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)

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.