Thursday, December 29, 2016

Worth Reading - December 29, 2016

With the holidays just behind us and New Year's just ahead the news cycle has been sort of slow. I've been using my time to read for pleasure and play video games. I hope everyone has a safe and pleasant New Year's celebration.

The New York Times lays out some of the possibilities of the Trump presidency.

The Washington Post is hiring five dozen more journalists. In an era where the media is contracting it is pleasing to see critical journalism is finding a market.

The educational YouTube channel Kurzgesagt recently released a video on overpopulation, check it out.  

The Toronto Star gives Mayor Bonnie Crombie high marks for her stewardship of Mississauga. 

MP Peter Julian has tepidly entered the race to be the next NDP leader

Conservatives in Alberta (Wildrose and PCs) will have to fight it out in 2017 if either hope to supplant the NDP government

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Top Video Games, Books, and Television of 2016

Normally at the end of the year I write a blog post reflecting on the year. For months now the common consensus among many is that 2016 was a trash fire of a year. The combination of dismal international news, terrorism and tragedies, a stagnant economy, the deaths of many prominent and beloved public figures/entertainers, and the concerning outcome of the American elections is enough to make it a dark chapter in the twenty-first century for many. With no disrespect to the recent deaths, including Carrie Fisher today, if you're measuring this year by that alone, you need to give your head a shake and consider the recent massacres and tragedies in places like Syria, Istanbul, Orlando, Berlin, Nice, Nigeria, Iraq and on, and on. But I digress.

And now for a sharp, and graceless turn. Various media were important for mental relaxation and de-stressing during 2016. I would like to share these with you and perhaps it will encourage you to explore them yourself. I hope you can get as much pleasure from them as I did.

Video Games

#3 - Cities: Skylines (Plus After Dark and Snowfall DLC)

Cities: Skylines to many, myself included, is the city-building video game that you've wanted since you tinkered with SimCity, or sketched maps in the margin or doodled skylines from your fantasies. Released in 2015 I purchased the game this year and it was greatly enhanced by the release of two pieces of DLC, one of which came out in 2016. The game allows an incredible degree of specialization and detail work. It is incredibly open to mods. Artists (there is hardly a better word for them) have meticulously reconstructed real cities or designed environments the feel very real. In some ways it's more of a sophisticated model-maker for some.

I play the game as a city manager and simulation game. The sensitivity and responsiveness of the game is remarkable. There aren't just roads, there are roads of different widths and intents. You can have roads with bus lanes or bike lanes, country roads, or arterials. The freeway system is essentially freeform and allows an incredible degree of individuality. It permits a degree of experimentation to figure out what configuration of roads and transit work. Transit options include taxis, buses, trams/streetcars, heavy rail, and subways. Properties and land grow and develop based on many factors and are redeveloped to more sophisticated and denser buildings.

Perhaps on the best additions to the genre is the district system. You can cater laws, incentives, and regulations to give each neighbourhood a unique feel, just as in real cities. Unlike SimCity the game feels grounded and far less cartoony. When one of my cities are successful and well-designed I feel like I've created a realistic place that could find a home in our world. The progress system and intrinsic rewards make it a great way to invest leisure time.

#2 - Stellaris

I am a science fiction nerd. I love the genre. When Paradox Interactive announced their plan to make their own space strategy game I was incredibly excited. Crusader Kings II , Europa Universalis IV, and Victoria II are among my favourite games so I was interested to see how Paradox would tackle this subgenre in their unique style. They did not disappoint.

Stellaris breathes in all the major science fiction influences. Events, anomalies and story elements are torn from Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Clarke, Star Trek, Star Wars, and many more. It comes across as loving homage. Players are given a wide set of tools to create a unique species. As with Cities: Skylines mod support is broad so already Mass Effect, Star Trek and other mods are in place to introduce beloved species.

The randomness in each galaxy I have played on creates exciting new options. The tech tree means that there is not a "correct" way to play. Like the Civilization series there are any number of ways to win. However, I would say that playing a game of geopolitics in space (astropolitics?) there is no clear end. Victory doesn't seem like owning the galaxy from one end to the other, in my opinion. The answer this problem the game designers introduced late game crises. Intergalactic invasion or artificial intelligence uprising can be the final challenge for your space empire, star republic, or democratic galactic federation.

If you love science fiction and strategy I think this game offers a great deal. Earlier this week I was playing my space empire of retile-like imperialists. I encountered a signal from a gas giant. A group of non-corporeal beings begged for help to migrate to a new home. I transported them to a new gas giant... but then later they asked to move into a gas giant in my territory. I do not know if this will go anywhere, but I love playing it out. First contact, space battles, xenophobia, uplifting, it has it all.

#1 - The Witness  

Released early in the year I may have dedicated the most mental processing power to this game during 2016. On the surface The Witness is a simple puzzle game but as you play you uncover more and more meaning. There are multiple layers of puzzles in the game and meaning. The game contains thoughts on truth and reality. According to the designer Jonathan Blow The Witness is about truth. The world is built to be consistent and coherent. An underlying logic holds the game together.

Puzzles and mysteries are at the core. Unraveling the game became somewhat an obsession for me. At times I have considered meticulously documenting the entire game, including things like the statues to see if there is any meaning I could extract. Bringing up the statues I should take a moment to talk about the art. I love the visual aesthetic of the game. I love the bright colours, the diverse environments and the... magic for lack of a better word. There is a serenity in The Witness.

There is an immense sense of satisfaction in peeling back the layers of the island and in solving individual puzzles. Portal 2 is perhaps my favourite game of all time and The Witness is the first time I felt the same way in a long time. I have a feeling it will stick with me for a long time.



Paris 1919, reviewed on this blog, offers incredible insight in how World War I shaped the world we live in today. For all the attention given to World War II, the First World War has done a great deal to determine the world we live in today. Diplomatic history is fascinating in how the petty relationships of a handful of men determine the fate of states and nations. There is a great value in better understanding this period.

Honourable Mentions: Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, Origins of the European Economy by Michael McCormick, Irresponsible Government by Brent Rathgeber.


The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was a unique take on the future. In a world decimated by climate change and resources are scarce the human and political drama in Thailand is enthralling. The world is alive and horrifying, yet it feels like a possible glimpse into our dark future. The story follows a western business man trying to operate a factory in the corrupt Kingdom of Thailand but through his actions, the actions of others, and random circumstances gets caught in web of rivalries, treachery and violence.

Honourable Mentions: The Return Man by V. M. Zito, The Witch of Hebron by James Howard Kuntsler, Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry,


Westworld, HBO

Artificial intelligence is a topic that captures my imagination. A series that is built upon mystery, AI, incredible visual and social commentary is going to appeal a great deal to me. I was not into LOST at the time, but I imagine the excitement I felt discussing the show and theories with friends was what drove the popularity and affection for that series. The incredible performances of actors like Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins and Sidse Babett Knudson made sometimes flat writing gripping. Westworld raises questions that demand reflection in regards to AI. The season was by no means perfect but it was perhaps the most enthralling television I watched in 2016.

Honourable Mentions: Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Pitch, The Circus.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Worth Reading - December 22, 2016

As 2016 comes to a close the media turns its attention to reflective pieces. Here is Paul Wells writing that Trudeau and the federal Liberals have delivered on few of their promises

The headline is hyperbole, but The Nation writes about the concerning fact that Donald Trump is surrounding himself with retired generals in key cabinet posts and advisors. 

Braddish Chagger (LPC - Waterloo, ON), the Liberal House Leader, said that the House of Commons is not the place to discuss the evolving controversy of Liberal fundraising

Paul Wells suggests that the removal of Tom Mulcair from the leadership of the NDP has echoes of Brexit and Trump. 

The Ontario PC leader faces more questions about his party's positions on social conservative issues

Perhaps there is more to this story, but it seem the Laurier Graduate Student Association was overly sensitive and acted harshly over a joke, even if one thinks it is ill-conceived. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Long-Term Thinking: The Question of Artificial Intelligence

A few years ago Andrew Coyne gave a speech and he talked about why he thought Parliament would be increasingly important and why our consensus on certain issues meant that politics would transform. He argued that the neo-liberal consensus would lead to new debates, debates about the nature of humanity and address the questions that new technology has and will raised. Mr. Coyne seems to have been disproved, at least for now, and my own theory is that the global consensus on neo-liberalism is fracturing. Still, there are a number of issues that the Canadian Parliament should start weighing before we are overwhelmed.

Artificial intelligence is one of my favourite themes in science fiction. Over the last couple of years popular culture has latched onto this concept and a number of films and television series have come out exploring humanity's relationship with artificial intelligence/sentience. The majority of these depictions are negative, or threatening. The public clearly has some anxiety over the creation of artificial intelligence. Writers like Nick Bostrom seem to be suggesting that there are tangible dangers to AI and that precautions are required to protect us. 

As far as I am aware there are no laws governing/regulating the development of artificial intelligence. It would not be unreasonable, for example, to insist that artificial intelligence be developed on air-gapped computers, or that all programs or automatons have a built-in kill switch. The dangers of rogue AI are so extreme that even modest precautions should be accepted at face value.

Beyond paranoia (healthy as it may be) about the development of artificial intelligence there are inevitable questions that will arise if we successfully develop artificial life. If we create independent, autonomous beings as represented in fiction like Westworld, Ex Machina, Her, etc. what rights will be extended to them? Should any? Should artificial beings be treated like biological citizens, or should they be treated like, say, corporations? Corporations are legal persons but they are not allowed to vote and do not exert other rights as living beings. If you kill/disable an AI is that murder, property destruction? Will androids/AI be owned? Is that slavery?

One of the big questions about artificial intelligence is how will we tell if it is real. Artificial intelligence designers may merely create things that are very capable at imitating people, rather than genuine sentience. Then you get into debates about sentience and the nature of humanity's consciousness.

One of my concerns for years is that the creation of androids will exacerbate issues of sexism and inhumanity. When you have the ability to exploit and abuse things that are indistinguishable from humans the threat to broader society seems fairly obvious. Creating intelligent, responsive beings for the sole purpose of our pleasure and violent impulses is unsettling.

Obviously the Canadian Parliament does not need to pass laws on these matters immediately, but it would be wise to start raising these questions and laying some basic regulations to protect ourselves from the worst case scenario. This might be the perfect work for the Senate to take up. As much as this may sound like science fiction, I think the trend lines are fairly clear we're heading in that direction, so why not prepare for it?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Worth Reading - December 15, 2016

Apologies for missing the Tuesday post. I spent the day taking care of my sick niece and then went to work. I planned on writing something up on Wednesday, but it was a repeat of Tuesday.

Vision Zero is a movement to end pedestrian deaths in vehicular accidents. The Toronto Star reports on Peel Region and the risk imposed by transport trucks

Andrew Coyne on the Liberals, special access and fundraising

More on how the Liberals have bungled the democratic reform file. 

Citylab writes about how white neighbourhoods are whiter than their metropolitan regions and resist integration. 

Dennis Pilon writes at iPolitics that the entire electoral reform debate is based upon a fear of voters

Filed under the "Wake up in a cold sweat" category, Donald Trump will soon gain control of Voice of America, and perhaps use it as a propaganda tool for his administration. Excuse me as I breathe into a paper bag.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Worth Reading - December 8, 2016

Kurzgesagt, an impressive YouTube channel, has released a video advocating that humanity change its calendar, and I find the argument compelling. 

Portland is often held up as an ideal in North American planning. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns visited in October and offers up some thoughts and cold-water criticism. 

Desmond Cole writes that Canadians should never compare their domestic politics to Trump's America and feel prideful. 

How the rhetoric of the Trump movement is infiltrating the Canadian Conservative leadership race. 

Scientific American reports that ice sheets the size of India has vanished from the poles

Chris Selley put together a selection of articles highlighting the Liberal failure on electoral reform over the last couple of weeks. 

As an example, critics are out for the survey

The Toronto Star did a profile on Sam Oosterhoff, the youngest MPP in Ontario history. 

The Brampton Guardian gives Mayor Jeffrey a report card half way through her term. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Is Electoral Reform Designed to Fail?

When the Liberals won their majority government I was consoled by two things: Harper would leave office, and hopefully end constitutional rot; and Trudeau had promised, unequivocally, electoral reform. As I have written on this blog before, electoral reform was the animating issue that got me involved in politics. There is growing evidence that the Liberals are preparing to break that promise.

The Electoral Reform Committee released its report last week. The committee recommended a referendum on proportional representation. Though the NDP and Green representatives provided a supplement saying that they did not believe a referendum was specifically needed. The result may be the worst of both worlds for the Liberals. They didn't want a referendum and prominent voices within the party do not want proportional representation. Aaron Wherry wrote an excellent summary of the direct fallout here. Following the report's release Minsiter Monsef began to mock and distance the government from the committee's report saying the was disappointed that they had not recommended an electoral system. This was rich given that it was not in their mandate.

Monsef further embarrassed herself and her government by mocking the formula the Gallagher Index, which shows how closely a government represents the proportion of votes received by each party. Monsef was prepared with printed copies of the formula. This wasn't a fluke, it was a plan. Electoral reform often wrecks on the shores of complication. For all the problems with First-Past-the-Post it is simple. Trying to explain an alternative quickly to a disengaged public is very difficult.

Yesterday, claiming that the government required further consultation, was launched. I would encourage any reader to take the survey, because why not? But as you take it I think you'll find that there are some serious issues on the questions.  They fail to tease out what voters actually want in terms of their electoral system, i.e. do you want the House of Commons to reflect the percentage of votes the parties receive? Should a party that does not get a majority of votes receive a majority of the seats in the House of Commons? Perhaps I am revealing my own bias with the second, but the questions are at times "push" questions designed to illicit certain responses.

Canadians on Twitter took to mocking the Trudeau government with the hashtag #rejectedERQs (rejected electoral reform questions). It is amusing but also disheartening because it is more evidence that the fix is in. With the conclusion of this survey the Liberals will be well poised to suggest that a) more consultation is required, b) there is no consensus, c) that Canadians are content with the system as is.

If electoral reform is to happen it will almost certainly not occur before 2019 now. Stalling by the government seems to make that clear and if a referendum is going to happen the laws surrounding referenda needs to be updated. To be clear, I want to give kudos to the member of the Electoral Reform Committee, including the Liberals. At the end they seem to have engaged in the process in good faith. I believe it is the government who is meddling now. I haven't abandoned hope yet, but the government holds all the cards on this one. Electoral reform will only under rare circumstances become an issue of importance. However, PEI's recent vote may be a sign of hope, though their government's reaction may be the ultimate warning. The status quo is hard to overturn.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Worth Reading - December 1, 2016

Canadaland investigates whether or not the Canadian media is falling into the same trap with Trump and excessively covering Kellie Leitch

Steve Paikin writes that John Tory has shown rare political courage in supporting highway tolls

The new Progressive Ontario MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook has delayed his swearing in to celebrate his victory. The new MPP is getting a lot of attention for his age and policy positions.

Jeet Heer writes about Donald Trump's illogical statements and lies continue to damage the American political sphere and fact-checkers are powerless to stop it

London, Ontario is moving to ban police carding

From Maclean's, Trudeau's clumsy statements about Cuba has embarrassed him and made him a laughing stock

A campaign veteran wants to put together a package for first-time municipal candidates

Martin Regg Cohn writes that some of the investigation and allegations into Liberal corruption has spiraled far from decency