Sunday, August 31, 2008

Stifling the Critics

The cutting of funding programs for interactive and multimedia projects in Canada should come as no surprise. The nation's creative communities have long harboured antagonism towards the sullen essentialism of the Conservative party and its corporate neoliberal political enterprise.

"But why," bemoan arts administrators and artists alike, "would they target relevant media like film and internet development?"

Notwithstanding the shot to poets and painters inherent in such questions, the truth is: because multimedia arts and training programs might provide a platform for able critics of the conservative project (for a background on Neoliberalism generally and aspects of its Canadian manifestation, read David Harvey's _A Brief History of Neoliberalism_ and Jeff Derksen's _National Literatures in the Shadow of Neoliberalism_).

Simply put: the possible effectiveness of critical generation that new media artists engage combined with their dependence on public funding and unwillingness to assign their skills to remolding the neoliberal project leaves them both vulnerable and undesireable to government censorship.

Suggestion: use your media to get the bums out of office and be thankful that A) you aren't a poet and completely irrelevant in today's socio-political context and B) you don't live in Russia.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Poking Holes in Montreal

I have no doubt that all who know me have been breathlessly anticipating the hole-poking blog ever since my Darling's return to Montreal.

Well. Here it is. Yesterday we got on our bikes and went riding in the sunshine to the old port. Then we braved the service at a Victoria Square restaurant and ate and drank and generally felt quite romantic and not a little dizzy from sun and imported beer.

You ready?

Then we attempted to ride home only to find some jackass had stabbed holes in the back tires of our bikes and the tires of several other bikes along the street we had parked them. Somehow that dampened the moment.

I have this glorious vision of some seedy little shit giggling as he punks the tire on Ash's beautiful bike with a fleur-de-lis lapel pin. Then he gags on my wrist while I twiddle his tonsils - his hole firmly poked.

Fucking Montreal.

Friday, August 15, 2008

City for Sale

I recently bought a copy of Age of Empires III to while away the lonely hours remaining until Ash gets home. Foolish boy. Even with the graphics settings at minimum quality, the physics generator that kicks in when buildings or ships are involved in the battle scenes overloads the capacity of my four-month-old Toshiba Tecra. Total shutdown, useless gameplay.

So I return the game to Bestbuy for a refund. Truthfully, I do not need new video games with all the work on my plate right now. I tell the service person that I need to return the game. She says "Why?" (I looove one-word sentences). I explain the problem to her. She says they don't refund video games that have been opened. I ask her how I could know the game doesn't work if I don't open it. She begins repeating herself, stating that this is clearly explained on the bill. I point out that I received the bill after the sales transaction completed - not before - and that it can therefore not be a legal contract.

Clearly, I am being difficult. But I just pissed two days away playing a game that doesn't work. The agent explains that I can swap it for another copy of the game. I point out that the problem lies not with the game but the erroneous working requirements printed on its packaging. She confers with a manager (by which I mean she goes out for a cigarette) and comes back saying I can exchange the game for another game. I look at games. The minimum requirements on all of those in the same price range are greater than AOE III. No good. She offers exchange for anything else in the store and we compromise with a store credit. All this means, of course, is that I have no game, no money, and credit at a store that sells nothing I require.

Round 2...

During a meeting with my graduate administrator, she mentions a sale on sporting goods at a Sports Experts nearby. Needing a pair of shorts for yoga class (yoga-another story, another time) I wander over. The sale items are mostly $90 board shorts with Velcro flies. Great for hairless boys with too much money but not really what I'm in the market for. I find a pair of Umbro soccer shorts that'll do the job - they're not on sale but, being only $24, they do fall within my fiscal grasp.

I take the shorts to the till where the sales rep runs the shorts through and thoughtfully informs me that they are final sale - before the transaction is completed. Still smarting from my wasted hour this morning, I ask why that is. She explains that all sale items are final sales. I point out that these shorts are not a sale item. She nods and says "yes but because we are having a store-wide sale, all inventory is a sale item, even if it is not discounted". This is performative language at its best. I ask for the 30-50% discount advertised on the fliers for the store-wide sale. No go. She calmly asks if I've tried on the shorts, disregarding my question completely. I shake my head, no. She offers to let me do so and I decline, satisfied that at least I've been bested by a pro.

The shorts are looking at me now. I have not tried them on, for fear they do not fit.

This pair of small adventures started me thinking again about Quebec retail. Montreal retail, especially. Nothing you buy here ever works. The brand-new Toshiba Tecra, in addition to failing to run any video game more recent than Starcraft (and even those graphics are wonky) also has a faulty webcam and approximately 75g of its 130g memory is sucked up by that horrid Vista OS, with all its incumbent problems (try running Yahoo chat with Vista some time). Furniture, appliances, food - you always wind up having to return to the Vendor to get shit straightened out in this city. Every sale is final because every retailer says so on their bills, whether they are legally permitted to or not.

Theories? Well, Bestbuy says they can't sell that game I opened. That's a lie. The stickers are intact and they assuredly have a shrink-wrapper in-store. I couldn't help but notice a couple of games on their shelves that had clearly been repackaged while looking for a replacement. Sports Experts? They know their staff cover ass before money changes hands. If you care to pick a fight over $30 or $40 worth of merchandise, you have an uphill battle that is simply not worth the stress or the effort. They know this and, because we understand that everything written is true, they preempt the effort with a line on the bill stating said finality with a red stamp for emphasis.

Retail advertising is expensive and in Montreal, where all advertising needs to be done twice by major chains who don't specialize in niche markets, the retailers simply cannot let go of a dollar, once received. And their employees, glad to have a job in this depressed city, work with grit, hanging onto that dollar with screaming nails. Add to this the clear shortcuts the retailers take with their own vendors and you wind up with sub-standard, over-marketed merchandise and a return policy that means you can do whatever you like as long as you don't want your money back...

...I think I'll wait until tomorrow to try on those shorts.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

When Coffee Fights for the People

So, at some time that isn't right now, I'm ordering a sausage on the streets of Toronto and a shirtless Dirty Hippie in a nasty backpack comes up and asks the sausage vendor and I where the nearest McDonald's is located. The vendor - a lovely old German woman - and I confer and give him what we think will be the best bet. He then shares with us why he would be such a dick as to ask a sausage vendor where the nearest McDonald's is located (rather than having a sausage).

He wants a cup of coffee. Assuming that we're incredulous at this pronouncement, he waves a hand at the five or six coffee shops within sight of where we stand and explains: "these guys all rip you off, man. They charge, like, two bucks for a cup of coffee and McDonald's is, like, a buck-fifty and you get a free refill. These guys are all so fucking corporate, they just rip you off and make you bleed."

Now, in fairness, among the many shops were a Second Cup (who ripped me off $20 for internet that they didn't actually provide, the fuckers - but that's another story) and a Starbucks, both of whom fit into the corporate paradigm presented by Dirty, the hippie. But the other three were independent operations. One of them was a free-trade enterprise that proudly announced their lack of internet access and clearly catered to the area's Dirty Hippies.

So how does a place like this get branded "corporate terrorist" in contrast to that real-values paragon of counter-culture down-home values, McDonald's? It's the free refill.

For years, nobody would drink the piss being served at Rotten Ronnie's unless it was cheap and free. But as McD's knew that to muscle all the family diners out of their locations, old-timers raised on free coffee and cheap gas needed a place to sit and kvetch all morning. So McDonald's played hardball, offering the same crap coffee for the same crap price to keep the noise of the revolutionaries to a dull roar.

Fast forward a couple of decades and you see something new happening in Coffee. Starbucks has overturned the cart and found a way to sell a five dollar cup of coffee and make people WANT to pay for it. The coffee is not better, but for a generation that considers Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives entertainment, the packaging of the coffee trumps all other considerations. We live in a moment where the most crucial consideration of lifestyle budget planning is the daily "Latte Allowance".

However, the small shops find a way to fight back. Understanding that foamy milk-swilling yoga-monkeys in Lululemon pants were taught better standards by their parents and would be less willing to whore out to corporate demands if the alternatives offered slicker absolution, the indy shops started selling better coffee at the same ridiculous prices with the same attention paid to coffee accessories - cookies, mints, craft breads, etc. (likewise, Lululemon markets seaweed in their pants, a double-marketing success when it's revealed that there is no yucky seaweed in their seaweed pants - making Lululemon both environmental and conscious).

McDonald's, gearing up for their challenge of Starbucks - the only franchise chain still capable of facing up to them since Subway mistakenly relied on Jared the shrill douchebag nerd for their marketing campaign - quietly goes a step further. They start selling decent coffee. At the same low price, with free refills. Then they market the other crap to combat the Starbucks brand and, at the same time, label all the coffee shops who mimicked Starbucks' model in order to survive as corporate ripoff artists. Only McDonald's has your best consumer interests at heart. Only they will give you, the little guy, a fair shake (they can't call it a milkshake due to the lack of dairy).

We see it everywhere. Wal-Mart, with their roll-back campaign that has devastated wages across the entire globe and lowered the standard of living in Canada and the US to the tune of 4% per annum - making the new poor increasingly dependent on Wal-Mart for their consumer goods and groceries. Fannie-Mae and Freddy-Mac, offering 45 year mortgages to those same poor people in order to give them the allusion of an American dream of home ownership at sub-prime interest rates. Never mind that the industry can't survive on sub-prime income. The government will bail them out. The American dream is a speculative fiction anyway.

And McDonald's and Starbucks, who offer benefits to their employees rather than money and trap them in a minimum wage quagmire that's nearly impossible to escape. You can't take time off to better yourself when you're living on $8/hr. You can't afford real food. Or a bed made of real wood. Or a car that won't break down and uses fuel efficiently.

But Mr. Dirty, frothing shrilly against corporate evil as he challenges both the woman trying to sell sausages for a living and the fair trade merchants across the street as corporate shills just out to gouge your eyes and steal your wallet, he can afford a cup of coffee at McDonald's. Try asking the owner of that franchise where you could find a good sausage on a bun and see what answer you get.

Fuck the revolution for all its stupid assholes.

Tune in next week, when we take a look at who pays Paul Watson's salary and why running down fishermen off Canada's coast is so very, very exciting.