Monthly Archives: January 2010

Speech at Davos, January 27

Here’s the text of the speech I would have given this evening, if I’d given it — as it was, artists’ speeches were cut due to time constraints.


It’s a great honour to have been chosen by the World Economic Forum for one of this year’s Crystal Awards. As you know, these awards are presented on the basis of artistic achievement, but also for having somehow contributed to the world’s well-being in other ways.

A cautionary note: At my age, those who’ve followed the artistic path are not usually dwelling on their achievements: They’re thinking about how much better they could have made their art, give or take an extra hundred years. Nor are they boasting of success in making the world a better place. Better than what, or when?  They reflect, too, that all arts awards are made subjectively, since there’s no way to measure artistic achievement. It’s not like high-jumping. So I will say simply: Thank you. I’m deeply grateful, and I’m happy to accept this Crystal Award – which could have gone to hundreds of others – on behalf of all artists.

What is the place of the arts at an economic forum? Each of us views the world from a limited vantage point, so it’s natural for those connected with economics to try to work out an economics of art. Is art an object of charity? Is it useful? What does it contribute? Many people have defended its intangible worthiness in an attempt to keep the poor creature alive, as if it were a stray kitten. Others –politicians among them – have done their best to finish it off.

But is it in danger of dying? Unlike the discipline of economics, and indeed unlike money – a lately-come tool we invented to facilitate trading at a distance — art is very old. The anthropologists and neurologists are now telling us how old – it’s as old as humanity. It isn’t a frill – something human societies can choose to indulge or to discard. Art isn’t only what we do, it’s what we are. Our musical and dancing and linguistic abilities appear to be built in to every single one of us, in every society on earth. So it’s not a case of whether or not we’ll have art: it’s a case of what sort of art we will have. Good, or bad? Old, or new? Our own, or somebody else’s? Whatever the choices, any theory of humanity that fails to take account of human art fails indeed.

Like you, I wait with eagerness to see what new sorts of art the younger generations will produce. Whatever astonishing forms or media they invent, they won’t stray far from their age-old themes, which are those of humanity itself: its struggles, its tragedies, its relation to its biological home, its loves and triumphs, and above all, its sense of wonder. I wish for these young artists what I wish for all of us: a cool head in a crisis; a knack for lateral thinking; grace under pressure; and a sackful of good luck. We will need all of them.


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Paul Quarrington

The sad news came today that Paul Quarrington, writer and singer, died today after an energetic fight with lung cancer. CBC obituary at:

Here is the text of the speech I made at the sold-out and joyous celebration of Paul at the Harbourfront International Writers’ Festival in Toronto in the fall of 2009:


We’re here to honour our friend and fellow writer, Paul Quarrington. Others (have spoken/will speak) about the many hats he wears, and his many talents. I’d like to take you back to a PEN Benefit of yesteryear – those somehow Canadian mixes of serious stuff and idiotic perfomances done in a good cause. I’d persuaded Timothy Findlay to dress up as a cowboy and do a fake country and western medley – hits like Ghost Writers in the Sky and If I Had the Wings of an Agent. The third member of our trio was Paul Quarrington – the only one who could actually sing. During our rehearsals.– as Tiff and I wandered among the sharps and flats and Tiff threatened meltdown because he’d never sung in public — Paul’s patience, good humour, and composure were inspirational.

Just before the event, we were told – hush hush! — that this night was to be Salman Rushdie’s coming-out party – his first appearance since the death-threat Fatweh had been imposed on him, with its attendant shootings and bomb threats. During the Intermission, we were all sealed up backstage as men in trenchcoats talked into their sleeves. Tension was, well, tense: had anything leaked? Were we about to become actual Ghost Writers in the Sky? Paul Quarrington was everything you’d want during an impending catastrophe. A bit of Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo, mixed with the upbeat stoicism of a violin player on the Titanic. He turned a potential “We’re doomed” into a nerve-steadying  “This is cool, eh?”

Such moments are revealing, and this one revealed a vintage Paul Quarrington – modestly understated, courageously cheerful, ready to deal with whatever, and – insofar as possible – to relish it. If Paul has a motto, it’s probably “Keep On Singing.” And he has. And so should we all.


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A Dozen Gifts For Aspiring Actors

Gathered from Actorfolk and Writerfolk and other interested parties. Here comes Valentine’s Day, festival of the birds as well as love, so add heart-positive chocolate (dark, organic, shade-grown, thus bird-friendly).

  1. An Actor Prepares: Constantin Stanislavski.  This definitive text of the method acting technique reads like a novel.
  2. Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov: Stella Adler. Memoir. The formidable Stella  — who was Brando’s teacher– shares insights into the modern dramatists whose groundbreaking plays created the need for Stanislavski’s method.
  3. Letters from an Actor: William Redfield.  A kind of memoir. Redfield played Guildenstern in the famous Richard Burton production of Hamlet.  His role was small, but his struggles were great, and also funny.
  4. The Confessions of Edward Day: Valerie Martin. Novel.   A cautionary tale about a young actor in New York during the theater explosion of the 70’s. Even actors should be careful what they wish for.
  5. Sanford Meisner on Acting: Sanford Meisner.  Meisner taught many of the “stars” on stage and screen today.  He uses Stanislavski’s narrative form in this fascinating look at his own very practical “method.”
  6. Mephisto: Klaus Mann. Novel. This classic novel from the Nazi period shows the rise of an actor whose best role is Mephisopheles in Faust, through his betrayals and his complicity, and his using of his art as a political ladder-climbing tool.   It exists too as an amazing  1981 film adaptation directed by István Szabó,
  7. Respect for Acting: Uta Hagan. Memoir.  A great actress offers observations and exercises designed to facilitate the marriage of intellect to action.
  8. The Seagull: Anton Chekhov.Play.  The greatest play of the Russian master. Actresses will kill for the role of Arkadina, an actress who destroys her son with her insatiable need for attention.
  9. To Be or Not to Be: Ernst Lubitsch. Film. (1942).  A troupe of actors in occupied Warsaw pull the wool over the eyes of Hitler’s henchmen by impersonating them.  A comedy about a tragedy, with an unexpectedly great performance by Jack Benny.
  10. Audition: Michael Shurtleff. This manual for the cast call hasn’t been out of print since it was first published in the 70’s.  Sometimes called the “Bible” for aspiring actors.
  11. Slings and Arrows. TV series, DVD. “Blackly comic” series created and written by Mark McKinney, Susan Coyne, Bob Martin. A hilariously accurate look backstage and onstage at the machinations of a large summer rep theatre.
  12. 28 Artists and 2 Saints: Essays: Joan Acocella. Brilliant accounts of, and meditations upon, various artists and art forms; especially useful to actors for what she has to say about dance and the expressive body.


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Ten Tips for Writers’ Block

A number of you have asked about this problem. Here are a few suggestions. Add your own favourites in the Comments.

1.Go for a walk, do the laundry or some ironing, hammer some nails, go swimming, play a sport – anything that requires some focus and involves repetitious physical activities. At the very least: take a bath or shower.

2. Read the book you’ve been putting off.

3. Write in some other form: even a letter or a journal entry. Or a grocery list. Keep those words flowing put through your fingers.

4. Formulate your problem, then go to sleep. The answer may be there in the morning.

5. Eat some chocolate, not too much; must be dark (60% cocoa or more), shade-grown, organic.

6. If fiction: change the tense (past/present or vice versa).

7. Change the person (first, second, third).

8. Change the sex.

9. Think of your book-in-progress as a maze. You’ve hit a wall. Go back to where you made the wrong turn. Start anew from there.

10. Don’t get angry with yourself. Give yourself an encouraging present.

If none of this works, put the book in a drawer. You may come back to it later. Start something else.


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Radical New Low-cost Signing Tablet

Remember the LongPen, originally the first live-author remote book signing technology? That moment when folks threw bananas at me for doing it?

Here’s one of its new developments:


Toronto, ON, Canada

January  8, 2010.

Contact: Baanto:                   Anthony Gussin, Director of Marketing,

Syngrafii:                   Matthew Gibson, President,


Av Utukuri, CEO of Baanto™ and Matthew Gibson, President of Syngrafii (formerly LongPen) are pleased to announce that they are combining forces to produce a radical new technology.

The Baanto™ technology, developed by Nytric, utilizes a revolutionary low-cost, low-energy-draw shadow-tracking system in a variety of ways: for multi-touch screens with a large number of applications, for interactive whiteboards, for games, and for physical rehabilitation.


Baanto™ is a Canadian corporation, based in Mississauga, Ontario that is marketing a revolutionary new tracking technology that can be used in a variety of 2D and 3D applications. The product will produce highly accurate results at a cost well below that of systems currently on the market. Baanto™ was established by Nytric Ltd in 2009 for the purpose of commercialisation of the proprietary motion capture technology invented by them, and which is now the core of Baanto™ products.

Syngrafii is a Canadian technology and solutions firm, based in Toronto, that specializes in the development of handwriting and biometric identification solutions. Syngrafii’s recent developments open up a new world of mobile and at home banking, electronic commerce, and government service applications. While refining the original LongPen technology, Syngrafii crafted the basis for a system whereby any user can provide positive identification and simultaneously execute binding contracts in an open, online environment.

Nytric is a leading Innovation Consulting Firm that creates cutting edge technologies which turn innovative ideas into successful products. Located in Mississauga Ontario, Nytric was founded in 1999. Nytric offers a unique business model that assists clients in rapidly bringing their products to market in the most technologically innovative, cost-effective manner. Nytric provides full service – from concept, engineering through to manufacturing and retail packaging services to their clients.

The Syngrafii/Baanto™  Tablet

Baanto™ and Syngrafii have melded their technologies to develop a low-cost mobile signing tablet that will have multiple applications, including mBanking (mobile banking), phone-to-phone Point of Sale trading, and secure remote document signing while maintaining the ability to “go back to paper” and print legally defensible hard copy documents at any time.

The new tablet will be compatible with all applications that utilize interactive pen displays (tablet technology), while providing enhanced functionality at a reduced cost.  Current interactive pen displays use a variety of technologies whose high cost has kept them out of the mainstream.  The Syngrafii/Baanto™ tablet is targeted to cost less than $100.00, thereby providing an elegant and robust alternative to today’s expensive technologies to a global market.

The tablet may also be used as a stand-alone alternative in most situations that are being served by tablets utilizing existing touch technology, such as resistive, capacitive and acoustic wave. The lowest cost for such tablets is currently $800 – a cost that many have tried to lower, without success.  Current touch and tablet technologies in addition to being prohibitively expensive have many drawbacks which the Baanto™ technology addresses elegantly.

In addition, the Syngrafii/Baanto combination can add capabilities to eReaders in a cost effective and power conserving way that they do not at present possess.

Strategic Investments

Syngrafii, has invested in Baanto, and Nytric, the firm that established Baanto in 2009, has agreed to invest in Syngrafii. This strategic investment relationship will provide a mutually beneficial working arrangement that will rapidly advance the combined product and service offerings of the companies.

Margaret Atwood, who launched the LongPen™ back in 2005 as a method for signing books remotely, says, “I’m delighted by this new development. Its low cost and simple increased security will enable economies to unfold in the developing world by paths that are presently blocked.”

Av Utukuri, CEO of Baanto™ says, “The partnering of Baanto™ technology with Syngrafii expertise in the area of signature validation signals an exciting step forward in the use of advanced technology for the prevention of fraudulent activity. In particular, the low entry point cost of Baanto™ hardware now makes such security a possibility in areas that were hitherto excluded due to price.

Matthew Gibson, President of Syngrafii comments, “Syngrafii’s investment and joint research, development and commercialization of the  Baanto™ Tracking Technology represents an enormous leap forward in our firm’s efforts to provide a low cost, user friendly method for consumers and businesses to leverage the advantages that biomechanically accurate writing provides in every day transactions. Syngrafii’s exclusive access to the high resolution writing vertical of this innovative and ground breaking technology will allow the company to realize its goal of becoming the trusted provider of security and identity certainty on the internet, cheaply, securely, and intuitively.”

A press conference and prototype demonstration of the new tablet is targeted to take place in  Toronto in mid-February.

Visit Baanto at:

Visit Syngrafii at:

Visit Nytric at:


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More on Keeping Paper Books

Judging from the stream of comments and re-tweets, this subject is on many minds. Let me clarify:

I was not proposing an either/or. E-books are very convenient for certain uses! Light, compact, and when you’ve finished a “beach book” you don’t have to leave it in a hotel room drawer. And there are those trees to consider, though many countries are now growing quick-wood-as-crop, and some predict the return of hemp paper. (Durable, that.)

I was suggesting prudence, and a backup system.  For instance, all those who switched entirely to tape and transferred their family movies onto it and then threw out the celluloid may be in for an unpleasant surprise as their loved ones fade from view. New technologies are, well, new. If there’s something you really, really want to keep, should you entrust it entirely to electronic form?

Some of you have thought I was joking. Well, the marshmallow part was a bit of a joke, I confess. If things get really dire you’re more likely to be toasting the cat 🙂  Others have accused me of being alarmist, and of lying. So here are a few sources:

Solar Flares:  New Scientist. Hardly an unprofessional rag.

Internet Brownouts:  MacWorld. In the business, I’d say.Wouldn’t they know?

Energy Shortages, Peak Oil: There’s a huge amount on this. Hard to pick one site.  But here’s a pro & con debate from 2008; the points made haven’t changed a lot since then. (Why Canadian Business? Before you start on the Canadian jokes, take a look at where the oil is in the world. Oil sands included.)

Those of us who remember the days of rationing during WW2 know that when commodities get scarce, it’s the “frills” that go first. We recall the absence of balloons, and of coloured comics… Story-telling   –  narrative – is not a frill: it comes with the human territory. But e-books are, and if energy is the item in short supply, they’ll be cut off. Of course, maybe paper for books will be, too…  It’s happened before, here and there, now and then.

NOTE: Now kids, don’t fight in the Comments. Courteous language, please! You are all readers, and in the Big Text Ship together. Soon I will post a blog on written voicecodes (alphabets, writing systems) and what they do.


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Three Reasons to Keep Paper Books

Here come the e-readers, a boon to travelers and speed readers, and, we’re told, a saver of trees. And, in their wake, here come the prophets predicting doom to the paper book, and along with it the death of copyright and all sorts of unknown effects.

But not so fast. Don’t burn the books yet. I’m not pleading the venerable history, the beauty of design, or the tactility of the page. Here are three practical reasons not to ditch the paper:

1.Solar storms. A big one could fry transformers, as solar storms have in the past, and affect satellites and towers in such a massive way that communications could be down for months, with much disruption of all sorts. Including, possibly, the wipeout of all online libraries and downloads.  Don’t let anyone embed a chip into your head, either, no matter how much memory they promise to add!

2.Energy shortages. Remember Peak Oil? We know that green energy is galloping to the rescue, but is nowhere near meeting the need. We know that internet servers are themselves gobbling up huge amounts of energy. Will server relocation on Iceland meet future needs? Guess we’ll see… If not, down goes the Net.  Not to mention your ability to re-charge the batteries of your e-reader.

3.Overloaded internet. The thing is stuffed to capacity already, with more information piling into it every day. Unless billions are spent on infrastructure, brownouts—we’re told – are very likely. And then, how now, brown cash cow?

If you’ve saved up some paper books, you can read them by candlelight, and then toast marshmallows on them if you don’t like them. As you huddle around the embers of your carefully-guarded fire, with no television, no computer, and no phone, you’ll be glad you kept a few. Anyway, they make good insulation.


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