Thursday, June 22, 2017

Worth Reading - June 22, 2017

Yesterday marked the 7th anniversary of this blog! My sincere thanks to my readers; past, present and future.

Steve Paikin asks why Canadians hesitate to re-elect female premiers/prime ministers. 

The Senate of Canada has been exercising more of its powers, likely emboldened by the new independent senators. Andrew Coyne argues that until they are elected the Senate should remain a toothless body

Automation is dividing our communities into winners and losers. 

Robin Sears warns NDP leadership candidates to tread carefully lest they splinter the party

Metrolinx has approved of two new GO stations. However, it seems politics rather than good sense may have determined the winners in this round.

Foreign Policy questions Donald Trump's basic intelligence to do the job of president.

Chantal Hebert calls our Trudeau and the Liberals on their hypocrisy on transparency

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Canada 150: Yesterday

To mark our country's 150th birthday I will be writing a trio of posts. I want to look at Canada's past, present, and future. It, of course, won't be definitive in any way, but figured it would be a valuable way to talk about our sesquicentennial. Before I go on to the topic I would like to take a moment to point out that this week marks the seventh anniversary of this blog. What a strange idea that is.

I've written about Canada's history before. I've written on specific topics and on the general notion. This post will fall firmly in the latter category.

The 150th anniversary of Canada has stirred significant controversy. The first is setting Canada's birthday and age at 150. Critics argue that setting the date there inherently cuts the narrative of people before 1867 off. Our country does not exist in a vacuum so there is an inherent time before Canada that led to Canada. You can tell our story 1867 forward but I think many Canadians don't see it that way. Quebecois, First Nations, Inuit, and Acadians and on want to see their deep history reflected in this national narrative.

This fundamentally reveals the truth that any historian can tell you: Canada doesn't have history, it has histories. This isn't just about identity politics. We can examine history through a social lens, an economic lens, a regional/local lens, a cultural lens, and on and on. If you look at a generic history of Canada you will find an exceptional amount of attention on personalities which loses marginalized voices. The story of Canada as we traditionally tell it doesn't give insight into life in Saskatchewan in 1890s, or the impact on the collapse of the fur trade on workers and our economy, or any other number of voices that aren't 'central' to understanding how we got to where we are.

Canadians are tragically ignorant of their history. I have seen this as a teacher and in my interactions with normal Canadians who have no idea what I'm talking about when I have mentioned fundamental parts of our history. Obviously I likely set an unreasonably high bar, but the critical failure surely doesn't inspire confidence.

Canada's histories are certainly things to be celebrated, learned from, criticized and enjoyed. One of the problems our ignorance causes is that blind celebration seems ignorant. Canadians can be tremendously proud of their history. Likewise we don't need to feel damaged every time a figure or moment in history is problematized by critical commentary. This feedback enriches the project.

Take for example the connection of this country with the national railway. I think the 'traditional' telling of that story is quite boring. It's about how great men and visionaries stitched together the country with a ribbon of steel. Now that story is incomplete without discussing Chinese labourers, the corruption and graft on the railways, the state of the West at the time, and the dramas all those entail.

Richard Gwyn wrote a fascinating biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, which I reviewed on this blog. The human portrait of one of our great leaders does not diminish the man, but elevate him. Being critical of our national heroes does not mean we are tearing them down.

As we mark our 150th birthday, and the centuries that preceded it, I would strongly urge Canadians to take some time to reflect upon their history. Visit a museum, read a book, watch a documentary, or talk to someone about our shared history.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Worth Reading - June 15, 2017

The next provincial election is 51 weeks away. John McGrath at TVO breaks it down for us. 

Chantal Hebert takes a look at Jagmeet Singh's commitment to the federal NDP in her latest column. 

Strong Towns attempts to answer the question of why did incremental development stop?  This appears to be the third entry in a series. I recommend the second one which provides a cute example about how incrementalism works. 

Kuzgesagt put out a new video about automation and how this recent pattern of automation differs from the past and may be causing all sorts of social problems we are seeing. 

Ashley Csanady writes about the uselessness of interpreting dystopian literature literally instead of extracting its symbolic meaning. 

Justin Ling paints a very dim picture of the new Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, by looking at the leader's positions on the issues

What if transportation decisions were taken out of politicians' hands? (It's impossible, but it's fun to dream). 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Post-Apocalyptic Pondering

This post is going to be off from the usual fair on this blog. I hope you'll indulge me.

Post-apocalyptic literature is perhaps my favourite subgenre. I like post-apocalyptic video games, movies, and novels. I even wrote my own novella in this genre. As a result I think about problems within the genre and its conventions. Post-apocalyptic fiction can be divided in many ways, but one of the ways is the time scale. Most fiction is either set in the near-future or the distant-future. In the first category you have entries like Station Eleven, Dies the Fires (Emberverse series), One Second After, The Book of Eli.

Most post-apocalyptic fiction is written as a social commentary. Stripping away the trappings of our modern society exposes root the human nature in the authors' eyes and often the cause of the apocalypse is a comment on the things wrong with our current world taking to their extreme conclusion. During the Cold War we saw plenty of examples of post-apocalyptic fiction that examined the consequences of nuclear war. The Stand and Station Eleven look at our fear of plague. Likewise a recent spate of media examines the impact of climate change and how it may lead to the collapse of modern society.

Post-apocalyptic literature is often not about the apocalypse itself, but rebuilding society and what that looks like. The survivors band together for security and get to work patching the world back together. Normally a handful of highly-skilled characters lead their groups to some sort of sustainable, or progressive future. The material written in the 20th century could generally rely upon a large existing population with resources and skills to rebuild. Farmers, craftsmen, mechanics and renaissance men and women use their squirreled away knowledge to put things back in order. However, as we enter the 21st century I am beginning to have real questions about how likely this sort of scenario is. This flaw has two sides, the first side is the Into the Wild problem. In the film Into the Wild (spoilers) the protagonist goes off on an adventure in the Alaska wilderness believing he has enough skills and knowledge to survive in the wilderness. This ultimately results in his death. The vast majority of people live in cities and possess few of the skills that would be required to pick through the wilderness. Canned food could last perhaps five years but after that they have to start preparing their own food. I've had gardens a few times in my life but I have no idea how to collect seeds from my plants and make sure they'll germinate next year, or when to plant them, or what conditions they need. The average level of survival skills without modern conveniences is quite low, I estimate.

The second flaw is that our material environment is less well suited to a sudden collapse in technology/maintenance. A growing number of machines require functional computers, for example, our cars. We live in a digital and electric world. These delicate pieces of technology will hardly be useful in their absence. Even if you accept that there would be simple machines left behind there is the question of materials. Many of the things our machines are made with are advanced composites that are not easily replicable in some kitchen laboratory or work shed. Even our intellectual resources are digital. In several novels I've read the characters raid libraries for 'how-to' books to acquire critical skills. The last time I was in the library the book shelves were given less attention to computer resources. How many times have you talk yourself something with a YouTube video? What if YouTube is gone/inaccessible?

Here these two flaws marry together to create a real problem. Our highly specialized, advanced economy means that our existing materials are difficult to retrofit to primitive purposes and that we lack the skills to resurrect the old skills. How many traditional carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, hunters, and farmers do you know? How many horses are out there to move the ploughs when the gas runs out? How many of those horse-driven ploughs are still out there? If not, who knows how to actually make them? More and more it looks like a hard crash at the end of any collapse.

One of my favourite series, though it's fairer to call it post-collapse rather than apocalypse, is The World Made by Hand series. It is set a few years after our normal way of life has come to an end. A huge number of people have dismally struggled to figure out how to survive in the new world and barely scratch out a useful existence. Many simply fall in line with resourceful leaders who need extra hands on their farm/commune. Lawyers, insurance adjusters and real-estate agents have very little use in a world where most people have to grow food for their survival.

In nature when species become too specialized they are in danger of sudden extinction when things change. Humanity and our economy in that sense is in danger with a sudden economic/social/environmental/technological change. In that case it may not be probable that humanity will bounce right back from the apocalypse but enter a new Dark Age. This brings me to the second form of post-apocalyptic literature; ones set in the distant-future.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a beautiful set of stories that show humanity's attempt to recover from a decimating nuclear war over centuries, and perhaps be ultimately trapped in a cycle of violence. After the war humans revert to savagery and barbarism to survive. Humanity gradually advances back through centuries of technology as knowledge is lost and reclaimed. As I think about the trends in our culture and economy I increasingly wonder if post-apocalypses will have to stick to this formula to be plausible. Any fracture in our current system would likely result in serious regression and we do not have easy access to the tools and techniques to recover. I read an estimate once that it takes about a minimum population of one billion people to maintain the level of technology and sophistication we have today. It would have to be the right billion though and have them connected with transportation and communications.

The apocalypse is not terribly likely and isn't something one should dedicate much serious concern on. However, it is a useful mental exercise. For me it forced me to think about our values in our society and how strong they are in the face of desperation. How long would democracy, tolerance, or gender equity last in a world where life was nasty, brutal and short? How resilient are we right now if everything went wrong?

Images in the blog come from the following article

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Worth Reading - June 8, 2017

Check out these incredible images of spaces abandoned by people. Very post-apocalyptic.  

This was something that was bothering me over the last little while. The United Kingdom suffered two terror incidents recently, but so did Kabul and Baghdad. I understand why the bombing in Manchester drew the attention; it was an attack on a fun aspect of our lives and targeted children. Still, as this piece in the Independent says, I think this should give us pause about how we value victims differently

Martin Regg Cohn makes the pitch that we underpay our provincial politicians in Ontario. 

Nik Nanos suggests that global trends indicate an opportunity for the NDP federally

There have been some crazy stories coming out of Brampton's City Hall. Brampton's civil service created a $1.25 million dollar slush fund for bonuses. 

There is some concern that the NDP-Green coalition will force the Speaker to become a more partisan position in the legislature. David Moscorp in Maclean's says that BC should dissolve and go back to the polls

Paul Wells writes about the trouble with political dynasties

Second unit housing (or basement apartments) is a deeply contentious issue in Brampton. It recently came up again at City Hall

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Choosing Party Leaders

In the wake of the 2015 both of the two opposition parties were forced to find new leaders. Stephen Harper stepped down as long-time leader of the Conservatives and shortly after the election the Edmonton convention forced Tom Mulcair out as leader of the NDP. In May the Conservatives gathered together to announce the selection of their leader, Andrew Scheer. Some controversy surrounds the selection of Mr. Scheer, especially given the incredibly narrow victory he had over Maxine Bernier.

My party, the NDP, is also in the process of selecting a new leader. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Julian (NDP - New Westminster-Burnaby, BC) who is vying for the leadership race, and soon Guy Caron (NDP - Rimouski-Neigette-Temiscourata-Les Basques, QC) will visit Brampton as well. As I compared the leadership contest I could not help but wonder if the Conservatives used a superior system to the one the NDP intends to use. Allow me to explain.

The Conservatives used a somewhat convoluted system, but the rationale was actually very sound. There are 338 federal ridings. Each riding was allocated 100 points as long as they had over 100 members. The points would be divided by the proportion of support each candidate received. So if candidate A gets 30% of the vote in Brampton South she got 30 points, candidate B for 25% of the vote he got 25 points. The winner was the first candidate to get over half of the points. Then preferential ballots were used to bump off the candidate with the lowest vote total and was eliminated or redistributed.

In contrast the NDP is using a one-member-one-vote system with preferential ballot spaced over a couple of weeks. This will give members time to respond to thecandidates left in the race, as I understand it. The NDP system encourages a mass membership to help select the party leader. I think there is benefit in spreading the vote out and allowing voters to respond as it goes. I'm curious as to how that will impact media coverage.

However, comparing the two systems I think the Conservative method has distinct advantages over the one the NDP has used. The Conservative leadership selection has two main advantages. First, it reflects how we elect governments. Until Canada switches to another electoral system it makes sense for the selection of a leader to match the first-past-the-post system in part. Before the 2011 election the NDP had a big problem: expanding beyond our traditional strongholds. There were maybe 50 or 60 ridings that the NDP competed in at all, but the party was nowhere in places across the 905 in Ontario, the vast majority of Quebec, rural Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick, etc. The party won in traditional areas of the West, urban centres, and areas of the near north. A one-member-one-vote system just reinforces our strengths were we are already strong. If we want the die-hard membership in a handful of areas to pick the next leader we are on that path.

The benefits of the riding-centred approach to selecting a leader is that it empowers local electoral district associations. When the Peter Julian visited Brampton we had New Democrats come in from Scarborough, Dufferin-Caledon, Mississauga, Hamilton and across Brampton come by. These scattered New Democrats were eager to meet one of the candidates, but the way our leadership system works the candidates have a great incentive only to visit strongholds and big cities.

The NDP needs to rebuild and grow its grassroots. I'm sure the leadership campaigns will help do that, but I think the other method would produce a more robust party at the end. I've spoken about this with long-time New Democrats and received substantial pushback. The Conservative system is inherently unfair. The 100 New Dems who might vote in Brampton South would be equal to the 1000 in Parkdale-High Park. That's unfair, but it reflects our democracy as it is currently constituted and winning Brampton South is theoretically as important for the NDP as Parkdale. In a riding system the candidates are encouraged to build the party where it is weakest and visit all communities in the country.

There is no perfect way to pick a party leader, but I think there are clear advantages and disadvantages to different systems. I think perhaps we should put some thought into what we want our leadership contests to reflect and what we want to get out of it for the parties we belong to.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Worth Reading - June 1, 2017

CGP Grey put out a new video this week about maximizing misery (it's actually about how to increase your happiness).

Every year this news story comes out, but it reminds us of the continuing ways institutions attempt to control women's bodies. A British Columbia school is facing criticism for imposing a dress code

The Greens and NDP in British Columbia have worked out an agreement to form government, but Premier Christie Clark will still test the confidence of the Legislature

Over the weekend the Conservative Party of Canada selected Andrew Scheer to be their next leader. Maclean's has a very thorough history of the campaign and how Scheer became the leader.

A fun story. Toronto Life ran a story about a wealthy family and their problems flipping a house for marginalized people in Parkdale. Vice had some fun pointing out the deeply out-of-touch character of the piece. 

Apparently the Canadian government's back door to the Trump administration is Jared Kushner

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: L. A. Noir by John Buntin

L. A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin tells the story of politics, policing, and crime in America's second largest city over the course of the twentieth century. Buntin tells his story through two characters: Mickey Cohen, infamous crime boss, and William Parker, long-serving Chief of Police. Both men's tenures reveal how Los Angeles changed and evolved over the course of the twentieth century. Both arrived and upset the existing balance, brought changes to their world, and ultimately outlived their value.

L. A. Noir is a great deal about the evolution of the city of Los Angeles. LA was a boom town. In 1880 the population was just over 10000 in LA county, twenty years later there was a ten-fold increase in population. By 1920 there were nearly 600000 people in LA county, and over a million a decade later. LA was controlled by a small number of powerful businessmen and politicians. These boosters trumpeted LA as "the white spot of America", a boast that stood in stark reality to the diverse population.

Like other boomtowns of the era, such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles struggled to deal with its growth and attracted the attention of the mob and hucksters. Los Angeles was seen as the next great opportunity for the American mafia. Buntin details the fascinating history of the development of organized crime in Los Angeles. One of the fascinating parts was the way in which the political system grew up in parallel. Corruption within city hall and the LAPD seems endemic.

William Parker was an ambitious, difficult man who in many ways is the father of the modern LAPD. His tactics were rough but at a critical junction he helped root out the political corruption poisoning the police department. However, Parker failed to adjust to the times. His strong-arm tactics and tin ear on race have left a sour note on his ultimately legacy.

Mickey Cohen strikes a much more tragic figure. As a young man he saw crime as a way to get what he always wanted. He cruel, aggressive style worked well in his younger days. It's important not to romanticize him as he was a brutal man. However, the reader cannot help but feel that Cohen is somewhat a pathetic figure by the end.

I am fascinated by the noir genre. In my head that genre really doesn't extend past World War II, but in so many ways the dirty policing, crime and corruption that so defines that genre is far less in the past than one might assume. The book also gives considerable insight into the issues within policing and organized crime. Many of the criticisms leveled against police today have their origins in the time period discussed. Parker and reformers worked for decades to bring about change, but even then a back-slide was always possible.

I would highly recommend this book for those interested in police history, the history of Los Angeles and the noir genre.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Worth Reading - May 25, 2017

The Ontario government is proposing a high-speed rail connection to link Toronto to Windsor. From the Brampton perspective the criticism seems to be that Brampton is being by-passed. However, there is a proposed stop at Pearson, so...

Spacing Toronto offers the argument for high-speed rail

A speech delivered by Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, has garnered attention for dealing with America's Confederate history

The Calgary Herald reports on evidence that outsiders applied influence in the last Canadian federal election

The Atlantic writes on the future of unions

Maclean's reports on Rebel Media's alignment with the far-right, conspiracy set of propagandists. 

CBC has a piece on cultural appropriation and how the recent controversies at least bring attention to long-standing complaints

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Flaws of Anti-Elite Rhetoric

A particular part of political rhetoric has been sticking in my craw lately, and that is knee-jerk anti-elitism and anti-establishment commentary and criticism. It's not as though I do not see the criticisms of the status quo of several advanced democracies. There are plenty who could easily look at Canada's two ruling parties (Liberals and Conservatives) and feel great dissatisfaction, especially given their similarities. In America the decades of conflict between Democrats and Republicans may be nauseating to their citizens, but that hardly means that Donald Trump is the answer. Donald Trump is never the answer.

Here's what I find baffling about this anti-elite, anti-establishment rhetoric: those who use it almost always mean replace one set of the establishment with another.

Elites tend to exist for a reason. Sometimes, believe it or not, it is based upon merit. It more often is tied to wealth/class, prestige, family, and entrenched socio-cultural attitudes. People tend to mingle within their own class. When I went to events in Toronto it would not be uncommon to see journalists (off the clock), politicians, and academics comfortably rubbing shoulders with each other. Oftentimes there are familial, friendship and marriage connections between similar individuals. These, unfortunately, create connections that allow these people to become more firmly rooted and ease the path for their patronage network/families.

My egalitarian streak rankles at this sort of pattern. However, the NDP in recent years has been afflicted with these sorts of cozy connections. The party president was Rebecca Blaikie, daughter of long-time NDP MP Bill Blaikie. His son is now a member of parliament. Jack Layton's son is a sitting city councillor in Toronto, and his daughter, if memory serves, is a key figure in the Broadbent Institute, an NDP-friendly organization. I'm not saying these individuals do not deserve the positions they hold, but I think it would be naive to assume that part of their success is not tied to the links they have.

I have a certain level of empathy for anger at the elites who govern our society, but more often than not those who are angry are co-opted by other elites to displace them. Perhaps the most paradoxical representation of this is Donald Trump, a wealthy conman/business mogul who has rubbed shoulders with the elite class for decades. Though we can look further back quite comfortably. George W. Bush was held up as a 'regular guy' despite the fact that he was Yale-educated and the son of a president and from a political dynasty. I'm willing to engage in a conversation about class warfare, but if it's just the Orwellian story of various factions of elites warring against each other and using popular support to further their aims I have a hard time taking the critique seriously.

We will never divorce ourselves from these so-called elites. Once the revolutionaries take the palace it isn't long before they become the new elites themselves. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. This doesn't mean that change is impossible, it just means making peace with the fact that being aligned with people who have high levels of education or experience is inherently positive, not negative. Throwing the bums out is a great in theory, but then we have to actually manage our affairs in the wake of the toss.

Ultimately I suppose I'm annoyed by this lazy criticism and its ineffectiveness to articulate any kind of positive message. If you don't like the actions of the politicians/government, write them, join a party, sign a petition, participate in a protest, stand for election. Pretending you are justified in destroying the system rather than responsible for trying to fix it is just getting old.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Worth Reading - May 18, 2017

I've written about how our places could use more public art. Strong Towns is talking about that this week. One article shows how we each can be more active in making public art. Gracen Johnson writes about public art's return on investment

Strong Towns also has put out a piece about how people who want to make changes in their cities can get started

A London city councillor gave an interview to Steve Paikin on their decision to move to ranked ballots

As the next provincial election nears there are complaints within the Progressive Conservative Party about how candidates are being selected

Ontario New Democrat, Jagmeet Singh, has jumped into the federal NDP leadership contest

Jarrett Walker takes aim at Toronto's acceptance of cars sharing their routes with cars. 

Ten reasons why improving bike infrastructure is good for non-cyclists

From TVO's blog, the power of disruptive protest

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Confronting Drug Policy

Two stark drug stories are currently dominating headlines in Canada. The first is the proposed legalization of marijuana and the subsequent complications. The legalization of cannabis is accepted in the media as a fait accompli despite some reticence among Canadians, the medical community and provincial governments. It is a near certainty that as of next July Canada will have legal cannabis for sale in all the territories and provinces to most Canadians.

Some of the news around marijuana legalization has been those eager to get a toehold in the industry and skirt the existing laws. I saw this in person when I passed at least three dispensaries during my weekend visit to Toronto in clear violation of current laws. Attitudes seem to be basically celebratory towards this policy change.

The second, and more important drug headline is the ongoing fentanyl crisis. I will admit off the top that despite hearing about this topic for months I fear I remain hopelessly ignorant. Fentanyl is an opioid that has begun appearing in large numbers in North America. It is an incredibly powerful drug and apparently even a small intake can cause a drug overdose. A CBC story posted in December 2016 states that about 500 Canadians died that year alone. During a recent town hall-style gathering VICE held on drug liberalization Justin Trudeau was confronted by a frontline health worker who furiously challenged the Prime Minister for the government's failure and cited the daily death toll the drug was having in Toronto and Vancouver. 

Many of the deaths are exactly the type of people you assume. People with drug addiction problems, or other dependency problems. However, the fatalities are increasingly hitting casual drug users as fentanyl spreads.

I think it's important here to start talking about my own position here, and how I believe I am starting to recognize how wrong I am. I have a somewhat atypical relationship with drugs. I assume (or know) that many of my friends enjoy cannabis recreationally and when the prohibition ends their lives will improve. I don't smoke, so the appeal to legalization was often lost on me. At best I was apathetic and at worst I was uncomfortable with the concept of the state sanctioning the use of a drug. I say this as an utter hypocrite. I enjoy alcohol and find it an important part of my socializing behaviour, and I recognize the harm done to society from alcohol is far more pervasive than that done by cannabis.

The reality is that cannabis prohibition hurts and helps exactly the wrong people. Case study after cases study shows that legalization is effective and has an overwhelmingly positive impact on jurisdictions that try it.

So, what about opioids?

A number of years ago Portugal embarked on a radical policy. They legalized all drugs and fundamentally redressed their narcotic/addictions policy. From everything I have ever heard it was a wild success. Canada stands poised to legalize a substance that largely appeals to a certain segment of the Canadian populace, but has barely addressed the crisis unfolding among opioid users. The same logic that says legalizing cannabis is a net positive can be applied to other, harder drugs. Drugs that are currently creating much greater harm. The sad truth is that while I intellectually understand that my cultural biases against these drugs makes the concept of legalizing them not a little bit abhorrent, but frankly, I have to get over it. So should the rest of the country.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Worth Reading - May 11, 2017

Tuesday was a dramatic date in the history of British Columbia politics. At the moment neither the Liberals nor the NDP won a majority of seats and the Green Party holds the balance of power. The Province compares the Liberals, NDP and Greens on 20 policy areas to suggest what sort of deal may be made/demanded. 

Here are the results of the BC election. Please note that the headline is incorrect. It is a hung legislature, the Liberals will have to test to see if they can maintain their government.

Food is one of those things that bond people and communities together. From Strong Towns, how restaurants create great neighbourhoods

Rumour has it that the Ontario NDP's Jagmeet Singh (ONDP - Bramalea-Gore-Malton) will enter the federal leadership race next week. 

HBO is rumoured to be working on up to four spin-offs of Game of Thrones. The Washington Post writes that the series should not just explore the universe, but also explore big ideas.

Rogers TV has closed its Peel-based operation. This leads to questions about local media and broadcasting city council meetings

Malls are dying across North America. It is a fact of life cities are going to have to come to terms with.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

France and Interpreting Elections

First, best of luck to the voters of British Columbia who are voting in their provincial election today. I eagerly await the results! Make good choices.

As important as the British Columbia provincial election is it is not the election that garnered the most attention recently. The presidential election in France garnered much attention, especially leading into the second round when far-right Marine Le Pen faced off against moderate Emmanuel Macron. While analysts suggested that Le Pen's popularity was disturbing that put her chances at winning as quite remote.

Thankfully, prognosticators were correct and on Sunday Macron defeated Le Pen in the second round. Macron garnered about two-thirds of the vote to Le Pen's one third. However, that means Le Pen was able to gain support from her initial 21% base.

From here I want to briefly take a moment to discuss how we talk about elections. Journalists, pundits and observers have been quick to cast this election in familiar ways. The most obvious one is that Le Pen is a stand-in for Donald Trump and will France make the same error that the United States did. This is a sloppy and poor way to interpret any election. If you talk to any voter they will have complicated reasons for choosing the candidates they do. Moreover, voters perhaps cannot articulate their less apparent motivations. Trying to conceive of elections in our own terms, ignoring context, is a quick way to make incorrect caricatures. When Trump was elected I pointed out how he may be an American manifestation of the far-right resurgence we have seen in Europe, but I sincerely doubt Trump and his advisors saw him as part of the Front National, and British National Party, etc.

Le Pen was, and is no Trump. She, her party, and her family have been part of the French political scene for decades. She was definitely excluded from the French mainstream, but still a well-known personality in political life. Likewise, casting Macron as the defender of the status quo also misses the point. Macron formed his own political party (approximately a liberal or centrist party) to win the presidency. Despite the fact that he is a former cabinet member, from what I can tell he was a relative minor figure in France before he made the push for the executive. At 39 he is the youngest person to win the presidency.

The two main political parties/factions that have governed France and been the challengers in elections were kicked out of the final round: the Socialists and their right-wing opposite, presently Republicans. Macron and Le Pen, from my point of view, were both outsiders. They represented a general dissatisfaction with the status quo. Macron's victory seems in equal parts a rejection of Le Pen's brand of extremism, and continued commitment to the centre/status quo. France is not yet ready for radical alternatives, but are dissatisfied with the standard responses. France's political history has often dealt with centrists trying to deal with extreme left and extreme right challengers. Perhaps Macrons En Marche party will unify the centre of the political spectrum to try to lead France into the future, but none can say for certain. France is holding legislative elections next month which will definitely give us a sense of where France is heading for the next few years.

The French presidential election is a warning about France in specific and perhaps the world in general. The extreme right is becoming an accepted part of many countries' political discourse. Voters in many countries are frustrated by the  status quo and seeking unusual alternatives. Macron will, hopefully, be an ally for the remaining 'liberal' world leaders like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau.

So best of luck to France as they move forward, and thanks for clearly picking the lesser of evils.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Worth Reading - May 4, 2017

J. J. McCullough wrote a fierce criticism of Canadian democracy, comparing it to the authoritarian reforms approved of recently in a Turkish referendum. 

David Moscorp offers a forceful rebuttal of McCollough's piece

News from the Nerd Economy, Kotaku is reporting that YouTube filters are hitting Call of Duty streamers and destroying their business model

Strong Towns asks who are the invisible bike riders in your community? 

Colonization is alive and well in the realm of indigenous land claims

Brampton plans to completely overhaul its downtown

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions in the Strong Towns' Strength Test is 'if there was a revolution in your town, would people know where to go to take part?' This article examines that idea. 

Andrew Coyne takes aim at the package of parliamentary reforms the Liberals intend to push through. 

London, Ontario will be replacing first-past-the-post with a ranked ballot for their next election

From Maclean's, How the Alt-Right Weaponized Free Speech

Schools, school boards and educators have been struggling to deal with a show I have recommended, 13 Reasons Why. For the record, I think the show should be watched by a mature audience or with parental discretion and presence. Netflix offered a response to the Peel District School Board's letter warning parents. PS Don't watch the trailer, it hurts the reveals of the show. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Unclear BC Election

I admit that I don't follow British Columbia politics very closely. What I do hear often disturbs me. British Columbia, for those who may not have heard, is in the midst of a provincial election. The final vote is scheduled for May 9th.

Christie Clark is a defending a Liberal government that has been in power since 2001. Clark became premier after her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, was shown the door in 2011 after a controversy regarding the introduction of a harmonized sales tax. Clark looked poised to lose in 2013. She was deeply unpopular and polls said the Liberals were marching to defeat. Then in a massive upset the polls were wrong and Clark led her party to a majority.

A good primer for the election is a recent episode of Canadaland Short Cuts. In the past year or so there has been a great deal of criticism of the BC Liberals' fundraising practices. British Columbia has no limits to the amount that can be donated, nor any restrictions on corporate donations. Subsequently there has been significant criticism that the Liberals are little more than shills for the fossil fuel industry. There seems to be a significant revolving door between industry, government and media.

Polling at moment shows that the NDP have lost their lead over the Liberals. Eric Grenier's poll analysis suggests that the NDP and Liberals will win a similar number of seats, a virtual tie. The real surprise at the moment is the strength of the Green Party. At points they have polled above 20%. Green support is concentrated on Vancouver Island, which may eat into the NDP seat totals.

I think it is important here to restate that polling should be taken with a grain a salt. I obviously have my sympathies for the BC NDP, especially given the long-in-the-tooth Clark government with their questionable ethics. That said, I'd like to see the Green Party make some gains as well. Perhaps we will end up in an interesting position where we will have a minority government with the Greens holding the balance of power.

British Columbia has faced a number of concerning issues over the last few years: housing affordability, resource development, First Nations' rights, and sustainable development. These issues do not have simple solutions, but I hope that their leaders are at least speaking to this problems. Best of luck to the voters of British Columbia next week, make good choices!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Worth Reading - April 27, 2017

France held the first round of their presidential election earlier in this week. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is through to the second round. Paul Wells offers his take

The United Kingdom is headed to the polls in a few weeks in a snap election. The Washington Post sets the stage

Kevin O'Leary in a shocking, yet not at all surprising, move he quit the leadership race despite the fact he is the nominal frontrunner. The Conservative Party was played for fools on this one.

Eric Grenier writes about the state of the race of the British Columbia provincial election

The ONDP's pharmacare plan may be a vote-getter

Strong Towns writes about why urbanists need to pay more attention to Amazon

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Is it Time for Phamacare?

I was surprised when the Ontario New Democratic Party's leader, Andrea Horwath, announced a policy for pharmacare. It's the single boldest policy position the Ontario NDP has taken in decades. 

The reasoning is simple: one in four people in Ontario aren't taking the medication they need because they cannot afford it. The province will begin by covering the most commonly prescribed essential medications. The estimated cost of the plan would be $475 million per year. That number sounds onerous, but in a provincial budget of $133 billion it will make a small impact. Horwath, during the announcement, suggested that this could find savings for the overall budget as patients who can better manage their care are less likely to end up in hospital or with worse chronic conditions.

I was at first concerned about this policy. It seemed like a bloated social program that would doom the NDP from winning any support from centrist Ontarians. The initial price tag gave me some comfort, to be sure. I'm sure the price of a universal system would be staggering, but the ONDP isn't talking about that at this stage.

The policy started to make a great deal of sense to me when I framed it within my family. My father retired a few weeks ago and medical expenses are something he's thinking about. My grandmother and uncles are on limited income and have significant health complications. If the burden of some of their life-saving medicines was removed it would surely improve their situation.

As our economy undergoes a transformation to a less stable, less predictable, and less secure I think that the state is going to have to provide the supports to keep our society functioning and skim from the productivity of the low-labour economy. I look forward to seeing what this program's details, but I think it might be the next logical step as we face an aging population and a precarious economy. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Worth Reading - April 20, 2017

Sorry for missing my Tuesday post. It was a crazy busy day and my birthday so I opted to skip it. I hope these articles will help fill in the gap.

13 Reasons Why has gotten significant criticism. I still remain an advocate for the show and I find much of the criticism foolishly simplistic or lacking in nuance. A friend referenced this article from Vox. While I can pick apart the points the author makes I at least think they raise the issues in interesting ways.

Jason Roberts at the recent Strong Towns Summit gave a really incredible talk about small organizations making big changes. His organization is called The Better Block.

Brampton has brought in an urban planner from Vancouver to consult on plans... I cannot say that this seems like a worthy investment. 

Steve Paikin questions whether or not Kathleen Wynne's unpopularity is tied to her sexuality and gender

From the Huffington Post, an academic explores the idea of whether or not Justin Trudeau is the friendly face of fascism. The is idea is to examine the use of lies and political power.

John Lorinc writes that Liberal policy is driving Toronto housing madness

I love Stellaris and will advocate for that game until I am blue in my face. However, here is an interesting piece that critiques the narrative style of the game

The Washington Post writes that racism played a major role in the election of Donald Trump, above authoritarianism. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Worth Reading - April 13, 2017

Kurzgesagt has released another video, this one asks if the European Union is worth it, or should be disbanded. 

Divyesh Mistry created a fantasy map for Brampton Transit. 

Ontario is the second toughest economy for young people. Yaaaaay... 

Andrew Coyne writes that the government's attempt to control debate delegitimizes itself

Matt Elliot writes about why Torontonians should give up on the dream of a detached home

Groups in Memphis, Tennessee have used tactical urbanism to implement change in their city

Chuck Marohn writes about what the cascading failure of an airline can teach us about our cities

At a work event several of my colleagues were talking about the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Over the course of a few days I consumed the entire series. I find myself obsessed with it. The themes, tone, style and performances have stuck with me. I am debating writing a full review. The show will likely look like a typical CW teen drama, but I assure you it is something else. It reminded me of films like Perks of Being a Wallflower, or Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. It is far darker and emotionally distressing than most of the other entries into this genre. The show explores the mystery behind a high school girl's suicide.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Nerd Economy Bubble

This blog post is going to be a bit strange. It had its origins as a response to a response to a I asked question, but then I thought it started getting long and convoluted so instead I decided to try something a little longer format.

I am a patron of a new podcast called The Mixed Six. The premise is really straightforward, two friends (and their producer) sit down to have a conversation on six different topics with six beers. What makes it special is that the hosts, in my opinion, are a wonderfully intelligent, sharp, funny, critical, and nerdy. I believe in one episode they switched from discussing comic book properties to a Marxist critique of gift cards. As a patron I can submit questions so I asked them if they thought the nerd economy was a bubble. I will do my best to summarize my question and their answers, but you can feel free to listen yourself at 52:15. If you choose to listen you can skip the next four paragraphs.

My question I posed was this (roughly), are we in the midst of a nerd economy bubble? All over the internet there are people trying to make money on YouTube, Twitch, Kickstarter, Patreon, etc. and I question the ability of the market to sustain them. There is also the aspect that young naive creators rush headlong into an industry that ruthlessly exploits them for little in return.  

Caleb Stokes admitted that he has feared there is a bubble. Producer Ross Payton made the point that this not a nerd specific phenomenon, ex. make-up tutorials and compared it to the shift from radio to TV, or sheet music to radio. How we consume media. He admitted that there is a lot of exploitation. However, he didn't believe it was a bubble, but a seismic shift. Patreon is a tool that empowers the creators (somewhat).

Caleb argued that if there was a bubble that popped it would be on the supply side. Most people who do these projects do them as a side project. A crash would hurt the platforms. While there are huge earners most people are scrapping by for a little extra money. If it goes away it will be because of how platforms treat their users/creators. Quality control is an issue.

Spencer added it does feel like a bubble because there is so much content for people even willing to pay a small amount. However, there is a quality question and a lot of what's out there is bad, so quality and content is the measure. Caleb said that the only other crash he can foresee is that if these things start supporting people's lives as a career and then they begin chasing the money, perhaps from dubious sources. But, the thing with a bubble... no one can see it.

Now my response to their response. Yes, I realize already that this is ridiculous.

First, Ross is absolutely right. It's not a nerd economy, though I think traditional nerdy areas are a significant portion of it. Consider that Twitch is a huge component of this new economy and almost exclusively, until recently, catered to video game streamers. Comedy channels, beauty channels, news, music, and other entertainment are a significant portion of the market out there.

Two things, I think, prompted me to ask this question. The first is the number of people/groups that have held out a tin cup and asked for me to chip in. At first it was semi-professional outfits so I could appreciate them seeking some financial compensation. However, a growing number of amateurs beginning with a Patreon page was a tad galling to me. Perhaps that is because I was introduced to it as a tool for fans to supplement income and not as a third-party subscription service. There does seem to be a growing number that feel this can be their meal ticket, and that concerns me from a rational and pragmatic point of view. Caleb is right, if you want a little spending money, great, but this isn't grounds for a career.

Decades past young people would dream of becoming actors or athletes. Now they want to be "YouTube famous." A surprising number of my students have their own YouTube channels. They talk to me about building their audiences and their subscriber counts. As most of us know various platforms offer only a pittance for advertising. I am also concerned about the pressures they might feel to gain eyeballs and the wisdom of the decisions chasing those metrics. In short, I worry about exploitation. Platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Instagram make incredible profits off of naive, young creators. The low barrier to entry is both a blessing and a curse. We have so much content, but it does look like "anyone can do it" which ignores the economic and personal costs in chasing these dreams. Sometimes it feels like creators are chasing the lowest common denominator in order to gain any kind of attention, which hardly seems healthy. 

Another aspect of this that I wonder about is the exploitation of a small amount of productive people by 'critics.' Whenever a television series becomes even modestly popular it spawns a bevy of podcasts, video casts and reviews. It starts to feel like an entirely false economy based on the machine of whatever movie sequel Disney pumps out. How many review channels/podcasts can the market sustain? 

I grew up, like most of us, in a free media environment. Television, radio, newspapers, and the internet was largely free on the basis that advertising would pay for the content. The audience wasn't the customer, it was the product. Trends seems to indicate that the audience will have to pay for anything resembling quality content with subscriptions. This is a seismic mental shift for many people; it certainly is for me. I feel vaguely guilty about the media that I enjoy that I don't support (ex. Canadaland). Still, if I donated to the 30+ podcasts I listen to and the dozen or so YouTube channels I watch on a semi-regular basis, plus Netflix, and on and on, we are talking about a pretty expensive media diet. As I'm economically limited it would mean a big change to my habits.

I wish that I could easily accept the position that this is a beautiful time. A thousand flowers bloom and creators can receive financial support for their work. It's a grand meritocracy! Except it isn't. A handful of giant corporations (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon) control a huge stake in this developing industry. A few start ups and independents have significant sway, but if you look at the top YouTube channels that are increasingly dominated by corporate media. I've thought about starting my own YouTube channel, or podcast to reflect my interests, and I have been on podcasts in the past, so I understand the impulse to participate in this low risk, low cost field. Creators should be paid for their efforts, but I'm uncertain of our current arrangement. So the question is whether or not this is a permanent change or a bubble. I'm not sure I know which side I want to win out.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Worth Reading - April 6, 2017

 The YouTube channel Kurzgesagt put out a video on genetically modified organisms

Should we try to repair sprawl

Stephen King uses fictional characters to try to understand Trump voters

I have a lot of issues with this piece, but I found it interesting. Terence Corcoran in the National Post suggests that regulation of the hot housing market would just make things worse. 

A high school newspaper successfully investigated their new principal, resulting in her resignation

Justin Trudeau's messaging around immigration is misleading to migrants around the world