Stack Project Update, October, 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is another update covering the last two months, consisting of mini-reviews for a bunch of albums.

  • Death Cab for Cutie.  I have several albums, mostly early material, which I got from a friend years ago.  I can easily understand how a great Death Cab fan is made — there is a particular sense of style that I could easily imagine latching on to.  However, I don’t particularly latch onto it.  As a result, I find the majority of Death Cab for Cutie to be similar and relatively boring.  Apologies to all the fans out there, but it’s not really for me.
  • Deep Dark Woods.  I have their eponymous album.  In all regards, this is an album I should like more than I do.  It feels like my musical tastes are exactly the target audience of this band and this album.  And I do like the album, just not that much.  It’s enjoyable but forgettable.  
  • Depeche Mode.  I have the album Construction Time Again.  I don’t think I’ve every really listened to it before — it felt like an entirely new experience.  A new and very enjoyable experience.  I really like this album.  I don’t know much about the history of industrial and related movement in electronic music — I understand that there is derision for Depeche Mode in parts of that community.  I’m not sure if they are inovative or derivative, but I like the light electronic/industrial aesthetic.
  • Destroyer.  I’m already a fan, but I recently acquired a copy of City of Daughters, a much older Destroyer album. Listening to it was an adjustment after the very polished Destroyer albums of the last few years — City of Daughters is much more raw, much younger and more quizical.  The poetry is the same in general principle as his later material, but more exposed and even more chaotic.  I don’t like it as much as the later material, but I did enjoy it.  It’s also fun to see where he started and how his ouvre has developed.  
  • The Dukhs.  This is a pop/celtic band which I’ve seen at folk fest once or twice.  We have the album You Daughters & Yous Sons.  For some reason, sometime in the past I wrote them off as boring and derivative celtic-light easy listening music.  I’m glad I went back to this album, since this old mental assessment it quite unfair.  I really liked this album.  It has a neat mix of styles and influences, a great ambience and solid musicianship.  
  • Echo and the Bunnymen.  There has been a series of interesting 80s entries in this project already (Depeche Mode, The Cure), so I guess this is the next.  I listened to the album Ocean Rain.  Even though I was a child in the 80s, I have no personal memories of any of this music.  I’m approaching it all for the first time.  In any case, Ocean Rain is great.  It’s a neat poppy aesthetic with interesting (if sometimes strange or cheesy) lyrical content.  I like it.
  • Elliott Smith.  I have Either/Or, Figure 8 and X/O, the last three of the five albums released during his life.  Of the music on this project, these albums are some of the most familiar to me.  I did listen to them in some depth many years ago.  I put them on the stack, so to speak, since I have few specific memories of the tracks.  Having listened to them again, the reason is obvious: it all blends together smoothly into a single sound and single memory.  I still like it, if I’m in a particular mood, but it is all very similar and uniform.  
  • Elvis Costello.  I listened to his very early album My Aim is True, and really like much of it.  It took a bit to get over the voice: there is a very bright, shrill male pop/rock voice style that I have a hard time with and Elvis comes very close to that voice style.  (Think Van Morrison — I really can’t stand his voice.  I doesn’t make sense, since I like plenty of other strange and somewhat ugly sounding voices, but who can explain aesthetic sense?)  I like the goofiness of the album, and the points in between where it is sincere and moving.   Some of the tracks got old very fast, and I don’t think I’d like the album on repeat for hours, but I’ll fondly remember many of the catchy songs.
  • Eurythmics.  More 80s content, though I didn’t like this as much as much as Echo and the Bunnymen.  (Not that it’s really a reasonable comparison, but whatever).  I listened to Be Yourself Tonight and a Greatests Hits collection and found little that I really enjoyed.  I found it curious, since I quite liked the Ani Lennox solo offering earlier in this project.  Maybe she needed time to mature, maybe the group had other influences, maybe it’s just not my taste.  
  • Feist.  I’m quite familiar with Let It Die and The Reminder.  We purchased Metals when it came out, but I never took to in on first listen and forgot to return to it. Now that I have, I really like the album.  I like how Feist has worked on her particular style — refined and polished it.  I miss the loungy feeling of Let It Die, but the more crisp metallic sounds on the appropriately named Metals is something I could also grow to enjoy.  There’s good stuff here.
  • Franz Ferdinand.  I loved the eponymous album when it first came out a decade or so ago.  Somewhere along the line, I got a copy of You Could Have Had It So Much Better, but (as with other on this list) never gave it much attention at the time.  That’s a shame, since it’s a solid album, nearly on par with their first disc. I really like the two or three quieter tracks and the effect they have on the rocky feeling of most of the music.  For the rest, it’s awesome just like the original Franz Ferdinand album was, for the simply guitar-based catchiness of it all.

Thoughts on Breaking Bad

Warning: spoilers, all through, in all sorts of detail.  I imagine that almost everyone who actually wants to see Breaking Bad has already done so, but if there are any hold-outs out there, consider yourself warned.

I finished watching all of Breaking Bad last month.  While it will never be considered my favourite television show nor will I likely ever re-watch it, I easily understand why it has received such stellar reviews.  For those who can stomach the violence and misery, it is an absolutely amazing work of television.  It deserves its accolades.

I wanted to share a few specific thoughts, realizing I’m a few years late to the conversation.  Maybe this will remind more cultural up-to-date readers of the arguments they may have had about the show some years back.

My first thought, on finishing the show, was this: at what point did Walter Whyte become the villain?  I’m quite convinced that by the end of the show, there is basically nothing even remotely redeeming left about Walt — he’s long past through any pretence of anti-hero and is solidly the evil, villainous antagonist of the show.  I actively hoped for all his schemes to fail for at least the last two seasons (while obviously still hoping for the salvation of those being destroyed by his activities).  But when did this start?

Amazingly, looking at the show in retrospect, I can imagine a very early shift from deeply flawed protagonist to pure antagonist.  I’m rethinking the very first murder, where Walt kills Krazy-8 in Jesse’s basement.  Walter’s capability to carry this out and move on may already be pointing to his fundamentally evil nature.  Certainly Walter’s attitude towards Jessie in the first season (and all subsequent seasons) is depraved: Jessie is a tool for Walter’s ends, to be bullied and manipulated into serving those ends.  I’m unconvinced that Walter show actual selfless care for Jessie more than two or three times throughout the show.

My brother suggested that the point might be the end of season two, where Walter is willing to watch Jane die.  The murder (by omission) of an innocent character and the effect of that loss on Jessie are costs that Walter barely seems to consider at all, which is pretty good evidence of his status as villain.  I was certainly asking myself, after season two, if Jessie will survive Walter’s twisted machinations.

Given what happens to Walter, it is amazing, in contrast, how Jessie remains human throughout the experience.  One of the most amazing parts of the show is this contrast between Walter and Jessie: how Walter very quickly becomes a person who can justify murder without psychological repercussions, but Jessie never reaches that point.  One of the most sympathetic aspects of Jessie’s character (and evidence of his status both as a human being and as the show’s main protagonist) is how he simply can’t emotionally handle killing people, regardless of the justifications giving.  Three examples stick with me: his worry about the actions taken against the child who shot Combo, his desperate need to find any and all distractions after killing Gail, and his insistence that the murder of the child at the train heist could not possibly be justified in any way.  Jessie’s inability to psychologically handle the violence needed to support their drug activities makes him human and made me love the character, even with his many flaws.  The ease with which Walter could justify that violence made me see him as a force of evil and led me to hope for the failure of all his plans for at least half of the show.

The writing of the show has received many accolades, and with good reasons.  Two things about the writing (particularly the dialogue) notably impressed me.  The first was the ability of the writers to write dialogue where one character (usually Walter) was trying to convince another character of something and obviously doing a terrible job.  The show almost perfectly captures the mass of feeble, meager and pathetic excuses that can fill human interaction when we try (and often fail) to positions ourselves in our social settings and relationships.  In the majority of his conversations in the show, Walter is trying to project a false image of himself of his situation (I’m trying to think of scenes where I felt Walter really spoke honestly and I’m coming up with a very short list).  The fact that these efforts are so obviously transparent to the audience, while the words still seem like something a pathetic figure like Walter would attempt, speaks volumes to the quality of the writing.  I would claim, very strongly, that Walter lacks almost all human empathy and is desperately terrible at convincing anyone of anything.  The fact that he succeeds in bending the other characters to his will is, I believe, a function of the psychological brokenness of the other characters.  Even then, he mostly succeeds (particularly with Jessie) by resorting to straight-forward bullying instead of any effective argument.

This brings up another point which confuses me.  I get the sense from reading reviews of the show that many people think Walter is actually a competent master criminal.  I think this is patently nonsense: Walter is terrible at the Heisenberg role he aspires to.  I think this fact is important to the show, because Walter so strongly believes that Heisenberg is an awesome force to be reckoned with.  The audience needs to see through that: to see that the belief in the competence and power of Heisenberg is one of the greatests of Walter’s many flaws and self-delusions.  In his very last discussion with Skyler in the last episode, he breaks through one of these self-delusions in realizing that he cooked meth for himself, not to provide for his family.  However, I don’t think the scene reads as Walter finally coming clean.  Right after admitting his selfish motivation, he claims that he was good at it.  My perspective is that this is demonstrably false, and his statement here is evidence that even if he fixed one of his self-delusions, the others remain perfectly intact.

I mentioned there were two aspects of the writing that particularly impressed me: the second was Walter’s amazingly immense sense of entitlement.  His anger towards the other characters is almost always channeled through a self-narrative of Walter acting intelligently, properly and nobly, while the foolish mistakes and oversights of those around him are getting him into ridiculous situations.  He almost always blames his partners in crime from these situation, particularly Jessie.  The audience, however, can see very clearly that Walter is the ultimate cause of 98% of his problem (excepting cancer, I guess).  This sense of self-righteousness is a common part of the human condition: it is natural to think that we’ve acted intelligently and rationally and our problems are caused by the foolishness or active malice of other agents.  This sense is always at least someone wrong and often entirely ridiculous.  The writers of Breaking Bad almost perfectly capture this righteous indignation in Walter Whyte and Cranston does an almost perfect job of giving it life.  The depth and consistency of Walter’s self-delusion about his own foolishness is most obviously in his self-righteous attitude towards Jessie.  I think the mental image of Walter yelling “Jessie” tersely through clenched teeth will permanently abide in my mind as a symbol of this sense of indignation.

Lastly, I noticed I’ve mostly talked about Walter and Jessie.  Credit needs to be given to the development of the secondary characters.  The character archs for Skyler, Walter Jr., Hank and Marie are all fantastically (and, of course, tragically) constructed.  Gus Fring and Mike are also given much more depth and nuance that would usually be expected for their relatively stock character types.  Everything about the show gives evidence to great care taken in the craft of writing characters and dialogue.  Even a tertiary character like Hector Salamanca, who doesn’t even speak, is given depth (and great casting — I’m always impressed with Mark Margolis.)

Federal Election 2015 – Part 3

This is a continuation of Part 1 and Part 2.  After discussing the conservative record in part 1 and the opposition platforms in part 2, I’d like to share what conclusions I’ve reached

My first comment is the source of hope and consolation; after reviewing the Liberal, NDP and Green positions, I found that I’m pleased with the majority of all three platforms.  Should we end up with Liberal or NPD government (or, I suppose, in theory a Green government), I’ll be content with the election.  That said, even though there are major overlaps, I do believe there are real differentiators between the three opposition parties.

The differentiator for the Liberals, as far as I can see, is that they are the only opposition party with a comfortable, cooperative relationship with corporate Canada.  Their trade policy, which focuses on continued liberalization of trade through agreements, is a stark contract with the NDP/Green skepticism towards such agreements.  I’m of the opinion that the natural stance of a government should be in opposition to corporate interests, purely from a perspective of power: corporations have substantial power and the best interest of the public is served by an attitude of opposition (though not necessarily antagonism).  I feel the Liberals are the least likely (of the opposition parties) to take this stance. I do not expect the Liberals  to make major changes to the oil sands or pipeline projects, even with their fairly strong focus on environmentalism.  I also feel their environmentalism is the most technocratic of the three opposition parties, a position that I’m very skeptical about.   To their possible benefit, the Liberals seem like the most pragmatic and least ideological party.  This is unsurprising, since they’ve tried to embody that central, large-tent pragmatism frequently in their political history.

The differentiator for the NDP is their ideological commitment to labour and social democratic principles.  While I can’t always  point it out directly, I sensed this ideological bent all through their lengthy policy document.  I’m mostly happy about this, since I tend to philosophically agree with many planks of such an ideology.  Keeping with my comments in the previous paragraph, a reasonable part of an attitude of opposition to corporate power involve the support of labour.  I’m not at all certain what labour movements should realistically look like in the 21st century, but I would be happy to have a government with more sympathies towards such movements.  I do worry that the NDP’s ideological commitments make it a less flexible governing party, particularly when there are strong reasons with good evidence to act counter to that ideological tradition.  Choices in energy and industrial development, for example, need to be motivated by good science and economic analysis as well as the interests of generally (small-c) conservative labour movements.

The differentiator for the Greens is their audacity.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, I think an effect of their status as a somewhat fringe party is that they are much less afraid of presenting the more extreme version of a political position.  In the news today, for example, Green positions were announced in support of completely removing tuition from public universities and cancelling vast portions of existing student debt.  Their economic and environmental policies are similar to the NPD (and, to a lesser extent, to the Liberals), but more extreme; the GLI (Guaranteed Livable Income) is an stronger version of the social welfare position of the NDP.  In general, I’m happy that they exist to voice these ideas.  I think we desperately need parties with more ambitious vision — hopefully, the better and more feasible of their ideas percolate into the political mainstream.  However, I’m not sure it makes them a good choice for actually forming a government.

All that said, my inclination is to vote NDP.  I admit, it’s not a particularly strong preference over the other two opposition parties.  It’s also somewhat informed by the electoral reality of my riding, which nicely leads into a discussion of strategic voting.

I’m in favour of strategic voting, but always with great dismay that is it necessary in our political system.  My riding, in particular, is a riding where historically Liberals, NDP and Conservatives have all had significant support.  If the goal of defeating the conservatives is stronger than my preference between the Liberals and the NDP, then it behooves me to vote strategically.  The NDP came second in the previous election (the Conservatives won the seat) and the provincial election likely indicates some increased willingness to support the NDP, so that seems like the strategic vote.  As it happens, this coincides with my likely choice, as stated above; if I’d decided that I had a small preference for the Greens or the Liberals, I likely would still be voting NDP for strategic reasons.

Some other random comments on the election and the campaign:

First, something positive.  At least in the cross-section I made, this campaign is a huge improvement over the two previous in terms of vision.  In the 2008 and 2011 elections, I felt that almost no party was presenting any kind of holistic vision for what kind of country we want Canada to be; instead, the campaign was a serious of unrelated special-interest announcements.  While the news does seem to still be driven by such announcements, I was able to find a much stronger sense of purpose behind the opposition campaigns.  My guess is that this is partly driven by reaction to the conservative record, which has been very minimal on vision.  In particular, the indifference and/or hostility of the conservative government towards the workings of democracy (prorogation, omnibus bills, dominance of the PM’s office, onerous voting legislation) seems to have inspired the opposition parties to sound the call for democracy.  This is a positive development.   Similarly, I expected to be more frustrated about a tax code/tax cuts focused campaign, as I was in 2011.  I was pleasantly surprised to find relatively little in the way of tax code campaigning in my search through websites and platform.

In contrast, something negative.  At all the party websites (though only marginally at the Green’s), I was shocked by how much the election is driven by the identity politics of the leaders.  Vast portions of the websites are devoted to bios of the leaders and even the policy is introduced as “Tom’s plan” or “Justin’s vision”.   Throughout these three parts, I’ve intentionally referred to the parties instead of metonymically using the leader’s names.  I really don’t want my election to be about the personality of the next PM — I want it to be about the style of government and legislative agenda of the next governing party.

The websites also seem very focused on social media.  Aside from this blog (and I really have no idea how much readership it has), I don’t participate in much social interaction on the internet.  I’m curious how important social media is to the campaign.  I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it is the most important avenue of communication (which which explain the website focus).

I find the length of the campaign entirely unnecessary.  I’m not sure what the strategic reasoning was behind the timing of the call; perhaps it was just the conservatives hoping to outspend the opposition over 11 weeks.  In any case, as with most people I’ve talked to, I don’t feel the length of the campaign serves the interests of citizens at all.  I intentionally ignored the campaign as much as I could during August and have only returned to it in order to write these posts.

I’m trying not to follow polls, for two reasons.  First, I don’t want to obsess for weeks and weeks about the polling trends.  I don’t feel such an attitude towards the campaign is particularly healthy for me — I would much rather simply read the platforms, write these posts, rethink my positions in response to feedback from my friends, and make a voting decision.  Second, I don’t trust the polls at all.  In particular, I’m very curious how pollsters are collecting their data.  I’m not sure how available cell-phone lists are to phone pollsters.  (I haven’t received a single polling call to my cell, for example).  If phone polls are still limited to land-lines, that is a ridiculous sampling bias.  Even if polls are using cell-phone data and/or social media, I have great doubts about their ability to consistently find reasonable cross-sectional samples.

Lastly, I’m pleased about the likely prospect of a minority government of some kind.  Given that I see a lot of overlap between the Liberal and NDP positions, I’m very hopeful that a minority parliament would lead to development of these overlap priorities, most of which meet with my approval.  I also like the style of minority parliaments, even with the risk of collapse and earlier elections.  Should any kind of proportional representation legislation be tabled and pass, I imagine that minority parliaments might become the norm; I would be quite content with that reality.

Federal Election 2015 – Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1, where I evaluated the record of the last ten years of Conservative government.   In this part, I’m going to consider the pros and cons of the platforms of the three major opposition parties: Liberals, NDP and Greens.  I went to the website to look for platform details, which was a much more miserable that I expected.  Most of the websites are very light on content and very focused on the identity politics of their leaders.  If I were to rank the websites, the Green easily win; they had easily located policy, multiple links to more specific content, and a reasonable navigation.   The Liberal website, with its miserable navigation and buried platform details, comes a miserable second but only because the NDP and Conservative websites are so terrible.  For the last two (NDP and Conservative website), I was simply unable to find a detailed platform whatsoever, even after putting up with the wretched navigation.

The Liberal Platform (after navigating the thoroughly ridiculous and frustrating website), has five planks.

  1. Growth for the Middle Class.  This plank focusses entirely on tax cuts, which already frustrates me.  Tax cuts tell me nothing about how you will to actually govern in a way that help the middle, or any other, class.    Tax cuts are not what the middle class needs; we need vision, policy and leadership.  That rant aside, the plank does argue for a more graduated tax, the one tax policy I am happy to see.
  2. Fair and Open Government.  This plank is excellent.  It focuses on access to information, oversight for agencies including national security, empowerment of watchdog offices, fairly reasonable Senate reform ideas, and a rejection of the questionable practices of prorogation and omnibus bills.  Whether a Liberal government would live up to a platform is something I have skepticism about, but, as written, this is almost entirely great.
  3. A New Plan for Canada’s Environment and Economy. Immediately, the decision to couple environment/economy as one of five planks appeals to me.  The realization that these are often (but not exclusively) competing interests that need to be explicitly balanced is appreciated.  Unfortunately, the first half of the plank fails to live up to that realpolitik of balance.  It argues, with platitudes and and a naive trust in technology, that green energy and green jobs solve the problems of environment and economy.  While some green industry is helpful and should be strongly supported, what I’m looking for it a realistic discussion about necessary hard choices, such as the future of the oil sands project and our societal reliance on oil.  This plank ignores that discussion and tries to pretend that we can have our cake and eat it too.  The second half of the plank is more positive, with reasonable initiatives to protect fragile landscape and oceans, increasing the authority of environmental oversight groups, and looking to science and evidence-based argument for environmental policy.
  4. Education and Economic Opportunity for First Nations.  This is a brief plank with lots of bolded large dollar figures combined with boilerplate language about preserving culture.  Frankly, I have no idea how to solve the challenges of the First Nations of Canada.  I see nothing terribly new in this plank and worry that it might just repeat the mistakes of the previous governments.  Again, I don’t have a good insight here on what we ought to do.  That all said, the fact that this issue makes a whole plank, one of five, in the platform is encouraging choice of focus.
  5. Canada and the World.  Strangely, on the website, this is the only plank which doesn’t have a downloadable PDF, thus forcing me to deal with more of the infuriating website.  Moreover, the website sections have, essentially, no real information.  In addition, this section seems to focused entirely on North America, and even there almost entirely on Canada/US relations.  Nothing on the style of international governance across the world, no criteria for involvement in peacekeeping or military operations, and no commentary on global trade treaties.  The only comment on trade is a commitment to reduce trade barriers.  This makes me nervous, not because I’m committed to a policy of protectionism, but because reducing trade barrier must always be balanced against the necessary regulation, oversight and protections we need.  Focus on one without the other, as in this platform, is problematic.

The NDP website is even more infuriating to navigate than the Liberal one was.  As I mentioned above, I was unable to find any downloadable platform.  After a pile of digging, I discovered that a detailed “Policy Book” was taken down at the end of August; apparently, a replacement election-ready policy document is due to arrive sometime later in the campaign.  I found an archived version of the Policy Book, which informs these comments.

If the Policy Book were actually a campaign platform document, I would praise it for its scope and attention to detail.  Its organized into six sections plus an appendix on Quebec’s national identity.  Since there is so much detail, I’ll comment on some highlights and general tone of each section.

  1. The first section is a broad collection of policy on industry, the economy, taxation and finance.  Some of the content is non-specific boilerplate (protect shareholder’s rights, targeting tax incentives towards job creation, provide incentives for innovation) which almost any party and any voter would approve of.  These sections basically tell us nothing.  However, the majority of the content is quite specific to the labour-influence social democratic perspective of the party.  I like most of these points, include these examples: dedication to progressive tax structures, skepticism towards privatizations and P3 projects, specific improvement on consumer protections (particularly in the financial sector), support for cooperatives such as the Wheat Board, commitment to rail travel development.  My reservations come mostly from the obvious ideological bent of the platform; I would like a government which is capable of transcending its ideological roots when good evidence points to policies in conflict with those roots.  Lastly, the commitment to balanced budgets is in this section.  The language here is surprising, but I expect it’s meant to counteract the (mostly ridiculous) idea that a socially democratic government is obviously a poor economic steward.  While I realize that it’s naive to expect from a platform-like document, I wish this section made the explicit point that a commitment to balanced budgets along with increasing government spending means that higher taxes are required.  I’m fine with higher taxes — I think I should be taxed at a higher rate to allow worthwhile social democratic government programming — but I wish there was a more direct, honest connection here between balanced budgets and higher tax rates, instead of just a commitment to balanced budgeting.
  2. The second section is on sustainability.   There is a fair bit of non-specific boilerplate here as well.  In the more substantial sections, I really like the explicit coupling of environment and the economy, realizing that one can’t be discussed outside of the other.  I support the sections on renewing environmental protections, water rights, food security, public transport, and reducing fossil fuel subsidies.  The promotion of clean energy is terribly vague; I don’t really see any vision of how we tackle the enormous problem of weaning our society off oil.  That concern makes this whole environmental section seem naive.  As much as I appreciate the focus, again I want a bit more honest discussion of the necessary difficult decisions that environmental policies imply.  Lastly, I’m disappointed by the antagonistic stance towards nuclear power and GMO food.
  3. The third section is focused on social programming, including health, education, justice, housing and poverty.  There is a lot of overlap with provincial jurisdiction on many of these issues, but I’m comfortable with the recognition that the federal government has input and influence on these important social concerns.  The priorities throughout this section are excellent.  I’m also particularly pleased to see a social vision for the country clearly laid out, with housing, elimination of poverty and access to education as strong foci.  My only disappointment is the relative naivety of the section: these are immensely difficult challenges that require difficult decisions about how we structure our society.  I see here a positive vision without a realization of the scope of the challenge.  Finally, there are two points under justice which I am extremely pleased to see.  First, there is a balance of the rights of both victims and prisoners, thus humanizing our prison population.  Second, there is a liberal approach to enforcement and sentencing, including discretion for judges and decriminalizing marijuana.
  4. The fourth section is on foreign policy.  There’s lots to like here.  I like the defence/peacekeeping vision for our military; the focus on aid and human rights driving our foreign policy decisions; the support of working through international bodies such as the UN; and changes to immigration/TWF policy driven by care for our non-citizens.  There is a section here on trade agreements, which deserves some attention.  First, I like the explicit statements that free trade agreements must not trump our own ability to protect our workers or environment.  What I’m unsure about is how that protectionist attitude actually plays out in trade agreements.  Neither the Mulroney PCs, Chretien/Martin Liberal, nor Harper Conservatives have been particularly protectionistic in trade agreements.  Since we haven’t really seen protectionism since free trade agreements became a reality, I really don’t know how to evaluation the cost/benefit analysis of NAFTA or the other 11 free trade agreements listed on the government’s website.  I am concerned about the potential for these agreements to cede control to international corporate interests, thus I’m mostly happy to see the protectionist language in the NDP platform.  However, I’m open to the possibility that a great deal of good is done by allowing international trade and I wouldn’t want that unilaterally destroyed by a skepticism towards any international agreements.
  5. The fifth section is on governance.  Some excellent stuff here, though very similar to the Liberal platform.  The obvious contempt of the Conservative government for parliament, oversight, and democratic principles makes these sections very welcome.  I have no further comments on most of this other than general approbation.  However, a couple specific planks are quite interesting.  I’m not sure that abolishing the Senate is the best mode of parliamentary reform.  I am pleased to see proportional representation clearly stated as a goal, though I feel reform of the voting system might be a more reasonable and achievable first priority. I’m very pleased to see a commitment to First Nations self government and land claims.  Lastly, I’m intrigued by the asymmetrical federalism approach to Quebec and currently undecided about its wisdom.
  6. The last section is on human rights, with subsections on children, women, LBGTQ, disabilities, first nations, and veterans.  I’m in general agreement with basically all of this and happy to see it here.  Points later in the section include supporting the funding and independence of the CBC as well as a commitment to net neutrality, both of which are met with my strong approval.

The Green Party website is by far the most reasonable of all four parties and had an easily locatable complete PDF of the platform.  Well done, Green Party!   Moreover, the PDF is a full 184 pages of policy!  I’ll see how much of it I can get through.  As for the website, there are fourteen platform sections with links to greater policy detail on each page.  I’ll focus on responding to those fourteen points instead working through a giant 184 policy overview (though I must reiterate my pleasure in its existence and findability.)

  1. Sustainable economy. This focuses on a commitment to funding green energy instead of traditional oil/gas. I’m in supported, for sure, but my previous concerns hold here as well: where’s the realization of just how dependant we are on oil/gas and how to manage the difficult choices required?
  2. Healthcare.  Focus here is on a national pharmacare program and the health difficulties of an aging population demographic.  I quite like the former: I don’t see why a single-payer pharmacy program can’t have the same advantages of our existing single-payer health care.  On the later, I appreciate the realization of the scope of the problem and there are some good ideas in the specific policy.  However, I feel that immediately after stating the demographic challenge, the response is unreasonably optimistic about it all working out though preventative measure and good choices.
  3. Housing.  There is a strong focus on housing-first programming, which seems excellent.  The overlap with provincial/municipal jurisdiction exists here as well, but the federal government has some visioning and funding role to play on housing, so I’m alright with it.
  4. Climate Change.  The Green Party strategies include promoting green energy and a carbon pricing scheme (also part of the Liberal and NDP platforms, though I didn’t talk about it previously).  There are good ideas here, though again the section is lacking in discussion of the major societal challenges of reducing oil dependence.
  5. Fairer Tax System. There are many ideas here which I support, including the focus on progressive taxation; reversing the dropping corporate taxation; and explicitly taxing externalities such as pollution.
  6. Investing in Small Business.  This phrase itself is perhaps the easiest commonality to find in all four major party platforms — everyone loves investing in small business and supporting the middle class.  There are some good ideas here, but nothing substantially different from what everyone promises every election.  (I hate the phrase “reducing red tape”).
  7. Democratic Reform.  The focus here is on proportional representation, but they also mention voting systems, which I appreciate.  Empowering individual MPs and eliminating party whips is also interesting; I’m not sure how this would work, but I’m intrigued.  I’m skeptical enough about party politics to be inclined towards movements that spread power around to the individual MPs.
  8. Tomorrow’s Technology, Today’s Jobs.  This is mostly about our poor record for R&D investment, particularly for environmental technology.  I’m for investment in R&D, particularly if it’s coupled with a trusted role for government scientists.  However, I remain generally skeptical about technology as the solution to all our environmental problem — this is a sociological problem that we can’t magic away by technology.
  9. Green Transport.  There is great stuff here: urban renewal for active transit; support for rail travel and transit;  and reducing car reliance.  This section gets close to the important discussion about the radical changes required in the set-up of our society.  However, it doesn’t talk about how to enact these changes over the strenuous objects of a car-addicted population.
  10. Pipelines.  The websites states a bold and straightforward opposition to basically all oil shipping.  A noble goal, but again, lacking in discussion of how to get our society to the point where it can enact and handle such a substantial change.  That said, the Green party is (unsurprisingly) the only party which takes the environmental challenges of the oil industry as seriously as they need to be taken.
  11. Freedom and Civil Liberties.  This focuses on opposition to bill C-51, which I’m very happy to see (the opposition, that is).  A focus on civil liberties in desperately required in all discussion of policing, intelligence agencies, and terrorism.  I’m also strongly in agreement on the priority of empowering police oversight.
  12. Canada’s Global Role.  I like the realignment of military actions towards UN work and peacekeeping.  A foreign policy focused on aid and poverty-reduction is also appealing.
  13. Secure Retirement.  This overlaps with the plank on health, focusing on a single-payer pharmacy plan.  I’m not really sure on the details (and the links to more information seem to be malfunctioning on this page).  The plan seems well-intentioned but I have no idea how it all works out.  In particularly, it seems to ignore the serious challenges of paying for all this health care.
  14. Ending Poverty.  I appreciate the general commitment to the welfare state and extending it with a General Living Income guarantee.  There’s lots of social and financial claims about the returns of GLI program.  As much as I want to believe, I’m skeptical and need to see more evidence that this GLI would accomplish all that it promised.  That said, I love the vision and focus on the need to directly and substantially support the financial vulnerable portions of our population.

In part 3, I’ll compare the three opposition parties and try to draw some conclusions.   I’ll also work through some miscellaneous remarks and ideas on the election and the campaigns.

Federal Election 2015 – Part 1

I’m going to use the next three post for work through my thoughts on the federal election.  Be aware — this will be a lengthy read.  It will be split into three posts.

I’m going to try to limit by desire to preface, but I will make one important point: the federal government has a much smaller effect on the economic strength/weakness of the country than any campaign rhetoric would seem to imply.  Government economic policy is about positioning.  The major causes of economic change are corporate and international, from resource pricing to international stock market health to international warfare.  Our federal government has the responsibility of finding the best position for us to weather the inevitable economic storm which comes our way.  As such, they deserve neither full blame nor full credit for the state of the Canadian economy at any given time.  This is not to say that economic policy decisions are unimportant; they are perhaps the most important actions of the government.  This is just to say I assign limited blame and credit for failure or success, economically.

The Conservative Record:

Since we have a decade of rule, including a majority term, evaluation of the Conservative Party comes down to their record.  Regardless of how they campaign and what they promise, we have a good idea of how they govern.  The first question of the election is: do they deserve to continue?

Points in Favour:

  1. Management through the 2008 Recession.  I’m no economist and, really, have no idea what’s the best policy for managing the effect of a global recession.  As best as I can tell, the Conservative record is mixed here.  I do, however, want to give them credit for choosing to support infrastructure spending during the recession; I could easily have imagined that an ideologically commitment to balanced budgeting could have preventing them from pursuing this program.  In addition, by some economic metrics, we weather this 2008-2011 storm better than most.  As in the preamble, blame and credit for economic performance is tricky at best.
  2. Tax Free Savings Account.  Regardless of the current debate about size and limits of TFSAs, these seem like a good vehicle for promoting savings.  In the interests of full disclosure, part of my approval of TSFAs is surely based on their usefulness to our particular financial situation.  I directly benefit from their existence.  Personal advantage aside, they seem like a good tax policy decision.

I don’t really have much more in this section.  I’m sure there are many relatively small and specific actions, such as increasing the protected area included in Nahanni National Park, which would meet with my approval.  However, I’m trying to stick to broader and more substantial policy decisions in this post.  I’m willing to hear from those more positive on the Conservative record: what has been praiseworthy about their government?

Points Against:

  1. Management through the 2008 Recession.  I feel justified putting this in both sections.  The focus on traditional resource industries, particularly oil, mostly like contributed to our current and future vulnerability.  An ideological commitment to banking deregulation, particularly after the US causes of the 2008 recession, seems very foolish.
  2. Attitude towards parliament.  The use of procedure, particularly the ability to prorogue to avoid undesired motions and debate, is undemocratic and shows a contempt for the parliamentary system.  Having the technical authority to close down parliament doesn’t give ethical justification for doing so.
  3. Commitment to warfare in Afghanistan.  While our involvement in the Afghanistan conflict was due to actions of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, the Conservatives repeatedly recommitted to a deeply problematic military campaign.
  4. Census reform.  I can think of three possible justifications for simplifying the census, as was accomplished in the summer of 2010: cost, privacy, or fear of information.  On cost, I feel the importance of census data justifies the cost.  On privacy, again, I feel the importance of census data justifies the imposition and gathering of private data (with appropriate measure of security and guarantees of anonymity).  On fear of information, which many have claimed is the real unspoken motivation, I am, of course, desperate disappointed in any government which seeks to suppress information.
  5. Attitude towards science and silencing of government run scientific inquiry.  On the same theme of suppressing information which is inconvenient to their agenda or ideology, I am deeply disappointed with the Conservative record towards science in general and its own scientists in particular.  In particular, weakening of environmental regulations, prohibiting publication of scientific research done by governmental scientists and cutting funding to various public interest research departments are all strikes against the Conservative record.
  6. Policy on Crime.  I’m strongly opposed to the entire Tough-On-Crime agenda.  in addition to the policy decisions, an environment of antagonism and cruelty has been fostered in the entire criminal justice system.  This gets in the way of attitude and programs that help actually rehabilitate criminal and reduce recidivism.  As far as I can tell, the whole program both dehumanizes criminals and makes the rest of us less safe.
  7. Rhetoric on terrorism.  The Conservative government has adopted, wholeheartedly, the very problematic us-vs.-them rhetoric of terrorism.  This language is actively harmful to our society: it justifies racism, breeds contempt for religious minorities, argues for disastrous international military actions, and undermines civil rights.  The ideological decision to envision Omar Khadr as a terrorists instead of a child soldier and the ensuing harm (and wasted resources) is the most clear exemplar.
  8. Human rights, in particular, bill C-51.  Coming out of the rhetoric mentioned in the previous point, this is a deeply problematic bill.  While it remains to be seen how it plays out in functional jurisprudence, the bill has the potential remove important rights of communication, free speech, protest and association.  It’s attitude towards information and privacy is also deeply troubling.  Bill C-24 is equally troubling in how it authorized the government to deny citizenship rights, particularly towards ethnic and religious minorities targeted by the rhetoric of terrorism.
  9. Drug policy.  I’m strongly in favour of the broad suggestions of the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy: treat drug problems as a public health concern instead of a criminal justice concern.  The Conservative record on this has been the exact opposite.  In addition to the problematic criminal justice policy, there are two other notable examples where I am deeply disappointed in the Conservative policy.  The first is their obstruction of the now-legal use of medical marijuana.  The second is their opposition and legal action against Insite Drug Injection Site and similar programs, programs which are easily justified in terms of decrease criminal activity, increased health for the users and increased safety for the community.
  10. International policy.  I object to the general militarization of our foreign policy and participation in bombing missions.  I’m also deeply disappointed in the rhetoric, for example, in the oversimplified pro-Israel stance or the skepticism about the US-Iran nuclear agreement.
  11. Market driven policy.  I’m nervous about the simplistically pro-market ideology of the Conservative government, as evidenced in their opposition to the Wheat board and other purchasing cooperatives or their blanket enthusiasm for international free trade agreements.  I don’t always know what the best decisions are on such complicated economic issues.  However, my judgement is that this government is driven by corporate interests and ideology of market freedom instead of carefully considered evidence-based reasoning issue by issue.  As such, I don’t trust them with the very important economic decisions such as negotiating free trade agreements or managing agricultural and resource economies reasonable.
  12. Focus on tax deductions as major policy and campaign priorities.  This government has made it clear that it feels the best method for interacting with citizens is through the tax code.  I object to this focus, first because it adds to the complication of the tax code.  Second, because it is done as an alternative to actually government programming.  For example, I would be much more in favour of a system to fund, develop and support child-care facilities as opposed to simply assigning a greater tax deduction targeted at child-care.
  13. Simplistic support for the oil industry.  I realize that the oil industry is not going away.  However, I’m disappointed by unconsidered and supportive the approach of the conservatives towards oil extraction.  In particular, the willingness to ignore the environmental costs of to the Athabasca watershed, including its social implications for the inhabitants of Northern Alberta, is very troubling.

Points where I lack information:

  1. Environmental record.  I’ve heard many vague criticism of the Conservatives environmental record and I’m skeptical, given their ideological commitment to business, about their ability to prioritize environmental impact.  That said, I’ve not done the research into the specific environmental decisions of the Conservative government.
  2. Regulatory record.  As with the environmental record, I’ve heard many criticisms and I have ideologically driven skepticism, but I haven’t gone through the specifics.
  3. Aboriginal issues. Again, I haven’t done my research here.  For the most part, though, I trust the voices of those affected and will listen to them for support and/or criticism of the Conservative government.

Unsurprisingly, my answer to the question is: no, they don’t deserve to continue governing.  What, then, are the other options?  I’ll be back with two more parts.  In part 2, I’ll discuss my opinions and impressions of the oppositions parties platforms and in part 3, I’ll share my conclusions, voting decision, and miscellaneous thoughts.

The Stack Project – September 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is another update covering the last two months, consisting of mini-reviews for a bunch of albums.

The Cardigans – I listened to two albums: The First Band on the Moon and Life.  Neither really grabbed me.  There was some nice hooks and pleasant poppy melodic structure, but the lyrics didn’t inspire.  It’s not that they weren’t interesting — I think this band has a curious, quirky lyric style — it’s just that they didn’t draw me into the songs.  In short, I found both albums quite forgettable.

Cat Power – I was very negative on Cat Power after seeing her give a terrible show at the Folk Fest Mainstage some years ago.  I shouldn’t have judged her so harshly.  I listened to The Greatest and You Are Free, and both were excellent.  Marvellous mood, engaging lyrics, insteresting song structures.  I’m all for it.

Cibo Matto – I’ve loved the album Stereo Type A for many years, ever since someone gave me a copy in my late teens or early 20s.  Cibo Matto is excatly the right kind of bizarre and whimsical.  I also have a copy of Viva! La Woman, which I haven’t really listened to until now.  It’s just a strange as expected, being almost entirely composed of songs about food.  I loved it.  White Pepper Ice Cream is the standout track, with bonus points for a mournful and eerie cover The Candy Man Can (a song originally written for the 1971 Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – I knew that their debut eponymous album was a big deal in the indie scene.  Now I understand why.  I’d listened to two tracks previously (Details of the War and Over and Over Again), but never really listened to the whole album.  Now, I think that half of it is on my favourites list.  Really great stuff.   I also listened to their sophomore release Some Loud Thunder.  It has a couple lovely tracks, but doesn’t live up to the debut.  As an aside, the vocalist really does deserve the award for the worst diction in all of popular music.

The Cure – I’ve always known about The Cure without every really knowing their music.  At some point in the past years, I acquired a copy of Disintegration, which was next up for the Stack project.  The album is really great, in a strange synth-driven 80s way.  Even with the 80s snare, which usually drives me crazy, I really liked the sound.  Lyrically, I found it ran the gamut all the way from effortlessly sublime to immaturely saccharine.  More or less what I expected from their reputation.  I should probably listen to some of their other classic albums.

Damien Rice – Ah, Damien Rice.  So ridiculously emotional, overwrought, self-indulgent.  That said, I quite like the album 0, which I’ve listened to frequently in the past.  The pathos is just believable enough to move me, when I’m in a certain mood.  Unfortunately, the album 9 which I listened to for the Stack project was simply terrible.  Just as overdone as 0, but without any of the saving graces.  There is nowhere to hide from the angsty grade-9 lyrics.

Danny Michel – I bought In The Belly of a Whale after seeing Danny Michel at Folk Fest years ago and loved it.  It’s aged a bit poorly, but I still think it’s a good album.  For the Stack project, I listened to a second old acquisition: Tales from the Invisible Man.  It was a lovely listen.  It’s most a pop-rock album, but the songwriting is incredibly solid.  The best track on the first half of the album is the amazing pop anthem We All Fall Down.  I particularly like the voice overdubbing, which strangely works well with his quirky voice.  The second half of the album has a couple nice stylistic variations,  including the amazing use of saxophones on the very traditional miner’s tragedy folk song Thunder in the Mountain.  Good stuff.

Dar Williams – We have a strange non-retail promotional release of a live album version of Out There, which I really love.  I’ve listened to it many times but still tear up every time I hear The Christians and the Pagans.  For the Stack Project, there were two Dar Williams albums previously ignored: My Better Self and The Beauty of the Rain.  The latter I found really quite disappointing, other than the stirring opening track.  My Better Self is much more consistent in quality; I really like the majority of the album.  The opener Teen for God brought back a bunch of my own strange memories of Christian summer camps and managed to capture a great balance of mixed emotions towards the experience.  The cover of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is also particularly excellent, mostly due to the simplicity of Dar’s treatment of the song.

Dave Matthews Band – I’ve decided that I find DMB boring.  Sorry, all the big DMB fans out there.  Doesn’t do much for me.

David Essig – Somewhere along the way, we acquired the EP titled A Stone in my Pocket.  Other than the track Declaration Day, which I already knew and enjoyed from the album of the same title, there were six new tracks here.  Most were forgettable, but I have to talk about the first track, Walk Back Into Town.  For the first 2.5 minutes of this 4 minute song, you think it’s a simply lovely folk/country love song, giving the account of how a fellow originally bonded with his future wife when their car broke down and they had to walk miles back to town.  However, over halfway through the song, without any warning or change in tone, it suddenly changes into a song about police brutality, where the same character (now a police officer) takes some violent offender to a field out of town and leave him to freeze to death.  (I don’t know if this is mean to be fictional or an account of such incidents which have occurred on the Canadian prairies.)  It’s incredibly dark and depressing.  I feel that David Essig should be fined for abuse of his songwriting privileges; such a setup is simply cruel to the listener.  I was caught totally unaware.  Even now, I believe it is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.

Some Brief Thoughts On Grammar and Style.

I recently read Steven Pinker’s book A Sense of Style.  The book is partially a style guide and partially a wandering meditation on grammar, style and language.  It’s a quick, light read (especially by Pinker’s standard) and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject.  That said, Pinker’s book is not my favorite work on the subject.  That commendation is reserved for David Foster Wallace’s Essay `Authority and American Usage’.  Ostensibly a 65 page review of Bryan Garner’s `A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,’ DFW’s essay is the definitive word on what grammatical advice is actually about.  I laughed, I cried.  Read it.

Like many people I know who’ve spent time in various academic settings, I’ve gone through stages in my response to grammar, style and usage.  Despite good grades in middle school English, I felt like a clumsy buffoon trying to put together coherent sentences in my early/middle teens.  The good grades, mostly likely, were only due to a slavish adherence to set forms: introductory sentence, three sentences of evidence, concluding sentence.  Next paragraph, the very same.  My prose was awkward, stilted and boring, but I guess my teachers couldn’t well dock marks when I followed instructions so well.  But it wasn’t quality writing, even adjusting for age.

I don’t remember when someone first gave me a copy of Strunk & Whyte.  I do remember, vividly, the feeling of reading it for the first time.  I felt like I’d achieved enlightenment.  I felt that while I’d previously be building wood furniture with a glue stick and a butter knife, suddenly someone had given me a saw, hammer and nails.  I’m not sure my writing actually improved substantially, but at least I had a direction for such improvement.

For years, I thought that Strunk & Whyte had essentially the correct idea.  They presented a confident vision and reasonable set of rules and intuitions, focused on clarity, brevity and elegance.  There was, somewhere, a correct way to write expository prose.  Then, slowly, over a decade or so, chinks began to appear in the armor of `The Elements of Style’.  Even with their expert guidance, comma usage still baffled me (leading to a long-lasting and still problematic addition to the semi-colon). I became more aware of English as a set of only partially related dialects and jargon.  I read feminist critiques focusing on the classist and racist implication of proscriptive grammar.  I learned that the field of linguistics existed and that linguists were barely more than guessing about how language works.

I became a descriptivist; forgoing my former dedication to the disciples of  Strunk, I was convinced that language was an impenetrable maze of conflicting structures, individual and chaotic as humanity itself.  The fact that anyone manages to communicate at all is a small miracle (and happens less frequently that we might assume).  Dictionaries and usage manuals out to be field research journals, noting the current behaviour and recording it for reference and posterity.

Both DFW’s excellent essay and the pleasant book by Pinker do a good job of finding a middle way.  Both reject two common models for the grammarian: the legislator that decrees what good usage shall be and the researcher that describes accepted usages whatever it might be.  Instead, DFW’s model for the grammarian is a lawyer.  The lawyer hasn’t written the laws and is capable, at some level, of indifference towards their moral value.  The lawyer has, however, studied the laws and how they play out in certain contexts.  The lawyer can advise her client on how to make best use of the law in a particular situation.  Such is the goal of the grammarian: to know, from years of experience, the usage of language in particular context and to give advice to the writer on how to produce a certain effect on a certain audience through prose.

Voluntary Simplicity Part 2

In the previous post, I spoke about restraint and practices of `voluntary simplicity’.  In this follow up post, I’d like to talk about the religious motivation for such a choice.

I associate religions with all the more severe and extreme forms of voluntary simplicity.  The obvious monastic examples include poverty, chastity, silence, and stark simplicity in food and shelter.  The whole idea of monastic retreat from civilization is a form of voluntary simplicity: going without the established culture of your time and place in history.  What is it about religion that inspires these choices, particularly in these extreme forms?

My answer to that question comes from Ken Wilber’s understanding of stages of spiritual development.  (Obviously, this is not unique to Wilber; he’s just the writer from whom I’ve learned this material).  In a healthy childhood and early adulthood, the establishment of a solid, secure and healthy ego is necessary and desirable.  However, once this stage is attained, the great moral traditions of the world inspire a person to learn and grow away from her own ego.  They teach us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow.  I don’t necessarily think that self-denial looks like Luther’s bleak pessimism about the depravity of humanity: we’re not worms.  Hence self-denial follows the establishment of a healthy ego.  Religiously, we are all precious children of the Most High.  But after the establishment of a healthy ego, some amount of self-denial is a worthy goal in itself.  The ego, for all its usefulness and necessity, is a powerful and selfish creature.  It demands satisfaction and, left to its own devices, values that satisfaction above all else.

I believe it is one of the great universal moral teachings to say that satisfying the ego is not the ultimate purpose of human life.  We are called for more: we are called to serve the happiness of our fellow humans, even to the detriment of ourselves.  In religious language, I like the idea that we are called to be a blessing in whatever situation we find ourselves in.  I think this calling is the main source of the religious call for simplicity: the part of the process of denying ourselves, of striving to go beyond the ego, it part of this greater calling to serve instead of being served.

Much of my own motivation these days comes from reading (and practicing) the mystical dimension of religion.  A major insight across the mystical traditions is the conclusion that all reality is unity.  As much as this takes many forms and languages in many traditions, I’m persuaded that the unity expressed by the great mystics is a common core idea.  At its fundamental core, the universe is is not-two.  This gives a direction to going beyond the ego.  The ego insists on, and is constructed on, the fact that it is a separate identity.  Going beyond the ego needs a great goal, a noble purpose; the Golden Rule is simple to state but difficult to motivate.  I find motivation for the Golden Rule in the idea, however strange and unreal, that the divisions between us are illusionary.  in particular, the division that creates my own ego, which is necessary for my development, is also illusion.  To limit myself in order to allow more for the world is the same as growing myself if, indeed, the world and I are not-two.

There is an entirely different religious direction I could see taking this discussion.  Perhaps this voluntary simplicity isn’t as much about denying the self as it is about building a less distracted lifestyle.  Religion, when healthy and whole, can be about building a new set of glasses with which to see the world, a set of glasses where the first are last, the meek are to be praised, and peacemakers will inherit the earth.  This is a difficult perspective to see in the midst of a busy, hectic and distracted life.  I’m under the impression that a major monastic motivation to leave the world was to avoid being caught up in the assumptions of the world.  In the midst of the frantic activity, it is very difficult to analyze and understand the assumptions which drive the world.  Stepping back gives the necessary perspective to see those assumption and challenge them, should we want to.

Lastly, I think religion offers a useful path towards realizing either a meagre or ambitious goal of voluntary simplicity and self-denial.  This path is through religious practices and disciplines.  This is quite ironic coming from me, since I’ve given up on almost all of those practices. But I see the value in them even though I’ve chosen to distance myself, and the meditation practice which I have chosen is motivated by hope in its long-term effect on my mind, spirit, choices and behaviours.

Voluntary Simplicity Part 1

A part of maturing into adulthood is the realization that restraint is necessary for human flourishing.  Many of the struggles of human lives (particularly in the rich, luxurious environment of privilege which I inhabit) involve controlling the desire to indulge and exercising restraint.  Restraint is a habit which can be practiced and improved; it is a psychological muscle which requires development and maintenance.

While restraint is necessary for all human adults to some extent, we all give ourselves over to particular indulgences while forgoing others.  I was recently inspired to think about the choice of where to exercise restraint.  This inspiration came in hearing about a university course taught by a human geographer on a topic which she called `Voluntary Simplicity.’  The course was a study of the various luxuries and comforts that a human in civilization might choose to forgo, from the superficial task of turning off your phone for a day to the extreme religious examples of vows of poverty and monasticism.  I was lead to two questions.  First, what do I forgo and why?  Second, what’s the religious motivation for giving up the comforts of the world and how does that play into my own decisions?  (I guess that was four questions.  In any case, I’ll leave the religious questions for this post.)

Without trying to make a claim of moral superiority, there are certain life choices I’ve made (along with my wife) which involve restraint, going without luxuries that many in our peer group enjoy.  (The reason that I emphatically do not wish to claim any moral high ground is my awareness of all the other luxuries in which I do indulge; but more on that later.)  We’ve chosen to live without a car.  Though we could afford something larger, we’ve chosen to live in a relatively small condominium suite without external storage.  (The fact that these are choices for us, where many live in small quarters without vehicles by necessity, is evidence of our wealth and privilege.)  These two choice are obvious enough that they come up in conversation; many of our friends want to know why we’ve made these decisions.

There answers are complicated.  Resource use is one reason, for sure.  Our footprint (in many senses of the word) is made smaller by cycling and living in high density housing.  Lifestyle is also a part.  We enjoy the activity, exercise and (some of) the culture of cycling.  There are behavioural reasons as well: making cycling a necessity ensure exercise; living in a small apartment puts a brake on our ability to accumulate possessions.  There are also problems with our choices.  Our ability to visit family is hindered by the lack of a car, which has caused tensions with some family members.  Likewise, our small apartment limits our ability to host guests overnight, particularly family, which also causes tension.

And to balance it out, there are many rich luxuries we do allow ourselves.  We travel frequently, including several trips to Europe in the last few years.  We buy imported goods, in my case including imported whiskey.  We spend most of our money on ourselves: travel, indulgent food, alcohol (at least for me),  hobbies, etc.  By global standards, there are many other luxuries and indulgences that I’m not mentioning for lack of awareness, simply because I take them for granted.

Should I forgo more of these luxuries?  I think about this question with some frequency.  I ask myself, in particular, about meat, alcohol and air travel.

Of the many argument for vegetarianism, the most convincing for me is the argument from resource use.  Animal are inefficient sources of nutrients, consuming far more in feed than they produce for our benefit.  The appalling treatment of food animals also give me pause.  (Interestingly, I’m not at all convinced by the position that eating animal is inherently ethically wrong.  I would have absolutely no ethical concerns at all if I solely ate meat from hunting where there is an overpopulation of hunt animals.  Maybe I should take up hunting?)   My only reason for not going vegetarian is convenience, which is pretty weak.  Well, convenience and the fact that I really, really love fresh fish.  Going without mammal and bird meat seems like a pretty easy sell, frankly, but fresh fish — that’s something else entirely.  As it happens, I live in the middle of the continent and only get fresh fish rarely, so maybe it’s not such a big deal.  Maybe I should take up sport fishing (where there are plentiful stocks, of course).

I also think about going without alcohol.  I appreciate the argument that alcohol is fermenting perfectly good grain supplies; while some calories still carry over, it’s not exactly a reliable stable food source.  Alcohol seems to me the perfect instance of the archetypical luxury in our society: normalized enough to seem a natural part of our culture but a completely unnecessary use of potentially valuable food resources.  (To say nothing of the difficult behavioural consequences of alcohol abuse.)  I can easily imagine going without alcohol on the grounds that at long as hunger is a world problem, good, arable grain land should be used to grow grain staples that actually feed people.

Lastly, I have long interior musings every time I book a plane trip.  It’s obvious to me that one of the most pressing instances of restraint required in the modern world is restraint in using fossil fuels.  A substantial part of our decision to go without a car related to fuel and energy use.  However, basically any good we’ve accomplished by all our cycling is easily overcome by the indulgence of frequent air travel.  Resource use, fossil fuel reduction and climate change give a very compelling argument that air travel is unreasonable and unsustainable.  I’m quite swayed by these arguments, but evidently not swayed enough, since I’m still booking plane trips.  It’s an interesting struggle.  Among the many reasons, I see two major hurdles.  The first is friends and family who live far away.  I’m not willing to resign myself to never (or very, very rarely) seeing my close friends and family who live more than a couple hundred kilometers distance.  I don’t think my family would be particularly pleased with me if I thought otherwise.  The second is more obviously selfish: I like travelling to interesting and beautiful places.  My vacations trips and years living overseas have been the source of many of my most formative experiences.  There is a great yearning to travel more, see new places and experience new cultures.

Of these three, giving up air travel seems by far the most difficult. For meat and alcohol, the impact of my potential restraint is almost entirely personal.  I’m slightly more difficult to entertain — going for drinks would be limited to tea or coffee — but that’s not a hardship I’d really regret imposing on my friends and family.  But giving up air travel has a huge impact on many of my important relationships, particular with my parents.  That’s a much harder pill to swallow and a much harder demand to make on the other parties in those relationships.  Why final question for this post is this: are my reservations reasonable?  It is acceptable to enjoy a luxury which wastes energy and produces huge amount of pollution because it is important to my relationships with my closest friends and family?  How does the ethical trouble of burning large quantities of fossil fuel in an airplane balance against the ethical good of going to visit and spent time with the people who love you?

Book Review: Joseph and his Brothers

Everyone time we go on a vacation of more than a week, I take a lengthy book.  On vacation, especially at the pace that Steph and I usually prefer, there are frequent periods of some hours to fill.  I prefer to fill them with reading.  Moreover, I find that the long hours on planes or trains allow me to jump into a long, detailed, thick book (though some selections are much more ambitious than others).  I can still associate books with some vacations from the last few years.

  • 2006 Cycle Tour Vernon – Edmonton: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • 2008 Cycle Tour Nova Scotia: War and Peace by Leo Tolsoy
  • 2009 Cancelled Bicycle Tour due to injury (Stay at home vacation) – Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter
  • 2012 Quebec (including sitting on a train across the country): Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • 2013 Croatia: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • 2014 Anne’s Wedding: Middlemarch by George Elliot
  • 2014 Washington State Bicycle Tour: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The summer 2015 monumental book was Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann.  Published in four volumes in the 1930s and 1940s, the book is a 1500 page dramatic retelling of the second half of the book of Genesis, starting with most of the major events of Jacob’s life and finishing with his death.

The book is ambitious.  Among its many goals and accomplishments, I’d like to focus on four aspects that particularly struck me.

First, as you might expect for a book turning a 20 page story into a 1500 page novel, the characters are extensively filled out from their relatively sparse biblical descriptions.  All of the major characters in the original story, as well as some of the minor ones, are given detailed, rich, psychologically complex characterizations and motivations. Perhaps the most notable is the effort and detail given to Eni, Potiphar’s wife.  (Unnamed in the original, Eni is one of several names given to the character in Mann’s novel).  Given only three words in genesis: `Lie with me’, Potiphar’s wife has become a caricature of woman as temptress.  Mann goes to great lengths to redeem her character from that unfair and simplistic description.  Given a full 200 pages, the story of Eni and Joseph is expanded into a deep, complicated three-year tragedy of unrequited love.   The blame for the eventual crisis between Eni, Joseph, Potiphar is shared among all three characters and several other minor figures.  It’s compelling enough that I often found myself hoping for Joseph to give himself up to the affair and I felt heartbroken for both characters by the end.  The novel felt like a real story about mythologically-influenced by psychologically human characters.  This shatters the simplistic distance of the original myth in a marvelous way.

Second, the story is put in a vivid and intricate cultural context.  Extensively researched, the story connects the characters and their settings with the various towns, cities, empires, cultures and religions of the particular historical period that Mann has chosen.  Biblical scenes which give only the most basic details are now full of secondary and tertiary characters.  A good example is Joseph’s time in prison, where we are given great detail on the warden, his living situation, the role and organization of the prison, the location of the prison and its culture and atmosphere.   There is a temptation, probably from deeply buried impressions of childhood Sunday School stories, to see the biblical stories as isolated.  It never occurs to me, even rereading as an adult, to visualize the complicated surrounding world.  Mann does an amazing job giving that world in great detail.

The first two points are perhaps exactly what you would expect for a novelization of myth.  Myth has a sparse, simplistic form; a novel should extend both character and setting in a natural way.  Mann does this well, but I would have expected a similar effort from any talented writer.  The last two observations are much more surprising and particular to the goals of this author.

Third, Mann takes stories and archetypes from throughout both biblical testaments and mixes them into his story.  I noticed dozens of such examples and I’m sure I missed others due to lack of familiarity.  To give a sense, the stories and archetypes of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abram, Sarai, Eliezer, Jonah, Job, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul and others are applied to Jacob, Joseph and many other characters.  In particular, Joseph is more strongly set-up as a Christ figure than I have ever seen.  A long, complicated reason is given for treating his mother as a virgin, hence giving him a virgin birth.  Both his experiences in `the pit’ (the literal pit for three days before being sold, and the prison in Egypt) are treated as death and resurrection narratives.

Joseph as a Jesus-figure is an idea I have heard before, but Mann isn’t content with conventional parallels.  One of the more amazing and surprising choices was his mythology of the Pharaoh under which Joseph serves.  Mann has chosen the historical Pharaoh Akhenaten to be Joseph’s Pharaoh.  Akhenaten was historically notable for enacting a temporary shift in focus in the Egyptian pantheon, away from the previous sun-god Amun to a new sun-god Aten.   Aten is a more abstract deity (one of the few Egyptian deities to be represented as an object, in this case the sun, instead of a human or human/animal hybrid) and Mann makes Akhenaten’s story about searching for a universal monotheism.  A great part of the appeal of Joseph to Akhenaten is his monotheism, delivered in mythic stories about Abram turning his back on his Chaldean gods and seeking `the Highest’.  This, in itself, is fascinating, but when Akhenaten starts preaching about Aten, his quasi-monotheistic sun-god, the language Mann has chosen is a exact parallel of the the first chapter of the gospel of John.  Akhenaten himself is cast as the word-made-flesh.  The pharaoh, as mythologically the son of the sun-god,is on earth to show the glory of the One and Only.

Lastly, it’s not only biblical archetypes that Mann incorporates.  The surrounding archetypes of many ancient religions are also included with playful exuberance.  Moreover, they aren’t cleanly separated from the biblical archetypes.  Quite the opposite: the biblical stories are very intentionally presented as re-interpretations and adaptations of the stories of the surrounding religions.  All of the Christ-figure discussion of Joseph is also the story of Osiris and Horus and the death/tomb/rebirth narrative of ancient Egypt.  Likewise, it is also the story of the Cannanite and Babylonian gods, where death and rebirth are frequent themes.  The overwhelming impression given by this mixing is that the stories of Joseph are anything but novel.  Growing up with the Sunday school versions and becoming aware of historical biblical criticism as an adult, I found this impression absolutely fascinating.  One of the greatest things about reading this novel is getting a sense, through fiction, of one way the Hebrew stories might have originated among a rich cultural tradition of myths and archetypes, as opposed to the Deus-Ex-Machina delivery of the bible out of the ether that my childhood self tacitly assumed.  Mann does give the Hebrews some claim to originality when talking about the monotheistic idea of a singular higher power above all the Gods, though even here, he finds that same tendency in the Pharaoh Akhenaten.  The book is full of lovely mythological play between the surrounding culture informing and donating the stories of the bible and the Hebrews re-interpreting this gift in the understanding of Abram’s goal of serving a singular Highest.