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

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Is Sprawl Worth Repairing?

Last week I read an article and watched a talk by Kevin Klinkenberg. Klinkenberg is an urban designer from Savannah, Georgia. He shared some of his analysis that the efforts by some to "repair" sprawl into more walkable, productive environments is a poor investment. In essence he is looking at our municipal dollars and performing triage, trying to get the most for our investment. You can read the piece on this topic here

Klinkenberg does make the distinction that not all sprawl is created equal. Ex-urban rural sprawl cannot be rehabilitated by his assessment, but residential neighbourhoods built before 1950 can often be easily integrated into a more productive urban fabric. His central thesis is fairly straightforward: with limited resources we cannot possibly repair all the sprawl in our cities, given that the best places to invest our money is traditional urban-style neighbourhoods. To be clear he isn't exclusively talking about big cities. The town downtown of a small town or smaller city is the safest investment by his metric.

I find that Klinkenberg has a certain rationale that is inescapable. Say the city of Brampton has $1 million to spend on a local project. Does it make sense for them to add sidewalks to a new suburb out by Mayfield Road, or to add better pedestrian features or bike infrastructure to the Downtown?  Simply by the number of people it would serve I think the answer is pretty clear. Analysis done by Strong Towns and its allies also suggests the tangible return on investment would be greater and more tangible in more traditional/urban parts of the city.

The one part I might differ with Klinkenberg is that I think there is a certain point where municipalities are throwing good money after bad. I think it is easier to do that in suburbia, but I can see it happening in urban districts as well. Using Brampton as an example again, there is only so much the city could invest in the Downtown before it addresses broader policy issues. Eventually the easy things will be all done and then it will be necessary for a more radical rethink. Brampton's Downtown is undersized, so the government should look at expanding its boundaries to allow it grow its mixed-use development. How does this align with transit and transportation policy? What role to bicycles have in the Downtown area? How do we redevelop the low-rise properties Downtown to more productive uses? These questions aren't tackled by adding better street decorations, gardens, or share-rows.

This is partially why I suspect suburban or sprawl retrofit is so popular. The easy fixes are obvious and do not usually cost a great deal of money. As an urban district grows and becomes more complicated it becomes harder to tinker with it, while we have hundreds of suburban streets we could add sidewalks to, or bike infrastructure, or improve pedestrian access. Still, I think Klinkenberg is generally correct and as we look more to fixing or salvaging cities we will have to take this approach.