“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)

Voting in Victoria’s municipal election

The mayoral election in Victoria is coming up in November 15th, and for once choosing a candidate was not an easy decision. I ended up doing quite a bit of research, both on the mayoral candidates and on council candidates, and I thought it best to share my conclusions for any undecideds still left.

For mayor, of course, the choice was between Fortin and Helps. I did not understand the discontent over Fortin. He’s progressive, environmental, compassionate, and apparently a great guy. Victoria is improving through his tenure. The budget overruns with the Johnson Bridge should be expected, and the issue seems just an effort to rally up voters who define themselves as “taxpayers” exclusively. So as an incumbent he looks great—except we have a choice, in Helps, of another seemingly progressive, environmental, strong candidate. I had friends endorse either candidate very convincingly. So I had to do quite a bit of city council motion reading, debate-watching, canvasser-questioning, and so on.

In the end I chose Fortin. One reason is that he is an experienced mayor over whom I have no objections. Another reason is that, as I understand from a couple of sources, Helps’ relation with council is strained, and since those council members are likely not going anywhere, we might end up with a more dysfunctional council if she wins. But the greater reason is that, through my research, I grew convinced that while Fortin is authentically convinced of progressive causes, Helps has more of a flexible, “pragmatic” position. The positive spin on Helps’ malleability is that she listens to the public on the issues that matter to them. The negative, as suggested by her stance on issues like the Mason St development site or the Crystal Pool vote, is that there’s a chance, not high but fair, that she will take a conservative or centrist position unless there’s an outcry big enough for her to backtrack. That could get tiring. She says that she does not want to be placed within a left-right continuum; I would like a mayor that is comfortable working and deciding from the left.

Council (each voter can vote for up to eight candidates) was a difficult decision too, mainly because there were (a) many candidates, and (b) few credible ones. Choosing the first five or six was easy; the rest was tough. A good tool to decide was the Dogwood Initiative’s survey of candidates. I am still a bit unsure on two of the candidates I chose, though I’m afraid their chances are low anyway.

The most difficult, vaguest decision was for School Board Trustees (we can vote for up to nine). There are very few materials to help one decide, and, again, not very many credible candidates. Most say the same things, mostly about wanting to either keep good public services or being financially responsible, and reading between the lines of their small differences is difficult.

So here we go, my choices for this election (* indicates most uncertainty/second thoughts):

Mayor – Dean Fortin

Council

  • Marianne Alto
  • Ben Issit
  • Erik Kaye
  • Jeremy Loveday
  • John Luton
  • Pamela Madoff
  • Ian Hoar (*)
  • Charlayne Thornton-Joe (*)

School Board

  • Edith Loring-Kuhanga
  • Diane McNally
  • Deborah Nohr
  • Rob Paynter
  • Jordan Watters
  • Nicole Duncan (*)
  • Bev Horsman (*)
  • Ruth MacIntosh (*)
  • Ann Whiteaker (*)

If you feel I included some bizarre choices here, or that I’m missing a really fantastic candidate, I would love it if you let me know. Remember to go vote!

No Place to Hide

Glenn Greenwald‘s “No Place to Hide” is a good and important book. Beyond the NSA disclosures, which should at this point come as no surprise to anyone who cares about the issue, he correctly emphasizes the role that the institutionalized forces of the mainstream media play in amplifying the voice and the will of power.

This behaviour of the media, and especially of liberal commentators (Hendrik Hertzberg, Jeffrey Toobin, many others) was a great disappointment to me when the disclosures began, a year ago. It shouldn’t have been—I should have kept in mind, for instance, the blindness of both capitalist and communist intellectuals to the excesses of their factions during the Cold War; I should have remembered that often the people that agree with us, especially when they are powerful in any way, agree not due to the rightness of the position, but due to their personal convenience.

Snowden, I learned in “No Place to Hide,” did remember this, and explicitly reached out to adversarial journalists (Greenwald, Poitras) and requested them not to share his materials with subservient media institutions—particularly the New York Times. This, I think, is partly why the leaks about the illegal and outrageous programs of the NSA came through at all. Snowden acted not just heroically: he was also very smart. I’m grateful for that.

Things were very different before we came by

Reading Berton’s “The National Dream“, about the construction of the Canadian transcontinental railroad, I’m impressed by how different Canada was only 140 years ago. Its political system was tremendously corrupt; its territory was barren, largely unexplored, deadly; its only neighbour was poised to take over it, by economic if not military force. Victoria, the major city in the Canadian West Coast then, barely had a thousand voters—Vancouver wasn’t even on the map. The country, on the whole, appeared, to my eyes at least, to be on the verge of collapse for at least a couple of decades.

What I find striking is that this was all not so long ago: our grandparents’ grandparents lived through it. And yet the impression I got from Canada, when I first arrived, was of a country established, whole, with a culture, a history, and an identity. The “Canadian project” was not in question.

Many of the good things we take for granted were not easy to accomplish; they were not a given. They required quite a bit of effort, and quite a bit of luck, and everything that is true about that time is true about today.

Learning

Now and then I obsess over a topic (or skill, or thing) and dedicate an inordinate amount of time to it. They have a secret and I must extract it—I must fill my mouth with their taste. They are often, unfortunately, fairly pointless pursuits. Then I’m sated—I’ve learned some tricks or stop being surprised—and the need disappears.

But there are a few topics for which my obsession is tidal. For them, whenever I learn, I feel my ignorance opening wider still: my learning is partly about all the things that are still unlearned; my satisfaction is grounded on discovering that despite years of effort I’m only getting started, that the secrets will not end, and that the journey will last my full life. I sometimes get weary and stop for a while—even for a very long while—but I’ve always taken up the path again.

I can think of four things that affect me in this way: writing, gardening, programming, and playing Go. In all four, learning feels only like peeling a layer, never reaching the core—and I’m extremely far from the core. In all four, I can see, study, marvel, and draw joy from the work of people that are much better than me. While overwhelming, this keeps me humble and hopeful. In all four, practice leads to a contemplative state, and insights seem to apply as much to the thing itself as to life in general.

Perhaps later on other things will come to have this effect on me—gardening is a fairly recent addition to the list, one I only started three years ago. I hope they will, though I can’t control it. But I doubt these four will go away.

Recommendations from 2013

Keeping up with my little tradition of sharing stuff I liked at the end of the year, here are some recommendations from 2013.

Perhaps the book I enjoyed the most was Saunders’ “Tenth of December”. Its short stories have the kind of warmth that comes from compassion in the face of (as opposed to in ignorance of) cruelty. Catton’s “The Luminaries”, set in the New Zealand gold rush, is great, too: thematic, thrilling, brainy yet mystical. Pullman’s retelling of the Brother Grimm’s tales is fresh and snappy, and Hamid’s “How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is a good antidote to world-lit fluff.

I loved the poetry collection “Place”, by Jorie Graham. Its poems are strange miracles: systemic, yet focused on instants; comprehensive, yet intimate. Villalobos’ “Fiesta en la madriguera” (in Spanish) is a fun, surreal take on excess told from the perspective of the pampered scion of a drug lord. And while Daylight’s interview with Peter Naur, “Pluralism in Software Engineering”, is quite uneven, it has important insights into software development and academia that continue to be forgotten or put aside, to everyone’s detriment.

A couple of good movies: “No”, on the Pinochet referendum campaign, with its ambivalent, subtle take on social and political change, and “The Queen of Versailles”, a documentary on a ridiculous and ridiculously wealthy American family going through hard times. I’d recommend “Gravity”, but I doubt it needs recommendation. I also enjoyed the genre mix of the British TV version of “Life on Mars”, and the silliness of “Archer”. As for music, I liked the bassy intensity of Savages’ “Silence Yourself”, and Chris Thile’s album of Bach’s sonatas and partitas played on the mandolin.

I was able to run again, injury-free, throughout the year, largely thanks to daily (and initially painful) stretches on a foam roller. It’s such an unassuming, cheap, yet useful accessory. I must have tasted every olive oil and balsamic vinegar at Olive the Senses half a dozen times (and if you are in Victoria you should, too). Finally, while I’ve been intimidated by electronic tinkering almost all my life, the Arduino Experimenter Kit was a very straightforward way to get me started on designing circuits and devices (and check out node-ardx, a great resource to go through the experimenter kit exercises using Node).

That’s it. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

A SEMAT update

A few years ago I wrote a pretty critical post on the then-new SEMAT initiative, which wanted to “refound software engineering” with a “solid theory, proven principles, and best practices”. Recently, Ivar Jacobson and others published a book (“The Essence of Software Engineering”) to introduce practitioners to the SEMAT “kernel”. The book is worse than I feared. Greg Wilson and I review it at the Never Work in Theory blog.

Limbic

These have been times of important anniversaries for me. In the past few days I’ve celebrated ten years in Canada, one year out of academia, and three months with Limbic Consulting.

In 2003, when Val and I moved to Toronto and I started my Master in Computer Science degree, I thought that my stay in both Canada and academia would be temporary. A couple of years, at most. But I discovered I liked both too much—enough to think of staying in them permanently. Years later, as it turned out, Canada is happily still our home, but I became disenchanted with the academic house, or rather with my corner of it, and left.

This is what I come to every morning Professionally, this last year has been excellent—I feel like I had been in danger of being left behind by the software industry, and that I’ve caught up again. After a stint at Terapeak (a company where I learned much, but whose goals diverged with mine) I joined Limbic. I’m very glad I did. Limbic is a small firm (which I think is great) filled with smart, fun, kind, multidisciplinary people. The office feels equal parts grad lab, electronics workbench, Agile shop, and surreal cave.

We’ve got an art gallery attached to our workplace, a tickle trunk with wigs and costumes to use in standup meetings (and whenever the conversation gets heated), a dictionary of modern thought and back issues of Make as our washroom reading material, great coffee, and healthy snacks. Most importantly, the projects we are working on are both technically challenging and fun, and we have the autonomy to work on them the way we think is best. It’s a pretty unique place, and an exciting time for me.