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.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Worth Reading - March 30, 2017

Samara Canada has released their most recent study on Canadian democracy

Kellie Leitch is distancing herself after she met with members of Rise Canada, an anti-Muslim organization with extreme rhetoric

CBC is reporting that the federal Liberals have left 80% of appointments open. The Conservative opposition is charging that the delay is because the head of appointments is running to be a MP.

Toronto City Council ignores facts in an effort to push through the Scarborough subway

Edward Keenan writes about Toronto Council's debate on the Scarborough subway

Perhaps the biggest news of the week, Prime Minister Theresa May signed the letter to initiate the 'Brexit' process

Andrew Coyne writes on the Liberals' attempts to restrict the opposition and change how the House of Commons operates

Jon Ivison, on these so-called reforms, argues that they will never pass

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Political Parties Shifting Gears: Opposition and Government

A strange phenomenon occurs in our system of government after elections. If an opposition party manages to unseat the government they have to switch sides. Our parliamentary tradition is purposefully antagonistic. Opposition parties are expected to criticize the government and challenge its policies. This structure results in some very unusual moments when the newly displaced governing party can begin to criticize policies they only weeks/months before they were responsible for.

There were some bizarre moments in the wake of the 2015 federal election where sharp critiques came from the Conservative opposition. The Conservative Party were a dangerous opponent to the inexperienced Liberal government because in many cases the critic knew more about the ministry than the minister answering.

Parties have to undergo significant transformations to make the transition successful. The internal culture, language and structures of a party are quite different between government and opposition. Oftentimes what makes a party succeed at one would cripple it in the other. The Conservatives have succeeded in their criticism in part because they have managed to hold on to the discipline the maintained in government. Outside of the House the party shreds itself over the leadership race, but interim leader Rona Ambrose seems to be doing a good job holding feet to the fire.

I think politicians and partisans must do a certain amount of double-think to pull this off. Somehow the issue they didn't voice any concern over years in power are a scandal on the opposition side. The move from government to opposition can reveal factions within the party that had been muzzled for the sake of party unity. Stephen Harper ran massive budget deficits during his tenure, but budget hawks kept quiet. Now they can release their bile on the Trudeau deficits. Unmanaged these factions can tear a party apart. However, the leadership race that accompanies this sort of switch is often a battle of the soul and who is best posed to challenge the new government.

As a New Democrat I am used to my party being on the opposition benches. There is a strange thing that happens with that party as well. As the target changes so does the rhetoric. The NDP can have a more difficult time finding a way to criticize centrist Liberals than right-wing Conservatives. The Harper government could be a crisis of democracy but Trudeau, well... This issue is particularly noticeable for Liberals if they have to switch from criticize the NDP to the Conservatives, or vice versa, as has happened in the provinces.

Much has been made of how the Trudeau Liberals and Harper Conservatives are increasingly resembling each other, especially as the Liberals move to curtail debate. Ultimately there seems to be patterns in our politics that often transcends party. These changes in position force a rethink of party positions and posturing. For the NDP, does the party make another bid for government? Do they aim to recapture Official Opposition status first? Or, does it return to being the permanent third (fourth/fifth) party? How they choose to challenge the Liberals and select as a leader will determine that result to a great extent. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Worth Reading - March 23, 2017

The Strongest Town contest is in its final phase. Guelph, Ontario has made it to the final round against Traverse City, Michigan. 

Headline from the Toronto Star: Housing prices may jump 25% this year

The death of malls is an increasingly well documented phenomenon. Strong Towns explores the topic

I wonder if we will see another "Back to the Land" movement in the 21st century. Here is a story of a PhD who is gone to become a first-generation farmer

Paul Wells writes a great piece questioning the federal Liberals' innovation agenda

An article questioning the social cohesion of Quebec caused a big stir this week. Here is the original article.

An interesting interview discussing Americans celebration of ignorance

The American Republicans are forced between love of party and love of country

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Assessing the GTHA's Housing Market

Four days a week I try to go for a walk in the morning. My route takes me around my neighbourhood and sometimes into nearby neighbourhoods and downtown. I am always surprised to see the number of houses for sale and the rapidity with which they are sold. Recently in Worth Reading I've shared a couple of articles about the housing market, including the banks' roles in inflating prices.

As much as it would nice to blame our hot housing market on the banks I think it is a far more complex picture with many contributing factors. Housing prices in the Greater Toronto Area, and perhaps the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area have been on a steady increase now for decades. Things are hardly uniform across this vast region. Housing prices in Thorold are not growing at the same pace of inner Toronto, but they are all related.

I first started to notice the housing prices spiking around the time of the American financial crisis in 2007-2008. With the global economy in a tailspin Canada became a safe investment spot. As a safe harbour money poured into the Canadian economy, especially in the real estate sector. Foreign investors, like Canadians, are eager to pitch their savings into real estate investments. This ranges from maintaining and fixing up a house to improve its worth, or buying the house in the first place, or speculating in the market. For a huge proportion of Canadians use their homes as their retirement funds and nest eggs. Distortions in the housing market therefore has a tremendous impact on our economy and lives.

I've spent a lot of time wondering if we are in a housing bubble. Lately I have come to the conclusion that we are not in a bubble, but a hot market under a lot of pressure. Some of this comes natural supply and demand issues. The GTHA adds, if I recall correctly, 200000 new residents every year. That's a new Brampton every three years, a new Toronto every ten. This creates a tremendous amount of demand on the market. There are thousands of people across the GTHA interested in acquiring a home and coupled with the investment opportunity real estate presents in this region the demand remains high.

On the other side is supply. Much of the cheap land has already been gobbled up by real estate development. In the next couple of years Brampton will build its last house, Mississauga is essentially fully developed at this stage. York Region is straining to keep pace with the development. Legislation such as the Green Belt and development restrictions is hindering growth in other places but the simple truth is the GTHA is likely falling well short of the demand in housing, especially where it is demanded. The city of Toronto must extensively rezone the city to encourage mixed medium development, but encounters significant resistance. It is a time consuming process. Add in the time for planning, financing and construction and it is easy to see why supply is constrained.

Supply is also constrained due to the foolish decisions made by suburban governments decades previous. Some areas of the GTHA are difficult to redevelop and increase density, even if zoning permitted it. The street grid and neighbourhood configuration would have to be completely changed to accommodate medium or high density.

Then there are more social causes for the rising prices and other issues. Homeowners reasonably expect a good return on investment for their properties. As long as they are not financially compelled to sell they can patiently wait for the higher price. The house down the street sold for $350000, perhaps I can sell mine for $400000. Ten years late the number is creeping up to $600000. Retirees or families need to get a return on their properties so they can afford a new property somewhere else.

This hot housing market will only correct under a few conditions. One, supply increases. Somehow we get more housing on the market or socially change the way we view housing, i.e. include more roommates for long-term investments. Two, demand decreases, which is highly unlikely given basic population trends. However, I will say that as the Baby Boomers retire there could be significant disruption in the housing market if there isn't a smooth transition. Three, the price overshoots the ability for the market to bear. If a house goes up for sale and no one is willing to pay the price it will inevitably begin to fall down which, on a broad enough scale will begin to deflate prices.

Everyone is tied to the housing market in some way because we all need places to live. I think it will be increasingly important for residents of the GTHA to be aware of the shifts occurring in their area and across the region and be prepared to respond to them.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Worth Reading - March 16, 2017

I would encourage all my readers to read this long summary of the conflict and outrageous actions taken by the government during the Qalipu membership dispute

The Bramptonist takes a look at a couple of potential sites for a university.

From the Toronto Star, the accidental takedown of Tom Mulcair

Andrew Coyne writes on polls leading politics

Doug Saunders asks what if the European elections aren't about racist populism? 

CBC reports on the dismal state of millennial economic life

How have our banks inflated our housing market

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Government-Approved Identity: My First Nations Status

I wanted to write about something else, but this has occupied my mind lately.

Many years ago my family members began the process to join the Qalipu band and be recognized as Mi'kmaq. As I understand it a family member in Newfoundland saw a notice in the post office asking for people to submit if they were descended from recognized Mi'kmaq in the area. One of the names on the list was Webb. My great-grandfather was Mi'kmaq.

It took months for my family to submit all the paperwork and trace our lineage in documentation for approval. Sometime around 2008 we received notification that our application was approved.

While I've never thought of it to a great degree before now but the formal recognition caused a significant change in my personal identity. During most of my life my identity and that of my family was somewhat in question. Newfoundland family trees are notoriously unclear as birth records were kept by parishes for many years before the government. Once elders in your family pass away knowledge is easily loss of what your family tree is. The work in to clearly establishing our heritage answered questions and filled in missing pieces from our past.

I was in university at the time. As my family investigated our past I found myself increasingly drawn to Aboriginal history. While I would argue that learning Indigenous history is valuable in and of itself I felt it gave me greater historical perspective. In particular I found myself drawn time and time again to the relationship between the government and Aboriginal people. This culminated in pursuing a Master's degree in Aboriginal history. This later parlayed into my time in the Northwest Territories. The Dene and Mi'kmaq are not terribly similar cultures, but I did my best to engage with the local culture in a meaningful way.

My First Nations status has never been about benefits for me. I do not use it to avoid sales tax. I did not get free post-secondary education. I would reckon that my financial life has not substantially changed before and after my family and I were recognized. I enjoy it because I can take meaningful ownership of my heritage.

Last month my family and I received letters stating that the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and  would be revoking our status. According to the letter my qualification was primarily being challenged because my family no longer lived in Newfoundland. Given the bizarre point system my father may be able to launch an appeal, but my sister and I are likely unable to be reconsidered.

This decision feels like a terrible betrayal. It is as though something is being stolen from me. I am aware that no government decision can take away my heritage, but it does remove the legitimacy especially when Indigenous Canadians have their heritage regulated by government edicts. I plan to write my Member of Parliament in protest, but regardless I am afraid that my status will be lost.

Edit: I wanted to add in a comment by my cousin that I think nicely summarizes those feelings of many in my family:
... since getting our letters in early February, that told us, after 8 years of having been approved to be a member of the Qualipu Band that we no longer "meet the criteria". Indeed, it feels like a betrayal. I was, effectively denied my heritage for the first 35 years of my life - due in part by a Government that didn't even know there were Indians in Newfoundland and a stigma so bad that my grandmother hid her Indian heritage. I will appeal, but I suspect, as does my cousin, that it will be in vain.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Worth Reading - March 9, 2017

Strong Towns is talking about how to apply their strength test to your own home town. Perhaps I'll apply this to Brampton.

As a person who needs quiet to think, the open office concept is troubling to me. This piece from the Washington Post challenges its growing hegemony

Robyn Doolittle's Unfounded series explores how sexual assaults are reported and (not) investigated in this country. 

Daniel Herriges writes how inner city freeways have repeatedly failed their communities

Brampton Transit will be experimenting with battery-electric buses

Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau caused a bit of a stir when her International Women's Day post on social media called on women to celebrate their male allies

The Huffington Post reports that Canada and China are sending warning signals about the economy.

A sad reality of my nerdy life

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book Review: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men is an American classic. First published in 1946 the novel details the life of Jack Burden and his relationship with the meteoric politician, Willie Stark. Set in the 1930s American South the novel is a non-linear retelling of Burden's life, from his boyhood growing up in Burden's Landing to his first meeting with Stark and the conclusion of their relationship. While definitively a piece of political fiction the story, like most political stories, is about the personal relationships of the people at the heart of the drama. Warren's small cast are all connected to one another and their actions damage and ricochet ending in unexpected outcomes.

Given the non-linear nature of the story any sort of summary is difficult, but I will do my best. Jack Burden is a capable but idle man, born of privilege but without ambition. He has wiled away his youth and in college spent some time studying history and the law before dropping out. He worked odd jobs in journalism and politics finding not much satisfaction in either. A cynical, weary Burden meets Willie Stark, then a minor official from a poor, backcountry county.

William Stark enters the story as a teetotaling, straight-edged minor figure. He seeks bond money to build a new school for the county and works hard to keep graft out of the process. He fails and the contract is awarded to a construction outfit with poor performance. The school collapses and Stark is hailed as a hero for warning the community of the problem. Years later Stark's notoriety is parlayed by the rival political machines to turn him into a dummy candidate to steal votes away from a rival. Burden reveals the nature of the scam to Stark, he gets roaring drunk and delivers a firebrand populist speech to the waiting crowd, far different from his normal dull, policy wonk lectures. Stark uses his leverage to sway the election to his opponent and when  he fails successfully runs for the governorship himself. Jack Burden is by his side for the journey.

Most associate Willie Stark as an interpretation of Huey Long and the unnamed state as Louisiana. Stark is a cynical populist with a left-wing agenda. Given Stark and Huey Long's reputation I expected to hate Willie when I began with the book, but I found myself incredibly sympathetic to his point of view. Perhaps that is the nature of the opposition to Stark. Warren doesn't criticize Stark through liberal characters, but instead those with a vested interests to maintain the status quo. Jack Burden is a man of privilege and his family and friends find Stark's rough demeanour and treatment of business and the upper-class deplorable. I cannot help but think that many modern leftist readers would end up feeling great sympathy for Stark who in my eyes transformed from assumed villain to tragic hero brought down by his own flaws.

Politics is about relationships and the dynamics between a small group of people. This is ultimately what destroys Willie and, to a lesser extent, Jack Burden. I appreciate that the novel showed how intimately all these people were connected to one another. Another aspect of the story is reconciling one's past. Burden's central mission in the first half of the novel is to investigate the past of a family friend and mentor, Judge Irwin. In the process he explores his own past, his mother's, and Stark's. The theme of the burden of the past is ever-present in the story. Secrets, betrayals and decisions haunt people on and on forever and return as ghosts to those it impacts indirectly.

Reading this novel in 2017 raised some interesting questions. It was a very different form of populism than we are currently used to. At the same time, Stark's strong-arm political methods are becoming increasingly familiar. In light of recent events it is perhaps worthwhile to explore this novel now if you have not already. Regardless it offers a fascinating snapshot into America's past and politics. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Worth Reading - March 2, 2017

A great story from the South Slave about grocery stores putting labels in local indigenous languages in the grocery stores

Kurzgesagt put out a video about artificial intelligence and robot rights

Shawn Micallef in the Toronto Star writes about Preston Manning and populism in Canadian politics

Kady O'Malley writes that there is little evidence of Trumpism in the Canadian conservative Manning Conference. 

Andrew Coyne takes the opposite point of view. He argues that the Manning Conference offered toxic options that would condemn the Conservatives

A brief CBC story on climate change in the Northwest Territories. 

Andrew Coyne offers a scathing criticism of Kevin O'Leary and the Conservative Party that has embraced him. 

Strong Towns' Strongest Town Contest is underway. It's open to international submissions this year. Someone nominated Brampton, and Guelph. Voting is open.

Speaking of Brampton, the Prime Minister made a whirlwind visit to the city this week

We are only about a year away from the next provincial election. Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, recently shared her thoughts on improving life in Toronto in the Star. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Revolution on an Empty Stomach

Recently I was discussing Animal Farm with a student. He was preparing an essay outline and wanted to discuss how food is a metaphor for money in the novel. We discussed at length what kind of details he could pull from the novel to support his ideas. By the end of the hour though I had started to talk to him about the importance hunger has played in political revolutions. A colleague overheard me and we ended up discussing the connection between food and revolution so I thought it might be interesting to share some of these thoughts here.

Access to food might be one of the most important determinants of a regime's success. This was abundantly clear in the pre-modern era. In antiquity or the medieval period a bad harvest or drought could mean a peasant uprising was just around the corner. A history professor of the medieval period once told me that the tensest time in cities was the spring. Before the new crops were harvested and the winter stores were exhausted there was significant risk for violence within the cities.

In more recent history two revolutions seem to have been largely successful on the back of hunger: the French and Russian Revolutions. In both cases bread shortages collapsed support for the monarchy. Revolutionaries promised relief and bread if the people lent them support. Lenin famously rode the popular sentiment of "Peace, land and bread!" to power.

Modern transportation and international trade has eased the threat of famine and food shortages in many countries. Now if a crop failure occurs in Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, Ukraine, Australia and elsewhere can pick up the slack. Though it should be remembered that modern governments are not immune to these issues. The 2011 Arab Spring, it may be recalled, began by the protests of a Tunisian grocer. Food prices had spiked in the months preceding the revolutions which but great strain on long-reigning dictators.

I recently finished reading a history of Napoleon III's Second French Empire. It is fascinating how many times the regime had to adjust or was nearly brought down by crop failures and food shortages. Liberals reforms were introduced, campaigns halted, and ministers fired all to deal with unrest.

Ultimately I feel that this pattern reveals a certain truth about politics. Many would hope that politics is moved by reasoning and idealism. Emotion and passion seems to be a far stronger factor, but other forces of biology are also important. I do not mean to suggest that all revolutions are merely about growling stomachs, but there is a trend. It is something to be mindful of if commodity prices rise or major crops fail. Violent political change often needs more than effective rhetoric and charismatic leaders to succeed.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Worth Reading - February 23, 2017

Donald Trump may have violated the constitution by violating conflict of interest

Grant Henninger suggests that if you want to save your local economy you should skip buying American (or Canadian) and buy local

This week TVO's The Agenda is had a series of segments to assess the Harper legacy. Obviously history will have to weigh in more in the future, but it's an interesting place to start. Here is a segment on policy, and another on politics.

I'm going to be doing a lot of reading about this later, but the initial announcement was so exciting. NASA announced the discovery 7 earth-sized planets within a star's habitable zone

Transportation innovation and experimentation doesn't need to cost millions of dollars. Everett, MA experimented with a bus lane on the cheap. 

Doug Saunders writes that Canada's "Trump moment" it may not be fueled by white nationalism, but have a more multi-ethnic flavour

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Draft Nathan Cullen?

After the Edmonton Convention and Tom Mulcair was pushed out by delegates the lethargic NDP leadership race got underway. A number of the prominent candidates from 2012 begged off competing. For many of them it made a lot of sense. Several of them had lost their seats in the Liberal victory in 2015, not to mention they are five years older now.

Several promising candidates said that they were not inclined to run. Brian Topp is working with Rachel Notley's NDP government, now the only NDP government left in the country. Megan Leslie, the young, popular former MP from Halifax, said that she was not ready to re-enter the political arena. Conversations with the media indicated that she was emotionally exhausted after the difficult campaign. She now works at WWF Canada.

One leadership candidate offered a more nuanced explanation for why he wasn't running for leader in 2017. Nathan Cullen finished third place with 24% of the vote in 2012. When asked if he would run again he cited three reasons why he doesn't wish to run. First, he didn't think it was best for his family. Leadership and Ottawa are distant from his wife and family. A valid consideration and one I do not begrudge the British Columbia MP. Second, his riding is Skeena-Bulkley Valley, one of the remotest ridings from the capital. He stated that for the sake of the constituents he served them better as MP. The third reason he cited is that he wanted to focus on the upcoming Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform.

While I will not presume to speak for the personal considerations one of these factors has changed immensely. After Justin Trudeau broke his promise to implement electoral reform Nathan Cullen was furious. He has aggressively criticized the government and been effective both in committee, during Question Period, and in the media.

The NDP has faded into the background since the election, and especially since Tom Mulcair was given the boot. Nathan Cullen is one of the few members of the party who have kept the party at the centre. He managed to apply pressure smartly and use the media to force the government to not hold a Liberal majority on the Electoral Reform Committee, and formed a consensus with opposition members to produce a consensus report.

New Democrats, I believe, want a leader who is passionate and can take the fight to this government. They want a full-throated criticism of the Trudeau Liberals. All of these broken promises almost always go against the progressive promises Liberals made. A savvy NDP leader could take great advantage of these Liberal failures and begin making the case for why progressives should not and cannot trust Trudeau and his government.

I supported Nathan Cullen in 2012 and think he has something to offer. He could build a platform around being the true progressive voice in Canada and guaranteeing electoral reform. Cullen offers a charisma and humour that would be welcome at the head of the NDP.

While draft has an unwanted connotation of force. If Mr. Cullen and his family's consideration hasn't changed, then I accept that. However, as I look at the current and assumed line up of candidates I know I am still looking for something different. I hope Mr. Cullen changes his mind and reconsiders leadership of the New Democratic Party.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Worth Reading - February 16, 2017

I'm a fan of Canadaland in general. This episode of Short Cuts combines a lot of things that are driving me crazy lately. They discuss the terrorist attack in Quebec, the Trudeau brand vs. reality, and Rebel Media's toxic impact on our discourse. You might need a drink after.

How Trudeau sold out to Trump. 

The Toronto Star interviewed John Oliver about his show and impact

Canadian Conservatives shame themselves for not backing a simple motion saying that discrimination against and fear of Muslims is bad. 

A dam in California is about to fail. Strong Towns uses it as a point to emphasize the need to focus on maintenance

To improve our cities and save our cities, we must love our cities

It's already late so let's call it there for now! If anyone has a lead on a job they think I would be good at, I'd definitely by happy to apply! My prolonged underemployment is getting me down. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Return of Yellow Journalism

Something I have followed with great interest is the declining state of the media. Major newspapers are closing their doors, cutting services and laying off journalists. In Canada, and many other places, we cannot rely solely on the traditional media to hold governments, businesses and individuals to account. For me, for a long time, we have been entering an unsettling period where accountability is in steep design and we may be living in a post-media socio-political world shortly.

And then something strange began to happen. In the wake of the Trump election I heard that the New York Times has been growing and the Washington Post announced a massive expansion. To be clear I do not believe the Times or Post participate in yellow journalism. The sad reality is that Donald Trump is so divorced from reality that straight edge journalism now comes off as scathing criticism.

We certainly live in interesting times.

It's not merely the success of the Times and Post that make me think we may see a transformation in media in the coming years. The proliferation of fake news and other dubious information sources, including Canada's own Rebel Media, points to the fact that people want a point of view and an agenda with their information. Psychologist can prove with stacks of papers that people get psychic and social pleasure from information confirming their biases and worldview. It's not merely the right. I caught a CBC news item about the growth of left-win political podcasts in the last few months. John Oliver is no doubt a trusted authority to many around the world, but his politics are fairly transparent.

This is, of course, nothing new. Fox News has been on the air for decades. News magazines and periodicals have with a clear bend have been part of the mainstream decade for more than a century. The problem is that the so-called neutral media will be increasingly outflanked by their more partisan colleagues. Anti-Trump consumers of media want to read how he lies, not that he misspoke or was inaccurate. His defenders want to hear about how the Muslim ban was overturned by activist judges and that Americans have a right to defend their borders.

Early journalism was all yellow. The high-minded, unbiased image of the press is a relatively modern phenomenon. Most newspapers originated as the mouthpiece to a particular political faction or party. Oddly enough I find I have fewer problems with this than I at first imagined. There are definitely problems with this drift, no doubt. However, as we move forward, I would much prefer to live in a world of yellow journalism than no journalism at all.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Worth Reading - February 9, 2017

A U.S. diplomat took photos during his time in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. They have now been released to the public. 

This is just a rumour at the moment... so don't panic... but it's out there that Sarah Palin might be appointed as US ambassador to Canada

From promising to end First-Past-the-Post to defending it, the Liberals have made a hell of a turn. 

The census data was recently released precipitating some data-driven stories in the media. TVO did a write up about Ontario's growth and that it is mostly being found in smaller suburban cities

Is the Parti Quebecois aging out of relevance

The Hurontario LRT plans are being laid. The local civic group Fight Gridlock shared their thoughts about the redevelopment of the Gateway Terminal in southern Brampton. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Sigh... Electoral Reform

If you have electoral reform advocates in your life or on your social media accounts you have no doubt received an earful in the last few days. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his new Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould (LPC - Burlington, ON) announced their intent to abandon electoral reform. Like those I mentioned I was furious. As far as I am aware this is the closest electoral reform has gotten to being achieved at the federal level. That is also pretty pathetic.

I think it is fair to say that electoral reform is probably on life support federally for at least ten years and probably longer. The Liberals blatant mismanagement and betrayal of their commitment likely means that the Liberal Party will not be trusted on this file for a long time by advocates. Instead of wallowing in anger and misery I'd like to take a little bit of time to see what we can do differently in the future.

Too often in Canada the governments leading the charge for electoral reform have been half-hearted at best. They seem to stumble into the issue and blindly move forward until it is ultimately defeated. The next parliament/legislature that begins to move forward on electoral reform needs to actually fight for it. I think if the Liberals were open about having skin in the game and preferences it would have been better. Let them advocate for preferential ballots forcefully. It's not the type of reform I want but at least it would be a position to debate rather than the shell game. The Canadian public is never going to come to a 'consensus' on this issue without leadership. I think a Prime Minister/Premier who proposed proportional representation and tried to make the case for it may very well succeed.

The other side of the equation is the public. Public engagement on this issue will never be very high, but their comfort and familiarity with the topic needs to be such that they don't immediately reject the questions. Some of the Electoral Reform Committees work on sussing out values rather than positions was valuable. The next time this issue comes up a citizens assembly can be guided by that information and then the proposal can be clearly communicated to the public. Any system can be explained in a five minute video more or less. CGP Grey proved that long ago.

Finally, advocates need to communicate so that they seem less like superior zealots. A lot of thought leaders in media and academia found the rhetoric from leading advocates to be distasteful. I think they let their passion blind them to the reality. Reformers will need allies in the media, political parties and academia to lend credence to their push.

Right now reformers are probably best off letting the federal issue go. Introducing alternative forms to the municipal and provincial levels of government seems a wiser effort at this time.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Worth Reading - February 2, 2017

Unsurpisingly, the Liberals have officially announced they are no longer pursuing electoral reform, despite their clear commitment to the Canadian people. Andrew Coyne argues shame on us for believing them in the first place. 

Chantal Hebert offers a preview of Parliament as the new session begins

Steve Paikin suggested that the Wynne government made make a Hail Mary plan to keep government, and he suggests that ending the public commitment to Catholic schools might be it. 

Politico looks at the Democrats as they wander in the political wilderness and their current leadership. 

PBS' Frontline put out a very interesting four-hour documentary about the Obama presidency and the rise of the Trump wing of the Republican Party. It's not possible to watch it directly on PBS' website, but several people have posted it on YouTube. I highly recommend it.

From Strong Towns, Why I'm Not a Cyclist.

Martin Regg Cohn is arguing to dismantle our school board system

Neil Macdonald states a simple truth: most mass shootings in Canada are committed by white, Canadian-born men. 

Maclean's calls on Justin Trudeau to be brave in defiance of Trump's policies

David Frum paints a grim picture of American autocracy

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Muslim Ban and Effective Activism

Over the weekend we were witness to thousands of people across the United States going to airports and protesting the detainment and removal of arrivals from the seven countries targeted by the Trump administration. When I looked at the scenes unfold I was moved. But more importantly, the protests may have been the most effective demonstrations I have witnessed in many years.

I am a cynic and a pessimist when it comes to most aspects of popular protest. I think coming to political awareness in the 1990s and 2000s showed me time and time again that people in the street are more often symbolic than effective. Look at protests that occurred at key moments or at important events and time and time again they failed to change anything at all: the globalization protests at the G7/G8/G20 meetings, the anti-Iraq War protests, the Occupy Movement. Despite mass public, international demonstrations no meaningful change was won. Instead of a demonstration of public power I think these demonstrations ultimately allow the mainstream media, those in power and critics to illustrate the opposition/left's weakness and toothlessness.

The principle weakness in these broad, mass demonstrations is that they have no detailed goals and often apply pressure to the wrong people. The airport protests had specific aims, have those detained released and allow them entry into the country. The audience wasn't the White House, who will never reverse their position, but the staff of the border agencies, other levels of government, lawyers and the justice system and most importantly the media. The attention the protests received by the media made the protests and the border changes feel like a crisis. It applied pressure on judges to issue immediate orders and caused reaction in foreign capitals. I sincerely doubt that the Canadian government would have moved so quickly and issue temporary residency permits to travelers stranded by the Muslim Ban.

If Donald Trump and his ilk are going to be defeated it will be through actions like this. He's going to lose in the courts, in the international arena, and (hopefully) in the legislative bodies and other levels of government. Mass demonstrations can only drive media attention, pressure other officials and provide them cover. Trumpist policies must be attacked in specific and with detailed alternatives. In all due respect to the women demonstrations around the world, they sadly did not move the needle, as far as I can tell. The opposition will not defeat Trump the man, they must defeat his ideas, one by one.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Worth Reading - January 26, 2017

My sincere apologies for missing my Tuesday post. I came down with a stomach bug on Monday night and only now starting to feel about normal. 

Andrew Coyne writes about Press Secretary Sean Spicer's dishonesty

The Toronto Star's Daniel Dale reflects on 'alternative facts' and their use by autocratic, deceptive regimes

Kady O'Malley writes on Nathan Cullen's suggestion that the electoral reform committee draft the relevant legislation

An essay series in Rabble, they take a second look at the election fraud that occurred during the 2011 election. 

Divyesh Mistry wrote a detailed guide to the process of Brampton receiving a university. 

Shopper's World, the oldest indoor mall in Brampton, is slated for massive redevelopment into a mixed residential/commercial site. 

During the 2016 election a number of new podcasts popped up to discuss politics. The Washington Post has launched one to discuss Trump's policies and actions as president called "Can He Do That?"  I haven't listened myself, but I like the premise.

The Atlantic put together 50 podcasts to check out from 2016. I'm a lover of podcasts, so perhaps there is something here worth checking out

Speaking of which, Patrick Klepek writes about the value of podcasts and why you should dive in and start your own. I found this article's premise alluring because I've often wanted to start my own podcast.