Itsy Bitsy Part 1

At this point I would like to introduce a new feature to the podcast, as yet to be titled. My working title is Ma valise mal à l’aiseMy Uncomfortable Suitcase–but I haven’t had a chance to check the French.

A couple of podcasts back, my co-host said to me, “Look, you’re going to have do some kind of feature or monologue because there’s just too much of me in this thing.” My reply was, “But I’m okay with that.”

As is described on the website, the idea for podcast came about because of the conversations Grace and I have had over the phone over the last ten years. Once a week, we’d have a long chat about recent political and cultural events. Grace would generally dominate these conversations for a number of reasons, but mainly because he likes to talk. That’s not quite right. He likes to think about things and talk about them. And more  often than not, I would listen to this process. Since it would sometimes result in original thinking and conclusions, I enjoyed listening. And I enjoy talking to him because he is one of these people who actually listens to you and responds thoughtfully, as opposed to a person who politely waits for you finish and then continues talking as if you’ve said nothing.

But now we’ve gone public and my co-host is saying there’s too much of him on the show  and I have to step up to the plate. Okay then. Of course the problem is what to talk about. I could do book reviews, but then I’d have to read a lot of books, and I’m actually a slow reader. I could just flat out copy Grace and come up with a list, vary it a little bit so it wasn’t so obvious; something like A Half a Year of Half-Assed Hits; My 26 Favorite Songs that never made the Top 100; Week 10, from 1965 Jody Miller singing “Sea of Heartbreak,” arranged by Billy Strange… But no, no.

I’m not much of an opinion monger; that’s never been my strong suit. So I’m NOT going to craft a give-’em-hell editorial for the show. As a professional journalist I was more of a present-the-facts-and-let-them reveal-a-new-angle kind of reporter. I was fairly good at finding overlooked but important details, quite often finding them hiding in plain sight. But this work can take up a lot of time and it actually requires the help of a network of sources which, now, as an official washed-up journalist, I no longer have.

And so, with the deadline here, and actually passed as I record this, I am at the point where I have to find an easy topic, and the easiest topic to talk about is myself. Yes, big let down. But there it is. Okay, so this is how I’m going to frame it.

On the 2kevins website, on the page describing The Hosts, I reference a couple of hitchhiking journeys I took as a young man and I mention how this influenced me politically. Truth be told, politics played a very minor part in the whole business at that time. Most of the political stuff came about afterward, on reflection, looking back and going “OH! I see…” I traveled through communist countries in eastern Europe and most of the time I was just in shock, and most of my observations were pretty shallow; like “wow, well, that place was a real dump” or “whoa! these cigarettes are crappy!” or “what gives? What’s with all the cement? You people never hear of PAINT?” or “(cough cough) they can actually drink this stuff? GAG!” That sort of thing. Not a lot of context.

These journeys in the mid-1980s will give me the framework for my feature, or at least the starting point. The timeline will vary widely. The inspiration will come from two boxes of memorabilia from that era that have traveled with me over the years.

Rarely have I had the inclination to examine the contents of these boxes. They’re filled with typical pre-digital memorabilia stuff; letters, postcards, photographs and negatives, half-filled diaries, addresses scribbled on torn matchbook covers, a frayed map or two, strange looking coins, a few plain looking small rocks of tremendous personal significance, that kind of thing. The reason I have avoided looking at this junk is that there is some pain in there. The reason I’ve kept it? Well, this is my life. This is my late-in-life show and tell. These are my exhibits. Perhaps I’ll have to prepare some sort of defense in purgatory and need to brush up on the evidence.

So here is the framework for the first journey. In 1982, at age twenty, after having worked for a year and then completed only a year of college, I decided that I wanted to take off from my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, and see a little bit of the world. I went down to the local army surplus, bought a bunch of rugged gear, and then to a camping store and bought some less rugged gear, cut my hair really short (short for the time and place) and headed for the highway south of town. I had a vague plan of going away for two months, traveling to California and back along the coastal highway. I never made it to California. Instead, a year later I ended up in Israel pining after a dark-haired Israeli woman, by way of Alaska, and then a year after that back in Alberta, but this time up in Fort McMurray, home of the oil sands; I, managing a small business in a shopping mall, married to a pretty young blonde Australian woman who was carrying my child. To quote a popular song of that era, “Same as it ever was…” These are the key points of that journey.

I met many interesting people along the way. I will be describing many of these folks as I recount this period. And there were many of them. I’m not sure if it’s a hard and fast rule, but you tend to meet more people when you travel alone for the simple reason that, to strangers, you are more approachable when you are not constantly yakking with a constant companion. At least that’s the way it was back then. And by the way, I will force myself not to use that phrase “that’s the way it was back then,” or something similar, too often. At times it will be unavoidable because many things have changed and these things will require some footnoting for younger listeners to make any sense of them. For instance, there were no cell phones back then, no email. Calling home while on a hitchhiking journey in Europe required a special trip to a special place, usually the main post office of whatever city you were in, from which one could place a collect call. A big hassle. Letters and postcards took a minimum of two weeks to be delivered. And being a young man footloose in Old World, the priority was wine, women and song–I mean literally wine women song–and not on keeping the old folks of fond memory up on where you were. I think the longest my long suffering parents went without having a word from me or any idea whether I was alive or dead was about three months. I lived to regret this though it took many years of living and many more mistakes before I did.

So what’s my first exhibit? Exhibit one is a bit of a mystery. It is a letter of recommendation from my employer in Alaska, a small construction company that I worked for for about six months. It was while working there that I was able to save the money to make the next leg of the journey across continental Europe to Israel. The letter is signed by the owner of the company Brian and I’ll omit his last name for the time being. I will say this, it is an Italian name. That fact is important to my story.

The fact that my employer even wrote this letter is amazing. I had lied to him at the beginning of the job. You see, I was an illegal alien. That’s not the strange part of the story. The strange part is that in the time that I had worked with him I had been to his house twice. On his walls he had a few gold record awards. One of the gold records was for a song called “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.” The guy, my boss, I was told first by my co-workers, and then by his wife, was none other than Brian Hyland, one of these Italian stallion heart-throb boy singers from the late-1950s. My boss seemed pretty shy about this. He never actually told me about it. I did have occasion to ask him about it and all he said was something about the music business being full of crooks, or something like that. He made it pretty clear he was much happier out here in the clear air, with the tool belt on, marking out the floor plan of the bungalow we were about to frame. One time at his house, his wife–2nd wife I seem to recall being told–grabbed me by the arm to drag me to the hall and show me the gold records, and him blushing red over his graying beard, and looking at me with a “Yeah, sorry about this, but just go with it because it’s kind of her thing” kind of look.

So that was neat. But here comes the mystery. It’s many years later and the internet has been created, making research a breeze. I look up Bryan Hyland and I can find no evidence the guy was ever in Alaska. My co-host did his own research and independently verified my finding. The pictures of Hyland look something like the guy I knew, but the guy in the pictures is thinner and without a beard. I wrote to Hyland via a website I found, describing my experience, the letter of recommendation, my gratitude and asked for confirmation or denial that he was the man I knew. I wrote that I would never reveal part of the story that I had been told as to why he was kind to me, without checking with him first. I never got a reply.

Next week, I fill in few details that might shed some more light on the mystery. They offer at least one possible explanation. But then again these details could be all bogus. It was stuff I was told at the time. Who knows? Maybe Hyland will hear this and that might prompt a reply. I mean, why would anyone impersonate Brian Hyland in Alaska? And impersonate him while working as a construction contractor under another name?

This is the first podcast script of my feature Ma valise mal à l’aise (My Uncomfortable Suitcase) that I wrote and recorded for Episode 12 of Grace & Steel.

“I’ll be okay”

(This is the second of two posts following the same idea, which is; wow, I can’t believe the guy who wrote this song also wrote that song which is so different from this song. The first post is just below)

In 1959, a trio of high schoolers calling themselves The Fleetwoods managed to get two songs into the Billboard’s Top 100. The first of these, “Come Softly To Me,” they wrote themselves (recorded part of it themselves as well and btw that thing in the song that sounds like a tambourine is actually a set of keys Gary Troxel is shaking to keep time in what the singers thought was only to be a home recorded demo, but in fact became part of the released song). Their other charting song, “Mr. Blue,” was written by a guy named Dewayne L. Blackwell.

Thirty-one years later, in 1990, Blackwell wrote another hit, this one quite different and not for a bunch of teenagers, but for a major country music star;

So yes, wow, I can’t believe the guy who wrote this song also wrote blah blah blah.

Here’s a nice article about Blackwell. I didn’t realize until I read it that his younger brother Ron wrote “Little Red Riding Hood” (recorded by Sam the Sham and The Pharoahs) and was killed just as it started to chart.

Get your kicks

(This is the first of two posts following the same idea, which is; wow, I can’t believe the guy who wrote this song also wrote that song which is so different from this song. Got it? Okay, here goes)

The guy who wrote this song, “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring,” performed here on the Andy Williams Show by the Beach Boys in 1965,

also wrote this song, which he performs here;

Bobby Troup. And btw, he played a doctor on TV in the 1970s drama Emergency.

Joe EarlyBet you didn’t see that coming; anyway, I didn’t when I started looking into this.

The Beach Boys first recorded “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” for their 1963 album Little Deuce Coupe, under the title “A Young Man Is Gone” with lyrics by Mike Love. Love ditched the love story in the original lyrics and cranked out an ode to James Dean in keeping with the “concept” of the album, cars and crashes. Love’s lyrics aren’t very good and kudos to Brian Wilson and the boys for reverting to the original a couple of years later for their TV performance.

“Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” was recorded in 1960 by The Four Freshmen, a group often cited by Brian Wilson as a key influence. Here it is;

After listening to this rendition, which is superior to the Beach Boys versions, you might want to learn a little more about The Four Freshmen. You should, because they along with the Mills Brothers were the innovators of vocal harmony for the age. I recommend this 40-odd minute compilation as a starting place. Tip: Brian Wilson modeled his falsetto on Bob Flanigan. He’s the tall skinny guy with the trombone in the video’s first song.

“Quarrels with our past selves”

This past weekend Link Byfield, my former boss at the Alberta Report, passed away. I remembered him in a previous entry here, after his illness was publicly announced. My former colleague Colby Cosh now does the honors:

Jan. 26, 2015, Colby Cosh in Maclean’s: R.I.P., Link Byfield


My impression is that Link had spent his early twenties knocking around Western Canada taking drugs: I don’t know if you could call him a dealer, but I gathered he had not exactly been averse to a quick profit.

Some people might be surprised by this but it wasn’t any big secret. I recall one day walking into Link’s office wearing a tee-shirt with the logo of the Marion Hotel on the front. A friend had bought this for me as a souvenir after a couple of pitchers of beer in said bar during a recent trip to Winnipeg. Link noticed the shirt and broke out laughing. “Where did you get that?” he bellowed. He had a expressive face and with a gigantic smile—when he was telling a story about something he thought was funny, preposterous, or both, he’d lean back on his chair, pull his chin back, show a good amount of teeth and squint his eyes—he explained that in his misguided youth he had served part of a community service sentence for drug possession working in the Marion Hotel bar. I was able to commiserate because in my misguided youth, I told him, at age 21 in fact, I had been busted for drunk driving and served part of my community service working in the bar at a Royal Canadian Legion. (I’m pretty sure I should insert a joke here about the Canadian justice system, but for some reason I’m lost for humor at the moment.)

Here is the quote-worthy end of Colby’s article:

It’s Ted Byfield’s great secret: he’s a hippie, only with the opposite polarity.

Some of his children, including Link, spent time as real hippies. They found that it didn’t add up, that the tethers of order and family and work had value after all. It makes you wonder how much of what we call our ideology arises from circumstance, or even emerges from quarrels with our past selves. I wish I could go back and have a long chat with Link about it over two coffees and a messy desk—his or mine would do equally well.

Did someone (else) say ‘bubble’?

This article provides some confirmation of my bubble speculation below;

Jan. 16, 2015, ABC News: VC Firms Rain Down Cash on Tech Startups, Is Bubble Brewing?
h/t Drudge

Of course it’s not a perfect fit. (btw, do bubbles “brew”; I thought trouble brewed, and you blew bubbles, and trouble and bubble rhyme but… no matter, I’ll have to look that up sometime.) I predicted that advertisers will clue into the overvaluation of clickbait news sites. You know the type; they regurgitate the news by quickly rewriting stories from other sources while also providing links to cute videos; some of them go the extra mile and have an editor contribute one or two columns a week babbling on about “the issues of the day” with a particular slant, “Wow, those Democrats/Republicans really are clueless…”

The article above talks about investors and start-ups, not clickbait. At least it does demonstrate that more and more money is being thrown at the online sector. And then the bubble bursts and everyone retreats to safe investments with hard assets like real estate which creates a bubble and on and on and on we go.

At this point I will borrow a paragraph from Tyler Durden’s latest at Zero Hedge regarding the reset going on in other markets;

We’re getting back to normal, and though normal’s going to hurt – and far more than you realize yet-, it’s hugely preferable to upside down; you hang uprise down long enough, it makes your brain explode. The price of oil was the first thing to go, central banks are the next. And then the whole edifice follows suit.

In my view, part of that edifice is the overvaluing of clickbait news sites and their ability to generate a quality audience, properly quantified, which justifies their ad rates.

(Here I interject my best mock-imitation of a corporate boardroom presenter):
“The good news is our web traffic is up 37% this year. And your brand recognition is up 85%! The only downside is that most of that is from western India… and from what we can tell, in the evening hours, mostly from eleven computers inside an elementary school. But we can repurpose that—and still maintain the hit count—by simply advising our ad department to make a few payments to Facebook and get them to re-jig their algorithm to display our articles with your ad! Perhaps this will bring more exposure in places like Peru and Malaysia. You may not sell any more pizzas, but you can imagine yourselves to be very popular which will, in the fullness of time, be a tremendous boost your corporate self-esteem! And as long as we’re charging you more than we’re paying to Facebook, everyone’s happy.”

More memories

My friend Kevin Grace (aka The Ambler n.b. updates pending), after seeing the picture posted below of Paul W. and Davis S. in the Alberta Report newsroom, asked if I had any other photos from that era. I do. They are pretty random. I’ve just now scanned a bunch and I’ll put them up here as thumbnails without much description for the moment. Who knows if more will turn up?

But before we get to that, let me post a picture of Carmen Wittmeier since she is the one who instigated this trip down memory lane. The picture of her below was taken “back in the day” just after I had the job of photo editor dropped on me; Wittmeier is posing for a photo that was to illustrate some story about the soaring popularity of sushi in the province (more a Calgary thing, if I remember correctly). My model is having trouble maintaining a serious expression and in fact there are quite a few of these blown photos from this “session”—which turned up in a few different boxes—because she kept cracking up. What did she think was so funny? I can’t recall but it might have something to do with the sushi. She loved sushi (she is from Calgary). But she couldn’t cook it. She invited the magazine production guy Dave Stevens and myself over to her apartment to partake of her freshly made sushi once and perhaps she is fondly remembering that attempt at what surely would have been reduced to manslaughter. The best thing about this picture? The Sega Dreamcast controller by Carmen’s side. Oops. Hey, it’s not like we ever goofed around in that Office Space…

Carmen Wittmeier 1 - 72
And here are some thumbs that I will sort out later.

victor olivier 2victor olivier 1 - 72Pat - 72sheremata 1 - 72Paul Bunner 1Barret Pashak 2 - 72Barret Pashak 1 - 72Jan - 72Colby Cosh 1Joan 2 - 72Joan 1 - 72Paul Fraser - 72Lawerence - 72Kevin Steel - 72Brian Mulawka - 72Terry McConnell - 72Diane - 72Paul Wodehouse 2 - 72Will Gibson - 72

Ah, Wittmeier!

My former Alberta Report colleague Carmen Wittmeier recalls some of the lighthearted moments she experienced while we worked side-by-side in that pale-yellow painted cinder block newsroom out in Edmonton’s west end. She’s compiled a list of her Best Report Memories. I had quite forgotten her Number 2, which she titles “The Anti-Virus Campaign.” That was back in the day when I really enjoyed taking the piss out of… well, anyway, good times, good times. Thanks for the memories, Carmeno.

My contribution to this nostalgic feast is a picture I came across the other day while sorting through some old photos. It was taken in the Alberta Report newsroom, circa 1998? This was before Carmen arrived. It’s a pic of Davis S. (journalist) and Paul W. (photo editor) discussing possible graphic options for a news story that Davis was no doubt hard at work finishing up well before deadline; at least I think that’s what they are doing. The desk that Davis (the guy in the blue shirt) inhabits is the one that Carmen would occupy about a year or two later during her all too brief tenure at the magazine. I apologize for the blurry quality of the picture, but I was attempting to capture the gravity of the moment. This was in that historic period just before the ubiquity and convenience of the digital camera. I was in a rush and didn’t focus that old Canon A-1 properly which is why I believe I have never shown anyone this picture before.

Paul and Davis 1


The clickbait bubble and the coming cull

Earlier this evening I was on the phone with a friend of mine and we were discussing the current state of journalism, what with all the shoddy writing, the lack of editing, the lack of oversight—fact checking and proof reading—and the evaporation of editorial judgment and intelligence. And of course, rates of pay for working writers; these are poor, getting worse, and the deficient is being reflected in the work being produced. And so say all of us.

My friend predicted a large cull of sites that rely too heavily on clickbait (which also happen to pay shit wages). He wasn’t too specific about the timeline, but he implied this cull would happen sooner rather than later. On the whole I agree, but I think clickbaiters and news regurgitaters have over a year left. I say the cull starts in early 2016 and intensifies after the 2016 US election.

This is a topic we have discussed before on the phone and in email. Today’s talk reminded me of something I had written to him a few days ago in reply to an observation of his about a web site (which shall remain nameless and unlinked here) that appears to be rely on clickbait items more and more in the last couple of months, stuff about quirky viral videos featuring cute animals or obnoxious children or funny moments from TV game shows, etc. What news there is on this site is simply rehashed from other sources.

Here’s an excerpt of my reply (trigger warning, snark ahead);

Look, we know what’s going on. The only people with job security in journalism now are the editors at the very top. And they really do nothing, or not much, except write the occasional column and keep track of click counts because that’s what their jobs depend on. If you want to write you have to kiss their asses at the time of your hire and then not kick up any dust after that. Just keep the clicks coming and we’ll all get paid. In a way, it’s like a new internet bubble. But it will eventually burst when publication owners, or those with money who seek to influence the society, start to realize that “the stars” of the new journalism are actually bloggers being “paid” by direct donation. I think this will apply to organizations like [delete] as well. Why donate to their foundation when you can send the money directly to your favorite writers? This is a big change that has not been commented on too extensively, I think because its full impact is not yet felt. Back when a lot of these foundations and non-profits started, donating money to them was a way of funneling money to writers who entertain, enlighten, or just support your own thoughts. I think Steyn is an unwitting bellwether in this trend of high profile writers looking to cut out the middle men.

Rereading this a few days later, I’m not so sure I agree with myself. I could add that in my pipe dream these high profile bloggers then morph into editors and we all start again fresh, anew, reborn, in a shining new house on the hill. But maybe this is wishful thinking. Maybe the powers that be and the public in general don’t think they need to invest in writers to influence public opinion because nobody is changing their minds about anything and what the hell most everybody is stoned on legal anti-depressants anyway and I’m not so sure they’re… oh look, a kitten mimicking human gestures! That’s adorable!

Looking back at the year that was

Seriously, I’m not going to do what my title says. I put it up there just to fit in with the crowd. 2014? Forget about it. If you’re actually looking for that kind of thing, then you haven’t been paying attention because news sites have been recapping 2014 since at least mid-November. If you’re looking for the ubiquitous list of celebrities who died this year just scroll down any news page for that thumbnail of Robin Williams RIP, which has been on every news site since he died in August. It’s like New Year’s Eve all year now. Even I got into the act, almost by default. The Facebook bot has created—for me, for you, for each of us—a personal “Year in Review” because we’re all shining stars, fireworks, y’know… kinda special. I haven’t bothered to look at mine because, well, you get out what you put into these things and I didn’t put that much into Facebook. So my Year in Review is quite short on details. These personal Year in Reviews remind of those Time magazine-sized joke mirrors that had “Person of the Year” silkscreened  on them. Person of the Year? That’s you! Har! Now give it to me, give it here. Now I’m Person of the Year! (doubles over laughing). Now put it down on the floor for the dog…

There is one person of the year who does deserve recognition. I will take a moment to salute this article by Robert Tracinski in The Federalist: My Person of the Year–Ben Trovato.

Also, I want to record my favorite quote this year. It’s actually a quote of a quote, so it has doubleplus goodness. It comes from Theodore Dalrymple in Taki’s Magazine, in a Dec. 28, 2014 column: The Allure of Omnipotent Explanations (okay, so this might not be my favorite quote of the whole year, but it’s the only one I remember liking because I read it a few short days ago, which incidentally proves the truth of the quote).

Those of us for whom the written word is of enormous importance, if not all-important, should try always to remember the words of Montherlant: Most people do not read; those who read do not understand; those who understand forget.

And finally I will make one prediction for the year ahead: Most over-used, hated word of 2015 will be “narrative.” I’m already sick of it.

A broken model?

Good video from Jan. 14, 2014, by 2veritasium: “The Problem With Facebook” criticizing the business model. (h/t to that guy who recommended it on a Google chat I was listening to last week; wrote down the title of the vid, didn’t write down the guy’s name).

This reminded me of an article link I’ve wanted to post somewhere since the beginning of the year. I keep quoting from it casually in conversation with people, but don’t have it marked, so… from Jan. 23, 2014 The Independent: Facebook is an ‘infectious disease’ and will lose 80% of users by 2017, according to researchers

The researchers use the rapid rise and fall of MySpace as the archetype, comparing publicly available data from Google with the traditional SIR model of infectious disease. ‘SIR’ stands for Susceptible, Infectious and Recovered – the three groups that individuals are placed in with regards to a public disease…