The Coincidence Problem

I was walking north down Commercial Drive when I began to think about a friend I hadn’t seen for some months. I crossed Grandview Highway as the Skytrain passed overhead, and there was the friend I had been thinking about standing at the corner with his wife, and he was looking at me in some surprise, for, as it turned out, he and his wife had been talking about me in the same moment that I had been thinking of him, and so we congratulated ourselves on having arrived at the corner of Commercial Drive and Grandview Highway at just the right moment for these facts to be revealed to us.

None of us referred to our meeting as a coincidence, which is what it was, of course. Coincidence is a word too easily distrusted, a label employed by grown-ups to dismiss the marvellous: “only a coincidence” is what grown-ups say, thereby limiting the real world to non-coincidence only, for a world that includes coincidence is complicated and weird, and, like the world of quantum physics, entangled in our own perceptions.

A few months ago I met with some new friends from out of town in the bar of the Sylvia Hotel and in the course of the evening I recounted several anecdotes about an old mentor of mine who had been an art critic and was once the director of the VAG. We noticed that the music playing on the sound system had become morose and rather dirge-like, and when we asked the bartender why, he made a lame joke about funerals and drinking. I came home late and picked up a magazine from the stack of reading matter in the bathroom and it fell open at a poem written in memory of my old mentor, the same man I had just been telling my friends about in the bar at the Sylvia, and I understood at that moment that my old mentor was no longer alive.

In 1972 my old mentor gave me his 1958 Pontiac in return for a small favour that I had done him; I drove the Pontiac for six months before selling it for a dollar in the Cecil Hotel beer parlour when I didn’t need it any more. The Cecil I should say, was a literary beer parlour at that time. That summer I used to go to the Hastings Park racetrack with my brother to place bets on the advice of an astrologer who had worked out a way of predicting winners based on the positions of the planets and the timing of the starting gun. It took a few weeks to adapt to his system, and when we were ready and had chosen our day, the astrologer, whom I had befriended during a graveyard shift at David Ingram’s tax preparation company, calculated that the first race, if it started on time, would bring in horses 6 and 3, which, as I recall, were controlled by Mars and Mercury, and after that the following races would come in according to the pattern that he wrote down in the margins of the horoscope. My brother and I set out in the Pontiac with our astrological charts and my girlfriend, who became unpleasantly negative as we drove along Hastings Street; eventually I had to pull over across from the Waldorf Hotel and ask her to get out of the car. She had no money so I gave her cab fare from our supply of gambling cash. The astrologer had told us that everything depended on our being there for the first race. A few blocks from the track the Pontiac ran out of gas and we had to push it into a gas station and pour a few gallons into the tank; we got into the parking lot at the track but it was full, so we had to drive onto the street to park, and then run back through the parking lot to the gate to pay the entrance fee. We were within a few feet of the betting window when the bell rang, and the first race went off before we could place our bets. Mars and Mercury came in, back to back, just as they were supposed to do.

We could see then that the astrologer’s system worked, but we didnt understand that it might not work for us; we followed up the result of the first race as the astrologer had directed us, and broke even in the second and third races. The fourth race was a big one, the astrologer had warned us, and Mars and Mercury would play a part in it. My brother took our money to the wicket to bet on 6 and 3 both ways. I looked out at the track as the horses came up to the post; among them was a white stallion, a rare sight at the races, and it carried the number 4 on its back: four was the number of the moon, which according to the astrologer always played a role in the fourth race. It was also an extreme long shot. I looked out to the east where the moon, nearly full, could be seen hanging in a blue sky. I said to myself: white horse, white moon, 4 in the fourth race, and then I said: it’s only coincidence, and manfully, rationally, I resisted the impulse to call my brother back (I was the eldest, and perhaps the more addicted to the unbending lever of logic). The white stallion won the race handily, separated from the pack by 6 and 3, who seemed to be running interference for it, and my brother and I failed to win several hundred dollars. Thirty years later, I read in a layman’s book on quantum mechanics that what we experience of the world is not the world at all, but only our interaction with the world.


Last Friday night, after presenting this 5-minute version of the Coincidence Problem to a gathering of interested people at an event called Interesting Vancouver, I found a copy of the New Scientist in my mailbox bearing on its cover (by coincidence) the following spurious claim:

We wouldn’t be here without a chain of coincidences that’s led from the big bang to our big brains.

The New Scientist is forever confusing the process of cause and effect with its outcomes (such as evolution and coincidence).

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Marilyn enters Banff

Banffologists around the world are hard at work examining new evidence of Marilyn Monroe sightings in the Great National Park. More forensic samples are available at Global Lethbridge.

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Baby Collection

—found in my inbox a few days ago

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Vienna, Pangnirtung, Remembrance

Today is the birthday of my friend Sherie Kaplan who died earlier this year, so this is the first time that she and I are not exchanging emails and phone calls in order to arrange a birthday dinner. Instead, I have resolved on my own to start this blog again.

Sherie and I were born within eleven days of each other, in 1947, she in Vienna in war-torn Europe, and I in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island during the aftermath of the sinking of the supply ship Nascopie. We met when we were 21, in 1968, and my early memories of Sherie inform my remembrance of that defining time of the early seventies. The night before her funeral I was reading Jeff Wall’s wonderful new book (Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition), and came across a magnificent photograph of the Jewish Cemetery in New Westminster, where Sherie was to be buried the next day. As I studied the photograph I understood that Sherie’s resting place (so to speak) now belonged (among other things) to the history of art. Jeff Wall writes:

A picture of a cemetery is a “perfect” type of landscape. The inevitably approaching, yet unapproachable, phenomenon of death, the necessity of leaving behind those who have passed away, is the most striking dramatic analogue for the distant – but not too distant – viewing position identified as ‘typical’ of the landscape. We cannot get too distant from the graveyard.

This afternoon I looked over a selection of books set out for sale in plastic bags and arranged against the wall of the Bank of Montreal on Commercial Drive. There were several literary titles on display, and one of them, The Parabolist by Nicholas Ruddock, I had seen in the Geist office a few months ago and then it disappeared before I could read it. It was an advance reading copy from Doubleday; I took it out of its bag and opened it to find the Geist date stamp on the front page: this same copy had made its way from our reviewing desk and out to new life on the street. It was the perfect gift for Sherie, who was a great reader of great books, and whose copy of Hellbox by John O’Hara, written in 1947, I had read twice during the summer. The street-vendor in front of the Bank of Montreal told me I looked like a reader or a writer, and in either case, he said, it was a wonderful day for Nicholas Ruddock, the young author whose book I was buying from him for $4.00. “These young writers get squeezed out at the top,” he said. It’s very hard for them to find readers. So today is a good day for this young writer because now he has another new reader.”

A few years ago I wrote a story for Geist in which Sherie and her parents (who survived the Holocaust) make an important appearance. That story can read on the Geist Website.

A review of Nicholas Ruddock’s book by my sister Patty can also be found here on the Geist website.

My review of Jeff Wall’s book is somewhere on the Geist website too, but I can’t find it tonight.

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In(ter)ventionists posing at Banff

On the second day at Banff, 20 Feb 2010, the In(ter)ventionists took a moment out of their deliberations to stand in the sunlight. This one-minute movie is sharper than the others on this blog, so maybe I’m getting it!

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Launch your own blog

Launch day: Banff Centre.
The first entry in this blog, which goes public today, during the lunch break at the in(ter)ventions conference (parentheses supplied by the Banff Centre), was written on the 24th of January; several entries have been added since then during a month of tweaking and trying to understand the process of writing backwards, which seems to be what the blog form requires, as new posts can be seen to displace existing posts rather than adding to them—an illusion of course, but quite convincing; the resulting uneasiness is what you feel when you send an email apologizing for remarks in the email you sent moments earlier and shouldn’t have; now the apology will arrive before the insult.

So this post, which appears at the top of the stack (for the time being) is the last in a sequence of posts written before the blog goes public, in only a few more minutes.

Shortly before lunch intervened at in(ter)ventions, Charles Bernstein read a poem with Saskatoon in it; Steve Tomasula demonstrated the workings of TOC: A New Media Novel, and Erin Moure spoke eloquently about the necessity and the impossiblity of bringing voices from elsewhere into “the context we call Canada” — questions that inform her new book, O Resplandor, just published by Anansi.

I arise now and go, and go to luncheon amongst, between, the silent, the imponderable, the ponderous, the impossibly Rocky, the fallibly pathetic, the totally adverbial, the scene, the scenery, the scene, the scenery, the preponderous virtues of the natural.

Addendum:  Everyone remembers Saskatoon from the movie Atlantic City, but how many remember Woody Herman singing out “Don’t be a goon from Saskatoon,” as he and the Swingin’ Herd wail their way into “Get Your Boots Laced, Papa?”

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Ten thousand, a million copies in America

Paulo Coehlo, whose books had sold in excess of 65 million copies before one of them fell into my hands in a used book store in the spring of 2009, is described in the biographical note as having suffered torture at the hands of the paramilitary in Brazil in the late nineteen-sixties, an experience that “affected him profoundly,” and caused him to exchange the life of an activist for the life of “an executive in the music industry.” Later in his life, according to the same biographical note, Sr. Coehlo met a man in Amsterdam whom he had seen in a dream. In his introduction to the book that fell into my hands, Sr. Coehlo advises his readers to pursue their dreams as he has pursued his. One of his dreams, perhaps his main dream, ceased properly to be a dream when he discovered that it “little by little, was becoming reality” as one of his books sold “ten, a thousand, a million copies in America.”

Some 65 million copies of the works of Paulo Coehlo were already circulating in 150 countries and 60 languages when a pre-owned copy of The Alchemist announcing these facts on the back cover appeared last summer in one of the (few) great remaining 2nd-hand bookstores in Vancouver (Bibliophile on Commercial Drive), which is where I came to know of its celebrated author — a man, according to the blurb at the back of the book, whose suffering at the hands of paramilitary goons in Brazil in the nineteen-sixties “affected him profoundly,” and led him to take up the life of an “executive in the music industry.” Paul Coehlo became a writer, the blurb-writer goes on to say, after meeting a man in a cafe in Amsterdam whom he had seen months earlier “in a vision.”

In his introduction to The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo exhorts his readers to pursue their dreams as he has pursued his. At least one of the dreams of Paulo Coehlo, the only one alluded to in his introduction to The Alchemist, ceased properly to be a dream when, as he writes, “little by little, my  dream was becoming reality,” and his books began to sell “ten, a thousand, a million copies in America.”

Is it the destiny of dreams then to be erased by reality?

The “essence” of Coehlo’s work rendered in a few sentences can be found in a wonderful article in the Business Standard by Nilanjana S Roy of New Delhi.

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Know when it’s over

After seven and a half years, and 117 issues, we put the 3-cent magazine to rest with a final monster edition of 24 pages, a length equivalent to 6 regular issues and intended to recognize outstanding subscriptio balances. The Last Issue was dated 20 January 1980, Sunday of the same week that smugglers were discovered concealing Mercedes Benzes in the desert sands of Arabia and  that “Why Should the Father Bother” hit number 18 on the Born Again Hit Parade;  the week the Canadian Civil Defense Commander told the nation there was nothing to fear from a nuclear attack “as long as they don’t attack at night, or by surprise.” We put these interesting facts into the farewell essay because they had come to our attention while the essay was being composed: 3-Cent Pulp was nothing if not aleatory: the pure product of chance operations. “We are getting old,” I wrote, in 1980, when I had achieved the advanced age of 33, “and lacking a bureaucracy with its feckless capacity for regeneration, we want to have a rest and dry out for a while.”

The seventies had ended.

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Do the math

By our own calculations we had in the course of seven years spent $65,000 in the Marble Arch beer parlour, the equivalent of 130,000 glasses of beer. We had printed a total of 117,000 copies of the magazine, half a million pages of literary writing, we had perfected the financial management technique that we named 100% Loss Financing. And we had launched the 3-Day Novel Contest, which is still thriving today, in its pages.

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The Extensible Moment

The digital camera offers the photographer a new dimension in image-making–we might call it the extensible moment. Photographs made using film technology can be said (as John Berger does) to cut across time. The minute-long photographs that result from holding a digital camera in one position in movie mode embrace or include time as motion while retaining the lure of the photographic glimpse. Now explicitly, for the first time, narrative begins to intrude in the photograph, to emerge from the frame, and, with repeated viewing, elements of “plot” can be discovered in the “instantaneous,” along with impudent traces of upstart allegory and fable.

My first 1-minute movie was filmed near Studio C103 at the intersection of Commercial Drive, Commercial Street, 18th Avenue, Findlay Street and Victoria Diversion (a complicated corner in Vancouver). I held the camera on a monopod, and watched the timer count down in the corner of the viewfinder. I let the “shot” continue for 2 minutes or so, and later trimmed out the minute presented here. The image is brighter and sharper in the original: it has softened up in the transition to Youtube. This is no doubt remediable, once I learn more about what I’m trying to do here.

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Make a one-minute movie

If you hold  a digital camera steady for a minute or so (in Movie mode), you get a still photograph that registers movement. Photographers have been registering movement for the last hundred years by exploiting blurs and streaks. Now they can get the detail and the movement at the same time, or during the same time–and time itself becomes a dimension of the photograph.

The images displayed below are part of the Geist One-Minute Movie Mapping Project (soon to be launched) at

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Use the technology

We used a big rubber stamp and a pad of red ink to print the logo by hand on each copy of 3-Cent Pulp, and eventually employed an machine that used silk-screen stencils (prepared on a typewriter and then stacked in a hopper) to address copies of the magazine to subscribers. By 1980, we had published 107 issues and had been banned twice from the Vancouver Public Library and we were two and half years behind in the publishing schedule.

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Launch a 3-cent magazine

The idea for a four-page magazine emerged on an otherwise idle afternoon in 1972, in a 3rd floor walkup on Pender Street in Vancouver across the alley from the Marble Arch beer parlour, where Pulp Press Book Publishers had been in operation for about two months. One of us had discovered that you could get 5,000 words onto an 8.5 by 11 inch piece of paper in 5 point type if you weren’t too picky about margins. The trick was folding the sheet over to make leaves, and then we hit on the idea of charging three cents a copy and signing over the whole price to bookstores that would agree to carry it on their front counter.

We chose three cents as the cover price because there was a tax on books at that time so anyone making a purchase in a bookstore always had a few pennies in their change, and we announced a biweekly publishing schedule because we were too young to know better, and a subscription price of $10 a year, which represented to us, as we put it in our subscription offers, a considerable saving over the cover price of three cents a copy. Within a year we had 250 subscribers and a corresponding budget of $2500; editors and contributors were never paid and neither was the rent or the phone or the bill for the telex rolls we used for correspondence, all of which came from other sources. We printed 1000 copies and shipped them out in bundles to bookstores across the country and engaged the post office on the question of 2nd class mail privileges, which at that time extended only to newspapers; for six months the most eloquent writer among us, a poet and a songwriter of some renown, typed out a series of letters on one of the telex rolls–the telex roll came with carbon paper built in, so copies of all correspondence from that period has been preserved in bulldog clips that we hung on the wall in an ever-lengthening row. In the end the eloquent poet won the argument with the post office by proving beyond doubt that our three-cent magazine was indeed a newspaper, with the result that 3-Cent Pulp was the first literary magazine in the country to qualify for the postal subsidy.

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