The audience, full of well-to-do alumni of this prestigious institution of critical thought and inquiry, were content to e-gurgitate the answer they were just fed. They didn't get where they are by asking awkward questions.

In fairness I should have probably stuck around to see if things got better. But I spend half my workday sitting around politely listening to bullshit. I left after the first round of questioning.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Roadside America!

I am inordinately pleased by this.

Roadside America started out as a book cataloguing the weird and (often unintentionally) hilarious roadside attractions that festoon the North American road system--dinosaur parks, mystery caves, and various contenders for World's Largest Ball of Twine. Fun and educational, at least compared to the public school system.

There may or may not still be a book, but Roadside now continues as a website, with updates all the time.

I recently submitted a tip on the baffling Joey Salter memorial in Moncton, which supposedly shows a ship rising from the depths (per the city's motto, "Resurgo.") But since the ship's captain is standing on the bow, it looks to any casual observer that the ship is actually sinking. Not exactly the kind of message the local Babbitts want to be sending. I can only assume the chamber of commerce took one look at finished product and smacked themselves in the forehead. What the hell were we thinking?

Anyway, they ran my tip. Some of us aspire to having cartoons published in the New Yorker, or articles in Harper's or the London Review of Books. Me, my aspirations are more modest. Also awesome.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Down goes Brazeau!

Okay, not really. Tonight's charity boxing match between Justin Trudeau and Patrick Brazeau ended with both men still standing, Trudeau winning via TKO in the third round. But it was a decisive victory and one that that I can't help but find very satisfying.

The runup to this fight really brought out what I find so distasteful about today's right wing. Senator Brazeau, a heavily-muscled ex-military type with a black belt in karate, was heavily favoured to win the match. And the Sun Media empire, doing its best to bring a Fox News level of civility and reason to the Canadian media landscape, devoted an awful lot of airtime to pre-gloating.

Bear in mind that this was a charity event to raise money for cancer research. But from the get-go it was clear that this was about much more. The Canadian right wing has a crazed General Zod-like hatred of Justin Trudeau. And the angry-working-class demographic that eats Sun Media for breakfast thrives on the kind of crass, bullying, sneering contempt for anyone not like them. These are the people who don their troll masks and fill online comment sections with bitter, personal, venomous attacks against all things non-meathead.

Watch Ezra Levant on Youtube, all Salacious Crumb-ing over the prospect of the "Shiny Pony" Trudeau getting his ass kicked in the upcoming fight.

This was not good-natured trash-talking. This was a visceral hatred and contempt, a need to see a despised enemy humiliated, coupled with the smug certainty that he would get his wish.

Normal people can tell the difference.

If Ezra Levant was in high school, he would be the kid who chortles and rubs his hands together in anticipation of the upcoming fight at 3:00 behind the portables, when the school bully will beat the crap out of the skinny chess-club nerd who dared talk back to him. And rest assured, had his guy won, Levant would not have been gracious about it.

That is what modern conservatism threatens to become, and arguably already has in some places. It's not about having a certain set of ideas and wanting them to prevail. That's not enough. Your opponent is not a rival, he is an enemy who must be crushed and humiliated. Grace in victory is a sign of weakness. Why settle for winning when you can both win and make people who aren't like you feel bad?

This is why the political climate in the United States has grown so toxic. One side has no interest in any long-term accommodation with its opponents. It rules out a priori that its opponents have anything worthwhile to offer other than abject surrender (and even then, as Democrats have learned again and again, they will be despised for it.) It is a slash-and-burn, winner-take-all-forever approach to society. It is not one that is sustainable in the long term.

World War II and Nazi Germany are overused metaphors. But in the runup to tonight's fight, I couldn't help but think of the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight in 1938.

In those days, Hitler seemed unstoppable. It seemed that this vicious regime, that respected only raw power and the unfettered exercise thereof, was going to get its geopolitical way over and over again. When Schmeling went against Joe Louis, the great black clouds of the impending conflict seemed to boil down and condense into this one pair of fights.

In the first fight, Schmeling knocked out Louis. And a few days later, the Aryan superman was going to do it again--cement once and for all his race's superiority over the non-German, and particularly the off-white, peoples of the world.

So when, with the eyes of the world on him, Joe Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round...

Well, it was important.

Sometimes these things really matter. Or they reflect something that matters. The world is big and complicated and messy, and sometimes you need to boil it down to a couple of symbols and put them in a venue we can understand, with simple rules and a simple way of knowing who won.

Throughout the runup, Justin Trudeau carried himself with class. Some obligatory pre-fight bravado aside, he never suggested a lack of respect, or any personal animus towards his opponent. As the fight approached there was some discussion about how he might be able to win "on points, if he dances around the ring enough." This seemed to carry the connotation that such a win wouldn't be a "real" win, i.e. the kind where you smash your opponent, bloody and broken and unconscious, to the mat.

And in the event, he went in there and was the better fighter. He kept up his stamina long after Brazeau tired himself out with mighty swings. He kept up a steady rain of quick, precise jabs. It was clear to anyone watching that if this had been allowed to go on, Brazeau would indeed have gone down. Trudeau kept his wits about him and, in the end, showed that there's more to winning than raw power; that grace, and skill, and intelligence still count for something.

Here's a link to the fight. Tellingly, Sun Media isn't showing it on their website.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Credit where credit is due.

This week saw the release of the first Harper Majority Government's budget. Perhaps it's because the buildup has been ongoing for almost six years, it struck me as being not particularly extreme. I am not a fan of the Conservatives, and I have profound philosophical differences with them. But there were a couple of points in this budget that were long overdue and on these points, I have to give them credit.

First point is the abolition of the penny. I'm not sure what kind of cost savings this is supposed to accomplish--I'm told it's substantial. But whatever it saves, it was time for that coin to go. I hate pennies. They fill up your pocket and your change jar, they're heavy, and thanks to inflation you can't even buy penny candy with them. You feel bad throwing them away because they're money, and you feel worse carrying them around because they're a pain in the ass. With more and more of our transactions happening electronically, we just don't need currency in that denomination. And I say that as someone who still deals a lot in cash. The nickel is close enough.

The other point that I applaud--provisionally--is raising the eligibility age for Old Age Security from 65 years old to 67. I say this with a lot of caveats. I do have serious objections to how they chose to go about it, but let's hold off on those for a minute.

When Old Age Security came into force in 1952, the average life expectancy at birth was 66 and 71 years for men and women, respectively. At that time you only became eligible to collect at the age of 70.

Through the 1960's life expectancy increased, even as the eligibility age was lowered to 65. By 1971 m/f life expectancy had increased to 69 and 76. The numbers have only gone up since then. Today it's 78 years for men, 83 for women.

So an old-age security program, that was originally meant to provide for people who had lived an unusually long time and really, truly could not be expected to provide for themselves, is now viewed as an entitlement that the average person will enjoy for a decade or two.

To be fair, this is a narrow view. It essentially says that what was good enough for the 1950's should be good enough for now; and that people who aren't rich should expect to work until they drop dead. This is pretty much small-c conservative ideology at its simplest and if that were all there were to it, I wouldn't buy it.

But these decisions have to be made in context. Lots of countries have much lower retirement ages. France, until recently, could afford to let people retire at 60 (there was much outrage when that age was recently upped to 62.)

But such countries can afford to, because they've been wiser with their wealth. Here in Canada, we have allowed ourselves to depend on a resource-extraction economy, especially (increasingly) with respect to energy resources. Canada gets less than half the GDP per unit of energy than does a country like Denmark. We tend not to think about these things but what it means is that we're half as rich as we would be if we built our economy to capture all the value-added work from our resources that currently goes to whoever's buying our oil this week.

If we weren't so stupid about it--and if our elites hadn't so completely internalized a colonial mentality in which our only value is as hewers of wood and drawers of water--we would be fabulously wealthy. We could pay for retirement starting at 55, and provide free university tuition to boot, and a ton of other stuff too.

But that's the box we've built for ourselves. We've lowballed our natural wealth and so people need to work more years, with less vacation. So, 67 it is.

Which brings me to my beef with how this was done.

Generational equity is a hard thing to talk about under any circumstances. This weekend there was an article in the Globe and Mail by a staff writer in her twenties, who laid out a very cogent, fair and reasoned criticism of how the increased OAS age was designed to exempt the baby boomers, and will apply only to people born after 1963. In other words, the door will be held open until the last of the boomers reaches 65, whereupon the new rules will come into effect. The last time I looked, there were some 1500 comments. I sampled a few pages' worth, and fully half of these were snide and condescending retorts from baby boomers advising the writer to suck it up and stop whining.

You can judge for yourself whether she made a fair point or not, or deserved anything like the troll-pileup she got for her trouble. But in my experience trying to tell baby boomers that they have had it ridiculously easy compared to what they've left for their children and grandchildren is a mug's game. It's like trying to tell creationists that, no, Jesus did not have a pet dinosaur. No matter how many numbers and facts you marshall to illustrate your argument--and on either version of the analogy there are plenty--our elders as a whole will simply not acknowledge what has happened.

So I'm not going to do it here. Anyone who will believe me already knows; anyone who doesn't already know, will never believe me. The reality of the post-boomer generations will not become part of the consensus until enough time has passed to illustrate the difference between

(a) being the majority generation (i.e. you outnumber all other demographics combined;) and
(b) being the mere plurality generation (i.e. bigger than any other individual demographic, but now outnumbered by all the voting-age people who are younger than you.)

When (a) becomes (b) a lot of people are going to learn some very hard lessons.

But I will make one contrast that, I hope, illustrates why a lot of younger people are upset about how the OAS change is being phased in.

In the early 1990's, governments across Canada suddenly found themselves with a problem. After a devastating recession and spending beyond their means for decades, they found themselves unable to afford many of the programs people had come to take for granted. One of these was support for universities.

So thanks to the change in societal priorities, subsidies were cut, and university tuition started to go up... and up.... and up. Tuition doubled and then doubled again. Student debts got bigger and bigger, and laws were passed to make it harder and harder for graduates to cope through bankruptcy, even as university education became increasingly necessary (but less and less sufficient) to ensure a reasonable livelihood.

I don't want to make too much of the timing, but 1995 was the year the last of the baby boomers turned 30 and so, presumably, the vast majority of them had stepped safely into the education lifeboat. Almost overnight, public spending on higher education went from being an investment in the future, to be covered by deficit spending if necessary, to being an unaffordable luxury.

In any case, this didn't do anything to reduce the actual deficit. It simply split up and privatized it, moving the debts incurred by education from the public books to those of the individuals foolish enough to have been born too late.

But here's the real kicker: These changes happened really, really suddenly. You could enroll in university in 1993, expecting to pay a certain amount for your degree, and find by the time you graduated that the annual bill had doubled or more. There was no effort made to accommodate people already in, or about to enter the system. This was an emergency and had to be addressed right away.

Compare this to the fifteen-year grace period we've built into the OAS change, simply to avoid vexing a large and active voting block. Had we dealt with the costs of university the same way in 1995, tuition would have been held stable until 2010, and everyone this side of the Miss Daisy's Kindergarten Class of '95 would have been spared the financial albatross that higher education has become.

Looking on the bright side, assuming life expectancy holds up that still gives most of us about a decade of retirement to look forward to. But that's assuming it stays at 67. With apologies to Darth Vader--they are altering the deal. If you were born after 1963, pray they do not alter it any further.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Leaving Facebook

When I was in Berlin two years ago, I visited the Stasi Museum, located in the former headquarters of the East German secret police/domestic intelligence agency. Unfortunately my German is spotty at best and the exhibits weren't translated into English, so I had to sort of grope along and try to get the gist of it all.

The Stasi, of all the old Communist state security apparati, are notable for their obsessive, almost comically absurd collection of data on every East German citizen. The degree of their snooping is mind-blowing, with one secret policeman for every 166 citizens; the ratio gets a lot higher if you count the various paid and unpaid informants. The story is that even utterly ordinary citizens had vast volumes of paper files recording in exhaustive detail the most trivial details of their daily lives. Even if there were something meaningful in there, the sheer volume would make it next to impossible to access--you'd have to slog through piles of descriptions of what people had for breakfast, transcripts of boring conversations about laundry, and other chaff to find anything actionable.

I've been on Facebook for about five years now. In the beginning, it was an unambiguously wonderful thing. Suddenly I could easily find friends with whom I'd lost touch years or decades ago. As an online White Pages that didn't care what city you were in and never heard of long distance charges, it was unsurpassed.

Over time, though, it's become troubling--for me and for many others. The games like Farmville you invite into your profile like little data vampires were only the beginning. Increasingly your Facebook identity is defined not by your decisions but by other peoples'. People no longer "invite" but unilaterally add you to groups; Facebook icons on every second website that track what you read; other people can identify you in photographs, be they innocent or compromising.

These intrusions are for the most part avoidable or reversible. But the onus is on you to edit the record, not on others to avoid sullying it in the first place. Innocence is no longer a default state but an endless chore of vigilance. At the very least it requires you to visit Facebook from time to time, if only to make sure no one has tagged a photo of you taking a drunken crap in your neighbour's sunroof.

But these aren't the things that worry me the most. As invasive as they are to someone raised in the pre-digital age, I imagine that they will become part of the background noise after awhile. When everybody is surrounded with cameras at all times, when everyone is connected through social media, when each person can add to the identity of each other person, ultimately everybody is equally exposed. Barring evidence of bona fide criminal activity, it will be a rare person indeed who is in a position to throw stones.

That's the optimistic view, anyway.

And yet Facebook worries me. It's not the fact that more and more information about you is online--that's almost a given, and more or less unavoidable. People don't use the term "information economy" so much anymore--it seems kind of quaint, early-nineties dated, from back when no one was quite sure how to make money from this crazy new Internet thing. But information is definitely a commodity, gathered and sold to marketers to better identify their potential customers. Dozens of websites have information about your shopping, reading, gaming and vacationing habits--but for the most part no one knows about all of these. The puzzle pieces of your life are safely scattered among many players who, by definition, are unwilling to freely share them with each other. The friction of self-interest keeps the full picture of you from being exposed.

But with Facebook, the information becomes much more concentrated. Between the information that you volunteer, the tags that your friends share on your behalf, and the data that stream from the blue F icon (inexplicably) embedded in your favourite porn site, the dozens or hundreds of data streams collect into a huge, private Lake Baikal of information.

The other issue I have is the increasing automation of data collection. Facial recognition software is now advancing to the point that they're talking about sites like Facebook automatically identifying and tagging you in hundreds or thousands of online photographs. To me, the sheer scale of this is ominous, not to say obvious in retrospect. It sounds like the final line in a Twilight Zone episode. "Well, of course we planned this. Why do you think we called it Facebook?"

The logistics of continually finding and deleting unwanted tags are daunting enough. But it's all the worse if the software is less than perfect. In the offline world, I get mistaken for someone else all the time; I just have "one of those faces." My parents once even clipped a photo from the newspaper, convinced that it was me waving a banner at an environmental protest. (It wasn't.)

I don't look forward to the day when buggy facial-recognition software unilaterally "recognizes" me at white-supremacist rallies, Taliban training camps, and Dealy Plaza in 1963.

When that day comes, maybe I'll come back to Facebook. I'll need its Timeline, and the corroborating tags, notes and likes from people who actually know me, just to establish an alibi.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

If you want something done right... well, good luck with that.

I have to remind myself from time to time that incompetence is nothing new--it's probably a fundamental building block of the universe, eternal and unchanging, like hydrogen. But some days it seems like things are getting worse, or at least you hit a particularly rich vein of the stuff.

It started today with a visit to one of the local department stores to pick up a few items. This being the week after Christmas, everything was marked down considerably. However, when I got to the cash and my purchases were rung in, not one of them showed the discount. It's only because my sharp-eyed girlfriend noticed it on the screen (she spent a goodly amount of time managing a retail store) that I was able to get them to correct the errors. Even then, it took some arguing with the clerk. This was not for one item or two, but for all three of the things I was buying. The error amounted to some forty dollars on $160 worth of stuff. The store was full of marked-down prices but no mechanism seemed to be in place to communicate these markdowns to the cash registers.

Shockingly, and lest we too quickly write this off as a unique snafu on the part of one retailer (according to orthodox market economics, soon to be driven out of business by its own ineptitude and replaced with better competitors) I ran into the exact same situation in the next store I visited.

I'm not sure what was at work here. Deliberate deception and bait/switch by the retailers seems a stretch, though in recent years the degree of mendacity in corporate media and the financial industry makes it hard to rule anything out. I can certainly imagine a roomful of spreadsheet ninjas working from the premise that you can't fool all of the people all of the time--but that you don't have to, if you fool just enough of the people just enough, and just enough of the time.

More likely it's a symptom of the de-skilling and de-staffing of the retail industry (indeed, of the service industry generally.) When you rely more and more on bar code scanners and computer systems for transactions, reducing employees to minimum-wage scan-and-smile robots, and (now) on cutting costs by employing even fewer of these employees--well, eventually you get an infinitely replaceable, laterally-mobile workforce that can't do anything at all, much less do it right.

But I get it. It's one of those collective action problems. Every retailer has an incentive to cut his own costs, but when you take all those cost-cutting measures together they undermine the whole industry.

What's much harder to understand is the movie I watched this evening. Sarah's Key (Elle S'Appellait Sarah) is a French film about a Paris journalist investigating the past of her family's Marais apartment, and of the Jewish family that lived there before being arrested and sent to the concentration camps in 1942.

Now, I speak pretty decent French but I have trouble following the dialogue in movies, especially when it's actual French-French (as opposed to Quebecois.) So I put the English subtitles on.

And these subtitles were shockingly bad. Words were rammed together without spacing, many lines bore next to no relationship to what was being said in the film itself, and in many cases they were grammatically incomprehensible. Any viewer who understood English but not French would have been completely baffled and unable to follow the story. It was that bad.

I didn't get it. I understand that French culture has a bit of a thing that sometimes makes it resistant to accommodating non-French speakers. But even the most cartoonishly snooty Frenchman likes to make money, and the producers must have understood that the secondary English-language market for films is enormous. (This one stars Kristin Scott Thomas, fer chrissake!) When you spend millions of dollars on a movie and expect to make that money back, English subtitles aren't something you just dash off as an afterthought, like a software manual. Surely it can't be that hard to find a competent French-to-English dialogue translator?

It kind of pisses me off. For much of the twentieth century, the economy was growing so fast and everything was so dynamic that we could arguably afford screwups all over the place--it just contributed to the liveliness of the creative-destruction petri dish. But today, things have stagnated and lots of perfectly competent, talented people can't find gainful employment. Some of them are friends of mine. If you're one of the lucky people who's being paid to do something, at the very least do us the courtesy of doing it right.