Q is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy


Having found myself at that tenuous stage of life where friends of mine are having children with increasing frequency, my avuncular tendencies have responded by going into overdrive. The most pronounced symptom of this is the compulsion I now feel to get strange and, hopefully, insightful presents. First on my list is Q is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy by the British Colombian teacher Tiffany Poirier.

Well, that’s not entirely true. First, I usually give them a plush Cthulhu while singing: “Squamous horror from beyond the stars / I wonder what you are / you’ve come so far / to melt my mind and eat me”, because its never too early to start trying to reconcile your little ones to the vast indifference and terror of the cosmos. Then, if their parents ever allow me near their children again, I give them this book.

Addressing such concepts as causality, infinity, mind/body duality and solipsism in simple rhymes, some will no doubt be tempted to see in Q is For Question something like “baby’s first existential crisis”. I know I particularly liked the letter “Y” for You:

You: As you grow from day to day, / what parts of you will always stay? / Of what stuff do you consist? / And of this stuff / what will persist?

Yet in the back of the book, and on the companion website Poirier encourages parents to talk to their children about difficult concepts, to make games of them, and listen to what they have to say. It is, after all, an important part of preparing them for life, existential crises and all. While I’m not a parent, I believe this to be an incredibly powerful sentiment, and one worth encouraging.

For More Information:




“We Canadians”

So yes, by Ovid I meant Virgil…

Part of Our Heritage – Pretending to Pay Attention to the Natives (but not really paying attention to the natives).

A Part of Our Heritage – Only Making it Big After Moving to the US.

A Part of Our Heritage – Overestimating the Durability of our Natural Resources to Impress our Distant, Unelected Policy Makers.


Apparent Message: The Rights of Women.


Apparent Message: Don’t mess with us, Russia.

Apparent Message: Indigenous groups are part of Canada.


Apparent Message: Canada is defined by its military victories.

(How’s your fish indeed…)

For More Information:

Web Cartoonist Kate Beaton on Heritage Minutes: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=6







http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geschichte_Kanadas (Why yes, the German wikipedia article is better than the English language article)



“In contrast to fields like anthropology, the history of linguistics has received remarkably little attention outside of its own discipline despite the undeniable impact language study has had on the modern period. In Babel’s Shadow situates German language scholarship in relation to European nationalism, nineteenth-century notions of race and ethnicity, the methodologies of humanistic inquiry, and debates over the interpretation of scripture. Author Tuska Benes investigates how the German nation came to be defined as a linguistic community and argues that the “linguistic turn” in today’s social sciences and humanities can be traced to the late eighteenth century, emerging within a German tradition of using language to critique the production of knowledge.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_More_Smith (The Lunar Rouge)


http://www.mcclelland.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781551990842 (The Spinster and the Prophet, about a court case involving Florence Deeks, a Toronto teacher and H.G. Wells)

“he prolific novelist and social prophet H.G. Wells had a way with words, and usually he had his way with women. That is, until he encountered the feisty Toronto spinster Florence Deeks. In 1925 Miss Deeks launched a $500,000 lawsuit against Wells, claiming that in an act of “literary piracy,” Wells had somehow come to use her manuscript history of the world in the writing of his international bestseller The Outline of History , a work still in print today. Thus began one of the most sensational and extraordinary cases in Anglo-Canadian publishing and legal history.”


“The popular conception of Nova Scotians as a purer, simpler, and more idyllic people is false, argues Ian McKay. In The Quest of the Folk he shows how the province’s tourism industry and cultural producers manipulated and refashioned the cultural identity of the region and its people to project traditional folk values.”

http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/55/psychicresearch.shtml (Psychic Research in a Winnipeg Family: Reminiscences of Dr. Glen F. Hamilton)


A Bust of Mephistopheles

While it’s sadly no longer on display, I  saw the above bust of the devil Mephistopheles when I first came to Toronto some years ago. Apparently it is cut from a single Tanzanian ruby, with a gold and obsidian base. It’s part of the Michael M. Scott private collection, and as far as I can tell it was made by Günter Petry, in Idar-Obserstein, Germany. While I don’t tend to be a fan of conventional jewelry, the stonework in the collection was quite impressive.

For More Information:


http://www.gpetry.com/ (Site opens with kind of sleazy rich person jazz)

A Postcard from “The Devil’s Punch Bowl”

The above image is a postcard of a place known as the “Devil’s Punch Bowl” in Windsor, Nova Scotia. It is said to be one of the first places where hockey was ever played in Canada, but that is not what intrigued me most when I came across this card in the archive at the West Hants Historical Society. For you see, it comes from a series that was taken around the turn of the 19th/20th century, and on the back, I believe it is dated January 25th, 1911. It was sent from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, to Miss Dolly Gray in Upper Clements, and was written in either an apparently esoteric form of short hand, or else an actual cypher.

I’ve been trying on and off to decipher it for the past few years, suspecting that it’s a simple substitution cypher, but because its been written in pen and some of the symbols seem to bleed into each other, I’ve not been able to break it. I’m now curious enough to send it out and see if anyone else has the skills/time to decipher it.

For More Information:




Ruby Gloom: The Bright Side of the Dark Side

For those with children, or child-like proclivities, such as myself, I would have to recommend the cartoon Ruby Gloom. I was delightfully surprized by this charming, refreshing Canadian production.

Playing on the tropes of gothic culture and music, while also making frequent literary references, the series encourages its viewers to be creative, face their fears, make the best of a bad situation, and look on the bright side of life (and if the dark side is their bright side, well, that’s ok too).

For More Information:



What Sound Does the Valley Make?: The Music of Jack McDonald

All of these songs are from the album Domestic Acoustic, composed and arranged by the Nova Scotian musician Jack McDonald. I had the privilege of being able to spend a great deal of time with Jack and his family growing up around the Annapolis and Gaspereau valleys.

Deeply rooted in the landscape, Jack’s songs have come to represent for me an experience with the valleys which I think I may have missed growing up amidst my graveyard and haunted house, but which I have come to respect and appreciate as I travel ever further away. In 2007 he received the Valley Arts Award for his “steadfast support of musicians in [the] area, both through recording projects (Domestic Acoustic) and through the Night Kitchen (open mic variety show)”. His song “Bluenose Cowgirl” speaks to the all too common exodus that I’ve commented on in my previous post about Stan Rogers’ “The Idiot”, while songs such as “Burtland Brook” and “The Valley Below” echo the ebb and flow of life around the Bay of Fundy.

Still my favorite of Jack’s songs has always been “Coffin Carpenter” for its resonance with any creative task that a psyche can seek to pour itself in to, and for its ability to render somehow sweet the obsession with the end which I think many artists are inclined towards. In this regard Jack, with his many years of making music in and around the valley, has certainly left a part of himself in his work that will no doubt be appreciated for years to come.

Though speaking of morbid obsessions, while searching for images to put up with Jack’s music I came across the work of the Acadian wood carver Jamie Thibault who has done a number of sculptures that are certainly my cup of strange, and can be seen on the website below.

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Stan Rogers and Reflections on Nova Scotia

Repeat readers of The Starry Messenger will know the ways in which I tend to be critical of most traditional “Canadian Icons” – and Canadian culture in general for that matter, though there are still some that intrigue me greatly. One of these exceptions is Stan Rogers (1949-1983), the east coast musician whose “Barret’s Privateers” became a folk song in his own lifetime (including, as it did, a forgetting of its original author and lyrics!) While employing much of the rural nostalgia endemic to most east coast music, Stan Rogers seemed aware of the limitations of this approach, and brought much that was fresh and reflective to his work. In most of his music he strove to document the loss of a way of life that he had never directly experienced, while at the same time acknowledge that he had never directly experienced it.

I have tried, and failed, to fully justify my interest in Stan Rogers on intellectual grounds. At first glance his songs, such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Watching the Apples Grow, do indeed seem fueled by a sense of ressentiment towards the modern world. (Though I confess to a certain ressentiment of my own in the enjoyment I take in the line: “Ontario, y’know I’ve seen a place I’d rather be / Your scummy lakes and the City of Toronto don’t do a damn thing for me / I’d rather live by the sea.” In that song Stan Rogers was, in fact singing about the place were I grew up.) Few things, it seems, more readily instill a sense of where one is from, with all that is comforting and deeply problematic about it, than being force to leave that place, particularly when it is coupled by the growing suspicion that one will never be able to live there again.

So much of the Novia Scotian sense of cultural identity revolves around the idea of ships and sailing. Despite this, the present experience is only one of economic diaspora, as those with the education head out to larger cities such as Toronto or Montreal seeking greater opportunities, while those without the education often go out west at the ambiguous promise of sharing in the wealth of the the oil fields. Aside from this, most Nova Scotians live a very sedentary lifestyle, and have for the past 40 years or so, out of touch with the motifs and themes that they continue to celebrate. While nostalgia is something I can certainly understand, it seldom travels in the company of reflection, and self-questioning.  And that, perhaps, now that I have taken the time to write it out, is one of the more valuable things about Stand Rogers’ music: Its awareness of what it is, which is a refreshing aspect of any project really.

Stan Rogers died aboard Air Canada Flight 797, reportedly helping others get off the plane before being caught in a flash fire.

For More Information:

An interesting psychological analysis of the symbols in this song:




Zirco Circus and Ultraviolet Detours

Often playfully macabre, theatrical, and possessing an impressive and creative dedication to all the possibilities of black light, I first met James “Zirco” Fisher at the Bazaar of the Bizarre where he was promoting a number of his diverse projects. Aside from being a part of the dark ambient group “Squid Lid”, Zirco Fisher also does an array of illustrations including his “Disfigures of Speech” series, one of which is shown below:

Whether DJing or performing their own work, Squid Lid’s shows are a sight to see, for throughout they constantly change up their fantastical, black light costumes to things ever more outre and strange.

Which brings me to the second topic of this post. Black light, or ultraviolet light was discovered by Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) in 1801 Ritter, an acquaintance of such figures as Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Herder and Schelling, was part of the early naturphilosophie movement in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Like several naturphilosophen, he held that a base principle of nature was that of polarities. The discovery of infrared light had been announced in 1800 by the British astronomer William Herschel, and Ritter reasoned that there must be something on the other side of the spectrum, and went about devising elaborate means of detecting it.

Ritter was also infamous for his tendency to perform often excruciating electrical experiments on almost every tissue of his own body, but that is a story for another day.

For More Information:









Kick Starter, Brit Cruise and Connections, Old and New

In 1978 the British series Connections presented a non-linear, non-teleological view of technological change and development. The series starred the historian of science James Burke. A dynamic speaker, and witty in that particularly British short of way, Burke led audiences from touch stones to atomic bombs, from stirrups to telecommunications, and from monasteries to modern assembly lines. As he did so, he showed the extreme contingency, and indirect paths taken by innovation and discovery in which more often than not greed, religion, accident or warfare led to the development of ideas and devices capable of being used in radically different ways than could have been expected from their originally intended use. The series was so popular that it spawned another run in 1994 and 1998. It was also an early and popular venue for Burke to explore the ideas of Thomas Kuhn and other theorists of technoscientific change, something that I’ve not seen a great deal of in the past decade.

I was thus greatly enthused to learn that Brit Cruise, a filmmaker from British Columbia, was attempting to find backing and support for a new series of shows dedicated to applying “the template behind the TV show Connections to concepts instead of inventions”, exploring:

the roots of great conceptual ideas by following the history of problems from which they arose. Each episode will follow one ancient problem and explore how it reoccurs again and again in more modern forms. This allows us to follow conceptual ideas along the context of their inception – making it easier to digest challenging theoretical ideas.

The great thing about Kick Starter as a form of microfinance is that it allows almost anyone to help fund and support ideas that they believe in, and connects the widest possible array of dreamers and schemers with people who could help them get their projects off the ground. While documenting each stage of the production for his supporters, Brit also provides valuable insights into his working methods and helps to show how others could see their own ideas reach full fruition through the various new sources of funding and development opening up to independent creative talent around the world. I look forward to being able to continue watching his progress as he continues to develop the series.

For More Information:

Brit Cruise’s Kick Starter page: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/artoftheproblem/gambling-with-secrets

Blog: http://britcruise.wordpress.com/

And “The Making of” Blog: http://artoftheproblem.net/behind-the-scenes/