Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dodging a bullet.

Winnebago Man is a documentary about the "Angriest RV Salesman" in the viral video. If you haven't seen the video itself, it's a series of outtakes from a Winnebago sales video, wherein the salesman keeps blowing his lines and swearing at the camera. It's pretty funny and apparently quite famous, although I'd never heard of it until the documentary came out.

The documentary relates what happens when someone decides to track down the angry RV salesman twenty years later to find out who he is and what happened to him. It has its flaws but at its best it's a reflection on how Youtube has, for better or worse, catapulted ordinary people in obscure videos to low-grade viral-video infamy, usually through video footage that catches them at a really bad, unguarded or ill-judged moment. We all have such moments and we always did; but video cameras used to be expensive and bulky, and opportunities for footage to reach wide audiences were pretty much limited to America's Funniest Home Videos. Under those circumstances, it took a real effort to humiliate yourself in front of millions of people.

It makes me grateful to have been born when I was, because most of my opportunities to embarrass myself on camera happened before the 'tube came along. There's a home movie of me that circulated among my family for years, from when I was about twelve, ripping off a George Carlin routine minus the swear words. Throughout my teenage years I conclusively disproved the existence of telekinesis, for if it were at all possible to effect action at a distance then every copy of that video would have been erased by my brainwaves of sheer will.

Later there was another incident where someone else's good sense or at least embarrassment probably saved the day. When I was nineteen, the summer before I went off to film school, I was playing with a video camera with some friends. We were using a very bright film lamp I had found at a garage sale, and one of my friends who had been interning at a TV station pointed out that you usually put some kind of diffuser over it. The video shows her demonstrating by putting the lamp under her t-shirt, whereupon her shirt catches fire. The scene explodes into Three Stooges chaos as I stare on, slack-jawed, painfully slow to understand what's happening.

Fortunately, Wendy wasn't hurt and the house is still standing as far as I know.

(In fairness, I was momentarily blinded by the brightness of the light and so I blame the giant phosphenes for my slowness on the uptake. But such is the unforgiving nature of video, which purges all context and leaves only the image. I don't video well in profile--I have kind of a pudgy face and a moronic hillbilly jawline--and with my mullet, ball cap and sleeveless wife-beater T-shirt, not to mention the glacial pace of my reaction, the video makes me look like one of the roobs in People of Wal-Mart.)

Wendy wisely kept the video and probably destroyed it. Today it would likely have ended up on Youtube, and if we were really unlucky it would have become an indestructible viral phenomenon, uncontrollable, undeletable, fifteen seconds of electromagnetic pee in the worldwide media pool.

Just about everyone born after 1980 has had the opportunity--the alignment of technology, youth and inability to grasp the idea of consequences or that someday you might be in a position to be taken seriously--to screw up their digital identity forever. For each of them, there's a chance that someday they'll be running for city council or receiving the Order of Canada and there it'll be: an old clip of the candidate punching a clown or molesting a dead pig head, taking them down in a burst of drive-by ridicule or worse.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Misguidance Counsellors, Part Two

So I'm wondering how to go about this series of posts on whether it's still a good idea to go to university.

I'll let you in on a bit of a secret: I am not a new-media kind of guy. I feel a certain affinity for old-school journalism and academic research papers and the professional standards typically associated with same: in particular doing extensive research, citing authoritative facts, and editing everything before you publish. It makes me kind of skittish about posting opinions that might turn out to be wrong.

But those are values that aren't particularly valued in the blogging realm. This medium seems to lend itself more to stream-of-consciousness, throwing out ideas as they come to you, and maybe going back and editing them out later. There is always the risk that if you say something foolish or factually incorrect, some anonymous commenter will rudely correct or berate you. However, since this is the internet, this is likely to happen even if you don't say anything foolish or factually incorrect. So I wouldn't lose any sleep over the possibility.

The other nice thing about it is that you've got a bunch of other people reading your drafts. Some of them will have useful things to say. In the ideal case, they end up doing all the work for you by posting comments that are way more insightful than anything you could come up with.

With that in mind... The university thing.

As a starting point, let me define what I mean by "going to university."

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm talking specifically about the conventional approach which high school seniors/Grade Twelves are encouraged to take by all the appropriate authorities. You start applying in your last year of high school. Once you've been accepted by one or more schools, you pick one and enroll officially as a full-time student the September after high school graduation. You take out student loans, pay your tuition, and supplement the cost of school and living expenses with part-time jobs (during the school year) and summer jobs (during the four-month breaks between school years.) Depending on the program you're in, you either choose your major field of study right up front, or else spend your first year sampling a bunch of different courses before deciding what to focus on. After four or five years of continuous study, you graduate around age 22 or 23 with a Bachelor's degree in your chosen field, whereupon you decide whether to go on to graduate school (e.g. a professional or academic Master's, or else a doctorate) or go straight into the workforce. In the latter case, it is presumed from the outset that that Bachelor's degree is both necessary and sufficient to secure a job that is lucrative enough to pay back the debts incurred in getting it. Then your life starts.

Okay, that's a mouthful. Lots of stipulations and caveats. Could probably use some carriage returns. But it is, I think, a fair representation of what your parents, guidance counsellors and teachers expect of you as the default choice. It's the right way to go about doing things. Any deviation from this plan will be viewed as unusual at best, probably reckless or irresponsible, and at worst downright stupid.

Chew on that for a bit and I'll see you later.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Misguidance Counsellors, Part One

There's an old joke to the effect that if guidance counsellors knew anything about career moves, they wouldn't be guidance counsellors.

That's a bit harsh but like all jokes, there is a truth there, exaggerated to comic effect though it may be. Guidance counsellors give a lot of bad advice. In some respects they can't be blamed. At my high school of 2000 students, there were two guidance counsellors--which one you got depended on whether your last name started with A to M or N to Z. In a work year of 2000 hours, that meant each student got a total of two hours' attention from a guidance counsellor. Imagine being expected to shape someone's future in the time it takes to watch Avatar.

I'm thinking about this now for a few reasons.

First, this is the time of year that high school seniors are getting their university applications together. Fully a year before they start post-secondary education, they are expected to have a pretty firm idea of where they want to go and what they want to do. That's overwhelming enough.

But, secondly, they are getting most of their advice from Mature and Respectable Adults--not just guidance counsellors but parents, teachers and society at large--which is to say, pretty much by definition from people who made their own decisions in this regard under radically different circumstances.

Strictly speaking, that category includes me. Having gone to university in the very early 1990's, before the wholesale deregulation and de-capping of tuition, I faced a radically different cost-benefit analysis. For instance, my undergraduate tuition was about $1600 per year, about one-third what it would cost today. I was also insanely lucky. My parents paid the full cost of my undergraduate degree. Housing costs were dirt cheap, and preposterously so in Montreal where I went to school. Because everything went exactly right for me, I graduated with no debt, free to do whatever I wanted. Even so, many of my friends were not so lucky. Twenty years later, that kind of luck is even harder to come by.

The contrast between today's situation and that of someone in 1970 is even more extreme. Those people lived on a whole different planet, with a completely different atmosphere and everything.

So I'm writing this series of posts for any high schooler who is looking at going to university; who will almost certainly be getting a lot of unconditional encouragement to do so; and who in any case will not be in a position to properly evaluate their decision until after they're committed.

I'm not going to say university is a bad idea or that you shouldn't go. The case I'm going to make is that it's not that simple; that there are pros and cons; but that most of the advice you get will tend to overemphasize the arguments for, and discount the arguments against.

Take this series of posts as one opinion of many. Your parents etc. might disagree but if they do, they should be able to articulate why. Actually, that's the first lesson: critical thinking, and learning to distinguish between good advice and bad advice. Shit too often closely resembles shinola. Thinking is hard; start practicing. You still have a year.

To be continued.

Bibendum Lost

About five years ago, at a flea market in Paris I saw (but did not buy, stupid stupid stupid!) an old Michelin poster.

It’s from, I’m guessing, probably the late teens, and it’s an ad for some kind of rubber resistance-strap workout device. Apparently Michelin was at one time involved in the manufacture of various rubber products beyond tires.

It shows Bibendum, very jaunty and unconcerned—I think he’s even wearing a monocle—with his walking-stick hooked over his arm. And he’s simultaneously, effortlessly, punching and kicking a pair of very Gallic-looking muggers—kind of one fist going out sideways this way to hit one of them in the nose, the opposite leg striking out the other way to nail the other. Paf! Paf! A Belle Epoque Charles Atlas ad.

I have since scoured the Internet and better poster shops everywhere, looking for a copy of this. No one else is aware of its existence. I’m starting to think I imagined the whole thing.

If anyone can direct me towards a print of this poster or (failing that) proof of its existence, I will be very grateful and reassured of my own sanity.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This Old House

I don't post a lot on this blog. If you're a fan, sorry about that. But I do write a lot of emails, carrying on a fairly interesting correspondence with various people. I suppose I could post my side of these conversations as blog posts--they might be interesting--but it kind of feels like cheating.

The other day I was talking to the Primate about House. I had indicated that I kind of like the show, although of course my ability to like or dislike it is severely limited by the fact that I don't have a TV and don't watch shows online. I've seen it a couple of times, though, and what I said I liked about it is that the main character is really smart and, despite a lot of pain and ugliness in his backstory and completely substandard social skills, remains basically on the side of the angels. Then I said

"In a world where smart people have to pretend to be pleasant, even to the point of avoiding stating unpleasant truths (even as stupid and dishonest people are freed from any obligation to be civil) seeing a fictional character who is both smart and blunt is refreshing. I wish it wasn't."

I guess this isn't really a new thought. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" said Yeats. Sort of the same thing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

300 bank robberies a year?

Okay, I'm not obsessed with movies. Really I'm not. You'll have to take my word for it because a fair number of the postings on this blog have to do with overthinking some bit of cinematic trivia.

But this one has stuck in my head because it makes me feel like I'm taking crazy pills. (In the interests of disclosure, I have a cold and have just snarfed down a full pack of Fisherman's Friend. But to the best of my knowledge, the only side effect of those is to make you smell like an overturned tank truck of Vicks Vapo-Rub.)

I've seen Inception twice this summer, which means I have also seen the trailer for the Ben Affleck vehicle "The Town." Cool working-class antiheroes, bank robberies, doomed love affair. Okay, but one of the first things you hear is that

"... there are over 300 bank robberies in the Boston area each year."


Now, there are 365 days in a year. Subtract the weekends, when of course banks aren't open, and you've got something on the order of 260 weekdays. Subtract holidays and you're down to maybe 250 opening days.

So, if we're to believe Ben Affleck, there is on average one bank robbery every single day in Boston, plus one bonus day each week where there are too. (Are Fridays your lucky day? I feel like Wednesdays.)

And that's a business that's only open from about 10am to 4pm.

No wonder these guys have to have split-second timing!

In real life, someone has tried to check these figures and it turns out that there are, in fact, about 300 "bank crimes" on average every year in Massachussets. Maggie Lloyd of Boston's The Tech cites FBI statistics to this effect, and stipulates that they don't know how many of the crimes are in the Boston area. They also mention that the "bank crimes" category covers a whole range of things, of which however the most common is walking up to the teller and demanding money. The stats are then followed up with a number of anecdotes about specific armed robbers.

Granted, I don't live in Boston but I think I would have heard about it if there were a bank robbery (in the commonly-understood sense of the word) every day or every other day. That's the kind of thing that newspaper editors live to put on their front page. I have stayed up really really late and drunk way too much beer with friends who lived in Boston and never once did the subject come up.

I would gently suggest that the vast majority of these bank crimes involve someone depositing a phony check at an ATM and immediately withdrawing the whole amount. "Bank robberies" as presented in The Town are to bank crime as... well, as marijuana is to illegal drugs.

Why do I care? Well, it seems to me that an awful lot of people (1) can't do basic math and (2) have an exaggerated fear of violent crime. From their obsession with handguns and long-gun registries and the freedom to shoot back should the King of England try to quarter troops in one's basement, you would think we lived in a constant state of low-grade warfare, where any trip to the ATM could be your last. Those people tend to (3) vote for yahoos who promise to do anything--ANYTHING--to keep everyone safe from the veritable Wild West Show seemingly unfolding outside their front doors.

Not helping, Ben. Not helping at all.


Well, the ever-knowledgable Idle Primate read this and, once again leaving me gobsmacked with not just the depth but the directions of his knowledge, had this to say:

"I don’t know any stats, but bank robbery is incredibly common and banks do everything they can to not publicize it. you’ve probably been in a bank while it was being robbed.

Most bank robberies are a guy walking up to a teller and passing a little note saying, “I am armed give me x amount of money.” The teller can draw $2500 from the machines without any extra authorisation and they are trained to do just that in those situations, and hand it over. To any bystander, it looks like a regular transaction. Bank tellers find it exciting and flirt with bank robbers.

It's small change to a bank, but there is shitloads of it going on."



Well, maybe I stand corrected.

Maybe Ben Affleck isn't a douchebag after all. Actually, no, that's going too far.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mad Max

You need to be careful about attributing too much meaning to movies, especially big noisy action movies. Reading the cinematic tea leaves for deep relevance to the world of today is a mug's game, or at least a game for those poor souls who have opted to do graduate studies in film.

At the same time, part of what makes a movie work is how it taps on our familiar experience and resonates in the audience's mind. Any movie, if it's any good, is a little bit true--even if it's an over-the-top fantasy.

Idle Primate and I went out to see Mad Max recently. That's the first of George Miller's postapocalyptic trilogy set in the Australian outback and arguably the least iconic of the three. When people talk about a "Mad Max dystopia," they're usually referring to The Road Warrior, the second film in the trilogy, set after a nuclear war. That's a very simple world--rampaging motorized gangs of punk rock mutants in a completely lawless post-nuclear wasteland, where civilization is clearly and indisputably dead and gone.

Mad Max is more interesting in that it takes place while things are falling apart. It's not post-apocalyptic so much as... well, I guess pre-post-apocalyptic is the best word. (Which technically should just be "apocalyptic" but it's not really that either, because apocalypse suggests a clear and sudden transition and that's not really what's going on here.)

Max and the other good guys are highway-patrol cops, chasing down the first generation of the emerging road gangs that will have completely taken over by the time we get to The Road Warrior. It's clear that the police force is on its last legs as a civic institution; the cops themselves are starting to look and behave like just another (albeit relavitely benign) gang operating out of the trashed-out remains of the Halls of Justice.

But what's striking is that no one seems to think the world has ended. Notwithstanding the obvious failure of major institutions that is underway, a good chunk of the movie involves Max and his Sears-catalog family piling into the station wagon and going on a pleasant road trip, even though we know those roads are full of biker gangs. The bikers themselves are kind of goofy and clean-cut--a missing link, the last of the 1960's-style bikers, sort of a coelocanth-like specimen of pre-Altamonte Hell's Angel, from just before it split once and for all from the hippie genus and became something vicious and malignant. The kind of bikers you would imagine doing security for the Monkees.

At the same time, ambulances still come when you call them; lawyers still show up to get their clients out of jail; whiskey and hookers are still bought with money, not cans of Spam.

So the film and its characters exist in this odd space of apocalypse denial. In this respect Mad Max is a much more realistic film than The Road Warrior.

The big problem I have with survivalists and hard-core doomers is not that they anticipate some serious shit going down; it's that they seem to expect and even hope for a very clear-cut situation to emerge afterwards, where life is a matter of having lots of guns and being willing to use them. Where all complications of society, rules, expectations and having to deal with other people are swept away, and where life--if nasty, brutish and short--is at least freed from bullshit.

But as we've seen in Russia and Afghanistan and even the late Roman/early Frankish period, civilizations don't collapse that neatly. There is never any clear-cut signal that says, "NOW it is necessary and okay to quit mailing out resumes, pick up a machine gun and start marauding." You can lose and lose and lose some more--retirement plans, public schools, the rule of law--and yet that blessed state of nature never seems to come. The survivalists and Tea Partiers are bound to be disappointed. Just what does someone have to do to get a Hobbesian war of all against all going around here, anyway!

Of course, in Mad Max, the title character gets just that signal. Something Changes Forever and the hero is freed from all obligation to the old world, freed to become the Road Warrior.

It's only a movie, guys.

What's really interesting is how plausible even the implausibilities are. In this crumbling world, where even the police station looks like a trashed-out squat, the roads are still being maintained with beautiful smooth asphalt, well enough to drive on at eighty miles an hour. Absurd on the surface of it; roads are fragile and take an insane amount of effort and coordination to keep functional at all, and in a general center-not-holding-things-falling-apart those roads should turn into cowpaths right quick. Except that in real life, while civic institutions such as schools and city halls and libraries have to close due to collapsed tax bases, the half-assed thrashing of governments trying to jumpstart the economy is largely directed towards road building. Suddenly Mad Max seems eerily prescient.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Getting ready to make a mess!

So this weekend I've started looking into what's involved in this learn-to-make-stuff thing.

Something I've been wanting to do for some time now is to build some bicimaquinas. The word is Spanish and was coined by a group called Mayapedal in Guatemala. They take donated bicycles and carve them up, modify them and put them back together to make stationary pedal-powered machines. So far they've designed and built a blender, a corn grinder, a water pump and a number of other useful devices that make life a hell of a lot easier when you live somewhere without a reliable, affordable electricity supply.

Depending on who you ask, that might include a lot of us in the next few decades.

Even if you're not of an apocalyptic bent, there's a lot to love about these things. We're surrounded by clever technology that lets us imagine we're really in charge of the universe, but an awful lot of it doesn't work at all unless we keep feeding it some form of concentrated fossil sunlight.

Bicycles are sort of different; they take the power output of a human being (up to 300-400 watts in short bursts, more like 75 watts over long periods of time) and strip away as much friction as possible, allowing us to get the most work done with the least effort. It's a truly clever invention, an elegant solution to a persistent problem that dogs every animal on the planet, i.e. moving around without blowing your calorie budget. It's an honest invention that doesn't rely on a geological trust fund to work its apparent magic. In this respect it's a much bigger achievement than a car or an airplane or a moon shot.

(Let's leave aside for the moment that making replacement parts for bicycles itself depends on an industrial system that may or may not be able to function, even at a drastically reduced level, on the available renewable energy sources. Someday even bicimaquinas might not be viable. But in the meantime...)

What I also like about the bicimaquina concept is that, even for us pudgy and comfortable first-worlders, it deals with some of our current problems as well as our future ones. Leave aside the whole issue of reducing energy consumption for environmental reasons. Right now we've got labour-saving machines doing a lot of our physical work for us, while we go to gyms to work out on different machines whose purpose is to help us burn off extra calories while doing no useful work.

The Dutch cheapskate in me finds this objectionable.

So I'm gonna start with bicimaquinas because, of all the greasy, dirty, hands-onny get-stuff-doney crafts, bike repair is the one at which I am least inept. I've actually got a decent grasp of how bicycles work, though I haven't actually worked on one in years. So there's something to start with.

I think eventually I'd like to build a pedal-powered washing machine. Something like that would give you a good workout over the course of half an hour or so and get something done that, frankly, I tend to avoid. (Of course I tend to avoid exercise too...)

But for now I think the first project will be a stationary stand to mount a bike frame on--the power plant for whatever other devices I then decide to hook up to it.

Gonna have to learn how to weld...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A new career awaits you in... something or other...

The past year has been enlightening in an embarrassing sort of way.

Enlightening, in the sense that I've learned some new things in a really fundamental way. Embarrassing, because they're things that I frankly already knew for a good long time already... just not in the same way, and not at the same level.

I'm not putting it across correctly. Here's an analogy:

Everybody knows that cigarettes kill people. Even people who smoke know this; despite all the obfuscation and water-muddying of the paid tobacco lobby, nobody really doubts the simple fact that tobacco is likely to kill you, be it through heart attack, stroke or the Big C. They know this but they keep smoking anyway. It's a superficial knowledge, one whose roots haven't penetrated down and taken hold, or that have yet to find a way around the inner delusion that perhaps this particular smoker will be the exception.

Then there's the other kind of knowledge--the one with deep roots, the one that wraps itself around your heart and spine and squeezes and says, Cut the bullshit, now it's time to do something. For the smoker, maybe it's your first heart attack, or the lump that turned out (after several months of panic) to be benign. The sound of a bullet whizzing past your ear. Whoa!

My knowledge that the world is about to change in a serious way is like that. Since 2003 I've been aware of peak oil and the implications of same. I've been one of the more vocal people (in my profession at least) on the need to prepare for the end of cheap fossil fuels. I've known all this time that a lot of the jobs that exist today, simply will not in the future. Not just obvious stuff like car dealers and gas-pump jockeys and drive-thru Timmie's baristas, but more fundamental vocational extinctions arising from a breakdown in complexity.

A decomplexifying society has trouble finding the surplus resources ("surplus" being almost entirely subjective, on the part of the decision makers in that society) to support roles like theatre actors, flower arrangers and big-stone-head carvers. It also has a tendency to concentrate on immediate needs rather than long-term thinking... so useful investments in long-term problem solving such as pure science and education and planning increasingly become seen as luxuries.

Planning. Hmm.

You can see where I'm going with this.

My knowledge has thus far been superficial; it hasn't really driven any major behavioural changes on my part. To the casual observer, that may be surprising. I don't drive a car, I live in town, and I've been known to stockpile jars of peanut butter in case of sudden famine. But these are things I would have done anyway. I hate driving and for various reasons really shouldn't drive anyway; and I acquired the bomb-shelter hoarding instinct from my grandparents through my dad, whose experience in Holland during WWII taught them that when there's extra food available for cheap, you buy a whole flat of cans and store 'em.

But I've still been operating on the assumption that one way or another, my own niche in all of this will still fundamentally be a brainy thinking role. As a planner helping to develop a strategy to adapt our cities to reduced fossil fuel supplies; as a government policy wonk, part of the Brain Trust, developing such strategies at a national level.

I hope this will still be on the menu for the next forty or so years I expect to linger in this world. But lately I've started to wonder.

I saw a disturbing headline in one of the newspapers whose vending boxes festoon street corners in Ottawa. Seems the newly-barely-elected Conservative government in Britain, with its new pals the Liberal Democrats, are proposing to downsize the various government functions and devolve those powers and responsibilities onto the volunteer sector. The functions mentioned include things like public transit. In other words, not little peripheral things like arts administration or daycare, but fundamental public services that almost EVERYONE agrees are necessary on some level and require highly-trained, professional management and staff.

I'm not going to comment extensively on the insanity of this, except to say that there's nothing new in its principle except the scope. In his "Common Sense Revolution" of the mid-1990's, Mike Harris proposed to gut public services and let them be replaced by "volunteerism."

Well, of course he did. Nobody shreds a basic service without providing some fig leaf about how it will be done better, more democratically and more efficiently by someone whose core business is elsewhere--be it maximizing profit (when the service is proposed to be privatized) or feeding themselves and paying the mortgage (when it's proposed to be taken up by volunteers.)

It's obviously horseshit, it never works as advertised, and we've seen enough movement-conservative governments over the past thirty years by now to know exactly what happens. Monetary deficits avoided by one branch of government are moved off the books, into less-readily-quantifiable balance sheets such as human resource capacity, social equity and sustainability. Real costs are moved from today and into tomorrow; real benefits are hoovered up from everyone tomorrow and stuffed into the pockets of a happy few today. Public, collective debts foregone by e.g. government's cutting student aid and un-capping tuition are cut up and transferred, dollar for dollar, to individuals who have made the foolish and naive decision to go to university to become nurses, teachers, engineers, scientists or any of the other professions who will be needed to keep things running in a few years.

This makes the current goings-on very interesting in the Chinese-curse sense of the word, for someone's whose vocation is some version of public service. Don't get me wrong: My Plan A is still to play some role in government, helping my civilization manage the transition from a cheap-energy economy to something much less energy-intensive but still recognizably civilized.

But when I hear about the British-conservative-volunteerism plan, or see Americans turning against the best president they are likely to ever see in their lifetime, or people in Ontario bitching about the Liberal government because they just don't like the gosh-darned HST...

We've seen this before. In the 1970's, oil prices spiked and economies went into extended recession. After some panicked running-around-in-circles, the response was to elect governments--from Thatcher to Reagan to Mulroney--whose solution was to get things back to normal by stripping out government's power to act on problems requiring collective action. So, for instance, creating the next generation of fuel cells, solar panels and energy efficiency was left to the private sector to decide to undertake if it appeared immediately profitable.

Which for the most part it wasn't, so they pretty much didn't.

Any progress on these fronts was slow, delayed, too little and too late, and completely dwarfed by the massive proliferation of sprawl, globalized supply lines and the complete devastation of passenger rail service in favour of the energy black hole of commercial aviation.

In the past two years, we've seen a sort of moment of confused inertia like the spinning of the 1970's, akin to the couple of seconds after Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff but before he realizes he's about to fall. Cue little hand-held sign: "Help!"

Now I get the impression that the reaction to this stage in collapse will not be a sustained rallying in favour of collective and equitable action, but rather a wholesale jettisoning of "dead weight."

Another analogy. If you're on a sinking ship, it will quickly become apparent to everyone on board that you can slow the sinking by throwing stuff overboard. (You might even imagine that if you throw enough stuff overboard, you can prevent the ship from sinking entirely.)

In this analogy, the choice of what to throw overboard has so far (i.e. since the 1970's) generally been to toss the third-class passengers into the water. (You COULD ask the first-class passengers to toss some of their oversized luggage and steamer trunks instead, so the navvies and Irishmen don't have to drown. But that would be "class warfare" and a chorus of media finger puppets will ask why we are so intent on punishing success?)

Perhaps this is human nature. If it is, it's still no excuse. I think human nature (and, indeed, our nature as animals) is full of good and bad things, and things we can and should overrule with our brains and things we can't, and things that we maybe can't but must try to if we are to have a hope of surviving. There are bad brainstem habits we have to live with, there are instincts that it would be unhealthy to repress, and then there are instincts and habits that are unworthy of rational, compassionate beings and must be challenged if we are to retain any claim to legitimacy as the alpha species on this planet. A lot of our failures in the twentieth century have grown from a failure to distinguish between these. We treat imperatives as impossibilities, we champion lost causes that aren't worth winning and ignore key issues that, unless they are successfully dealt with, will make all the others academic.

Even if I were to concede the necessity of throwing the steerage passengers overboard in order to preserve the comfort of the better class of people--which I do not--I am gobsmacked by how readily people go along with it. My astonishment is purely for pragmatic reasons. As in, it doesn't surprise me that people behave in such selfish ways, but rather that they seem so unaware of where their self-interest truly lies.

Because most of us are travelling second-class. As long as things are going fine, it's easy to forget that. We get regular meals and soft bunks and even the opportunity to hobnob with the first-class passengers and the luxury to imagine that we'll someday be travelling first-class ourselves.

The key difference between liberals and conservatives may be where they expect they'll end up if second-class gets split up between the other two.

We travel on tickets that are very poorly printed, even hand-scrawled by a careless ticket agent. A "2" can look a lot like a "1" or a "3", depending on the light and how you squint. When it gets wet, the ink can run in ways that will surprise you.

So I would advise my fellow second-class passengers to think carefully before you advocate a particular jettisonning strategy. The way ships are built, there are a lot more people in steerage than in first class. And in the chaos and poor light and salt spray of a sinking vessel at midnight, your "2" may turn out to be a three after all.

I've digressed a little bit. This post started about me learning something.

For a long time I've thought in an abstract way about learning to do and make concrete things with my hands. It's not something I was ever particularly good at. I'm creative in that I can draw and I can write and I can think but when it comes to actually creating functional objects--things you can use to do things--I'm almost completely inept. Or not inept--just inexperienced. When you're Good At School and clearly bound for brain work, nobody really goes out of their way to insist that you learn how to fix things; they're so glad you're not going to be stuck in the dying factory-worker economy of the de-industrializing late twentieth century that the point doesn't get pressed.

But I think maybe that's run its course. I think that in my lifetime, people who can make or fix things--who have already become a pretty rare breed--are going to find those skills more and more useful. I think maybe it's time to become one of them.

I'll keep ya posted.

Monday, July 5, 2010

It gets worse.

Man! I do a post on the Census, laying out some questions I'd like to see added, and next thing you know, the federal government announces it's going to eliminate the long-form census entirely.

I'm sure there's no causal relationship here. Pretty sure, anyway.

The long-form census--this is the detailed one that gets sent to one in five households--provides the really useful information like mode of travel to work, housing costs for owners and renters, number of households spending over a certain threshold on housing costs, and a bunch of other very useful pieces of information for citizen researchers and academics.

It's the information that lets you prove certain inconvenient truths--that real incomes are stagnating, that more and more people use and need public transit, that housing costs are turning an entire generation into serfs.

The census is also a key historical document. It allows researchers a hundred years from now to reconstruct the basic facts of our time. Abandoning the long-form census is like burning the library at Alexandria. Some bigoted, ideological a-hole does it once and then it's gone forever.

Cancel the census and our age goes dark.

It is very convenient to self-identified conservatives that these facts will no longer be available at any meaningful level. Facts are what people use--have to use--to challenge the status quo, to demonstrate that it's not in fact morning in America. Established power lives on inertia and elite opinion. Reality has a liberal bias. Census data helps us prove this. Without data, it's all just opinion.

Who's to say that the streets aren't full of welfare queens driving their Cadillacs to the gravy train station?

Who's to say that your inability to afford housing is part of a larger trend, and not just a personal failure on your part?

Who's to say?

Without the long-form census... well, nobody.

Just like global warming. Can't prove it conclusively, therefore do nothing.

How's that working out for you?

Collecting proper census data isn't an "issue," the way health care or unemployment insurance or the deficit are issues. Opinions can vary on those, based on the facts available and one's interpretation of those facts. The census is a meta-issue. It is an issue that determines whether we can make informed decisions about other issues.

Write your MP about this.

And get off the goddamn couch and vote during the next election.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

All I want for Census is my two cent's worth...

How you mark time says something about what kind of person you are. If you're a political junkie, election years make a big dent in your consciousness. If you're a sports nut, maybe you remember events as being in the same year as the Olympics. These regular events can be the metronome of your life, ticking by multi-year intervals on a frequency to which only you, and those who share your obsessions, are attuned.

For me, census years are a big deal. As a professional planner and amateur spreadsheet nerd, the collection of detailed statistical data every five years is eagerly awaited. Unfortunately, in the case of the Canadian Census, the processing and error-checking takes awhile, and fine-grained data is only published several years after being collected. I remember the angst of doing my thesis in late 2003, knowing that the statistical data I was using was from the 1996 census, knowing that the 2001 data would become available literally the same week my thesis was due. My research would be based on data at the very end of its shelf life, obsolete the moment it was completed.

In any case, when the census does come around, it produces a fresh(er) data set from the last one. Our picture of the country moves forward five years. It's like time-lapse photography. Look at three or four censuses (censi?) and a story starts to emerge.

Some of these stories need to be told. When I looked at rental costs in Ottawa, digging up this info from as far back as 1951, I was shocked. Rent, even adjusted for inflation, was a small fraction of what it is now. ("Now", at the time, being 1996--even before the massive gentrification and housing bubble of the early 21st century!) Shocking, yes, but not surprising. It confirmed yet another suspicion harboured by most people my age and younger, which is that when it comes to basic necessities, the last generation had things easy.

(I wish I had better pictures than this, but the graphics above--pulled from my Word copy of my 2002 GIS project--is a thematic map of rents in the Lowertown district of Ottawa. The numbers, and thus the colours based on them, are indexed to 1996 dollars. Darker colours represent higher values--a lot higher.)

All census nerds have their favourite sections. For me, it's the travel-to-work data--seeing how many people drive to work, ride as passengers, take transit, walk or bike. This kind of data, especially at the DA level of geography--the smallest unit published, generally a few city blocks--is invaluable in proving a key point in city planning: namely, you don't need to build everything with giant parking lots because in a lot of areas, many people don't drive. (Rents being what they are, who can afford a car?)

Conversely, some really interesting and useful questions are not asked on the census. Now, I know there are limits to how long the questionnaire can be. Every field is going to have its wish list and if everyone got their way, the questionnaire would be a hundred pages long. That said, though, there is an extraordinary amount of space in the published census devoted to questions of... well, questionable relevance or practical value. For instance, of the eight or so CSV files that make up the published census, one is devoted almost entirely to languages spoken in the home. I'm not talking about just English or French, or even the major languages of the world. There is row after row after row telling us how many people speak Aleutian or Hakka.

Now look--I'm all for multiculturalism, and I don't think people should be excluded or overlooked because they don't look or talk like me. But honestly--what possible policy direction could come from knowing how many people in a district speak Hakka, especially since numbers are rounded off to the nearest five and therefore, in the vast majority of DA's, round off to zero?

It seems to me that if there's room on the census for questions like this, they can fit in a few from my wish list. Here it is:

1. How many automobiles are owned/leased by your household? This is a key data point that would let me work some magic. I've lost track of the number of times I've heard planning commissioners or developers refuse to consider development--even right downtown, in walkable areas next to high-level transit service--without suburban levels of parking. Asking the question "how many cars" will throw into stark relief the difference between suburbia and the city--and therefore the amount of space we need to be devoting to our cars.

2. How much does your household spend on transportation per month? Cars, for most people, are their second-biggest household cost, amounting (last time I looked ) to something like $7000-$8000 a year on average for one car. We routinely ask how much people pay in major housing payments or rent. One of the things I always hear about the suburbs is that it's cheaper to live there. That may be true if you're comparing the cost of a single-family house in Orleans versus one in Westboro. But when you compare the transportation options in the burbs versus the city, and count the total [housing + transportation] costs, I suspect the difference evaporates pretty quickly. When you consider that owning a car costs $500-$700 a month, suddenly saving $300 on housing payments by living far out instead of downtown doesn't look like such a good deal. By pretending that transportation is not an inherent cost of living where you live, we disguise a relationship that must be understood if we are to make intelligent decisions about how we live.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

New rule.

Okay, new rule:

Anyone who wants to criticize how Barack Obama is handling the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico must first write a 1000-word essay on what President John McCain would have done differently.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Donkey Kong economy

Since my return from Denmark in February I have enjoyed the dubious pleasure of the modern job-hunting process. It's over now; in two weeks I'll be going to work as a municipal planner for the downtown core. It's exactly the kind of thing I got into planning to do and I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm keenly aware of how fortunate I've been and how easily it's gone; three months, thirty CV's, seven interviews, and at least two offers (one has yet to get back to me.)

Considering there's a Great Depression on, not too shabby.

Nonetheless, it was a miserable, hateful experience that I would not wish on my worst enemy. I have been told that people who survived the first Great Depression were forever scarred by the experience and I believe it. Being out of work for even a couple of months makes you question every decision you've ever made. Granted, I'm generally an anxious person but I also had some savings in the bank, no debts, cheap rent, no kids and minimal overhead. I had it easy and still it was tough.

The worst aspect of job-hunting, at least in the modern economy, is the completely one-sided flow of information. You find a posting, tailor your resume and write a punchy cover letter, make your application and then you wait. If you're lucky, there's some kind of signal that your application has in fact been received. Often, however, there is no such signal. Silence, emptiness, a black abyss with the occasional tumbleweed.

To the extent that anyone even wants a resume anymore, they usually want you to apply electronically--i.e. to send your CV by email. This raises a whole host of interesting compatibility issues. I'm running Mac OS X, which means that the version of Microsoft Word to which I have access is a buggy, crashy mess that can only be relied upon to screw up your formatting. Send someone a CV to be opened on Windows and God knows what it will look like. Alternately, you can print to a PDF but again, the results there are uneven. If formatting matters, the process of applying electronically offers no guarantee that even your best efforts will count for anything.

That's if you get to send a CV at all. I found that a lot of places I applied now use online application forms. First and foremost, they make everything you've ever learned about writing an eye-catching resume almost completely irrelevant. On these forms it's about shoehorning as many keywords into the text field as you can, because the initial short list will be created by a computer program that looks for resumes that seem to be most congruent with the job description. (Perversely enough, we're back to where we were in high school, where the jobs you'd apply for were in the form of... well, a form. We learned to write CV's because "real" jobs require it. Now it turns out that even senior management positions want you to fill in the blanks, like they were applying to run the shake machine at McDonald's...)

That's assuming the application even gets received. Half of the online forms I used were glitchy. If I backed up a screen to change something and then tried to go forward, I found that all my information had been erased. If I tried to start again, the software informed me that I had already applied for that position. The problem wasn't that my information would vanish--that was annoying, but I could deal with it. The problem was that I didn't know where it went. Did the information I just lost end up in the file before it was erased, or did I just submit an application with a big blank field where my work history is supposed to go? Often there is no way of knowing, no way of finding out.

I thought of the old video game Donkey Kong, wherein a working-class schmuck has to run an obstacle course while trying to outsmart a computer-simulated ape. If he gets to the end of the course, his reward is to be kicked to a new obstacle course where he has to beat a slightly faster version of the ape. This continues indefinitely, until Mario is killed one too many times or the player runs out of quarters. But Mario never reaches his goal; the game is not programmed for that eventuality.

I realize that the human resources field is fraught with its own challenges. The various online applications, electronic submission processes, text scanning and even the deafening radio silence are all deemed necessary to manage the flood of applications for various positions--especially now. HR people are as overworked as anybody.

But I really question whether the technology is helping or hindering the process. The more hoops you make people jump through, the more you are selecting people on the basis of their ability to jump through hoops. Like an IQ test, job applications test an ability that is sort of related but not the same as the thing you really want to know, namely, can this person do the job? Just because someone can get the high score on Donkey Kong, does that mean they're qualified to take care of apes at the zoo? It seems to me that these are two very different skill sets!

By extension, I wonder what happens when most of the key responsibilities in a civilization are held by people whose essential skill is successfully applying for jobs. We have some serious problems to deal with. I worry that the best people might not be in a position to deal with them because they've put too much effort into e.g. learning how to adapt to climate change, and not enough into the art of evading the flaming barrels of the HR department.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

And now for something completely nerdy.

I'm almost embarrassed to have written this, to say nothing of posting it. But it's something that's nagged at me for a long time now.

If you're like me, you grew up loving the Star Wars trilogy. Whether these were brilliant movies or merely clever bits of candy that came along at just the right time for people of a certain age, is beside the point. Certainly they've had more sheer sticking power in most of our minds than, say, Gremlins or The Last Starfighter. Having to wait for three years to find out what happens to Han Solo, and speculating as to whether Darth Vader was really Luke's father and who was "the other one" that Yoda mentioned, were defining elements of my later childhood.

For better or worse, Star Wars was really important to a lot of people, myself included. Which is why it was such a bitter disappointment when the long-awaited second trilogy opened in 1999 with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

I can't describe how utterly awful it was, or the sinking feeling I got as I sat through it, waiting for it to stop sucking, and realizing ten minutes from the end that it wasn't gonna happen. And--and let's get this out of the way--it wasn't just because I was an adult and seeing it through adult eyes. I've heard that before and it's a cop-out. The second trilogy in general, and The Phantom Menace in particular, is completely incoherent and unsatisfying from a story standpoint. Coming from someone who is so often trumpeted as a master of Campbellian mythic structure, it's baffling and inexcusable. It's all the more frustrating when you consider that Mr. Lucas had a filmmaker's dream setup to work with: complete creative control, bankrolling it out of his own pocket, no studio suits interfering and telling him to change stuff, a compelling and established backstory, and the dead certainty that no matter what he came up with, hundreds of millions of people would go and see it.

If the original Star Wars trilogy is characterized by childlike wonder and endless possibilities, then the second surely represents the bitter disappointment of adulthood. Take the long arc that goes from knowing in your bones that you will grow up to be Batman, to realizing you're a balding and divorced desk jockey and your best years are behind you. Compress it into two hours and that was The Phantom Menace.

Look, I don't want to wallow here. The point is this: The fact that the prequel trilogy was so badly executed kind of ruined the whole franchise for me. It used to be, I could watch the first Star Wars film--yes, even as an adult!--and hear Ben Kenobi tell the story of how Darth Vader turned evil and killed Luke's father, and feel like I was having a tantalizing glimpse into a story that had yet to be told, in an immersive universe of wonder and mystery and endless stories. Now I watch that scene and all I can think of is the utter narrative trainwreck, complete with cringeworthy dialogue, zero-dimensional characters and flat-footed pseudoscience, that is the Phantom Menace. A tale of sound, fury and CGI, signifying nothing.

So I wrote this to calm my own mind, and so I could imagine that there's a coherent backstory behind the films that I loved as a kid and still do. George Lucas couldn't tell that story so I did. If you feel like me, you might enjoy this.

This treatment/story edit of The Phantom Menace
is intended to stick to the original story and characters, as much as possible, while making characters and motivations and events and storylines make sense. If you're an aspiring screenwriter yourself (and if you are, God help you) this might be a useful reference for how to go over a wretched, sinking mess of a tangled storyline and turning it into something that makes some kind of sense.

Patton Oswalt said, on this general subject, "I don't care where the things I love come from--I just love the things I love." To which I would add, when someone else stomps all over them, I feel perfectly justified in taking them back and fixing them.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Goldman Sachs

I am far from being an investment banking expert, and so the ins and outs of the SEC charges against Goldman Sachs are perhaps better dealt with by other bloggers. But there are a few points I could make.

Firstly, the timing of all this this reinforces my sense that the Obama administration knows what it's doing. It's not the administration that's suing GS, but they've got a banking reform bill about to go through Congress and Obama has underlined the need to regulate derivatives trading, going so far as to say he'll veto any bill that doesn't include it. For the past year a lot of people have been complaining that the government isn't moving fast enough to get to the bottom of all kinds of iffy transactions with GS at the center. That inaction, combined with the presence of a lot of GS alumni in high places in the administration, contribute to the notion that the government is in bed with the banksters who crashed the economy.

Obama knows he can't fight a two-front war. The first year, he concentrated on health care reform and as soon as that's nailed down, the government moved against shenanigans in the financial industry. You can take on the health insurance industry or Wall Street, but try to do both at once and you'll get pulverized. I don't know if the SEC and the administration have coordinated the timing of their respective moves but it works out well this way.

Going into the midterm elections, the moves against Goldman Sachs will help to defuse the populist anger that Republicans have tended to mobilize in their favour. It's hard to criticize the current government as being in bed with big business when (a) it was your party that had near-total control of all three branches of government for most of the past eight years while the crisis was brewing and, in particular, failed to take serious action in the wake of Enron and Worldcom, and (b) your party is now obstructing the administration's attempt to crack down on securities fraud. There is some nonsense even Limbaugh listeners won't fall for.

That's the first thing. The second thing is that this initial move is a civil suit, not a criminal prosecution. Some may see that as a half-assed compromise, i.e. if successful, GS will get a slap on the wrist and no one will do any jail time. But as I understand it, criminal charges are much harder to prove than civil damages. The real effect of a civil suit is to get some relatively senior people on the stand and make them answer questions under oath--where, if they lie, they'd be subject to serious criminal charges on that basis alone.

So I think the civil suit is just a prelude to criminal charges down the road.

Which brings me to my third point. In the Yahoo News article on the GS charges, the following line jumps out at me:

"'The fact that the only individual charged here [Fabrice Tourre, creator of the allegedly fraudulent securities], after what was presumably a very thorough investigation, was a vice president rather than a managing director or higher, is relatively reassuring news for Goldman,' said Bank of America-Merrill Lynch research analyst Guy Moszkowski."

Thing is, whenever you move against some big organization, it's pretty standard to first aim at someone just below the guys at the top. That way you get someone who is in a position to give evidence on the real bad guys' involvement, in exchange for some degree of clemency or immunity. If I were Fabrice Tourre, and assuming the charges are ultimately proven, I would consider myself very lucky: it's the guy who gets targeted in the initial crackdown who has the most opportunity to cut a deal for himself by rolling over on his bosses. Unlike the actual Mafia, there is no omerta on Wall Street.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Energy Intensity of Urban and Intercity Passenger Modes

Here are some more charts showing the energy intensity of various travel modes. The data comes from

Gagnon, Luc. Comparaison des options énergétiques: Options de transport. Hydro-Quebec. 2008.

I built these charts using the data in Gagnon's paper. (Actually, he had some charts in there as well; they were really good and look a lot like these. But they were in French, plus they were in PDF format, which often gives weird results when you swipe an image for, say, a PowerPoint presentation for a class you're teaching.)

If you want to make a point on energy and transport options to an English-speaking audience, feel free to use mine.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Obama and health care

As I write this, Barack Obama is scheduled to sign the new U.S. health care reform bill into law. As a Canadian with free access to high-quality, single-payer public health care, this makes me really happy. The barbarism of the system that is about to be replaced makes my head spin. ANYTHING would be better than what they have now.

But a lot of people, especially on the progressive/left end of things, are unhappy with the bill because it leaves out a lot of things they felt were important. I confess I agree, up to a point.

However, I would (grudgingly) suggest that the fact that the bill passed by such a narrow margin means it included exactly as much compromise as it needed and no more. In other words, whatever's in this bill is the absolute best thing that could have passed.

A lot of other people, especially in the mainstream media, are punditting around about how the cost of the bill (in money and in political capital) mean Obama won't be able to get much else done.

Let's leave aside the laughable notion that somehow his insistence on going ahead despite Republican opposition lowers his chances in the future of brokering bipartisan compromise (laughable because you can't go lower than zero.) What's striking, to me, is how time and again people have predicted Obama's failure at this and that, and how those predictions--once they were proven absurdly unfounded--were completely forgotten.

In early 2008 he was either not black enough or too black to win the nomination, depending on who you asked.

In late 2008 the Obama-Clinton primary fight had caused irreparable damage to the Democratic Party.

Now turning health care from something that was utterly intolerable into something that merely disappoints is going to be his political swan song.

We shall see.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Future shock in Rotterdam

Swans with porn shop.

Just cleaning out my camera after several weeks in Europe. I didn't think this one turned out and in a way it didn't, but in a more interesting way, it did.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

I just noticed...

that the remote control for my DVD player has an "eject" button on it.

So I can eject the disc without getting up from couch.

Then what?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Pirate Shmirate Redux

I saw the movie Pirate Radio today, which is the European-release title of The Boat That Rocked. I posted a few months ago on what it appeared to be, based on the trailers. The comment on the film trailer was really just a jumping-off point for a rant about the ease with which myths of rebellion (especially the confluence of social/cultural/historic/demographic conditions known as "The Sixties") are used to flatter ourselves that partying is the same as pursuing social justice.

As it happens, the movie (I mean the movie itself as a story and as entertainment, never mind what it brings to mind about the real world) is... not bad. It's not great, it might not even be good, but it's not awful either.

I do have my beefs with it, chiefly the portrayal of the British government minister assigned to shut down the offshore rock 'n' roll station. This guy starts out as a stock stick-up-the-keister Face Of Authority right out of a Twisted Sister video or Police Academy XII, and becomes a figure of such cartoonish callousness and evil it sort of demolishes his credibility as a person and therefore as a villain. (It doesn't help that his chief hatchet man is actually named Twat.)

In his last act as Villain, he actually orders his underling NOT to send boats to rescue the crew of the sinking radio station/ship, perfectly willing to condemn them to freezing death in the North Sea. I'm not a maritime lawyer but I'm pretty sure this would be among the most serious breaches of international law, not to mention basic human decency, on the books. This kind of abrupt levelling-up from Officious Prig to Indirectly Murderous Motherf**ker is a really clumsy breach of tone for what is supposed to be a comedy.

But one saving grace--and the reason I'm bothering to post on it at all--is one knife-in-the-heart scene by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's a scene that is so poignant and insightful and full of truth that it makes all the rest of the nonsense worth sitting through.

Hoffman, the rock 'n' roll pirate hero at the top of his game, sits on the deck and confesses the thought that has been tormenting him for months, which is: These are the best days of our lives. Everything that comes after will be a letdown.

Maybe, he concedes, the kid will get lucky and even better things are in his future. (The line is delivered with a particular blend of weariness, hope and mendacity. In an age when there are so few true markers indicating that we have moved from one stage of life to another, maybe this is one of them: The first time you have to tell a half-truth to someone younger, in order to temporarily shield their hopes from the crushing that yours have already endured.)

But, there it is: This is as good as it gets. From now on, every day will be better than the next. We fear it is true and hope it is not, but there comes a time when there's just too much evidence to deny. Personally I'm not there yet, but I know that moment is out there.

In the end, this is what storytelling is for: it reminds us that in all the awful things we fear and will have to face someday, including our own personal extinction, we are not alone. That a fictional character has spoken our fears means that a real person shares them.

It's not much but in the cold black waters of the North Sea, you'll gladly cling to anything.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Four states of control and chaos.

Just a thought: Consider that you can classify a situation in one of four ways:

1) Under your control;
2) Under control, not necessarily yours;
3) Out of control;
4) Beyond control.

(The last two courtesy of the film "Ever Since The World Ended.")

What does this mean for how you think about events?

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Friday, January 15, 2010

Planner humour.

Here's a graphic I did for a presentation in 2004 on NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opposition to development proposals. Any planners out there, I feel your pain.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

At Ground Zero of modern history

Well, I'm back. Apologies for the lack of posting but I have been pointedly avoiding computers for the past few weeks as I travel around central Europe.

At one point my travels took me to Berlin, over a bitterly (and, I am told, unusually) cold couple of days. There are plenty of things I could say about the place. The short answer is that I highly recommend it (and the Aloha Hostel on Torstrasse where I stayed.) It's particularly appealing if, like me, you lived in Montreal in the early 1990's and pine for those days when a huge metropolis, still staggering from the forces of history, had ample nooks and crannies and spaces for broke and eccentric people to do cheap and fascinating things. It is changing, alas, as all such places do, but for now Berlin is still a great place to be young and interesting.

The weather being as I said absurdly cold during my visit, I was drawn more than usual to museums and other outposts of the great indoors. I must confess that I like the idea of museums more than I enjoy museums themselves. I am always disappointed to go somewhere full of relics and artifacts of the past and find that the past does not come alive, that I cannot feel the Middle Ages or the revolutions of 1848, that this is just a collection of stuff. It is the feeling I imagine I would have if I were to open up an old high school yearbook, seeking comfort and connection in the past, and finding that I do not remember any of these people. It's a letdown.

One museum that did not disappoint, however, was the Story Of Berlin museum on Kurfurstendamm in the old West Berlin. This is a very well designed multimedia experience (I mean multimedia in the true sense, i.e. sound and film and light and text as appropriate to convey information and understanding, not in the more usual sense of "the latest computerized doodad designed to impress you with its deterministic program disguised as interactivity.")

For instance, while most of the museum is located on the upper floor and arranged in more-or-less chronological order, there comes a point where you make the descent into the Nazi years. (You can't have a Berlin museum or decent Indiana Jones movie without Nazis.)

To get to this section of the museum, you literally descend three flights of stairs. At each landing is a collection of black-and-white photos of famous Germans of the era. At the top landing, all the frames have pictures in them. The next landing down, some of the frames are missing photos, replaced with words like "emigrated." The next flight down, more missing pictures, and words like "murdered," "suicide," "preventative detention." Meanwhile, from below, the hellish lights of burning books and recordings of chanting crowds. The air gets colder. It is literally and figuratively chilling.

What's even scarier is the tour of the bunker under the museum. (Fittingly, even lower than the Nazi exhibit.) This is a Cold War-era bunker designed to house about 1300 people in the event of a nuclear attack. All steel and concrete and blue light, like a vintage James Cameron movie. The guide, with the black ironic humour that seems to be standard issue in the old Eastern Bloc, pointed out that all the bunkers in Berlin could house about one percent of the population. As he detailed the conditions under which the bunker would be expected to operate, it became clear that these things would never work. Over a thousand people, eighteen-inch-wide aisles between bunks, three toilets and probably a lot of people with radiation poisoning. Next to no ventilation (and even those shafts would be likely as not to be clogged from the destruction up above, on the surface.) These were nothing but a public-relations exercise--something to keep the public from objecting too strongly to an insane arms race in which there could be no victory, just varying degrees of defeat. The German slogan, equivalent to our "Duck And Cover," translated as "Everyone Has A Chance."
As a planner, I wonder what it must have been like to be one of the guys designing these things. Did they know it would never work? Did they consciously block out that knowledge and just do their jobs? What an awful way to make a living--confronted every day with the total destruction of the world and knowing that even your best efforts will make no difference.

When I was a kid, I took it for granted that I would not live into my thirties; the destruction of the world seemed imminent and inevitable. The threat of nuclear annihilation isn't gone. We now have arguably even more serious problems on our hands. For all its terror, nuclear annihilation required that a handful of people decide to do something incredibly stupid. Now, avoiding a different disaster requires that everyone decide to get real smart, real fast. It's enough to make you feel like a kid again.

But here we are, surprisingly enough. Despite my generally anxious and pessimistic nature, I need to remind myself from time to time that sometimes disasters are averted. Then again, a lot of those blank picture frames on the way down to the Third Reich exhibit probably told themselves the same thing.