Sunday was mostly an odds-and-ends day. I cleaned my room, organized things, and finished some books. Although the threat of rain hovered constantly in the air, I even managed to do some reading outside. So I had a pretty good weekend.
I managed to finish both Persuasion and the Iliad. My to-read shelf was finally empty, which meant I could restock it with books from the rather oppressive overflow stack. I have forty more books on the shelf now, and the overflow now fits comfortably inside that blue milk crate! My goal is to empty the shelf again by the end of July—this is ambitious, I‘m aware, and made even more so by the fact that I also have to get through the Hugo Voters Packet by the end of July.
I’m voting in the Hugo Awards again this year. I first voted last year, when John Scalzi alerted his readers to the fact that the Worldcon organizers distribute a packet containing electronic copies of most of the nominated works. This year, the attending membership at Renovation is only $50. That is a small price to pay for access to all these wonderful works, not to mention the privilege of voting in the Hugos themselves. I’ll blog more about the awards once I have read more of the nominees.
My weekend was rather relaxing, and certainly not as active as my brother‘s. He spent almost the entire weekend outside in our driveway, doing body work on his truck. Brad’s dedication and work ethic never fail to amaze me. I’ll come home from my seven hours of math research, which includes high speed Internet and tea, collapse into a chair, and declare myself exhausted. Brad, on the other hand, leaves earlier than I do, comes home later from a physically-demanding job, and goes straight to work on his truck. He’s always working on his truck—and when he’s not, he’s helping his friends with their trucks, or going mudding. None of these activities particularly appeal to me, but I am glad I have someone around who knows how to fix my car when it breaks. Especially when he’s the one who broke it!
And now I’ll talk about my research for two paragraphs, which means some fairly intense math jargon. You have been warned!
This is the sixth week of my summer research. So far, it has been very similar to last year, which doesn’t surprise me. I have mostly been trying new approaches to computing the spreading number by looking at the symmetry of the graph. We can perform rotations and reflections on sets of vertices using the symmetric group, and Dr. Van Tuyl and I hoped this would lead to better algorithms for finding the spreading number (which, you may recall, is the cardinality of the maximum independent set on the graphs we are studying). Alas, although we have made many valiant attempts, a feasible solution remains beyond our grasp. We have several interesting algorithms I’ve been testing, but they either use too much memory or do not produce tight enough lower bounds.
This week I think I am going to finish up my look at the spreading number, regroup, and redirect my efforts. I will turn again to the covering number; last year I had a fair amount of success with a greedy algorithm to find an upper bound (specifically, a minimal clique covering). Despite our lack of success in computing new bounds for the spreading number, the time I’ve spent so far this summer has furnished me with some new tricks that I hope to put to good use in improving this upper bound algorithm. Also, I would really like to understand why the covering number in four variables corresponds to this integer sequence.
And so my summer continues: lots of reading, plenty of math. As we now ease into June and hopefully receive more sun, I want to get more writing and more programming (mostly for this site) done as well. I’ll try to keep the blog posts coming.
So last week, we witnessed the passing of yet another science-fiction franchise from television. Syfy broadcast the series finale of Stargate Universe on Monday, and I call it the demise of the franchise because the show’s cancellation has been a death blow to the promised SG-1 and Atlantis movies as well. Though it’s possible that MGM will bring the franchise back through comics, novels—or yes, even another movie or spin-off—for now there will be no more Stargate on television. That, to me, is far more tragic than the cancellation of a single series. Still, I‘m going to take a look now at Stargate Universe and its impact on my opinion of the franchise as a whole.
In the beginning, I remember a strong backlash to the show’s “darker tones” and charges that it Syfy wanted a “darker sci-fi” show to replace Battlestar Galactica. Apparently “light sci-fi” just doesn’t pay the bills, although the continual renewal of Eureka seems like it would belie this idea. Anyway, there was the usual clamour from the die-hard reactionaries that Stargate Universe wasn’t “the same” as the good-old days, and for that reason they were going to boycott the show.
Well that turned out well for the franchise, didn’t it, reactionary fans?
To be fair, the style of SGU did depart rather drastically from the previous two Stargate series. For me, these stylistic differences were far more troublesome than changes to the tone of the stories. I watched “Gauntlet,” the series finale, on Wednesday, and I discovered I am still not used to the tight-angle shaky-cam-style cinematography that, yes, makes the series seem more like BSG. I miss the more wide-angle filming from SG-1 and Atlantis. I could also have done without the montages, set to mopey music, at the end of every few episodes. I realize that this is common in television shows these days, probably because it is an inexpensive way to telegraph how various members of the ensemble cast feel. But that has never been Stargate’s style, and it just felt out of place. I want space opera, not soap opera.
The worst stylistic change, however, was the colour palette and the lighting. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I despise dark, low-contrast sets; if I have too much trouble seeing what’s happening on the screen, why would I even bother watching the show? (Because it’s Stargate, that’s why!) I understand that the set designers want to distinguish between Destiny, a very old and antiquated ship, and the more advanced Ancient designs in Atlantis. Nevertheless, you’ve got people wearing black uniforms wandering around on a mostly-dark ship with black and brown walls.
So before the story even becomes a factor, Stargate Universe did feel different than the previous series, and not always in a good way. This was a significant stumbling block existing fans. I won’t pretend to guess what people new to the franchise thought when they first saw SGU. If they did become fans, it’s probably because of the plot and characters and not the lighting, but I could be wrong.
My reaction to the first season of SGU was probably along the lines of an optimistic “meh.” To be honest, I had a similar reaction to the last season or two of Atlantis, where I kept hoping for a good new antagonist to emerge (Todd doesn’t count). But no, the writers kept dragging back the Replicators like they were going out of style (which they weren’t; they were already out of style). Season 1 did a great job exploring the human element of being stranded aboard a somewhat-run-down spaceship with no way of getting back home. Yet the episodes were sometimes frustrating, and there was no reasoning with them once they dropped into “montage mode.” My frustration with season 1, however, stems more from a frustration with season 9 and 10 of SG-1 which then got carried over to SGU: where art the episodic television?
Stargate SG-1 had its beginnings in great, episodic storytelling. The Stargate itself, which is second only to the TARDIS as a storytelling device, is made for that format: each episode, SG-1 stepped through the gate, not knowing what they would find. Sure, there was a larger mythology, but it mostly stayed in the background while each episode’s story took centre stage.
Gradually, the series metamorphosed into a more serial format, culminating with the final two seasons, which were one large story that finishes in Stargate: The Ark of Truth. There is nothing wrong with serial television per se, and I love that format as much as I like episodic television, if not more. Yet once in a while I yearn for the halcyon, episodic days of this franchise, when one steps through the gate and confronts the unknown.
SGU should have been a renewal in that regard. New series, new galaxy, new rules. It made the first few tentative steps toward that goal, but then it faltered. For me, the single most disappointing thing about the series is the way it marginalized the Stargate, turning it into little more than a supply chain for Destiny. I feel like the show did not use the Stargate enough, despite the fact that, especially in season 1, it was used in almost every episode. When it was used, most of the time it led to worlds devoid of humanoid life, suitable only for a monster-of-the-week or some new supplies to keep Destiny stocked. That, for me, wasn’t enough. And I miss the humanoid life forms! I realize that the Ancients hadn’t visited the galaxies through which Destiny was travelling, so they couldn’t have seeded them with life like they did Pegasus and the Milky Way. But weird CGI blue fish aliens and soulless technology-destroying drones do not make awesome storytelling, especially when the former storyline got brushed aside like so much dust from season 1 and the latter just did not seem to die.
If that last paragraph seemed too vitriolic, it’s only because I want to voice my disappointment in SGU compared to what it could have been. Unlike some fans, I am not going to give the writers a blank cheque and blame Syfy solely for its cancellation. SGU was not great, and while it improved in leaps and bounds during season 2, it still had problems. Were these problems enough to merit cancellation? I don’t think so, and as much as anyone can be blamed when it comes to these events, the proper target is probably Syfy. But let’s qualify that.
Not living in the States, I don’t accurately know the extent to which Syfy promoted SGU. I am lucky enough to live in Canada. This is a nice place to live—government notwithstanding—but it also happens to have a specialty science-fiction and fantasy channel, SPACE, that actually, you know, cares about science-fiction programming. And so far it has not announced any wrestling in its line-up! I am so, so sorry, my American friends, that you have had to endure the bait-and-switch Syfy has achieved in the past two years. Now that it has changed its name and become the channel that will “imagine greater,” it seems ready to replace intriguing science fiction with wrestling and cooking shows. This is a betrayal of the first order, and I feel your pain. While I do not think that Syfy cancelled Stargate Universe only because it wants to make room for more “mainstream” entertainment, I think the cancellation, coupled with the shift in the network’s programming policies, demonstrates a lack of engagement with or interest in science fiction in general. That is a shame, because the Sci-Fi Channel has brought us great programming in the past. And the worst thing is that boycotting the channel entirely is a terrible idea, because there are still shows on there worth watching—and not watching them would just encourage Syfy to cancel them altogether!
Still, if there is anything this Syfy scandal has demonstrated, it is the need to support independent productions. Buy DVDs of your favourite show, introduce them to friends, and watch or buy web extras. Support the shows like Sanctuary that try to roll it alone. It’s clear that if science fiction is going to have a place on television, mainstream or sidestream or slipstream, it will get there because we put it there, not because there happens to be a network around that cares about science fiction.
And as for Stargate Universe: I am sad to see you go. We had our rough moments, but you were full of potential, and your writers had established enough credit to continue, at least in my opinion. The dynamics between the military and the civilian characters were excellent. Though still nominally under a military command, personified by Colonel Young, civilians like Nicolas Rush and Camille Wray had considerable input—not to mention the contributions of Chloe, Eli, Brody, Volker, Park, etc. And Stargate Universe carried its ensemble cast very well. It was a clean break from the four-person team format of the previous two series, and by season two the writers were well into pairing off characters. Finally, Stargate Universe embodied the themes so prominent in its predecessors: the precarious balance between exploration and protection, as seen in the interaction between the scientists and the military personnel. Colonel Young wanted to get his people home; Rush wanted to complete Destiny’s “mission.” Neither really knew if their goals were compatible. And now we’ll never know.
You were cut down before you could reach your prime, Stargate Universe, and I mourn your loss, both as a show and as the present flagship of one of the best science-fiction franchises in television history. I will miss you.
This Monday, May 2, Canada had its 41st federal election, resulting in a Conservative majority government led by Stephen Harper. The results are somewhat surprising: though a Conservative government was likely, a majority was by no means a certainty. Perhaps the most interesting result of this election, however, is the effect it had on our other political parties. The NDP are now, for the first time ever, the Official Opposition Party in the House of Commons. They pretty much dominated Quebec, and they won 102 seats in the House. The Liberals were decimated, dropping from 77 seats to 34 (close to the same number the NDP had in the previous Parliament). Similarly, the Bloc Québécois went from 47 seats to 4. And for the first time ever, a Green Party candidate was elected—none other than the leader, Elizabeth May herself.
So our election is filled with many historical firsts for Canadian politics, and our political landscape has changed dramatically. For a graphical idea of how much changed in this election, just take a look at these two maps of Canada depicting the results by riding: 2008 election and 2011 election. (These are from the respective Wikipedia articles on the election.) CBC also has a great interactive map up on their Canada Votes 2011 site. Stephen Harper finally has a majority government after five years, which means he no longer has to court votes from across the floor to pass all that fun legislation he’s been drafting. However, the NDP are going to bring a whole new dynamic to the Official Opposition: not only are they quite strong in terms of number of seats as an opposition party, but they have all these new members from ridings in Quebec that have traditionally voted Bloc. In that sense, not only has the party risen in power, but it is not the same NDP any more. Similarly, with the Liberals devastated and Ignatieff’s resignation, we will see new potential leaders emerge and watch the Liberal party attempt, once again, to recover and regroup.
We’re in for interesting times ahead.
This post, incidentally, is not so much political analysis as it is political reaction. It’s a letter to my future self, a way of recording my thoughts following this election so, in five years or a decade, I will know how I felt and what I said. If you are looking for political analysis, there are much better places to find it.
Democracy in Shambles
I am disappointed that we elected a Conservative majority government. I am extremely disappointed that Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister. I am saddened and dismayed that we re-elected the man whose previous government was found in contempt of Parliament for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth.
“Contempt of Parliament” sounds very fancy, and it might be tempting to dismiss it as political brinksmanship on the part of the opposition parties. Who cares that the Conservative government was found in contempt? This was Harper’s line throughout the election; he consistently repeated that “Canadians don’t want an election.” Elections are apparently too expensive (that money would be better spent on fighter jets!). And after all, why should we bother Canadians with the expense and effort of an election? Democracy would work fine without them, right?
Look, I‘m willing to admit that elections are expensive and that plenty of Canadians will tell you they didn’t want one. (And I know plenty did. These kinds of binaries are tiresome.) It does not matter, because elections are essential to the functioning of our democracy. It is ironic yet egregious that Harper is condemning elections in our country while congratulating those countries attempting to hold their own for the first times in decades, or ever. We are not special. We do not get a “get out of elections free” card because we are older or smarter or better than those countries. If we want to stay a democracy, we have to vote.
The past decade has been somewhat atypical, as I understand, when it comes to elections and governments, and this has led to a somewhat skewed view of our parliamentary system. I won’t touch on the issues of proroguing Parliament or forming a coalition government (both of which are completely legitimate, incidentally). We’ve had three minority governments (one Liberal, two Conservative) in succession. The first minority government emerged after the 2004 federal election, which the Governor General called at the request of Prime Minister Paul Martin. It fell in late 2005 to a motion of no confidence and caused a winter election, which the Conservatives won. In 2008, Stephen Harper bypassed his own fixed-date election law and asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, resulting in another federal election and another Conservative minority. Finally, in March of this year, the government fell to another motion of no confidence.
So in the past ten years, we have had four elections, which might seem excessive. Two of them were triggered by motions of no confidence. Yet in Canadian Parliamentary history, the government has only fallen to a motion of no confidence only six times (including this most recent incident). Hence, these elections are not just a product of opposition parties attempting to get into power by repeatedly triggering elections. When the government falls owing to a motion of no confidence, we should pay attention, and we should not balk at the resulting election.
Furthermore, this recent motion of no confidence was the first of its kind ever passed. Stephen Harper has the dubious distinction of entering the history books as the first Prime Minister of Canada whose government was found in contempt of Parliament. What does that mean? In this case, it means the government did not disclose documents requested by Parliament and did not, in the opinion of the committee that investigated, provide a satisfactory reason for that failure. It is a dramatic example of why I dislike Harper and why I dislike the Harper government: they do not respect our Parlimentary system; they do not respect democracy; and therefore, they do not respect Canada or Canadians.
If you‘re wondering why I am getting so technical here, I will confide a secret: I am not a political junkie, I’m a Parliamentary junkie. I love the technical, constitutional nitty-gritty of what makes our democracy tick, and I find our Parliamentary system fascinating and far more interesting than other democratic systems, such as the congressional one in the United States. I don’t expect everyone to share my love for learning more about how Parliament functions, but I do think it’s important for everyone to know a little bit about it. What I‘m trying to say is this: we should not make light of what happened in March, and we should not regard this recent election as unnecessary, regardless of the fact that it resulted in an even stronger government for Harper.
So What’s With that Majority Anyway?
Despite being found in contempt of Parliament, the Conservatives managed to gain enough seats to form a majority. Go figure. We could blame those who didn’t vote, or those who voted NDP instead of Liberal (or vice versa) and thus “split the vote” among the opposition parties, but those avenues are both red herrings.
Voting is important, as it is one of the strongest forms of participation in our democracy, and I am saddened if you were eligible to vote but did not. You still have a right to complain (though perhaps not quite so loud), but I hope next time you consider exercising your right, a right most people in the world do not have.
Nor do I blame those who “split the vote.” Both Ignatieff and Layton enjoyed claiming that the choice in the election was a binary one: Conservatives or their own respective party. I dislike that rhetoric, and I refuse to embrace it, though I am not surprised by it. The sudden and surprising surge in NDP support only demonstrates that it is possible to campaign as “third option” and suddenly become the option. Even if every Liberal seat suddenly became NDP orange, it still would not be enough—such are the mathematics of majority.
So no, I do not blame those who abstained or those who voted red instead of orange or orange instead of red. I blame those who voted blue. I realize some of you have your reasons—maybe all your other candidates sucked, maybe you truly believe the Conservatives are our One True Hope for the economy or jobs or the state of our national bubblegum reserve. Ultimately, however, you who voted Conservatives are accountable for what the Conservative government does over the next four years. I hope they do you proud.
Let’s Just Fix the System, Shall We?
Twitter was full of sage advice on election night, and a great many people were shouting for electoral reform. It’s probably not surprising that the people in the losing camps want to blame the system and call it broken. And when the governing party garners only 40 per cent of the popular vote, the hue and cry gets even louder. Yet I am not going to jump on the bandwagon of proportional representation or any other electoral reform just yet.
After all, the Conservatives did not gain a majority of the popular vote, but they did gain a plurality, and under proportional representation, we would likely just get another Conservative minority government. I am intrigued by proportional representation, but I do not know enough about it yet to promulgate an informed opinion. And that’s really a topic for a separate post.
Electoral reform is definitely worth the discussion, even if I don’t think it’s likely to happen any time soon. However, it is not a magical panacea for our Parliamentary woes. What would really help is if we got some new leaders. I am not sorry to see Ignatieff go, and I will be happy the day Harper steps down (except, perhaps, if he gets replaced by someone like Jason Kenney or, heaven forfend, John Baird!).
But What Do I Really Think?
On Monday night, I was tweeting about the election results, and one of my tweets read, “We are. So screwed. That is all.” This was hyperbole, a product of election-night fervour, and while my feelings about the newer, stronger Harper government are not optimistic, I don’t think we’ve quite entered “apocalyptic hellscape mode” yet.
It is good to have a majority government again. I actually rather like minorities, because they force parties to work together—except when they don’t. And our parties have all been rather dysfunctional of late, both within and with each other. Minority governments might be cool products of parliamentary politics, but they can also be frustrating when it comes to passing legislation, which is, at the end of the day, what our government has to do to govern our country.
So it is good to have a majority government after five years and three minority ones. It sucks that it is a Conservative majority; I would have much preferred and NDP or Liberal government, to be sure, though I do not particularly favour either of those parties. We have to work with what we’ve got, though.
Copyright is one of my interests, and our existing legislation is old and obsolete. Two copyright bills have died as a result of the last two elections. The most recent, Bill C-32, was actually not that bad. It had some worrying attitudes toward digital locks, but it was a big improvement over Bill C-61, and I was hopeful it could be improved further. We need to update our copyright legislation; entire formats have risen and fallen in the time since we last did so!
So any government passing copyright law might be a good thing, even a Conservative one. Both Michael Geist and Peter Nowak have written good, thoughtful posts on what the future might hold for Canadian tech and telecommunications now that the Conservatives have a majority. It’s a pretty mixed bag.
Still, that is just the tip of the majority iceberg. Even if Harper magically mirrors all my positions on copyright, I can’t forgive him for:
- being found in contempt;
- trashing the long-form census (which still bewilders me);
- failing not only to reform the Senate (a goal I support, though I understand the difficulty he faces) but going ahead and appointing more than 30 senators, which is not cheap;
- being anti-science;
- claiming an “abortion debate” is “not a priority of the people” but not disavowing a rabidly anti-choice Conservative candidate, Brad Trost (who won his seat), when Trost told some of his supporters that abortion was the reason the government had cut funding to Planned Parenthood;
- and, in fact, treating women and women’s advocacy groups rather poorly in general;
- not to mention his neglect of First Nations people and communitites (because, you know, access to clean water is a privilege!),
- his abandonment of Africa;
- did I mention his government was found in contempt of Parliament?
I do not respect Stephen Harper. I will not vote for the Conservative party while he is its leader. And I am worried about our country as long as he is Prime Minister. I am glad he chose to rebrand the “government of Canada” to the “Harper government.” It just emphasizes his association with the mis-steps and mis-deeds of his governments and his MPs. It attests to his ego and his preference for power and privilege over the goals he professes, like the economy and “working” Canadians.
I do not know if I will look back at this in five or ten years with pride or with haughty derision and regret. (If it is the latter, then you are a jerk, future-me.) That’s why I wrote this, so that even if my attitudes and ideology may change over time, I will know where I stood in May 2011. Somehow, I doubt I will be much changed when it comes to these topics. For the next four years, the government of Canada—sorry, the Harper government—will only continue to alienate me and those like me, those who find that none of the current mainstream parties particularly suit them. All I can hope is that, by 2015, Canada’s shifting political landscape will produce a niche for me.
The next election is, by Harper’s law, four years away. Yet those of us unhappy with Monday night’s results must not be silent. We cannot afford to lapse into apathy or defeat now, of all times, even with a Conservative majority strong and secure. Now, more than ever, we must be watchful. We must write, and speak, and protest when necessary. We must make our voices heard, so that the media, the opposition parties, and the rest of the country remembers that a majority might rule in Parliament, but the rights of minorities are still important, and democracy is something that must be preserved and practised, not taken for granted.