Sunday, 28 July 2019

SAINTS PRESERVE US

A + B = C: Unintended Consequences

National food and pharmacy giant Loblaw last week allowed to The Canadian Press that it might have been a glutton for too much of a good algorithm. Apparently the chain’s implementation of an artificially intelligent marketing strategy derived from data extracted from its customer loyalty program and designed to increase profit has, in fact, done the exact opposite. This is not pathetic fallacy or mere coincidence, Alanis Morissette, this is O. Henry irony writ large in red ink.

Arithmetic has never been one of my core strengths. But through six decades of life I’ve worked out a sort of formula akin to an equation by reading literature, studying history, staying current with the day’s news and examining my own life: action A intended to affect (not always successfully) outcome B inevitably creates unintended consequence C; where A is the constant, B is the variable and C is the constant variable, the proverbial spanner in the works. More often than not it’s prudent to be careful what you wish for.

Loblaw’s enhanced marketing plan failed to achieve its main goal, boost same store sales. It also inadvertently encouraged loyal customers to buy more goods which provided the retailer slimmer margins. Sometimes it’s just simpler to fix the price of bread. An analog aside: same store sales somewhat stubbornly remain the golden metric of retail success even though most retailers are on board with their own cannibalistic e-commerce platforms.

Should you take a moment to do the math, (in your head or in my case with a Texas Instruments calculator), you’ll quickly realize that our postmodern world is rife with ABCs and always has been. There is always a compelling, if flawed, argument to insert a sabot into the gears of progress and advancement because, truthfully, nothing ever seems to work out as planned. The Internet and its utilization to invade privacy, and spread hate speech and propaganda is an obvious culprit to target, right up there with the internal combustion engine whose proliferation has had a resoundingly negative impact on architectural design, land usage and hey, strange weather we’re having these days.

However the alternatives to progress present portfolios overstuffed with their own unintended consequences. Stasis is stultifying and unnatural; planned regression is just insanity, Canute could not roll back the tides and even Cher cannot turn back time. Though Loblaw’s stumble this quarter may constitute a technophobe’s wet dream, the company’s only way forward is to tweak its algorithms and their usage, keep on keeping on until they get it right.

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Monday, 22 July 2019

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Fixing Holes

Forty years ago in Montreal I had a record store route. My stroll could be a social or solitary activity and often used up all of side one and a portion of side two of a fine day with nothing else planned except for a night of listening and liner notes.

Times have changed and I am no longer the fanatical and devoted consumer of recorded music I used to be. That admission should be qualified. From The Turntable in Victoria’s impossibly narrow Fan Tan Alley to Back Alley Music on Charlottetown’s Queen Street, I know where the record shops are in every Canadian city where I’ve spent more than a night or two. I have a dreadful hunch that should I traverse the country on an insane music buying binge, the number of stores I’d patronize would be less than the number of loitering stops along my old Montreal route.

Though the record industry had dodged previously perceived lethal threats to its existence such as the advents of commercial radio and home taping (remember too that newfangled record pressing technology supposedly sounded the death knell of sheet music publishing and printing), it became plump low-hanging strange fruit ripe for digital disruption, a victim of its complacency. Everything got broken, shattered, shoo-doobie.

Artists are now laughably under-compensated for streaming and YouTube plays but unintended consequences eventually shake down to main streets: white-washed windows. Record shops are few and far between these days. The few I’m able to frequent, where you can smell the cardboard and the dust, tend to be cramped spaces and so inventory is limited and browsing becomes a sort of elaborate ballet of murmured niceties.

I’ve neither qualms nor quibbles paying a few dollars more for something as marvelous as Bruce Springsteen’s new Western Stars at my indie record shop. That release is a treasured addition to the music library I’ve carefully assembled and curated since Elton John lost his mojo and Mick Taylor quit the Rolling Stones. Now when I shop for records I mostly think about fixing holes in the collection, plugging gaps. Jimi Hendrix has never really knocked me out but a home without ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Crosstown Traffic’ is just a house.

This mildly obsessive thinking has led to something of an uneasy alliance with Amazon. While I prefer to part with my money live and in person, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to get what I need on familiar avenues. Conversely, I understand that a virtual marketplace such as Amazon allows local retailers to infinitely expand their businesses provided their stores aren’t already boarded up.

Buying music on Amazon is a joyless experience, like filling out a form. There’s no satisfaction, the thrill is gone. Everything I want is just a click away. That earlier era of my life spent haunting Montreal places like Dutchy’s Record Cave, Rock en Stock and Phantasmagoria, always open to the stuff in the new releases rack and the catalogue bins when everything was new to my evolving tastes, is gone. Still, I’ve managed to approximate that 20th century feeling to some extent in the 21st. Over the course of a period of months I compile a list for Amazon. I then order enough discs to qualify for free shipping which usually requires multiple shipments to the Crooked 9. The next step is nothing: I purposely ignore Amazon’s tracking updates so I’ve no idea what’s coming by which carrier when; the torture is exquisite even as every new day teases the promise of new music and accompanying liner notes.                           

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Tuesday, 16 July 2019

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

The Train Don’t Run by Here No More

Kensington is a small town on Prince Edward Island. There’s an intersection with stoplights and on one of its corners is a filling station with a Tim Hortons coffee shop attached to it. There’s a Mels coffee shop across the street, an Atlantic competitor to the national chain. There’s a grocery store and a hardware store. A little beyond the traffic congestion is the Frosty Treat dairy bar whose grilled whistle dogs are worth crossing the country for.

The town is an easy, pleasant and scenic 40-minute drive along the Veterans Memorial Highway from Charlottetown, the provincial capital. Kensington is inland on the island’s isthmus and so Summerside on the Northumberland Strait and Malpeque Bay on the Gulf of St. Lawrence are almost equidistant, approximately 15 minutes away. Kensington was a stop along the railroad steel that once connected Charlottetown to Summerside.

Discounting the spooky, mock-Tudor HAUNTED MANSION, Kensington’s main adult attraction is its RAILYARDS. Or RAIL YARDS. Or RAILYARD. The various signs and scraps of promotional literature refuse to tell a consistent tale. The Yards (as the development shall now be known for the purposes of meGeoff) are a civic accomplishment to be celebrated. Somebody in Kensington’s local government in this town of less than 6200 permanent residents had the vision and wherewithal to transform derelict rail infrastructure into an asset as a tourist destination whilst respecting the town’s heritage as a station on the mainline. Bravo!

The preserved stretch of weedy, single track right of way is about half as long as a Canadian football field. Low boardwalks twin the rails on either side; step down and step across and step up, stroll around in your summer clothes and tease your wallet. The hub of Kensington’s Yards is a pub called Island Stone. The proprietors did not run up their credit card at genericpubfixtures.com. There’s a platform patio of course. The room with the bar is intimate, the separate dining room not much bigger. The menu is limited but not without variety and so they’re very good at preparing what they do offer; the always-on-feature crab and lobster club sandwich is a destination dish. Canny locals make reservations during prime mealtimes.

Behind the pub is a provincial liquor store. The outlet is notable for its stone exterior which compliments its public house neighbour’s. Again, somebody thought this project through and imposed the appropriate architectural controls. This is a model that can and should be applied to larger scale urban reclamations. Cutting corners and chintzing, redeveloping on the cheap are aesthetic crimes against citizens’ quality of life.

(A personal though apropos digression: every Canadian should be absolutely livid over the Fairmont hotel chain’s plans to add a 147-room Soviet Brutalist wing to Ottawa’s legendary greystone and gothic Chateau Laurier hotel. I further submit that the use of public funds to rehabilitate 24 Sussex Drive, the abandoned and neglected residence of Canada’s past prime ministers, isn’t even worthy of debate. Do it.)

Kensington’s original railway station is a little further down the line. The heritage building, at once a familiar and classic design, has since been transformed into an art gallery highlighting the works of the region’s creative community. Works of art or crafts in a place that thrives on tourism can be problematic whatever the level of talent because clich├ęs sell. Therefore the browser will find paintings of white lighthouses with red roofs or white homes with green gables. There will be patchwork quilts replicating the island’s rolling farm fields of green, red and brown; green and blue seaglass jewelry abounds as does red clay pottery. Take it all in with a dash of salt because the lines between fine art, folk art and crafts, whimsical kitsch and utter crap are as fluid and grey as the ocean. Season to taste.

Across the track is a shingled seafood take-away shack called Go! Fish. The restaurant’s weathered cabana, a walk-by with picnic tables and not a drive-in, is not out of place in the Yards. Its incongruent neighbour is a hair salon. The elegant pink script above the door does not hark back to those primitive days of mere tonsorial arts. Beside the holstered blow dryers and the tins of Adorn is one of those ubiquitous and irksome shoppes: a crammed emporium purveying precious platitude plaques and scented candles, the sort of store that just incites rage, demands a mad bull for inventory control. But it’s always WINE O’CLOCK! A TIME TO BE TREASURED AND SHARED WITH FRIENDS, FAMILY and DOGS! LIVE, LAUGH, LOVE AND FLOSS! Thank Christ the liquor store and pub are mere steps away because if you decided to just lay your head on the track and wait, well, nothing good can ever come of that no 

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Friday, 12 July 2019

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Distant Echoes

The airliner touched down with a gentle bounce on a Nova Scotia runway. Halifax’s international airport is named for a former provincial premier, Robert Stanfield whose family made its fortune selling underpants. The rest of Canada recollects that that decent and upstanding man was a bumbler, the federal Tory leader who was unable to defeat the up and coming elder Mr. Trudeau because he dropped the ball, literally fumbling a football during a photo opportunity in those bipartisan days before backroom operatives scripted theatre for evening newscasts and social media.

Though I was too young to vote, I can still vividly recall the rock star buzz of Trudeaumania. And I can picture the classic photograph of that Stanfield campaign gaffe but I cannot tell you how my memory serves me. Was he awkward and akimbo in the next day’s newspaper or am I familiar with the image because of my interest in my country’s political history? Living memory is fluid and illusory.

My flight taxied along the tarmac at Stanfield. I looked through the Perspex wondering how far away the gate was. Too soon to undo my seatbelt? We passed a parked passenger jet, painted matte grey. The black upper case sans serif letters stenciled on its fuselage read: LUFTWAFFE. Up by its nose under the cockpit was a traditional Teutonic iron cross. Jarred, I thought perhaps I’d landed in a parallel universe.

There is another more ethereal version of memory, one I believe to be collective and multi-generational. Consider the Second World War. My father served overseas with the RCAF, as did my stepfather. My mother once said she never served broccoli to either of her husbands because they both hated it from their time in Europe. My father summed up his wartime experience succinctly: “We were wet, cold and hungry.” Close relatives and the fathers of close friends had lived that same dreadful misery. Consequently, that conflict, won, done and dusted, always seemed present even though I was born 15 years after V-E Day.

My childhood was idyllic; I spent most of it re-fighting “the last good war” in one way or another: television, movies, model soldiers and toy guns. As an adult I’ve expended a significant amount of leisure time studying that particular era of the 20th century, not only the battles but also the years encompassing “the gathering storm” and its aftermath. Those events and every single one of their consequences intended or otherwise, shaped the world I was inducted into on every level upon my birth in 1960. And I fear that as my cohort, the last of the baby boomers, expires, the lessons of history will be forgotten as our collective memory becomes foggier, everything old is new again, repetition easily repeats without context or prior examples near at hand.

In my bag was a brick of a paperback detailing the Krupp dynasty, Ruhr steel
makers who armed the Second and Third Reichs and any other country willing to pay for the firm’s guns, no questions asked. Prior to the First World War more than 40,000 pieces of Krupp artillery were pointed at one another. On a cheerier footnote, Germany (Prussia) hasn’t won a war since 1871.

Downtown Halifax is loosely constrained, squeezed top and bottom by Citadel Hill and the harbour. Whilst walking its hilly streets I was reminded, certainly in terms of military history, it’s always something. The star-shaped fortress that is the Citadel was completed in 1856. Looking up Prince Street you can see the manicured glacis but its stone walls for the most part are sunken, out of sight. The threat to the city and the British Royal Navy dockyards in those days came from the south, the United States of America.

Along the water within walking distance of the operational Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Halifax and a little beyond the flag festooned, domed and tri-towered casino is HMCS Sackville, “the last corvette.” The warship, a Second World War relic, is a museum piece. During the Battle of the Atlantic corvettes were employed to patrol Canada’s coast and escort convoys. These vessels were products of the industrialization of war. Like the Hurricane and Spitfire aeroplanes which were mass produced and changed the course of the Battle of Britain, corvettes could be, relatively speaking, quickly assembled at a modest cost.

Corvettes are small, internal spaces are confined. I have crawled through the Lancaster bomber on display in Nanton, Alberta; I’ve sidled through the intact Nazi U-505 submarine in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry; and I’ve spent a couple of hours above and below the decks of the British navy cruiser HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames by Southwark. The machines of a war fought last century were not manufactured with comfort in mind.

Sackville has been restored and now mutely glistens beneath its wartime camouflage paint. Its hull and superstructure are mostly white, those clear fields riven by fat jagged stripes of pale blue. Imagine a Lawren Harris painting of an iceberg or glacier. At first glance the pattern screams “Target!” But camouflage is a sort of trompe-l’oeil, it will fool the eye, distorting what it cannot entirely conceal. German scientists were about a year behind developing their own version of an Allied technological breakthrough, what we now commonly refer to as radar. So periscope depth then: night or bad light; choppy seas, swells and phosphorus, an undefined horizon, and a disguised ghost somewhere out there as fleeting as a memory.

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