Thursday, October 20, 2011

Devolution of the Corner Store?

I'm in San Francisco (for BlackBerry DevCon) (and yes I just felt an earthquake - what a cliche - and yes it freaked me out) and I went into a CVS Pharmacy near my hotel today. They don't have checkout counters at that store: it's purely self checkout. In addition, the checkout assumes that you have a CVS credit card. You can use a different credit card, but only if you understand that you have to press "Courtesy Card" and go from there. The prices are all different for CVS card holders, as well.

Over the last five years, especially in big US cities, pharmacies have displaced the corner store. The new pharmacies have junk food, toiletries, make-up, and a few groceries and household items. They're ubiquitous: in New York and San Francisco, there's a Walgreens or CVS or Duane Reed on every block, it seems. Corner stores, family grocerers and newspaper/smoke shops have all but disappeared.

In Toronto, the immigrant-owned small grocer with a display of fresh flowers out front is still ubiquitous, although the pharmacies are getting a foothold in the financial district.

In Waterloo we never had many mom-and-pop grocers (at least in my time there, since the mid-60s); instead, we have stands at the farmer's markets. Diners used to sell candy and cigarettes at the cash, and the only place I know that still does that is The Harmony at King and Central (not cigarettes anymore, of course). Our corner stores were and are of the 7-11 variety, and I wouldn't miss the demise of their magazine racks with porn at the eye level of 11 year-olds.

My main problem with the preponderance of pharmacies is the horror of having the same company dominating every street. Outside they look the same. Inside they look the same. They all carry exactly the same stuff, and there's nothing local or individual about it. You won't find homemade butter tarts or samosas on the counter, as you do at mom-and-pop outfits, or artichokes from the home town of the Italian owners. They don't offer an array of newspapers. Now they don't even have a human being at the checkout.

It is more than nostalgia, I hope, to think that we're losing something here.


Friday, October 07, 2011

Esperanto is Old School

Wittgenstein described language as a city. Three's the Old Town with its twisted streets and the new suburbs that are neatly organized. The entire city is constantly changing and growing.

That's the way it's supposed to be, but is language evolving enough? We are adding a lot of slang and that's fun, but is it really moving us forward? We could be working to create language evolution that would enhance our understanding and bring thought to a new level.

Children can learn a language by a fairly young age, knowing all the difficult grammar and learning a very sizable vocabularly. Why stop there? Why not make basic communication a lot more difficult, so we have to keep learning? The beauty of learning language is that we internalize it, so it is more powerful than academic book learning.

Here's an idea, somewhat half-baked but I present it as a start to the conversation... The world could move to one written language, and it should not be phonetic. Different groups will interpret the written form differently, resulting in a rich collection of spoken languages. But those groupings don't have to be geographic or historical; there can be different spoken interpretations for poets and accountants and so on. Meaning has always been layered, but it will become much more so, allowing different perspectives on existence to display different strengths in insight and communication.

There was a time when scholars from all of Europe wrote in Latin. The new language would go further in that it wouldn't be just for scholars, and there wouldn't be just one verbalization of it. The same symbol, word or phrase might be interpreted by different groups as eternity, death, the sky, forgotten memory. The new language might be partly mathematical. (Math has insufficient vocabulary.)

By learning a new verison of the language, we'd be internalizing new layers of meaning. That would allow a deeper understanding of the interconnections between different perspectives: for example, it could make us aware at a deep level of the sameness of math and music, poetry and philosophy, different schools of thought in physics.

As it stands, our science is growing but our overall understanding of the world is growing less so. To move to a new level we need human evolution, not just more technology. We need to dream bigger and reach higher.


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Representative democracy, public participation and social media

There was an interesting controversy in Waterloo this week. A city councillor, while sitting in Council listening to a delegation of residents who were concerned about a proposed development in their neighborhood, tweeted disparaging things about the delegation. The residents filed a complaint with the city integrity commissioner, who cleared the councillor of wrongdoing on the grounds that the tweets were ambiguous.

The delegation was from an upscale part of town and the issue was a townhouse development planned for their neighborhood. The Councillor’s tweets, apparently sent while the delegation was speaking, were:

“I am aghast. Embarrassed. Furious. #not impressed #this is not my Waterloo.”

“About to revisit my prairie girl roots, connect with Tommy Douglas and share some very honest and blunt thoughts about community.”

(The Councillor’s attempt at populist bonding seems a little weird, at best. Some quick Google searches show that she lives in a posh neighborhood with house prices comparable to the delegation's - and no townhouses. But that’s another issue.)

As someone who has made a number of delegations to local government, both at public Council meetings and in private, I know how difficult it is to provide input when you know the government official has already made up their mind. But I’ve been lucky – I have never been in the position of arguing a case before an official who sneers at my arguments just because of who I am or where I come from.

I also know how difficult it is to participate in local government. Despite calls for public involvement, transparency, and so on, Waterloo government appears to most of us as a cliquey group that is not very receptive to outsiders (even though the “outsiders” are local residents). City Council invites the public to participate on committees, but they renew membership every year and boot you off if they decide you’re too controversial. Councillors will let you tell them your concerns, but few of them (I exclude our current mayor) give the impression that their minds are at all open.

Now it seems that the situation is worse. This event – and the exoneration of the tweeter, and her declaration that she won’t change – paints a picture of City Hall as a place where councillors are playground bullies who will use their stature to publicly humiliate us if we have the temerity to say something they disagree with.

An editorial on the tweeting scandal argues that the problem is not what the Councillor said, but the fact that she tweeted during a meeting. I disagree. It was disrespectful of her to not at least hear them out, but her tweets expose her attitude - that she was never willing to give them a chance because "they're rich" - and I'm glad that's public. If it's not public, we can't deal with it.

Tweeting increases transparency, and that's a good thing. Transparency isn't easy - it can uncover some rotten stuff - and we need to look at addressing those issues. I also hope we can discourge this sort of political grandstanding.

What we need is an enhanced - or at least reaffirmed - code of conduct for city councillors that reinforces their obligation to treat the public in a respectful manner and truly engage them.