Sunday 22 December 2013


In the 15th century, Antonino Pierozzi, Archbishop of Florence, listed these complaints about students:

  • They attend classes but make no effort to learn anything.
  • They defraud professors of their fees.
  • On Sundays they don’t go to church. Or if they do, it’s not to pray but to watch girls and swap stories.
  • They start fights.
  • They get into debt and sometimes withdraw from the university without paying up.
  • They spend the money they have from their parents or from churches on drinking, partying, gambling, and other unnecessary things, and return home broke and without knowledge.

German universities saw a sharp decline in graduations at the beginning of the 16th century. Their solution: lower the standards.

At the last graduation there were only ten graduates, one professor reports in The Letters of Obscure Men. When we held the exams my colleagues talked about rejecting certain candidates. Then I said: No way! If we reject anyone, no one will come forward for examination henceforth, or even study for the degree – they will all go to the poets. During one of the exams, he asked a candidate:
Tell me, why don’t you give me an answer? 
He replied: Because I am shy.
Hardly! I said, I think you are ignorant, not shy.
Then he said: By God, no, Herr Professor, I have great knowledge in my head, but it won’t come out.
So I passed him.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

In 1215 the University of Paris published a list of rules for its lecturers:
  • They must be at least 21 years old and have taken courses for six years. If you do the math, you’ll realize that students entered university at the age of 15 or earlier.
  • They must not be stained by infamy. I.e. no criminal record!
  • They shall not lecture on holidays, except on philosophy, rhetoric, grammar, and ethics – subjects that were apparently unimportant.
  • They shall wear a cloak, black and reaching to the ankles, at least while it is new. Not sure: does this last clause allow for shrinkage of the cloth or growth of the lecturer? No one shall wear shoes that are ornamented or with elongated pointed toes. I guess, no stilettos either.
  • If the lecturer died, he had the consolation of knowing that his funeral would be attended by half of his colleagues (the other half had to attend when the next lecturer died). And no one shall leave until the funeral is finished, unless he has reasonable cause. He couldn’t get off by saying he had to lecture because
  • On the day when a professor is buried, no one shall lecture. How sad.
  • The lecturer shall have jurisdiction over his students. This included monitoring their conduct and keeping notes on any misbehaviour. A student with a poor record of behaviour could be denied admission to the final exam.  By 1500, students apparently resented this kind of control.
One professor reported: I recently interrogated a student about his bad behaviour. He immediately turned on me and addressed me with “thou” (i.e. informally, as if the professor was a fellow-student). Then I said “I’ll remember that when you graduate,” hinting that he might be rejected. He answered: “Shit on you and your BA!” The professor blamed the poets, that is, the teachers of courses in the humanities, for this breakdown in student morals. You see what scandals there are, he said. I wish we all joined together and put an end to all those poets and humanists who ruin the universities.
(The quotations are from Lynne Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages. The last paragraph comes from The Letters of Obscure Men.)

Sunday 15 December 2013


In the Middle Ages a career in the church was the best option for a young man without property. A degree in theology all but guaranteed him a well-paid job, but to get there he had to work his way through a prescribed curriculum and pass examinations based on logic and scholastic philosophy. Most students did not find those subjects appealing, and in the 1500s a revolution was on its way.  Theology was out, poetry was in. Unfortunately, poetry didn’t earn you a degree. Students don’t want to graduate, one professor complained.They all want to be poets.

In the good old timeshe said, there were four graduations of bachelors each year, and on each occasion there were fifty or sixty graduates.  The University was flourishing. When a student had been in residence for a year and a half, he was made BA, and after three years, MA. Therefore his parents were satisfied and gladly supplied money when they saw that their sons were on the way to respectable jobs. But today students feel they must attend lectures on the poet Virgil and the rest of the newfangled authors. What is more, they may listen to lectures for five years and never get a degree. And so, when they return home, their parents ask “So what are you now?” But they are nothing, because they have been studying poetry. And then the parents are displeased with the University and sorry they spent money on it. And they say to others: “Don’t send your sons to University. They’ll learn nothing and spend their nights in town, fooling around.”

The new passion for poetry and the humanities was bad news for the professors who taught the traditional courses required for the BA and MA. Their pay was proportional to the number of students registered in their classes. They also earned substantial fees for conducting the final examinations. In other words: no graduations, no fees for them.

I can’t make a living, one of the TAs lamented. Of twenty students hardly one or two intend to proceed to graduation. And if a professor gives a required course, he has no audience, whereas the poets have so many listeners that it's a miracle. This shift in interest from theology to the humanities left lecturers in traditional subjects impoverished. No wonder their sentiments were: Pray to God that all poets will die!

(Quotes are from the satire Letters of Obscure Men)

Thursday 12 December 2013

MAN GIVES BIRTH TO CHILD. Tabloid Stories, c. 1600

You thought tabloids were a modern invention? Read on.
The Fugger Newsletter of 26 May 1601 offers this racy item:

After seven years of marriage, Daniel Burghammer confessed to his wife that he was half man and half woman. Apparently this detail had escaped her notice  -- until he gave birth to a girl. OMG! How did this happen?  He slept only once with a Spaniard and became pregnant therefrom. A notary examined him and confirmed that he had the natural organs of a man for passing water and that he was able to suckle the child with his right breast but not on the left side, where he is a man. The child was baptized Elizabeth. The christening was attended by more than five hundred people, including soldiers from Burghammer’s regiment, as well as drummers, pipers and three trumpeters. Sad to say, the couple divorced soon afterwards.

Another item of interest to 16th century tabloid readers: A child was born covered with cat’s hair! It began to talk eight days after birth and to walk after a month. It is said that this is the Child of Perdition, the Antichrist.  A great deal more was said about the child, but our informant omitted it because it did not sound very credible (Newsletter, 14 April 1592).

For something more credible, let’s consider The Miracle of Weimar (Newsletter, 20 January 1589). A citizen of that town had a collection of antlers. In 1588 he was given a stag’s antlers with six points and stored it in the attic. A year later, he finally got around to mounting it. When he drilled a hole into the bone, it began to bleed, and neither water nor soda could remove the stains. God knows what this portends!

I say it portended the birth of the NRA.
Or else it foreshadowed the birth of The National Enquirer.

And now let’s hear it for The Wild Irish (Newsletter, 15 Sept. 1586). The Earl of Leicester had a troop of 1500 Irish. They were almost all naked. Some of them walked on stilts through castle moats and climbed walls. Handy for conquering fortresses, no?

Sunday 8 December 2013

THE MAFIA in 1592.

Marco Sciarra, a robber baron from the Abruzzi, was the Don Corleone of his time.
The historian Sir James Craufurd noted that Italy had been enjoying peace for some time, but “the bandits were worse than any enemy.” Sciarra wanted to be “King”, or maybe even Pope. When he captured some monks, he made them kneel on the ground and kiss his feet (an honour usually reserved for the pope). He went as far as appointing judges, issuing passports, and conducting wedding ceremonies in the areas he controlled.
In some sources Sciarra is depicted as a Robin Hood figure.  He collected taxes from the rich, but I’m not sure that he distributed them to the poor. When the town of Piceno refused to pay up, Sciarra’s men “killed most of the inhabitants and sacked the whole place, then pillaged several of the neighbouring villages, and had the burgomaster hanged in one of them” (Fugger Newsletter, 25 April 1592). By that time Sciarra commanded a well-armed troop of 600 bandits. Finally the Pope sent an army against them and managed to drive them out of the papal territory. At this point Sciarra decided to go legit. The Venetian state hired him and his troops to fight the pirates who endangered their shipping routes.

As you can see, bandits have their good uses, but Sciarra’s second career was brief. He was assassinated by a fellow bandit in 1593. The traitor was given a pardon by the grateful pope.

The Duke of Ferrara also found the bandits handy, at least those he caught. He used them to discourage poaching on his estate. According to Craufurd, “he hung up the banditos in the fields, some with partridges, some with pheasants, some with hares about their legs, the duke’s officers giving out that they were put to death for killing those animals.” There was a sharp decline in poaching after that.


Thursday 5 December 2013


Ippolito d’Este, the younger brother of the Duke of Ferrara, was destined for a career in the church. He started early – being appointed Archbishop of Milan at the age of nine. In 1536, the King of France invited him to join his court in Paris. You know what a hassle it is to pack for a two-week vacation? Can you imagine packing for an indefinite work/play assignment? Ippolito needed clothing suitable for crossing the Alps, for wearing at formal dinners, at masquerades, when hunting with the King, or playing tennis. Really, you say, he played tennis? Yes, as a matter of fact, he packed 2 pairs of tennis shoes.

For ordinary purposes, a gentleman of Ippolito’s standing wore a white linen shirt with pleated ruffs that showed at the neck and wrists. Over his shirt he wore a velvet doublet and a skirted jacket of damask with slashed sleeves (fur-lined in winter). Breeches and matching hose completed the outfit.

Of course Ippolito didn’t do his own packing. That was the responsibility of Antonio Mosto, Master of the Wardrobe. Mosto drew up a list of stuff to be shipped to Paris – hundreds of items. Among them:
  • 2 gold chains; several rings with diamonds, rubies, and turquoise, set in gold; a rosary made of lapis lazuli to be worn for decorative purposes; 275 ornaments of gold and enamel to stick on the brim of hats.
  • Speaking of hats, Mosto packed 29 for his master, not counting 4 bedcaps.
  • He also packed 7 embroidered linen shirts, 14 doublets, 11 pairs of breeches and hose, 11 jackets, 46 coats, 5 pairs of leather boots, 54 pairs of shoes.
  • And 611 shoelaces. You can never have enough shoelaces, right?
  • Or handkerchiefs (102).
  • Oh, and I almost forgot: 15 pairs of leather gloves, scented with ambergris and musk.

Most of Ippolito’s clothes were black because that was the fashion in Ferrara. Imagine his horror when he arrived at the French court and discovered that his wardrobe was completely wrong for the Paris scene. Black was out. Stripes – ugh. So provincial. Narrow sleeves – pullease! And those breeches – too short. Ippolito immediately gave orders for a new wardrobe: 7 doublets and 18 jackets in a range of reds, from dark orange to a luxurious burgundy, with wide sleeves.

The Master of the Wardrobe must have been pulling his hair. But you know what really got to him? Ippolito was a clean freak and insisted on changing his shirt every day – can you believe it?

Where do you find these shocking bits of info? In Mary Hollingsworth’ fabulous book, The Cardinal’s Hat.

Saturday 30 November 2013

A ROYAL WEDDING IN CRACOW, 1592. Were they having too much fun?

On 31 May 1592, Anna of Austria married the Polish king Sigismund II. The Polish nobility opposed this alliance. They sent a posse to guard the border and prevent Anna from entering the country, but she outfoxed them and reached Pless (Pzczyna) on 26 May. According to the Fugger Newsletters, she holed up there and “practiced Italian dance steps” in preparation for the wedding ball.

Also on the programme of festivities: A wedding masquerade that cost 50,000 ducats (about 5 Million dollars) because the participants were dressed in gold-embroidered clothes.

More extravagance: The bridal coach was pulled by six black and six white bears, which were made to dance afterwards, “so that there would be sufficient drollery”.

You thought paparazzi were a modern phenomenon, reflecting our preoccupation with the lives of the rich and famous? Read on:

The informant of the Fugger Newsletter clearly had the makings of a tabloid journalist. He snuck into the royal couple’s bedroom and provided this breathless description: “It is a very spacious chamber, with the royal bed set up in the middle thereof. The bed has velvet curtains, and is surrounded by velvet-covered chairs. On the bed lies a coverlet lined with sable furs. On the wall, there is a portrait of the Royal bride wearing a white and silver robe and looking at you with a laughing mouth, so as to make the King laugh likewise when he looks at the picture.”

Meanwhile, in Germany, Count Octavian Fugger felt that such fun was unwarranted “in these present grievous times, with death rampant, with wars, strife, and tribulation everywhere.” He had posters affixed to the church doors of his estates, “forbidding most forcibly all public expressions of joy, such as singing, whistling, dancing, masques, promenading in the street and other worldly merry-making.” He made an exception for weddings, “provided they were conducted with all modesty and the accompaniment of muted string music.”

The weddings on his estate must have been dreary affairs. No, wait, I just realize there is nothing in his injunction about getting drunk.

Thursday 28 November 2013


Check out
You’ve read my posts on witch trials and the procedures outlined in THE HAMMER OF WITCHES -- if not, check them out below. But now let me backtrack: Not everyone believed in witches. Here is what German reformer Martin Luther thought about them:

“When I was a child, there were many witches and sorcerers, who worked their magic on animals and human beings, and especially on children, and did great harm otherwise. Now in the light of the gospel these things are no longer so common, for the gospel drives out the devil with all his illusions.” But in a way the devil still “bewitches” people by giving them “a false opinion of Christ and turning them against Christ.”

A generation after Luther, the German physician Johann Weyer declared that witchcraft was an illusion, a “trick played on the optical nerves.” So-called witchcraft could usually be explained by “the stupidity of old age, the inconstancy and fickleness of females, a weak mind, despair, and mental illness.” Like Luther, however, he suspected that the devil was behind those illusions. People might be “deceived by their imagination or by the wiles of the evil spirit”. Weyer’s book was so popular that it went through four editions (1563-68). 
But Weyer's arguments did not save Walpurga Hausmann, widwife of Dillingen. Her judges were convinced that she was actually in league with the devil. Here is a list of her confessed misdeeds:
  • Solicited one Hans Schlumperger with lewd words and gestures,
  • rode on a pitchfork,
  • killed infants at birth before they had a chance to be baptized,
  • made a child fall into the millpond and drown,
  • caused miscarriages,
  • sucked blood from a child,
  • brought about the death of cows, pigs, and geese,
  • caused hail once or twice a year.
For these misdeeds she was burned at the stake in September 1587. For good measure, her ashes were “carried to the nearest flowing water and thrown thereinto.”

Sunday 24 November 2013

A MILLION CALORIES:  A wedding feast, 1587
My last five posts were about the dark side of the 16th century. Let’s take a break from blood and gore today and look at the good life: a list of food and drink consumed at a wedding in Prague, 1587.

The list comes from the so-called Fugger Newsletters. The Fuggers were German merchant-bankers and venture capitalists. The Newsletters is a collection of memos sent by agents in branch offices all over Europe and in Asia to “head office” in Augsburg. They contain political and military news that might have an impact on the economy, but also descriptions of social customs, sensational crimes, or natural disasters.

One of the newsletter lists what the Bohemian nobleman William of Rosenberg offered his wedding guests:
  • Venison: 12 tons, including 36 deer, 36 boars, 49 roes, and 11,560 field hares
  • Poultry: 27 turkeys, 272 pheasants, 1910 partridges, 50 Westphalian cocks, 200 Indian cocks, 500 fattened capons, 560 fattened hens, 900 young hens, 1350 fattened geese
  • Meat: 9 tons of suckling pigs, 75 oxen, 754 sheep, 173 calves, 221 lambs, 32 fattened pigs, 160 young sows, 1290 rabbits.
  • Eggs and Dairy products: 20,620 eggs, 17 hundredweight butter, 2 tons of cheese.
  • Fish: 960 Skate, 70 char in pastry, 300 large pike, 420 small pike, 5,800 carp.
  • Wine: 70 pails Rhine wine, 100 pails Hungarian wine, 40 pails Moravian wine, 17 barrels Austrian wine, 47 barrels Bohemian wine, 10 kegs sweet wine
  • Beer: 150 barrels pale ale, 8 barrels Rakonitz beer, 18 barrels barley beer
  • Also: “a goodly amount” of spices, marzipan, sweetmeats, wheat rolls and rye bread.
“In his estates, towns, and villages, a considerable number of poor people were likewise fed, and it is not yet known how much has been consumed altogether.”


Thursday 21 November 2013

TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN. Tales from the records of the Spanish Inquisition

In the popular imagination the Spanish Inquisition is associated with heretics being burned at the stake. But the statistics show that executions were infrequent. Here are some figures:

  • Some 26,000 people were tried in Aragon between 1540 and 1700 – 2 percent were executed (the judicial term for this was “being relaxed”, meaning handed over to the secular government for execution).
  • In Toledo, 1422 people were tried between 1575 and 1610 -- 15 were “relaxed”. Others were scourged, imprisoned, had their property confiscated, served on galleys, or were exiled. 179 were acquitted or had their case dismissed. The majority of those found guilty was formally reconciled with the church and had to walk in an auto-da-fe.

What is an auto-da-fe? A public ritual, in which heretics had to demonstrate that they were penitent. They took part in a procession, wearing sackcloth (sanbenito) and carrying candles or crosses. Their sentences were read out aloud, and they fell on their knees to give thanks to God (or just thanks for having escaped the clutches of the Inquisition?)

Witches and Jews were not the only ones dragged before the tribunals. The Fugger Newsletter (a forerunner of today’s newspaper) lists the 38 people who walked in an auto-da-fe in Seville, 3 May 1579. There were Jews, Moors, nuns, Lutherans, escaped slaves, and fornicators.  One was burned at the stake. The others were reconciled with the church.
Here are examples of the sentences handed down:
  • Juan de Color, a black slave, 35 years old, “reviled the name of Our Dear Lady” and denied her miracles: 2 years imprisonment.
  • Juan Corineo, a Moor, said: “Our Dear Lady did not conceive as a virgin”: 100 strokes of the rod.
  • Francisco Gonzales married twice: 100 strokes of the rod and three years on a galley.
  • Francisco Berocano “said that it was no sin if a woman tgoes to a man and they copulate.” No punishment since he “disavowed his words as frivolous.”
  • Orbrian, a native of Flanders, 30 years old, burned paintings of Jesus, endorsed the teachings of Luther, and “showed great stubbornness”: goods confiscated, burned at the stake.

Sunday 17 November 2013


In the summer of 1525, the shoemaker Silvestre Gonzales of Las Palmas, a convert to Christianity, was accused of relapsing into Judaism -- eating kosher meat and celebrating the Sabbath in his house. He was gagged, seated on an ass, and thrashed through the streets of Las Palmas. The following year, he insisted that none of the accusations against him had been proven. Wrong move! He was tried again.
From the records for the second trial:
"23 January 1526:
He is sentenced to be put to torture and is bound hands and feet to a frame; then water is poured down his throat. After the second jar of water, he begs to be unbound and promises to speak the truth. He is a dog and a Jew, and if they will only unbind him, he will tell them the number of Jews on the island. [He also implicates his father]. Two days later he declares that his confession made under torture was a lie, that he said the first thing that came to mind to be set free. He is again put to torture, and after the second jar of water, admits that he is a Jew but insists that he gave false testimony against his father. After four more jars of water, he begs to be released and swears to speak the truth.

24 January 1526:
He says that what the witnesses have said about him is untrue.

31st January 1526:
The judges are of the opinion that he has perjured himself and shows no remorse and must be handed over to the civil authorities [for the death penalty].”

Silvestre was burned at the stake on February 24, 1526, together with his father Alvaro. Alvaro had a previous conviction. On that occasion he had been sentenced to do public penance. He was gagged (for uttering blasphemies) and had to stand at the church door for three Sundays holding a candle and wearing the corozo (a kind of pointed dunce cap).

In August 1530, Johan de Xeres, a silk merchant of Las Palmas, was accused of keeping the fast of Yom Kippur. He was “stripped and tied to the ladder in preparation for the water torture. After receiving eleven jars of water, the prisoner says that, seeing he must die, he wishes to confess the truth. The charges against himself and his relatives are true. Being brought into court again, he declares that the confession was made in his death agony and is false.”

Johan de Xeres was handed over to the secular authorities for capital punishment. His property was forfeited to the Crown.


Thursday 14 November 2013

Still more from THE HAMMER OF WITCHES: The trial procedure

In a case of witchcraft, the prisoner is not permitted to know the names of his accusers, [because they may be bewitched in revenge]. But the judge must inquire into any personal enmity felt by the witnesses toward the prisoner.  For the less opportunity the prisoner has to defend himself, the more carefully and diligently should the judge conduct his inquiry.

The witch should be led backward into the presence of the judge [so that she cannot bewitch him with her eyes]. As a precaution she should be stripped and her hair shaved from every part of her body, for witches are in the habit of hiding charms in their hair or even in the most secret parts of their bodies which must not be named.

[If she is recalcitrant, she must be tortured].
If, after being properly tortured, she still refuses to confess the truth, she should be shown other instruments of torture and threatened that she would have to endure those. If then she is not induced by terror to confess, the torture must be continued for a second and third day.

Let the judge take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence or when being tortured. A witch will not be able to weep, although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping.

[The devil has made witches immune to red-hot irons.]
A witch in Constance asked for trial by red-hot iron and carried it not only for the stipulated three paces, but offered to carry it even farther. Although the judge ought to have taken this as manifest proof that she was a witch, she was released and lives to the present day, which is a great scandal to the faith!

Sunday 10 November 2013

More from the inquisitor's manual, THE HAMMER OF WITCHES: The fury of a woman scorned.

In the town of Regensburg, a young man had an affair with a girl and, when he left her, lost his penis through a spell she cast over him.

In his worry he went to a tavern to get drunk and started talking to a woman there, telling her everything and giving a physical demonstration of his loss.

The woman said: “If you can’t persuade her to restore your health, you must use violence.”

The next evening he talked to the girl, but she maintained her innocence. Then he fell upon her and, throttling her with a towel, said: “Unless you give me back my health, you shall die at my hands.”

With her face already swelling and turning black, she said: “Let me go, and I will heal you.” The young man relaxed the pressure of the towel, and the witch touched him between his legs, saying: “Now you have what you desire.” And the young man plainly felt, even before he verified it by looking or touching, that his penis had been restored. 

Note: Do not believe that a penis can really be removed from the body, but rather that it is hidden by the devil through magic art so that it can be neither seen nor felt.


Friday 8 November 2013


From The Hammer of Witches, 1486:

                             Why Superstition Is Chiefly Found In Women
  • They are more credulous than men, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, he attacks them by preference.
  • They are readier to receive spiritual influences. When they use this quality well, they are very good, but when they abuse it, they are very bad.
  • They have slippery tongues.
  • They are feebler in mind and body than men.
  • They were formed from a bent rib [of Adam], which makes them deceptive.
  • The word femina [Latin for woman] is derived from fe [faith] and minor [less].
  • They are affected by strong passions, given to brooding and vengeance…wherefore it is no wonder that so great a number of witches exist.
  • Women have weak memories…to follow their own impulses without thinking of what is due – that’s all they can keep in mind.
  • Woman is a liar by nature.
  • She is more dangerous than a snare…If she places her hands on a creature to bewitch it, she achieves her purpose with the help of the devil.


Yes, friends, I’ve changed the heading and the direction of my blog. From now on I’m posting quotations from historical sources that may surprise or shock or amuse you. I begin with the Hammer of Witches, a medieval handbook for inquisitors, compiled by Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger and first published in 1486.

Sunday 3 November 2013


How can I parody a man who is shaped like a Goodyear blimp and looks like a parody of a man? I mean Rob Ford, the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto and friend of downtrodden drug dealers. How can I improve on his statement I don’t throw my friends under the bus? Is that a kind of update on the biblical casting pearls before swine?

How can I spoof the incompetence of government employees when they beat me to it with their glitch-prone US healthcare site? Can I be funnier than spokeswoman Marilyn Tavenner, who apologized and promised to bring in a new infusion of talent ( Oh no, please, Marilyn, we are still trying to cope with the first load of talent. Tavenner, by the way, is a former nurse. I can just see her holding your hand, as you lie on your deathbed after a botched operation: Don’t worry, dear. We’ll bring in a new infusion of talent.

How can I improve on the news of teenagers beginning to lose interest in Facebook and Prof Neil Bearse’s profound analysis of the trend: Teenagers tend to stay away from places when their parents, teachers or potential employers show up (Globe 31 Oct). Oh, so you need a doctorate and a chair in a School of Business to come up with that bit of insight? How can I improve on Neil Bearse’s DUH statement?

Speaking of Facebook: apparently it is now the provider of news for 78 percent of its users. People go on to Facebook to share personal moments, and they discover the news almost incidentally, as Amy Mitchell of PEW explains. How can I beat that for satirical value?

I can’t. So farewell to spoofing contemporary events. From now on my incredible stories will be taken from bygone times. I have in mind something along the lines of “facts are stranger than historical fiction.”

Yes, friends, that’s my new motto. Future blog posts will feature rummelsincrediblestories from the past.  

Thursday 31 October 2013


In a recent article, Professor Kathleen Vohls claimed that messy rooms promote creativity (  Einstein’s desk was messy. So was Steve Job’s. Well, maybe that works for scientists and techies, but if you are in politics you’d better clean house. Optics count in government.

Consider Snowden’s revelation that governments spy. I’m shocked, shocked. And even if you think, like National Intelligence Director James Clapper, that spying is Diplomacy 101, you still need to express shock, at least in front of voters. It looks better than shrugging your shoulders.

Yes, friends, looks count in politics.

Why did the Canadian Liberals choose young Trudeau as their leader? Not for his brains, which are luckily invisible. They chose him because his optics are good. He has wavier hair than any Canadian prime minister in recent memory. His chin is cleaner than NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s. His smile is whiter than Prime Minister Harper’s.

But Thank Goodness It's Halloween, the great equalizer, and everyone can be as ugly as they want and still get a treat.

Tomorrow it’s back to tricks only.

Sunday 27 October 2013


What’s on this weekend in Toronto?
The Zoomer Show, which encourages the 45+ crowd to live big and offers them the lifestyle of their choice. What are the trending topics? According to an ad in the Globe (23 Oct): gardening, alternative health, getting out of debt and winning a vacation. Yes, folks, that’s living big after 45. The show keeps sober hours (Sa 9-5, Su 10-5), but I guess when you are 45+, eight hours of living big is plenty. For entertainment, visitors can listen to Alan Frew, who looks Zoomerish and is wearing the kind of hat you see on Yodelers in the Austrian Alps. I wonder what’s underneath that hat. A bald pate?
I’m asking because that’s one of the lifestyle concerns of Zoomers -- how to avoid baldness and the Yodel hat cover-up. Good news, people! Dr. Colin Jahoda of Durham University just had a scientific breakthrough. He gathered human dermal papilla cells into clusters, transplanted them into foreskin tissue obtained from newborns, and TADA -- new hair follicles. So take heart, Zoomers, you will soon be able to grow new hair, even on your foreskin.

Muscle tone is another area in which Zoomers demand improvement. Maybe that’s why they are into alternative health, but if that doesn’t work and they still can’t perform the way they used to in their 20s, they should consider the world of eSports. According to the Globe (26 Oct) gaming has evolved into legitimate careers causing a new subculture to explode. I wonder--does eSport have a sex division? Just asking, what with alternative health and hairy foreskins.

Another thing Zoomers are into is downsizing. So here is something that should appeal to them: an auction of architect-designed miniature houses, about 3 feet tall. Okay, you can’t live in them, unless you have teeny-tiny fingers and toes, are exceptionally agile and very good at what designer Christopher Leonard calls envisioning a new environment. In any case, those miniature houses are fun to look at and you can furnish them with miniature design furniture you couldn’t afford at full scale. Maybe your kids could use one as a dollhouse? No, no, no! According to collector Christina Ferrara, who has 19 miniature houses (Globe 24 Oct), they are just too personal. Unlike kids who are sort of generic, right?


Wednesday 23 October 2013


I got a comment on my last post wondering why I got no comments. That’s because my most devoted follower is the spam site vampirestat, and their bot is the silent kind. Hey, vampirestat, do I have to explain everything to you? Programme your bot to post exuberant comments like “Greatest blog ever!” or “Most brilliant observation I’ve read in a long time!” I might get carried away and click on your link. And isn’t that the idea behind your spamming?

Another person who does not comment is Mr. Rasouli, a comatose patient at Sunnybrook Hospital for the last three years. Perhaps his family could comment on his behalf. Exuberant thanks to the taxpayer are in order. Mrs. Rasouli has just won a victory in the Supreme Court of Canada, which allows her to defy doctors’ orders to have her husband removed from life support. The court decision forces the doctors to continue maintaining Mr. Rasouli in a state of living death. That service costs 1 million/year, which comes out of the shrinking healthcare budget. GOD WILLS IT, Mrs. Rasouli argues. Yes, but does he supply the breathing machine and the feeding tubes as well? And how come he doesn’t supply more hospital beds for the other patients waiting in line? No comment from God so far.

But maybe no comment is the new comment. And that’s why has created a no comment youTube section.  They believe “in the intelligence of readers” to get the message. Okay, so there is a silent youTube of pop star Morissey signing copies of his autobiography. Don’t authors use words anymore? Oh, he’s keeping mum because he wants you to buy the book and pay for his words.

Politicians are another group favouring silence. Prime Minister Harper had no comment on the Duffy affair. He waited for his spin doctors to come up with the right message. Mayor Ford had no comment when asked recently whether he was under investigation. He redirected the attention of reporters to his pet subject by chanting: Subways! Subways! Subways! (National Post, 8 Oct).

I wonder whether that sort of magical incantation would work for me. I’ll give it a try. Comment! Comment! Comment!

Saturday 19 October 2013

THREE NEW INSIGHTS: memory, hieroglyphs, and things you don't need

This has been a day of significant insights for me.

One: I read that eating popcorn makes us forget advertising in cinemas. Apparently we mouth the name of advertised products to ourselves, to remember them later. Eating suppresses the ability to subvocalize, and thus, the formation of memory, says Prof. Topolinski (

Okay, that explains why I don’t remember anyone who was introduced to me at that reception last week. It wasn’t the drinks. In fact I couldn’t tell you how many drinks I had. Eating those unidentifiable things the wait staff carried around on trays inhibited my subvocalization and left me without memory.

That would also explain why people engage in certain sexual practices that occupy their mouths and keep them from subvocalization – clearly they want to forget their partners.

And it also explain why dentists insert a lot of gear into your mouth before they inflict pain – I always thought it was to keep you from screaming, but now I see the real purpose: the dentist wants you to forget the experience and come back for more.

Two: You notice the proliferation of self-storage buildings in the suburbs? I couldn’t figure out why people suddenly have so much stuff to store away. Then it struck me: it’s because there are a lot of things the garbage pickup doesn’t pick up. Of course some people just let the junk pile up in their closets, basements, or driveways. And then there is Tadashi Kawamata, who piled up his old chairs and called it installation art:

Three: In the past fifty years we’ve gone from writing letters to writing emails to writing texts to tweeting. Every time the message gets shorter, and the emoticons get more play. In fact, chat app LINE has ended the need for words with their upgraded version of emoticons.  Are you groping for the right word? Don’t. Just use the LINE stickers to express yourself (

Okay, that explains the hieroglyphs in Egyptian temples. That ancient civilization was way more advanced than I thought. They were on to emoticons, whereas I’m still using letters. I know it’s pathetic, and I promise to move on right now. So, let me say

Thursday 17 October 2013

PERSONAL SERVICE. Your initials and a Rogers outage

Want to keep mom from checking out your Facebook wall? What about Loews or Hyatt? Apparently hotels now track their guests through social media so that they can provide special touches like stitching their initials into the pillow (Globe, 14 Oct). That’s what you always wanted in a hotel room, right? Never mind the outrageous price, the inconvenient location, or the noisy air conditioner -- as long as you fall asleep with your initials caressing your cheek.

Let me suggest other useful applications for the micropersonal touch:

Supermarkets: preloaded carts with your initials on the wheels. They’ve scraped the web and know what you want and need.  Just remember to give them a warning when you decide to go on a diet. Or should they be able to glean that from the social media?

Clothes shopping in person: pre-stocked dressing rooms with your initials on the privacy curtain. Just let them know that your diet was successful and you lost ten pounds – oh, okay, they already know that through the social media.

Dating: You’ve come up against the thorny question whether no means yes or vice versa? Settle it by scraping the social media for your date’s preferences. And don’t forget to tattoo your initials into his/her arm.

Social media could definitely help ending unwanted relationships. A recent Rogers outage, for example, left poor Will Adams anxious (Globe, Oct 11). He thought his girlfriend had dumped him because she hadn’t texted him in, OMG, two minutes. Will’s logical reasoning gives me an idea. Could we make a 2-minute-plus electronic silence the universal dump sign? Please, Rogers, help me out here. Could you micromanage my texts and zap bullies, boring acquaintances, and penis enlargement offers with a 2-minute-plus deliberate outage?


Monday 14 October 2013

FIGURING OUT THE NOBEL PRIZE. Obama or Merkel? Borges or Munro?

How do the Nobel Prize judges make their decisions?

Why was Obama awarded a Peace Prize and Mother Merkel has so far gone empty-handed? Okay, I can see the rationale here. You have to be involved in a war in order to make peace. The US had several on the go recently -- Iraq, Afghanistan, and briefly, Libya. Germany hasn’t been involved in a war in sixty years plus. So unless the Germans go haywire, Mutti doesn’t have a chance of making peace or making the Nobel Prize.

Also, the judges had to seize the moment and get Obama before he could ruin it all by sending more troops to Afghanistan. You could say the Nobel Peace Prize is a kind of incentive, to give a person something to live up to. It’s like saying, okay right now you don’t have a stellar reputation for keeping the peace, but we believe you’ll improve along the way.

That definitely doesn’t happen with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Authors don’t get Nobel pats on the head just because they might eventually write an iconic novel. It seems unfair, but they have to prove their worth up front and write and write and write for fifty years minimum.

But why did Alice Munro get the Nobel Prize, while Luis Borges who wrote just as many short stories never got beyond being touted as the next Nobel Prize winner? Maybe it was the genre. Borges wrote in the style of fantastic realism, which no one can understand unless they are a little weird themselves. And there was Alice Munro offering accessible, moving stories with quiet epiphanies everyone likes except for the highbrows who read the bleak stories in the New Yorker.

Ditto with the respective bios of Munro and Borges. She stuck to books: a degree in English lit, summer jobs in libraries (we’ll overlook the tobacco picking), founding a bookstore and keeping it going. That’s what I call a perfect narrative arc. Now look at Borges – no degree and sticking his nose into politics, being anti-fascist, anti-communist, anti-Peronist, and after some hesitation, anti-military junta. I mean the guy was against everything. So of course the Nobel Prize judges shied away from Borges. Next thing you know he goes anti-Nobel!

Looking at Alice Munro, the Nobel judges were all smiles. Here was an agreeable woman who never caused trouble. And she won’t embarrass us in future, they thought, because she has vowed to retire from writing.

Of course Nobel Prize winners are notoriously unpredictable. Obama did send more troops to Afghanistan, and Alice Munro has changed her mind about retiring from writing. Let’s just hope she won’t get into that fantastic realism stuff!

Thursday 10 October 2013

3 VIEW. Three is better than one.

Are you seeing a therapist and not getting the therapeutic benefits you expected? That’s because you have only one therapist and you need a trio of advisors, according to 3View, a Toronto practice (Globe & Mail, 8 Oct). Mind you, the three-on-one treatment, which brings triple skills to bear on your problems, will set you back $ 210/session but maybe it’s worth it, and there is something to the three-is-better-than-one theory (let’s call it 3View for short).

For one thing, 3 View has the weight of tradition. It has long been embraced by followers of Islam. That’s why they allow three wives. Triple skills in the kitchen, three-on-one in the bedroom, and all that, you know.

Of course you will need three jobs to pay for your trio of wives and therapists.

And maybe also three drinks for every one you have at present.

But what we all need is triple organs. Three livers would certainly come in handy if you go in for triple drinks. Three brains, I’m not sure about. That might lead to in-fighting, but then again it could provide insider-tips (“Psst, Brain1 is on the frizz”) and triple your IQ.  And any mother of young children will be better off with three hands, although if she and her husband happen to work three jobs, they’ll probably want three nannies instead.

I myself am looking for three publishers vying to buy the manuscript of my next novel, but will likely end up with three editors imposing their conflicting grammatical and stylistic preferences on me.

Now that I’m aware of the 3 View theory, I see it at work everywhere. No doubt it accounts for the heist pulled off by the men who stole 16,000 barrels of maple syrup (Toronto Star, 6 Oct), especially if they were hoping to popularize three-pancake breakfasts.

And did you know that someone paid $ 45,000 for a set of three chest x-rays of Marilyn Monroe (Globe, 9 Oct)? He must have been motivated by 3 View. I can’t explain it any other way.

The theory is probably also behind Canada’s system of three political parties, although to date their triple skills have affected only the country’s credit rating (down) and taxes (up). That’s probably why some people stubbornly remain in favour of the one party system (see Iran, China, and the Tea Party).

The 3 View theory is however widely accepted in home construction and may account for the lack of interest in Nathan Buhler’s 100 sq ft house, even though it’s a bargain at $ 29,900 (Globe, 3 Oct). Obviously people still cling to the notion that three bedrooms are better than one or none. And desperately needed if you have three wives.