Sunday, June 28, 2015

MuseScore 2.0 - A Great Success

I was excited when MuseScore 2.0 was released a few months ago. I’ve been using the program for a couple of years to engrave scores and generate midi output for rendering into digital performances. Some persistent bugs, left unaddressed too long in the 1.x development cycle, meant waiting for 2.0 for the fixes.

In order to see how 2.0 performed, I selected two fearsomely complex piano pieces I wrote a number of years ago. My goal was to see if I could engrave them exactly as notated in the manuscripts, then realize satisfactory audio performances directly from the scores.

The two pieces are musical reflections on the first and second hexagrams of the I Ching (The Book of Changes). The scores can be viewed as PDFs at

    http://www.schaffter.ca/pdf/Ch’ien.pdf
    http://www.schaffter.ca/pdf/Kun.pdf

or on YouTube (along with audio) at

    Ch’ien:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MMXN5VdAnY
    Kun:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEWPldWLbLs

Overall, I have to say I am very pleased with 2.0. An immediately obvious improvement is the implementation of fully-functional constrained mouse moves and a “snap to grid” option. What a timesaver. No more firing up a screen ruler and slip-sliding things around until they line up. But the best thing about 2.0 is the new “Inspector,” a pane showing nearly every configurable value for a selected object. My test scores needed many, many tweaks (which were expected because of the scores’ complexity). The Inspector made it much easier to effect the changes than the former note-by-note, right-click method implemented in 1.x.

Ch’ien and Kun posed both notational and playback challenges. Playback being a sensitive point with the developers (the party line, oft-repeated, is “MuseScore is a music notation program”), I’ll write about it in another article.

The main notational challenges presented to MuseScore by Ch’ien and Kun were:

 1. a piano grand staff comprised of four staves instead of the usual two
 2. the use of transposing clefs (8va and 8va bassa)
 3. ottava lines
 4. chords joined by the stem across multiple staves
 5. cross-staff beaming
 6. continuing beams over system breaks
 7. arpeggiandi across staves
 8. open-ended ties across bar lines
 9. long slurs with awkward profiles, sometimes spanning staves
10. additive rhythms, meaning no time signature and bars of significantly differing lengths
11. unusual tuplets, e.g. 5-64ths, with brackets
12. multiple grace notes
13. accidentals that apply only to the notes they precede
14. metronome markings given in 16th notes
15. span lines, e.g. Ritardando.....
16. extensive dynamic markings
17. precise pedaling instructions
18. text instructions requiring more than one line

MuseScore 2.0 rose to every challenge, as the finished scores show. Both are perfect in that every item appears exactly the way I want, where I want it. The overall spacing, layout and justification are excellent, as is the design of the musical symbols and notes. In terms of the finished score, MuseScore 2.0 is easily the best WYSIWYG music notation software out there. With continued development, it stands a very good chance of becoming a killer app, as the GIMP is to graphics, or VLC is to media players.

I generally judge the usefulness of a WYSIWYG program by whether it ever leaves users stuck with something they don’t like. A well-designed and implemented program allows for overriding every default, or, at the very least, for coming up with creative ways to improve the undesirable or achieve the unusual using the program’s native tools.

MuseScore is exceptionally well designed in this regard. A good example occurs on pages 11 and 12 of the Ch'ien score, where I needed beams with different values (8th and 16th) in several voices to continue over the system break. MuseScore doesn’t handle this requirement (it’s very rare), and it’s tricky to “fake”, but by hiding various beams/flags and manually drawing lines of the correct thickness and positioning them over the notes, I was able to achieve the effect.

I rank MuseScore’s implementation of “hiding” (making graphical elements invisible) amongst its best-implemented features. The developers have observed the principle of orthogonality, such that one can hide, with respect to any note, the accidental, the notehead, the dot, the stem, the flag and the beam separately. Most users will never need such extreme separability, so kudos to the developers for providing it. Best of all, hiding can be toggled with a simple keyboard shortcut, the letter “v”, and toggling the hiding/showing of all invisibles at once can be mapped in Preferences by the user.

Now, to the specifics.

Items 1-3: I had no problems setting up the four-staff grand staff. Furthermore, on playback, the transposing clefs transposed as expected, as did the ottava lines.

Items 4-6: Stretching stems across staves was accomplished easily by hiding note-flags and beams (if any) and extending the stem from one staff to meet the stem on another.

Cross-staff beaming was straightforward and reliable. A missing feature was the ability to set the beams horizontally automatically; where slanted beams looked awkward, I had to adjust them manually. This required firing up a screen ruler since the beam handles do not snap to the page grid, which would have significantly eased the operation.

The need for extending beams across system breaks is a rarity, and MuseScore doesn’t implement it. I had to get creative to achieve the effect, but MuseScore provided the tools. As mentioned above, pages 10 and 11 of Ch’ien show the results, which are flawless.

Item 7: Arpeggiando signs can easily be dragged to cross staves, however getting the desired playback is fussy. I’ll address the issue in my article on MuseScore playback.

Item 8: Open-ended ties aren’t common, so I expected setting them up to be finicky. It was, but not unnecessarily. I made ties to invisible notes or chords at the start of the next bar, then adjusted the starting position and length of the ties so they curved just over the barline. It’s another good example, like extended beaming, of MuseScore meeting my “never leave the user stuck” criterion.

Item 9: Slurs. They’re amazingly well implemented. Even long slurs spanning multiple staves exhibit elegance and grace. Rare were places I had to make adjustments. The only place where MuseScore fell down was when slurring from a stem-down to stem-up note; by convention, the end of the slur should go clearly into the stem of the stem-up note, not into or close to the top of the stem, which is how they presently appear.

Item 10: I expected the additive rhythms to give MuseScore the most trouble, but I was wrong. Calling up the Measure Properties dialogue in any bar let me specify the number of beats I needed, even oddities like 27/32. Many music notation programs fall down on this issue, so a big thanks to the MuseScore developers for getting it right.

Item 11: The creation of tuplets isn’t exactly intuitive, but it’s simple to do once you RTFM. MuseScore lets you specify whether you want the tuplet bracketed, which is nice because I often do, but like cross-staff beams, it isn’t possible to have the brackets horizontal by default, nor to get the handles to snap to the page grid.

Item 12: Multiple grace notes, no problem.

Item 13: Having accidentals apply only to the notes they precede made note entry painstaking, tedious, and prone to error. Because I intended to generate playback from the scores, it was necessary to add an accidental from the palette to every note needing to be raised or flattened. Furthermore, accidental-ed notes had to have their accidentals cancelled with hidden natural signs. The hidden natural signs frequently interfered with the correct positioning of visible accidentals, particularly staggered accidentals (which, under more usual circumstances, MuseScore handles intelligently). It is fortunate that MuseScore allows shifting the position of accidentals, since it didn’t leave me “stuck”, but the amount of work required to get them right was staggering. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

Given the number of scores written in the past hundred years with the “accidentals apply only to...” requirement, the MuseScore developers need to give the matter some thought. I propose a special note-entry mode where Arrow-Up doesn’t raise a note by a semitone, but rather always adds a sharp, with the same behaviour for Arrow-Down and flats. (This would also help overcome MuseScore’s hate-on for E-sharp/B-sharp and F-flat/C-flat.) All notes without an accidental would, in this mode, be treated as naturals upon playback.

Item 14: Metronome markings using the 16th note were possible, but the text field is buggy. When adding tempi markings to Kun, the default note value appeared as a dotted-quarter with no stem. Wiping it out from immediately left of the equals sign took three presses of the Backspace key—and still didn’t wipe out the dot! Also, I dislike the default “lowered and smaller” notehead style used for tempo markings, so I had to adjust the size after entering my 16th note. It would be nice if this were a settable default.

There was a playback issue, too. Although the Inspector has a “Follow text” option for tempo markings, it doesn’t. The text, “<16th-note> = 114”, unambiguously means the unit for metronome beats is the 16th, and there should be of 114 of them per minute. Playback, however, multiplied the speed by 4, indicating it was using a quarter-note as the beat despite text that said “use a sixteenth”. The solution was to uncheck “Follow text” and enter a BPM one-quarter the desired tempo. Easy enough, but “Follow text” should, to my way of thinking, mean “follow text”. If it means something else, perhaps it should be labelled differently.

That said, the idea, if not the implementation, is a great addition to MuseScore.

Item 15: Span lines were a bit of a nuisance. For example, a simple ritardando over two bars required: a) dragging a solid line from the palette to the note where I wanted it to begin; b) changing the line to a dashed line (in the Inspector); c) right-clicking the line to call up the Line Properties dialogue; d) entering “Rit.” in the text box; e) adjusting the formatting of the type and its placement relative to the line (placement defaults to somewhere in the middle of the text’s x-height); f) dragging the rightmost point of the line to the desired location. Do that often enough, and you start to get irritated.

I hope the developers will consider adding a few of the most common span lines to the palette: Rit., Accelerando, Cres., Dim., and the like. Alternatively, a method for creating one’s own span lines in the Master Palette, similar to the way one can create new time signatures, would be just as welcome.

Item 16: Adding dynamics to a score (p, mf, fff...) is a no-brainer, however there is a caveat when it comes to moving them around after they’ve been added. If you mouse-drag an already-placed dynamic too far, you risk decoupling it from the note and/or staff to which it was attached and having it attach to another. This has no effect on the printed score other than repositioning the dynamic to the desired visual location, but it does affect playback. The only reliable way to prevent a dynamic from anchoring to a different note while repositioning it is to use the Inspector to set the new horizontal and vertical offset.

Hairpins (crescendo, diminuendo) are a pain in the neck if you have need a lot of them. In theory, adding them is easy: click the notes where you want the hairpin to start and end, then hit the “<” or “>” key. Unfortunately, the default starting point aligns with any accidentals that precede the starting note, and the default endpoint is always one note further to the right than the one you selected. The left-hand problem is a bad design choice; the right-hand problem is a bug. Both meant a lot of manual tweaking.

Item 17: There is no way to add a pedal line between two selected notes (i.e. a range of notes). A pedal line must be dragged from the palette to the desired starting note, whence, by unchangeable default, it runs the remainder of the length of the bar. Pedal changes within the bar require moving the anchor of the “pedal up” mark back to the correct position one note at a time. As scores increase in length and complexity, the amount of time it takes to move backward just one note increases, sometimes by up to one second on my AMD dual-core system. The annoyance of having to move the pedal-up point backward for every single pedal change within a bar, plus the sluggishness of the operation, is enough to make a sane person go ballistic.

Though it pains me to say so, MuseScore gets a failing mark when it comes to pedaling, and I seriously hope the developers change their tune on the subject, which presently runs: The need for precise pedaling is rare (since when?), “to the end of the bar” is a sensible default length (it’s not; “to the next major beat” is), and use simile to avoid too many pedal marks, which goes against the advice of most style guides.

Item 18: MuseScore doesn’t include linespacing in its text formatting controls, which means that if you need to insert multi-line text instructions, you’re stuck with the linespacing MuseScore gives you, which is often too loose. I hope this oversight, present in 1.x as well, gets corrected.

Miscellaneous

Randomly and inexplicably, but routinely, the little arrows used to increment or decrement fields in the Inspector (e.g. the horizontal offset) begin to react twice to a single mouse click. Thus, if a click is supposed to increment by .50sp, it increments by 1.00sp instead. Once the behaviour starts, it persists throughout the session.

Anchor points for pedaling are based on the staff to which the pedal line is attached rather than to the whole system (grand staff). This means, for example, that if you have a full measure rest in the bass staff, pedal lines have to be attached to the treble staff for their anchors to be positioned correctly. Afterwards, the line has to be dragged to the proper position beneath the bass staff.

Scores exported to PDF look ghastly, at least when viewed in Okular, which is one of the most common PDF viewers on Linux systems. I haven’t seen such jaggedness in diagonal lines and curves since the early days of Mario Bros. A workaround is to export the score to PNG, which produces a separate .png file for each page. Convert each of the .png files to .pdf, then concatenate them into a single file.

MuseScore’s text-formatting is extremely rudimentary. Typographically satisfactory title pages with items like performance instructions and instrumentation are next to impossible. I typeset mine separately and join them to the PDF version of the score.

Around page 20 of the Kun score, I wanted to respell a couple of pitches. I selected the chords in question and hit Respell. From where I was in the score, the result looked like what I wanted so I saved and quit. Imagine my dismay, on re-opening the file, to discover that the entire score had been respelled! I lost a couple of days fixing everything. I’ll know better in the future, but since I’m certain not to be the only person who hasn’t read the manual before using the Respell function (which specifies that Respell acts on the whole score), it would be a good idea for MuseScore to issue a warning before performing the operation.

Finally, my Ch’ien score reveals a puzzling bug in MuseScore. Every time I save and re-open the file, it’s corrupted. Specifically, several pages worth of pedal markings are significantly out of place. The problem is not with the score itself, since before saving it, it renders perfectly on the screen. (I know, I re-entered the pedal marks dozens of times.) I’m not sure how MuseScore can render a file perfectly when it’s open (pre-save/close), but mangle it upon re-opening. Potentially a serious bug, even though, at present, no one else seems to have encountered it, and only Ch’ien is affected.

Summary

While the final version of my two scores shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that MuseScore 2.0 allows one to create beautiful scores to exacting standards, it doesn’t always do so as efficiently as I believe it could. On the basis of my “never stuck” criterion, I give MuseScore 2.0 a solid 10/10, but issues with dynamics, hairpins and pedaling lower the mark to 8. The developers are, however, marvellously responsive to bug reports, suggestions and feature requests, so I expect that MuseScore will soon reach 10/10 in all areas concerning the creation of printable musical scores.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

2015 Dalton Camp Award submission

The following is an essay I submitted to the Friends of the CBC’s 2015 Dalton Camp Award. The contest subject was “The link between the media and democracy in Canada.” With a $10,000CAD prize, anyone in their right mind would have written an essay currying the favour of the Friends and the judges by re-hashing the role of the Fourth Estate and supporting the CBC to the hilt.

I am not in my right mind. For decades, the CBC has been out-of-touch with all but middle-class and upper Canadians. Its once-proud tradition of journalism–remember The Fifth Estate breaking Brian Mulroney’s Airbus kickback scandal?– has been drowned out by Pastor Mansbridge of The National nightly intoning the government-in-power’s party line. Intellectually, it has been so dumbed down that when I review, say, documentaries by Glenn Gould on YouTube, documentaries made in the ’60s and ’70s, I am dismayed to realize that in 2015, a man such as Gould would never be given free rein to occupy the airwaves with programs as profound as The Idea of the North or as erudite as An Art of the Fugue.

The notion that the CBC is still what it was in its glory days persists among liberal, educated Canadians. Many assert with pride (and a certain distasteful elistism) that they only listen to CBC–particularly the news– believing it to be the voice of all Canadians, linking rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and unschooled. One can reasonably assume that the Friends, and the Dalton Camp Award judges, are of this opinion. If my goal had been to make a stab at the $10,000, dispelling this persistent myth about present-day CBC and implicating it in the demise of democracy in Canada would clearly not have been the way to go about it.

Yet that is precisely what I did. Don’t get me wrong: I loved CBC radio when I was growing up. I would not be who I am today–intellectually, culturally, or politically–were it not for Gilmour’s Albums, Off the Record, Eclectic Circus, The World at Six, Morningside, Ideas, The Royal Canadian Air Farce (radio version) or Glenn Gould’s breathtakingly articulate documentaries. Through the medium of the CBC, I came to understand what Trudeau meant by a “just society”, and shared the quiet, assured pride Canadians felt about being part in it.

I submitted my essay as a sort of test to see whether those who believe the CBC is still what it was were open-minded, capable of accepting reasoned criticism, and unafraid to acknowledge that Canada, no longer a functioning democracy, became that way in part through a failure of the Fourth Estate. I suspected not, which doesn’t mean I didn’t hope to be proven wrong by winning.

Not having won proves nothing, of course, though I can’t help noticing that the winning essay stays well within the lines and steers clear of the fact that the link between the media and democracy in Canada is meaningful only if we have a democracy, which, as of September 12 2014, we unequivocally do not. The winning essay is well written and researched, though, and deserves a read (The Freedom to Jest: Protecting Our Democratic Right to Parody and Satire).

The text of my essay as presented here is stripped of footnotes to aid readability. If you’d like to read the text intact, as submitted, a typeset copy in PDF format is available on my website here.


Democracy: Error 404

Essay submitted to the 2015 Dalton Camp Award competition


It’s Hallowe’en night, and Jack-o-lanterns are flickering on the street outside my window in Vanier, Ontario. The usual hookers have been chased from the sidewalk by trick-or-treaters dressed in Dollar Store costumes.

Never heard of Vanier? It’s the poor part of Ottawa, the one you don’t see on The National. A large portion of its residents are on social assistance. Alcoholism is rampant, as is crack use, and prostitution. Most of the housing is rental, with absentee landlords who collect tax credits for three years then flip the properties.

Vanier is just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill, but politics is rarely a topic of conversation here. Residents of Vanier know it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always wins. Increasingly, better-off Canadians are feeling the same way. I recently saw a bumper sticker on an SUV loaded with kids and hockey gear: If voting could change anything, it wouldn’t be legal.

Democracy exists to safeguard against tyranny, a situation that exists when too few hands hold too much power. Put another way, democracy is founded on the principle that all who are drawn to power will abuse it.

The distinguishing feature of democracy is that sovereign power rests in the hands of the governed. The people, in other words. Sovereignty, as defined by the 1648 treaties of Osnabrück and Münster–collectively, “The Peace of Westphalia”–entails self-governance, the acknowledged right of a country to enact legislation free of supranational interference.

Yet on September 12, 2014, the Canadian government, headed by a duly-elected Prime Minister, ratified a trade agreement with China that gives state-backed Chinese corporations the right to sue Canada when legislation passed at any level of government interferes with their profits.

This is not the first such agreement, called a FIPA (Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement), that Canada has signed. At last count, there are twenty-eight. Any one of them, arguably, erodes the sovereignty of Canadian democracy. What is different about the one with China is that when China isn’t happy with our legislation, they can sue us in camera. That means in secret, behind closed doors. More frightening, we, the the citizens of Canada, won’t even know when China institutes proceedings against us. Depending on how heavily China invests in Canada, resource management, healthcare, education, banking, and environmental and human rights legislation are no longer under our control.

It’s time to face an unpalatable truth: we no longer have a democracy in Canada, not by any definition of the word. Sovereign power does not rest uniquely with her peoples. The China-Canada FIPA forfeited that right.

How did we come to this? How did a once admired and respected nation allow itself to become the servant of a master other than its citizens? A master, moreover, with an atrocious record of human rights violations and environmental spoilage? More important, how is it most Canadians were blindsided by our loss of sovereignty?

The link between the media and democracy is supposed to be that democracy requires informed citizens, and the media informs them. Where, then, was the media in the period between the signing of FIPA and its ratification two years later? How is it so few Canadians even knew of its existence?

It is easy to point a finger at government. From the 2012 signing in Vladivostock to the press-release announcement of its ratification in 2014, the government did its best to stifle debate and keep FIPA out of the public eye. Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s blistering sixty-second briefing to the Speaker of the House on October 24 2012 was a lone cry in the wind.

But FIPA was a matter of public record after it was tabled in Parliament. Since it posed a serious threat to Canadian sovereignty, the national media should have been on it like white on rice. Yet despite mounting grassroots opposition, critiques by acknowledged experts, and petitions signed by tens of thousands of Canadians, the media remained virtually silent. The day of ratification, it ranked lower on The National than the shenanigans of Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, as the following Twitter posts remind us:

L. Lea @YukonGale:
  “The National is half over and FIPA hasn’t yet been mentioned.”

The National @CBCTheNational:
  “Thanks for your tweet. Mentioned at the 20 minute mark in the program.”

L. Lea @YukonGale:
  “Sorry, I must have blinked. You don’t think that was more pertinent to the country than the Ford story?”

One could be forgiven for suspecting the CBC, a Crown corporation supposedly at arm’s length from the government, was in this case anything but. However, the failure of mainstream media to serve its role in Canadian democracy runs deeper than the seemingly complicit silence over FIPA.

The link between democracy and the media depends upon a necessary fiction, that of journalistic impartiality. We expect significant news items to be reported accurately and in an unbiased manner. The media, however, cannot do this. The very manner in which it reports the news shapes public opinion. Which stories are considered newsworthy, how many seconds or column inches they receive, and how stories are prioritized are powerful tools for manipulating public perception.

Add to this the problem of ownership concentration in Canadian media, and the untenability of the fiction becomes obvious. One wonders how anyone was ever gulled by it. Whoever holds the purse strings to the media controls the flow of information to the public. This is as true of the CBC–say it isn’t so!–as it is of CTV (a subsidiary of BCE, the parent company of Bell Canada), Sun Media (a subsidiary of Québécor) or Postmedia (owner of all the former Canwest/Global publishing properties). Ownership concentration has been business as usual in the Canadian media for over a hundred years. In his heyday, convicted fraudster Conrad Black owned 59 Canadian dailies (55% of the market), most of which were acquired from Southam Inc., a newspaper empire founded in 1904.

The most troubling weakness in the link between the media and democracy in Canada is manifested at election time. The fault is not entirely the media’s. Blame lies in a flaw that’s woven into in our electoral system: the Prime Minister is chosen by default. The leader of the party with the greatest number of seats in Parliament becomes, de facto, the head of government, putting Canadians in the position of casting a one-size-fits-all ballot for their local MP, the party they would like to hold majority in Parliament, and the leader of the nation.

Our system of representational democracy is supposed to reflect a combined, upward expression of the will of Canadians. Ideally, we vote for the candidate whom we believe will best represent our riding’s interests in Parliament. Typically, this candidate is aligned with a political party that embraces a particular ideology, such that the sum total of party representation in Parliament represents the national political zeitgeist. The leader of the party with the majority of seats becomes Prime Minister, not because s/he was elected to the position, but because s/he was chosen by party members as the embodiment of the virtues and aspirations for Canada the party espouses.

During elections, the media, both regional and national, unfailingly focus on partisan politics. Intentionally or not, they paint a simplistic, top-down view of the electoral process, one that trivializes voting for best representation, encouraging, instead, placing bets on a winner. Election coverage resembles Queen’s Plate day at Woodbine. The field is reduced to two front runners and a long shot, usually the NDP. The breeding, background, and win rate of party leaders are trotted out like racing forms. Weaknesses are attacked with the zeal of piranhas flaying a hapless cow. Party standings in the polls–the odds–are reported daily.

This last is particularly destructive because it fosters strategic voting. A strategic vote–a vote against something–is no vote at all. It is a response to feeling backed into a corner, compelled to use one’s ballot to prevent an outcome rather than pro-actively support one. This kind of binary choice–back the winner or skew the race–isn’t democracy, it’s playing the odds, and calls into doubt the authenticity of election results. Combined with gerrymandering and a lack of transparent mechanisms for investigating electoral irregularities, it is theoretically possible for Canadians to elect a Prime Minister known to be disdainful of democracy and seem to grant him a majority in Parliament despite his party having less than forty percent of the popular vote.

Well, perhaps not so theoretically.

The media’s role in democracy does not end with elections, though all too often it does. Press releases and wire-service stories stand in for real journalism. Facts are reported without taking into account that reporting is not just about facts, but the dynamic interplay between them. Informed analysis is required to make news stories meaningful and set them in context. Such analysis is generally missing from the daily news reports Canadians rely on. Even when it is not, the analysis is often perfunctory, and significant stories are allowed to die afterwards. CBC radio, for example, broadcast a discussion between treaty expert Gus Van Harten and David Fung of the Canada-China Business Council shortly after the signing of FIPA in 2012. It raised alarms about the constitutionality of FIPA and its damaging impact on Canadian sovereignty, but there the story stopped. Despite demands for Parliamentary debate, despite tens of thousands of petition signatures, despite Trade Minister Ed Fast’s assertion in May 2014 that only “technicalities” stood in the way of final ratification, scarcely a peep was heard about FIPA on the CBC, other than a blip or two occasioned by the Hupacasath judicial challenge–Ed Fast’s technicalities.

“Much has been written over the past two years about the impact the Canada-China FIPA,” says The Council of Canadians blog of September 12, 2014, but if it has, it certainly hasn’t been in the mainstream media. A Google search for news items about FIPA between January 2013, four months after the original signing, and September 2014, the date of ratification, turns up practically nothing originating from Canadian news sources. My downstairs neighbour, a school teacher who regularly turns to the CBC for news, was completely unaware of FIPA’s damaging provisions, let alone that only the Green Party had denounced it in Parliament, called the government to task, demanded debate, and stood up for the sovereignty of Canada.

“Media” in the 21st century entails more than the traditional, gated outlets of print and broadcast. Social media and the Internet provide a free alternative for disseminating information and fostering debate. Valiant efforts were made by bloggers, the Green Party of Canada, Leadnow.ca, The Council of Canadians and other advocacy groups to keep FIPA foremost in the minds of Canadians, but to what effect? The deal was ratified. One of two conclusions that may be drawn from this. Either social media and the Internet are not yet the effective tools for democracy they promised to be two decades ago, or the government is contemptuous of democracy and unconcerned with the will of the Canadian people. The latter seems more likely. An Ipsos Reid survey conducted for The Vancouver Sun in December, 2012, revealed that 59% of Canadians opposed a free-trade deal with China, 68% wanted the Conservative government to block the sale of Canadian firms to foreign investors, and 74% felt the governing Tories should stop acquisitions made by foreign, state-owned enterprises.

Even with the traditional media reporting these findings, even with the free and open Internet striving to keep Canadians informed, even with Elizabeth May’s clarion calls in Parliament a matter of public record on YouTube, the present Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, signed away the sovereignty of the Canadian people.

The link between democracy and the media in Canada, however imperfect, is now irrelevant. For there to be a link, there must be a democracy. But like a browser URL you click on that results in “Error 404: Page not found”, when I click “Canada” this Hallowe’en night in Vanier, up pops “Error 404: Democracy not found”.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015: The Year Everything Breaks

Very probably I shouldn’t write this post. I’m not a psychic. I rarely make predictions about anything. Experience has taught me just how bad I am at it. But I have a feeling 2015 will be the year everything breaks, and I want to make sure the feeling is on record. I hope I’m wrong. Then again, perhaps not. The way the world is going, change will only follow on collapse. My intuition may just be that everything is going to change.

The world is already broken, of course. It’s hardly news. Capitalism is imploding. Whole countries teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. The sleeping giant, Russia, is stirring again. China has abandoned its Middle Kingdom insularity and seeks to dominate the world economic stage. Much of Africa is now a post-colonial cesspool, ravaged by AIDS, Ebola, and genocide. The populations of Central and South America live in fear of kidnapping, torture, and murder. The citizens of Britain can’t walk to the corner store without being tracked by CCTV cameras. Totalitarian governments in Southeast Asia are courted for child labour. America is ruled by a handful of elites who together hold more wealth than 99% of the rest of its population. The Middle-East is a killing field for warring fundamentalists and oil-dependent foreign interests. Sovereignty is dead in many countries, with legislative power handed over to trans-global corporations or the World Bank. Everywhere, the very rich are getting very richer while the very poor sink deeper into hunger, thirst, disease, and desperation.

Our functional vocabularies have shrunk to Newspeak size. Memory Holes are growing, and Big Lies pass for journalism. Liberal education, once a virtue, is dismissed, while greed, a vice, is fervently promoted. Debate on almost anything is now impossible. Illiterate opinions pass for arguments, and futile online rants replace the rhetoric of discourse.

Advertising has become the propaganda tool for a new corporate order. Citizens already crushed by debt are pressured into purchasing on credit just to bolster “The Economy,” a tool for prosperity that’s turned into an overseer’s whip.

Sexual liberation, so desperately needed to cast off the yoke of Victorian morality, has devolved into obligatory hedonism. Feminism has been cynically corrupted by the entertainment media. The liberated woman now is All About That Bass, with “...that boom boom that all the boys chase” and “All the right junk in all the right places.” Racism and homophobia are as rampant as they ever were.

Anomie and disempowerment afflict the globe. The Internet, which in its infancy we thought would usher in a golden age, is cancerous with narcissistic social media. Smart phones fool people into thinking they’re connected with the world, while addiction to the tiny digital displays cuts off the opportunity for real interaction. They and their bigger brothers, tablets, are like crack, a drug whose high, apparently, consists of simply craving more.

Non-medicinal use of psychotropic drugs is pandemic. Krokodil, a brew of match-tips, gasoline, and codeine that devours the body from inside, has left its native Russia and is popping up in North America and Western Europe. Alcohol continues to enjoy most-favoured status despite millenia of family breakdown, ruined lives, and violence, while marijuana, peaceable and medically useful, still earns its sellers and consumers prison terms.

The world is undergoing climate change, but rather than preparing for it, right-wing PR think-tanks and environmentalists shout insults at each other, neither group acknowledging that whether God or Man’s to blame, the process has begun and needs a global strategy to deal with the consequences.

Video games and CGI have saturated an entire generation with hyper-real images of brutality unknown as entertainment since Caligula and Commodus. In real life, students slaughter classmates, fathers massacre their wives and children, young men with an axe to grind spray theatres and restaurants and shopping malls with automatic weapons.

The Earth is being raped for resources a fool can see won’t last. Ecosystems vital to the planet’s health are being destroyed for short-term profit. Monsanto manufactures costly seed whose fruit is barren so that farmers can’t replant and have to buy new seed each year. Biotech unleashes GMOs into the wild with no regard for consequences. Fresh water, once abundant and the property of all, is dwindling; profiteers are scrambling to make it a commodity, like gold.

If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering what’s left to break if 2015 is the year everything breaks. I suspect what my intuition is telling me is that the cracks in the facade are widening, the lies are getting more transparent, the fictions that allow us to ignore the truth are stretched to snapping.

The source of nearly all our present woes is greed, and the wealthy’s mania for power. Global revolution, impossible before the Internet, may be the only way to stop them. I’m no fan of revolutions. They’re bloody, innocents die, and the inevitable counter-revolutions often leave things in a worse state than before. Alternatively—and this is what I believe—the whole stochastic house of cards we call the global economy is about to tumble down, with cataclysmic impact on all but a very few, self-sufficient nations. The mighty American Empire will likely be the hardest hit, given the obscene disparity between the numbers of its rich and poor.

Let’s hope my intuition is as bad as usual.

Monday, September 16, 2013

And He Built a Crooked House...

The mall experience is something I avoid whenever possible. Rare’s the time I find what I’m looking for. But last Saturday, I donned my biking gloves and knapsack and headed over to the St-Laurent Shopping Centre.

I had three items on my list: ink for my printer, new jeans, and a new pair of sneakers.

St-Laurent is as horrible as any other mall. It’s an expressionist nightmare where no corridor proceeds in parallel with any other. Entrances and exits, or the escalators up and down, seem to recede as you approach them. The only thing that’s missing for a truly Kaligari-esque experience are looming shadows on the walls, and that’s only because the weirdly artificial light casts no shadows at all.

It’s a house of mirrors, too. Halls that led you to the shoe store yesterday today deposit you outside the food court—Heinlein’s And He Built a Crooked House made manifest.

The Printwell service counter is conveniently located just inside a southern entrance. I approve of Printwell. They exist to screw the system, filling up your printer cartridge for a fraction of the cost of a replacement. My old bird’s been going for a couple of years now thanks to them.

I dropped my cartridge off, and was told it would be ready in about a half an hour, time to pick up jeans and sneakers. I know my jean size (30-34) and my shoe size (12), so it seemed a simple matter of finding what I needed on the shelves.

I started with the sneakers. All my life, I’ve favoured canvas running shoes. They’re comfortable, cheap, and practical. I’m a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy, so they don’t look out of place. And they’ve been around forever. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine devotes a whole chapter to them. Besides, fashionable footwear angers me. I want function over branding. I’m not vain enough to think a logo magically transforms me into something that I’m not.

St-Laurent has seven shoe stores, four sporting goods stores, and two department stores—more than enough to find a pair of size twelve canvas runners. I like high-tops, but I’m not that fussy; ordinary low cuts are fine.

Could I find what I was looking for? Not a chance. I added a mile or so of wear to my already worn-out sneakers traipsing through the mall, checking every one of those thirteen stores. Only three had canvas sneakers. The offerings at Payless Shoes had quilted padding and cost 3x what I paid the last time for unquilted ones. Footlocker had Converse, but the sales person shook his head when I enquired about size twelve.

I felt a glimmer of hope at SportCheck, where they had both Converse and size twelves. The glimmer faded when I asked price: sixty-five dollars. “You’re paying for the name,” the clerk said sympathetically when I pointed out the shoes were made of canvas, rubber, and a little bit of foam.

If I’m paying for a name, that name had better be along the lines of Stradivarius or Fabergé, not something as supremely inconsequential as eight letters in a circle on the ankles of my running shoes!

Sneakers off the list, I attacked the jeans. Besides the two department stores, St-Laurent boasts eighteen clothing retailers, including two that specialize in jeans. The plethora of choices offered was staggering: boot cut, straight cut, classic cut, slim fit, comfortable fit, high waist, low-riders, button fly, zipper... Some were even ordinary denim blue. But the only choice that mattered—30-34—was nowhere to be found. Not in one of twenty stores.

I couldn’t believe it. There I was, in a temple to commerce, in a day and age where economic pundits and other lackeys of the über-rich prattle on about competition and consumer choice, and not one single competitive price or useful choice was to be found.

Angered at this sham of “giving consumers what they want”, and disgusted by the propaganda that supports it, I went back to Printwell, paid a reasonable price for my unbranded black ink, and left.

Outside, the sun cast comfortingly real shadows on the ground.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cooking Poor:
Making yoghurt at home

If your reaction to the subject of this article is Ew, I don’t like yoghurt, then go away. I’ll be preaching to the choir.

Yoghurt is miracle. Milk plus some bacteria equals one of the oldest treats known to mankind. While I’m sure it’s terribly good for you, as so many claim, what matters most is that it’s delicious and keeps for weeks. I may use coffee to kickstart my brain, but it’s that morning bowl of yoghurt that makes my days worth facing.

If you embrace the principles of “living poor,” making yoghurt at home fits right in.

First off, you’re manufacturing something yourself rather than paying someone to do it for you—in this case, the dairy industry. The people who profit when you buy processed milk products at the supermarket aren’t dairy farmers, but stockholders invested in supermarket chains and the food conglomerates supplying them. While we can’t avoid the dairy industry when it comes to basics like milk, butter, and cheese, we can give it the finger by making yoghurt at home.

Secondly, the environmental damage caused by unnecessary processing of foods is reduced every time you make a product marketers would have you thinking it’s easier, or better, or faster, or simpler to buy—yoghurt, especially flavoured yoghurts, being a classic example.

Making yoghurt is no trouble at all, and litre for litre costs the same as milk. Where I live, a container of supermarket yoghurt comparable in flavour to what I make at home costs four times what I pay for the equivalent amount of milk.

Yoghurt enthusiasts on the Web have their hearts in the right place, but may be doing a disservice because of their excessive emphasis on getting temperatures perfect. There are thousands of articles out there telling you to heat the milk to such-and-such a precise temperature, then let it cool to such-and-such another precise temperature, then let it incubate at yet another precise temperature.

Bollocks! In thirty years of making yoghurt, I have never touched a thermometer. Here’s the skinny on how to make real, no-fuss, no-worry yoghurt.

Pour any quanitity of milk you like into a thick-bottomed pot. Heat, stirring contantly, until it begins to foam. Reduce the heat and simmer for two minutes, still stirring constantly. Milk has an awful tendency to boil over.

Remove the pot from the element and let the milk cool until it passes the baby-bottle wrist test, typically half an hour.

Pour the milk into a clean bowl and stir in a tablespoon or so of your last batch of yoghurt. If you’re making yoghurt for the very first time, buy a small container of good, unflavoured commercial yoghurt and use a tablespoon of that instead.

Cover the bowl with a lid or plate, and set it in the oven with the oven light turned on. Leave for 12 hours.

Voilà! A bowl of yoghurt, ready to be cooled. I usually pass a whisk through it a couple of times to incorporate any whey (the clear liquid that rises to the top) before transfering it to a smaller pot for storage in the fridge.

The consistency of homemade yoghurt is a little runnier than commercial offerings, which often use lecithin, egg-white powder, and other thickeners. Why, I do not know. Extending the product, maybe, so manufacturers can squeeze another dollar out of a litre of milk? At any rate, the 2-minute simmering evaporates excess water from the milk and ensures a thick, unctuous, honest yoghurt.

The flavour is generally better than bought yoghurt, and you can increase the tanginess by letting the yoghurt incubate longer. I like a good, “bright” yoghurt, and have found 12 hours to be just about right.

The essence of living poor, cooking poor, is summed up by making yoghurt at home. It costs less than buying, it robs food conglomerates of inauthentically-generated profit, it contributes to the well-being of the Earth by reducing wasteful and destructive over-processing, it diminishes the carbon footprint of shipping, and it tastes fantastic. How perfect is that?

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Missives from the Edge by Peter Schaffter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.