The day after Thanksgiving. No, wait. Thanksgiving.

November 29, 2013 at 2:22 pm | In business, social_critique | 3 Comments

Today is Black Friday. It has for a long time been the start of the Holiday shopping season, and, went the thinking, if retailers could get shoppers into stores today – the day after our Thanksgiving holiday – they had a reasonable chance of getting “in the black,” that is, having a profitable season.

Black Friday was supposed to be a kind of litmus test that would indicate whether consumers were willing to spend enough in the remaining days of the holiday season to bring up retailer profits (or whether there would be any profits at all).

Well, that’s obviously all gone out the window because now some stores are opening on Thanksgiving. In a seemingly continuous non-stop race to the bottom, Thanksgiving, which had a certain magic about it because it was non-religious and non-gifting (i.e., not linked to shopping),  is now removed from that privileged place of non-consumption. Instead, it’s more and more a day like any other: Go forth and shop.

As one 18-year old Thanksgiving shopper put it while standing online with a pal at a suburban Chicago mall, “Thanksgiving dinner is over…  And there’s nothing else to do.” (source) I seriously expected her to say, “Thanksgiving dinner is so over,” that is: we’re not doing that anymore.

Which brings me to another pet peeve: the so-called politically correct crowd that gets its kicks from pointing out that white settlers screwed the indigenous population, that this happened at “the original” Thanksgiving, and that therefore all Thanksgiving festivities are a sham if not outright a white man’s plot to keep injustice alive.

I have news for you, dear Leftie comrades of mine: you are the latter-day stirrup holders of the bourgeoisie, except now you’re holding the stirrups for the oligarchic disrupter class. Your corrosive criticism of Thanksgiving as a “white man’s” holiday that somehow represents the oppression of Native populations is the hand that reaches across an ever-diminishing Thanksgiving gathering table to shake the hand of today’s ultra-capitalism.

Hey, if Thanksgiving is just a sham, if Thanksgiving isn’t actually the nice holiday we were told it was, then why not turn it into a day like any other? And so the capitalist disrupter smiles, sits down to his fully-larded table, while the rest of us are harried into ever-greater sacrifices …for the effing economy!

Excuse me while my head explodes.

To whit: yesterday I read an article in one of my favorite news sources that claimed it was ok to shop on Thanksgiving because the economy needs it. (source) Who is this “economy” and why does it need my blood? Ok, that’s a silly rhetorical question because of course I know why it needs my and your blood. But really? This is the best case the writer can make? It was also interesting to me, an immigrant twice over (first to Canada, then to the U.S.) to see the author, who was born in the U.S. but is of Indian extraction, born to immigrant parents, bolster her case this way:

Some countries actually embrace the US system of more work, less pay. Multinationals especially deal with large variances in different countries’ holiday calendars. Their solution often is to offer a more liberal number of personal days so employees can pick and choose the holidays of importance to them. In countries such as India—which, like the United States, has a polyglot of faiths and cultures across its workforce—some state governments have been trying to limit the number of official holidays. [emphasis added]

Well, if you don’t celebrate any religious holiday, I’m fine with that. But Thanksgiving was never an expressly religious holiday – it has nothing to do with “polyglot[s] of faiths and cultures.” It was simply a holiday: a day to stop, cook a good meal, sit down together, break bread, be peaceful (just for a bit), and give thanks. That’s all.

But now, here we are: in all, Thanksgiving has been “exposed” by my Leftie friends as a vile white man’s holiday whose origins lie in the oppression of Native populations; youthful “innovators” tell us that the economy needs us to go shopping; and “disrupters” of all stripes tell us that we live in an age of extreme personalization, whether it’s in the Quantified Self movement or our social media personae, so why shouldn’t I pick and choose the holidays, too? I mean, isn’t social media all about creating my tribe, man, that ultra-personal self-expression of mine that’s just about the effing same as everybody else’s, except I can spend personalized money on mine? If I’ve got my tribe, why should I bother with something as corny (and destructive to our holier-than-thou 1%-enriching economy) as a non-gifting, non-shopping, boring old dinner-based holiday? (And by the way: if everybody is off in their personal and personalized tribe, there will be no more unions, and without unionized bargaining power, there will be more oppression of people, irrespective of whether their skin color is white or brown or black or anything in between. Continue to splinter into tribes, children, and The Man will eat your effing lunch.)

As for the argument that shopping shopping shopping consumption consumption consumption is absolutely necessary to keep the economy going, ask yourself what kind of economy we’re enabling. Heck, back in the day that swine Henry Ford at least made sure his workers made enough money to buy a family car. Today’s equivalent industry moguls? Not so much. (see this) We’re all in love with the Creepy Crawleys of Downton Abbey, worshiping their wealth and “glamor.” But even they took better care of “their” workers than the Waltons of Wal-Mart do.

Was tun? you may ask. Well, there is Buy Nothing Day, although I have to admit it always sat the wrong way with me (not sure why).  And there’s the buy local movement (see Katrina Scotto di Carlo’s excellent talk at Portland Oregon’s Creative Mornings).

Beyond that, it’s up to government and law makers to create protections for workers. Not sure however that there’s much to be done about the sheeple who take advantage of all the glorious opportunities to buy ever more junk no one (not even they themselves) need.

Parenting. Such a riot.

June 17, 2011 at 11:36 pm | In canada, leadership, social_critique, vancouver | 2 Comments

I want to tell you a story of parenting, as I’ve observed it among my Canadian peers. I’ll try to convey how and why this parenting style shocked me. It’s just a story (albeit a true one), but perhaps it illuminates a small part of the dynamics at work in this Wednesday’s Canucks Riot that erupted in Vancouver.

It happened about seven years ago, when my daughter, then ten years old, was singing in a local Victoria BC children’s choir. If it was seven years ago, it was only two years after my family and I had left the US to move to Canada.

The parents of the children in this relatively expensive and well-regarded choir often hung around during evening rehearsals, or else they returned early to wait for their children, which allowed for a lot of casual chit-chat among the parents. One night, the father of a pair of kids in the choir – a girl around 14 and a boy around 11 or 12 – complained to another parent about his son’s school.

I’ll call the dad Don and his kids Caitlyn and Ted. These aren’t their real names, but it makes telling the story easier. I want you to focus on Don, a reasonably educated and relatively feisty man – the kind who knows what he likes – and his son, Ted, a somewhat clunky pre-teen who was often sullen and not particularly co-operative about being in a choir.

But his parents had paid for the privilege, and by gum, he was going to sing and learn about music and about being part of a group, because everyone knows that sort of stuff can give you social advantages.

Don, who had choir pick-up duty that night, was telling another mom about Ted’s troubles at school. Apparently, Ted often caused disruptions in class. There was nothing “wrong” with him: he wasn’t labeled with any of the alphabet-soup-style afflictions so often ascribed to boys – no ADHD, no ADD, and none of the Autism Spectrum Disorders. He was just ill-behaved.

That week, the school had phoned Don to say that Ted had again disrupted the classroom (which meant that every other kid in that class was denied an opportunity to learn), and the teacher had marched him to the principal’s office. From whence came the phone call to Don, asking him to pick up his offspring, whom the school wanted to suspend for the day.

Well! That didn’t sit well with Don, who didn’t want his brat child at home. As he told the story to the other mom:

I let them have it. I told them, “You have to keep him, it’s a school day and you HAVE  to keep him in school, you can’t send him home!”

You have to keep him. I-the-parent can’t be forced to deal with him.

What struck me about his story:

  • he was puffed up with pride at having told the school “off”
  • he was indignant that the school was asking HIM to discipline HIS child
  • he was absolutely convinced, without any shame WHATSOEVER, that it was indeed the school’s obligation to deal with his brat child
  • the school CAVED and acquiesced to Don’s demand

I can’t say I was so much in sympathy with the school. Hey, we were homeschooling our kids, and considered schools a mixture of toxic peer pressure, jail, and industrial-style conveyer-belt rote “learning,” armed with massive budgets and an arsenal of institutional power to shore up their status. Hooray for a tiny David who aims his slingshot at that Goliath. But Ted didn’t strike me as any sort of tribe worth defending, that’s for sure. He needed parenting, from parents who acted authoritatively (not authoritarian). He didn’t need palming off on authorities (eg. school) – yet that’s exactly what Don thought was the right thing to do: the school should deal with him.

Amazing. Don’s little conversation made my jaw drop. He was serious: he wanted the school essentially to do the parenting of his child, a job that he and Mrs. Don should have been doing.

Fast-forward seven years, and Ted is now about 19 years old. He’s a hockey fan, but most of all, he still hasn’t learned about accountability. Sure, the schools have tried to drum it into his head, but what the fuck does he care? His parents insist they’ve spent good money on him, made sure he had advantages, and made sure they always sent him to schools where they could expect other people to exert the heavy-lifting authority that they themselves shunned.

Ted breaks a few windows along Granville, helps tip a car over, sets a few newspaper boxes on fire.

I blame the parents.

They’re probably the ones screaming for more police action, too. It fits with their earlier demand for more school action. Anything to get them off the hook.

I’ve seen some amazing parenting around here. People with the patience of saints, making a difference and helping to shape their kids into terrific young adults. I’ve also seen some outrageously bad parenting here, made worse by a (imo) crazy belief that it’s somehow the responsibility of others (institutions, cops, schools, CCTVs, television, Ministries, governments, Health Authorities, etc.) to provide authority in their children’s lives.

We boomers mostly hate authoritarianism. I know I do. But the one Big Thing that becoming a parent taught me is that there’s a huge difference between being authoritarian and being authoritative. Some of my selfish boomer peers have let others be the authorities. In my experience of raising kids, that doesn’t work so well.

See Identify the Rioters for images of Wednesday night’s event.

The Times-Colonist also has a page, called The 40 most dramatic photos of the Vancouver riots, which kind of smacks of salaciousness, as if there’s a competition to find the photos that drip with the most mayhem. Includes dramatic, if representative, shots. This video (also linked to in the first paragraph) is graphic in showing the ugliness of the crowd. Another good read: Vancouver Riot: Psychology (Not Hooligans) Responsible for the Chaos by Bobbie Brooks. See also 2011 Stanley Cup riot “worse” than 1994 in the Vancouver Sun.

Update 6/19 – More links: On Youtube, A Billion Dollars Worth of Bad Publicity for Vancouver, says 94 Riot Investigator, worth a look; and a historical video, from 1968, of Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell calling out “the hippies” (historical and somewhat hysterical), Mayor Tom Campbell versus the Hippies.avi. This video is of interest to some people critical of the current mayor, Gregor Robertson, who has tried to paint the 2011 rioters as isolated “anarchists” and louts, a tactic that resonates with then-mayor Campbell’s. One additional link (newspaper article), View from Calgary: Seedy side was there before Cup riot in Vancouver, can’t say I disagree, having lived in Vancouver in the early 80s.

Ecothinking and Marx

June 12, 2011 at 9:06 pm | In canada, green, guerilla_politics, nature, politics, scandal, social_critique | Comments Off on Ecothinking and Marx

There’s a great video available on YouTube right now, A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never. Based on a 5/23 Washington Post op-ed by Bill McKibben of (and narrated and illustrated by Stephen Thomson of Plomomedia), it sarcastically tells us that “It is vitally important not to make connections.”

Of course the intent is the opposite: McKibben does want us to make connections. These days, however, we’re often so bedazzled by spectacle (including disaster footage) as to feel powerless about the point of information that connects to anything else.

But if not connect now, when?

In the video we see extreme weather events, including recent tornadoes in the Midwest; wildfires in Texas and droughts in New Mexico; flooding in Mississippi, and record rainfall elsewhere. “Do not wonder if they’re somehow connected,” the narrator warns. Do not wonder…. because it’s imperative to have a passive populace, of course – one that’s transfixed by looking instead “at the news anchorman standing in his waders in the rising rivers as the water approaches his chest,” or similar “oh-wow”-human-interest angles.

It’s far too hard to look at facts, or to ask whether government policies (such as allowing more coal mining or exploiting Alberta’s tarsands) even begin to make sense when it comes to global welfare…

So how about some facts for the next time you get up off the couch and head to the fridge? According to The rising cost of food – get the data (published on June 7, 2011), global food prices this year are still 37% higher than they were last year. And there’s no relief in sight as “high and volatile food prices are also likely to prevail for the rest of the year, and into 2012.”

What’s driving this rise, which has propelled the food price index from 92 in January 2001 to 232.4 in May 2011? Theories abound, including ones around weather (too much and/or too little rain fall); a growing population (including a demand for meat in China); concentration of corporate control; and the use of food for biofuel.

But maybe the following angle, alluded to in The Guardian, reveals an aspect that vitally deserves to be connected to other facts and insights: As the article notes, there is a

massive influx of big investors into deregulated commodities markets – searching for a “safe bet” after the dotcom bubble burst – who speculate on the future price of food. On Sunday, a UN conference on trade and development said it may be necessary for governments to intervene with regulation to rein in rising food prices. The FAO adds that more must be done to improve transparency in global food markets. (source)

Ok, let’s take that “dot” and connect it to another approach, courtesy of Bob Burnett’s recent article, Roll Over, Karl Marx (June 10, 2011). When you start to think about climate change and weather disasters in conjunction with environmental despoliation and rising food prices, and plug some of that into a political analysis, you have to get politicized …which is probably very dangerous to our ruling class.

Ruling class? Why, what’s this? Class warfare?

Well, yes, it’s shaping up that way, isn’t it? Except, of course, for the lethargy of the key players…

Burnett summarizes Marx and marxist thought in broad strokes, from the Industrial Age to the later 20th century, when income inequality (Johnson Administration) lessened …before picking up again. By 2007, income inequality had reached a historic high. What’s up with that?

In the meantime, our more recent Great Recession has hugely exacerbated that imbalance while it’s also busily eviscerating the middle class – which of course leads to more polarization. Yet the populace remains docile, even in the face of environmental despoliation (which is causing disasters world-wide) and significant rises in the cost of living, particularly food prices.

Burnett addresses several factors Marx (who expected that any class under such pressure would revolt) could not have foreseen: multinational corporations; a corporate-controlled mainstream media that owns the airwaves and your eyeballs; a PR campaign that remade our perception of corporate strategy (convincing us that trickle-down economics actually work, for example), or that “markets are inherently self correcting and there is no need for government regulation.” Burnett notes, the “consequences were devastating to workers, the environment, and the American economy,” particularly as jobs went overseas while wages stagnated. Union power / collective bargaining rights were undermined or destroyed, and – most significantly – instead of being perturbed by this loss of real power, people became distracted with questions about fundamentalist religion and issues like abortion – both of which “ divert attention from poor wages and living conditions.”

It doesn’t help that the Democratic Party is (as Burnett puts it) “capitalism lite,” leaving the non-capitalist crowd without a champion in the political arena.

And yet we wonder why Obama has been so wishy-washy on the environment. Why we continue to rape the earth – frack it for all it’s worth, for example.

But of course, “It is vitally important not to make connections.”

You should not wonder

You should instead continue to be distracted by “human interest” stories and ridiculous debates about religion and abortion and other matters that keep people on a slow boil, instead of directing them to fix real problems.

Above all, remember how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fuel companies…

Relevant images (links included)


Click on image for link to source article



Click on image for link to source article



Click on image for link to source article



Click on image for link to source article




NYT calls it a Twitter Trap. I say Keller needs to rethink

May 21, 2011 at 11:55 pm | In social_critique | Comments Off on NYT calls it a Twitter Trap. I say Keller needs to rethink

Over on Facebook, a friend pointed to the May 18 article by Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times: The Twitter Trap.

Keller wrote such a load of nonsense – my heart sank when I read it. A few thoughts on that story in a moment, but first: let’s recall that, Keller’s claim that The New York Times “has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto” notwithstanding, The Times has egg on its face regarding its claims to priority regarding the Osama bin Laden story. The Times has been stumbling badly when it comes to dealing with new media, “prizewinning gusto” or not.

So what does Keller say about Twitter (and other social media) in his opinion piece? It seems he wants to blame social media for making us stupider. It’s a by-now-familiar argument. You know the drill: Google is making us stupider because we don’t have to remember as much or as many facts (or factoids) as we used to. Keller repeats the argument verbatim:

Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak — the ability to recite entire books — were not unheard of.

Oh sure, I bet every yokel you encountered at the local sty back in the day could recite …um, what, exactly?

Middlemarch, says Keller.

Well, allow me a peasant moment: oy.

C’mon. You’ve heard these (tired) arguments by now, right? Back in the day, before we had all the new technology that provides our poor brains with crutches, we were all veritable Atlases of erudition.


Where, I wonder, do people get the idea that people were generally so much smarter and better “back in the day”?

But that’s not really my problem with Keller’s argument.

It’s about Middlemarch (which, full disclosure, I haven’t actually read) and it’s about taking facts out of context to make his case. Keller “blames” Gutenberg (that is: the invention of the printing press) for the death of the alleged ability to remember “vast quantities of information,” but here’s what he wrote:

Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. (…)

Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.”

Wait… Rewind! Middlemarch, dear Bill Keller, would not exist – much less be an object of your regret over mnemonic challenges unmet – if not for Gutenberg (“the Mark Zuckerberg of his day” – eww).

As I wrote on my friend’s Facebook wall, Middlemarch was written centuries after the invention of the printing press, and Keller not only would never have been expected to memorize it, he wouldn’t have had a chance to, since that literary format depended in the first place on the printing press for its emergence.

No Gutenberg, no Eliot, one could just as easily argue.

Keller seems too married to his certainties to understand or appreciate formal innovations that actually create new content.

There’s plenty wrong with how we use social media – just as there’s a lot wrong with how we’ve used television (reality TV, anyone?), or any other media. But to sit around as the freaking executive editor of The New York Times and kvetch about Gutenberg (thinly disguised as – fie! – a Mark Zuckerberg avant la lettre!) robbing you of your chance to recite Middlemarch just shows lazy thinking.

I guess there isn’t yet an app for that.

And for the record: if you’re the editor and can’t turn off the goddamn Tweetdeck (or whatever other intrusive / distracting app you’re using), then that’s your problem. Don’t go blaming the technologies for the time you’re wasting.


What I said about Victoria BC municipal elections in 2008

May 19, 2011 at 11:45 pm | In leadership, politics, social_critique, victoria | 1 Comment

Here’s an article I’d like all candidates for the upcoming Victoria municipal election in November 2010 to read: Simplicity of Losing, Complexity of Winning (September 2008 – link goes to Scribd). I wrote this for FOCUS Magazine in the run-up to the 2008 municipal election. Oh, how prescient – yet also how optimistic – I was. I couldn’t imagine the magnitude of FUBAR we ended up with.

Below, the full text of the article as it appeared in FOCUS:

Simplicity of Losing, Complexity of Winning
Yule Heibel

This fall, we’re electing new local governments, and the people we elect in Victoria will shape our city’s development.  We need to be talking about leadership, teamwork, and our collective attitudes toward winning, success and failure.

If you read Victoria’s “alternative” publications (for example, Sid Tafler’s Monday Magazine opinion pieces) or listen to some of the candidates emerging from Community Associations, you’ve probably noticed a rhetoric of heightened partisanship.  In some ways, this is to be expected.  After all, if you stand on a street corner and shout, “Sunshine!”, no one will pay much attention.  But shout “Fire!” and everyone comes running – even if that “fire” is the sun shining up in the sky.  Wolves, fires, bad news: they always get attention.  And as surely as newspapers need attention to sell, candidates need attention to get elected.

Incumbent politicians know this, too.  At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, Councillor Pam Madoff warned that the current Council has developed (pardon the pun) a reputation for being developer-friendly – as if this were a dirty and dangerous flaw.  The message was that some councillors weren’t doing enough to protect Victoria from developer predation.  Rifts on council – and possibly among staff itself – are becoming painfully obvious.

It’s easy enough to repeat the meme of “pro-development” councillors rubber-stamping proposals.  But how can you draw attention for positive discourse that strengthens respect, listening, teamwork?  Local papers report on council meetings where development proposals fail to pass, and the stories are peppered with quotes from community association members who skewer the city for even considering these proposals.  Their solution?  Prevent proposals from ever reaching council in the first place.  Declared candidate and Fairfield Community Association rep Wayne Hollohan, responding to a recent tabling of a proposal to develop the Crystal Court Motel site, stated, “I don’t know what policy exists that this [building] doesn’t violate.” (Times-Colonist, Aug.15/08)   This is a language that brooks no conciliation or teamwork.  “Violation” draws a curtain on conversation, for it suggests that some councillors collude to violate an undefended city.

Cities should, however, be robust enough to venture forth unchaperoned.  But what’s a city?  We must address that question and figure out what we are as a city.  I’ll reveal my hand by stating what to me is obvious: a) we are a Canadian city of significant size as well as this province’s capital city; and b) failure is not an option for cities today.

Cities compete.  This is why they must be robust.

They have to compete regionally, nationally, and internationally.  Victoria shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge or get out of the game, as cities are far too important to regional and national economies.  They are productive hubs where large numbers of people of all ages, with complex needs and contributions, gather, live, and work.  This also means that their built form must maximize resources and extract the best efficiencies in land use, so that ecological benefits consequently are a byproduct of density.

Density in turn supports complexity.  That’s what cities do best, and it’s how they contribute to the well-being of economies and ecologies.  For cities, change (as a function of complexity) is a constant.  If they’re smart, change means they develop; if they’re dumb, they stagnate and decay.

As a voter, I have to ask how comfortable our municipal leaders are in addressing urban growth and creative development.  How familiar are they with the work of Jane Jacobs, who argued against centralized planning and in favour of organic growth as well as “webby” or networked economies that deal flexibly with import replacements and growth?  Or the work of Alan Broadbent, who writes about the need to fund Canadian cities properly and to give them the tools that allow them to run with greater autonomy and independence?  Or Richard Florida or Ed Glaeser, who make the case for creative economies?  Consider, for example, that your purchase of gadgets like iPods validates not the metals and plastic in the device, but the design — its embodied creative, intellectual value.  What this means is that the “creative class” or “knowledge workers” who create that value are more important than the raw resources that went into the product.  These knowledge workers live in cities, including Victoria, as our growing technology sector proves.

As a voter, I want to know what sort of competencies our elected municipal leaders demonstrate with regard to understanding regional  economic contexts; understanding information and knowledge economies; understanding the potential of the creative classes, green urban development, and the need for density?  How many are stuck in yesterday’s thinking, which says that density is equal to “slum” or “blight”?

During a meeting between mayoralty candidate Dean Fortin and the Downtown Residents Association, Councillor Fortin declared that each additional storey on a building raises the crime rate and social problems.  When pressed, it turned out that his opinion was based on reading just two University of Toronto reports about an out-of-date public housing project – hardly the stuff of contemporary urbanism!  Councillor Fortin then volunteered Councillor Sonya Chandler’s opinion that high-rises are not a workable urban form because Peak Oil means that elevators will grind to a halt.  This rather fanciful, and hardly realistic, view of urbanism just isn’t helpful.  A more creative, versus fear-mongering, approach would foresee elevators running on alternative energy sources, generated by the high-rises themselves.

One wonders: have some of our municipal leaders missed the message that densely built-up cities are in fact far “greener” and better for residents than low-density development?

It seems that the provincial government “gets it,” as shown by Bill 27 (see my August 2008 article), which explicitly asks cities to encourage density and compact growth.  Unfortunately, in BC there’s always the danger that if “they” get it, then “we” have to oppose it, because partisan politics rule.  But the fact is that at the local government level, partisan politics are simply stupid, and not smart at all: if you want to run a city, grow up and leave partisanship at home.

And yet, consider our culture.  Victoria has always attracted eccentrics.  Whether they’re newcomers or homegrown entities, the city has attracted its fair share.  That’s a good thing if you believe that eccentricities contribute to a city’s vibrancy, and that our ability to attract them speaks volumes about Victoria’s potential.

But, and this is a huge but: Victoria fails to nurture respect for team-players.  Look into our history and note how many creatives ended up leaving Victoria because the climate here wasn’t supportive.  If someone wants to build a winning team, he or she will likely run a gauntlet of gainsayers who find reasons to nitpick the Great Idea until it lies in tatters on the ground.  The cheering section for failure in this town is huge, and that needs to change.

What’s wrong with winning, anyway?

Well, winning usually means increased complexity and change.  It’s that simple.  Losing, on the other hand, means simplification, stasis, stagnation.  Obviously, my support goes to complexity and change, which is why I would ask those who want to win in our next election whether they’re certain our city won’t lose.

What I wrote about “Victoria fail[ing] to nurture respect for team-players,” and that people who want to build a winning team have to “run a gauntlet of gainsayers who find reasons to nitpick the Great Idea until it lies in tatters on the ground” because “the cheering section for failure in this town is huge,” still stands. I was referring to the difficulties encountered by change-makers, not to Old Boys or to partisan politicos – those guys always seem to “work together,” albeit not for change, but for the status quo. Then I wrote, “and that needs to change”; three years on I doubt it will.

This is Part 2; read Part 1 about my foray into the archives here.


DNA quadruplex formed by telomere repeats

What I said about social media and political engagement in 2008

May 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm | In leadership, politics, social_critique, victoria | Comments Off on What I said about social media and political engagement in 2008

Social media mavens, Victorians: take note. We have a municipal election coming up this fall, and I just re-read a piece I wrote for FOCUS Magazine in the run-up to the last municipal election in 2008, published in October of that year: Smart Twits? (the link takes you to Scribd).

Below, I copy and paste the entirety of the article. It pains me to say it, but I was way ahead of my time here – underscoring that “here” is not where I belong.

Smart twits? A user guide
Yule Heibel

The scenario: municipal elections approach, but you haven’t managed to get excited enough to pay attention.  One candidate says, “our backs are up against the wall,” while another suggests affairs are trundling along as always.  Which one gets your attention?

My bet is on the one who tiddles your panic button (even if you don’t like it).

But wait…  Don’t they say that once you’ve panicked, it’s already too late?  Who manages smart decisions when panicked?  But when you’re voting, choosing smartly is important.

So maybe that’s why you decide not to vote?   You leave the panic-mongers to their wide-eyed, sputtering friends, and you don’t like the “career politicians,” either.  Face it, bud: you’re an alienated citizen, …although we both know you’re smart.

What should politicians do to engage you?  It’s not an academic question.  Locally, I’ve overheard the “our backs are against the wall” statement numerous times in recent weeks, and simultaneously I’ve watched more temperate players struggle to develop a message that gets people’s attention.  There’s definitely a chance to run a dumb race to the bottom, where candidates exploit fear instead of explaining opportunities.

Can we google this problem?

I spend lots of time online.  Believe me, the holy grail of many web developers is to create applications that make users feel empowered and smarter.  Smart is powerful, and it’s in our DNA to learn: we’re a monkey-see, monkey-do kind of mammal, and we want to feel like smart apes, not dumb chumps.  I’m convinced that in the aggregate, web technologies make users smarter.  Since it’s election season, let’s see if politicians are learning here.

Online, I’m immersed in a river of information and feedback generated by an array of sources, from individuals to organizations to traditional media outlets.  That web-based informational flow is as real to me as daily mail, newspapers, and chats by office water coolers were to previous generations.  By using technology, I gather flows of information without relying on just one or two broadcast sources.

Savvy politicians have figured out that they, too, can’t afford to ignore how users are actively re-organizing information, as opposed to being its passive recipients.  Look, and you’ll find that nearly all the local politicians are on Facebook, “conversing” with their social networks.  Look further, and you’ll find that those with national aspirations and an adventurous bent use even more immediate social networking tools.  Twitter, for example, is a microblogging platform where users “tweet” (and can tweet each other) in a constant ping-pong of real-time informational back-and-forth.

We’ve seen a persistent migration to online social media in politics.  The goal?  Relationships with other users and with potential voters.  Politicians need voters to win elections, but first they need to communicate with them.  At the national level, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper “twitter,” Stephane Dion and Elizabeth May don’t (yet).  All are on Facebook, though, as are many of our municipal candidates.

Mainstream media and information sources have migrated to social media, too.  CBC journalists, Macleans Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, the National Post all twitter, as does the Vancouver Library and many individual librarians (who typically are early adopters).  Businesses small and large twitter (AirCanada, anyone?), and customers can tweet complaints (or kudos) directly to a business’s stream.  If the business tweets you back, that conversation is visible to anyone. WorkSafeBC twitters new guidelines, updates, and more, all in real time.  Even BCLegislation twitters (“Automated alerts for legislative changes …Published by Quickscribe’s BC Legislation Portal”).  Facebook and Twitter are just two platforms.  There are others: blogs, Tumblrs, Flickr, MySpace, Identica, FriendFeed, etc.  The list will grow.

Many smart users are online, skinny-dipping in a river of news.

Except not so much at the local level, where information flow is often turgid, dependent on broadcast media, or on having access to the “right” individuals (who may or may not be online).  Local politicians and the civic institutions they represent aren’t using social media to talk directly with “users.”  There’s no VicCouncil twitter-stream, …unless you consider the actual experience a tweet.  While quite a few candidates are on Facebook only a tiny minority of incumbents are.

At the same time, it seems improbable that the lessons of social media technologies aren’t having a powerful effect on local politics.  Online mavens know that’s discussion forum has opened up the city’s conversation on urban development and politics (along with many other things) to anyone with access to a computer.  Ask a question, get an answer.

Candidates who face the icky choice of either getting your attention by panicking you, or boring you because they have nothing attention-worthy to retail, should talk to users (potential voters) directly: open the conversation and engage alienated voters.

Just don’t try to get our attention by panicking us.  That’s so dumb (read: not-smart).  Smart should be empowering and make YOU (the user) better.  As one of my Twitter friends noted, “Don’t focus on making your BOOK better… focus on making the READER better.”  She also wrote, “[It] NEVER matters how good YOU are. Only how good USERS can be.”  Substitute “election platform” for “BOOK,” and substitute “citizen” or “voter” for “READER” or “USER,” and we can start talking.  …Or tweeting.

Of course it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually meet offline.  As someone twittered recently: “All my batteries are dead.  Talk to me in person.”

Well, that was my take on public engagement in Victoria THREE YEARS AGO. How have things improved?

PS: This is part 1. Next up, Part 2, about my September 2008 article, which is another piece worth reading, considering that municipal elections will soon be upon us again…

Gary Shteyngart’s bad fathers (on Super Sad True Love Story)

December 17, 2010 at 11:58 pm | In just_so, literature, social_critique | 3 Comments

So much already is written about Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story by readers and reviewers motivated far better than I that it feels redundant to add more. Read the description and reviews on Amazon, if the novel is unfamiliar. Then, if you haven’t already, get a hold of the book and read it – it’s a damn good read.

While lots has been written, I haven’t seen much discussion of what the novel says about the nature of work or what it says about the weird economy of this dystopian future.

Presumably, there are characters in the novel who actually work – Joshie’s Post-Human Services must have some sort of labor at its core (intellectual, scientific, research-related), and someone must be cleaning the office lavatories – but overall, for the superior classes (the High Net Worth Individuals, or HNWIs) work seems to have become weirdly symbolic, if not a-economic. People are obsessed by their credit ratings (publicly visible on the “credit poles” that line the streets, and beamed constantly through social media enabled mobile devices called äppäräts), yet there’s nothing empowering or liberating about the work that people actually do: it doesn’t seem to help anyone get anywhere. Development – personal, intellectual – has ceased as everyone is caught in a sinister empire of signs and spectacle.

There are coveted work sectors, but the people “working” in them could just as well be spending their all their time on Facebook (or, in the novel’s terms, GlobalTeens) or flipping burgers. Same difference. No qualities.

HNWIs “work” in Media or Retail, but the more you learn about the nature of this work, the more confusing it becomes. Lenny (the main male character) spends a lot of his so-called work time simply networking – or, let’s face it: schmoozing. And when he actually hits “the office,” it’s to spar with younger, more hip (more schmoozier) co-workers who desire to supplant him.

Kindergarten, anyone?

Joshua (or Joshie), Lenny’s sugar daddy – er, I mean, big daddy boss – is quite literally a father figure whom Lenny tries to guilt into keeping him “employed.” Not exactly a mature working relationship.

Joshie, meanwhile, is himself the ultimate immaturity freak who’s trying to reverse-engineer his own personal aging process. Perhaps he thinks he can to return to being “merely an egg” (no, not really), but he’s no Valentine Smith – and this isn’t Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s more like “I know everything about you and you’re in my face and that’s ok because I’m in your face and that’s all there is to ‘know’ ’cause who needs knowledge when you’ve got information?'” Information is unattached.

When it’s all over, Joshie’s quest is more like something out of Brazil, where plastic surgery and dreams of eternal youth also go horribly wrong.

Eunice, the book’s heroine, is in her twenties and “volunteers” an hour here or there, but otherwise does not work or earn an income. Instead, she spends her father’s money.

Her dream is to work in retail, apparently a highly coveted sector that only the well-connected are able to break into – ironically (from my perspective), this made me think of Richard Florida‘s idea that service sector jobs should become high-value, just as factory jobs became high-value in the 20th century. When Joshie finagles a job for her in some oh-my-gawd-so-cool ueber-mall that comes across as Dante’s something-circle of hell, we see her (through Lenny’s spying eyes) behind a stall, hawking leather cuffs with inane political sayings stenciled on them. …Shades of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, where Frank Frink and his friend Ed McCarthy manufacture fake American Artistic Handcrafts…

Shteyngart’s emphasis on fathers, and how they succeed or fail in inculcating their children, succeed or fail in bringing them to maturity, struck me as a recurring motif. The mothers are cast very traditionally – and in fact, this is not a woman’s novel, in the sense that it’s definitely a book where a guy seems to be working out his issues. And by “guy,” I could be talking about Shteyngart or about Lenny. Certainly Lenny: the book is all about him and how he works out his issues. I guess Shteyngart sort of universalizes this, as if we’re all Lennys who get to have the last word, while the women – Eunice, for example – disappear from view. I certainly liked Lenny, but I’m not a guy, so my sympathy for/ identification with him had its limits.

America, full of bad fathers, falls apart. America, run by bad fathers, becomes a nightmare state. Where have the legendary and infamous bad mothers gone? Perhaps in previous decades writers (male) could blame “bad mothers” for the personal failings of their (male) characters. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Shteyngart put the focus back on fathers, even if it’s a Pyrrhic “victory” from a feminist point of view. (What I mean is: when it was “just” personal, we could blame the mothers – and, yes, that got pretty tiresome; but when it’s really Big Picture – the Rise and Fall of America – then we have to re-focus on fathers because, in the end, it’s the men who matter more. Pyrrhic.)

Still, those gripes aside: loved this novel – I was drawn in from the start, and thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Power/ Influence

November 3, 2010 at 11:41 pm | In arts, authenticity, fashionable_life, guerilla_politics, ideas, social_critique, vancouver, victoria, women | Comments Off on Power/ Influence

A few days ago the Vancouver Sun published BC’s top 100 influential women – it’s entirely possible that I would have missed the Sun‘s report if not for Alexandra Samuel‘s extensive blog post, Vancouver Sun list of 100 influential women in BC shows influence beyond Twitter.

This evening I came across Are you an influencer? on The Next Web Shareables. There are two videos in this post – one is a short trailer, the other is a 14-minute version. The influencers are almost all – and I mean all – men. Young, too, and often pretty macho. There’s one woman who gets interviewed more extensively, and aside from her (and a brief image of Marilyn Munroe, of all people) it’s men, men, men: discursively, it’s a world where women simply don’t exist, except for exotic exceptions that serve to rub in how absent we are otherwise.

From my not-so-in-depth examination (so far) of the Vancouver Sun piece (I have some ambition to pick it apart later, but haven’t done so yet), it seemed to me that the top 100 influential women in BC are almost all from Vancouver: it’s as if anything beyond Metro Vancouver doesn’t exist.

Before seeing the Are you an influencer video tonight, I had been thinking, tangentially, about the importance of location / place in determining who gets to be counted as an influencer (and why), and about how location concentrates and drives influence and power. Specifically with the BC’s top 100 influential women piece in mind, I had been thinking about Vancouver and how it seems unlikely for that location to share power and influence with other locations in BC.

At the same time, I was recalling that 25 years ago Vancouver was for all intents and purposes a hick town, really: when my friend and fellow grad student Steve at the University of British Columbia announced to faculty that he planned to write an Art History Master’s Thesis about a Canadian art movement, one of the senior professors – an Englishman who studied Tiepolo, regularly removing himself from Vancouver as often as he could to pursue his studies in situ in Italia – warned Steve that, by limiting himself to such a provincial scope, he was burying himself “in a very shallow grave.” In other words, young man (or young woman), if you didn’t study Pollock or Picasso – or any of the other big-name brand-name all-male stars – and if instead you chose a new (but obscure!) topic that you cared about (or, gasp!, a woman artist to study), you were not going to be an influencer yourself. You could only become an influencer by attaching yourself to a Big Name.

Fact. Honest truth. The Tiepolo scholar was telling Steve that he could not, within the framework of the Academy, become an influencer if he chose to study something un-influential (sotto voce, that meant “study an important male artist, it will pay off for you – do not choose to study an insignificant movement or heaven forbid a woman artist”).

Do you see the contradiction? Sure, you might say, “well, hip influencers these days don’t want to work in the Academy,” but I’m telling you that there is no “out there,” and that instead, the academy is all around us, morphing to provide the context of power every time. Call it Academy 2.0, call it Influencer Academy: it’s still a power structure. If you’re outside that Academy, good luck flopping around in your shallow grave.

So the question with regard to the “top 100 influential women” article and its Vancouver-centrism might be, “how does a place become the sort of framework that allows certain things / people to achieve influence?” Vancouver has become that sort of place. Is it the concentration of capital and power, which in turn conveys some sort of benediction on those who do manage to achieve success within it?

As for the continued existence of the Academy, just watch the Influencers video and be amazed at how tightly it’s still controlled by men – but then realize that the video was created by two men. So, no big surprise, eh? If women don’t step up and make these kinds of documentaries, well, then, tant pis pour nous, as they say might say in Quebec. In that sense, I applaud the Sun‘s B.C.’s Top 100 Influential Women series and I’m thrilled to see every single woman on there.

The issue of place keeps nagging at me, of course. Victoria can certainly be the most shallow of graves…

I don’t know what became of Steve, who “sacrificed” becoming an influencer (aka, joining the Big Men) by instead studying obscure Canadian socialist art of the 1930s.

But how superficial would our culture be if we only studied the Big Men, amplifying a power structure that trades only within the Academy? We don’t need another hero, and we don’t need a fancier Echo Chamber either.

Ever wondered why hotel staff turn down your bed?

October 1, 2010 at 7:06 pm | In ideas, social_critique | 3 Comments

Yet another section in Erve Chambers’s Native Tours jumped out at me today (see previous entries for other examples). Chambers references (pp.106-7) the work of Graham Dann, who in 1996 “described some of the ways in which language is used to promote various kinds of tourism, as well as to regulate and control interactions between tourists and hosts.”

Language is key to “socializing” the tourists – getting them accustomed to the focus of whatever the tourist experience aims at, whether it’s the nostalgia register; spasprech (health tourism); gastrolingo (food & drink oriented tourism experiences); or greenspeak (eco-tourism).

What I found most fascinating was this, however:

The process [Dann] describes is one in which tourists are invited to play the role of the child about to explore new physical and cultural terrain. Their socialization begins with guidebooks and marketing brochures, which assure the tourist-child that his or her safety and comfort needs will be assured and that there will be plenty of opportunities to satisfy his or her biological and emotional needs. Once they have arrived at their destination, industry workers guide the tourist-child to a bed, even turning down the sheets, provide food, and offer the assurance of 24-hour contact with the front desk. Dann describes the work of other scholars who have suggested that this child-parent relationship persists throughout the traveler’s visit. The goal of tourism industry representatives is to transform the tourist from the “natural Child (with unlimited wants) to the adapted Child (with trained needs).”

I have to admit that I never thought of it this way before – but it makes sense. As Dann (via Chambers) notes, it helps explain a lot, for example the nearly irrational temper tantrums tourists are capable of throwing over what, in other circumstances, might be minor details. “I’m not being taken care of,” would be the Child’s inner thought when a reservation isn’t honored or if the towel service isn’t up to snuff. That’s when the client/ guest/ tourist can act like a brat – and having paid dearly to be that Child (trained or not), she or he feels entitled to scream.

Check out this image posted to Flickr by fujiapple (it sure makes Dann’s / Chambers’s point!)…

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