Donation and Action Pledge

Given the current global state of extreme poverty and humanitarian disaster, as well as the unfolding assault on basic human rights in the United States and the resulting threat to world peace and stability, I pledge to donate a percentage of my time and money to causes which I think address these problems effectively.

My current commitment stands as follows:

Money

I pledge to donate at least 2.5% of my pre-tax income to worthy causes.

At the moment, my donations are spread through the following causes and charities, all via monthly payments:

Extreme Poverty and Humanitarian Disasters

The bulk of my donations goes to charities recommended by GiveWell, and mostly to the Against Malaria Foundation,
the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and Give Directly. I’ve set up these donations in Canada through Charity Science.

I have also set up recurring payments to Seva, which fights preventable blindness, and to Doctors Without Borders, which can be found in the midst of the worst crises in the world, bravely providing essential medical care.

Human Rights and Advocacy

I donate to Amnesty International and to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Additionally, as a response to the shockingly inhumane actions of the new American administration, I am now a monthly donor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and, after consultation with people more knowledgeable than me, of the Casa del Migrante, which provides hospitality to migrants, refugees, and deported individuals in Mexico and Central America.

(UPDATE: I have now also added the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the list of organizations to which I donate monthly. As a Mexican-Canadian, I feel it is a bit strange to donate more to American organizations than to either Mexican or Canadian ones, but things in the United States truly look dire in comparison these days.)

Environmental and Other Interests

I am a donor of Mercy for Animals, an organization fighting to prevent cruelty to farmed animals, of the Lifecycles Project, which fosters community health, urban farming, and food security in Victoria, and of the Green Party of Canada, which through Elizabeth May has often been the first or only voice of reason on many issues in our Parliament.

Time

I pledge to commit an average of at least two hours per week to non-violent action towards the causes above.

This at the moment involves protesting, researching, writing materials to advocate for these causes and for effective means of action, and contacting Members of Parliament. I expect the specific actions in which I’ll invest my time will fluctuate depending on events.

Time spent yelling on my pillow on Twitter or Facebook does not count.


 

I am fully aware that 2.5% of my income and two hours per week is a small commitment.

If you are doing or giving more than this, I commend you for it, and I admire you. I intend to do more, as personal circumstances allow, and will update my pledge if I do so.

If you are doing or giving less than this, or not at all, I invite you to consider if you can increase your commitments. Your time and money are more powerful to effect change than you may think.

Finally, I make my pledge public not to brag (it is actually somewhat uncomfortable to do so), but with the knowledge that giving is contagious and in the hope that learning of it will help tip your scale in favour of committing as well, if this is something you had been considering but were not sure of doing before.

If you do decide to donate time, money, or both, I invite you to make your commitments public, small or large as they may be, to help your friends and contacts know of your actions and to encourage them to go on the same path. We can do something about these issues. We have power. We should use it.

Recommendations from 2016

It’s hard for me to match the unfolding disaster that 2016 turned out to be, politically and environmentally, with the intense but beautiful ride it has been at home, trying to raise a child and a baby and somehow remain sane and on top of things. However, despite the sleepless nights and play dates and overall running-around, there was time for books, movies, and podcasts. Here are some of the things I loved this year:

The best book I read in 2016 has to be Eliot’s “Middlemarch”. It is wise and funny, relevant despite its age, and intimate. Like with other great books, I simultaneously wish I had found it much earlier, to profit from it when I was younger, and that I had not found it yet, so that the discovery still laid ahead. It’s not short, but I will most likely read it again.

Among the easier and lighter reads, my favourite was “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn”, from the Strugatsky brothers. It’s a strange mash of science fiction and mystery, with a bit of the weirdness that I loved last year in “Annihilation”. Carey’s “The Girl with All the Gifts” is not a great book—many characters are cardboard cut-outs, and you could trim about a hundred pages in the middle and end with a better story—but it’s got an excellent premise and a very good ending, and all in all I was very glad to read it.

Regarding non-fiction, Sharp’s trilogy on “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” is precise, careful, practical, and astoundingly useful. If I could convince everyone to read a single book as soon as possible, it would be the first volume, and especially the first half of it, on the sources of power and how to fight them without violence. We will need to internalize this very soon. Also on non-fiction, and mentioned recently already, Singer’s “The Life You Can Save” presents a compelling utilitarian argument for donating to fight extreme poverty and, quite literally, save lives, restore sight, and reduce suffering in the world. He made me realize you and I have far more power to do these things than I imagined.

I have been reading lots of children’s books, predictably. My kid and I both loved Hatke’s “Zita the Spacegirl” series: good story, nice art, kickass heroine. We also both liked Roald Dahl’s prose quite a bit, and probably read “Fantastic Mr Fox” in full a dozen times.

A subdued movie that I nevertheless really enjoyed was Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year”. I loved his earlier “Margin Call” as well; both movies are intelligent, well acted, and unconventional. The remake of “Ghostbusters” was everything I could hope for, and I’m happy they chose such a talented cast. Finally, “Arrival” was an emotionally satisfying sci-fi film, which is something quite rare.

I’ve been running a lot, and I like listening to podcasts while I run. The one I like the most is Mike Duncan’s “Revolutions”: his ongoing project is to go through key revolutions in modern history and to narrate them entertainingly but without dumbing them down. So far he’s gone through the English, American, French, Haitian, and Bolivarian revolutions, and the whole series is excellent. Last year I recommended his “History of Rome”, which I binged on obsessively; I might go back and listen to it all over again next year. I also enjoyed “Good Job, Brain” quite a bit: a very entertaining trivia podcast that makes long runs much lighter. Speaking of running, this year I discovered CityStrides, a one-person labour-of-love website that pulls your run data and tells you what percentage of a city you’ve run, and which streets you still need to get to. It has prodded me to explore lots more of Victoria, and to find interesting areas, houses, gardens, parks, and shortcuts previously hidden all around me.

Finally, I mentioned these in my previous post, but I should repeat them in case you missed them: three resources that helped me enormously with my finances were the Mr Money Mustache blog, Bogle’s “Little Book of Common Sense Investing”, and Swensen’s “Unconventional Success”. The first two are easy reads, the last one less so, though it’s quite informative. They were all incredibly valuable to me.

I feel like I’m bracing for 2017, with a sense of dread and angst, and unsure on whether next December there will be room for lightness to recommend trivia podcasts or children’s books. And yet we must still try to make the new year a happy one. May we succeed!

Resources on frugality

I was certainly far from frugal during the past several years of my life, but that changed early in 2016: thriftiness became one of my values. In the interest of helping others down this path, here is an assortment of resources I pored over last year and that I wish had been collected in a single place when I got started.

Stop Digging

The first thing to realize is that, unless you’re paying some mind to these issues, you may be unwittingly digging yourself into a hole. The following would be useful:

  • The concept of Lifestyle Inflation. If you didn’t know it existed and haven’t been actively fighting it you probably suffer from it.
  • The New Yorker profile of Pete Adeney, Mr. Money Mustache. I understand he did not like this profile very much (it was too focused on his eccentricities), but for me it was the right thing at the right time. If it clicks for you too, you’ll want to read…
  • The hundreds of posts at the Mr. Money Mustache blog. From Zero to Hero is a good one to get started, as it gives links to a bunch of other key posts. Your Debt is an Emergency is also great. You may not like his style, but I adored it: it was the kind of tough love I needed to prod myself into action, to shame myself out of dumb decisions, and to realize that caring about money is not necessarily a self-centered or egotistical pursuit, but can be a tool to reduce consumerism and to find contentment in simple pleasures.

Miscellaneous Tips to Change Habits

Some frugal changes are obvious, some not so much. The blog above goes in detail into a lot of them; here are a few specific things that helped me along the way:

  • A simple tool to estimate the true cost of things: cutting a weekly expense of x dollars results in savings of 800x after ten years if that money is invested instead. Similarly, cutting a monthly expense of x dollars results in savings of 200x after ten years. So if you stop eating out for lunch at work (~$50 week) you’ll have $40,000 more in your account after ten years, approximately, and cutting your monthly cellphone bill from $80 to $20 (which, yes, can be done in Canada, see below) will increase the value of your savings account by about $12,000. Changing a few of these recurring costs is the difference between barely breaking even and saving enough for retirement. (Edit: but note Neil’s comment below and my response to it).
  • Buying secondhand through VarageSale: I used to eschew Craigslist because of a couple of bad experiences, but VarageSale has a good community and for some types of products (such as baby stuff) it’s fantastic. I haven’t bought pretty much anything new for our baby, yet pretty much everything he has is still as good as new—and will be resold when he no longer needs it.
  • The Public Library has amazing resources that I tended to overlook, or simply did not know existed: you can get free audiobook rentals with Hoopla, free digital magazine issues, free desks and wifi if you want to work away from home and the office. And of course free books. This is the case in Victoria and quite likely in your city too.
  • In general, to change habits, Duhigg’s The Power Of Habit is a good read, especially the first section on individual habits.
  • The cheapest way I’ve found to have cellphone service in Canada that doesn’t involve burners from the 7-Eleven is to get a tablet data plan from your provider and do calls and texts through a VoIP service such as Fongo. Jamie Starke gets into some details on how to do this. Depending on your data usage this setup can be as cheap as about $10 per month. It is, however, admittedly clunky. If you want pretty much seamless but cheap mobile service, Public Mobile has very good prices: a decent plan costs about $40 per month.

Investing

If you’re following along and you’ve settled any debts you had, you’ll start to accumulate some surplus. How should you invest it? This was an intimidating topic for me: when I got started I barely knew what stocks and bonds were—and I knew the field is full of people waiting to profit from my ignorance. The following helped me quite a bit:

  • The book route: I strongly recommend Bogle’s “Little Book of Common Sense Investing”, followed by Swensen’s “Unconventional Success”. They are clear and honest, and after reading them you’ll have the basics to invest on your own, as well as a healthy dislike for your bank’s financial advisors.
  • The blog posts route: There are many blogs with similar kinds of investing advice (that is, espousing the passive investing approach); some of the best ones are JL Collins (specifically his stocks series) and the Canadian Couch Potato.
  • This is covered in the above, but you need to understand index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). In general, Investopedia has decent summaries on many investing topics.
  • In Canada, it turns out RRSPs and TFSAs (edit: and RESPs) are actually quite important, and it pays a lot to familiarize yourself with them.
  • Also in Canada, we are not yet lucky enough to have extremely low-cost index funds. However, we do have extremely low-cost ETFs from Vanguard (and others). The downside is you need to perform your own trades, which is scary the first couple of times. I recommend Questrade as a platform to manage your accounts. It is practically free for passive investing using ETFs, it works well, and you can go through the experience with a free trial with pretend money.

Altruism

After you started saving enough money and you see financial independence in the path ahead, you should consider what else to do with the extra money. You could save it as well of course, but it definitely could be better used elsewhere: there are millions of people in dire need today, and straightforward mechanisms in place for you to help them with donations. The following resources helped me understand this issue, and where to donate:

  • Singer’s “The Life You Can Save” was an eye-opening book. It is humane and intelligent, and it lays out the case for effective altruism clearly. You can also check out some of his talks on the topic, and the website that spun off of his book.
  • GiveWell is a great organization that evaluates charities in depth to figure out where your donations are most likely to do best, focusing on alleviating extreme poverty and its consequences. They are extremely transparent, thorough, and analytical. On a smaller scale, Animal Charity Evaluators performs the same work on organizations fighting for animal rights.
  • If you want your donations to be tax-deductible in Canada and you want to donate to charities endorsed by GiveWell, then your best alternative is to donate to Charity Science and ask them to pass on your money to the charities of your choice.

I’m still very far from being a frugal saint, and though I know I could be doing a much better job at it, as I look back over the past year I am still impressed at how efficient I’ve become in this sense, comparatively, and at how at peace and free this all makes me feel. I need less than I thought, and not only do I not miss any luxuries, but I’m glad I do not depend on them to be happy anymore. I hope these resources are useful to you too.

Recommendations from 2015

Well! 2015, the hottest year yet in recorded history is wrapping up, and it’s time for one more installment of my “things you might like because I did” series.

The most impressive, necessary, beautifully written, and haunting book I read this year was Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl”. Really, it doesn’t actually feel like homework, but I came out of it thinking that every technologist and every advocate of nuclear power has the moral duty to read it, and if I can convince you of doing so through a flippant analogy, I’ll do it: this book is like “World War Z” for a catastrophe that actually occurred, and that will occur again. As Alexievich says: “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”

Zambra’s “Formas de Volver a Casa” is a simple account of growing up under a dictatorship, but under this simplicity there is a struggle to come to terms with the authoritarianism lurking in everyday society. I found it relevant for our political moment, as I did two of the plays in Camus’s “Caligula and 3 other plays”: the titular play, and “The Just Assassins”.

I really enjoyed Perec’s experimental “The Art of Asking your Boss for a Raise”, which is the most fun you will ever experience executing a flowchart. Also, I believe I’ve recommended everything that Patrick DeWitt has ever written, and he has a new novel out, “Undermajordomo Minor”, that is also a delicious read.

Richardson’s “Vectors” has some excellent aphorisms; McDougall’s “Born to Run” did more to change my life than most of the books I read this year (more about that in a later post), and Harvey’s “Dear Thief” is contained, melancholic, and heartfelt.

Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things” has a great premise (space explorers send a Christian missionary to evangelize an alien race) and develops it brilliantly and with empathy—don’t let the apparent religious tones deter you. On a darker direction, Vandermeer’s “Annihilation” revisits Lovecraft and makes it better: a very weird but enjoyable nightmare. However, if I were you I would avoid the two latter installments of his trilogy.

As for movies, “What We Do in the Shadows” is comedy very well done, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is apocalyptic action very well done, and “The Big Short” is a semi-documentary (?) very well done. Of course, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is simply very well done; I am glad Wes Anderson exists and does these precious films. On TV, the one series I watched that you may have missed is “Halt and Catch Fire”—give it at least a couple of episodes though.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. The one that I binge-listened the most was Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome”—like hearing a very knowledgeable, very patient, rather funny and dorky friend go on and on about one of the best real stories we’ve got. “The Truth”, in turn, is a collection of radio dramas, and it’s all about the production: great voice acting, great effects, lots of genre and narrative variety. Finally, “Criminal” has well researched and surprising short stories revolving around crime as its focal point.

Four good boardgames with very different mechanics: first, “Tajemnicze Domostwo”, also named “Mysterium” in the American edition, is just excellent. A cooperative mix of Dixit and Clue, and a great exploration of the difficulty of communication—more than just a boardgame, I would say, but great as a boardgame too. Get the original version, as they unforgivably screwed up the art in the American one. “Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space” is simple and tense; like the sci-fi horror “Alien” made into a game. “Skull” is a short and sweet bluffing game, and though the edition I linked to has beautiful art, you can play it with coasters on a pinch. Finally, “Spyfall” is wonderful as a party game: one person is the spy and tries to remain undercover; everyone else is out to get them. Like “Werewolf” but shorter, sillier, and without player elimination.

Computer games: three I liked were “80 Days”, an upscale interactive fiction production; “Don’t Starve”, a survivalist game that doesn’t take itself too seriously except in its production values; and “Subterfuge”, which you could see as a better “Diplomacy”, or as the slowest real-time strategy game out there: launch an attack on an enemy and it will arrive in perhaps 24 hours, which gives you and the defendant plenty of time to recruit allies and escalate, or maybe iron differences out and turn the attack into a gift instead. A warning that despite there being a very prominent Code of Conduct on that game forbidding jerks, jerks can rather easily be found.

If you are in Victoria, you should check out the kite festival when it comes again; it is meditatively beautiful. Year-round, the coffee roasted by the Coffee Lab (at the Second Crack coffee shop in Rock Bay) and by Bows & Arrows (available at Habit and others) is delicious. Heist, the best coffee shop in Victoria, suffered the curse of all misunderstood geniuses, and closed down, but Graham, its artful barista is now at Hey Happy, so it is not a total loss. And finally, for your sweet tooth, Empire Donuts are outstanding, as are the white chocolate brioches prepared Saturday and Sunday mornings at Fry’s Bakery, but the very best sweetness I’ve found is the selection of ice cream concoctions of Cold Comfort.

As usual, I would love to hear about what you found and liked this year, and I hope the recommendations above are useful for you. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

Voting in Canada’s 2015 Federal Election

We’re in the midst of an election in Canada, and I’ve been spending an extremely long time analyzing our alternatives in the Victoria riding. Yesterday I made my decision on how to vote. Here it is, if you’re interested.

First things first. In general, in whatever riding you live, the overriding principle on how to vote should be: deny the seat to the Conservatives. If the Conservative candidate has any chances whatsoever, vote for the strongest-polling candidate from the other parties. The damage that Harper has caused to this country that I loved from my first day here has been tremendous. He has poisoned the political discourse, pretending citizens are merely taxpayers, dismantling the civil service, fighting science and evidence-based policy, turning many of us, including many born in Canada, into second-class citizens, spying on dissidents, depending, at this time of environmental crisis, on exploitation of the dirtiest fossil fuels in the planet for economic growth (only to have that economic growth crash down the moment oil prices drop), sowing up fear, hatred, and bigotry, and embarrassing us around the world. He must go. It does not matter if you think Trudeau is not ready, it does not matter if Mulcair looks awkward, it does not matter if in debates they argue like school children, it does not matter if you don’t like some policy details from one platform or the other. Our first goal must be: deny the seat to the Conservatives.Penguin Enemy

This goal, however, does not help us in Victoria. We live in a very progressive city, where the Conservative candidate does not have a shot, and the Liberal candidate stepped down after someone dug up some controversial Facebook comments. In here, it’s a fight between the NDP’s incumbent, Murray Rankin, and the Green challenger, Jo-Ann Roberts. I’ve met both of them, chatted for a good while with Rankin, saw them debate, and had conversations with their canvassing volunteers. I’ve also poured over their party platforms, though the NDP did not make this task easy,
releasing its 81-page platform document extremely late, only two days ago, when advanced polling had already started.

What do the candidates and their parties offer?

Rankin, the incumbent, offers a great resume, to start. He has worked as an environmental lawyer, has worked for First Nations communities, and already has parliamentary experience. He’s not a backbencher, he’s performed as an Opposition critic, and on an NDP government would probably have a cabinet position. Though when I talked to him
he tended to regurgitate NDP talking points, to ramp up the chumminess, and to amplify my own indignation in a manner I thought not quite genuine, I can’t blame him for that (the campaign trail is tough), and I am happy to have him as our representative, all else being equal.

The NDP itself is a bit harder to love. For a party that is the natural choice of the Left, it is bizarre to see it running to the right of the Liberals in an effort to clinch the election. There is no hint of capital redistribution in its platform, for instance. Crucially, for Victoria, the party does not reject tar sands pipelines; it rejects merely their oil-friendly approval review process (it was painful to see Rankin in a debate with an extremely environmentally-minded crowd perform verbal contortions to stick to the NDP platform on this while still trying to tell us what we wanted to hear). I have several other minor concerns, such as the party’s support for the investor-state Canada-Korea trade treaty, its doublespeaky support for the energy sector, shutting up candidates when they dare speak about keeping oil in the ground, and its folksy “let’s roll our sleeves and get’er done” approach to vision and platform documents, which makes me feel like I’m about to get swindled by my union rep.

And yet, many of my lefty friends, whom I respect highly, swear by the NDP, and love it. The choice for them is obvious:
the NDP is the progressive choice, warts and all, and it would be foolish not to support it. To them, throughout this election, Victoria Greens are either crypto-liberals, crypto-libertarians, or merely wide-eyed party-poopers who may be denying us our very first shot at a truly progressive government.

What about the Green candidate? Roberts’s resume, on progressive issues, is certainly less impressive than Rankin’s. She worked for decades as a CBC journalist and radio show host, but other than vowing to fight CBC funding cuts, and a declared affinity for Green policy, she appeared to be, to me, a bit of a blank slate from a political perspective (she claimed that her work as a journalist demanded the projection of neutrality). In debates she seemed quite sharp, yet diplomatic, following the Green principles to the dot. In the one case that I observed where she was unsure of the official party policy (on animal rights), she offered her views on the topic, and later corroborated that they matched with the official stance.

This is important to me because of two points that, combined, are problematic. The first is the Green policy against vote whipping. On its face, it is refreshing: the NDP’s Rankin is a very competent representative, but he will have to vote the party line every time, as he has during his tenure so far, and as every single other NDP representative has in recent years, for every single vote, even when that vote goes against our wishes. But one must consider the presence of people such as Andrew Weaver, a BC Green MLA (provincial representative), by all accounts a great scientist, but a petty, confrontational, status-quo politician, refusing to adhere to his party’s stance and claiming there is room for his views under its “big tent”. I have been a member of the Green Party for years, and Weaver’s performance has forced me to consider that I may have made a mistake. The big question for me then, for this election, is whether Roberts would turn out to be another Elizabeth May or another Andrew Weaver.

And why is adherence to the Green vision important? You may not be familiar with it, but if you are, and if you are progressively-minded, the reasons are evident. The Green platform is the most progressive choice available (an assertion that my NDP friends have disbelieved, but that remains standing under analysis). It is evidence-based, compassionate, modern, pacifist, and multicultural, and it follows Schumacher’s call to reject the gigantism that ails us as a society.

Obviously, the Green Party’s platform, being as good as it is, has no shot at actually forming government. It’s the Hermione Granger of Canadian politics, the woman in the male-dominated boardroom that offers the common-sensical solution, ignored, only to hear her peers repeat it mangled up and get all the credit. It’ll probably be an eternal underdog, and it needs all the help it can get.

What to do, then? Support the best platform on an untested candidate, or make a pragmatic decision, lending support to a party that can actually implement its vision? This was my dilemma, until recently. Two points tipped the balance.

The first is the poor performance of the NDP in the national polls in the past couple of weeks, which convinced me that their chance of forming government has practically evaporated, and the calculation that Trudeau’s Liberals may actually need Green seats to push their agenda. The pragmatic progressive vote here, then, given the trajectory of the polls, is Green.

The second point was my growing conviction, especially after talking to canvassers and getting a call from Roberts, and the very direct appeals from Elizabeth May, that Roberts, indeed, is committed to the progressive aspects of the Green platform.

Roberts has an uphill battle—the polls are close, though they do not favour her—but she may yet win. I cast my vote for her yesterday, and I invite you to vote for her as well. My only regret is that I came to this decision so late, so that whatever support I can drum up will be limited.

There is advance polling today (Sunday) and tomorrow. Even if you don’t agree with my conclusions, I urge you to vote. Both the NDP and the Greens need a strong showing, with as little absenteeism as possible, as our aggregated numbers will matter in determining the possible legitimacy of a Harper government, should he not get a majority but attempt to rule on a minority government. Please go vote!

A bittersweet Canada Day

I went for an evening run here in Victoria a couple of days ago. The run took me down to an oceanfront walkway where I could see the mountains on the other side of the strait, the choppy water turning dark as the sun was setting,
the almost-full moon, and many friendly people walking their dogs, waving, smiling. I passed a tour bus parked at a lookout and about a dozen tourists taking pictures of the view we were sharing, while I thought how fortunate I am to routinely run in a place that is so beautiful that people come from around the world to see it, that they judge it photo worthy. I ran through well-maintained parks and well-lit streets, and when the night fell and I was jogging back through a few blocks of what passes as Victoria’s inner city, I still felt safe and protected.

This is all to say that I live in a gorgeous city, in a great country, and I know how lucky I am. When we’ve had medical emergencies or treatments, I find I usually only need to pay for the parking at the hospital. The schools are good and the teachers committed. People’s attitudes to me and my partner, as immigrants, are warm, welcoming, and inclusive. There are playgrounds everywhere here, public transit, bike lanes, and bike paths, and a good public library system. Canada gets so much right, and Victoria and Toronto have been such good places to live in, that I can’t be anything but grateful to have been adopted by this country.

And yet, though grateful, I’m also increasingly disgusted and exasperated by the government that this country has imposed upon itself for the past ten years, a government that vastly contradicts everything that makes the country great. How have its citizens allowed this to happen for so long? How has this seeped under us? The government dismantles our social welfare and it attempts to buy off those of us with comfortable salaries through tax cuts. We keep accumulating Fossil of the Year awards, while our government blocks any pragmatic efforts to rein in climate change and hustles to extract and sell the dirtiest fuel we’ve found. We allow government scientists to be censored, science funds to get cut, and research libraries to get destroyed. We let ourselves get worked up over this or that loose terrorist threat, while we let our intelligence services entrap weak-minded folks, and our leaders boast and try to act more macho than the US or Russia. We let ourselves get spied on by our own public servants, spied on to such an extent that, frankly, I’m fearful that inconsequential as I may be, voicing my concerns might get me a file somewhere. Even more so because, astonishingly, for a nation built on immigrants, we’ve also just passed a law (C-24) that allows the government to revoke my citizenship (or that of any dual citizen, even if born in Canada—my daughter, for instance; perhaps you?) without trial, if I commit any acts that are “contrary to the national interest of Canada”, and we’ve passed another law (C-51) that defines such acts in the vaguest terms to include, potentially, dissent or discussion.

I cannot reconcile the beautiful country around me with its increasingly brutish government. I understand that Harper is trying to bend us to its ideology; I don’t understand how so many of us are letting him get away with it.

This is a bittersweet Canada Day for me: there is so much to celebrate, but so much bad work to repair too. There is an election coming. I truly hope that by the next Canada Day this government will be out, and reparations under way.

“maladjusted” in Victoria tomorrow

You may have heard about this from me or Val already, but a heads-up if you haven’t: the “maladjusted” play is happening in Victoria tomorrow at the Songhees Wellness Centre. It’s a Forum Theatre performance, meaning among other things that the play is interactive and meant to explore community problems; its topic is on the mental health system, treated from different angles. From the description on the Eventbrite page:

‘maladjusted’ engages audiences with powerful images and authentic voices weaving together three very personal narratives: A young teenager struggling with sadness over her friend’s suicide is misdiagnosed by her doctor; a young homeless man who is legitimately taking prescription meds gets thrown into dangerous circumstances by social workers, who are from within a mechanizing system, trying their best to help him; and finally, there is all of us, unable to adjust to the needs of a maladjusted mental health sector, who become potential agents for change.

Val has been helping coordinate the local production, and it looks like it’s going to be pretty good. There are only a few tickets left. I’ll be there, and I hope to see you there too.

Recommendations from 2014

One more year behind us! Here are some of the things that I loved in 2014 and that you may enjoy, too:

Books! The oddest, most strangely beautiful one I found this year was Haskell’s “The Forest Unseen“. Part meditation, part scientific explanation of all that happens in a tiny section of a forest in the course of a year, it is intelligent without being patronizing, compassionate without being mushy, and constantly full of surprises.

Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation“, on the difficulty and beauty of marriage and parenthood, and on trying to achieve greatness (or, at least, to control the apartment’s pests) while being a parent, is a bit of a Trojan horse: it seems unassuming, but it unfolds in the mind after reading. Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment” is about abandonment of the marital kind, and it is angry, desperate, hyperventilating, funny, perfect. McBride’s “A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing“, in contrast to Offill’s and Ferrante’s books, may be the hardest: hard to parse, but also to digest. McBride’s dark, pulsating, synaptic prose is often grammatically nonsensical, but it conveys fear, loss lust, and love beautifully.

Sjón’s “The Whispering Muse” overlays some of the greatest Western myths with modern, ordinary bigotry and pettiness; the result is exceptional. On the most page-turning end of the spectrum, Theroux’s post-apocalyptic “Far North” is both very smart and very enjoyable.

Fénéon’s “Novels in Three Lines” is a collection of very short news items that ran in a Paris newspaper about a hundred years ago. They are not all interesting or relevant, but they are expertly crafted, and the accumulated effect or reading so many snapshots of old violence, suffering, random chaos, and happiness is poetically complex. Parra’s “Poemas para Combatir la Calvicie” (in Spanish), an anthology of his “antipoetry”, is beautiful for its plainspokenness.

As for movies, I loved the calm aesthetic of “Le Quattro Volte” and the hallucinogenic rush of “Vanishing Point“. “Act of Killing” is bizarre, horrifying; “The Loneliest Planet” shows a small hint of that horror to a Western backpacking couple and they find it perhaps too much to handle. “Computer Chess” is a masterpiece of awkward nerd-dom. You probably watched as much TV as I did, but if for any reason you missed “Black Mirror” or “True Detective“, they are both brilliant. One musical recommendation: the R&B covers from the Detroit Cobras are excellent.

My biggest boardgaming surprise this year was the complexity of the cooperative game “Freedom“, about emancipation and the Railroad Underground. It is not necessarily a fun experience—in fact, it is the most gut-wrenching game I’ve ever played, more art than game; educational gaming done right. On the actually fun side, “Sheriff of Nottingham“, a bluffing, smuggling, and bribing game, is great fun, and “Tzolk’in” and “Last Will” are both elegant and well-balanced; after several replays I don’t feel like I have a good grip on strategy on either of them, which is a good sign.

If you live in or visit Victoria, you should get truly wonderful coffee at Hey Happy! We’ve been going quite a bit to La Taquisa for tortilla soups and tacos. David Mincey’s “Chocolate Project”, usually at the Hudson Public Market, is on hiatus, but when it returns you should check it out, as it features outstanding chocolate from around the world. Finally, one of my regrets when we moved to Victoria from Toronto was missing out on Snakes and Lattes, but now, luckily, Victoria has an excellent substitute: Interactivity, a board game café, has a very good library and yummy milkshakes to drink while you play those games with your friends.

I hope your 2014 was also full of love and good finds—feel free to let me know of stuff you liked in the comments. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)