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