by Geoff Olson

Last weekend I went to have my head examined. Scanned, actually.

In partnership with the Canadian clothing outlet Simons, artist Douglas Coupland has kicked off a seven-city, four year project called, “#3D Canada: A portrait of Canadians in the 21st century”.

Me and Mr. Coupland Photo by David Reid

“Come and have your image scanned to take home your very own unique 3D-printed bust,” a newspaper ad beckoned. This caught the attention of both the tech-watcher and narcissist in me. So on Sunday I joined a lineup of like-minded scan subjects at Park Royal mall.

A woman behind me had optimistically brought her spaniel/poodle cross along in a crate. (An accurate rendering requires subjects to sit still for 30 seconds; hopefully the 3D portrait of her fidgety pet didn’t end up looking like something from a Guillermo del Toro film.)

CEO Peter Simons says Coupland is keeping mum on details of his 3D project, adding that he’s quite satisfied to remain in suspense until the artist unveils the final results.

Needless to say, the pop artist isn’t about to spill the beans to me, either. “If you were to describe the future of 3D printing in one word, what would that be?” I asked while sitting for my scan, soliciting the shortest arts interview in Canadian history. “Inevitable,” Coupland helpfully replied.

Scanning visitors to Simons

No denying that – 3D printing already is already revolutionizing medical implants and prosthetics, to name just one area of impact. (Startup company Natural Machines has a “Foodini” that prints out pizza that “looks surprisingly appetizing,” according to cnet.com.)

Your cell phone contains more processing power than president Eisenhower had at his command in a Pentagon situation room. In time you’ll probably be using it to download templates to your home 3D printer.

“Seen the wine opener around, Doreen?” “Oh for God’s sake, just print one out, Mitch.”

Perhaps even hard-copy publishing will become a literal cottage industry. Speaking of books, one of the larger ones on my shelves is Information Graphics, a spleen-squishing compendium of charts and graphs from the heavyweight art publisher, Taschen. The 2012 tome is so big it comes with a pullout infographic map for navigating its own contents. Suck on that, Kindle.

Hard-copy cinderblock

“Our everyday lives are filled with a massive flow of information that we must interpret in order to understand the world we live in,” reads the book’s sleeve. “Considering this complex variety of data floating around us, sometimes the best — or even only — way to communicate is visually.”

Infographics is the art and science of displaying data in a comprehensible – and even beautiful – way. Who ever would have thought cold, hard numbers could be woven into such clever tapestries and sculptural forms?

Fast processing, sophisticated software, and massively farmed data have made infographics a game any good professional designer can play. And there’s enough of the 2D variety in the Taschen book – culled from sources in advertising, academia, media, government, and NGOs – to absorb a geek for a week.

For example, “Everyone Ever in the World” depicts all recorded conflicts in history and their impact on populations. “The total number of people ever born is an estimated 77.6 billion and is represented as the total poster area. The total number of people killed in conflicts is approximately 969,000,000 or 1.25% of all people ever to have lived.”

The resulting chart looks like a black vinyl record with a die-cut hole in the centre, representing the fraction who died in wars.

Many charts in the book are more whimsical. One example is a “Rock n’ Roll Metro Map” that arranges the most influential genres of rock music to resemble the famous map of the London Underground.

Some are in a category all their own, such as “The Corporate Vermin That Rules America,” a chart from 2003 that depicts the Bush administration (Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al and their associated firms) as a halo of bugs around the 42nd president, who is rendered as an ape.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s time for me to shut up and for you to reserve the one copy of Information Graphics available at VPL. (Of course, you can always have Amazon ship/drone a copy to you…or wait until you can output if from a home 3D printer.)

As for my shrunken head, I’m told it will be ready for me to pick up at Simons later in the week. I’m hoping this infographic knickknack will work well as a conversation-stopping keychain pendant.

(Aaaaand here it is…)


The Vancouver Courier, Nov. 19



by  Geoff Olson

When things go sideways within a big organization, a single individual often gets the blame. Supposedly acting outside the pack’s rules, the “lone wolf” suddenly becomes the “sacrificial goat.”

For example, in May of this year a former staffer at the Ministry of Transportation blew the whistle on the mass deletion of emails pertaining to the Highway of Tears – a stretch of road in northern BC where many young aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing.

Tim Duncan told BC’s Privacy Commissioner that ministerial assistant George Gretes ordered the material to be deleted from Duncan’s computer. Forensic analysis determined the emails were removed intentionally, and Gretes was found to have lied to the Privacy Commission while under oath.

Duncan himself was accused of being a disgruntled former employee, he told the CBC in May. “That’s been the line the Liberal government and their communications staff have been using against me for six months.”

The government preferred the public think of this as an outlier, in which the two former civil servants played the role of Thing One and Thing Two in a moment of Seussian confusion over a freedom of information request. In this authorized version, the Cat in the Hat was outside the loop.

Then came Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s report, Access Denied. In vindicating Tim Duncan, she ripped the lid off a culture of institutional forgetting in the Legislature worthy of a gothic dementia ward, complete with triple-deleted emails and post-it notes.

“It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the problems that my office discovered in the course of this investigation and the resulting effects on the integrity of the access to information process in our province,” Denham’s report notes. Contravening Freedom of Information laws isn’t a bug in the provincial government’s doings, it’s a feature.

Then there’s the lone wolf narrative attached to claims of vote suppression in the 2011 federal election.

In the days prior the Conservative minority government win, Liberal supporters said they had been receiving nuisance calls from people who claimed to be Liberal Party workers. The callers contacted Jewish voters on the Sabbath, and woke up others in the middle of the night. Elections Canada then received complaints about ‘robocalls” – automated messages – that falsely informed voters of relocated polling stations.

A group of voters from six ridings challenged the 2011 election results in court. The verdict from trial judge Mr. Justice Mosley was damning:  “I am satisfied that it has been established that misleading calls about the locations of polling stations were made to electors in ridings across the country and that the purpose of those calls was to suppress the votes of electors who had indicated their preference in response to earlier voter-identification calls.”

Voters from 261 of 308 ridings claimed nuisance calls, a feat pretty much an impossibility for one person to pull off alone. In response to the claims, the Conservatives threw a young party worker under the bus. They alleged Michael Sona had acted on his own as a “rogue activist” – a fancy term for lone wolf. He was arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for nine months. The story pretty much ended there, as far as media curiousity about robocalls goes.

The lone gunman is a species of the genus lone wolf. November 22 marks the 52nd anniversary of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. The Warren Commission report identified Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole figure responsible for the killing, but here’s an interesting factoid that has since spiralled down the memory hole: the late-seventies House Select Committee on Assassination hearings in Washington rejected the lone gunman conclusion.

“You know, most Americans don’t know that that was the last official statement, the last official report, on the Kennedy assassination, not the Warren Report back in 1964. But the Congress reopened the investigation into John Kennedy’s assassination, and they did determine he was killed as the result of a conspiracy,” said author David Talbot in a recent interview with Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman.

“Conspire” means “to breath together” When it comes to respiration, that’s plenty different from the solitary wolf of childhood lore, who huffs and puffs and blows everything down.

The Vancouver Courier, Nov. 5


By Geoff Olson
A number of surprises in the news recently: in pornography, parliament, and the press, respectively.

Porn first. Playboy magazine announced it will no longer feature photos of fully nude women. No more nakedness in the half-century old men’s magazine? This sounded more like an diktat from The Taliban than a dispatch from the Hefner empire – something as counterintuitive as an annual swimsuit edition for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Considering the Playboy bunny symbol is franchised out to all manner of products and services, this move is likely intended to boost the company’s global branding strategy. If Canadians still want to get their hands on print material displaying immense boobs, there’s always Hustler and Hansard.

This brings me to a more important topic, Parliament. The chief spectre in that spooky Gothic building – the keyboard-tickling Phantom of the Oilpatch – failed to scare the bejayzus out of the Canadian population with his death metal number about women wearing fabric on their heads. This pre-election tune might have rocked his theoconservative base, but it didn’t chart with the rest of the country.

Watching the numbers coming in from ridings across the country Sunday night, I wondered if we were in for a repeat of the legendary collapse of Kim Campbell’s Tory government in 1993 –  the electorate’s payback for the reign of Brian Mulroney. As it turned out, no. But it was almost a rout; it appeared as if Canadians had come upon an enormous can of Raid and were spraying it liberally across the land. Strategic voting had worked well – perhaps a bit too well.

On to the surprise from the press. Last weekend’s print editions of the Vancouver Sun, Province, The Penticton Herald, and other Postmedia papers came wrapped with paid political advertisements; essentially giant yellow attack ads for the Conservative party. (“Voting Liberal Will Cost You…Can you Afford a Liberal government?”)

Wrapping broadsheets and tabs with in-your-face ads as faux-front pages, complete with the newspaper logo, is nothing new. But this was crossing the Rubicon. Whoring out front pages across the country just days before an election was a low unworthy even of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his boss, Satan.

The Globe and Mail’s split endorsement of the Conservative Party on their editorial page was tragicomic enough, but here was a case of boardroom Judases selling their publications’ paper-thin integrity for a few pieces of silver.

This is even more galling considering it involves the promotion of the most reviled PM in Canadian history, a man whose years of offences against parliamentary procedure, legislative process, legal transparency, and cultural diversity were only tepidly investigated and critiqued by Postmedia’s own staff.

To compound the problem, at least eight Muslim women in Canada have reportedly been attacked since the mangler of John Lennon’s Imagine began to work the Islamophobia wah-wah pedal – a little number about niqabs that didn’t go down well with the Supreme Court of Canada.

“A more ignominious betrayal of the venerable journalistic legacies entrusted to editorial writers can scarcely be imagined. There’s a special place in hell for those who would stigmatize and endanger vulnerable minority women for political gain, and there’s another one right next door for those in positions of power who enable it,”wrote Sandy Garossino in The National Observer of the Postmedia ad gambit.

She calls out the yellow political attack ads as “a stain” the publishers “can wear now.”
The hazard-light colour choice is ironic considering its historical associations in the press. In 1895, the New York World launched a cartoon featuring a child wearing a yellow dress  – ‘The Yellow Kid’ – as a regular character. The colour printing was an experiment designed to draw in newspaper customers.

Over time, the colour took on darker associations with publishing.  From Wikipedia: “Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.”

To which we can now add, “selling out the front page to an incumbent party’s campaign days before an election.”

Strange days, indeed. Playboy gets cleaner while Postmedia gets dirtier. At least Parliament got a good spray.

The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 22