Once again Margaret Wente, my favourite Globe and Mail columnist, has delved into the gritty underworld of math education to expose the truth. This time she is concerned that we’re not teaching basic arithmetic in schools any more. She takes issue with recent trends in math education, which emphasize discovery-based learning over drill or rote-based learning. As a consequence of this shift, the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are no longer a core part of the curriculum. Wente, as well as some parents and teachers, thinks this is a bad idea. And while I agree with her on one point—it’s essential for students to know basic arithmetic as they go on to high school—once again I have to protest how she has chosen to argue that point.
Before I discuss Wente’s arguments, I think it’s important to mention one thing that Wente does not make explicit. Education falls under the mandate of the provincial governments. Hence, every province and territory in Canada has different math curricula. There are similarities, but we still have to be careful when we are talking about math education across the entire country as if it were some uniform curriculum.
Canada is “Behind the Times”
One of Wente’s more absurd reasons for rejecting the current curriculum is that “this approach to math education has been repudiated” in the United States, and this apparently makes us “behind the times”. Heaven forfend that we don’t copy the United States in every respect! You would think we’re a sovereign country or something crazy like that. We are allowed to structure our curriculum differently from our neighbour to the south. And without being too indelicate, let’s just say that the American education system in all its forms does not instil much confidence, at least for me personally. I’m not sure it’s something we should be striving to emulate.
This Is a Plot by Private Tutoring Firms (And Thus Puts the Poor at a Disadvantage)
Since kids no longer learn arithmetic in school, parents are forced to turn to private tutoring companies—Wente names Kumon as one example—for these skills. At the conclusion of her article, Wente decides to deploy the heavy Scare Tactic weapon:
The biggest losers aren’t your kids, of course. The biggest losers are the kids of parents who can’t afford tutoring, or don’t have the time to teach them times tables, or don’t even know their kids need help. It’s called two-tier education. And it’s here.
I love the way Wente phrases this: the biggest losers aren’t your kids; they’re the kids of those poor people. Those two sentences tell you all you need to know about who Wente assumes is reading The Globe and Mail.
I’m not sure how to refute this argument simply because it’s a conspiracy theory, and Wente doesn’t even try to disguise that fact. I suspect that if our curriculum magically amended itself to reflect Wente’s visions, then Kumon and its ilk would find other ways to get clients. They are a business and target their marketing accordingly. It just so happens they’ve found a niche here.
But two-tiered education has always been around. That second tier is called private school.
The Standard Algorithms are Better Because They are Efficient
Wente calls the standard algorithms “efficient and foolproof”. And they are. She blasts the alternative methods, “such as breaking numbers into units of thousands, hundreds, tens and ones” for not being efficient. I would disagree, but first we probably need to decide what we mean by efficient.
If one’s goal is to add two numbers efficiently, then my suggestion would be to use a calculator. Savants aside, computers are just better than humans at adding and subtracting. And now that calculators are commonplace, not just in schools but on our computers and even in our phones, there is no reason not to encourage their use. Should you be able to add basic numbers without a calculator? Absolutely! There will be instances where a calculator isn’t in reach, for whatever bizarre reason, and you will be glad you can do arithmetic. But those instances are becoming increasingly rarer. And so when they come, are we really worried about efficiency?
An algorithm is a series of steps that one repeats until one reaches a pre-determined stopping point. The first algorithm that most of us learned (and one that is apparently no longer taught, to Wente’s chagrin), is the long division algorithm. In this case, you repeat the same step over (dividing a digit of the dividend) until the remainder is less than the divisor (your pre-determined stopping point). As Wente points out, the nice thing about algorithms is that they are foolproof. Whether you are dividing 30 by 12 or 3000 by 1250, assuming you recall the steps correctly and don’t make a mistake while implementing them, you will always come up with the correct answer. This is comforting.
But algorithms are also cumbersome for humans. Unlike computers, which thrive on algorithms because that’s the way we built them, our brains do not always think linearly. We make intuitive leaps, and we often think spatially. Thus, training ourselves to use algorithms to do arithmetic might be a waste of our brains’ potential. The method that Wente disparages, which we can call the “place-value method” is ingenious: it short-circuits arithmetic by allowing us to take advantage of our base 10 number system.
How would you divide 110 by 5? Margaret Wente would like you to use long division, in which case you would follow these steps:
- Recognize that 5 goes into 11 evenly 2 times.
- Multiply 2 by 5 to get 10.
- Subtract 10 from 11 to get 1.
- Bring down the 0 to get a new divisor of 10.
- Recognize that 5 goes into 10 evenly 2 times.
- Multiply 2 by 5 to get 10.
- Subtract 10 from 10 to get a remainder of 0.
Or, you could do it this way:
- Recognize that 110 = 100 + 10.
- Divide 100 by 5 to get 20.
- Divide 10 by 5 to get 2.
- Add 20 and 2 to get 22.
I suspect that the second method is probably closer to what most people do in their heads, whether they were taught that way or not. You can do this for multiplication too. It’s all thanks to the nifty distributive property. And hey, look, suddenly instead of memorizing two algorithms, you only need to know one strategy. Furthermore, the long division algorithm is exclusive to, well, long division; it’s very difficult to use it as a template for solving different types of problems. In contrast, knowing how to exploit the place values of our number system will leave you in good shape for a variety of problems. Generalized knowledge!
I’m sure some people prefer the long division algorithm instead, and that’s fine. In fact, that brings me to Wente’s next argument.
Discovery-Based Learning Sucks Because Students Have to Start from Scratch on Every Problem
Wente dislikes the alternatives to the standard algorithms because, instead of just giving other methods to students, teachers instead encourage students to find those methods themselves. In addition to her lament that this is not efficient enough for her tastes, it also means
every time a student sees a new problem, he has to start from scratch—and pick his “strategy”. It’s like playing the piano without ever learning scales, or hockey without basic drills.
Those are quite evocative analogies; it’s a shame they’re false. Solving math problems bears little resemblance to playing hockey and even less to playing the piano. When playing piano, the goal is to reproduce a series of sounds by triggering the correct sequence of keys. For a given composition, that sequence is always the same—and you know the sequence beforehand (unless you’re playing some kind of weird piano game where you reproduce a sonata by ear). A new math problem, by definition, is one a student has not seen before.
Let me tell you from personal experience on my practicum: if you put a problem on a test that is identical, except for the numbers themselves, to one on the review, the majority of students will not recognize this fact and will instead approach it as a novel problem. Encouraging students to make connections is one of the most difficult tasks a math teacher faces. Those moments when a student goes to ask a question and then says instead, “Wait, it’s like what we did yesterday, right?” are golden—and far too few.
So let us suppose students do have trouble making such connections, that they do approach each problem from scratch even if it is of a type they have seen before. What can we do to help them solve the problem anyway? Wente would have the student, like a good computer, apply one of the standard algorithms and arrive at the solution. No need to find a new strategy! Yet this assumes the student recognizes which operations are necessary to find the solution. And therein lies the crux of the problem. Incidentally, this is also why computers suck at solving word problems.
Discovery-based learning actually works better in this case. By encouraging students to look at what they know and what they need to find out, then develop their own strategy to get there, we are building general-purpose skills that will work whether they recognize the type of problem or not. This is the beauty of mathematics: there is one correct solution but not one correct method. Wente would rob students of this beauty.
Failing to Learn the Standard Algorithms Makes It More Difficult to Learn “Higher” Math
I left this argument for last because it’s the one with the most validity. One of the reasons I am so passionate about teaching high school mathematics is because I have seen why my peers are struggling with their university math, and it’s usually not because the university concepts are too hard. No, most university students just suck at fractions. And I saw this while on my practicum too: fractions and basic algebra are concepts that students fail to master in grades 7, 8, and 9, and it haunts them for the rest of their schooling.
So Wente has a point here: students do need basic skills in order to go on to higher-order thinking. And it’s not clear-cut, despite what either side might have you believe, whether drill-based or discovery-based learning is superior in teaching these skills. I can’t really evaluate them properly, because despite my passion for this subject, I’m a fledgling teacher with very little experience in the field. I can tell you what I have reasoned a priori, but experienced teachers are expressing frustration, so there must be something else going on.
While on my practicum, I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting between Grade 9 math teachers at my school and Grade 7 and 8 teachers from the “feeder” schools. This very dilemma came up during our discussion: the push from the Ministry of Education and curriculum experts is to have students discover their own strategies and take ownership of their learning. At the same time, however, these teachers feel a responsibility to ensure that students are prepared for high school and for their EQAO tests, and sometimes discovery-based learning makes this difficult—for one thing, it can take more time. So I can see why there is frustration among teachers who are trying to work with this new curriculum but seeing less-than-stellar results.
Of course, the curriculum will always need refinement. Continual revision and renewal of the curriculum at regular intervals is a hallmark, at least in Ontario, of the high quality of our education system. It’s never going to be perfect, and as our society and our needs change, so too will the curriculum. Right now, I think a lot of what we are seeing is simply growing pains—teachers who are used to the previous curriculum are still finding the their way with this new curriculum. Moreover, this is clearly a complex issue, one with a plurality of perspectives that should be considered.
And that’s why I take issue with Wente’s column: I agree that arithmetic is important, but once again I wonder why she feels the need to create a dichotomy where none need exist. She would have us return to the methods that turn kids off math and lend credence to their cries that “math is boring”. Picture me going to my knees and pleading as I say this: it doesn’t have to be that way. Math can be fun and full of wonder. Please, parents, don’t make math boring. Computers do their math in binary, but there is no reason our math education has to be an either/or scenario. And I wish The Globe and Mail would talk about that instead of choosing to be sensational and blame it all on the corporate interests of Big Tutoring.
I woke up on Friday to see a page from Thursday’s Globe and Mail on the living room table. My dad had flagged an article by Margaret Wente as something that I might find relevant. You can find it online under the title “Too many teachers can’t do math, let alone teach it”, but in the paper itself it was published with the headline, “Go figure, because teachers can’t.” I encourage you to read the article, but the gist goes like this: elementary teachers, according to Wente, are failing to teach students the basics of math, because faculties of education don’t take their responsibility to prepare those teachers seriously enough.
By way of disclaimer, I am preparing to teach at the Intermediate/Senior level (I/S), or grades 7–12. As an I/S teacher, and as a formally-trained mathematician, I have to admit to a bias when it comes to this subject: I do worry about how well-prepared elementary teachers are to teach math. I’ve marked for a course that teaches elementary concepts to prospective teachers, and some of the answers to the assignments are … creative. However, my concern isn’t so much with their knowledge of content; I worry more about their attitude toward learning and using mathematics.
When I tell—more like confess, it sometimes feels—fellow teacher candidates that my teachable is math, I’m usually met by some type of cringe, as if the very concept brings up bad memories of a grade 10 test review. As I said in my previous post, I feel like there is a perception of math as something you can either do or you can’t, and if you can’t, then there’s no reason to bother wasting time learning anything beyond what you need to punch into a calculator. Of course, this might be the result of our education system and how we teach math. Whatever the cause, I worry less that teachers won’t be able to teach the content and more that teachers will transmit their anxiety about mathematics to their students. I’m not saying all elementary teachers must love mathematics, but how can one foster an appreciation for mathematics if one does not share that appreciation and is merely teaching it as part of the curriculum?
But I digress.
Wente might be on to something when she points out that elementary teachers need more thorough preparation in math. I don’t know; I am not familiar with the research and can’t step to that claim. (Here’s a York professor’s rebuttal with actual data analysis.) I find it interesting that Wente does not mention any of the current methods that faculties of education use to prepare elementary teachers: here at Lakehead University, Primary/Junior teachers must complete a content test to demonstrate their understanding of elementary concepts in mathematics. The way Wente presents faculties of education makes it sounds like they are resting on their laurels:
Today’s faculties of education have much loftier goals in mind. According to them, their main job is to sensitize our future teachers to issues of social justice and global inequality.
Gasp! Teaching our teachers to respect diversity and, shock!, be aware of factors affecting equality among our students? Those naughty faculties of education! Who do they think they are?
What I find really bizarre is how Wente goes on to devote the rest of her article to criticizing this one aspect of education—but at no point does she give any evidence for a causal relationship between the teaching of social justice and a decline in the quality of math education! Dripping disdain, Wente writes:
No wonder little Emma doesn’t know her times tables. She’s way too busy learning how her Western position of privilege entrenches gender relations. Or something like that.
(Wente does not, in general, have a very high opinion of social justice and related fields of study. Earlier this year she wrote a controversial piece about how the “war for women’s rights is over”; the original post is behind a paywall, but there is a good rebuttal on Shameless.)
I hope I’m not making a straw man here, but Wente seems to be saying that teaching social justice, either to teacher candidates or to students themselves, is a waste of time. Apparently it’s a move worthy of “the wacky wing of the NDP”. Yet not once does Wente bother to link this emphasis on social justice with elementary teachers’ abilities to teach mathematics. I guess she’s implying that we spend too much time teaching teacher candidates about social justice instead of teaching them math?
As part of the Differentiated Instruction in Math and Science (mouthful, I know) course I’m taking this year, we are learning how to teach math through social justice issues. Talk about two birds, one stone. This probably wouldn’t placate the Wente, however, for in her concluding paragraph she chooses to take a cheap shot at discovery-based learning, claiming we need to focus more on “practice and problem-solving”. This is a false dichotomy, and presenting these teaching strategies as such is irresponsible and even harmful: discovery-based learning is problem solving. In order to engage students, we provide them with problems they haven’t encountered—problems that are relevant to issues in their lives—and ask them to apply skills and discover new (to them) methods to solve the problems.
Wente concludes by reiterating that teachers need to know math in order to teach it. I agree with this statement; it’s just too bad that the rest of the article is somewhat incoherent. Wente does faculties of education a disservice even as she frames a legitimate concern—preparation of elementary school teachers to teach math—in a way that is confusing and unhelpful. The public, and especially parents, have every right to observe and critique the preparation of teacher candidates, for teachers have an awesome responsibility in our society. I just hope that when they do so, they refer to better sources than this piece, which is far more sensational than sensible.
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.
Today is the last day that the House of Commons legislative committee on Bill C-32 is accepting submissions regarding possible amends to Bill C-32, our latest attempt to amend the Copyright Act. What follows is my submission to them. It is definitely not very formal and contains no real proposed amendments—many more knowledgeable people have already made such submissions, and I defer to them in that area of expertise. Nevertheless, I felt that it was important to have my voice heard.
Dear Legislative Committee on Bill C-32,
I am not a pirate.
Hard to believe, I know. The current draft of Bill C-32 seems to imply that piracy is rampant in Canada, and in particular among the demographic to which I belong, that of the 18–34-year-old university student. Curiously enough, this perspective corresponds to the one advanced by the industries who distribute music, movies, and media, the very industries who are now complaining that Internet piracy is destroying their business model. While I expect such heated, anti-consumer rhetoric from those industries, who after all are obligated by their shareholders to demonize and portray consumers as immoral beings who will only partake in legally-provided media if they have no other option, I expected better of the Canadian government. My grade 10 Civics class taught me that the government is supposed to recognize the will of the people, not the will of the special interests lobby.
But this is not about the inaccuracy of information in our education systems. This is about Bill C-32, a long-needed overhaul of our outdated Copyright Act. I commend the government for taking on this daunting task. Finding a balance between the interests of consumers and creators is not easy, but it is balance we need. So, I am pleased that you have asked for input from Canadian citizens regarding the current draft of this bill. Were you aware that your esteemed colleagues at Industry Canada consulted Canadians in the summer of 2009 on the previous proposed amendment, Bill C-61? That consultation received over 8000 submissions, 6000 of which were opposed to Bill C-61 and to digital rights management (DRM) locks in general. So, forgive me if I feel like I‘m repeating myself, but I’ve already been through this once.
I am not a pirate. I’m not even a so-called “radical extremist.” I have no desire to eliminate copyright altogether—as a creator myself, I too enjoy the protections that copyright law provides for me. Nevertheless, unlike certain representatives of special interest groups, such as SOCAN and CRIA, I am not naive enough to think that we can blithely continue to the reality of copyright in a digital age. The Internet is a fundamentally new media when it comes to distributing information. The cost of distribution is now effectively zero. Copyright can no longer be about “who has the right to distribute,” because this going to happen anyway. There is no DRM lock that cannot be picked. There is no technological protection measure (TPM) that cannot be circumvented. And so, if you enshrine Bill C-32 as “the digital lock law” and attempt to protect Canadian creators by locking down their creations, you will fail.
You will fail, because I am not a pirate, but other people are. And this bill will not stop them. It won’t even slow them down, not for a minute. Law-abiding citizens like myself will respect it, of course, and we will be stuck in the slow lane of the Internet, waiting for American television shows to come across the border, waiting for a new single to come out on iTunes, waiting for that Brand! New! Movie! with that Hot! Young! Actress! (you know the one I’m talking about) to come out on DVD. We, the law-abiding public, will be waiting, while the pirates will be busy downloading media, not paying for it, and chortling over the incompetence of the Canadian government.
Stopping piracy is a laudable goal, but let us be realistic. You cannot legislate piracy out of existence—by definition, it exists as a reaction against the legal avenues of doing business. And as long as you persist in making Bill C-32 about stopping piracy, about protecting the distributors and, to some extent, the creators, about expressing a fundamental distrust in the electorate of this nation, then you will fail. You will fail, because I am not a pirate, but under the new legislation, I might have to become one. I try my very best, every day, not to pirate media. I do not download songs; I buy them on iTunes. I do not download movies; I record them on my DVR (is that even legal?) when they come on cable television. I do not download books, though I am an avid reader, but instead I visit the library, or I purchase them new as a show of support for the author. I try so very hard, and you are not making it any easier.
I am not a pirate, nor do I want to be. So why not make it easier? Instead of focusing on all of these negative aspects of digital distribution, why not create proactive legislation that encourages the innovation of business models at a digital level? Make it easier for companies like Netflix and Pandora to open their doors in Canada. Make it easier for Canadians to download and stream music, movies, etc., legitimately. Because if you do that, then most Canadians will act in good faith. Most Canadians won‘t pirate but instead pay, because contrary to the opinions expressed by the special interests groups and the lobbyists for the industry, we are not all immoral.
We are not pirates. Most of us don’t even have a Vitamin C deficiency. We are people, and we want our media, and we want it now. Because the Internet is all about instantaneous access to information, and maybe that has spoiled us. Nevertheless, it is reality. The new reality. And passing legislation that ignores this new reality in favour of a rose-coloured glasses version painted by the industry is silly. Copyright can no longer be about “who has the right to distribute,” because our ability to restrict that is gone forever. Instead, copyright needs to be about “who has the right to reuse.” Who has the right to remix, to modify, to make a profit off this material? These are the questions that you, through Bill C-32, have a chance to answer. I am not so convinced you have answered them to anyone’s satisfaction.
Look, it’s not all bad. The expanded fair dealing sounds really good. And I am pleased that Bill C-32, if not perfect, is not quite as insistent upon digital locks as its predecessor was. Whereas Bill C-61 was untenable, something I could not abide, this one is much more workable. In its present form, it is not ideal, but I definitely think that, with a few amendments, you could produce a copyright bill that strikes the right balance. Canada could be an example for the rest of the world of a modern country with modern copyright legislation that takes into account reality, that protects consumers, that protects creators, that encourages digital innovation. Or, you could follow the USA, make a “Canadian DMCA,” and watch piracy continue unabated.
It’s your call, really. I have done my part—twice over, once in the summer of 2009, and now in the winter of 2011. I have worn my fair copyright T-shirt; I have encouraged my fellow citizens to speak out on this issue. But you are the ones who have to listen to us. Listen to us, and hear our concerns. We aren’t asking for anything unreasonable. We aren’t asking that you let us copy entire textbooks for whole classes of students, or that we get to go into a Blockbuster and rip movies from DVDs onto our computers. All we are asking for is fair, balanced copyright legislation that works for us, here and now. So think about it.
Originally I was just going to tweet a link to this CBC news article and leave it at that. The more I thought about it, however, the more outraged I became. I‘m not sure why. Maybe it’s out of some need to feel vicariously oppressed, on account of the fact that I am a tall white male and thus systemically unoppressed. Maybe it’s because, although I am not a professional web designer, I am familiar enough with the field to weep over the attitude displayed here by the government. It is 2011. Last December, the Web turned twenty years old. And we still can’t support blind users? Seriously?
That is what the federal government says. Apparently, rather than spend taxpayer money to pay web designers to update its websites, it would rather spend that money paying lawyers to appeal this court decision. Rather than offer equal services to blind users, it would rather go to court and spend our tax dollars to ensure it can continue discriminating. The government is making us accomplices to discrimination. And here I thought I lived in Canada, not the United States.
I am taking a Philosophy of the Internet course this term, online of course. I’m so excited for it, because the Internet excites me in general. I look around and see all the change that the Internet makes possible; we are living through exciting times, and the world is never going to be the same thanks to the Internet. Not all of this change will be for the better, but when is it ever?
So it pains me that, twenty years after the inception of the Web, there is still a deeply-entrenched attitude among corporations and governments that somehow the Web is not essential and that not everyone need have access to the Web. Increasingly, however, we are seeing more services move to an online platform. If the Web is not essential now, it soon will be. But you know what? According to the government, if you can’t see, then tough luck:
Government lawyers had argued there was no discrimination because those same services are provided in other formats, such as on the phone, in person or by mail.
That’s right: the Web is for sighted people only. That seems to be the stance implicit in this argument, that “other formats” will be available for those people who happen to be visually-impaired. No, no, don’t bother asking the government to make its websites accessible. People with disabilities don’t matter.
There is a word for this behaviour: disgusting.
As an amateur web developer, I pride myself in being aware of Web standards and striving to implement them as faithfully as possible. Fortunately, because I do not get paid by corporate clients to build them websites to which millions of users will flock, because I do not provide any great service to the public, if I happen to make a mistake and render my website inaccessible to blind people, it isn’t a big deal. (And if you are blind and trying to read this and your screen reader is rebelling against you, please let me know so I can try to fix it.)
I don’t think we should let the government just shrug like I can and say, “No big deal, go use the telephone.” Making websites accessible to the blind is not, for the most part, difficult. It requires effort, and depending on what type of data you want to communicate, some creativity. Somehow, I think the ultimate cost of adding that accessibility to its websites would be less than the court costs involved in appealing Justice Kelen’s ruling. More importantly, the government has an obligation to serve its citizens—all of its citizens—and I reject on moral grounds its argument that alternative formats are an excuse for having inaccessible websites.
This is just another incident that underscores our government’s inability to keep pace with the development of life in a digital age. Canadians still have woefully inadequate broadband penetration, something the Conservatives have done little to rectify—and while the Liberals promise more, I don’t believe they would do a much better job. All of our parties are mired in pre-digital perspectives. They are too afraid or too corrupt to take on the telecommunications companies that dominate our Internet and mobile services and squeeze out competition at the price of innovation so that they can make more profit.
In the end, it isn’t just blind people who lose. It isn’t just web designers. It’s everyone. The rest of the world moves forward, and Canada will be left behind in the digital dust. Because our government doesn’t care.
In 1633, Galileo was found “vehemently suspect” of heresy. His heretical opinion: holding and defending the belief that the Copernican, heliocentric model of the solar system was true in contravention to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life and forced to recant, verbally and in writing, any belief in the Copernican model. His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was banned. All because the Copernican model contradicts Biblical scripture. Well, mostly that. The conflict between Galileo and the Church was as much political as scientific or religious. Galileo had made some powerful enemies, people who also opposed Pope Urban VIII, accusing him of being too soft on heretics. So Galileo was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Nearly five centuries later, the entire affair is one of the most stark examples of the conflict between science and religion.
It was an unfortunate conflict, an unnecessary conflict. Whether science and religion are irreconciliable or incompatible is a much larger debate than I can discuss here, but in this case the conflict seems minor. Galileo was not a villain attempting to derail the Church; he was a good Catholic, earnest in his belief that the pursuit of truth through empirical study and mathematics was a form of devotion to God and appreciation for God’s handiwork. The Copernican view may have seemed threatening at the time, but only a century elapsed before the Church removed most pro-Copernican books from its list of banned texts. What happened to Galileo did not have to happen, but it did, a conjunction of personalities and politics clashing to form the zeitgeist of 17th-century Italian science and culture. It is a sad episode in history, for both science and religion, and now we try to move forward.
Or not. Watching today’s session of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology reminded me of Galileo’s trial. There was something eerily familiar about watching the committee grill Munir Sheikh, the former head of Statistics Canada who resigned over how the media represented StatsCan’s role in this matter; Ivan Fellegi, former Chief Statistican for Statistics Canada; Don McLeish, president of the Statistical Society of Canada; and many other experts. In both situations, you have an institution in power ignoring facts in the name of political and ideological expediency. While Sheikh et al. aren’t quite being forced to recant, there is a comparable intensity and pressure coming from some of the committee members (mostly from the Conservative MPs, but not completely).
It was disturbing to watch David Anderson try to force Sheikh and Fellegi to comment on the content of long-form census questions. As these two tried to make clear, Statistics Canada is not responsible for choosing the questions, only for administering the census. If the government is concerned about the privacy implications for the long-form census questions, maybe it should do something about the questions.
Sheikh, Fellegi, and the other statisticans all agreed that a voluntary census would be biased. The notable exception seemed to be David Tanny, a mathematics professor from York University, who mentioned that the mandatory census has its problems (negative bias associated with the “mandatory” part). That may be true—but it does not make the voluntary census any more accurate a priori. So that’s why the compromise favoured by many of the committee’s witnesses, including Don McLeish, makes sense: do both. Run the mandatory long-form census and a voluntary replacement, then compare the data sets to see if this alternative is viable. The statisticians are doubtful, but that’s what statistics is all about: gather and then report.
Somewhat topically, statistics are what the Conservatives need but do not have. Where are the studies that show this is the best alternative, if an alternative is truly what they desire? Where are the statistics that show Canadians are outraged over the invasion of privacy signified by the mandatory long-form census? The Privacy Commissioner doesn’t have them. Where are the statistics showing that Canadians live in constant fear of incarceration should they fail to complete the long-form census? It is one thing for the Conservatives to propose changing the census—which could be improved, most likely—but it is another thing entirely to make unilateral changes to the census, at practically the last minute prior to the 2011 census, without any research to support the changes.
The government’s arguments for these changes are ultimately inconsistent. After Sheikh’s resignation belied any implication that Statistics Canada recommended the change, the government has fallen back to its original argument: the mandatory long-form census is invasive to Canadians‘ privacy. Additionally, the threat of incarceration for failing to fill out the long-form census is unreasonable. Since there are viable alternatives to a mandatory census, we should make the long-form census voluntary to address these concerns.
As mentioned above, the claim that the census invades Canadians’ private lives is dubious. Even if it does, Canadians do not seem to be very vocal about it. Furthermore, the census provides valuable data well worth the inconvenience of telling the government how many bedrooms one has in one’s house—this is the same government, remember, that asks how much money you make and then takes a cut. But I don’t see the Conservatives abolishing income tax. Some of the alternatives to a long-form census, such as the citizen registries used in Scandinavian countries, are far more intrusive. Fellegi stressed to the committee that the census data is collected anonymously, that the danger of it somehow being identified with the individual who submitted it is insignificantly low. Hence, there is a difference between being intrusive and being dangerous when it comes to privacy concerns.
So what about the assertion that incarceration is an overreaction to non-compliance? I actually agree. I think most people would agree. As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that no one has been jailed for refusing to fill out a long-form census. Fellegi mentioned this during his testimony. Yet the Conservatives insist on creating a false dichotomy around the issue of enforcement: either, they insist, we keep the mandatory long-form census and throw people in jail, or we make the long-form census voluntary. There is, apparently, no middle ground, no alternative.
Since when have jail time or a fine (the other option) been the only punishments for breaking the law? Surely there are methods of enforcing a mandatory long-form census that are more reasonable. It’s not my job to suggest enforcement methods—and it is certainly not the job of Statistics Canada or statisticians, despite attempts by David Anderson to get Fellegi and Sheikh to do just that. No, once again, the onus is on the Conservative government to develop a solution. Too bad they neither want to admit it or address the problem. Rather than a good round of antibiotic, which a more robust form of enforcement would be, the government has just decided to amputate the infected limb.
Privacy and enforcement aside, there are good alternatives to a long-form census, right? Yes and no. Yes, alternatives exist. Other countries use some of them. Some of them have more privacy concerns, but ultimately the major issue comes to one of statistical accuracy and integrity. What works for one country may not work for another, and without proper studies on implementing a change in Canada, we cannot just appropriate a foreign model. That would be irresponsible.
Irresponsible is exactly what the Conservative government is being, and it makes me angry. As a mathematician and as a Canadian citizen, I am saddened and disturbed by the government’s disregard for the opinions of its civil servants and its experts. This is a rejection of science in favour of a political agenda—and agenda that is far from consistent, as I have demonstrated above. The census provides essential data on life in Canada and its population. It is not only a source of that data, but it is the benchmark against which other surveys—including Statistics Canada’s voluntary surveys—are measured. So many groups rely on census data: the government, notably, as well as business groups, religious groups, special interest groups … the list goes on almost ad infinitum. And here we have the Conservative government blatantly ignoring opposition, forging ahead with an ill-conceived notion that they are crusading against violations of privacy.
Yet it moves.
For reasons beyond my ken, I cannot sign into AIM at the moment I‘m writing this. This lapse in stimulus caused my brain to seek more meaningless information bombardment before it collapsed into a pile of quivering, atrophied jelly. That’s right: I went on Facebook. And as I sat here, staring at the New Feed on the homepage, I sighed.
The News Feed is useless for my purposes, as are many of the tools Facebook purports to offer me.
Now, although I have been (and continue to be) critical of Facebook’s privacy policies, I did not quit Facebook and have no plans to do so. Despite my forthcoming complaints, Facebook is a useful tool in some respects; managed properly, privacy is a concern but not enough motivation for quitting the service altogether.
My experience with Facebook has had incredible highs and some lows. Facebook reunited me with some friends, with whom I lost touch after moving across town, from elementary school. They are now friends in this newfangled adulthood thing I‘m trying on for size. On the other hand, I’ve accepted friend requests from people I barely knew in high school (or barely remember from elementary school), purely because I felt bad saying “no.” I try to be more selective now, but the damage is done.
So I was happy when Facebook introduced the ability to make lists of Friends. I am nowhere near as compulsive nor as organized as some people I like to know. I lack the determination and the single-minded intensity to manifest a vortex of order around myself. Yet I do, when the fancy strikes me, like to put my digital life into lists. Friend lists offered me the opportunity to sort people by how I knew them, and by who I cared about the most.
There was also a nifty feature that let me filter the news feed by friend list. Suddenly instead of seeing the inane status of someone with whom I’ve barely interacted, either in person or online, I was able to tune out the noise and only see what really mattered to me. It was quite … useful.
Several redesigns later, and that feature is, while not entirely gone, much less conveniently employed. It’s still possible to do what I want, but I can’t find a way to make it the default option (tips on this, if it’s possible, would be much appreciated). So by default, the news feed shows me updates from all of my friends and from pages that I’ve “liked” but from which I don’t want to see updates. The “options” the news feed offers me are limited; I can choose to emphasize some friends and hide others, but that doesn’t seem very helpful. And it is hard enough to access the options dialog, because the link is at the bottom of the page … which keeps on loading more status updates every time I scroll down!
I know that picking on the Big Bad Facebook Monster is the new pink, and I‘m loath to jump on the bandwagon. Nevertheless, my AIM-lessness and idle navigation to the Facebook news feed provoked in me a desire to express my frustration that such a potentially useful feature has been rendered anaemic and useless by poor design.
As it is, I don’t use Facebook for the applications. I don’t use much for photos, or for its news feed. I’m still on Facebook because it’s a useful communications medium, a way to contact my friends and keep in touch. Yet as far as websites go, Facebook’s design is deeply flawed—and their numerous redesigns seem to indicate they sense this, even as each one compounds the problem.
That refreshing fragrance wafting toward your nostrils is the sweet smell of electrons zipping through wires into my house, my friend. For you see, I have not turned off my electrical appliances; my lights remain shining in several rooms of the house; and even if I powered down my computer, my brother and his friends continue to consume enough electricity to light a small third-world country, I’m sure.
Allow me to be critical for a moment. While I applaud the ideals that Earth Hour attempts to promote, the method of promotion is lacking. I did not participate in Earth Hour.
There are some who mistakenly believe this is an attempt to save power. Were it so, I would criticize it as an example of the typical Western “binge” attitude designed to intensely compensate for overconsumption the rest of the year round. It’s obvious, however, that turning off one’s lights for an hour a year isn’t going to save any significant power. Indeed, sometimes other factors may cause power consumption to increase. Earth Hour isn’t about saving juice; it’s a symbolic gesture.
As far as symbols go, however, it’s all cymbals. Earth Hour is global chest-beating. While I’m sure there are many environmentally-conscious individuals participating, there are just as many, if not more, ordinary people involved who are not going to do more for the environment beyond these sixty minutes.
Earth Hour wants to increase awareness of climate change and the need to be environmentally responsible—I’m all for that. Yet as an educational tool, Earth Hour fails miserably, since most of the media required for education also require electricity—ironically, National Geographic is airing a television program concerning how to reduce one’s electricity usage. So, should you turn off the TV and miss the educational opportunity? Or should you watch the TV and be a hypocrite?
The organization and promotion of the Earth Hour event itself is remarkably well done, and I applaud the WWF for that accomplishment. They do offer educational materials for download, as well as links to further resources. That’s great. Unfortunately, Earth Hour won’t make a difference in the minds of most people. This may be a cynical observation, but I suspect it’s also an accurate one.
If you‘ve participate in Earth Hour (or even organized it) and are a trully environmentally conscious individual, then this rant is not directed toward you. Too many of those who participate in Earth Hour are going to turn their lights back on and then feel like they’ve “done enough” for another year. They’ve done their part for the environment, and hey, it feels good to participate in a worldwide event!
I‘m not the first person to say this, certainly, but I’m far too lazy to Google for corroborating posts—strangely enough, if my ethical code ever collapses inward on itself,1 my laziness will always prevent me from plagiarizing. Writing my own stuff always seems easier than trying to find it, even with the miracle of the Internet.
But I digress.
Today’s Internet phenomenon on the chopping block is Zen. The overuse of “zen” in product and website names throughout the Internet irks me—and I don’t even practise Zen, so I can only imagine how those people who do feel about this.
Firstly, don’t blame Zen. That’s tantamount to blaming Santa Claus for Coca-Cola. Much like Santa, Zen can’t fight back.2 Secondly, yes, it is our fault. And by “we”, I mean, us, those darn “Westerners” who have once again decided to co-opt an “Eastern” idea and market it as our own.3 For shame.
We stole Zen because we thought it was cool (and we are not). I understand that it’s totally a marketing gimmick. Marketing is all about cool, and marketing Internet stuff in particular requires the slippery, evanescent sort of coolness that apparently only Zen or, if you’re a teenager, smoking, can provide. Because after all, what is Zen? I certainly don’t know—sure, I’ve read the Wikipedia article. But to claim I have an understanding of such a complex philosophical school of thought would be like saying I understand communism. Nobody understands communism!
NB: I have an adequate grasp of the gist of Western philosophy—enough to hold my own in daily conversation—but I‘ve yet to actually read the treatises by Western philosophers that would firmly cement my comprehension of the thoughts that have shaped and guided our society for the past two thousand years. So take my opinions with a large tablespoon of salt: I don’t know what I‘m talking about after all. You have been warned.
We’re attracted to “Zen” because of the ethereal, Eastern atmosphere it injects into our stodgy Western minds. This is the Internet equivalent to the “New Age” phenomenon. Zen is the poster-child of those who believe Eastern society possesses a vital quality missing from Western society. In actuality, both Eastern and Western society are completely, irrevoccably screwed up.
But that’s OK.
I do think there are some aspects of Eastern society from which Western society could benefit. However, stamping the label “Zen” on products, especially technology products, is not one of them. So next time you consider naming your product “Zen Something or Other” or incorporating an enso into your logo, ask yourself: are you really espousing the concept of Zen, or are you just fuelling a fad?
In conclusion, I’d like to throw out a few disclaimers. I love the CSS Zen Garden and in no way am suggesting that it change its name to CSS Garden. The idea for this post was actually inspired by Twitter’s adoption of a new support desk software, Zendesk.
I’m sure Twitter is just picking the tool it feels is right for the job. But Zendesk exhibits exactly the smarmy attitude I‘ve suddenly realized irritates me. Take a look at what they’ve done to Buddha!
They‘ve gone and put Buddha to work in a call-centre! It’s an eerily accurate metaphor for what Western society tends to do to Eastern philosophy. And I want no part of it.
Furious doesn’t even begin to describe it. Town councilors in Birmingham, England have decided to drop apostrophes from signage. This unilateral decision about signage grammar is nothing less than a declaration of war against the English language. I call for a retaliatory preemptive strike.1
I‘m appalled that people have the nerve to desecrate the English language in such a manner. It’s true that English evolves; we change the spelling of words, and we create new words to express new concepts. Yet this change is artificial and arbitrary, chosen because it supposedly clears up confusion around what a street name implies or how to locate it on a GPS.
Apostrophes seem to be a very controversial punctuation mark. Mind you, all punctuation marks have their little quirks. The comma is the overused youngest child; semicolons are the misunderstood middle child. As the oldest child, the colon tends to pick up the slack from its younger siblings. Periods are: final, definitive, and ubiquitous. Dashes and hyphens are like fraternal twins—similar-yet-different. None of these, however, attracts as much controversy as our friendly neighbourhood apostrophe. Some misguided people try to use the apostrophe to denote plurality, appending apostrophe s to the end of words. This, apparently, is called the “greengrocer’s apostrophe” (note the possessive apostrophe example).2
This annoys me.
And don’t even get me started on the debate between whether a plural possessive should be ’s or s’. I personally prefer the latter, as in “The monks’ cells were small and square.” Hardcore grammarians even debate it down to the plurality of the noun itself—i.e., “monks’” is OK, but “James’” is not, since James is a single person.
The Yahoo! news article quoted Councilor Martin Mullaney, who said:
Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed…. More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.
Let’s break that down into its component issues. Firstly, Mullaney contends that apostrophes denote obsolete possessions—i.e., the monarchy no longer owns “King’s Heath”, so it should just be “Kings Heath”. In other words, Mullaney wants to sacrifice historical context in order to save the cost of printing another character on a sign.
Secondly, and more troubling, is the idea that one needs a high school diploma in order to navigate streets that have apostrophes in their names. While I‘m certain that Mr. Mullaney was employing hyperbole with that remark, it implies that one needs a formal education of any sort to understand the use of an apostrophe. As far as I’m concerned, one really only needs to be literate in the English language. If you can‘t read English, you’re going to have trouble reading the street signs anyway.
If this decision stands, it sets a terrible precedent for future grammar legislation. Those of us who love the English language for the beautiful lexical syntax that it is are fast becoming an endangered species. We must stand strong and stand together in these dark times.
I woke up this morning to the following headline in my RSS feeds, courtesy of CBC News: N.B. school silences O Canada. It already had 249 comments then; it’s up to 658 comments as I’m writing this. CBC News has since updated the article to expand its content and provide a more detailed story; the original article was less informative, which didn’t stop people from commenting on it.
In case I haven’t been clear in the past, let me first establish that I don’t believe in being “politically correct”. What’s the point in living in a free country if you have to walk on eggshells just to avoid offending anyone? To that end, it’s Merry Christmas and not Happy Holidays. You can say BCE or BC; I don’t care—it’s still inherently based on Christianity, so it isn’t “politically correct”—just annoying.
But I digress.
My initial reaction to the article was, “Well, this is stupid.” This was just another example of the politically correct movement going too far! There’s nothing wrong with singing the national anthem! Back in my day (I can’t believe it’s been two years already), I sang the national anthem aloud every morning at school—and I can’t sing, so I can only imagine what torture it was for my classmates. I still sing at baseball games. To me, singing the national anthem is appropriate at school and at sporting events. After all, I had been singing it ever since I was a ki—
That’s the point where, after reading the comments on the CBC article from people on both sides of the issues, I recognized that I was running up against a barrier of my own indoctrination. It’s true: I sing the national anthem because that’s what I was taught to do.
And if there’s anything I dislike more than the politically correct movement, it’s nationalism. Ick. Although I recognize that in some circumstances, nationalism is useful, it mostly just leads to trouble. We’ve all learned about the first two World Wars, correct? Good. I rest my case. Before I go on, however, I’ll mention that I consider nationalism and national pride to be two different but closely related concepts. Nationalism is national pride taken to the extreme; it’s socially-enforced national pride. I have no problem with people being proud of Canada; I’m mostly proud of Canada.1 It’s when that pride motivates Acts of Stupidity that we need to take a step back and ask if what we’re doing makes sense.
Suddenly an issue like singing the national anthem in school no longer seems so simple. I can see arguments for both sides. On one hand, it’s stupid to remove this activity because a few students don’t want to participate. No one’s forcing students to sing the anthem. On the other hand, what does singing the anthem mean? Is it really required in school, or is it an unnecessary component of the indoctrination of children into Canadian society?
It’s hard to cast off the shackles of one’s own indoctrination. Not everyone succeeds.2 Breaking free of indoctrination doesn’t mean rejecting indoctrinated values, although many see it that way. Instead, it means one has to examine one’s beliefs critically and look at alternative points of view to decide if those make more sense.
You Can’t Define With a Negative
It’s impossible to do justice to the subject of Canadian identity in this blog post. Better scholars than I have written books on this subject, so I won’t even pretend to be adequate at defining what’s Canadian. Nevertheless, we need a definition, something mildly more substantial than “not American”.
One commenter on the CBC article, jtbrown, said:
I think that people are missing the point that Canada is exactly the kind of country where it is okay to have this kind of opinion…. In Canada we are free to question the actions of government, to voice dissenting opinions, to stand up for the rights of minorities and to think and speak freely without the fear of reprisals, except, that is, from some outraged,blindly patriotic bloggers.
So rather than defining “Canadian” as who we are, let’s define it as what we can do—is not action better than mere existence? Thus, to be Canadian is to have the freedom to express one’s own opinions, as well as the ability to choose to respect the opinions of others, without being fettered by social or religious mores.
I Can Haz Anthemz Now???
Canada has always been ambivalent about nationalism, to the point of having multiple dates one could celebrate as Canada’s independence—1867, 1931, 1982. We didn’t have a our maple leaf flag until 1965. And as Americans are quick to remind us (to be fair, we‘re quick to remind them, with perhaps even more smugness), we didn’t fight for our independence—we asked nicely.3
Our national anthem, O Canada, became official in 1980. There’s actually two sets of lyrics—one English, and one French, in keeping with our bilingual society. The English lyrics have come under fire from secularists (for including the word “God”) and feminists (for the word “sons”). I’m not sure if the French lyrics have ever been criticized. They seem less controversial, although I could see “forefathers” upsetting the feminists, I suppose, and that whole thing about wielding a sword might anger pacifists4
For the record, I don’t believe in any particular God, but I don’t mind that our anthem has “God” in it. It’s not a big deal for me.
I like this comment by “middle Perspective”:
Learning and practicing our National Anthem keeps Canadian’s bound together on a national level. Our communities are all very different, and if we derived what we are from them (like you said), we certainly would not all be Canadian (e.g. Quebec, Newfoundland, Alberta). But with a national anthem, its a tool in which we all know what we mean to other communities and united on an international stage.
Most of us would agree that the anthem serves as a tool for promoting nationalism; that much is obvious. But if being Canadian involves respecting the diversity of others, even if they don’t agree with you, how does this affect the purpose of our national anthem?
“RrrPla” has a very specific idea about the role of the anthem:
Our national anthem is as intrinsic to our citizenship as is our right to vote, our freedom of conscience and right to live in peace. Canadian loyalty is not optional. It is mandatory, and symbols of our country such as the flag and anthem are not negotiable.
I‘m glad I don’t live in the same Canada as RrrPla. The idea of “mandatory nationalism” sounds vaguely like “militaristic nationalism” or even “national socialism”, and we all know how well that turned out.
Finally, Aaron A says:
There is nothing more Canadian in this country than its anthem, not playing it in schools is no different than refusing to fly the flag, and is tantamount treason. How this principal could side with a few unpatriotic parents over his country is appauling. If they don’t like the anthem, then they should live somewhere else!!!
I will agree that refusing to sing the anthem is unpatriotic, sure. But Aaron seems to equate being unpatriotic with treason, and that’s a rather large jump. Some people refuse to sing the national anthem due to their religious or personal beliefs—some religions forbid their followers from espousing loyalty to any other authority, and maybe a more ardent anti-nationalist than myself would refuse to sing the anthem due to its nationalistic purpose. These actions are unpatriotic, but that doesn’t make them wrong, bad, or treasonous. Furthermore, people who refuse to sing the national anthem can be patriotic or show national pride in other ways.
Our national anthem, then, evokes national pride and is a tool for promoting nationalism when Canadians need it most. It doesn’t seek to assimiliate the diversity of Canada’s cultures and force everyone to think or believe the same thing. It does encourage Canadians—all Canadians—to feel proud of the entire country.
Please, Think of the Children!
Yes or no: should all public schools in Canada play the national anthem at the beginning of each day, during which time students may sing if it pleases them, although singing is not required?
There is a difference between just playing the national anthem and singing it. Honestly, how many kids actually sing the anthem? When I was in high school, we didn’t sing the national anthem.5 It played out over the intercom, often in this bizarre technobeat that was a travesty of anthem. We would stand at attention, have a brief moment of silence afterward, then sit down and start chatting with each other. We‘d have to talk very loudly, of course, because there were announcements playing out of the intercom that threatened to drown out our important conversations.
But I digress.
Listening to someone play the national anthem is a more passive activity than singing it. It’s very hard not to listen, since you’d have to block your ears.6 Singing, on the other hand, implies you want to celebrate the national anthem.
With that in mind, my answer to the opening question for this section would be “Yes.” Public schools are supposed to educate children about Canada, and that includes the anthem. There’s nothing wrong with playing that anthem.
But what about having kids sing it? Here’s a few more comments I selected from the CBC article.
“Pinpatch” thinks we should all love one another but wants you to get “flack” if you don’t sing the national anthem:
I think it is so sad that there are so many people on here who think it is OK NOT to sing the national anthem. Part of living in this country is singing your anthem, and everyone should not only know how to sing it, but BE PROUD OF IT! I dont know what is wrong with our country,,,,, The US is very patriotic, and its a shame that we are not like that, no one seens to give a damn about our country anymore, when we have so much to be thankful and grateful for here. Stand on guard for your country, support our country, support our troops… love one another . freedom…. Thats what our anthem represents.
Rick Thibodeau’s particularly vocal in this discussion. As a local, he managed to put provide some perspective for the commenters who were blaming immigrants for this issue:
I think you guys are missing a big point; many of you believe it’s some immigration issue…last time I was in Belleisle, specifically around Hatfield point, Kars, Wickam, Norton, I didn’t see many immigrants, if ANY at all, waving their own flags around inciting some speech to reform school systems to include them. If anything, most of the population that exists there are pentecost and baptist…so WHO exactly are the ones taking down the anthem? Certainly not a dozen people…
Lastly, “Western Opinion” has a sardonic observation of a trend he or she has espied:
Yet another accommodation so as to not offend the very few.
Next on the list…..banning the use of red ink and x’s when evaluating student’s work or emphasizing the use of handwriting by the teacher because 1 student in the class can’t or refuses to learn how to read it.
This country is going in the toilet.
Thus I Take Refuge in Apathy
This article has certainly attracted discussion and comments from people on both side of the issue. At first I agreed with those who thought this all a bunch of politically correct nonsense. Then I agreed with those who thought this all a ploy by nationalists to further indoctrinate our children. Then I realized I had no clue what to think, and that I’m very, very confused.
So sing the anthem, don’t sing the anthem—ça m’est égal.7 We have better things to do in this country than debate about whether or not it’s good to recite a bunch of epideitic words at the beginning of each day. We still have no good leadership, a budget that will either fix all our worries or damn our economy once and for all, and Sarah Palin is gearing up her election machine for 2012!!8
Ideally I’d preserve the status quo—keep public schools playing the anthem, don’t force kids to sing it unless they want to sing. Offer some of those nifty noise-cancellation headphones for the kids whose parents don’t want them listening to it.
Oh, and for all those people who left comments on that CBC article to the effect of “if you don’t want to sing our anthem, you should get out of Canada”, shame on you. Such an opinion is not Canadian, and while I respect your right to voice it, I don’t agree with it, and it doesn’t improve my estimation of you. In this country, we‘re allowed to disagree with each other, but we should be civil about it. Just because our Members of Parliament fling insults at each other doesn’t mean we should. We are better than that.
In conclusion, Carthage must be destroyed.
- [ 1 ] Except for the parts currently occupied by Stephen Harper
- [ 2 ] Those who fail go on to lead successful lives at Fox News.
- [ 3 ] It helped that, by that time, Britain was pretty sick of us and was happy to dump us for India.
- [ 4 ] Which would result in a very sternly worded letter, I’m sure.
- [ 5 ] Except, as previously noted, I did, much to the regret of my classmates.
- [ 6 ] So if an anthem plays in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, is it still patriotic?
- [ 7 ] No, I’m not telling you what it means. Google it.
- [ 8 ] Breathe, Ben. It’s four years away. Plenty could happen before then. Her daughter could have another unexpected teenage pregnancy. We can only hope.
Two months ago I read The Numerati, in which Stephen Baker discusses how technology—particularly the Internet—is affecting marketing techniques and how businesses and individuals manage their data. Now that we have the tools and understanding to mathematically model more behaviour than ever before, there’s a new group of people—the eponymous Numerati—at the forefront of this information revolution.
One of the concerns Baker briefly addresses is privacy. On the Internet, this has always been an issue, but the surge in popularity of social networking this year makes it even more relevant. MySpace and Facebook have made headlines with the Lori Drew case and the launch of identity management Facebook Connect.1 What was once a matter of “privacy” is now a question of the most appropriate mechanism for managing the convergence of one’s offline and online personae.
And I can’t help but feel that some people are missing the point.
What is Privacy?
Like “Web 2.0”, we tend to throw the term “privacy” around quite a bit without much thought to what we actually want when we demand it. Does this merely mean we want our bank account details safe? Or do we actually want a guarantee of anonymity (if we choose it)? Is our personal data only private if we keep it secret, or is it still private if we share it with other people (such as friends or corporations) as long as it isn’t available to the general public?
Let’s face it though: in the evanescent medium of the Internet, any strict definitions regularly become obsolete. So instead, let’s define privacy as a mode of operation rather than a state of being. Online, privacy is more an ability of a user to control how his or her personal data is distributed. Privacy settings on web sites are an excellent example of this mode of operation: the web site gives the user the choice of what to reveal.
But We Just Wanna Have Fun
Then apparently you haven’t heard the news: the Internets are serious businesses. This is hard for many people to accept—it’s so easy to go online, create a fake identity, and begin fooling around. Yet at its core, the Internet is not a fictitious world or some sort of MMORPG. While you can often assume the cloak of anonymity,2 increasingly services expect you to dole out personal details and geographical information.
I can understand why this has privacy advocates concerned. It won’t be long, they argue, before everyone is chipped with evil, insecure RFID devices that allow the Google Overlords to track our every movement and even read our minds, right? After all, as soon as we tell a service on the Internet not only who we are, but where we live, it’s only a matter of time before an axe murderer shows up at our door, right?
It’s good to be wary and vigilant of flagrant violations of one’s privacy. However, these sort of overreactions are indicative, in my opinion, of a misunderstanding of the Internet as a communication medium. In that sense, the Internet really is something new. We’ve never had a communication medium quite like it. The Internet’s effect on society is tantamount to that of the printing press on fifteenth century European society—but it is also so much more. The Internet is both a library and a conference centre. When people pull out their mobile phones and say, “This is my office,” they aren’t necessarily joking.
The true potential of the Internet will never be realized unless we accept that geostamping is as much of a necessity as timestamping. Since the inception of the Internet, content creators regularly date the work they publish online—yet only recently have we begun tagging that work with geographical information. Now websites like Flickr can automatically geostamp your photos using the information embedded into the uploaded photograph. While watchdogs call that a privacy violation, I call that awesome. (And you can turn it off if you don’t like it.)
Knowledge Is Slavery
The counterargument to handing all our data over to the Google Overlords is to trot out George Orwell’s 1984 and staple the adjective “Orwellian” to everything. Now, I admit I often worry about that. Giving Google my personal information is one of my favourite pastimes, but is it a dangerous pastime? Is Google going to start editing the Internet to retcon reality?
The short answer is: no. The explanation to the short answer is: you won’t let them—at least, I hope.
See, the thing about 1984 is that Orwell wasn’t cautioning us against “Big Brother” type dystopian societies—most of us were already against those at the time. He was cautioning us that those sort of societies spring up because we don’t do anything about it. That message is kind of hitting home after recent events in Canada … but anyway, I digress.
My point is that there’s still plenty of room on the Internet for individuals and countercultures to survive. That’s the beauty of the Internet: as long as you have the technology, you can rebuild it, recreate it, and make it better than it was before. You only run into problems when you have a government, like China, that begins dictating what you can or can’t do when you browse the Internet and enforce it technologically. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, however, but that was not an isolated incident in China—that sort of government restriction was present in every part of the lives of Chinese citizens. Similarly, if we see the inception of an “Orwellian Internet”, it will happpen because we the people have sold out.
In short, Orwellian society begets Orwellian Internet, not the other way around. Orwellian. Orwellian. Orwellian.
Wait, You‘re Still Reading This?
I would recommend The Numerati to everyone, not just people with an interest in this field. The book is very short and doesn’t go into the mathematical specifics behind this statistical analysis—Baker’s a business writer, not a math geek like me—so it’s quite understandable to laypeople. In his conclusion, Baker says:
So we’re going to have to reevaluate our ideas about privacy and secrets … until recently, our secrets were scattered…. Most of them, if we played it right, didn’t mingle much. Unless a detective was on the case, the bits of information didn’t find each other. Now they can and they will.
This can be scary. No doubt it will tempt a few of us to turn away from the data-spewing world altogether. Some will tiptoe around the Internet, if they venture there at all….
But with a bit of knowledge, we can turn these tools to our advantage. You may not have noticed, but as we make our way in these pages from the snooping workplace to the laboratories of love, we gradually evolve from data serfs into data masters…. We’re appealing to the science of the Numerati to protect us from falls and alert us before strokes and heart attacks…. The point is, these statistical tools are going to be quietly assuming more and more power in our lives. We might as well learn how to grab the controls and use them for [our] own interests. (204-5)
Before that, Baker makes another statement that pretty much sums up my entire view toward privacy: “The personal data can be shared but not the identity” (204). How many of you have done anonymous surveys, or checked off a box that says, “Yes, you can share my data as long as you don’t associate with my identity”? For those of you that haven’t—are you sure? How many of you honestly read through those tiresome EULAs that accompany any of the software you install—many of those include clauses that permit the software to anonymously report data about how you use the software.
As Baker explains, this sort of data is neither good nor bad. What matters is who uses it and how they use it. Unless you become a hermit3, achieving total privacy is impractical. So rather than run from the Google overlords, these Numerati, learn about them. Learn what they do with your data, and be vigilant in how you manage your online identity.
There are risks associated with any venture, and the Internet is no different in this case. Every time you connect your computer to it, you take the risk that you’ll inadvertently download a virus or be deluged with spam. But like many risky ventures, I think the Internet is worth that risk.
The debate over privacy should not be about how to keep your secrets—well, secret. That is a lost cause. Instead, the debate should be over how best to manage those secrets, and how to make sure our personal data is used to benefit us rather than exploit us.
For the second time this year, anti-gay group Westboro Baptist Church is planning to come to Canada to stage a protest, and people want to put a stop to it.
Every time this sort of controversy comes up in the news, I have to stop and consider it carefully. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 2) guarantees us the following basic rights:
- freedom of conscience and religion;
- freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- freedom of association
At the same time, however, we also have legislation in place to protect people from hate-crimes and hate-speech. So the question is, do anti-gay groups like the Westboro Baptist Church violate this anti-hate legislation? And regardless of this first question, are we violating their rights to freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, and freedom of association? Freedom of peaceful assembly is a separate issue—whether or not this group is “peaceful” is subject to debate altogether, and I would probably say that they are not.
I like to pride myself in being open-minded enough to truly believe in free speech for everyone, even if I think they are idiots. Yes, I will fight for your right to say something, even if I disagree with what you want to say. Yet when we enter controversial territory where the freedom of expression can be abused in order to hurt other people this admirable sentiment is put to the test.
So my answer is no, this group should not be allowed entry to Canada. Their goals and actions are appalling. I understand that some people find homosexuality morally objectionable. I even understand if some people believe that gay people’s souls are in peril of eternal damnation and they should repent now to be saved (I don’t believe that, but I can understand how others might). However, there is a large gap between holding an anti-gay opinion and inciting hatred of gays.
If you did not follow the link at the beginning of this post, stop now to read the article or at least look at the included image. Check out the signs that the leader of the group was carrying at a protest in 1999—look at the one on the right: “God hates fags.”
I did go to church as a child, and that’s not the Christianity I was taught. I’ve been under this impression that the Christian God loves everyone, and that if one repents, one will be saved.
Theocratical dogma on homosexuality aside, consider how this reflects one’s religion! Islam has often received criticism as of late because of the actions of a minority, those radicals who form Muslim terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. That is a concrete example of how the actions of a minority can harm the reputation of the entire religion. Likewise, Fred Phelps’ church shames his religion. I’m well aware that Christianity in general does not burn people at the stake anymore, but if all I knew about it came from that article and that disturbing image, I might jump to that conclusion.
Returning the sign for a moment, notice the pejorative term for gays. This is exactly the same as the dehumanising labels applied to minorities we oppressed and hated throughout history—some of which are still regarded with such shame and disdain that they are not repeated on television before the watershed hour. We pride ourselves so often on having “moved forward” and having put racism, anti-Semitism, and the like behind us, closing those chapters and contenting ourselves to teach them in history classes with various degrees of accuracy.
We haven’t moved forward. We’ve just switched targets for the time being, like a bored kid with BB gun.
We haven’t moved forward, and we won’t move forward until we stop trying to make people feel ashamed of who they are, until we stop teaching other people that it’s OK to hate somebody simply because they are different from oneself. ’Cause guess what? You are different from them. And what if they started oppressing you? Yeah, you wouldn’t like that too much, eh?
Sadly, those people who believe that inciting hatred is fine tend to do it because they believe they have some form of objective justice on their side (usually “God”, but sometimes it’s just personal conviction). They believe that they can do it to other people because they are right and others are wrong. And that’s the point where a government should step in, to protect innocent people from those would abuse our great freedoms for ignominious ends.
Back in June, my friend blogged about people showing off their Wikismarts to him. I envy him, because on the other side of the coin, there seems to be a plethora of people with zero initiative.
You know who I‘m talking about. The people who seem to have no filter in their brain and ask you every question that bubbles up to the murky surface of their minds, even if the current discussion has nothing to do with the question. These people regularly lurk on message boards and in IRC channels, just waiting to begin asking questions that would be better answered by a trip over to Wikipedia than waiting for someone else to prepare a (probably inaccurate) explanation.
There’s no excuse, really. Most browsers come with search forms built into the browser chrome itself. Even if not, Google (or one’s favourite search engine) is a single page-load away. There is no excuse to derail an existing conversation by asking for someone to explain what the topic of the conversation is all about. Go find out, come back, and show off those Wikismarts.
This isn’t much more than a short rant. It just flusters me, because I applaud those people’s curiosity, but I deplore their lack of initiative in an age where information access is literally at people’s fingertips.
Last updated Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 11:57 PM
We all do it. A celebrity—actor, athlete, whoever—appears on our television screen and tells us to do something, to support some cause, to buy a product. Because, you know, they use the product or support that cause, so we should too.
When that happens, I just like to remind myself that these are the same types of people whom we vilify for leading immoral, hedonistic lifestyles of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. We condemn these people for those actions and then turn around and succumb to marketing ploys that appeal to our admiration of these same people.
It’s just another facet of our wonderful brain that we‘re able to reconcile such contradictory value judgements.
Anyway, I have to go purchase more things that a celebrity tells me will change my life because it changed theirs too. And they’d never lie to me for money, right?
For a moment today, I was almost able to forget that it was Halloween. Not that I have anything against Halloween. In its present incarnation it’s a charming way for kids to dress up, express their imagination, and of course, collect as much Canada as they can. And really, if you can’t count on candy in a democratic society, then what is my government doing with all those tax dollars?
Somewhere between this year and last, however, I’ve lost my connection to the Halloween spirit. It might have fallen between the couch cushions—I’ll check when I get home. I haven’t trick-or-treated in a couple of years, and I don’t do the party thing. So there’s not a lot for me to do for Halloween. I‘d dress up, but I don’t have many costume ideas, and I‘m too lazy to put effort into creating an excellent costume. I do admire those who take the time. On campus here we’ve got someone dressed up like Waldo (as in Where’s Waldo?) and a pair of carebears. Occasionally I worry that this lack of Halloween participation is a sign I’m losing my will to be imaginative and expressive and am slowly turning into a boring, practical person.
/me pauses to look at blog posts. Yeah. Riiiight. Not likely.
Let’s face it. Halloween is about the candy. I can buy as much candy as I went whenever I want, so Halloween has lost its lustre. I’ll probably stay home tonight and give out candy. Maybe I’ll put a scary movie on and watch that while I wait for kids to show up at the door. That’s vaguely Halloweenish, right?
Just wait for Christmas….
As I‘ve said previously, I’m tired of the repetitive fearmongering being done in the name of our “global warming” crusade. It’s another example of herd mentality exacerbating a crisis that it is supposed to be solving. Last century it was nuclear weapons, this century it’s global warming.
Well wake up people, and stop being so selfish! After all, we are not the only planet in this universe. There are many other planets out there that are heating up. In fact, I’ve “discovered” a dangerous new phenomenon that must be stopped! Universal warming.
Here’s how it goes. We constantly produce information. Information is useless without transmission; it only becomes usable when conveyed from one state to another (i.e., from person to person). Transmitting information requires energy. As energy is used, entropy in the system increases. To demonstrate, take talking for example. If you talk about something, you are transmitting information. This means you are increasing the net entropy of the universe. Everything you do increases entropy, unfortunately.
Why is entropy bad? Because entropy is the tendency of a system toward increasing disorder. As entropy increases, the amount of usable energy declines. Eventually we’ll suffer the heat-death of the universe and the end of all life as we know it!
This is a serious problem. If the universe ends, then Paris Hilton won’t be able to make any more movies, which means she’ll have to get a real job. We must all work together as a community to decrease the Earth’s universal footprint. The fate of reality depends on it1 My first recommendation is that Al Gore create a new documentary entitled An Incomprehensible Truth. That would be the best way to further spread this information to as many people as possible.
Let’s get on this, people!
Please, when you come to Canada, change your money. It isn’t that hard, and it will save me some headaches.
Thunder Bay is close to the border, so we get frequent American visitors to the art gallery. For some reason, they believe it’s fine to just hand us American money. Canada’s just the 51st state anyway, right? I know that when I go to the States, I don’t flash my Canadian cash all around the place. I trade my money in for your pallid green bills.
Our cash register is not a hi-tech computer with a flat panel display and a high speed Internet connection. It’s a box with lights and a few buttons. The exchange rate is currently set to about 62 American cents for every Canadian dollar, and our boss has to change it manually. I honestly don’t even know how to do the conversion on the machine (there’s a button, but I’m never sure when to push it during the transaction…).
So please, take it from someone who has to deal with your cash. I’ll be happier if you change it to Canadian money. Our bills are shiny and colourful—you’ll like them as souvenirs. And if I’m happier, it means I’ll be nicer to you. And if I’m nicer to you, you’ll be happier. Welcome to the circle of life.
Often you’ll read one critic or intellectual or another say something along the lines of how Hollywood is destroying the movie industry, creating cheap flicks at the expense of “art” and “culture”. And as much as I am sometimes tempted to agree with this cynical evaluation of our entertainment industry, I can’t bring myself to jump on that bandwagon. I just can’t.
I have observed that more movies are “packaged” these days. What are “packaged” movies? Well, these are the hits that look and feel like the director simply sent in a form from a mail-order catalogue—he or she filled out the title and main characters, and the company sent back a pre-packaged movie: special effects, music, etc. Movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and—especially with its third installment—Spider-Man are packaged blockbusters.
Are packaged movies inherently evil? Does it make a movie bad? Of course not. I like each of those three movie series above—although none of them are particularly spectacular—but they aren’t moving and they aren’t cathartic. And sometimes you need that. Sometimes you don’t need a purging; you just need some action, some humour, and some explosions. The only reservation I carry is that it’s too reflective of certain negative aspects of our society—namely, this increasing dependence on pre-packaged items, like food, that we just buy in bulk at a grocery store.
There are the “indie” films, complete with festivals, to attempt to carry on the art-form that Hollywood has—so some say—left behind. The problem with this phenomenon is not its goals, but rather, its demographic. The people who go to film festivals are precisely the type of people who like the films at film festivals. Which brings us to the hilt of the matter: the audience. Do people really want art? Or do they want entertainment?
The answer has and always will be both, and this is why I can’t endorse those pessimistic and pretentious pundits who pretend to put-down Hollywood. I’m going to use Shakespeare as an example. Take King Lear, for instance. King Lear is one of my favourite plays and one of Shakespeare’s best. It has pithy intellectual themes, and as a tragedy, is carefully written to move us to pity and compassion for the terrible tribulations of the hero, Lear, and his descent into madness. But Shakespeare was no fool. His plays weren’t wildly successful just because of these themes—they were successful because they were also entertaining. King Lear has humour aplenty—ribald or otherwise—and that’s why it has endured 400 years’ worth of Eberts. If the jokes seem stale (or you just can’t get them), it isn’t because they’re silly. They just get lost in translation; the language differences over the past four centuries make Shakespeare a tad hard to understand at times.
Yet I digress. Shakespeare and his ilk knew something about how to get a crowd’s attention, and how to leave a part of their work with the crowd when the play was done. That’s why the movie industry isn’t in “decline”. This perception of decline is just a misinterpretation of the charts. We‘re changing all right, but we’re always changing—it’s what culture does. It’s a reaction to the last two decades of increasing technological development. Technology affects movies faster than it does stage or books (and to a degree, music) because of the visual nature of the medium; advanced technology means advanced movie-making techniques. Technology has developed more in the past two decades than it has in the past century. And it shows no signs of plateauing, so we have to be ready for more change.
Culture is dead. Long live culture!
The Visa credit card company is always trying to give us free stuff. Think about it: “win what you buy”? That grocery contest? We all know that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. The glorious capitalist system was founded on such a principle. So if Visa is giving away things for free, then they are violating the very foundation of free-market economy.
Is Visa in league with the terrorists? It wouldn’t surprise me: working away at our morals from the inside. It’s of course the only logical conclusion.
You might argue that Visa only uses these contests as promotional ventures to encourage spending through the Visa credit card. Quite frankly I think such detractors from my logical argument simply harbour sympathies for Visa and other communist conspirators!
I’m glad I’ve exposed this plot to shake the very pillars of prosperity before it went too far.
I must say, I seem to lack a lot of the basic social knowledge required to survive in the modern world. One must wonder why the Sierra Club hasn’t blacklisted me yet.
My former English teacher, Ms. Sukalo, is in town for Easter this week (she now teaches in New York, so I don’t get to see her often). Myself and a bunch of friends finally got to see her today; we met for coffee (well, I had iced lemonade) and caught up, talked, etc. ‘Twas quite fun. Afterward, I had to drive my friend Cortney home. She lives in Kakabeka, so this basically entails driving along a single road until we got to Kakabeka, dropping her off, then turning around and going back home.
Driving in the dark is scary because it’s so hard to see. Driving on the highway is scary because you‘re moving at speeds humans aren’t, technically, supposed to be using. So, combine driving in the dark on the highway and you’ll get an activity that I don’t like very much. Suffice it to say, I think that it’s crazy to hurtle around in a large metal object at dangerous speeds while similar large metal objects careen toward you at similar speeds. It’s a recipe for disaster if I ever saw one.
Anyway, this has nothing to do with the title of this post or the anecdote I actually wish to relate. So, if you came here looking for something pithy about shopping and instead found a rant about driving, got fed up with my duplicity and told your assistant to screen the rest of the post, then this is the part where your assistant should call you back to read the rest of the post. Seriously.
What, you don’t have an assistant? You mean, you’ve actually read the entire part of my post thus far? Wow. You’re a trooper. Give yourself a pat on the back. No, go on; I mean it. There we go.
So anyway, my dad calls me on my way home and asks me to pick up a 9 V battery for the smoke alarm. As I come back into town, I stop at Shopper’s Drug Mart for the battery. And I couldn’t find it.
I swear, there must be some sort of innate “shopping logic” that people possess which allow them to navigate through large stores and find what they need, and I must lack it. The moment I enter any sort of store that has “aisles” and whatnot, I immediately get lost. The shelves loom over me like a badly-imagined post-apocalyptic sci-fi urban wasteland. The products that I want never seem to fall under any of the neat little categorical signs perilously suspended over each aisle on what may or may not be regulation fishing line. And of course, this late at night the store is on the graveyard shift, so there’s no handy employee around to ask where the batteries are.
So I left Shoppers without any batteries and went to Safeway. Safeway is larger than Shoppers, although they have more descriptive labels and a larger staff. I still couldn’t find the batteries. My brain was trying its best to send signals to my “shopping cortex”, but the nerves just weren’t firing. I have absolutely no clue how to find anything in a store—I don’t even have the sense to grab a basket or a cart; I just load my arms up and waddle toward the checkout.
Luckily one of the staff directed me to where the batteries are hidden—er, I mean, stored—and I grabbed two 9 V batteries, as well as some jellybeans. A little reward for a hard day’s work, after all. I paid and left.
That’s my story. You can go back to doing whatever you were doing before a computer virus took over your Internet browser and forced you to read this. I am going to drink my tea, maybe eat a few more jellybeans, and go to sleep.
Beware the shopping logic. Those who have it take it for granted. Those who don’t, like me, feel like misfits in this strange consumer-driven world, where what you buy says so much about who you are. Does that feel right?
I’ve already blogged about the indecency with which people have treated global warming. This is not a repeat, but an addendum.
Society loves to make a big deal out of issues that are silly and don’t really matter, like gay marriage or what colour of underwear Britney Spears purchases. If we didn’t draw so much attention to them, guess what: they wouldn’t affect our lives that much. Yes, shocking.
I am sick and tired of pundits on both sides of this issue blowing it out of proportion. Yes, global warming exists. Sure, maybe humans are contributing. Go ahead and debate the significance of our contribution as much as you want. The major source of controversy, it seems, are the efforts to curb our greenhouse gas emissions; some groups believe that these efforts are wastes of time. Well consider this: so what if humans don’t have an effect on global warming? Does this mean that not curbing our greenhouse gas emissions will help more than curbing them will? I am not a climatologist—or even an economist for that matter—but even if we don’t have a significant impact on global warming, I would think that lessening our dependency on fossil fuels would be good, both for the environment and the chequebook.
But of course since I don’t take an extremist stance on one side of the issue or the other, my opinion obviously isn’t going to catch on. I’ll fade back into relative obscurity now while our leaders continue to overcompensate for their shortcomings by posturing for the paparazzi.
Let me start off, however, with a few disclaimers. I do believe that the “global warming phenomenon” exists to a quantifiable degree, that the Earth’s temperature is slowly rising, that humans are contributing to it (although not necessarily as much as some claim, but probably more than most would like to admit) with our dependency on fossil fuels, and that it does pose a threat to the future of our species.
Up here in Canada we’re experiencing an unusually mild winter. As a result, the term “global warming” has become one of the decade’s top buzzwords: words that people use even though they don’t actually apply. It’s liked “Web 2.0”. It’s a term that at one time had a valid definition, but the public has seized upon it, gutted it mercilessly, and taken it so far out of context that it no longer means anything at all. The same is happening to global warming. Once a fine scientific theory, people are blowing it out of proportion.
“Oh my God, he’s gone conservative!” you start screaming at me. “How dare you say that global warming isn’t a threat?!”
Yeah … uh … right. Whatever you say. The fact remains that both sides are throwing “global warming” about as a keyword without really treating it with any respect. And you know what? Global warming called. It demands its dignity back.
Ah, Canada. The wonderful thing about Canadian politics is that it’s been the same thing for the past 139 years. Quebec is still whining about becoming a nation.
The problem comes down, as it usually does, to semantics. That’s probably one of the ugliest words in the English language. Semantics. People debating over the definition of words. I don’t think it’s coincidence that it rhymes with pedantic.
For those asleep, let me wake you up. Our Great and Mighty Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested that Quebec be recognised as a nation within Canada. As you might expect, this did not go over well with the Bloc. It definitely threw the Liberals through a loop, however—they apparently did not see this one coming.
Now I will admit that my first reaction was this: That’s stupid! Quebec isn’t a nation! Look, either you‘re nation or you’re not, and Quebec isn’t a nation.
But some part of me knew I was wrong, or at least suspected it. So I trundled over to Wikipedia and looked up what a nation actually was, because believe it or not, but I didn’t know—and I doubt many people do know the difference between nation and country. I draw your attention to the ambiguity in usage section.
After reading the article, I’ve changed my opinion. Quebec certainly does fit the definition of a nation; it has a very distinct and rich culture that has existed throughout all of Canada’s history; the Québécois are indeed a people. If more people understood what the definition of a nation was, maybe this wouldn’t be such an issue.
Now as if that wasn’t shocking, I will now make the revelation that I particularly agree with Stephen Harper on this issue! At least, this is what I think: Quebec should be nation, since it fits the definition. It should not, however, be politically independent from Canada. In other words, Quebec is not a sovereign country. I like you, Quebec. Why go?
The issue of Quebec sovereignty, unfortunately, is hard to separate from the issue of Quebec nationalism. Nationalism is a really complicated concept that causes a lot of inconveniences on any side of the debates. I respect that Quebec has a strong culture, but I don’t think that it would benefit either the rest of Canada or Quebec for Quebec to become its own country. Look at Nunavut: the Inuit have their own culture too (well, okay, what’s left of it after we suppressed it for a century or so…), but should they separate? No. Politically, we are stronger as a cohesive body. Canada has always been a country that is supportive of multiculturalism—we are a country of many nations. I’m rather proud of that.
Okay, this is the last straw. Old Navy, you have gone too far.
For the record, breaking up the word “fashion” into two separate words, “fash” and “on”, in an attempt to make a cute pop-style song for your latest advertising campaign, cannot be described by any of the following adjectives: clever, cute, funny, interesting, effective, original. And many more.
Those commercials with their idiotic repeating refrain of “Get your fash on / fash, fash on” annoy me to no end. I must commend your marketing people in their creation of such an evil slogan. Not only is it stuck in my head, but it is an unacceptable and pathetic slaughtering of the English language. Considering that no one at Old Navy—neither the people who sew your jeans nor the marketing gurus (who speak Weasel)—actually speaks English, this probably should not be surprising. I never said I was surprised; I‘m just outraged.
In fact, I am fairly sure that if such stupid and asinine commercials disappeared from television, crime rate would drop dramatically overnight. I don’t know why the terrorists even bother anymore. Between reality television and commercials the Western world is already going to kill itself before they can manage to sneak a bomb past London officials again.
So Old Navy, no, I am not going to “get my fash on”. I have never, do not, and will never want to “get my fash on”. I don’t even know what “getting my fash on” entails. Stop trying to be cute and go back to finding ways of cutting costs by outsourcing more jobs to another continent.
But do not think that your senseless slaughter of the English language in an unsuccessful attempt at emulating today’s adolescents’ slang will go unnoticed—or unpunished. No, Old Navy, this time you have transgressed past the point of no return. This time you have crossed the line.
In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “This means war!”
/me carefully plants evidence in the CIA’s secure database that reveals that Old Navy is manufacturing WMDs and waits for the chaos to ensue.
I‘m not talking about the religious significance, nor what Christmas represents. Nor am I talking about how retail outlets like to turn Christmas into a commercial venture and media circus. That’s been done ad nauseum.
I‘d like to point out that Christmas, however, is quite silly if you think about it. Let’s take this “good will” and “Christmas cheer” idea. We‘re supposed to have extra good will toward people and be extra cheery, eh? Isn’t that admitting that we weren’t as good willed and cheery as we could have been the rest of the year? I maintain that it would be better to be happy and have good will toward people for one’s entire life instead of one month of the year. Really.
And that’s what I dislike about Western culture. Eastern cultures seem to have the right idea. They may seem a bit strict with some things, but they are like that because they constantly appreciate things all the time. Conversely, the West has this weird tendency to go on “binges” of celebrating when they indulge in appreciation of a subject to the excess for a few days/weeks instead of appreciating it year-round. It really underlines a fundamental flaw in this whole materialistic mode of thinking.
That’s just my thoughts on Christmas (not the holiday, the season). It’s silly to be extra cheery because one should be very cheery all year; it’s silly to be extra kind because one should be very kind all year. I think that’s a bit more realistic and probably better for our pysches than enforcing a week of happiness and good will each year during the most depressing season.
Many of you know that Cookie Monster now eats cookies as a “sometimes” food. Now, I am as much against rising child obesity as the next intelligent superluminal particle. It is a problem, especially in developed countries like Canada. But this … this goes too far!
The Christmas season is now upon us, and it has got me thinking (yes! ). Santa really isn’t all that different from Cookie Monster; he’s this jolly old fat man who likes to eat cookies, yet he can still fit down a chimney even after all of that food. It suddenly occurs to me that if society manages to tone down Cookie Monster, then Santa Claus is the next logical target.
Anyone for “slim Santa”? A Santa Claus who advocates eating healthy food? Coca-Cola probably wouldn’t buy into it (you do know what’s in Coke, right? ) but I‘m sure that tons of advocacy groups would have a field day. Slowly we’d see our cultural perceptions of Santa Claus shift from jolly old fat man to young, middle-aged multi-racial male with an average income and mixed religious background.
On the bright side, this means that the employment industry for mall and department store Santa Clauses will experience an increase in potential employees.
I might just go start a petition to stop this. I would, but Santa Claus and Cookie Monster are both telling me to go eat more cookies.
Subject: Canadian programming is dead.
I am an adolescent who enjoys watching much of the CBC’s programming, including the wonderful show CBC News: The Hour. I know this may come as a surprise to you (I mean, you’re governed by the Department of _Heritage_!) but yes, I quite enjoy CBC programming.
Which is one of the reasons that I was extremely disappointed that instead of CBC News: The Hour, I was invited to watch Political Assassinations. Lo and behold, after an entire summer of anticipation, I am forced to wait yet again! Thus, I am urging the CBC to resolve this labour dispute so that we can get back to what you really should be doing, which is providing quality Canadian programming, rather than attempting to satisfy a fictional system based on arbitrarily decided amounts of numbers.
I am quite frankly tired of everything being about money. We have gone, as Canadians, an entire season without hockey for precisely the same reason that we are now facing the worst shortage of Canadian programming in my lifetime. I would not like to see an entire season pass by without CBC News: The Hour.
I had hoped that somewhere out there, deep within the festering bowls of bureaucratic red tape and indolent political sludge, there was a fortress to defend against the polluting tendency for the world to revolve around money, rather than using money (the economic principle being that money should be a means, not an end, as it seems to inevitably be in this modern age). I had hoped to find a heart gilded in gold that would rise above such petty disputes and find an expedient answer to questions that should never have become quandaries in the first place.
I guess I was wrong.
After my school board lets me down, my Minister of Education lets me down, and my laptop lets me down, I started to wonder what would go wrong next. It turns out that was a bad idea.
The CBC is having some labour difficulties right now. Basically, the permanent staff wants the management to hire more permanent staff and decrease the amount of work they contract out. From the management point of view, it’s cheaper to contract work because if they cancel a show, any permanent staff have to find a new job with another show, whereas contractors can just be let go. From the permanent staff’s point of view, it’s a job security issue.
NHL Lockout, anyone? The stupidity quotients on each side are just about right.
My real gripe is that it interferes with something I consider one of the greatest things since sliced bread: CBC News: The Hour. It’s a new show on CBC Newsworld hosted by former MuchMusic host George Stroumboulopolos (I think I spelt that right). You may remember him, he advocated for Tommy Douglas on CBC’s The Greatest Canadian. The show is blatantly targetted at a younger audience (which, for the CBC, is anyone under 65). Although I am not the stereotypical youth (and I doubt the stereotypical youth even knows what channel is the CBC!) I enjoyed the show immensely and couldn’t wait for its premiere tonight.
Only it never happened. After watching Stargate: Atlantis, I flipped channels to CBC Newsworld and found Political Assassinations on instead. That’s when it hit me. The CBC was messing with my show!
I can see a big angry corporation like Fox or (dare I whisper their hallowed name) UPN disrupting their schedule like this, but the CBC?! It’s a government corporation! I expected to be blogging here about political issues, not about my lack of a great news show to follow political issues!
So now I feel like writing an angry email to the CBC, something along the lines of:
Dear CBC Management:
I am a 15-year-old adolescent who enjoys your program (specifically, CBC News: The Hour) and am angered by your insipid quest to save money. I know this may come as a shock, considering that you probably thought you only had an audience of about 10 65-year-olds and a dog outside a TV store window. Well, you were wrong. So give me back my show.
I may or may not decide to make it more or less coherent. And I‘ve no clue if I’m going to send the email … maybe if I could persuade some friends to bombard them with email too… .
That’s right. I’m asking you now, email the CBC’s Negotations Web Site and have your say!
Anyway … down the CBC Management!