Volunteers

As I noted a little earlier, this summer has been pretty active in New West. This last weekend the trend continued with the annual Pride Street Party. There were community groups booths, three stages with entertainment, an active kid’s area, beer gardens, food trucks, and local restaurants and beer gardens were filled to overflowing. While other parts of the City and the world were having confrontations about inclusiveness and diversity, thousands of people filled Columbia Street to celebrate victories won for inclusion and understanding, and had fun on a sunny afternoon.

It was a great day in New West, and one that would not have been possible without an army of volunteers.

New West Pride Society is a volunteer-run society that organizes and executes the entire event. The City helps with a grant through our festival grant program, and many sponsors step up to pay for everything from volunteer t-shirts to stage rental and advertising. However all of the actual work, the organization, the year of planning, the hundreds of tasks on event day, everything is done by volunteers.

It isn’t just Pride. The New West Farmers Market, the New West Cultural Crawl, The New West Grand Prix, the Hyack International Parade,  Pecha Kucha NW, the New West Film Fest, the events that make the City come alive, are run largely on the backs of volunteer labour. Lots of Volunteer labour.

No surprising point to this, just a short post to give an extra “Thanks” to the volunteers that make this City so full of great activity – from the Presidents of Societies that work all year long, to the folks who show up on game day to sell tickets or pick up litter. I hope that everyone who enjoyed an event this year will think about volunteering for next year’s version of whatever event they enjoyed (and it doesn’t have to be just one). It doesn’t take much time (many hands make light work), you might get a T-shirt (see banner), and it makes the event even more enjoyable for you. You can say “I helped make this happen”, you will help create more opportunities to enjoy the summer with your friends, and you will more likely than not make new friends.

A modest proposal…

We all just lost an hour sleep. It makes us grumpy, large-data-set-grinding nerds tell us it causes a measurable increase in accidents, parents have to manage cycle-conditioned children. Many question the reasoning of it all.

Some say the archaic practice has to be done away with, despite alleged energy efficiency gains and whatever agrarian benefits might have brought us the concept of “saving” daylight with our watches. I am not one of those, but might humbly suggest adapting of how we practice the fall-backward spring-forward ritual dance.

I hate the end of daylight savings, because suddenly it is dark on the way home from work, and I have to dig my bike lights out before my commute – the most sure sign that summer is over. However, this is really a product of the tilt of the planet, not our artificial mucking with sun-clock synch. It would happen if we didn;t switch clocks, just sooner. That is hardly a reason to hate daylight savings.

The reality is that most people prefer falling back, because we get that extra hour of sleep. We are a society of underslept, overworked drones feeding an unrelenting God we call “the Economy”, and love an extra hour of respite whenever we can get it. Despite the gloomy weather ahead, we all take that hour of sleep as a wonderful gift (ignoring the Marshamllow Test implications of it all).

This is what caused me to think that the problem with springing forward is the loss of sleep. We cannot afford to lose sleep in this frantic lifestyle. So why do we?

The simple change would be to shift the “leap forward” from 2:00am on a Sunday to 4:00pm on a Friday. That way, the weekend comes 1 hour earlier for everyone. 1 less hour of waking (and working) means we will enter spring more refreshed and better slept, not the opposite. Who isn’t ready to get off work and have a beer at 4:00 on a Friday in early March? Bonus less bike light need.

Or, alternately, instead of going on the internet to complain about losing an hour of sleep, people could just go to bed an hour earlier. That would work, too.

Dumpster Fire

I haven’t written anything about the ongoing US election, which I guess is strange as I am supposed to be a politician, have lots of opinions, and it appears to be the only story that matters. It’s not like I’m disinterested; I watched all three debates, I have been compulsively checking FiveThirtyEight for the last couple of weeks, I have had been in many conversations that veered over towards the dumpster fire election, I have even occasionally engaged with Vlad, New Westminster’s Facebook Trump Fan Extraordinaire. It impacts my life, my planet, I care. I just haven’t built up the will to write about it.

Three days out, this is all I have to say.

Many commenters and pundits suggest that both parties ran terrible candidates. That any Democrat not as universally hated as Clinton would be running circles around Trump, and that if the Republicans had run a more mainstream candidate (insert Rubio, Jeb, or even Romney) then they would be running away with this. I disagree.

First off, it perpetrates this false equivalency notion: that they are both equally terrible candidates for President. We have demonstrably the most qualified candidate in the history of the presidency, a lawyer who spent her career in public service fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised, who spent years being not a passive, but active member of the Arkansas Governor’s mansion and White House, who was elected to the Senate and served with huge public support and success, who served as Secretary of State at a time of great conflict. No-one in the country can claim to have a better understanding of what the job of President really is, and what it means, or is as prepared to fill that role. She is running against a blowhard serial criminal and scam artist who doesn’t just lie pathologically, but lives in a universe of his own truths, who has a life-long history of putting his over-inflated fragile balloon of an ego in front of any other consideration, has failed at business, marriage, and friendship more times than can be counted, and displays Fascist tendencies towards the very institutions of democracy, including the vote, the courts, and the media. These are not equal humans by any measure.

I would argue, however, that Trump is the only candidate who would have this level of success against Clinton. Recognizing her complete and utterly dominant resume, he is the only one with the willingness and ability to fan the flames of misogyny and hate that have undercut the campaign. The only one who can tell the only demographic firmly against Clinton – white males – that it is OK to call her a bitch, a whore, fat, ugly and conniving, “Jezebel” if you are of the Alt-Christian Right persuasion, and all the misogynist language and thinking that forms the undercurrent of the campaign.

Any mainstream candidate would have had to disavow that type of language, that type of thinking. They may have tried the dogwhistle arguments about her “weakness” or “lack of stamina” or “bad judgement”, but those are easily refuted with the record, play against the idea that she is some existential threat, and is perhaps too subtle for the low-brow target market. Trump (and the people he surrounds himself with – men and women) are more than happy to let “Shoot the Bitch” T-shirts be circulated at their rallies, to drag out victims of her husband’s alleged sexual deviancy two decades ago to bring into question her competency as a spouse (which is, of course, a metric only applied to women), to fill the minds of lower and middle class white guys who have been victims of long-term stagnation, liberalism and globalization with a list of “others” to blame – coloureds, “Chuy-na”, and women not fulfilling their roles as sexual possessions. This is the base upon which Trump has built his support, and perhaps the only thing more disgusting is the stunned-into-acquiescence mainstream of the Republican Party, who are not willing to take part in fanning those flames, but are happy to receive the warmth. And some, I assume, are good people.

There are other forces this election. People are disenfranchised, have been told for a decade that the country they are supposed to be so proud of is a laughing stock, there doesn’t seem to be much good news on the perpetual-war front, they are sick, poor, and underemployed. The “economy” is no longer serving them, as individuals, with few prospects ahead. It has been a long and winding path out of the flaming crater of the 2008 financial crisis. Of course, it is patently ridiculous to think that the person who has benefitted the most from laissez-faire capitalism, dysfunctional courts, globalization and a corrupted tax system – Donald J Trump – is somehow going to take apart the systems that gilded his world with the sweat equity of the beleaguered American worker. The American voter may not be smart, but they are smarter than that. Trump’s hate message is not as directed as it could be, but without hatred of Clinton’s biggest crime – being a woman in power – his campaign would have been buried months ago.

I think Clinton is going to win, solidly, but not by the landslide she deserves. She will then be subjected to 4 (or 8) years of unrelenting misogyny and personal attacks while she tries to do the job as best she can within a damaged political system. She will do it with strength and dignity, perhaps lacking the eloquence and charisma of (either) Obama. Like she has for the last couple of decades, she will continue to rise above it all to do the hard work of governance, and those who will benefit the most will rarely feign to thank her for it.

on the commute.

The Ides of August was hellish for people trying to get home from work. It was a hot day by Vancouver standards, without much of a breeze, but the sweat on the brows was more caused by a series of incidents where cars unsuccessfully tried to share space with one another.helltraffic1

However, on a hot day like this, one incident causing delay often cascades into a series of other incidents as people become less patient, less rational, and the natural dehumanizing effects of being in a car get people treating everyone around them, the people they share a community with, like their mortal enemies for having the gall of trying to do the same thing they themselves are doing because aaaAAAARRGGH!

helltraffic2

I commute by car, by transit, and by bike, depending on day, weather, schedule, and lifestyle factors. Yesterday, I was fortunate to have taken my bike into work, so my commute home was relatively stress free. I have to admit a bit of smugness enters the mind when you are relaxed on a bike, enjoying the weather, and pedaling softly by a long line of single-occupant cars, which almost offsets the self-hatred I suffer every time I am in the car, stuck in a line, and see some much happier person riding their bike past me. However, having been that person stuck in a car, stuck in traffic that I am also a part of, it never occurred to me to blame the person on the bike for my physical predicament, or my mental state.

So yesterday, I am riding east along Westminster Highway near the Nature Park during this traffic chaos when I see something new to me. I am exposed to Richmond Drivers on a daily basis, but this was a little over the top. There was a line of about six or seven cars just rolling down the bike lane. It is almost as if the drivers had decided that two lanes were not enough, and had, en masse, decided this is a three lane road, passing the vehicles stuck to their left. At some point, a group of about 4 were stopped at a light, and I rolled past them. This might have been a little untoward, but after all, it is a bike lane – no sharrows or bus stop or shared parking space or right turn lane ambiguity here, and I was on a bicycle.

This was too much for a guy in a 4th generation Camaro Convertible with the ginormous Polska Pride flag decal covering the the hood. He took the opportunity to suggest to me in no uncertain terms, that I should not be riding my bicycle “on the road”. I saw this as a great time to remind him that I was, in fact in a bike lane, as evidenced by the nearby signage, and that he, in fact was also in the bike lane, without a bike, so I may have been in the right here.

At this point, he started into a lengthy screed, which was about 40% profanity and about 60% Bruce Allen “reality check”, neither of which were probably appropriate for the 8 year old in the passenger seat to witness. The short version was that bicycle riders don’t buy insurance, they should not be on the road, and that I, although obviously homosexual, engage in unwholesome acts with my mother.

I rode away from him and his impotent rage, and generally enjoyed the rest of my ride home. I did so, however, once again wondering what it is about driving a car that dehumanizes us. Why do we behave in a line of cars like we never would in a line at a bank? Why do we feel a car allows us the threaten and intimidate other people, be they children or senior citizens, and yell racial and homohpbic epithets that we would never do at a public park, on the beach, at work or in a mall? Outside of actual war, is there any other group activity we volunteer to engage in where we so publicly and unabashedly hate the people we are surrounded by? Why do we even do it?

Also, what is this strange fascination with attempting to license bicycles like they are some sort of parallel with cars? As His Snobbiness (slightly profanely) reminds us: you don’t need a commercial pilot’s license to operate a car. Bicycles present pretty nearly no risk whatsoever to drivers, passengers, or public property, except for some risk of scuffing the paint on their car, for which ICBC will make the person at fault pay. Even if I did buy insurance attendant to the risk I present to third parties (which would surely cost a few dollars a year relative to the risk I pose when I shuffle down the road at 100km/h in 2,000lbs of steel), do I think Mr. Polska Camaro is suddenly going to see me as a legitimate sharer of road space and afford me respect?

Yet for some reason, otherwise seemingly rational public servants from Toronto to Vancouver suggest there is some problem with adults riding bicycles that licensing can somehow cure. They aren’t too sure what the problem is, and have a hard time tying this solution to it, but they need to be seen to be doing something about the bicycles, because people in bicycles are not angry enough.

Let’s all try to get along, folks. Autumn is nearly here.

What do you do?

I’ve been at the City Councillor thing for a year and a half now, long enough that I have to stop referring to myself as “the new guy”. At some point, I have to stop blaming / giving credit to the previous Council for everything going wrong / right in the City. I suspect (hope?) the steep part of the learning curve is now behind me, and I start directing more of my learning towards the problems I want to see solved, the opportunities ahead. It is also long enough that I should be able to answer the simple question “What do you do?”

I have tried, over the last 18 months, to report out on this blog some of the mechanics of City Council, as it was my goal when running to open up the process a bit, and try to do a better job explaining the sometimes-incomprehensible decisions Council (and the City) make. Recognizing many in the City will disagree with any given decision made by Council, I wanted to at least provide enough information so that they know what they are disagreeing with, and not rely on the few very vocal boo-birds in town who assume a decision is bad only because this Council makes it.

However, this post isn’t about that, it is more about the actual day-to-day duties of a person you pay $40,000 a year (plus Vehicle Allowance!) to represent you, whether you voted for them or not. So here is my summary of the job.

*This is a good time for one of my disclaimers about how everything I write here is my opinion and my viewpoint, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the ideas or opinions of any other members of Council, who are, believe it or not, individual people with their own ideas and biases. Like the rest of this Blog, this is not the “official position” of the City or any entity other than myself.*

Council Meetings:
Council meeting days happen about every two weeks on average. In the spring and fall we meet more often, and we more time off in the summer and around Christmas. The schedule is flexible around work load and stat holiday schedules, but we have about 26-30 meetings a year.

Council meeting days are comprised of a Closed Meeting and an Open Meeting, only the latter of which you see on TV. About 10 times a year (the last meeting of most months), the Open Meeting is coupled with a Public Hearing. We also, at times, have Committee/Taskforce meetings (more on that below) and Council Workshops on these Mondays.

A long Council Monday can be 12 or more hours, with breaks for lunch and dinner. The portion you see on TV is only the Open Meeting and Public Hearing part. On any given meeting day I am at City hall at 9:00am, and typically wander home sometime between 9:00 and midnight.

Council Prep:
We cannot show up at Council Meetings unprepared to discuss the business of the day. Our schedule on Monday is typically pretty stuffed, and we cannot hope to learn enough about the issues on which we will be discussing during that time. On the Friday before the meeting we are delivered (electronically in my case) our “Council Package”. This contains the staff-prepared reports and background info we need to put discussions in context. The Package varies in length, but is typically about 1,000 pages when Closed and Open agenda items are combined.

My practice is to get take a glance at the Package for maybe an hour after I get home from work on Friday or first thing Saturday morning. This allows me to get an idea of what is on the agenda, to determine if it is a 700-page or a 2,000-page week, and to do a first pass over the topics being discussed. From that I can plan out my weekend to assure I have enough time put aside to review at the detail needed, and do any other research I might want to do in order to understand the issue. That is usually when I decide if I have time to do a bike ride on Sunday or attend a Saturday function.

Typically (and this varies quite a bit), I spend about 8 hours on Sunday reviewing the package and taking my notes. My notes form the backbone of the Blog I will eventually write about the week’s Council meeting, but more importantly they create a framework around which I organize my thoughts on the agenda items. This is an old trick from studying during my University years, but I find that if I write a summary of a topic I am trying to learn, it forces me to learn enough to summarize the important points, and to understand what questions I need to have answered yet. Often, you don’t know what you don’t know until you try to write it down.

I print those notes out, so you can see me at Council using my computer screen (where the agenda and reports that make up the Package are) and written notes, along with the extra papers that we receive on Council Day, typically supporting reports that weren’t available Friday, presentation materials, or other relevant documents. My desk is a mess.

Committees and Taskforces:
Like the rest of my colleagues, I serve on several Committees and Taskforces for Council. These each meet anywhere from once a month to once every second month. Most meetings are in the later afternoon, mid-week, after I get off my regular job, and meetings typically last about two hours. With my being on three taskforces and four committees, this adds up to an average of about one meeting a week during the busy months, but not many in the summer (except occasional exceptional meetings, like the Transportation Taskforce last week, and the ACTBiPed next week).

In these meetings, Council members, staff, and stakeholders work through issues, ideas, programs, or proposals, and (hopefully) provide guidance to Council to make better decisions. Prep for these meetings varies greatly, but rarely takes more than an hour. Follow-up on some of the issues that arise at these meetings, and some of the extraordinary meetings, tours or other activities involved with the work these committees are doing takes quite a bit more time.

Community Events: There are various types of community events, some you have to attend, like the Civic Dinner where we thank committee volunteers, some you attend to show support to organizations or people doing good work in the City, some you attend just because they are fun.

This is a challenge for any Councillor’s schedule. We get a lot of invitations, and cannot hope to attend everything. I try to be careful about stretching myself too thin, and end up missing a lot of events I really want to get to. I try to respond to every invitation and send a decline if I cannot make it, but scheduling is an ongoing challenge, as is managing my work and Council calendars while still finding some time to remind @MsNWimby that I exist. The job does not come with a social coordinator, and every calendar app I can find for my phone is worse than every other one. I’m still working on this part…

Constituent Services:
This is a big, but pretty loosely defined group of activities, and each Councillor can make their own decision about how they manage this, and how much time it takes. This is another part of the job that “expands to fill the space available to it”.

Sometimes, a person complains to you about potholes on their street, or the noise from their neighbor’s wind chimes. Sometimes they call you to ask for help with a business license issue, or to complain about a development in their neighbourhood. Sometimes people complain about unfair enforcement of a Bylaw, while others complain about lack of Bylaw enforcement. Some people just want to be heard and the problem acknowledged, some want you to fix things for them.

I try to take an approach to this based on a few principles. I am not there to help people get out of Bylaw requirements, to get their stuff pushed to the front of a line, or to help them get around a process that exists. I am really conscious that procedures and policy exist in government, and that we have professional staff working on directives from Council as translated through their management – they should not have to deal with an individual Councillor coming and telling them how to do their jobs. That said, if a resident or business owner feels that the process is unfair, or that they have received treatment form the City that is not in keeping with City policy or good customer service, I am happy to talk with management at the City and (this is important) get both sides of the story and figure out what went wrong.

It is a delicate balance. Sometimes my job is to help explain to a resident or business owner why things are so bureaucratic and irritating, and why the Bylaw is written or enforced the way it is. Sometimes staff do mess up, or processes are developed that don’t really work when put into practice, and someone needs to facilitate a better outcome for everyone. I don’t see my job as advocating for either party in a conflict like this, but as a mediator trying to figure out an outcome that works best for the City and the Residents. And occasionally the approach required is to work with the Mayor and Council at the executive level to fix a process or a system that is not working for the residents and businesses in the City. Deciding which of the three is the right course when hearing from a complainant is a tough job, and something I am still learning about and developing my skills at.

Communications:
I receive dozens of e-mails a day and a few phone calls a week from residents or businesses in town. I try to respond to all of them. I fail.

When I first got elected, I dreamed I would answer them all promptly and personally, but reality has set in. Some (like the every-couple-of-day missives from the hateful racists at Immigration Watch) go directly to delete. Some I am just cc’d to, and am not the best person to answer, so I usually wait to see if a more appropriate person responds before chiming in. Some raise interesting and complex questions that I need to put a bit of thinking too before I respond. Some scroll off the first page, and I get back to them a week or two later and feel bad about not having responded right away. Some, I just don’t seem to have the time to keep track of.

So if you wrote me an e-mail, and I was slow to respond, please don’t take it personally, and don’t feel bad sending me a reminder e-mail. I will get back to you eventually. Unless your comments are full of hateful racism or other abusive language, in which case I’m likely to just ignore you and hope you go away. In that case, I guess, you can take it personally.

This other stuff:
Writing this Blog is, to me, a really important part of how I do this job. It takes a lot of time, and is almost always done after 10:00 on weekday nights. Summarizing a Council Report can take a couple of hours, depending on how many items on the week’s agenda require extended explanation. I find free time to write pieces like this wherever I can (in this case, I am sitting at one of the little desks on the Queen of Alberni crossing the Strait of Georgia while @MsNWimby enjoys the blue sky on the sun deck).

Tracking the local and regional media (including the social media) is also an important part of the job whose hours simply cannot be counted. Keeping track of the goings in the City, of the trends in the region, of Provincial and Federal politics as it relates to our City, is vital if we hope to make good decisions for the City. This includes a fair amount of general interest research, following great local sources like Price Tags, or global sources like StrongTowns along with reading great urban and economics leaders from Janette Sadik-Khan to Umair Haque.

Nothing in New West is new, we don’t have completely unique challenges, but the same challenges as other Cities and regions have had. Learning what from their successes and failures is the best way to train myself to make better decisions.

I have been at this for 18 months, and parts of it are getting easier. I am now better able to judge the amount of my Saturday and Sunday I need to spend reading my Package, more of the “background” in my Package is familiar to me, requiring less review. I have a better idea who in City Hall to call and get a question answered. The trade-off is the expanded time I spend doing that last part – the constant learning to empower myself to make better decisions and dream bigger about the future of the City.

Now if I can only get ahead of my e-mails and get my scheduling figured out…

Middle Aged Westminster

I am just back from Vacation, and I am still trying to understand where the Royal City New West Record newspaper is coming from when they emphasize an alleged clash between the “New” and “Old” communities in New Westminster as their Story of the Year. Perhaps I am being obtuse, but it seems to evoke the divisiveness of the Old Stock Canadians dog-whistle message quoted in the article’s lead, and I simply disagree with the premise.

To suggest that “younger folks and families” filling new condos are somehow different than families living in houses is not only a false dichotomy, it creates an impression that one is better or more important than the other, and that somehow people (especially, as continually suggested in the story, the City’s government) are picking sides. It belies the reality of how mixed and diverse our City is, and how much blending there is in those two alleged camps.

I’m a resident of Brow of the Hill, not born in New West, but feeling very connected to this community I live in a house across the street from numerous apartments built in the 60s and 70s, predominantly full of renters, some more connected to the community as I, some less. On one side of my house is a family of “younger folks” who moved in at the end of 2015 after a decade of living in Vancouver, although one of them grew up in Queens Park and graduated from NWSS – are they “Old” or “New” New West? What about the retired couple across from me, one of whom was born in the BC Interior (like me) but had a career working for the City of New Westminster? I have friends who live in a condo on the Quay that has a demographic not far from your typical retirement village, I know young families filing more-affordable single-family homes in Queesnborough, some second-generation Canadians who first learned English at Queen Elizabeth Elementary, others the children of families that built Queensborough generations ago. Who has the hubris to draw the line between “New” and “Old” New West within this mix? Why would we want to?

Because between “New” and “Old” New West is a huge and growing number of “Middle Age” New West, those who have been here for a few years, or a few decades, and despite having not been born here, they have put down roots and are making New Westminster home. And they are raising a new generation of New West. At the the suggestion of conflict, most would say we are all New Westminster, whether our grandfather was born here, or we arrived as a refugee last week.

Our success as a community will be found in supporting each other, and embracing the diversity of our community. As the great Jane Jacobs reminds us in her treatise on vibrant neighbourhoods and cities, a diversity of people, families, buildings and activities are what create an economically viable and culturally sustainable community. Only that will make us strong enough to withstand threats external or internal, and avoid the stagnation that too often follows on the heels of urbanization. Just as we cannot stop innovating, we cannot throw away what is established, we need to make them work together.

So if building a great community means accepting all types of people sharing and working together, and if the line between “New” and “Old” is so fuzzy, what is to be served by trying to insert arbitrary lines, creating arbitrary categories, and watching for reasons for them to fight?

This ambiguity extends to the idea that there is some sort of fundamental transition happening in New Westminster today, or that suddenly the town that time forgot is being trust into a new era. The reality is that (for lack of a better word) “change” has always defined New Westminster as much as stability. Over 150 years we have gone from a Quayqayt (“Resting Place”) on a pristine river to a Capital City on the edge of the colony. We were at times largest port on the west coast, the home of the pacific fishing fleet and a regional commercial centre. We were eventually outshone by an upstart western suburb, then gradually enveloped by its growing metropolis. Over time our commercial dominance waned, then our waterfront industry declined. Soon the Quayside led a new residential focus based on waterfront location and condo living, while our transportation spine went from streetcar to automobile to Skytrain. There were good times and bad, and most of the time there was a little of both. These changes were most often gradual, shifts were generational, as were the waves of new immigrants putting their cultural stamp on our community – English, Chinese, Punjabi, Filipino, Honduran, Somali, Syrian…

Through all those times, transitions, and shifts, which should we stamp as the optimum, the one we must not move away from? I know I can’t make that call, and it would suggest it is silly to try. Because over that time all of our strongly-held traditions have adapted – including the oft-cited example of May Day. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about a study that outlined many of these “transitions”, including the way May Day and the festivals around it have changed, sometimes back and forth, based on the economics and attitudes of the day. Most interesting to me was the part that talked about a new upstart group of young business leaders who came in 40 years ago and re-drew a bunch of traditions to modernize the City’s May festivals – the group that came to be known as the Hyack Festival Association.

I only use this as an example, and don’t want to dwell on it, for fear I am playing into the narrative that I don’t believe.

Far from suddenly transitioning to a New New Westminster, we are continuing to evolve. I love some of New Westminster’s “Old” traditions (the Anvil Battery Salute? Who can’t love that?) and am completely uninterested in some others. I also love some (not all!) of the “New” traditions being developed (PechaKucha Nights!) and hope they survive to the next generation. Of course, in between there have been many Traditions that have come and gone, and some in that intermediate stage between “Old” and “New”. Some people like the RC Musical Theatre, some like the Symphony, some like comedy at the Columbia and live music at the Heritage. I think the Royal City Curling Club is a 50-year cultural and sporting tradition in the City that not enough people appreciate, but to love it doesn’t take away from the legacy of the Salmonbellies. Why do we have to choose and put ourselves in camps?

We are all New Westminster. So let’s keep embracing the things we love, and not be afraid to try new flavours. Because it is the combination of “New” and “Old” that makes us special, not an alleged conflict between them.

Inconvenient Thesis

I’ve mentioned the Gish Gallop before, in how it is used by the disingenuous to cast doubt on the scientific certainty that the observed recent increase in warming of the planet is caused by the introduction of fossil carbon to the atmosphere by human activity. I even opined that the Gish Gallop is the mark of someone who knows they are being disingenuous, because its use knowingly belies intelligent discussion of the topic or useful exchange of ideas.

I have also taken pot-shots at Tom Fletcher in the past, because he is, in my opinion, the most ignorant, belligerent, lazy, and cynical columnist claiming the mantle of journalism in British Columbia today (and there is an ongoing battle for that low ground) while being unexplainably ubiquitous in small town media across BC. Misinformed and regressive opinions are one thing, but when combined with terrible rhetorical skills and piss-poor writing, it is pretty unforgivable that Fletcher still draws pay from the ever-shrinking dead tree media. I have not agreed with a P.J. O’Rourke opinion since I was an 18-year old, hemped up on hormones and car magazines and the smart-ass-conservative-white-dude-certainty they reinforce, but at least O’Rourke can turn a phrase and make me laugh while I disagree with him. Fletcher just makes me weep for a societal system that gives him a forum.

One thing they teach you in high school English class (and sorry to get all academic elitist here) is that an essay needs to have a thesis – in the OED sense of “a statement that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved”. In other words, before you sit down to write something, you need to understand what you are trying to say. For example, the thesis of this blog post started out as my strongly felt personal opinion that:

“Tom Fletcher is a hack journalist whose opinions are ignorant to the point of insulting his readership, whose writing skills are subpar, and whose continued employment as a columnist by Black Press represents an injustice to the many skilled and determined journalists currently suffering underemployment from the collapse of traditional media model, while also supporting the theory that this collapse is a result of wounds self-inflicted by the very media platforms that are suffering most from the collapse”.

Although, in the interest of brevity, I might have to reduce the scope of this thesis to the first 5 words.

The piece of evidence that led me to write an opinion essay on this thesis is Fletcher’s most recent Black Press missive, entitled “Inconvenient truths of climate change”. I challenge you to put a single-sentence thesis on this column that is supported by the column. Is Fletcher arguing that polar bears are fine, and therefore the climate is not changing? Is he arguing that the COP21 talks are doomed to failure, or that, because of the “religious zeal” of climate change profiteers, they should be doomed to failure? Is he arguing that BC was wrong to put in a carbon tax and reduce emissions while growing the economy, or that BC were previously leaders who are now failing because the economy is growing despite the existence of a carbon tax? Or is he arguing that Barack Obama’s failure to meet some of the aspirations he expressed at his inauguration should be a lesson to Justin Trudeau to just give up?

The column comes across as a Gish Gallop of disconnected factoids bereft of context, leading one to suspect that introducing context to any of the factoids would prove most of them to be less representative of the truth than a typical YouTube video comments stream. By introducing a little context, or at least a coherent narrative, perhaps Fletcher could get the column past the entire “old man sitting on a porch shaking his fist at passing clouds” aesthetic. Although, one could suppose that was the position he was actually aiming for. I can’t imagine his motivations, only marvel at the results.

Large parts of the old media are dying, at least in part because of instant accessibility to a huge variety of new voices and more interesting approaches to content delivery that are simply out-competing the dead tree press for time, for eyeballs, and for advertizing money. Smart companies are adapting to this change and not just taking the same stale product on-line, but are re-investing in quality of content, giving people a reason to look at what they are producing. Other companies are just pushing their old, tired concepts onto digital platforms, hoping that enough flashing lights along the edges will make their tired content seem new, and the pop-up ads will be attractive to the people who pay the bills. In the quest to appear “interactive” they have created unreadable comment forums attached to articles, that soon degrade into nonsensical collections of disconnected uninformed factoids bereft of content or self-recognition, interspersed with cynical drive-by insult-by-implication.

In other words: a typical Tom Fletcher column. They should be treated with the same deference.

Getting our head in the game

I have been pretty silent on this blog about the ongoing election, as I have directed my (almost daily) rants over to my Facebook Page. However there is one topic I figured was non-partisan enough and apropos for this blog, so I am copying it over here almost verbatim.

This Candidate-shaming thing has gotten completely out of hand.

The idea that people vying to be a Member of Parliament should not have ever expressed an opinion or uttered a word that would raise your grandmother’s eyebrow is a grotesque shift of what it means to be a community representative or a member of the “House of Commons”. Worse, it threatens the nature of our democracy and the quality of our governance.

It is hard to keep count, but there have been at least a dozen candidates from all three major parties turfed aside this election based on something they said last year – or last decade. Some may have said truly offensive things that speak to fundamental character, some may just have acknowledged the existence of sex, and used the language of his peers in talking about it. The problem in the election cycle is that we are rarely provided any context whatsoever – we are just provided a few salacious quotes from some social media stream. Soon enough, someone announces “the former Candidate’s views do not represent the Party” and the Candidate is sent down the memory hole.

There are many things wrong with this. I will try (and fail) to be concise. Beware: there may be a career-limiting four-letter word or two below.

He without sin: Ever said anything you regret? Ever had a strongly held opinion and expressed it? Ever just thrown a weakly held opinion out there to see what sticks, and after feedback, consideration, or learning, changed that opinion based on better information? Ever used sarcasm or humour to diffuse a delicate situation? Ever challenged a popular notion? If not, then your social media history and public record is probably safe from scrutiny. However, you are equally unsuited to be in a decision-making position in any organization, never mind representative government. If you have never done any of those things, you likely lack intellectual curiosity, a willingness to challenge yourself or others, and an empathy for ideas.

Selection towards older, duller people: If you have no social media history, you are likely over 35, and as much as I appreciate and value your experience and knowledge, we also need some young, fresh ideas in politics. If you have no record of challenging norms, you are probably not a very interesting person, and don’t bring anything to the table with which it is not already overflowing. Regression to the mean is a bad thing for leaders and governments.

It hurts our understanding of candidates: We currently have a raft of candidates, mostly from one party, and including local candidates here in New West, who have practically no media (traditional or social) profile. We have no idea who they are except for their scripted Bio pages. Their entire history and public record has apparently been scrubbed clean, for fear of missing one 4-letter word. It is like they popped into existence at the nomination meeting, and since then have only forwarded Tweets from Head Office. With few of them showing up for public events (all to avoid the gaffe, of course), most of us have no practical opportunity to know who these people are. I don’t mean to shock you here, but I guarantee they all have flaws, and that doesn’t mean they aren’t good people trying to serve their community. It hurts local representation when we try to shame them for a cheap news story.

It is a barrier to participation: Who wants to put themselves up for this scrutiny? Why would any person with the talent and energy to do good work for their community risk being embarrassed nationally because of an essay they wrote in their second year comparative religion class, or because they once wrote a positive review of a Biggie album that referred to “the gang lifestyle”? Why would you even want to work on a campaign or be a vocal supporter when there is a risk of some faux-outrage tarnish rubbing off on good people?

It is meaningless: There are three hundred and thirty-eight seats; more than a thousand candidates. We can spend our time digging through them all to try to find a time a local no-hope candidate said “blow job” on a rap lyrics website. But we should ask if that is really deserving of column inches when the last two elections resulted in people from the winning party going to jail for cheating, when for the second time during this election members of the Prime Minister’s Office are being named in sworn testimony during criminal proceedings, when we have no action on climate change, when we have more than a thousand murdered and missing women, when salmon stocks are collapsing and refugees are flooding Europe and our leaders are offering three very different visions of Canada…

There is an election going on, people! The polls are too close to call! Get your damn head in the game!

Thermodynamics

Now that we are deep enough into the Anthropogenic Global Warming crisis that only the whackiest of whackaloons are still denying its existence or the serious impacts it is going to have on planetary livability, a whole different type of whacky thought is filling the airwaves. These have to do with a variety of techniques to suck CO2 out of the sky and turn atmospheric carbon into something useful like carbon nanotubes or alternative fuels.

These schemes are no doubt possible. The problem is that they don’t solve the actual problem, which isn’t carbon in the air, it is about making energy by putting carbon in the air. To talk about that, we need to talk about thermodynamics.

The Laws of Thermodynamics are pretty fundamental science. They cannot, in the normal universe where we live, be violated. They were once summed up to me in this analogy which helps to keep track of them*:

1st Law: You can’t win.
2nd Law: You can’t even break even.
3rd Law: You can’t get out of the game.

The one we are most worried about here is the 2nd Law, which essentially says that any time energy changes states, there is a net increase in entropy. In other words, every time you use energy to do something, you lose a bit of energy. It is the 2nd Law that makes perpetual motion machines impossible.

Relating this to schemes to pull carbon out of the air and make it useful, it is important to realize we don’t just toss CO2 into the air for the fun of it. For the most part we do it to use the energy released when you combine carbon with oxygen, be it energy to drive our cars/planes/ships or energy to generate electricity. We do this because the act of combining carbon with oxygen releases energy in the form of heat (which is a whole different chemistry lecture we should save for Beer Friday). We can do the same thing backwards, strip the oxygen off of the carbon, but that takes energy, and (this is where the 2nd Law comes in) a little bit more energy than it produced during the original combination.

So all of those schemes you see that will turn CO2 into something useful, no matter how efficient they are, will require more energy than we gained when we created the CO2 in the first place. So it makes way more sense to simply not produce the CO2 in the first place. instead, we could use the energy we would dedicate to sucking it out of the air and making carbon nanotubes out of it back into doing whatever job we wanted to do with the energy we gained in the first place when we added the oxygen to the carbon. As a bonus, we can still make the carbon nanotubes out of any of a zillion existing carbon sources we have on the planet, be they plants, rocks, or hydrocarbons, without the need to waste a bunch of energy stripping oxygen off of the carbon.  That way the carbon stays out of the atmosphere, we use less energy, and we are all better off.

The reality is that the “technological fix” of climate change is nothing shocking, cutting edge or freaky; it is in our hand right now. It is no more complicated than stopping the taking of carbon out of the ground to combine with oxygen for cheap energy when there is an abundance of alternatives available. But it starts with recognizing this “cheap” form of energy is a false economy, as is betting the future on big fans and diamonds from the sky.

*there is a 4th Law, but since it was developed later, and then determined to be more fundamental, the physics community called it the “0th Law”, just to reinforce those points. In the analogy above, it would be translated as “We are all playing the same game”