Saturday, June 30, 2012

Waterloo's Reputation Takes a Beating

Waterloo could use a boost from a good PR firm. RIM is being discussed in major media outlets around the world, and nobody seems to have anything good to say about our town.

Last week, on a day that topped 35 Celsius, one analyst site posted a photo of Waterloo in the winter, with a miserable-looking man walking in front of a RIM sign in driving snow (link).

Among the many arguments for Why RIM Failed, a prevalent one is that it is based in a podunk town with no technical talent. You read comments like: the marketing staff are all high school dropouts from rural towns around Waterloo; RIM management failed because nobody with talent would live in Waterloo; RIM would have survived if it had relocated to Kanata or Silicon Valley.

Some commenters on online Globe & Mail articles seem to think that Waterloo got an unfair advantage in having RIM here, as if the government had somehow chosen Waterloo as the recipient of the high tech company. One commenter was angry that RIM wasn't relocated to BC; another that it wasn't in Ottawa.

Nobody seems to remember the University of Waterloo or Communitech or the flourishing high tech sector in Waterloo Region other than RIM. Some even disparage the record of UW, list better schools (one commenter mentions UMass Amherst, UMich Ann Arbor and Indiana Bloomington as all being superior).

But the main thread I'm seeing is that Waterloo is not a good place to live: it's "in the middle of nowhere" and unattractive. Quite a turnaround from just a few years ago when RIM was riding high and we were "the world's most intelligent community." This is my home town so I'm biased, but I don't want to see our reputation permanently tarnished.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Henry V (review)

A pivotal moment in Shakespeare's Henry V is when Henry tells his army to kill their prisoners.

Shakespeare has taken Henry through a long epic of personal change. In Henry IV Part I, Prince Hal is a dissipate, fun-loving, rich man's son, feeling guilty about the bad deeds his father performed to get the crown. Over the three plays Hal changes a lot. As he assumes the responsibility of becoming king his transformation is so great that he initiates a war to obtain French land. But the chillingest thing he does is during the battle of Agincourt when Henry decides to kill the French prisoners - a gross violation of any rules of war or morality.

Many productions of Henry V leave out the killing of the prisoners. Branagh and Olivier both left it out, and you have to assume that they didn't want their regal portrayals of Henry to be tarnished by such brutality. It's a pity. It changes everything to leave it out.

Des McAnuff's current Stratford production of Henry V leaves in the killing of the prisoners but makes no sense of it. The production is enjoyable fluff, but it makes little sense of anything. The biggest problem is the casting of Aaron Krohn as Henry; Krohn may be a decent actor, but he's more a matinee idol than a Shakespearian: he doesn't have the gravitas or the technique for Henry.

The second biggest problem is what McAnuff has told Krohn to do. It's like Krohn is just creating scenes without any context. After Henry's ruthlessness with the prisoners, McAnuff has Henry become a lighthearted lover who inexplicably falls in love with the French princess - there's no hint that the alliance solidifies his hold on France - that Henry's transformation is now so complete that even love is for him nothing but politics.

Henry V is full of stirring moments and great lines, but this production lets them all slip away. Henry's stirring pep talk to his troops becomes a conversation with a few of his generals. "Once more into the breach... the game's afoot!" is lost in monotone. Henry has no character and the play ultimately has no meaning.

Stratford doesn't fail the way it used to. Even in this remarkably vapid production, there is much that is good and the play overall is enjoyable, with great staging, music, sets - and a huge talented cast.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mechanics of Dysfunction

When I read about towns in the US that are incorporating and privatizing (such as in the New York Times this week), my first reaction is horror at this latest outbreak of libertarianism. Communities take this route in order to shirk their responsibilities to poor people who live outside the new town limits, and they outsource local jobs to huge multinational corporations.

The problem with the ideological-emotional reaction is that it demonizes without understanding motivations, and so isn't at all pragmatic. When I look into the matter further I continue to deplore it, but start to understand it.

Parts of the US have such horrendous disparity of wealth that you find small enclaves of the middle class surrounded by a sea of poverty. It's not just that the rich don't want to pay for the poor: it's that the rich want decent services (such as good policing and roads) and they're having trouble achieving that when the county government is struggling to provide even subpar services to large poor communities. Separating might seem like the only way to attain decent services.

I don't understand racial politics in the US, but places that have incorporated are called "white flight" towns, so part of the problem seems to be racist - especially in the southern states, where poverty falls disproportionately to non-white communities.

Once incorporated, many of these towns outsource almost all of their civic services. Some are left with only one public employee. Many outsource everything except for the police and fire departments (because of insurance prices). The reason for outsourcing is the cost of unionized employees. We might call this union-busting, but think of it from the perspective of the communities that are privatizing. The New York Times quotes John Donahue of Harvard as saying, "A lot of jobs in government are middle-class jobs that in the private sector are not middle-class jobs. People aren't willing to support conditions for public workers that they themselves no longer enjoy" pensions and excellent health coverage.

While incorporation and privatization have been around for a while, they have picked up since the 2008 financial collapse because communities are going through crisis. When faced with imminent bankruptcy during a recession, there aren't a lot of options. Raising property taxes is a problem when people are already losing their homes in record numbers; in some cases it just isn't feasible because it could exacerbate the downward spiral and result in even lower tax revenue. Much of the cost structure is fixed because of union agreements. Reducing financial obligations to the rest of the county is egregious, but it saves towns millions that they might not be able to save otherwise.

Historically, Democrats prevent incorporation from happening, but in the current economic downturn Republicans are surging, and it only takes one term of Republican majority in state legislatures to allow a slew of incorporations.

The tragedy is even greater that the solution to the dysfunction is increasing the dysfunction. Incorporation and privatization are removing local jobs, increasing local poverty, and hurting social services and schools that could help pull the poor out of poverty. When one town in a county chooses white flight, it puts financial pressure on other towns and makes it more likely that they'll go too. Income inequality and racial tension continue to increase.

It's all just going to shit. That will continue until the US effectively addresses poverty. It might help to change the terminology; instead of calling it the war on poverty, call it the war on lack of opportunity, or the war on hopelessness.

The other issue is how to transform into the post-union world we're becoming. Unions served a useful purpose a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, maybe even twenty years ago; but now their time is done. We need a better transition than moving from unionized income for life to outsourced minimum wage jobs. (And in the US, even the low minimum wage is under attack from business lobbyists.) We need stronger employment laws and better retirement savings options for everyone.

See also:
Did Philip K Dick Dream of Palm Jumeirah?


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Some scattered thoughts about Alan Turing

It is Alan Turing’s 100th birthday today, June 23. Earlier this week I went to a documentary about Turing at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing and then did some reading. Here are a few things I found interesting...

Early computers were referred to by many names, including radio brains, universal Turing machines, and automatic computing engines. Turing didn’t just envision the computer; he worked on teams that built some. The public archives at preserve fascinating letters and memos from that work.

Turing apparently committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple. Turing’s friend Alan Garner (one of my favorite authors) wrote recently that Turing had “a fascination with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially the transformation of the Wicked Queen into the Witch. He used to go over the scene in detail, dwelling on the ambiguity of the apple, red on one side, green on the other, one of which gave death.” (link)

After being convicted of gross indecency for being gay, Turing worried that his work would be discredited. He wrote facetiously, “Turing believes machines think, Turing lies with men, Therefore machines do not think.” But that argument may also be taken to be causal, as the turmoil of his last years meant that he never published his neural net sketches of intelligent machinery or his ideas for how to program.

I don't find his famous question, Can machines think?, at all interesting. It seems ridiculous: if the Turing Test determines whether machines think, and machines fail the test until something is added to them that makes it possible for them to pass the test, then it follows that machines thought after they passed the test but did not think before they passed the test - even though they did substantially the same thing. Obviously I'm wrong: the Turing Test kicked off the study of artificial intelligence and was enormously significant. Turing's thinking about the similarities of machines and human brains seems also to be based in his understanding that human thinking, including intuition and originality, are computable processes that can be replicated by machines. And of course it's increasingly possible; we could program computers to have emotional responses, lizard brain responses, a collective unconscious, and fallibility (along with things like heuristics and fuzzy logic).

So much of the writing about Turing dwells on the salacious and pathetic. It's his birthday and it seems a day to celebrate the man's accomplishments rather than swap gossip about him.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Liberal Leaders: Guaranteed Support?

Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. We Liberals have blown through four leaders in recent years (I count Bob Rae among the four because he has been much more than a caretaker). Our leaders have all failed - because we have not supported them. When the Harper attack ads started, we let ourselves be affected. When a new leader had some missteps out of the gate, we called for his head. When the first election the leader presided over didn't go well, we dumped his sorry ass.

It's obvious that what we need to do is give our next leader the time to learn the job. Historically, new party leaders falter in the beginning. Most Prime Ministers didn't get there on their first try. Many didn't look too sharp for the first term or two.

In particular, when we know the leader we've chosen is inexperienced (like Ignatieff), we have to not only give him some slack but be supportive. Any of our last four leaders could have led us to victory, given time and support. What failed is us, the party, not them.

Why does this happen? We have the recent memory of being called Canada's natural ruling party, and there is an impatience to regain our former stature. We blame the leader for not doing it - even though we should all know that it is going to take time for a leader to not just learn, but develop the right team, develop policies, build support in the electorate, make allies, and on and on. I suspect we also have a party loaded up with formerly powerful politicians who are now invested in finding controversial topics to please editors.

We may have to face a situation where our choices for leader are all at the bottom of the barrel. Gerard Kennedy's name is being bandied about - he with a three year college degree, little French, a trumped-up CV and unable to even keep his seat: the definition of an empty pretty boy. He may be what we get. Whoever we get, it is our responsibility to make the most of him: not to whine and complain and demand a replacement.

Why don't we guarantee our next leader that he or she gets the time needed to succeed? Why not say from the outset that they have a two-election term - and we don't expect that they will significantly increase seats in the first of those elections? What about making a pledge (with specifics) to support and help our next leader?

Why would ANYONE agree to take the position without something along those lines? Why would Justin Trudeau want to follow his four predecessors into the pit of humiliating failure?

I have been supporting Bob Rae for leader since he first threw his hat in the ring six years ago. Most of the party divided their support between the four front-runners (in order of support at the convention): Ignatieff, Rae, Dion, Kennedy. Supporters of the first three men have watched the party choose and then pick to death their candidate. It hasn't been a happy experience for any of us. It definitely hasn't helped the party. And it shouldn't happen again.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Sad Regret that Rae Said No

Of all our options for permanent leader, Bob Rae is the most competent, experienced, principled, classy, witty, formidable, erudite and knowledgeable. We would have been very lucky to have him as permanent leader.

I was amazed he was willing to continue to stand for the job. It is six years since he first announced he would run for leader. In that time, two other candidates were chosen over him and then the party executive effectively boxed him out. His continuing interest in being permanent leader was a selfless act; the job ahead is to slowly rebuild a crumbling party, or destroy it in a merger with a stronger party, or watch it die. I believe he wanted to stand because he knew he was the best person to save the party.

Unfortunately, the party, or at least some influential parts, made that impossible. For Rae, personally, this has to be the best choice. As for the party, it is definitely a sad day. And let's remember this: it was Harper's attack ads that took down Dion and Ignatieff, but it was the Liberal party itself that brought down Rae.


Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury had a profound effect on me: my interests, sensibilities, sense of awe, dreams, desires, ideal writing style, values, phobias. When I was a kid I devoured his books: especially Something Wicked This Way Comes, The October Country, and the like; but I loved all of them. There's one story about a boy who has had to wear stiff leather shoes all winter, but now summer is here and he's saved up his money to buy a pair of sneakers that are in the window of a shoe shop on his main street. The long, detailed description of how those shoes feel as he bounces up and down in them is my touchstone for shoe shopping to do this day. And so much more.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Blind Justice?

Ten years ago it seemed shocking when an American politician complained, "We used to put people in jail because we were afraid of them. Now we put people in jail because we don't like them."

Today it seems that not liking someone is an accepted reason for prosecution.

John Edwards had two main things against him: he acted like a scumbag to his former wife, who was a very sympathetic woman; and he was a partisan politician during the reign of another party. That seemed to be enough. Not only was he charged with numerous offences that were widely known to be trumped up, but there was very little public outcry.

I don't want to repeat the whole sad story, but there's a good analysis of it here: John Edwards case was once thought too sensitive, Justice official says and Government failed to prove case in Edwards trial, jurors say.

For the people behind the prosecution it was win/win: even without a conviction, Edwards' dirty laundry has been so thoroughly aired that not only is his career unrecoverable, but his party's reputation is tarnished as well.

It's easy to call for justice in cases like that of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize who was detained for decades by a military junta. It's not so easy to stand up for someone like John Edwards, who is thoroughly unlikable. The big story in the John Edwards case is not that he cheated on his dying wife, but that he was a victim of malicious and politically-motivated prosecution.