Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Victoria's Municipal Election, 2018

Victoria is having its municipal election just a week from now, on October 20th, and the streets, including our own sidewalk, are lined with lawn signs.

This post lists some resources I found useful in deciding who to vote for, and then my rationale and endorsements.

Resources

  • The City of Victoria elections page is one impartial place to start looking for information on the candidates
  • Victoria Votes has useful summaries on all candidates. Generally speaking, I found the site's commentary a bit lax, though not misleading—reading the candidates websites, conveniently linked from the Victoria Votes site, you can find more relevant details
  • Victorians for Transportation Choice has candidate responses to transportation questions, which have turned out to be one of the main dividing issues among candidates. I feel the questions are smart, and the answers give good hints both about the stance of the candidates and about their understanding of civic matters
  • The School Board Trustee candidate platforms are, as a rule, ambiguous, mushy, and released too late, and it's difficult to really assess where they stand. I guess, since there are only nine candidates for twelve positions, not standing out too much is a good strategy. But this makes it difficult to make an informed decision. On a pinch, the BC Teachers' Federation's endorsements page helps by providing a list of progressive, labour-minded candidates
  • Sexual education is a wedge issue elsewhere in Canada, but thankfully our school district is mostly enlightened in this regard. Sex Ed Is Our Right collected trustee candidates' stances on the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program, and if you scroll down to district 61 you will see that most candidates support it

Where We Stand

Four years ago, I somewhat reluctantly endorsed Dean Fortin over Lisa Helps. Helps won a narrow victory and went on to prove that my concerns with her were unfounded. She has been an effective mayor in a period of significant growth in Victoria. She listens to city residents, she is receptive to First Nations issues, she promotes neighbourhood community building, and she has steered the city to an (even more) enviable position within Canada.

The two main issues in town today, I would say, are transportation (or, really, the expansion of the bike lane network) and housing.

The first should be a non-issue. In Victoria's streets, as in most of the world, the car is king. We know this situation is expensive and unsustainable. We know that walking and cycling whenever possible make us healthier and keep our air clean and our wallets full. So we need to slow down car traffic and to build a cycling network, in order to make car alternatives safer and more compelling.

So the city begins building a modest network of separated bike lanes downtown, and to consider lower speed limits, and—as entitled factions tend to do—the Car Clown Task Force comes out in full force, complaining about a war on cars, about gridlock, about lack of parking, about the choice of street for a bike lane, about construction costs, and so on, until they've convinced themselves that they're being oppressed so hard they won't be able to come out of their driveway. But I've been through downtown since the new bike lanes opened, both driving and cycling. Driving is still just as fine. Cycling is unbelievably better. We should keep building this network.

The second issue is serious, and while one may argue that Helps and Council should have seen this coming and reacted more quickly, I think they just got caught up in the wave with inappropriate short-term options. The problem is that housing here is expensive—in Canada, I think Vancouver and Toronto are the only cities with a worse housing problem.

We basically have a lot of people moving into town (it's a great place to live!), and while construction cranes are now a seemingly permanent fixture in town, there are not enough spots for everybody yet, and in particular for families with kids. All of this raises rents, mortgages, and property taxes, and therefore makes living here unaffordable. It increases homelessness. It makes the prospect of having to move extremely stressful for many. So we need a denser city, but it takes time to build up, it takes effort to fight NIMBYism, and it takes prudence to grow responsibly and maintain a green, laid-back city with a beautiful character.

Last election, we had two strong left-of-centre candidates (Helps and Fortin). This year, the stronger opponents to Helps are further to the right. Stephen Hammond and his New Council slate have predictably toady proposals, such as tax cuts, increasing police budgets, and stopping the bike lane network. Similarly, Michael Geoghegan wants to fight the current bike lane placements, and to loosen energy efficiency standards in new construction. To the extent that his platform has themes, they are to make city governance more like Langford's (a Victoria suburb) and to get money from the provincial and federal governments to solve our problems (which, sure, I want that too, but good luck).

Endorsements

Mayor

This year, the choice for mayor was easy. The incumbent, Lisa Helps has been an effective and capable leader, with a promising vision for Victoria. She definitely has my vote.

Council

The vote for councillors is as important as the one for mayor! They help shape the agenda and provide us with better representation at City Hall.

You can vote for up to eight councillors, but note that it is good strategy to only vote for your favourites, as filling up a ballot increases the chances that candidates you are less keen on squeak past your preferred choices.

  • Jeremy Loveday is my top choice for City Council. I have personally seen how active and purposeful he's been as a councillor fighting for the civic good. When we began organizing to improve our neighbourhood, he was there with us, giving us advice and information. I will gladly vote for him.
  • Grace Lore, I think, will bring a useful perspective to Council: as a working mother, and as a renter, she brings to her platform underappreciated issues of family housing and childcare that, if implemented, will benefit us all
  • The Together Victoria slate (formed by Laurel Collins, Sarah Potts, and Sharmarke Dubow) also has my support. Its three candidates will help address the affordability problems in Victoria
  • Ben Isitt is, finally, also a reliable, progressive choice for Council, and I encourage you to support him, too

School Board

Given the difficulty in assessing differences between trustee candidates, I encourage you to vote for the candidates endorsed by the BCTF. In alphabetical order:

  • Vincent Gornall
  • Diane McNally
  • Ryan Painter
  • Rob Paynter
  • Jordan Watters

Amalgamation

In our ballots, we will also have a referendum question on whether to establish a Citizen's Assembly to explore the amalgamation of Victoria with Saanich. I am, in general, averse to amalgamation (I prefer small organizations over large; I saw the damage that amalgamation brought, and continues to bring, to Toronto), but this question is merely about establishing an Assembly to explore the issue, and about Victoria and Saanich, two municipalities that are joined at the hip. I will reluctantly vote Yes in the referendum question.

Free Money for Charity

Many of the most impactful charities around the world are not set to receive tax-deductible donations from Canada. If you want to donate to them in a tax-deductible way, you need to find a registered charity in Canada that will reliably pass along your donations, and provide you with a tax receipt.

These days, the best way to do that is to donate to one or several of the campaigns set up by Rethink Charity Forward (RC Forward), within the CHIMP platform. This is how I manage a good chunk of my monthly donations (to a Global Health Fund, to GiveDirectly, to an Animal Welfare Fund, and a small sum to contribute to RC Forward's operations).

The reason I post this is that, due to a CHIMP promotion, for the next week I can send three of you a CHIMP referral which, should you accept it, will give both your new account and my current account $10 to donate to the charities of our choice.

That's potentially a total of $60 which can go to very worthwhile causes. Please consider joining! If you want one of these referrals, let me know, soon, at jorge.aranda (AT) cuevano.ca, and I'll send it your way.

Recommendations from 2017

Another year over! And as I learned this year, whatever the news and the grand-scale history, our small lives carry on, if they can, cooking and enjoying breakfast, making funny faces to our kids, watching the birds and the trees on the way to work, and trying to find love, beauty, humour, skill, and good ideas around us.

In that spirit, and following my little yearly tradition of sharing what I've found, these are some of the things I enjoyed the most in 2017:

The book that surprised and delighted me the most has to be Wilson's new translation of "The Odyssey". I had read the book in Spanish a long time ago, more in an effort to pay my literary dues than for fun, and I had found it obtuse and remote; a dusty relic. I have the sense, perhaps not wholly justified, that large egos over the centuries have tried their hand at translating Homer in an effort to impress us with their flowery language, rather than in an effort to translate. But in Wilson's version the text is raw, fresh, human; it pulsates with life and blood. It helps me understand why others before me worshipped the ancient gods the way they did, the mixture of fear and curiosity they must have felt when seeing a stranger come to shore, or when landing their ship in a foreign island, and the attraction to the story that made them huddle in silence to listen to a poet deliver the next installment of their epics.

In a previous post I had mentioned how much I like Roald Dahl's children books, but I've now read "Kiss Kiss", a collection of some of his adult short stories, and I like him even more. That same spice is here, the same eye for twisted souls, the same storytelling strategy of plots that spiral into the absurd and nevertheless work well. I also loved the Strugatsky Brothers' "Roadside Picnic", a great take on an incomprehensible interstellar visit.

In literature in Spanish, I thought Villalobos' "No Voy a Pedirle a Nadie que me Crea" was marvellously funny. He has the same deadpan humour that Ibargüengoitia had, a great ear for character voices, and, in this book, a page-turning plot as well. Another excellent find was Pauls' "El Pudor del Pornógrafo", an earnest, impassioned, and claustrophobic epistolar novel, a bit of Kafka and a bit of Lynch. Finally, Zambra's short story collection, "Mis Documentos", though a mixed bag, has some real gems.

Three great non-fiction books: Duncan's "The Storm before the Storm", Brown's "Building Powerful Community Organizations", and Kleppmann's "Designing Data-Intensive Applications". I still love Duncan as a podcaster—I continue being an avid listener of his Revolutions series—, and his jump to the printed page is just as good as his other work, and topical for the state of the American republic today. If you are concerned about that state, or the state of your own country, city, or neighbourhood, Brown's handbook is a great guide to get started organizing a better world. And Kleppmann's book is simply one of the best technical books for my line of work that I can think of. If you work with databases, queues, concurrent processes, or anything along these lines, my guess is you'll find many insights here.

There are so many good podcasts around these days! Among those that I particularly enjoyed, the first one has to be the hilarious "My Dad Wrote a Porno". Because if your dad tells you he's been writing raunchy erotic literature, and that he goes by the pen name Rocky Flintstone, I think one of the best things you can do to stay sane is to gather with your best friends, read his ouvre, and absolutely tear it apart. It makes me laugh so hard that my face hurts.

Now, on the more informative podcasting front, Adamson's "History of Philosophy without any gaps" is fun and accessible, (though I think maybe one or two gaps would have been alright), and Bortolotti's "Canadian Couch Potato" podcast, a companion to his blog, provides professional, consistent, and trustworthy financial advice.

"American Vandal", a Netflix TV show, was another great discovery. It's an antidote for the seriousness and the tropes of true-crime podcasts and shows, which is a good enough reason to recommend it, but it also has good writing and pitch-perfect performances. It also made me laugh a lot.

I recently wrote about my love for Twilight Struggle and Go, so I won't talk more about those games here, but there were two other boardgames that I liked this year. The first is Terraforming Mars, which is perhaps what you would get if you developed the fantastic Race for the Galaxy card game into a longer, but still tight and balanced, boardgame. The second is T.I.M.E. Stories, a cooperative game and a mashup of Quantum Leap with a Groundhog Day mechanic. I've played a handful of scenarios, and they have all been different, satisfying, and challenging in different ways.

On the computer, my six-year-old and I spent many fun hours working a farm in Stardew Valley, a cute and versatile game without any Farmville-esque psychological traps. When playing alone, I had the most fun with Darkest Dungeon, a kind of dungeon-crawling X-Com cousin, and (on my phone) with Dreamquest, a poorly drawn but well designed deck-building game.

Thanks to everyone who gave me tips to some of the above; I hope you'll find something to like here. And if you have any recommendations for me, please share them! I'm easy to find. Here's to a happy and healthy 2018!

(Previously: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

Over a Hundred Years of Research

I agree with everything Greg Wilson wrote here, and I had been thinking along similar lines after recent incidents such as:

In all of these cases, reactions from humanities academics tend to express an exasperation with how little society minds them. "Ha, Cathy O'Neil is laughable, there's entire research centres dedicated to this!" "Pfff, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, may I introduce you to the fields of Epistemology and Science and Technology Studies? You may like them." "Geez Twitter, we've been researching status for over a hundred years. Why doesn't anybody study this?" And, to some extent, I see where these critiques come from. After all, if you have dedicated your life to the study of a problem, and the world seems to ignore your work, or to pretend you're not around, it's understandable if you feel frustrated. But I think this natural reaction is misguided.

As I see it, the mission of academia is twofold: to explore outstanding questions, and to explain our understanding to the rest of society. Research without dissemination leads to isolation, to the ivory tower; dissemination without research, to stagnation. From this stance, evidence that the public knows nothing about your decades of volumes and treatises should be classified as a failure of your field; a failure to fulfill your mission. The healthy reaction to cases like the above should be "hmm, how can we make ourselves clearer?", not "lol look at these ignoramuses."

I did interdisciplinary research. Coming from computer science, I studied, and truly enjoyed, sociology, epistemology, philosophy, and organizational science. But it was not easy to crack them, and most people in the mainstream don't have the time, the resources, or the inclination to do a second degree. The idea that the average person is going to meet you where you are is a fantasy; the task and the challenge is to meet them where they are. So, if your field is over a hundred years old— where are its entry points for lay people? Where are the texts that present the findings that citizens and policy makers should know, in an accessible format and without sacrificing substance? Where are the articles or blog posts where regular folks can learn about new developments? If these don't exist, or if they can't yet be produced because research is inconclusive, or because these are genuinely thorny concepts, then that's hardly a failure to pin on the confused lay person, and you should not wear your rarefied isolation as a badge of honour.

Twilight Struggle and Go

For the past few years, I have been playing two boardgames online quite regularly: Twilight Struggle and Go. I usually play them asynchronously—Go in the Dragon Go Server, and Twilight Struggle through Steam (there is also an iPad app linking to the same server). I love making a move or two when I need a break, and though games tend to last weeks or months in both cases, I like how their arcs intersect with my daily life.

Frankly, I am still quite bad at Go, but it has been on my mind a lot recently due to the AlphaGo Zero developments. To beat Go masters, previous versions of AlphaGo (Google's AI Go player) used a combination of machine learning techniques, recorded historical games, and human expert input. But AlphaGo Zero started from scratch, with no reliance on recorded games. It reached a level high enough to beat the previous champions a few weeks after starting training.

It is by all accounts both the most advanced Go player we've seen, and the most foreign; not merely a better execution of known strategies, but a new and (in my case, impossibly) hard to understand approach to the game.

Now, I don't care so much that we've found a way to program computers to beat us at it (though that is very cool), and I don't care for the silly singularity fears and ecstasies that Artificial Intelligence triggers in some folks (except to the extent that this distracts their efforts from more important issues). But I do care about the idea that a boardgame that has perhaps been with us for four millenia has had this infusion of freshness and creativity in our lifetimes. It's as if aliens had independently discovered the game, too, and played it better than us, and, though we can't understand each other, they are letting us watch over their shoulders and learn.

Twilight Struggle, on the other hand, is not likely to continue being played four millenia from now: it is too historically specific, and its ruleset too fiddly to travel easily across generations. But these qualities do not affect the game in the here and now. It's a great game, complex and knotty, and since it's less well known than Go, I'd like to describe it briefly.

Twilight Struggle is an asymmetrical game about the Cold War, for two players. One plays the United States, the other, the Soviet Union. The Cold War in the game is driven by three main factors: first, the Domino Theory of ideological contagion and regime change, second, the inevitability of world events, and third, the spectre of nuclear annihilation.

Both powers attempt to maintain their presence around the globe, blocking their opponent from achieving an overwhelming dominance in any region. They have a glimpse at some of the events bubbling up (revolts in Vietnam, charismatic Communist or Capitalist regional leaders angling for power, the Cuban Missile Crisis), and must position themselves to take advantage of these events, kick them down the road, or at least try to mitigate them. And though, by the sick logic of Great Empires, they must assert their authority everywhere, sponsoring coups, meddling in local governments, and so on (if they don't, their opponent will), the more aggressively they act, the closer they bring the world to a nuclear holocaust.

This morbid dynamic of whether to push things right to the brink of destruction in an already chaotic world, just to deny your opponent any room to maneuver, is the stroke of genius of the game. Novice or reckless players end blowing up the world a lot—a gloomy realization these days—, and though with experience (and a good guide) one improves humanity's chances of survival, the spectre of annihilation gives the game a long-running tension.

There is randomness in Twilight Struggle, and between players with similar skill a couple of bad hands or a string of unlucky dice rolls may doom the less fortunate player's chances. But provided one knows this coming in, this randomness colours, rather than spoils, the game, as it adds to its sense of certain but limited power. Rather than luck, and just like Go, Twilight Struggle rewards study, patience, and prudence. I find it amazing that, given the asymmetry, the large amount of events in the game, and the complexity of the board and rules, the game remains well-balanced, tight, and engaging.

Both of these are "just games," of course, but a good game captures our imagination. There is a joy in discovering this kind of strong, sharp, robust design, in exploring it, grasping it, however imperfectly, and slowly making it part of our lives.