Sam Nabi Kirby Thu, 11 Apr 2019 15:04:45 -0400 Sam Nabi's latest blog posts My favourite music of 2018 Sun, 30 Dec 2018 00:00:00 -0500 In no particular order, these are some of the artists who impressed me with new music in the past year. As I gear up to release some new work in 2019, I can say for sure that these artists have influenced my creative process.


Logic released two albums this year: his trap-heavy Bobby Tarantino II mixtape fell flat for me, and honestly seemed like a death knell for the lyrically dense, quick-witted hip-hop that I love about him as an artist. How blessed then, for his fourth studio album, YSIV to drop in September. It’s an absolutely joy, filled with rapid-fire rhymes, lots of old-school shoutouts, and just enough gangster swagger to fit the “Young Sinatra” moniker.


Everybody Knows propelled Partner to worldwide attention this year, with an appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and at SXSW. Their fun pop-punk is the perfect roadtrip soundtrack. When I learned that the band is based in Windsor, my first thought was, “of course”. There’s something so Windsor about their distinctive blend of rockin’ out and carelessness.

The Sorority

These 4 MCs should honestly each have their own superstar careers by now. It’s time for Toronto hip-hop to sound like more than Drake and Drake knock-offs.


Listening to Superorganism is like candy for your ears. Richly layered, genre-bending, with a surprise around every corner. I think of their music as an evolution of the vapourwave aesthetic. Self-aware of their superficiality, but they just do it so well.


What a storyteller. Saba pulls you close into his Chicago neighbourhood and threads a needle through the spaces between all the violence. Cars, guns and drugs are a backdrop for the richer, more interesting stories about family, friends, and finding purpose as a young man.


This afrofuturist duo is everything I want to see in hip-hop and R&B going into 2019. Spacey spiritualism meets mellow beats meets unpredictable flows. They’re pushing the envelope in all the right ways, and I’m so glad to see their debut album is titled Bittersweet vol. 1. Can we expect a vol. 2 soon?


It was great to hear those opening lines – “Damn, it feels good to back!” – after Shad returned to making music this year. With his stint as the host of CBC’s Q behind him, he’s experimenting with a concept album and I’m totally here for it.

In opposing trans rights, free speech warriors recycle old talking points Sun, 04 Nov 2018 00:00:00 -0400 In June 2017, the Canadian government passed Bill C-16. It’s a law that expands the human rights code to include “gender identity and expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination. This was a significant, if symbolic win for trans rights in Canada.

But to hear a certain U of T psychology professor describe it, the passage of this law would mean a Stasi-style era of “compelled speech”, where simply not calling a trans person by their proper pronouns could get you hauled in front of a judge.

So here we are in late 2018, a year and a half since C-16 was passed. There hasn’t been any real restriction of free speech, and certainly nothing resembling “compelled speech” in Canadian society. This should make perfect sense. Remember that there are a bunch of other grounds protected by the human rights act, like race, age, and sex. That doesn’t mean those forms of bigotry have been eradicated, nor that it’s a criminal act to be offensive toward someone. You have to do a lot more than use the wrong pronoun to be convicted of a hate crime.

But no matter — we’re still talking about this silly debate because Dr. I-Have-A-Book-To-Sell has been going on a speaking tour all summer long and is now touring Europe.

I happen to think the best way to get rid of a toxic garbage fire is to deprive it of oxygen. But I just couldn’t resist doing a little digging after reading a laughable column by Barbara Kay. The column attracted a lot of attention because she opened the piece with an antisemitic quote, misattributed to Voltaire. But it was this part of the article that really got me:

Consider the other grounds for discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act: “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.”

Every single one of these grounds is objectively certifiable.

Only gender identity is based entirely in an individual’s subjective feeling and an unproven theory: the concept that a person’s biological sex is in fact a phenomenon separate from his or her gender, and that moreover, our traditional understanding that sex is a binary phenomenon – male/female – is a mere social construct.

How quickly Barbara Kay forgets history! How quickly the right rushes to defend gay rights when they can use it as a weapon against trans rights!

It wasn’t so long ago that Canada was having the exact same debate, only the topic of discussion was sexual orientation. In 1995, Canada strengthened hate crime laws to include sexual orientation. The next year, we added sexual orientation to the protected grounds under the Human Rights Act.

The conservative pushback against these efforts is eerily similar to the current debate around gender identity. The same people who opposed adding sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination are now embracing it, only to turn around and deploy those same arguments against trans rights.

So, what are those arguments, exactly? Let’s take a look at newspaper clippings from 1995. I think you’ll find they bear a striking resemblance to today’s anti-trans rhetoric.

Theme #1: “Special rights”

The fundamental premise that all Canadians are equal under the law is being cast aside. Now some Canadians will be more equal than others, if they belong to a specified minority group.

I, for one, would hope that, were I the victim of an assault, justice would be done without me having to prove that I was a card- carrying member of a registered professional victims’ group.

Norbert H. Maerz, Kitchener. Letter to the Editor. Hamilton Spectator. (January 16, 1995)

Reformers ridiculed the idea that certain groups are targeted for violent attacks, and that Canadian society finds these assaults more repellant than, say, a punching match between drunks outside a tavern. The legislation, to them, was pure lunacy.

“While we are at it, let us add fat people,” said Thompson with tongue in cheek. “It is a shame that I, as a fat person, would be left off this list.”

A hateful debate about a hate law. Edmonton Journal. (June 19, 1995)

The Reform party argues that the best way to ensure equal treatment for all Canadians is to repeal the list of prohibited grounds altogether. The list, Reformers argue, only singles out special groups for protection from discrimination, amounting to special rights for gays and others.

Joan Bryden. Reality check : Federal gay rights bill will not lead to same-sex marriage and adoptions. Kitchener-Waterloo Record. (May 8, 1996)

All Justice Minister Allan Rock’s law does is give the proponents of one view of homosexuality a large club with which to beat the adherents of the opposing view. Anyone who thinks this is good and fair should remember that when the other side eventually takes its turn at governing, the club will still be there to be turned on its creators.

Lorne Gunter. Including gay rights in property rights the best solution. Edmonton Journal. (May 9, 1996)

… suppose the above crime is carried out by two people. One hates gays, as in Example 1. The other hates the rich, as in Example 2. The judge would be obliged under C-41 to give the first a harsher sentence than the second — for precisely the same crime. It is a mighty case of discrimination.

Trevor Lautens. A new tilt to the law. Vancouver Sun. (January 14, 1995)

Theme #2: Degradation of societal norms

… the Chretien government is finally, with well-merited reluctance, caving in to the insistent pressure of the gay lobby (including The Globe and Mail) to include “sexual orientation” among the protections under the Human Rights Act. Homosexuals already have rights to the same degree as everyone else, of course.

It is also bad for free speech and majority rights, not that those same elites show much interest in such matters.

But worst of all is the wicked and repulsive potential of those weasel words “sexual orientation”.

Columnist Michael Coren recently speculated that the government was too cowardly to insert the word “homosexual” in the legislation. So it chose a euphemism that most assuredly will be as big as a barn door, and as open, to those who happen to be “oriented” toward utterly disgusting brands of sexual jollies.

Trevor Lautens. Canada does not need more homosexual rights. Vancouver Sun. (April 27, 1996)

Wappel is, I am sure, conscientiously representing the will of the majority of his constituents, as are the other Liberal MPs with the courage to speak out against the political pandering to the single-issue, militant, gay and lesbian community voting bloc by elements of the hierarchy of the Liberal party.

Sexual orientation is not in the least comparable to skin color or religious beliefs as grounds for protection in law. Sexual orientation is not something inherent like skin color; it is, in the final analysis, a private matter.

Recognition in law of special privileges for homosexuals will inevitably lead to official approval of same-sex marriage, which is an insult to, and a degradation of, the true meaning of “spouse” and “family.”

Peter K. Abels. Letter to the Editor. Toronto Star. (April 25, 1996)

There is a fundamental difference between equality for gays and equality for women or races. Few people, especially gays, want to deal with that. The need to accept women or other races as equal does not affect my moral standard. On the other hand, the desire for gays to be accepted as equal challenges the morals on which our culture and laws are based.

Jerry Frank, Calgary. Letter to the Editor. Calgary Herald. (May 27, 1996)

Last month, the Chretien government rushed through changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act so it now includes sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination.

Both initiatives were based on blind acceptance of claims by homosexualist ideologues that those who engage in same sex behaivor merit minority status equal to inherent traits such as race, sex or ethnic origin.

This despite the respected, reasoned voices that argue such a comparison is ludicrous — and even deny “sexual orientation” even exists.

Peter Stockland. Blind acceptance: The gay rights debate needs a little balance. Calgary Herald. (June 19, 1996)

Theme #3: Free speech & thought policing

It amazes me how a minute, well-financed portion of the population tries to manipulate the vocabulary to make positions they hold seem more palatable to the greater population. The gay-rights lobby is a perfect example.

If you do not feel that homosexual acts should be condoned or supported by society then you are labelled “homophobic.” This implies that if you think this you have some sort of fear that is not warranted or your way of thinking is somehow wrong. Most people who have a problem with homosexuals are neither afraid of them nor do they have some sort of mental problem.

Jeff Rogers, Calgary. Letter to the Editor. Calgary Herald. (May 13, 1996)

The public, largely unaware of the full consequences of each new piece of gay-rights legislation, will find activists aggressively moving to force Canadians to publicly accept homosexuality, and in some cases, even to celebrate it.

This seems innocent enough, until one realizes that what homosexuals really want is nothing less than a radical change of thinking on the part of Canadians who do not share their views. Anyone who dares to publicly oppose homosexuals in their quest to be viewed as normal must be isolated and labelled a dangerous bigot.

Echoing the pseudo-psychiatric language of totalitarianism, some homosexuals have recently begun to refer to those who oppose homosexuality as suffering from a “pathological” condition.

Robert Eady, Kanata. Letter to the Editor. Ottawa Citizen. (May 12, 1996)

If Bill C-41 is designed, even in part, to prompt Canadians to think twice before they shoot off at the mouth, it is worthy of some applause from all peace-loving people.

Nevertheless, the passage of the bill is not without cause for concern in a society which prizes freedom of speech. Could it be that C-41 runs the risk of judging as hatred that which is not hatred at all? Could its implementation merely result in handicapping the exercise of a fundamental right in a society whose citizens claim to value freedom of speech?

To some extent, Bill C-41 is a revealing commentary on the intellectual immaturity of certain Canadians, MPs among them. What happens to the spirit of democracy in a country when I cannot articulate my feelings about the thinking or behavior of others without running the risk of being judged a hate-monger by entrenched legislation?

Rather than creating an environment of paranoia with legislation that potentially stifles freedom of speech, perhaps we should simply accept the reality that inflammatory rhetoric is an inevitable consequence of the freedoms afforded by a democratic state.

Tim Callaway. Hearty debate not the same as hatred. Calgary Herald. (July 18, 1995)

Legitimate free speech is not viable when those who engage in it have to worry about facing legal sanctions. Moreover, there is no way to know how often people have censored themselves because they feared such sanctions.

In my view, human rights commissions should not try to use their coercive powers against mere expressions of opinion, no matter how offensive those expressions are.

A. Alan Borovoy. Make the distinction between hate words and deeds. Toronto Star. (August 30, 1995)

Certain aspects of the government’s new “hate law” (Bill C-41) will surely serve future historians as a tombstone of sorts, marking a sharp loss of freedom and moral confusion in Canada.

Those old enough may remember large photos in Life Magazine showing hordes of uniformed Chinese of the 1960s waving Mao’s “Red Book.”

Brainwashed youths demanded correctness in all things, and “political re-education” of all those who had a bias or prejudice of any kind against officially promulgated views.

Never mind, either, that this behavior-based thing called “sexual orientation” cannot be defined scientifically or legally, and is repudiated by thousands of able psychiatrists.

It is a political term of the times being used with great effect to secure special legal, social, economic — and now punishment — rights for what is probably Canada’s most educated and economically advantaged group.

Parliament has blinded itself to the fact that all moral communities rely on bias and prejudice — in the healthy sense of pre-judging behavior — in order to remain communities.

William Gairdner. ‘Hate law’ pushes Canada toward tyranny. Calgary Herald. (June 19, 1995)

It’s the same worn-out argument

If you think there’s merit to today’s “free speech” arguments against trans rights and proper pronoun use, ask yourself how different are they from the above arguments against gay rights? The free speech warriors of 1995 were wrong. Even Barbara Kay acknowledges that. Adding sexual orientation to the protected grounds against discrimination hasn’t turned Canada into an authoritarian thought-police culture.

So it’s disingenuous to recycle those same talking points when we debate trans rights. There’s nothing new here.

I’ll leave you with this still-relevant opinion piece from 1995, published in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

People who shout the loudest about “free speech” just want to preserve the current power structure.

We’ve all heard the ruckus coming from the right-wing quarters of the media, governments and university ivory towers about how “political correctness” threatens freedom of speech.

Yet when one analyses their statements and arguments in logical, coherent fashion, one quickly realizes it’s not freedom of speech for everyone that they are defending.

What they’re upset about is that women and members of minority groups are demanding to be treated with equal respect and to have their perspectives, or their version of the story, included in the fabric of any discussion that takes place within these various institutions.

What they are defending is their own freedom to abuse power in order to exclude or intimidate those who don’t agree with them.

Considering this popular Orwellian spin on “freedom of speech,” it is perhaps not surprising to hear a deafening silence whenever there is a real threat.

Simone Rose. Real threat to freedom draws silence. Kitchener-Waterloo Record. (March 21, 1995)

Long live the blogroll Fri, 17 Aug 2018 00:00:00 -0400 Buy local, eat local, … read local?

In today’s digital media landscape, there are a few giant tech companies that control most of what we read.

Their algorithms are tailored to feed us the most sensational, cringeworthy, funny, viral stuff. They dredge up the popular posts from the slurry of so-called “content” out there, and track our attention down to the millisecond.

These platforms push us to interact with them on their terms, and they make it so damn easy. As I spend more and more time consuming this content, I’ve found a steady decline in my desire to create.

So! What can we do about this downward spiral?

As it turns out, there have been a bunch of folks happily blogging away at their own websites this whole time. People that still have an interest in writing, rather than “producing content” for their social media followers. I hope I can join their ranks again. I’d like to give my blog more love. I’d like to read more peoples’ blogs. I’d like to surround myself with writing that isn’t calculated to maximize clicks.

To that end, I put a call out on Twitter (ironic, I know) to see who’s still blogging in Waterloo Region. Where are the indie writers at?

The ensuing discussion brought 64 blogs and email newsletters to my attention. Sixty-four writers in Waterloo Region with topics spanning art, technology, urban homesteading… And we’re just scratching the surface.

I’ve created a simple website at which offers a combined RSS feed of all those blogs. You can also follow @WRBlogs on Twitter, which tweets out links from that same RSS feed.

I’m excited to try reading and writing more on my own terms. And I think I’ll build a deeper connection to my local community while I’m at it.

Debriefing the 2018 Ontario Election Wed, 04 Jul 2018 00:00:00 -0400 In the 2018 provincial election, the Green Party of Ontario’s goal was to get our leader elected. Mike Schreiner handily won his seat in Guelph, earning 45% of the vote — more than double the votes of his closest rival.

It’s a historic moment for Greens in Ontario, and we should be proud of that accomplishment.

But on average, Green support doesn’t seem to have shifted much between 2014 and 2018. Across the province, our vote total has stayed stuck below 5%.

I feel like that’s the logical result of funnelling all of our resources into Guelph. Hundreds of volunteers knocked on over 60,000 doors and we ended up with our first seat in the Legislature. But most other ridings were still campaigning on a shoestring.

If we’re going to keep up this momentum by electing more Greens, we need to at least double the province-wide popular vote. In British Columbia, for example, Greens had to earn 17% of the vote to elect 3 members.

Here in Waterloo Region, we have a relatively well-organized team compared to most riding associations. The five local campaigns (Waterloo, Kitchener Centre, Kitchener—Conestoga, Kitchener South—Hespeler, and Cambridge) pooled our finances and volunteers to create a central campaign office. We knocked on over a thousand doors, and put out hundreds of lawn signs.

Despite the improved coordination, we got about the same share of votes as in the last election. Would we have achieved those numbers without a concerted local campaign? Does local organizing make a difference?

A closer look at Kitchener Centre

Stacey Danckert, running in Kitchener Centre, got 6.8% of the vote. We had a core team of about 10 volunteers.

At the beginning of the campaign, we pinpointed areas within the riding that were more likely to vote Green, and mostly focused our efforts in those neighbourhoods. Our goal was to convert “soft supporters” into actual votes. With limited resources, that seemed like a better strategy than converting skeptics.

While we did the majority of our campaigning in these “friendly” areas, we also did door-to-door canvassing and literature drops in “hostile” areas.

So how did this strategy play out on election day? I mapped out the detailed voting results to see how specific campaigning efforts affected our vote share.

  • Average vote share: 6.8%
  • “Friendly” areas
    • Canvassing only: 0% to +4%
    • Canvassing & lit drop: +1% to +2%
    • Nothing: -5% to 0%
  • “Hostile” areas
    • Canvassing only: -1% to +3%
    • Lit drop only: -2% to +2%
    • Nothing: -4% to +4%

Canvassing in “friendly” areas increased our vote share by up to 4 percentage points. In hostile areas, it had a similar effect, but we were starting from a lower level of baseline support.

In a few neighbourhoods, we only did literature drops (leaving pamphlets in mailboxes, but not knocking on the door). It didn’t make a noticeable impact for us on voting day.

For both “friendly” and “hostile” areas, doing nothing was the worst thing we could do. We got some good results in a few neighbourhoods without trying, but those gains were cancelled out by all the areas where we got a below-average vote share.

On average, the areas where we did nothing gave us 6% of the vote. Where we did something, we got 8% of the vote.

The moral of this story is that local campaigning does make a difference. When you talk to people in person, they are more likely to vote for you. Of course, the big swings in public perception will happen at the national or provincial level –- but even a small local campaign like ours can move the needle a few percentage points.

What makes a local campaign successful?

Kitchener Centre was identified as a Target to Build riding by Green Party HQ, and as a result got extra funding for personalized signs, pamphlets and swag. (The Target to Build designated was self-selected by ridings that were motivated enough to put in a little more effort. It wasn’t a completely top-down exercise.) We also got some insights from local opinion polls that allowed us to identify those “friendly” and “hostile” areas. Our campaign was nowhere near fully-funded, but certainly had access to more resources than most ridings.

Looking at other Target to Build and Target to Succeed ridings, they all succeeded in getting above-average vote counts:

Target to Succeed

  • 20.02% Parry Sound—Muskoka
  • 12.53% Dufferin—Caledon

Target to Build

  • 6.80% Kitchener Centre
  • 5.37% University—Rosedale
  • 5.33% Kanata—Carleton
  • 4.60% Provincial average

But among our Waterloo Region Greens, Kitchener Centre did not achieve the best result. That distinction goes to Kitchener South—Hespeler, where David Weber earned 7.53% of the vote. That achievement is evidence of David’s strength as a candidate: he has an extremely charismatic personality, he’s a tireless campaigner, he’s a respected former police officer, and his last name happens to be Weber. Despite a very small campaign team and no Target to Build perks, his was the 6th-most successful Green campaign in Ontario.

Greens also had quite successful campaigns in a few other ridings that did not get the Target to Build advantages. Keenan Aylwin started campaigning in February in Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte, and earned 11.72% of the vote. Dave Rodgers in Wellington—Halton Hills earned 8.64%.

It’s clear that a local candidate’s existing reputation and networks make a huge difference to an election campaign. Of course, if you have a strong candidate plus additional resources, that’s even better.

Protect the leader at all costs?

The Guelph campaign won by pouring all of the Party’s resources into a fully staffed, fully funded campaign. It also helped that the incumbent MPP had retired, and that there was a widespread collapse in Liberal support — the conditions were right for a Green victory.

We can’t be sure of the same favourable conditions next time around, but that shouldn’t scare us into limiting our ambition.

The Green Party of Canada got our leader elected in 2011, and then stagnated. 7 years on, the Party still mainly functions as Elizabeth May’s support team. In opinion polls, our popular support has flatlined.

I find that environmental movements in general struggle with passing the torch, and the Green Party is not immune to this trend. David Suzuki is 80 years old. Jane Goodall is 84. They are still tireless in their activism, but where are the household names from this generation?

I don’t want to see the Green Party of Ontario fall into that same pattern. It took all of our resources to get Mike elected in Guelph, but we need to expand our focus now.

Getting 5 or 10 percent of the vote is encouraging, but it’s not enough to win. We’re a political party operating in a flawed First-Past-the-Post system, and our job is to elect Greens.

I’d like to see us choose two or three winnable ridings, and get those future candidates into the media spotlight early and often. We should build our capacity to run several fully-funded campaigns next time around.

Building a movement

To win more seats, we need more members. It really is that simple. Our slogan during the election was “People Powered Change”, and there’s only so much one person can do.

Mike built a following and became Guelph’s MPP by consistently fighting for his community’s interests. Specifically, he built a movement around local issues (water extraction) that overlap with Provincial decision-making power.

Can this model be expanded to other issues? What about championing a universal basic income in Waterloo Region? We could partner with university researchers, Basic Income Waterloo Region, the area’s tech sector, and maybe even connect it somehow to the Region’s affordable housing shortlist.

Another thought: could we form a YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) coalition to support needed development in our urban areas? A campaign like this could connect anti-sprawl activists with those concerned about affordable housing.

One big thing that the Greens have going for us is that people like us. Even if they don’t like our policies, they like our honesty and approach to collaboration. That gives us a good footing for building bridges and networks of support.

But there’s something missing: a sense of urgency. In order to be effective, we need to elevate these local issues to the provincial decision-making level. And we need to make sure we can find some tangible wins.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs says this about local organizing: “They have to fight it out with each other, and with officials, on the plane where the effective decisions are made.” If a movement gets caught up in committees and incremental solutions, “This becomes play at self-government, not the real thing.”

From incrementalism to ideological battles

So is there room for cooperation in an ever-more combative political scene?

Sometimes I fear that the Green Party might be too nice for our own good. We’ve just seen Doug Ford elected with a promise to upset the applecart of social progress. Will Mike Schreiner really be able to influence him?

It’s naïve to engage in good-faith conversations with Doug Ford’s conservatives, even though some of our policies might share common ground (like allowing private cannabis retailing).

The Green Party has been pushing various issues for a long time: pipelines, universal pharmacare and dental care, student debt, Indigenous sovereignty, climate change, poverty. Previous governments made token advances in these issues. Now, we’re faced with active resistance. Push has come to shove.

To be honest, if we’re going to be in an ideological war, I’d rather win battles than try to appeal to our opponents. I’m done with soft awareness and education efforts. I’m tired of pouting that the system’s not fair. I want action.

Some might look at this landscape and decide that the left needs to close ranks around the NDP. But I’m not about to play the strategic horse-race game. In both BC and Alberta, NDP governments are worryingly supportive of large industrial fossil fuel projects. Andrea Horwath doesn’t have much enthusiasm for a universal basic income, and would rather keep subsidising expensive nuclear power than transition to low-cost renewables.

There’s a lot that we have in common with the NDP and Liberals, but there’s still enough difference for the Greens to chart our own path. Instead of closing ranks, progressive parties can tackle the same issues from multiple different angles.

Greens will need to set the tone and show leadership on a handful of issues if we want to carve out a reputation for ourselves. That effort will translate to more members, and we’ll elect more MPPs.

I’m happy to see Keenan Aylwin doing this in Barrie. He’s keeping up the pressure on police violence and appearing on TVO to represent the Green perspective in panel discussions.

Greens tend to do well when there is high turnout — we gain support by attracting new voters, people who were turned off by the traditional political system. We don’t siphon votes from other parties. Instead, we earn the trust of folks that distrust politics.

We’ll need to bring that same mindset to the table as we build our base between elections. It may be an uphill battle, but it’s not impossibly steep.

Can commuting patterns explain Waterloo Region's cultural identity? Wed, 17 Jan 2018 00:00:00 -0500 I moved to Waterloo in 2008 to attend university. Coming from Whitby, quite a homogeneous bedroom community, I was taken in by the incredible diversity of experiences that the tri-cities had to offer.

It was a short trek from campus to downtown Kitchener, where I volunteered with Food Not Bombs and became acquainted with The Working Centre. I remember mountain biking at Chicopee in the fall, and taking a solo excursion on the iXpress to wander around Galt one day. A few friends and I spent a Saturday in St. Jacob’s, amazed at the rural charm such a short distance from our dorms.

Figuring out what to call this brilliant collection of communities is a perennial challenge. Waterloo Region doesn’t have a defined core surrounded by outlying suburbs. Each city and township — and often, areas within those cities and townships — have distinct identities and relationships with each other.

Kitchenerites bristle when Waterloo gets credit for its tech industry’s success. Cambridge is often made to feel like the runt of the litter when it comes to regional politics.

Could this friction be explained, in part, by mapping out where residents live and work? I decided to pull up the 2016 Census figures for commuting. They show some really interesting patterns!

Kitchener residents who commute are most likely to work in Waterloo, Cambridge, or Guelph.
Waterloo residents who commute are most likely to work in Kitchener, with Cambridge a distant second.

Not surprisingly, Kitchener and Waterloo are tightly bound together. The geographic proximity of their urban centres, and their larger populations compared to the other municipalities, mean they get a lot of cross-pollination. The KW identity also happens to be much more unified than that of Waterloo Region as a whole.

Cambridge residents who commute are most likely to work in Kitchener, Guelph, Peel Region, or Waterloo.

Cambridge’s stats are especially interesting. People are more likely to commute to Guelph or Brampton/Mississauga (Peel Region) than Waterloo. This could be a contributing factor to Cambridge’s sense of isolation — many of its residents leave the Region for work.

Woolwich residents who commute are most likely to work in Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge, or Guelph
Wilmot residents who commute are most likely to work in Kitchener, with Waterloo and Cambridge tied for second place
Not many Wellesley residents commute outside of the Township. Those that do work in Waterloo.
North Dumfries residents who commute are most likely to work in Kitchener or Cambridge.

It’s worth noting that these maps show the number of people who commute outside of their home municipality. People who live and work in the same tend to make up a large slice of the pie.

Municipality Percentage of residents who work where they live
Waterloo 50%
Kitchener 48%
Cambridge 55%
Woolwich 35%
Wilmot 27%
Wellesley 24%
North Dumfries 16%

What do you think? Do commuting patterns match our cultural identities across the region? Do people in Wellesley feel more affinity for Waterloo than for Kitchener?

What other factors can we can look at to better understand Waterloo Region?

Is slow travel really better for the environment? Sat, 22 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Julia and I decided to take a bike trip through Colombia for many reasons: the country is a major cycling destination, with a culture of respect for cyclists and breathtaking, challenging terrain. It’s also a country that speaks Spanish, and we wanted to be able to communicate effectively during our trip.

Perhaps most importantly, Colombia is a place that we could get to without flying. Being environmentalists, we’re well aware that taking fewer flights is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

To put things in context, one round-trip flight to Colombia would cancel out all the greenhouse gases I save in a year by eating a vegetarian diet. So, we devised an itinerary of trains, buses, and small passenger boats to bring us to Colombia’s Caribbean shore.

As we wound our way through the United States, Mexico, and Central America, I kept meticulous notes on distances travelled, mode of transportation, cost, and the number of passengers that happened to be with us at any given time. (A bus filled to capacity will have much lower emissions per person than one with only a handful of passengers.)

My meticulous notes.

So, how did we do? Did our slow travel philosophy live up to expectations? Are we saving the planet one vacation at a time?

Well, kind of. We cheated a little bit. The bus travel through Central America was so horribly nauseating that we opted to fly from Bogotá to Mexico City on the return trip. From Mexico City back into Canada, there is pretty comfortable train and bus infrastructure. So we skipped the hard parts on the way back, and pumped an extra 400 kilograms of emissions into the atmosphere as a result.

Let’s take a look at a few different scenarios. First, what we had planned to do:

Scenario 1: Original Plan

  • Kitchener – Panama: Trains and buses
  • Panama – Colombia: Small passenger boat with outboard motors to cross the Darién Gap
  • Cycling to Cali, Colombia: 1,347 km (with a few short rides on minibuses along the way)
  • See the rest of Colombia by bus
  • Take boats, trains, and buses to get back home
  • Total emissions per person: 695 kg

Scenario 2: Actual

Since we ended up taking the easy way back to Mexico, this is what our trip actually looked like:

  • Kitchener – Colombia: Same as above
  • Colombia – Mexico City: Airplane
  • Mexico City – Kitchener: Trains and buses
  • Total emissions per person: 1,071 kg

Scenario 3: Fly Mexico – Colombia

Now, if we were to do this trip all over again, our instinct would be to just skip over Central America completely.

  • Kitchener – Mexico City: Trains and buses
  • Mexico City – Medellin, Colombia: Airplane
  • Cycling Medellin – Bogota: 1,037 km (plus a few shuttle buses)
  • Bogota – Mexico City: Airplane
  • Mexico City – Kitchener: Trains and buses
  • Total emissions per person: 1,396 kg

Scenario 4: Direct flight

And lastly, what if we just flew directly from Toronto to Colombia?

  • Kitchener – Medellin, Colombia: Airplane
  • Cycling Medellin – Bogota: 1,037 km (plus a few shuttle buses)
  • Bogota – Kitchener: Airplane
  • Total emissions per person: 1,184 kg

Wait, it’s more environmentally friendly to just fly all the way to Colombia, instead of taking the train to Mexico City first?


Trains release fewer greenhouse gases than flying, per kilometre. But for long-distance travel, the zig-zagging of road and rail network eats into its advantage. Airplanes complete their journeys in a single, smooth arc. In the end, our “Actual” results only saved 100 kg of emissions compared to a direct flight from Toronto.

A direct flight compared with our original no-flying plan, would have cut the total trip distance in half. There are a lot of winding roads in Central America!
The emissions impact of flying is so great that even if you only fly for a small part of your trip, it will inflate your carbon footprint a lot.

The moral of this story, I suppose, is that any long-distance travel will pack a hefty carbon footprint. But the amount of time required for slow travel means you’re less likely to take as many trips, period. This is true in our case: we’re not planning on taking another big trip until 2019, and in the meantime, we have no interest in taking cheap flights every winter to Caribbean resorts.

Now, there’s also the matter of cost. If we compare the greenhouse gas emissions of this trip with the amount we had to pay, it’s fair to ask whether that money could have been put to better use in fighting climate change.

Comparing the four scenarios, it’s clear that slow travel costs a lot of money.


Most of the emissions factors I used came from the UK’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (previously DEFRA). Their conversion factors reports are updated annually and used for reporting the greenhouse gas emissions of travel by government employees and regulated industries.

For Amtrak and VIA Rail travel, I used the emissions factors provided by the agencies themselves. (These numbers would be a lot better if our trains ran on electricity in North America.)

If you really want to dig into the numbers I crunched, feel free to download the Excel spreadsheet.

Stirling Village: redevelopment without destruction Sat, 17 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Imagine a redevelopment project that could bring 50 new apartment units and 20 new retail shops, offices, and restaurants into a neighbourhood. It doesn’t sound terribly ambitious, but it could make a welcome addition to many semi-urban residential areas.

Now, imagine you could accomplish this without tearing down a single house, without displacing a single person who already lives there. Imagine the new buildings would be 2 or 3 stories at most, blending nicely into the existing strip of single-detached houses.

And what if this redevelopment project could happen largely on publicly-owned land? No, I’m not talking about developing on top of parkland or any public space that is used and valued by the current residents.

I’m talking about putting new buildings smack-dab in the middle of a four-lane roadway.

Bear with me here.

The project area: Stirling Avenue

This is a section of Stirling Avenue South, near downtown Kitchener. Cameron Heights high school is to the North — it contains a public swimming pool, excellent tennis courts, a football and soccer pitch, and a 400-metre track. This is most definitely a community hub for recreation.

South of Stirling, you’ll notice the Iron Horse Trail, a major cycling route. It’s important infrastructure for commuters, dog-walkers, and neighbours who like to go out for a Sunday stroll.

The triangle-shaped building to the right of this image is 50 Kent, the local headquarters for Mennonite Central Committee. It’s also my closest Credit Union branch, and contains a nice thrift store.

In the top-right corner of this satellite photo, you can see the ION light rail tracks being built along Charles Street. Opening within the next year, the closest train stop will be just a few minutes’ walk away.

Finally, notice that the properties lining Stirling Avenue are largely single-detached houses. There’s the recreation grounds, of course, and a Synagogue towards the bottom-left.

I point all this out because I want to emphasise that this neighbourhood is already quite vibrant. It has a mix of uses and community hubs. I’m sure there are a lot of proud, longtime residents here. And I wouldn’t ever want to wipe this slate clean for a high-minded redevelopment project.

That said, there is one major barrier here: Stirling Avenue is a four-lane traffic sewer where motorists drive far too quickly, and this breaks up the neighbourhood. There are no pedestrian crossings between Courtland Avenue and Charles Street, a distance of about half a kilometre.

This is what a cross-section of Stirling Avenue looks like today:

The distance from porch-to-porch is 27 metres. Four traffic lanes, extra-wide at 3.5 metres each, take up the bulk of the roadway.

And here’s what I imagine it could become. I call this concept Stirling Village:

The Stirling Village concept reduces houses’ front lawns by 3 metres, removes the two middle traffic lanes, and creates a new block in the middle of the road that is 10 metres wide.

A vision of Stirling Village

Hypothetical street-section diagrams are fun to create, but what kind of building can you actually squeeze into 10 metres? As it happens, we have lots of examples in Kitchener-Waterloo we could turn to.

The Duke Food Block, 10 Duke Street East, Kitchener

The Duke Food Block is only 6 metres deep, and 52 metres long. It houses 4 restaurants, a convenience store, a shoe-repair business, and 7 apartment units on the upper floor.

This building at Queen & Charles is a vibrant mix of uses. And it’s only 12 metres wide.

The Working Centre’s building at 66 Queen Street South is 12 metres by 41 metres. It contains Maurita’s Kitchen, a computer recycling and repair centre, along with some office space and apartments.

Proof that you can fit an compact grocery store in a 10-metre deep lot.

Full Circle foods is another building that’s only 10 metres deep. Together with its adjacent neighbour, home of The Games Exchange, this building measures 10 metres by 36 metres.

All of which to say, there are lots of buildings already in Downtown Kitchener that fit into the 10-metre envelope. And look at the diversity of uses they bring!

How would these kinds of buildings fit into the existing street to make Stirling Village work? Let my mediocre Photoshop skills paint a picture for you:

A vision of what Stirling Village could look like, with 2-storey mixed-use buildings and townhouses running along the middle of the street. The yellow areas indicate parking and loading areas.

If you look closely, you’ll see a new set of sidewalks up against the new buildings, which leaves one lane of traffic on either side. You’ll also notice the existing front lawns have been reduced to 1.5 metres.

The case for traffic calming

Regardless of a redevelopment proposal, this stretch of Stirling Avenue is ripe for traffic calming in its own right. Less adventurous places than this blog might propose a road diet to bring Stirling down to two lanes, and create cycling paths and wider sidewalks.

For users of the Iron Horse Trail, the crossing at Stirling and Courtland is an awkward encounter — a jarring discontinuity of the trail where people have to navigate a tricky high-speed intersection.

Cars leaving downtown start to speed up significantly between Charles and Courtland. It’s uncomfortable to walk or bike here.

At the same time, Stirling is not a vital arterial road for cross-city traffic. One block east of this project area, Stirling narrows significantly at King Street as it enters a quiet residential area. It’s listed as a “Major Community Collector Street” in Kitchener’s Official Plan, which is two steps lower than the “Regional Road” designation which four-lane roads typically fall under.

Stirling Village is very close to King Street, and more people will start walking along this route to get to and from the ION light rail stations when it opens. Adding an intersection with traffic lights at the midpoint of this block would also help connect the walking and cycling routes from the Iron Horse Trail to Cameron Heights.

The green line is the existing trail. The red area is the proposed new intersection. The hot pink side of the intersection is a wide, pedestrian-priority crossing path.

Public support

Asking residents to give up 3 metres of their front lawn — and probably one of the parking spaces in their driveway, too — might be a tall order. But at the same time, Stirling Village would replace a loud, busy, dangerous stretch of 4-lane road with a traffic-calmed, one-lane street. This tradeoff might just be enough to drum up some YIMBY support from the residents.

(Do you live along this stretch of Stirling? If so, absolutely leave your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear how off-base I am.)

Public money

The last issue I’ll raise is that of money. Since the city owns the roadway to begin with, it is creating a brand-new tax base out of thin air. They’ll also be able to sell the 5 or 6 properties to bring in more revenue. The great thing about selling public land is that other public agencies get first dibs (like the Region’s affordable housing program).

The cost of rebuilding the road, moving utility lines, and purchasing bits of peoples’ front lawns would be more than paid for by selling off the new blocks for development, and collecting property taxes from them over time.

Can this work in other neighbourhoods?

So, can this concept be applied elsewhere? I think so. Find a wide, four-lane road that seems overbuilt for its neighbourhood. Even better if it’s flanked by low-density houses with large front lawns.

Even with generous road widths, it’s quite the squeeze to insert a whole new block of buildings. To make it work here, I’ve had to assume zero-lot-line development, bare-minimum sidewalks and road lanes, and clustered parking arrangements.

Would you like to see Stirling Village happen? Where else do you think this could work? Send me your ideas!

Touring Colombia by bike: places to stay Sun, 21 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Colombia is such a fantastic place to tour by bicycle. The ecosystems transform from jungle to farmland to barren mountain, all in the span of a few days. Nearer to the Caribbean coast, you’ll find mango trees dotting the roadside which offer a refreshing respite from the hot sun.

There are many rural villages in Colombia, and they are spaced pretty evenly every 30-50 kilometres along the main roads. This makes it ideal for touring by bicycle. At our leisurely pace, we covered about 40 kilometres per day on average. Each town, no matter how small, will have a restaurant and a hotel. Hotels attached to gas stations are quite common too, and these are often cleaner and more comfortable than hotels in town.

We found that hotel prices range from 12,000 – 100,000 Colombian Pesos per night, for a private room for two people. In a small town, you shouldn’t have to pay more than 50,000. These prices reflect our experience in Spring 2016.

Here’s a quick rundown of every place we stayed during our tour of Colombia. We started cycling in Necoclí (Day 2), and left our bikes in Cali (Day 32). After Cali, we rode buses for the remainder of our trip. So no, we didn’t cycle 700 kilometres from Cali to Bogotá in four days!

Day City Hotel Price per night for double occupancy (COP) Rating /5 Pros Cons
1 Capurganá Marlin Hostal 35000 2 Lots of mangoes for the taking Water only available 2hrs/day
2 Necoclí Costa del Mar 30000 3 Free coffee, public balcony Shabby rooms
3 Mulatos Green Hotel 12000 2 Excellent fruit juice No lock, pig slaughter
4 Arboletes Zona Camping 40000 3.5 Nice beachfront lounging area Run-down rooms
5 Montería Casa Linda V 70000 3.5 Clean, AC, good staff
6 Montería Miami Central 35000 2 Cheaper than Casa Linda Dingy, loud street, cockroach
7 Planeta Rica Casas Blancas 40000 4 Clean, courtyard window Unfriendly staff
8 La Apartada El Cairo 30000 2.5 AC AC is noisy, dated décor, also a liquor store
9 El Jardin El Lago (Gas Station) 25000 4 AC, window, horses in paddock, swimming pool available at extra cost
10 El Doce El 15 (Gas Station) 25000 3 AC Terrible location (isolated), frog in bathroom
11 Valdivia Diocelina 25000 4 Great jungle mountain view, cute room, good water
12 Yarumal Centro Residencial 40000 2 Hot water Unprofessional and confusing staff, noisy
13 Yarumal Real Plaza 40000 3 Clean, laundry service, public balcony
14 Carolina Los Balcones 30000 4 Charming, friendly, great service No window
15 Barbosa Central Park 55000 3 Hot water, windows Terrible staff
16 Medellín Arcadia Hostel 68000 3 Patio Dirty, loud, shared bathroom down hall
17-18 Caldas Manantial del Sur 35000 2 Mold, hot water, angry yelling
19 La Pintada Hotel Dimar 40000 3 Big room with windows No hot water, lazy staff
20 La Felisa Hotel Nancy 12000 3 River view, cheap No gate control, no hot water
21 Chinchiná Chinchiná Plaza 40000 4 Fancy lounges, good bed, hot water, good staff, window
22 Termales Santa Rosa El P…? 70000 2 Nice first-floor hangout, backyard river Tourist trap
23-26 Filandia Colina de Lluvia 50000 3 Nice kitchen, nice courtyard Overbearing host, annoying kitten
27 La Tebaida Hotel California Tropical 35000 3 Window Couldn’t exit easily, small room, flooding washroom
28 Tuluá Los Cristales 35000 4 Great service, clean big room, warm water Awkward window
29 Restrepo Los Balcones 50000 4 Charming, warm water, balcony, big bathroom
30 San Cipriano Hotel David 30000 2 Tourist meeting place Locked gate, no private bath, gross toilets
31 Dagua Beside railway tracks 18000 2.5 Excellent restaurant, friendly staff No private bath, dingy barebones room
32-39 Cali Diego’s house
40 Silvia La Parilla 40000 4 Cute, hot showers, private courtyard Cold rooms
41 Popayán Hotel Toledo 50000 3.5 Large rooms w/ windows, large bath No hot water
42 Neiva Hospedaje D’Cache 40000 1 Stained sheets, huge mirror, no bathroom door
43 Tatacoa Estadero Villa Marquez 30000 1 Swimming pool Hot small tent, scorpion
44-46 Bogotá B&B Chorro de Quevdo 100000 4.5 Stunning, charming, breakfast, hot water Had to wait for the door
Take me to the beach: the long ride from Mexico to El Salvador Sat, 06 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 9 April 2016

La Libertad, El Salvador

We’re sitting with a couple bottles of cheap beer at “La Ola 10”, a restaurant in La Libertad, on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast. It’s been a trying three days, and we’ve decided to make for the beach, any beach, with waves and fish and sand and mariachi bands. Anything but the dry, dusty, mountainous trash heaps we’ve been traveling through for the past week.

As of now, we have everything but the sand. La Libertad’s shore is full of large black rocks, the kind you could easily turn your ankle on if you try to walk across them too quickly. There are children playing in water, keeping to the shallows, waiting with glee for the waves to bowl them over. A young family sits on a rocky outcropping, close enough to the water’s surface for the waves to give them a thorough soaking. But no one is properly swimming, whether because of the powerful sea current, or the rocky landscape, or all the detritus being thrown out from the fish market on the pier — I’m not sure.

The fish market is a thing of quaint beauty. It starts from the boardwalk, continuing along the pier that juts out over the rocky beach, over the shallows, out about 300 metres to where it’s deep enough to meet the fishing boats all coming in with their catch. The boats are hoisted, theatre-curtain style, laden with fish and shrimp and calamari. Some of the boats stay up on the pier, hawking their wares straight from the hull.

Yes, the oysters are fresh.

If you start from the tip of the pier and walk back to shore, the vessels are gradually replaced by market stalls. The open pier becomes covered. Raw whole seafood gives way to salted flanks of fish, fillets, de-tailed shrimp, and at the very end, abutting the boardwalk, a stall sells prepared mixed seafood, already cut up and ready to be used in the perfect salad. If you continue a few steps inland, you’ll be accosted by a man selling knockoff Ray-Ban sunglasses.

This is the first place where I’ve felt a truly different culture since Monterrey. Granted, we didn’t spend much time in the south of Mexico or Guatemala. Just enough time to have a healthy mixture of Pesos, Quetzales, and American Dollars (or rather, Salvadorean dolares) jingling around our pockets.

Also jingling around our heads for the past two or three days, like a handful of foreign currency, has been an incessant jarring headache. But let’s back up. Back to San Cristóbal de las Casas…

7 April 2016

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

Our original travel plan through Mexico had us spending a night in Tuxtla Gutierrez, but multiple recommendations had convinced us to continue the extra two hours east to San Cristóbal. A smaller town, more friendly, more touristy, home to lots of authentic crafts and textiles from the south of Mexico. It was on our route anyway, so we decided to book a hostel with a nice view of the city, nestled between forested hills.

The town takes about an hour to walk end-to-end. It’s big enough for a proper OCC intercity bus terminal, where we arrived after a twelve-hour ride from Mexico City. I spotted a yoga-aesthetic woman laden with a hiking backpack and two large duffel bags. Stepping out of the terminal and into the street, we brushed elbows with a straw-hat-wearing, guitar-toting hippie. Apparently, San Cristóbal has been a haven for backpackers and free spirits for at least 40 years. And they seem to be handling it well.

The downtown main street and labyrinthine artisan’s market is the town’s gringo trail, pulling in well-moneyed travelers like a vortex. People happily part with their cash to support the regional textile makers, coffee and chocolate producers, and all manner of handicrafts. This is the kind of shopping that doesn’t seem to stink of consumerism so much. On the main street, you can still get two beers for 35 pesos, which is about as cheap as anywhere else we saw in Mexico.

San Cristóbal’s central quarter has most anything us foreigners want — materially, culturally, and emotionally — and very few seem to venture further. This leaves the rest of the city open for laundromats, schools, dentist offices, vegetable stands, and restaurants for the locals.

As we walked around outside the downtown bubble, we came across almost exclusively local residents, apart from the group of European high school students touring the church, which has a magnificent view over the city.

The view from the church, obscured by yours truly.

We approached a group of women chatting along a tiny residential street, and discovered that it was a neighbourhood restaurant. They offered us breakfast, and made a delicious vegetarian meal for 30 pesos each — refried beans, cheese, eggs à la Mexicana, salad, tortillas, and coffee. These are not tourist prices. Not even semi-tourist prices. Excited, they asked to take our photo, and we posed awkwardly for four flashes of the smartphone camera.

San Cristóbal was the first city in Mexico we found with a culture of coffee-drinking. It was surprising how difficult it was to find a cup of coffee in Mexico City and Monterrey.

It was a beautiful little town, but we felt that one day of touring was enough and decided to leave the next morning. It would have been good to learn about the history of the Zapatistas – a revolutionary group that has roots in San Cristóbal, mounted a rebellion for indigenous rights, and has recently returned to speaking terms with the government. The local theatre regularly screens documentaries about the movement, but we didn’t luck out – only Japanese anime and The Hateful Eight (dubbed into Spanish) would be screened that night. Alas, it was time for us to move on.

Revolutionary street art. We would have liked to learn more about this.

After consulting with the hostel, we decided not to travel with the GCC coach line to the Guatemalan border, as was our original plan. Instead, we booked a couple seats on a tourist shuttle that could take us directly to Guatemala City. The idea of being chauffeured across the border seemed nice, and the price was right at 700 pesos each. We got an early start, bags packed and waiting at 6:30 AM. We were told it would take 10 hours to reach Guatemala City. By 7:15, we were still waiting. This was the first indication of things to come.

Cuahuatemoc, Guatemala – Guatemala City

The shuttle eventually came. After half an hour, they shuffled us into a minibus, which took us to the border. We were made to get out and carry our bags through the small border village of Cuahuatemoc to the Guatemalan immigration office. Border formalities were relatively quick and painless — two dollars for the entry visa to Guatemala — but it took another hour for the minibus to come round and pick us up again. The reason we were made to wait around in the hot sun, as the bus driver kindly informed us, was that Guatemala hadn’t switched over to daylight saving time yet. Clearly, we needed to wait for their clocks to catch up. Once an artificial hour (or rather, hour-and-a-half) had passed, we were ushered into yet another shuttle van.

It was becoming clear that we had been misled about the nature of this “tour company”. There was no guide, no sightseeing, just a series of jumpy drivers barking out instructions. “Switch buses here for Lake Atitlán!”, “Stay with me if you’re headed to Guatemala City!” It seemed more like a semi-formal network of guys with vans, all overlapping and swapping passengers. The hostels that refer them are definitely getting a cut, as are the overpriced restaurants and convenience stores where we stopped along the way.

The route is full of detours, traffic jams and nausea – I blame the drivers in part, but the queasy roller-coaster of a ride was also due to the hilly Guatemalan landscape and the tiny, potholed, twisting roads that snake up and down and around its undulating valleys. Our headaches started early and persisted throughout the day. Guatemala did not impress us, to say the least.

The only way to deal with an excruciatingly long bus ride is to sink into a catatonic state. Pick a spot on the horizon and tune out until the buzz between your ears fades to a dull prodding. Indulge in your fellow passenger’s word association game reluctantly, like a zombie. Meet the ripples of time as they come and let go quickly enough to prevent yourself from noticing how slowly the hours are crawling by. And by all means, don’t look at your watch.

It’s hard to stay Zen as the rough, hard-packed earth zips by you, front, back, and around. As the van swings about wildly, first swerving to pass a pick-up truck laden with labourers, now switching lanes to take the inside corner around a bend.

The constant jerking and jolting is all I really remember about our ride through Guatemala. When we finally reached Guatemala City, the van dropped us off inside the gated compound of a bus terminal, fronting onto a busy and unforgiving ring road.

Pedestrian crossovers would take us to the other side of the fast-moving expressway, where our options for dinner were gas-station packaged fare or Pizza Hut takeout. We got a large pineapple and cheese.

The gated compound is home to the bus terminal for TicaBus which would whisk us away in the morning, further south. We hadn’t heard great things about safety in Guatemala City, we had no real desire to stay, and our goal had been to put as much distance behind us as possible. We figured we’d get a cheap hostel downtown, then wake up early to catch the bus. But we made two fatal miscalculations. One, that the TicaBus terminal would be remotely close to downtown, and two, that our “tour bus” from San Cristóbal would be remotely on time.

The only option at that point, at that hour of the night, was to take a room in the hotel adjacent to the bus terminal. That is, the hotel owned by the bus terminal, in the same compound as the bus terminal. It happened to be the same price as a taxi ride to downtown and back, and a reasonably priced hostel room. So, there we stayed with our cheese and pineapple pizza.

It was at this point, after a fourteen-hour rumble across mountainous terrain, after a twelve-hour coach ride the day before, that that creeping venom, doubt, burst to the fore.

Julia, always one to confront conflict head-on, broached the subject of our travel experiment. She mentioned the elephant in the room: flying back home from Colombia, or at best to Mexico. This would leave our experiment half-fulfilled, our convictions half-baked, our ambitions half-deflated, our environmentalist credibility half of what it was worth before we set out.

Because that’s the whole point, right? To travel without the high greenhouse gas emissions of flying. To see far-off lands without killing the planet. And if we can’t do that — actually do it as if planes didn’t exist, then there’s no hope. No hope for planes ever disappearing from the roster of passenger travel options. No hope of convenience ever being sacrificed for the greater good. No hope of a reversal of our car-centric cities, no hope of us ever electing a second Green MP.

All my effort, all my moral fibre rests on this trip remaining whole, indivisible, pure. Or so I thought, as I slipped into a teary funk, the kind caused by stress and not enough sleep and that takes just a pinch of existential doubt to set off.

So we slept. Next morning, we ate the rest of our cold pizza for breakfast and got on the bus to San Salvador, determined to take a break for a day or two. Above all, we wanted a beach.

9 April 2016

La Libertad, El Salvador

La Libertad is a place where you need to have your wits about you. Half a dozen cajoling men try to attract our business, like fishermen, as we search for a hotel along the beachfront promenade. Lonely Planet recommends Rick’s, but Rick’s is terrible. No ocean view, no outside facing window, bare-bones from floor to ceiling. No private bathroom. $25 per night.

We did better, scoring a $15 room in a concrete block of a building, painted the colours of an 80s high school gymnasium. It has a convenience store on the ground floor, a private toilet and shower in the room, a second-storey balcony lounge, ocean views, and wifi. It’s only when we’ve already paid that we realize there’s no running water at all, the wifi doesn’t work, and we’ll have to check out by 8:15 the next morning. Swindled!

It looks less threatening from afar. Photo by Carlos Lowry

As we saw upon arrival, the beach was rocky. A little further east of the town centre, however, the rocks dissipate somewhat and we see people properly swimming, surfing even. Just a few locals. No foreign tourists to be seen, other than a woman wearing a Secours Populaire Français t-shirt that I spotted around the fish market.

The sea is rough. Really rough. But we are excited for the ocean. We strip to our swimsuits and run out to meet the salty waves, only to be forced under backwards by Poseidon’s chokehold. Barely able to stand before the next swell, we feel our feet pulled deeper as if by magnets, into the undertow.

The swirling water pulls along small and medium-sized rocks, which batter our toes and ankles. I lose my footing, falling forward as my knee makes contact with one of these rogue rocks strewn about the sand. The next waves come crashing in, toppling me head over heels. I somehow manage to protect my face.

Limbs full of scratches and bruises, mouths full of salt, we walk up to a beachside restaurant and order two Coca-Colas, Just like in the advertisements.

Beside us on the dark, rocky beach, two locals are fighting their dogs for fun. They snarl and snap, charge and growl. The two young men stand back and laugh.

Frida's ghost and the anarcho-feminist café: Exploring Mexico City Fri, 05 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 6 April 2016

Mexico City

Deciding to spend an extra day in Mexico City was a good idea. Our hostel room is equipped with quite a nice bed and a large private bathroom, which we used to hand-wash all our clothes.

The hostel is fun, social, and full of people our age. We made a few new friends over drinks at the neighbourhood bar, trading stories of travel experiences. We met a man from Lund, of Colombian ancestry, who had recently travelled to Medellín and gave us a glowing review. Julia practiced her Spanish with a man from Argentina who was wrapping up a month-long tour of Mexico.

Mexico City’s historic district, and more to the point its pedestrian-only Avenida Madero, is the most corporate/American/bourgeois part of the city that we visited. Full of European watches, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and fast fashion chains. It’s a pleasant enough street otherwise, terminating at a plaza with a humongous Mexican flag.

Mexico City's Palacio National.
Mexico’s Palacio Nacional. Photo by Ivan Hernández

We ventured to the ritzy Condesa district with our fellow hostel-goer Elizabeth. Actually, Condesa has a reputation for being ritzy, but we found ourselves walking for quite a while along shuttered building faces before stumbling upon a wine bar here, a taco stand there, another bar over here, all at least a block apart. Condesa has nice venues, but it doesn’t feel quite like a cohesive bar district.

Of course, we had to visit Frida Kahlo’s house. By far the most touristy party of our stay, we traded stories with an older couple from Michigan to pass the time as we waited in the long entrance line. Frida’s house is tucked in a residential area of Cuayocàn, a beautiful neighbourhood bursting with flowering trees and birds. Each house is unique in its own way – it’s clearly a well-to-do area, but very much part of Mexico City’s urban fabric. A small convenience store on the corner sells us a bottle of water for 8 pesos. We hear children’s excitable voices float out of the windows of a school for children with disabilities. The garbage truck rolls down the street as we approach Frida’s house, bells clanging to alert the residents to bring out their waste.

The house itself is gorgeous. All thick cement walls and flat expanses, like a canvas. In some rooms, the walls themselves have been decorated with quotes and inscriptions. In Frida’s bedroom, foot-high red letters are painted around the top border of the wall, name-dropping Frida, Diego, their friends, and claiming Cuayocàn as their own. It was painted in 1956.

Frida kahlo house

There’s a gallery in the first few rooms of the house – Self Portrait with Stalin, Viva la Vida, Watermelons, Still Life (Round) (this one was my favourite), various portraits of other people, self-portraits depicting the agony of failed births…. Frida’s art is gripping and personal, but as we move from room to room, the gallery becomes less formal, more domestic, more raw and full and unfiltered. We see the wheelchair Frida sat in, the very mirror above the bed that her mother gave to her after her paralyzing accident. This mirror allowed her to paint those self-portraits.

The most fascinating room for me was the studio where, aside from the old art supplies on display, Julia and I stood observing the cracked spines of all the well-worn books in Frida and Diego’s library. A History of the American Man, Russian revolutionary literature, Volumes upon volumes of Marxist thought. Some in English, some in Spanish. On the wall hung a large scientific illustration of the fetal development cycle.

By this point we had left the public exhibition behind, and were entering the shadows of daily life, the beds in which Frida slept, the books she read, the courtyard where her animals frolicked. This was her world, and we felt honoured to be a part of it. Julia spent a few meditative minutes beside the urn containing Frida’s ashes, sitting, present with her ghost.

The Frida Kahlo house lets in a maximum of 135 people at a time. Large enough to keep the line moving, and small enough to prevent overcrowding. Moving among the paintings and household trinkets, we floated along with a swirling current of 133 other bodies. We admired Diego Rivera’s kitschy pre-hispanic conversation pieces (I like to imaging everything in that house is a conversation piece), taking in the calm beauty of the walled-in courtyard, and finally stepping into the gift shop for some mementos (I wonder what Frida and Diego used that room for?).

Julia strikes her best Frida Kahlo look
Julia strikes her best Frida Kahlo pose, with the iconic blue walls as a backdrop

And as it happens, as I was waiting outside the ladies’ room for Julia, I spotted a familiar face – a Torontonian, a Kitchener associate, even. It was Božena, Kosa Kolektiv extraordinaire! She spotted me, or just my shirt (the Kitchener crossword one) and stopped in her tracks. “Kitchener?”

A serendipitous encounter turned to lunch at a nearby seafood restaurant. We swapped stories throughout the afternoon, the distance between Mexico City and our respective hometowns bringing us closer than we ever were at home. She had been travelling in Oaxaca, participating in a textiles workshop and learning about natural dyes. Absorbing traditional knowledge to relay back home to her folk arts community.

It was a refreshing day, as if we were not weary travellers but a group of Mexico City natives, catching up with friends on the weekend. Our growing familiarity with the metro system gave us an outsized dose of confidence, and Julia and I flitted between interesting neighbourhoods, soaking it all in. We didn’t have any specific monuments or museums to see; we just wanted to experience the city. We indulged in delicious street food and gave money to panhandlers (2 pesos is expected, 5 pesos is considered generous).

That evening, we met up with Božena again at Punto Gozadera. It’s part cafe, part bar, part music/poetry venue, part bicycle repair shop, part workout gym. This gem just south of Bellas Artes, on plaza San Juan, is a radical, countercultural, anti-oppressive space for all things feminist. Block-printed posters hang on the wall – “Mi cuerpas es mio”, “Lesbo-feministas contra la sistema heterosexual”. It’s the kind of place that pulls people together, that fosters a critical mass of activists, that builds solidarity. We’ve only scratched the surface of Mexico City, and I’m impressed by how multifaceted, how rich, how current the culture is here.

Enjoying a drink with Božena at Punto Gozadera

At the same time, I’m glad to be leaving tonight. Like the centre of any large metropolis, we’ve had to dodge taxis, swim against the current of unmanageable crowds, contend with shouting vendors, hurry past austere police and military guards, and keep our guard up against the general hyper-disorienting hubbub that is giving me a headache. Add to this the constant blaring boomboxes, TVs, and loudspeaker announcements — I’m ecstatic to be en route to the idyllic town of San Cristóbal.

Julia and I ended our short stay in Mexico City with a wonderful little dinner at a cat café called La Gateria. Even after a long day of walking in the hot sun, we couldn’t help but break into smiles as we cuddled with the cats – all up for adoption – while eating our meal.

Now, exhausted, we’re waiting in Mexico City’s Tapo bus station. They’re playing Paranormal Activity on the TVs in the departure lounge. Paranormal Activity! This city is stressing me out. Estoy cansado.

Send email from your Ubuntu LAMP server (the easy way) Wed, 01 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500 The humble PHP mail() function is a handy friend to have. Whether sending yourself debugging messages from a test server, or implementing a quick-and-dirty contact form, I’ve always been able to rely on sending quick email messages from the server.

At least, this is the normal experience on a shared LAMP server. Email gets sent, more or less like magic, and I don’t have to worry too much about the fine details behind the scenes. But now that I’ve upgraded to my own VPS, things can get a little hairy in email-land.

Don’t host your own mail server

Email may be prehistoric technology that predates even the internet, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple to implement. The last thing you want is to manage a full-blown email server. Trust me, leave that to the pros.

Still, you want your PHP scripts to be able to send one-way messages. So you need to hook your server up to an existing SMTP mail service. I’ll be using Postmark to handle that for me. They’re good people — they’ll make sure your emails don’t get marked as spam and all that good stuff.

Uninstall sendmail and postfix packages

My VPS is running Ubuntu 16.04 and Apache 2.4. The most common email packages out there are sendmail and postfix. But we’re not going to use either of them, because we don’t need a complete email server that receives messages and has mailboxes and everything. All we want to do is send messages.

Let’s stop those services from running and uninstall them, then:

$ service sendmail stop
$ service postfix stop
$ apt-get remove sendmail
$ apt-get remove postfix

Install and configure Simple SMTP (sSMTP)

Simple SMTP (sSMTP) is a package that does just what it says on the tin. Let’s install it.

$ apt-get install ssmtp

Next, edit the sSMTP configuration file.

$ nano /etc/ssmtp/ssmtp.conf

I needed the following SMTP details to configure my server:

  • Hostname (e.g.
  • Port (e.g. 25)
  • Username
  • Password

Here’s what my ssmtp.conf file looks like (I’ve set as my sender signature in Postmark):

If you see any lines that say rewriteDomain or FromLineOverride, you can comment those out.

Next up, let’s edit sSMTP’s list of aliases:

$ nano /etc/ssmtp/revaliases

This file lists which apache users are allowed to send mail through sSMTP. My PHP applications are run under the www-data user, so I want to enable that user, plus root:

Good to go!

Go ahead and reboot that server, your PHP mail() functions should be working now!

If you need to debug anything, check your Apache logs at /var/log/mail.log and /var/log/mail.err.

I wrote this blog post because everything else I found on the internet ended up in a dark spiral of cryptic forum posts and listserv archives. If anything’s unclear here, leave a comment! I’ll do my best to clear up any confusing parts of the process.

Let's unpack this Mon, 12 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500 One thing I love about Kitchener-Waterloo is the supportive community that has developed around open mics, house shows, and small-scale concerts. It takes a strong culture of togetherness for hosts to prepare a safe and welcoming venue. It takes dedication and a genuine interest in the art for people to show up to these events. And of course, it takes confidence and trust for performers to take to the stage.

The closeness of this community overlaps with other spheres of my life — studying, politics, activism, art, entrepreneurship, and community events. Some of the same people tend to pop up in my life, and it’s wonderful to be living in a place where these chance encounters combine to give texture and depth to my relationships.

So I had to stop and reflect when I caught myself descending into a cynical spiral of contempt a few weeks ago. This was at an open mic, and an older woman was singing a boomer-hippie anthem about wanting to “turn on the TV and see peace on Earth”.

Having been primed with a steady diet of anti-Trump thinkpieces, critiques of Indigenous reconciliation, and social justice commentators, I scoffed inwardly. I want to turn on the TV and see peace on Earth? What kind of lazy storybook optimism is this? Do people really think that if they wish hard enough and send enough good vibes to Syria that their civil war will end? Are people really so naïve?

Not to mention, the premise that you could “turn on your TV” as a precursor to world peace plays right into the hands of global capitalism. Can’t they see the corporate influence responsible for widening the wealth gap is the same force that brings us these very TVs?

This performer probably lives in a big old house in Westmount, that they bought back when jobs were good and home ownership was easy to come by. Who are they to sing a happy-go-lucky tune about peace on Earth?

This line of thinking wasn’t helpful. I found myself launching into a righteous attack against someone who should really be a fellow ally. Perhaps, given enough time and other chance encounters around town, they could become a friend. But there’s no way that will happen if I can’t set aside my hostility.

It’s important for allies to hold space for other would-be allies. To empathise and edify at the same time, in a spirit of building a stronger common front against injustice. This doesn’t mean giving dominant and oppressive voices the benefit of the doubt. It means realising that we’re all learning, and passing on the insight I’ve received from others.

So next time I find myself silently fuming about a supposed ally doing things the “wrong” way, I’ll try to follow my own advice.

When is a majority not a majority? Fri, 02 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Proportional representation in Canada has been a long time coming. Yesterday, we crossed yet another milestone on the road to a fairer voting system. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) released its final report [PDF], which includes majority support for proportional representation.

Now, that’s a big deal. Greens and the NDP have been advocating for proportional representation for a long time. This has traditionally been seen as a fringe issue, a cause taken up by sore losers. However, the momentum has definitely picked up with the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois throwing their support behind it as well.

The ERRE committee is comprised of 12 members: 5 Liberals, 4 Conservatives, 2 NDPs, 1 Green, and 1 Bloc Québécois. This means no one party has control over the committee, and they needed to work together to reach agreement on a final report.

Miraculously, they did work together. In an inspiring display of cross-party cooperation, the committee reached majority support for proportional representation, along with support for a referendum on the issue. In fact, this is just the kind of cooperation I’d hope to see in a proportional Parliament.

The ERRE majority report gets even more specific: it rules out Party List PR. This is great, because Party Lists tend to favour extremist fringe parties a little too much.

And when it comes to the referendum question, the majority report stakes out some well-considered middle ground. It says yes to a referendum, but also includes specific criteria for the referendum question:

  1. The question should be a clear alternative between First-Past-The-Post and a specific system of proportional representation.
  2. The alternative system needs to closely match the popular vote (measured by a Gallagher index of 5 or less)
  3. The government should prepare comprehensive educational resources about the alternative system, including maps and sample ballots

Fair enough. I don’t think a referendum is necessary, but if that’s what it takes to secure cooperation from the Conservatives, so be it. In return, the Conservative Party and the Bloc Québécois have thrown their support behind proportional representation — and that’s no small feat.

Enter the supplementary opinions

So the majority report is a good compromise. It gives some direction for the government to move forward on designing a referendum question and choosing an alternative system based on the criteria.

And it would be this simple, if not for the two “supplementary opinions” attached at the end of the committee’s report.

The first supplementary opinion, written by the committee’s five Liberal members, reads like something directly out of the PMO’s office. It warns against the idea of a referendum, and takes issue with the report’s design criteria for an alternative voting system.

Basically, the Liberal supplementary opinion disagrees with the core recommendations and calls for more study, which would push this decision past 2019. Effectively, they want to break their own campaign promise.

Then we have a second supplementary opinion, jointly authored by Elizabeth May and the NDP members of the committee. It builds on the design criteria of the majority report by fleshing out a couple of specific systems that would meet the requirements for a referendum question. Not bad.

But this second supplementary opinion also argues against a referendum in the first place. Furthermore, it states that if a referendum were to happen, that it should be structured differently than the majority report recommends. It calls for not one, but two alternative systems on the referendum ballot. Oh, and we should lower the voting age to 16.

Muddying the waters

So, I can understand the Liberals’ dissenting opinion. I can only assume that the other four parties weren’t able to reach full consensus. But a Conservative-NDP-Green-Bloc agreement is much to celebrate.

What bothers me more is the NDP-Green supplementary opinion. Why would they flip-flop on the referendum question?

You’ve worked hard for six months to achieve a set of recommendations that can be agreed upon by four parties. How can you, in good faith, turn around and criticize those very recommendations? And in the same document, no less!

We’re now in a situation where a majority of the ERRE committee is against a referendum, despite the “majority report” supporting one. And without a referendum, forget Conservative support for proportional representation.

This is a mess.

America by train, New Orleans by night, and a rest in Mexico Tue, 15 Nov 2016 00:00:00 -0500 29 March 2016

Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

There are four and a half hours until our train leaves. Julia is rushing to complete some paperwork for her financial return to Elections Canada. She’s in the living room, papers strewn across the work table. It seems inevitable to be rushing around at the last minute, whether we’re about to take the bus uptown or head off on this adventure thousands of kilometres away. We won’t sleep in this bed for another two and a half months.

The preparation for this trip has been mentally exhausting. I’ve been forced to extract myself from freelance contracts. I’ve put my projects on ice and prepared for no communication until June. One invoice has been overdue for months, and a few days ago I put that client’s website in hibernation mode. As it happens, he sent me payment and requested the final deliverables today. As in, right now. Four and a half hours before our train departs. Part of me wants to pull out my laptop and code away for an hour just to get this project completed. But no — I’ve set my email auto-responder. I’ve put all my websites on standby. I’m on vacation.

Of course I’m too plugged in. Of course I’m always on. I reply to emails while sitting on the toilet, because shitting in peace is too unproductive. My mind is in overdrive, and it’s high time for some rehab.

Despite our best-laid plans, we’re starting out with a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty about timing, uncertainty about cost, uncertainty about safety…

Julia’s paperwork takes longer and longer to finish, and my response is to passively-aggressively keep packing our stuff into the storage locker. I do not want to be caught an hour before the train leaves with a bedroom full of random things to pack. I do not want to spend the next three months flying by the seat of our pants. I’m restless and eager to get going.

Julia’s parents arrive at our place for one final cup of tea. We walk nine blocks together to the Kitchener train station, arriving a comfortable fifteen minutes early. Now all there is to do is wait, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the Sarnia-bound train arriving. Julia’s parents send us off with an icon of Saint Panteleimon, the Russian Orthodox patron saint of good health. Julia’s father tells us, “Once you have your health, you have everything else.”

The train whisks us across Southwestern Ontario. These early hours of our adventure are fun and full of new energy, even though we’re cooped up in a tin car looking at the same landscape we’ve grown up with our entire life. The sun sets as we roll past Waterloo Region’s farm country, with its neat little patches of brown, scrubby field yet to be seeded. The coffee is good, the atmosphere is friendly, and the newly-renovated VIA Rail car makes us feel comfortable. Everything is working to affirm our slow-travel idealism.

30 March 2016

Port Huron, Michigan — Chicago, Illinois

We’re resigned to the fact that there is only one way to cross the border at Sarnia without a car — an expensive taxi ride. Aside from the cost (a cool $91), the trip across the border is as pleasant as we could have expected. In the wee hours of the morning, we fix ourselves a hearty home-cooked breakfast in Gordon and Judy’s kitchen. I’m glad we were able to catch a few hours of sleep here last night.

A flash of light through the living room window tells us it’s time to leave. The chatty driver is in his sixties, and he keeps up a rolling stream of commentary over the 5 AM stillness.

We’re miffed to hear that it used to be possible to cross the border by train — but now (since 9/11, he says), the Amtrak and VIA Rail cars stay parked in their respective country’s rail yard, achingly close, as freight continues to roll through the border tunnel. I wonder how much of North America’s lacklustre progress on intercity transportation can be traced to fears over terrorism.

A pre-dawn selfie in the parking lot of the Port Huron Amtrak station

By 6 AM, the tiny Port Huron station is filling up with sleepy-eyed passengers. It seems we’re somewhere on the edge of town, in an industrial park not far from the highway off-ramp. The station is all cinder block, Helvetica, and geometric forms. Behind the counter and in the sign out front, they still proudly display the old Amtrak logo, which was formally retired in the year 2000.

This is nostalgic pride — not the rosy memories of better days, but the forthright ambition of an earlier era, reaching forward to lift our chin and tell us to stand straight. It’s the pride of a generation that’s out of touch with the present. A generation that doesn’t realise we’ve failed to keep up with that ambitious spirit. The station smells like gasoline.

We lost one of our own.

A passenger stepped off the train in Battle Creek to have a smoke, and didn’t get back on in time. We left without her. She appears to have been travelling with a group of people, and thankfully they’ll make sure to take care of her stuff. They’re all very chill about the ordeal — phone calls have been made. Someone will pick her up and they’ll all reunite in Chicago. I would like to travel with these people.

The rural Michigan landscape is very much like home. It’s more swampy, with more ranch houses and trailer homes. More roadside pancake houses. But there’s the same late-winter/early-spring farm fields, the same sparse thickets of trees. The American landscape is a slow gradation.

We are greeted this morning with a fiery, shimmering sunrise like a ball of molten glass. It seems the most magical sunrises and sunsets happen while on vacation. Perhaps that’s because you’re generally more mindful of your environment. When travelling, your heightened senses of observation help you appreciate new surroundings, not to mention keeping an eye on your bags, counting change, mentally translating and converting foreign measurements. All these minutiae that make travel different and special.

I still have the twitch. That reflexive urge to flip out my phone and check for notifications, reply to email, keep up with Twitter, and feel connected to the world. But we’re stepping back from all that. All there is to do here is daydream, look out the window, read, write, and of course eat. My need for distraction could entice me to drop $5 at hourly intervals in the food car, but our trip demands more patience than that. I can handle it. We’re sipping the rest of our water, judiciously portioning out our stock of rosehip candies, saving ourselves. Chicago is waiting for us in the morning, and it has deep-dish pizza.

The other thing to do, of course, is to eavesdrop. The group that lost one of their members in Battle Creek has been casually chatting this whole time. It’s coming to light that they are a group of chefs. I’m fascinated by their talk of ego in the industry, or the intricacies of hot sauce. They have strong and differing opinions about Sriracha.

31 March 2016

Chicago, Illinois — New Orleans, Louisiana

We’re somewhere south of Memphis, and the sun has just risen. Well, almost — let’s say the low, heavy cloud cover is brightening from inky black to a dull purple-grey. It’ll stay that way for the rest of the morning.

We trundle past endless swaths of newly-seeded fields, their green shoots bright and uniform in the flat earth. An odd one out flashes by, the brown soil just raked in perfect rows one foot apart. Perhaps the seeds have just been planted. Is this rice? The ground is awfully wet. Some stretches look like a vast, broad river. This landscape is deceiving.

Enjoying views and brews from the observation car

We’re on the second-storey observation deck of the City of New Orleans. That’s the name of our train. The curved glass roof and big picture windows make me feel like a real old-timey traveller. Julia and I snack on pistachios and contemplate our surroundings. “Is rice a grain? Is it like wheat? Or is it a grass?” There is no wifi here, so we remain blissfully ignorant.

The double-decker train bobs left and right like an inverted pendulum. It’s hard to find our footing as we walk down the aisle to get food or go to the bathroom. I feel like I’m getting accustomed to life on the train, even contorting myself in the tiny lavatory to wash my hair and shave. But the side-to-side lurching still throws me off guard.

The sun has finally broken through the clouds, and we are enjoying a wonderful golden light here in the observation car. We’re now approaching Greenwood, Mississippi, and the land is still very wet and flooded. Fields morph into swampy forests, which blend into a flowing river and it’s hard to tell if there’s any dry land at all. The earth is red, like Prince Edward Island. The small country roads running parallel to the train track look as if they’re made of pottery. Terra-cotta hues tinge everything.

Photo by Nick Normal

Greenwood, from the view of the train, seems ramshackle. All old wood siding and corrugated aluminum. Like other towns we’ve passed through, trailer homes abound. I can see why, in this context of middle America, the car is held up as an icon of personal freedom. It’s the freedom to move beyond these towns of rusted-out water towers and Main Streets that are but a shell of their former glory.

We pull out of the station, headed further south, and there’s an entire neighbourhood submerged in water. The flooding around here, the drenched fields, the red-tinged roads… this must not be normal. It must have been unexpected. Peoples’ cars, backyard furniture, all under water. Whole blocks are covered with several feet of water… but the houses look so normal, so lived-in… except for the fact that they have water lapping at their porches. I wonder if they build basements in Mississippi.

Hours pass. Are we somehow in the Mississippi Delta? Is this train, with its hundreds of passengers and crew and freight and luggage, carving a path through the final surge of North America’s longest river? The Mississippi, having collected all the volume of rivers and creeks and farm runoff as far north as the Canadian border, is now bursting forth in a final exhale to meet the sea. In much the same way that a sprinter lunges forward and splays her arms as she approaches the finish line, the river’s arms, tightly coiled until now, are spreading out, reaching, stretching, giving way to a frenzy of outward energy.

And are we, humble travellers, able to sit atop a berm or across a bridge, neatly cleaving two straight rails through the vast, wet muck of the delta?

1 April 2016

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

I’ve never seen a den of vice as unabashed and boisterous as Bourbon Street, New Orleans.

We arrived in New Orleans, and walked twenty blocks north of Loyola Street to our hostel. After sitting on the train for so long, we welcomed the opportunity to stretch our legs. We’re staying in Mid-City. A passer-by informs us that she recently moved to Mid-City and the thing she most dislikes isn’t the “crackheads” or “homeless people” (her words), but the giant caterpillars that leave welts the size of dinner plates.

But back to the den of vice. I can see why the French Quarter is such an attractive tourist destination — the legacy of Spanish and French colonisation has imbued this neighbourhood with a distinct European feel. All wrought-iron balconies, narrow streets, and intricately-carved stone.

But this is America. So all that history is, of course, overlaid with neon signs and a celebration of binge drinking. Nestled between the Hand Grenade (“Bourbon’s strongest drink!”), Hustler’s “barely legal” nightclub, and kitschy voodoo souvenir shops, there’s just enough New Orleans culture to lend legitimacy to this street, to differentiate it from a casino or a giant frat party.

Photo by Marc Flores

The neon signs compete in an arms race for attention and money — “64 oz fish bowl”, “huge ass beers”, “3 for 1”, et cetera. But there’s another dimension to the entertainment, one that needs a bit of cognitive dissonance — or a few more beers — to gloss over. There are lots of street performers, jazz musicians plying their trade for tips. This is normal. We peel off a couple dollar bills for a ten-piece brass band that is improvising and entertaining and generally having a good time. Half a block along Bourbon, we come across one of the many young black boys tap-dancing on the sidewalk, an empty liquor box placed in front for tips. He’s performing, working same as the brass band, but there’s a twist of history that makes me cringe. The scene of a negro boy dancing for entertainment is a little too close to the line between past and present. His box is much more empty than the brass band’s.

As the night goes on, I understand that homelessness and panhandling are also part of the entertainment. Two women sit on a street corner with a rainbow-coloured sign declaring, “LESBIANS need CASH 4 STRAP-ON!” There’s a crust punk couple slouched against a lamppost with their dog, furtively counting change. The cardboard-scrawled message at their feet says, “Give a fuck, spare a buck.”

In the face of this oversaturation of visible homelessness, my typical coping mechanism is to slowly ignore it, or to reflect upon the misfortune from a distance. But the carnival atmosphere of Bourbon Street makes it seem that the performers, pandhandlers, and drag queens on display outside sex clubs are all part of the same sordid show.

2 April 2016

Jefferson Davis Parkway, New Orleans

There are neighbourhoods in some American cities where you just don’t go. Where danger lurks around every corner. Where one wrong move, one misstep, could easily be the difference between life and death.

Everyone needs to watch their back in these neighbourhoods. The streets here are unfriendly at best, and at their worst, they actively try to kill you. But you won’t hear about these places in a travel guide warning or a list of crime hotspots. These pockets of death and hostility fly under the radar, under our noses, even.

If you pay attention, you can identify their characteristics: wide, fast-moving lanes of traffic. Overgrown, narrow, or non-existent sidewalks. Unmarked pedestrian crossings. Blind corners. Wide, sweeping curb radii. On-ramps. Industrial loading docks. Sky-high billboards advertising personal injury lawyers.

Avoid these areas at all costs — especially if you are new to town. Make one false move, and you could easily be a deer in the headlights.

This has been a reflection on our morning run around New Orleans’ Jefferson Davis Parkway and its adjoining industrial area.

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

We visit the lower ninth ward in the afternoon. The internet told us there are good po-boys to be had here, and it was right. Creamy, crispy, fattening and fresh all at the same time, we scarf down shrimp (me) and fish (Julia) po-boy sandwiches under the awning of Cajun Joe’s. It’s a busy corner restaurant — takeout only — beside an overgrown, vacant, fenced-in lot. Across the street, a taco truck competes for business.

The lower ninth has hollowed out since Katrina, for sure, but it’s pleasant enough to walk around. No worse off than the tracts of foreclosed homes we saw in South Chicago or the outskirts of Detroit, or our view along the train route through Mississippi — which, granted, is pretty damn miserable. But we certainly don’t feel unsafe. We walk along carefree — even when caught in an unexpected downpour.

Around the corner from Cajun Joe’s is a museum that we had read about online. “Museum” is a generous label — in reality, it’s a converted garden suite in the back of the owner’s property. The House of Dance and Feathers is a celebration of Black, Native American, and Creole culture. It’s a treasure trove of artifacts, history embodied in real objects. There are precious few plaques or information panels.

Ronald Lewis, the owner and curator of the museum, sits near the entrance on a white plastic lawn chair. He invites us to simply inquire about anything we’re interested in. And we do. We have a great time in the cramped little room, re-discovering history from a new angle.

We had wanted to do some volunteering in New Orleans, and Ronald gives us the perfect task: helping prepare the newly-built shed that will become the museum’s second room. We spend a couple hours painting and chatting, and by the time we leave, Ronald has gifted us with a signed copy of his book — a definitive cultural education of the lower ninth ward. We also leave with a jester doll, a token of appreciation for our time.

Painting walls for the addition to the House of Dance and Feathers

We suffer another miserable torrential downpour on the way back to the hostel, but I have a feeling we’ll soon forget that part of the day. The House of Dance and Feathers, that little nugget of cultural preservation, will live on.

Frenchmen Street, New Orleans

At night, we venture to Frenchmen Street, home of the famous blues bars and jazz lounges. It’s no less touristy than Bourbon Street, but the inebriated masses here are less boisterous, less crazed. It’s a faithful replica of any good European party street, like Rue Mouffetard in Paris or Prague’s old city.

We soak in the atmosphere, and dance badly to a tired blues band at a quaint bar called the Apple Barrel. I’m glad to have experienced it. Two drinks and $11 later, we wander back through the shuttered French Quarter, being sure to avoid Bourbon.

Aware of our early train departure in the morning, we start packing as we prepare for bed. Many of our clothes are still wet and it doesn’t look like they will dry in time for morning. More distressing is the fact that my phone appears to have suffered from the water damage — the very phone that should be our alarm in the morning. The screen flickers, stubbornly showing a cryptic lightning bolt-and-cog symbol… this is bad news.

With all the enthusiasm of a teenager going to write an exam on a Saturday morning, we pull ourselves up from the bed where we had hoped to rest our heads. Six hours’ sleep has turned to five, and we take an emergency trip to Walgreens at 2 AM to buy an alarm clock.

The staff at Walgreens outnumber us two-to-one, and our frantic search for a timepiece provides some welcome entertainment during the graveyard shift. Some of them are adamant that they no longer sell alarm clocks: “Everything is on their phones nowadays,” (which, of course, is precisely the problem.)

The magic of global capitalism turns to our favour and the security guard finds a row of clocks for sale on the bottom shelf underneath the batteries. We pay $20 for the assurance of a couple hours’ sleep before we have to wake up for the San Antonio-bound train. Looking back, I think it was worth it.

4 April 2016

New Orleans, Louisiana — San Antonio, Texas

The last two days have been a sleep-deprived wonderful whirlwind of a time. New Orleans seems like a distant memory. The Walgreens alarm clock woke us faithfully on time. We made our way to the train station through New Orleans’ crazy streets as if stepping through passed-out bodies and bottles after a house party.

We’re happy to be moving on. The westbound Sunset Limited, true to its name, rewards us with a shimmering molten gold-orange sunset over Texas cattle farms. As it dips into the horizon, we settle into as good a sleep as you can get on a moving train. There are a few rowdy drunks on board, but by evening they’ve settled into playing cards or laying passed out in their seats. There’s quite a lot more drinking on this train than there was on the City of New Orleans.

In Houston, we stop to stretch our legs. The conductor informs us that we’ll be stationed here for a little over an hour, so Julia and I make a split-second decision to venture into town for a decent vegetarian dinner. Houston is not the most welcoming city — at least, not the part we covered in our 15-minute walk from the train station. Between a high-stress game of real-life frogger across inhospitable roads, a statue of George Bush (Senior, but still), and the ticking deadline of our train’s departure, it makes for a nerve-wracking hour.

Miraculously, we make it back to the train in time. Our arms are laden with tacos and salad and chips with guacamole, each dish packed in its own spacious styrofoam container. We feel a little guilty with our take-out picnic in the dining car. A little mutinous, even, against the charming Elwood, our dining car attendant with the Mr. Moviephone voice. But it was delicious.

Before long, San Antonio rolls up and we exit the last train of our southbound trip. It’s late evening and our plan is to pull an all-nighter before boarding a Greyhound to the Mexican border at 4 AM. We’re ready, if not rested. And San Antonio delivers — we spend 20 minutes and seven dollars in a lively boxing-themed bar where an excellent cover band plays funky eighties hits. The music is better than anything we had heard in New Orleans, and the bar is full of middle-aged married couples dancing together and having a good time. Even though we’re smelly and sleepy from travel, San Antonio gives us a warm embrace.

This welcome sets the tone for the next few hours, as we make our way slowly along the Riverwalk. Everyone we see seems to be fat, happy, and calm. Everyone is eager to have fun on this Saturday night, but there’s none of the frantic, hedonistic energy of a typical party district. We take in the scene with pleasure, and feel as if just walking through the city is a restful practice in itself.

Photo by redteam

At the San Antonio Greyhound station, we decide to modify our trip to avoid crossing the Mexican border on foot. We had originally planned on disembarking stateside in Laredo, then trekking with our luggage across the pedestrian bridge to Nuevo Laredo. We had Googled it, people do this all the time. No problem. But now, travel-weary and without our best wits about us, we take the prudent route. We’ll stay on the bus all the way to Monterrey, Mexico. This proves to be a wise decision: Laredo before sunrise looks like an mean, unforgiving border town straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie. Better to be whisked along to a more cosmopolitan city in the air-conditioned bus.

Monterrey, Mexico — Mexico City, Mexico

We emerge from our second straight night of stiff-backed, restless sleep at Greyhound’s North Monterrey terminal. We’re now in America Latina proper, meaning two things — it’s now time to start speaking Spanish in earnest, and everything is cheap as chips.

I start getting flashbacks to former trips abroad — El Salvador, Morocco, Karachi — litter-strewn streets, dusty footpaths, an abundance of taxis, cracked sidewalk tiles, corrugated steel shopfront coverings. It’s a delicious feeling of anticipation.

Our first stop at a refresquería features a freshly blended papaya smoothie for twenty pesos. At our second stop, we indulge in hot-as-hell cheese and pepper tacos (thirty pesos). Third stop: a self-serve scale outside of a church, plastered with the image of the saints. I’m curious to see if I’ve gained any weight during the trip so far. The scale wasn’t functional and ate our money. Two pesos.

Authentic Mexican tacos for lunch in Monterrey

The balls of my feet are starting to hurt from so much walking, although it is pleasant to be moving under our own steam for a change. Here in Monterrey, there’s a calm, approachable quality to the streets. Even the dozens of strip clubs and massage parlours seem like quaint family-run businesses. (And they very well might be.)

We finish our Monterrey day trip at a seafood restaurant next to the bus terminal. Julia orders an entire fish: bones, eyes, and all. I indulge in a tostada, empanada, and bottle of Coke. We watch American Top 40 music videos from the blaring CRT television in the corner. The friendly restaurant owner asks if we are married. Outside, street vendors sell candy, illicit DVDs, socks, handbags, sunglasses.

One more marathon bus ride. One more smelly, showerless, bedless night. One more day of wearing the same socks and T-shirt, the T-shirt which a bird had seen fit to shit on this afternoon in a Monterrey park. There’s no doubt about our bohemian credentials. All our clothes need a wash. The sun has risen once again over our dirty, sweaty heads. Our hostel room will be ready in two hours and we can’t wait to get clean. Julia is hangry.

Welcome to Mexico City.

Adventure at the Panama-Colombia border Fri, 23 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Our destination is Colombia, but we got a big dose of adventure before even setting foot there. We wanted to arrive without flying, which meant getting up close and personal with the Guna Yala, a proud and independent Indigenous group that controls access to the only safe passage through the notorious Darien Gap.

We rode in a tiny boat down the Panamanian coastline, hopping the waves with the wind in our face. In an area known for FARC rebels and a dangerous jungle, we came face-to-face with a different, more pressing problem: Panama’s underreported refugee crisis.

16 April 2016

Panama City, Panama

Contrary to cultural expectation, our driver arrives at the hotel three minutes early. He eyes us up as we descend into the lobby, and tilts his head to motion us out the door. We throw our bags into the back of the Jeep and make a few more stops at hostels in the empty pre-dawn blackness. We’ve packed light — two bicycle panniers and a small day bag for the both of us. The ideal eco-adventure power couple; we sneer inwardly at the other tourists with their massive hiking backpacks and painstakingly curated iPhone playlists. Like them, we’re about to spend a vacation in Colombia. But we won’t be hitting up the gringo trail — we plan to buy some used bikes and cycle through the Andes for a month. But first, we need to cross the border.

Soon, the Jeep’s seven seats are filled to capacity. Like us, the other travellers are headed to the Caribbean coast to catch a boat en route to Colombia. It’s become a fashionable form of arrival as Colombia opens itself to international tourism: dozens of companies offer five-day sailboat cruises through the San Blas islands, an idyllic archipelago of white-sand beaches and palm trees.

Gardi Barkosun, Guna Yala, Panama

As the sun rises, the terrain becomes more mountainous and the road more rugged. We’re headed for Gardi (also known as Cartí), a collection of coastal settlements and islands in Panama’s Guna Yala province. Here, the local Indigenous people have tight control over their hard-fought territory, which spans most of Panama’s northern coastline and the picturesque San Blas islands. They control the only road that leads to the Caribbean coast, and we each pay $20 USD for the privilege of passing through. Our driver has a Guna flag dangling from his rearview mirror and seems to know everyone at the checkpoints. He speaks quickly and passes a handful of cash to the checkpoint guard, a young woman in full military dress and a gun slung across her back. Not everyone gets a receipt for the fare.

The steep terrain starts to drop, then levels out, and we arrive at Gardi Barsokun. It’s a sandy inlet fringed with mangroves. A half-dozen SUVs are parked in the dusty clearing, doors and trunks splayed open, as fellow travellers gather up their backpacks and water and sunscreen.

We walk past cardboard signs scrawled with the names of tour companies: LAM Tours, Iguana, Koala Adventures… but we’re not looking for a company name. We’re looking for a person called Negrito.

“Negrito” — this is our connection to onward travel. No reservation number, no pre-booked ticket, no clue of a schedule. Just a racial slur passed by word of mouth. Negrito. He’ll get us a ship to Puerto Obaldía, a tiny village on the border between Panama and Colombia.

You see, we don’t have the money or time to take one of these sailboat cruises, and we’re morally opposed to air travel. (I know, the self-righteousness is too much to handle.) Our digging around in the corners of the internet revealed the existence of lanchas, small passenger boats that zip from town to town along the coast. They don’t have websites.

Sure enough, someone perks up when they hear the name Negrito, and they usher us onto a water taxi. It’s a long, narrow aluminum hull with a shade canopy and an outboard motor. Julia and I are the only passengers. One man starts up the engine and begins steering, while the other hands us two lifejackets.

A water-taxi docked at Gardi Barkosun

We cruise slowly through the mangroves, weaving our way out to the open water. The sea’s surface is punctuated by branches and logs — driftwood has gotten stuck in the mud. These must be very shallow waters. Some hazards barely peek above the waterline — they’re marked by ragged strips of white fabric, tied to sticks like a flag of surrender. It’s only a five-minute ride to Gardi Sugdub, an island just off the coast. Locals in dugout canoes paddle past us in the opposite direction, heading toward the mainland. They’re laden with jerry-cans of gasoline.

Gardi Sugdub, Guna Yala, Panama

We dock at Gardi Sugdub. This is Negrito’s place — the elevated dock leads to an enclosed patio of sorts, where three people are already waiting with their luggage. I can’t tell if the room we’re in is on solid ground, or if it’s sitting on top of stilts built out into the water. This island’s shore is a tight cluster of tin roofs, and it’s hard to see where the land ends and the water begins.

The shore of Gardi Sugdub

We’re in some kind of bar-restaurant-dancehall that apparently also acts as a waiting room for the lancha. On one wall, the words “Bar Matusalen” arc over a mural of a sunset and palm tree. The opposite wall loudly proclaims “Refresquería” above a closed serving window. The window is fringed with hand-painted illustrations of dancers, beer and soda cans. Down the hall, a small kitchen bears the inscription “Pizzería Don Thomas”. The name “Negrito” is spray-painted in bright orange, graffiti-style, on a closed door. Three times. So at least we know we’re in the right place.

Our fellow young backpackers have been swapped out for new, more experienced travel companions: Fabian is in his fifties, hair buzzed short to hide his balding. He sits at a table reading the newspaper and intermittently checks his phone. Theresa is a forty-something woman from Bolivia with wild-patterned leggings and a zebra scrunchie. She exercises pleasant patience and stands on the dock, looking out over the water. The third person waiting is José from Mexico. He cuts a clownish figure with his curly hair brushed back, long face, and bulbous nose. We go through introductions and pleasantries.

Fabian is Colombian, and he’s curious to see where we plan to travel in his native land. We pull out our National Geographic map, and all five of us pore over it. It’s amazing how a map — a real map, with folds and a legend and two sides that you have to flip between — encourages a kind of social interaction that GPS on your phone can’t match. Huddling together. Competing finger-pointing. Writing notes and highlights in the spaces between roads.

We expect Negrito will send his boat within the hour. It’s important to depart before 11 o’clock if we want to get to Puerto Obaldia before dark. Still, we figure we’ve got some time to explore Gardi Sugdub, so Julia and I set off down the tiny passageway connecting Negrito’s restaurant-bar-dock to the rest of the island.

We wind our way between walls made of lashed-together reeds. A wrinkled old Guna woman washes some clothes in a tub by hand, and we nod politely as we walk past. She doesn’t care about us. Children run about and scream as they do in every culture. We exit onto a street made of compacted dirt. We pass restaurants, shops, homes, most with tin or thatched roofs. There are no cars or bikes. Here on Gardi Sugdub, everyone walks.

Guna identity is strong here, with flags hanging from every other window. Their fierce textile patterns, so sought-after in Panama City’s art markets, are woven into everyday life.

We come upon a small window, beside which hangs a handwritten sign advertising drinks and snacks. We are greeted by Albert, who rises from his seat in the corner of the dark room with an over-the-top greeting: “Of course, it would be my great pleasure to serve you this morning!” He’s the talkative type. Big ears. Camo baseball cap. Shirtless, his ribs are visible through his skinny torso. His dark nipples point outward as if they are standing guard.

We buy a couple bottles of water and I drop two dollars’ worth of small change into his hand. Albert miscounts the change, asks for another 25 cents, and I comply. At this point he’s already in the swing of conversation with Julia. They discuss where we’re from — “It’s very cold in Canada, yes?” — where he’s from — “There are two, three thousand people here on Gardi Sugdub.”

We learn that the revenues from the Panama Canal help fund a stipend for indigenous people, and Albert says he gets about 120 Balboas (equal to $120 USD) per month from the government. It helps, but it’s not enough to live on. He points to the handmade textile bags for sale, the two bottles of water we just bought, to assure us that he does brisk enough business to make up the difference.

Albert is fiercely proud of his Guna heritage. He laments that the culture is being lost, bit by bit, but with so little urgency it’s as if he realises this is just a thing older people of every generation say. He explains the meaning of the Guna flag that we see all around the island — a red stripe to represent blood, a green stripe at the bottom for the land — the long, mountainous coastal strip called Guna Yala. In the flag’s centre, a pair of crossed muscular arms hold a bow and arrow. This represents the struggle of the people. Stars surrounding the arms represent the cosmos. And perhaps the islands, I’m not sure. I can’t remember what the yellow background in the middle represents.

A little worried about missing Negrito’s boat, we gratefully say farewell to Albert. He points us to a house a few doors down there we could spend the night if our boat doesn’t come today. Negrito’s “hotel” does not have the best reputation around here. With more thanks, we turn back toward the dock.

The situation hasn’t changed much. The clock is ticking toward 10:30 am, and our lancha hasn’t arrived yet. The five of us bide our time a little further, each minute bringing increased uncertainty. Would the boat come? Would we leave the island today? Our new friends — Theresa, Fabien, and José — were promised a boat yesterday. It didn’t come, and they were obliged to spend the night at Negrito’s “hotel”, which costs $5 USD a night. From what we hear, the scare quotes are well-justified.

Julia and I hadn’t had any breakfast, and were quite hungry. On our trip to see Albert we had passed a large open restaurant, and we decide to get something to eat. Fabien says he’ll make sure the boat doesn’t leave without us. As we step back out toward the street, we are stopped by a man in a teal golf shirt headed the opposite way. He asks is if we are travelling with Negrito, and ushers us back to the bar. Something is amiss.

Theresa and José come in from the dock. Fabien looks up from his phone. Julia and I stand in the middle of the room, arms crossed (as is our North American duty — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Latin American person stand with their arms crossed).

“Negrito says the motor is broken. He’s trying to fix it, but it should be ready by tomorrow.”

Immediately, the Spanish starts flying. Dismay, disappointment, soft shaking of heads. No anger or insults, as this is a civil group of folks. Finally, Fabien cuts to the heart of the matter: “Your boat isn’t broken, you’re just waiting for more passengers — isn’t that right?” Negrito’s messenger slips, nodding his assent with a pained face. He leaves the room, noncommittal, sticking weakly to the broken-engine story.

This throws our whole room into a heightened state of uncertainty. Maybe we should go back to the coast, find another boat to take us. Nobody wants to stay another night and pay five dollars for Negrito’s sorry excuse for a hotel. He’s just playing us. Maybe now that we’ve called his bluff, he’ll leave today after all. Maybe if we start looking for someone else to take us, we can force Negrito’s hand. A group of five willing travellers is a useful bargaining chip. We weigh our options. Consider, ponder. The day seems lost at any rate, we should have left by now, otherwise we risk getting caught out at sea after dark. It’s an 8-hour trip to Puerto Obaldía.

Amid the consternation, one of my favourite early-2000s hip-hop songs floats in from the dock. It’s Eve’s Let Me Blow Ya Mind. A fresh-faced young black man is blasting it from his phone. He’s sitting in a lancha. Two young Panamanians — couldn’t be older than eighteen — hop out of the boat.

“Let’s go, boat’s leaving.” Just like that.

We hand over the requisite $125 USD each. So does Fabien. Theresa hands over $100 — “Cien, es OK?” José has a hushed, animated conversation with the boys. “Did Negrito tell you about my situation? I’m not a tourist, you see…” He pays $60 and the boys carefully consider the sum of money. They’ve got commissions and fees to think of. A cut to Negrito, a cut to the port authority… After a quick phone call, they seem satisfied. We’re off, bags thrown in the front of the lancha, covered by a tarp. They hand us lifejackets and the twin outboard motors roar to life.

San Blas islands, Guna Yala, Panama

There are six of us, plus two crew members. We fit comfortably in the five rows of bench seating. It’s a fibreglass hull with a fabric canopy, identical to the water-taxi except for extra cushions on the previously-bare wooden benches, worn blue-painted slats for backrests, and swapping out the water taxi’s 15hp engine for two 75hp workhorses.

We pull out of the dock and start hitting the waves. By hitting, I mean a spectacular bellyflop that sends a jolt through each of my vertebrae every time we crest over a wave. Immediate headache. I hastily stow my glasses in their case to prevent them from being knocked into the Caribbean Sea. Maybe it was a good thing that we didn’t go eat lunch.

It’s a cloudy day, and the sea is steely grey crashing all around us. The coast of Guna Yala to our right, jungle mountains shrouded in mist. Every couple kilometres, smoke rises above the trees. Fabien says they’re burning away forest to make room for crops. I’m not sure I believe him. To our left, the San Blas islands. Tiny clumps of palm trees, ringed with white sand, the platonic ideal of a desert island. These islands are dotted along the vista, awkwardly breaking up the surface of the sea. They somehow seem like they don’t belong. On the smaller islands, the palm trees look sad. Wind-stripped, hunched over. Bamboo and thatched-roof Guna houses dot the shorelines of the larger islands. From afar, San Blas looks like a set of petri dishes all plunked on top of the churning, swirling, unforgiving sea. Jolt. Thunk. The lancha rides on. It feels like falling down an endless flight of stairs. The sea swells around us.

From up close, the islands appear much like Gardi Sugdub — our boat stops at some of them and they seem quite populated, ringed with docks. Gasoline cans in haphazard stacks. People in small fishing canoes a hundred metres off the coast, casting lines and diving. We dock at an island called Carganá to drop off a box of bananas and some motor oil. Fabien hops out and returns with chips and Coca-Cola for us all. Our little troupe of sea-faring travellers are starting to build a bit of camaraderie.

Juan Carlos is the hip-hop-loving young man who was first aboard the lancha. He owns two seafood restaurants in Colombia. He smiles a lot, talks rapidly and is eager to make conversation.

Fabien owns a Koala Tours, a tour company that arranges sailboat crossings from Panama to Colombia. Two of the people we met in the morning Jeep ride are on one of his boats by now. Fabien is on this rickety lancha ride because he wants to check up on a houseboat he owns in Sapzurro, a small coastal village just past the Colombian border.

Theresa, originally from Bolivia, built up a restaurant business and owned two houses in Medellín before leaving for Panama a year ago with her savings, trying to make a better life for herself. It proved more difficult than expected. She ended up selling bottled water in the street to make ends meet. Now she’s heading back to Colombia, trying to start anew once more.

José was an upholsterer in Mexico — at the peak of his career, he worked near the U.S. border making seats for airplanes. The work dried up, and now he’s sixty and exhausted, lugging along an enormous sewing machine which represents his greatest store of value and the means by which he can ply his trade. He too is looking for work in Colombia.

Our rag-tag posse on a lancha

Continuing along the coast, we don’t drop off any more packages, although we make two more stops. At a place nicknamed “the Island of Dogs”, we dock briefly to use the bathroom, as the sun nears its apex behind a cloudy sky. The cloud cover belies the sun’s heat — Julia, sitting on the right side of the boat, hasn’t noticed her whole right arm, face, and thigh turn red.

After a couple hours, we veer toward a small port on the mainland. There is a large black mass ahead of the boat just below the water’s surface — a coral reef. As we approach, the driver expertly manoeuvres in and out, zig-zagging through the shallows all while maintaining speed. The bay is full of coral. If our lancha were any larger, I doubt we could enter that bay at all. The captain docks, barely, one foot straddling the pier. He hands a wad of cash to another man who was waiting there. They exchange a jovial greeting, then we’re off again.

Wave-jumping is hard work. But sooner than I had expected, the motor slows to a comfortable cruising speed, matching the waves’ rhythm instead of overtaking them. We pull into another bay, where a large military banner is draped over the fence beside a small hut. This is Puerto Obaldía, our last stop in Panama before crossing the border to Colombia.

Puerto Obaldía, Panama

The internet warned us that Puerto Obaldía’s immigration office closes early, and that we’d be stuck in this “shabby little town of nothing” for a night, while we wait until morning to get our exit stamp. But Juan Carlos, full of restless energy and unwilling to take no for an answer, tries to turn the tables in our favour.

After getting through the military checkpoint, we find ourselves on the main street of Puerto Obaldía, our luggage in a pile around us. Juan Carlos spies a young kid hanging out on the street corner and whistles him over. “Go find me the man who runs the immigration office.” He slips the kid some money.

Juan Carlos bribes a government official and gets him to open up the office and stamp our passports for exiting Panama. We’re all moving in a herd now, loosely following Juan Carlos, united by a desire to cross into Colombia today rather than tomorrow. The lancha is supposed to be waiting for us — Juan Carlos talked with them. They’ll take us on to Capurganá tonight for another $10 USD per person.

Naturally, José and Theresa won’t have to pay. The four of us wealthier travellers — Juan Carlos, Fabien, Julia and myself — have created a de facto welfare state within our group of rag-tag travellers. Fabien, the mature, successful businessman, willingly takes on the lion’s share. He got to know José and Theresa before the rest of us, and spent a night with them in Negrito’s godforsaken accommodations. Noblesse oblige is alive and well here in Latin America.

Despite our best efforts, all this running around turns out to be for naught. The lancha is gone. It’s past 5 o’clock, and getting dark — nobody in town is willing to take us across the border. The guards at the military checkpoint have fun taking their time re-checking our bags, bringing out the drug dogs, all so we can walk out to the pier and realise we don’t have a boat. One guard jokes, “Why would you want to leave this paradise town? We have five-star hotels. Stay the night!” So we do.

Far from a “shabby little town of nothing”, Puerto Obaldia is full of activity. As it turns out, this seaside village is the flashpoint for the latest immigration crisis in the Western hemisphere. Apparently, Panama recently loosened its entrance requirements which prompted a flood of Cubans, Haitians, Ghanians and Nigerians toward the Panamanian border. Once here, they can apply for refugee status or continue North to Mexico and, eventually, the USA. On the ground, this means hundreds of makeshift tents behind the soccer pitch in Puerto Obaldia. Apparently there are Cuban aid groups sending them food, which is a good thing because this town’s pantries seem to be bone dry.

Resigned to spending the night here, we search high and low for a restaurant. Club music booms from a billiards hall facing the soccer pitch. All we can find in the immediate downtown is beer and Coca-Cola. We follow a trail of recommendations to the end of the street — no, to the end of that street — no, around the corner — to a well-lit patio on the edge of town. A TV is on, showing a feature interview with Bernie Sanders’ Hispanic Press Secretary. It’s the only place in town where people are sitting down to eat.

We take a seat at a long table where two Ghanians are finishing up their meals of meat, rice, and soup. We strike up a conversation with Isaac, who ran an import-export business selling car tires; he says Ghana would be a good place to live if it weren’t for the corrupt government. He moved to Brazil two years ago and worked for a year as an airport security guard. However, his visa was revoked when the Brazilian government decided that airports should only be staffed by Brazilian nationals. Now he’s trying to make his way to the USA where he has some family. He’s aware of the immigration crisis. He’s aware that there are still 9 borders to cross. But he says, “God will find a way.”

Miracles. Everybody’s waiting on them, including our group of six. The restaurant owner has just informed us there is only enough meat and rice for two more portions. We ask her to just make whatever she has on one large platter; we’ll share. Not quite Jesus’ loaves and fishes, but we make do. Julia and I pay for the meal ($14 USD), a token of thanks to the group for getting us through this day.

Isaac puts down his fork, says his goodbyes and pushes away his chair. As he leaves, I realise he didn’t finish the rice on his plate.

17 April 2016

Capurganá, Colombia

We get up at the crack of dawn and pay a premium for the early-morning lancha to Capurganá. Juan Carlos is calling the shots again; he is very eager to make it to Turbo, Colombia (where one of his restaurants is located). In his mind, we’ve already lost a day. We all tag along, since I guess we’re a posse at this point. Ten minutes of motoring later, and here we are. The little port of Capurganá — not militarised like Puerto Obaldia. Beachfront restaurants. Diving tours advertised on the side of boats. It being a Sunday, the Colombian immigration office doesn’t open until 10 o’clock, so we can’t get our Colombian entrance stamps yet. Strike one against Juan Carlos’ breakneck pace.

We’re all famished from the day before, so breakfast is in order. We set our bags down, relieved at a spot of respite — we hadn’t slept well last night at the local pension, between the night-long thump of music and the hard straw-filled mattresses. We order watery café tintos all around, and gorgeous, piping hot arepas con huevos — an egg smothered in oily deep-fried cornmeal. Hot sauce brings it to the next level.

Finally, some rest in Capurganá

We’re only in Capurganá for a couple short hours before we hop on another boat to Sapzurro, the neighbouring town. It’s back the way we came — Capurganá is actually the second town south of the border. But Sapzurro doesn’t have an immigration office, hence the back-and-forth. Fabien has his houseboat moored in Sapzurro, and offers to host Julia and I for as long as we want. A day or two of rest in a houseboat sounds fantastic. Fabien is getting a little overbearing, but he’s so generous that it’s impossible to stay annoyed. Still, everything is a whirlwind with him. We make for the dock, saying hasty farewells to Theresa and José (Juan Carlos has already left for Turbo).

This boat is not a simple lancha. It’s longer, wider, and filled to over-capacity with fifty West Africans in lifejackets — migrants headed north to the Panamanian border. I wonder if Isaac is somewhere in the crowd. Sapzurro is the last town on the Colombian side, after which they will be on their own, trekking through the jungle for three days to reach Puerto Obaldia. Unlike us, they can’t take a boat across the border — the military checkpoint won’t let them through. So they have to go in through the back door.

I wasn’t expecting for us to be brought along in the swell of migration — even here, where we saw the tent city, where we knew the migrants had been coming for months, somehow I deluded myself into thinking this was still a problem happening elsewhere. That, as a tourist, I’d be exempt from witnessing the troubling human desperation of a refugee crisis.

Sapzurro, Colombia

It’s only a five-minute boat ride to Sapzurro — we all get off, each of the migrants clutching their possessions bundled in a black garbage bag. Julia and I collect our packs and head off down the beach to where Fabien’s houseboat is docked. A brief brush with the migration crisis, and now we are back to our vacation.

Sapzurro is tiny — less than half the size of Capurganá and nestled more tightly between the jungle-covered mountain and the sea. We’re to stay in Fabien’s houseboat (nicknamed Sofia) with Robbie and his mother, Maria, as our hosts. Robbie has been watching the boat while Fabien is gone. He used to be a sailor (still is, I suppose). He has an impressive arm tattoo and invites us to help empty his bottles of whisky and red wine as we sit on the upper deck that evening.

I’m quite nauseated being on the rocking boat all night, and don’t have as much fun as I thought I would — instead, I find myself tuning out the Spanish and zoning in to the top-40-from-ten-years-ago video playlist Robbie had put on. It seems Latin America just doesn’t do silence. Pop music must always be playing.

That night, I sleep in a rocking houseboat to the sound of crashing waves, as fifty West African migrants push on through the dark in a thick, tangled, foreign jungle that is not their friend, to the border of a country without the capacity to welcome them. I count myself very lucky.

Sapzurro is so isolated, but so hemmed in at the same time: by the ocean, by the mountains, by the jungle, by the border. This gives it a frantic energy, a dull anxiety that seeps through everything.

Like in Puerto Obaldia, it is hard to find food in Sapzurro. We seem to only have the option of one restaurant being open at a time, and fresh fruit is expensive. We buy a few apples for Robbie and his mother as a thank you gift for hosting us.

18 April 2016

Sapzurro, Colombia

In the morning, we discover a secret of the jungle — a wealth of tasty fresh fruit literally falling all around us. We’re taking a hike back to Capurganá, bags in tow, Robbie guiding us, his mother taking up the rear in her sun hat and floral Crocs. It’s a steep mountain trek, as Sapzurro and Capurganá are in neighbouring valleys. The whole thing takes about an hour and a half, and we are rewarded with a splendid vista — Sapzurro to our left, Capurganá to the right — when we reach the peak. We pick fresh ripe mangoes from the ground, and they are decadent. They have a certain acidity that the ones back home don’t have, and they are more stringy. We collect avocados too, a whole grocery bag full of them. We find a starfruit tree and Julia knocks one down, to save for later.

The trail between Sapzurro and Capurganá is a steep climb up and over a mountain. The upshot is this fantastic lookout point, and of course, wild mangoes.

Capurganá, Colombia

The morning mountain trek has stirred our appetite. Robbie shows us to a bakery in Capurganá, just off the soccer field, where we munch papas rellenas for breakfast — a hard-boiled egg wrapped in potato and deep-fried. Deep fried food seems to be a theme here in Colombia.

A bakery in Capurganá

Having parted ways with Robbie, we book a boat headed for Necoclí, where we will buy some used bikes and start our “real” Colombian adventure. We hadn’t counted on such a stimulating three days crossing the border.

The boat doesn’t leave until tomorrow, so we’ve booked a room in a cheap hostel, trying in vain to dry out our clothes in the damp seaside air. In the evening, we have a couple beers at the beachside Lonely Planet-recommended bar, Josefina’s.

It’s been an uncertain, sometimes stressful few days here on the doorstep of Colombia. But now I feel ready for anything. Tomorrow, we go inland.

Jetpack: Only show related posts from the same category Thu, 11 Aug 2016 00:00:00 -0400 The Jetpack plugin is a must-have for almost any WordPress website. It may be bloated with all kinds of crap you don’t need, but it always has one or two features you absolutely do need. And it tends to do those things quite well (security protection, stats, social media sharing). It’s no wonder that major theme developers are relying on Jetpack instead of reinventing the wheel.

So I thought it was really weird when I couldn’t find any information about what I thought would be a common problem. Jetpack’s Related Posts finds relevant content suggestions at the bottom of a blog post. I wanted to make sure those suggestions are coming from the same category as the current post.

Searches on Google? Nothing. Stack overflow? Nada. WordPress forums? Zilch. Jetpack’s own website recommended taking a look at the source code, which left me scratching my head.

At long last, I emailed the Jetpack support team and they provided me with some code to use. It was half-complete, but gave me enough new keywords to look up that I came across this solution by Brandon Kraft:

// This function will only return posts that are related AND has ALL of the same categories.
function jp_only_rp_in_same_category( $categories, $post_id ) {
  $category_objects = get_the_category( $post_id );
  if ( ! empty( $categories ) ) {
      $categories = array_merge( 'categories', 'category_objects' );
      return $categories;
  else {
    return $category_objects;
add_filter( 'jetpack_relatedposts_filter_has_terms', 'jp_only_rp_in_same_category', 10, 2 );

Copy and paste that into your functions.php or wrap it in a simple plugin, and you’re good to go.

Reflections on the 2016 Green Party Convention Wed, 10 Aug 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Last weekend, I spent three days in Ottawa’s downtown Delta hotel running on adrenaline and idealism. I was socially, mentally, and intellectually exhausted by the time Julia and I left town on the VIA train Monday morning. And I don’t regret it for a second.

I helped out with the Green Party’s election campaign last summer, and by the time it was all over I had got myself appointed Communications Chair of the Kitchener Centre riding association. I’ve always resonated with Green policy, and Elizabeth May is a powerhouse speaker. I ended up meeting her, and she signed my copy of Frederick Street, a book my father gave me years ago that Elizabeth May co-wrote back when she was with the Sierra Club.

The thing I love most about the Greens as a political party, is its non-hierarchical structure. Elizabeth May is technically our “Chief Spokesperson”, not a top-down authority figure. In an election, she doesn’t hold a veto over individual ridings’ candidate nominations. If someone wants to propose a policy at Convention, all they have to do is gather 20 signatures. And we use a consensus-based decisionmaking model.

Coming out of the Convention, media across the country pounced on our adoption of a motion supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The main narrative is that our party is facing an identity crisis: Elizabeth May doesn’t agree with the policy and there are calls from media figures for her to step down.

But let’s back up for a minute. Remember that consensus-based decisionmaking model?

Yeah, we ditched it as soon as the General Meeting opened on Friday.

The writing was on the wall as 300 mostly-inexperienced Green Party members registered in the Delta lobby. We were given a lanyard and two voting cards: green for yes, red for no. Now that I’ve read our Rules of Procedure a little more closely, it looks like we should have been given a yellow card to indicate that a motion needs more clarification or information. But there were no yellow cards.

Prior to the General Meeting, there was a half-hour orientation session for new members. It focused almost entirely on the technicalities of Robert’s Rules. A member of the executive council told us there was a good chance we would be using Robert’s Rules of Order for this Convention. It seemed like a foregone conclusion, and I was trying so hard to keep up with the details that I didn’t stop to question the underlying assumptions of it all.

The General Meeting opened, and one of the first motions was to use Robert’s Rules in place of our usual procedures. Elizabeth May spoke up against it. She mentioned our principles of cooperation and respect, and didn’t feel comfortable using such an adversarial system in our policymaking, where a simple majority of members could force a decision.

Someone else spoke in favour of Robert’s Rules, saying they were efficient and clear, and that it would help us get through the dozens of policy motions before us this weekend. Apparently our last convention was a mess, where we ran out of time to vote on everything we were supposed to.

After a short debate, Elizabeth gets back up to the microphone. She says she has changed her mind. She’s convinced that Ken Melamed, the Party’s President and Chair of the meeting, will do a good job shepherding us all through the technicalities of Robert’s Rules. She has a lot of faith in Ken.

And with her blessing, the room moved to approve the motion. We rejected the consensus model.

From then on, the Convention felt like trying to find my balance on a lurching ship. We only had one hour of workshop time to refine the 23 proposals that would be voted on. The two proposals concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict got their own workshop; I chose to attend the only other policy workshop, where we had 7 proposals to consider. We did a pretty terrible job of debating four of them; we didn’t have time to get to the remaining three. What more can you expect from a one-hour session?

At the end of the weekend, we passed a lot of great public policy. A hard line on dangerous oil tanker traffic. A targeted tax on sugary drinks to fight diabetes. Universal dental care. These all passed with nary a word of debate, because Green members are in broad agreement on these issues.

For the record, I supported the BDS motion. I also supported the motion to revoke charitable status from organisations that are complicit in human rights violations (I didn’t feel comfortable singling out JNF Canada and would have voted against the original wording).

But I also know that these are polarising topics and that there was not a broad consensus in the room. The debate on the BDS motion dragged on and on. Ken Melamed did a great job moderating and giving time to both sides. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife, and I was soon among the chorus of people shouting “Question! Question!”, i.e. “Everyone shut up and let’s just vote on the question.” Everyone knew the debaters were not going to change anyone’s mind. We wanted to get this over with so we could focus on other policy matters.

So we got it over with. Using an adversarial, simple-majority decisionmaking model. One that we rushed in at the beginning of the Convention.

If we hadn’t adopted Robert’s Rules, and if the workshops had been functional, the Green Party would be in a very different place right now.

Oh, and one more thing: at the next Convention, let’s open up voting rights to those that don’t have the money or free time to spend a weekend in a hotel in a far-flung city. It’s not very grassroots of us to limit participation.

Mapping Green priorities Fri, 05 Aug 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Today’s the first day of the Green Party’s biannual convention. Julia and I are in Ottawa and we’re excited to be part of policymaking and seeing what this whole convention business is all about.

Ahead of the actual convention, all the Green Party members were invited to vote on 13 policy resolutions that would be considered at this weekend’s convention. The results of that voting are publicly available, and while they are not binding, they give a good sense of the party’s mood going into this convention.

I’ve done a little data crunching on the results, and created a graph to help better visualize which issues might be most contentious.

A chart showing support and priority for 13 policy resolutions to be presented at the Green Party 2016 Convention. Click here for full-sized image.

The horizontal axis measures the resolution’s average priority, out of a score of 4. The vertical axis measures the resolution’s support, out of a score of 2. The first thing to note is that the axes don’t start at zero. Even the least popular, least important resolution has over 50% support from the broad party membership.

So what does this tell us? There’s a clear grouping of resolutions in the top right that should get passed no problem. Improving parks, waterways, transit, green energy… these are all quintessentially Green policies. Expanding our healthcare system to include dental? Seems like a logical progression. And the limits on tug-barge petroleum tankers is a direct response to the dangers of fossil fuel pipeline expansion.

The resolutions in the bottom left — especially those that wade into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — are bound to be more contentious.

It looks like we’ll have our hands full this weekend. Let’s get into it!

The enemy of the good Sun, 17 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Julia and I returned from our Colombian cycling adventure over a month ago, and I haven’t shared any stories or photos of substance. The trip was an intentional break from our always-on culture. We took a film camera, and I didn’t check Twitter the whole time we were gone. I filled two notebooks of diary entries. Freed from the instant-gratification of social media, we gave ourselves permission to be more present in the moment.

Well, we still haven’t developed those two rolls of film and I haven’t gotten around to writing a blog post. I’m paralyzed by where to start. After happily writing for myself those two and half months, the idea of catering to an audience is daunting.

As much as I would like to publish a lovely little novella from my trip diary, and make a nice leather-bound photo album after we get our film developed, these lofty goals are keeping me from actually creating anything at all. And the longer I wait, the less significant our experiences seem.

So here goes. You’ve been wondering how our Colombia trip went? You want to see the pictures we never published in real-time on Facebook? Let’s call this an hors-d’oeuvre to whet both of our appetites. I’ve got a 5,000 word draft about crossing the Panama-Colombia border, but that will have to wait. And now that I’ve gone ahead and said that in public, maybe I’ll dedicate more time to actually finishing some of these longer reflections.

Here’s to not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Here’s to not having to explain every little thing. Here’s to starting small and writing often.

The requisite bags-are-packed pre-trip photo. We left home with two saddlebags and a small MEC backpack, ready to take on the world.
Panama City, a bastion of brutalism. We took trains, buses, and boats to reach Colombia.
Breakfast on the beach in Capurganá. This seaside town, hemmed in by the Caribbean sea on one side and mountains on the other, was our port of arrival in Colombia.
Juice vendor in Montería, purveyor of fine zapote, mora, and mango delights.
Figuring out our next move in Yarumal.
Winding our way through the Andean peaks and valleys.
At the lookout tower in Filandia, at the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.
A gritty welcome to Cali’s city limits.
I witnessed this mural as it was being painted in Cali. Such talented artists, in a city so full of expression.
Street art in Cali confronts and provokes.
Our 7-year-old tour guide takes us on a horseback ride around Silvia.
Bogota’s bus network is daunting to navigate for the first time. Juliana tells us, “Just use an app.”
Street art in Bogotá is eclectic, with more fantasy and whimsy than Cali.
Looking down on Bogotà from the top of Monseratte.
Banners at the Bogotà airport support workers’ labour action.
Finally back in Canada, peering across the Detroit River.
Biking through Colombia Sun, 12 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400 In Spring 2016, Julia and I decided to take a 1,200-km cycling trip across Colombia. I’m slowly publishing entries from my journal that document our experience with slow travel — our precarious journey there, our month-long cycling tour, and finally our return home.

Book review: The Half Has Never Been Told Sun, 28 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500 Growing up, I never learned much about American history. The event I can most easily recall is probably that we burned down their White House during the War of 1812. I know that a civil war happened. I know that it had something to do with slavery, and that Abraham Lincoln ended slavery.

I had a thin veneer of knowledge — just enough historical backdrop to not seem totally ignorant.

I have relatives in the US. I remember visiting Harpers Ferry (beautiful landscape, great for hiking) and Gettysburg (not as beautiful, but I guess people died here so I’ll be respectful). The whole mess of slavery and colonialism and battles just seemed so archaic and faded.

For the longest time, I thought of slavery in abstract, textbook terms. It happened. It was wrong. In university, I took an Introduction to Jazz course that taught me the earliest blues and jazz music came from songs on the cotton plantations.

That was my passive, disconnected view of slavery: black men in straw hats, out in the beating sun, picking cotton from dawn until dusk, slowly. Whistling, singing, calling-and-answering with each other. I viewed it as dull, agrarian work. It seemed logical that the twin arcs of social progress and industrial innovation would steadily erase this phenomenon. Slavery was clearly unethical, but it came from a simpler time.

I’m reflecting on this because I recently finished reading The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist, an academic at Cornell University. It’s a burning indictment of the assumptions a lot of Americans (and myself, clearly) have about slavery.

If you’ve read this book, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or frankly any account of slavery that describes what it was actually like, you probably know what I’m about to tell you: slavery was neither dull, nor agrarian, nor destined to fade away in the march of progress.

We were all complicit

Baptist uses an economic lens to show how ruthlessly enslavers used their power to turn people into commodities, leverage credit, and shape world markets. Slavery fed the world’s demand for cotton, so textile mills in Connecticut and Manchester were just as complicit in slavery as plantation owners in Georgia or Louisiana.

Low-wage factory work in the 1800s, which employed mainly women and children in sweatshop conditions, has its own history of labour struggle. But it’s important to acknowledge that even these workers made what little gains they could off the backs of enslaved people.

In 1832 in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, alone, 47 different palm-hat-making firms reported a total of 863,000 hats made, costing 28 cents each wholesale, employing 2,500 women year-round. Although they were paid 30 cents or less a day, these women all earned over a quarter of a million dollars — which, measured differently, was in turn paid by 50,000 person-days of cotton-picking.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 320

Baptist goes on to explain that the ongoing fight for higher wages and better conditions for white workers in the Northeastern United States was possible thanks to efficiencies on the cotton frontier. Southern enslavers found ever more cruel and effective ways to make enslaved people pick cotton faster, and translated those gains into lower cotton prices. Northern factories, then, had more room in their budgets to compensate workers.

Disruption, innovation, torture

The picture of slavery I had before reading this book was almost pastoral, a dusty scene of cotton fields and horse-drawn carts. However, enslavers were not farmers. They were the front-line enforcers of global industrial capitalism, and their main goal was to seek higher and higher production.

To achieve this, they innovated. Just like Europe’s industrial revolution, or Silicon Valley’s techbro-disruption economy, enslavers were just trying to optimise labour and maximise profit. As it happened, nineteenth-century enslavers’ innovation centred on manipulation, intimidation, and torture.

On the cotton frontier, each person was given a unique, individual quota, rather than a limit of work fixed by general custom. […] Learning how to meet one’s quota was difficult, and those who met it before sunset still had to keep picking. (p. 133)

Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term “torture” to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product. No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture. (p. 139)

Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world. (p. 140)

The Half Has Never Been Told

And when mechanical innovation did come along, enslavers were happy to make use of it, too.

Once enslavers had the cotton gin, how then did enslavers produce (or have produced, by other hands) as much as the gin could clean? For once the gin shattered the processing bottleneck, other limits on production and expansion were cast into new relief.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 116

Slavery allowed the United States to ramp up production and keep a firm grip on the world market for cotton, edging out competing industries in Brazil and Egypt. It invited investment from British and Northern US banks, who funded the continual westward expansion of slavery.

Cotton bales were the cheap oil of the nineteenth century. Here their outflow met the influx of credit to yield a new thing: ever-increasing production and thus ever-increasing economic growth.

As hands, Rachel and William were also credit: promissory notes on their sellers’ and buyers’ future possession and use of right-handed power.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 108

Commodified and dehumanised for profit

Not only were enslaved people the foundation for the whole industrial supply chain, they were used as financial assets, collateral for enslavers to borrow more and more money to expand faster and faster.

As debts and mortgages got repackaged and recirculated around the global economy, slave-backed securities played much the same role as the bad mortgages that led to the 2008 financial crisis. And just like the American bank bailouts of 2008, the 1830s saw collusion between enslavers, banks, and governments to prop up slavery’s shaky financial foundations.

What if, Moussier wondered, planters used slaves as collateral to raise capital overseas, from people who needed American cotton and sugar, and then used the capital to build a lending institution that enslavers themselves could control?


If loan repayments from planters failed and the bank could not pay off the bonds, the taxpayers of Louisiana were now obligated to do so. The state’s commitment convinced the European securities market.

The Half Has Never Been Told, pp. 245-246

Kudos & critique

I could go on about the rest of Baptist’s book, but suffice it to say that this is just the tip of the iceberg and I highly recommend reading it. He may be a white professor from Cornell, but he references a lot of original material from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — including first-hand accounts from enslaved people.

I also appreciate his decision to use the terms “enslavers” and “enslaved people” throughout the book. This choice of words brings power dynamics into sharp focus, and recognizes that enslaved people still had individual lives and experiences, and shouldn’t be treated by history as a homogenous group.

That said, there are a couple things that rubbed me the wrong way. The first is a short passage describing the plight of people who managed to escape the cotton plantations, often lost in the great American wilderness:

And in between stood thousands of armed white people who would not be their friends. As for the free states, they were even farther away. The number of enslaved migrants who made it from the depths of the cotton and sugar frontiers all the way to the free states probably numbered under a thousand during all the years of slavery. That amounts to one-tenth of 1 percent of all forced migrants. Most of those who did make it got away by hiding on steamboats, oceangoing ships, and later, on railways.

The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 168

Maybe Baptist is being very careful with his words here, but it’s misleading to ignore the 30,000 enslaved people that came to Canada through the underground railroad.

Baptist’s treatment of aboriginal communities, too, is almost non-existent. He acknowledges that the United States occupied indigenous land, and pushed its inhabitants further west through military conquest. All this was done to facilitate the expansion of slavery. Having acknowledged this fact, Baptist goes through most of the book with nothing more than a passing reference to native people. This seems odd for an account of history on America’s settler frontier.

I recently listened to a This American Life Podcast about the Dakota War of 1862, which explores the dirty, complex politics of native-settler relations on the frontier. It sheds light on a mass execution that has been whitewashed from history textbooks. (Go listen to it.)

So I’m disappointed that Baptist didn’t give more attention to stories like this and how they intersect with nineteenth-century America’s quest for more land, more slaves, more money. Even the anti-slavery northern states were guilty of running roughshod over native people’s rights. It would have been great to see this dimension explored more fully.

As a final note, I’ll mention that before reading Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, I read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A novel drawn from real-life experiences and written as slavery was still happening, this book does a good job of framing the context and culture around slavery. It ignited debate at the time, and seems to be a good representation of the debates people were having in different classes of society.

Getting an appreciation for the people, scenes, and attitudes of the time was a really great starting point. It helped me understand the examples in Baptist’s book on a more human level. If you’re like me, and never really got a good education about American history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great place to start. Then read The Half Has Never Been Told, and prepare to be blown away.

Fear, uncertainty, and death Thu, 08 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Monday morning, I hopped on my bike and rode to work. I like to take Moore Avenue via Duke Street and Waterloo Street — running more or less parallel to King, but without all the traffic. Narrow, leafy streets and cute homes with front porches welcome me as the hazy dawn breaks into full daylight. It’s a pleasant commute.

This route takes me close to Breithaupt Park, where I sometimes go swimming after work at the public pool. It’s the last place you’d expect a shooting to happen. But that’s exactly what occurred as I was preparing to leave home that morning. All this week, I’ve felt less safe going there.

Around 7:00 AM yesterday, a man was found shot and bleeding out on a front lawn on Margaret Avenue. He was taken to hospital, but it was too late to save him.

Police closed the street and put all the area schools on lockdown. Parents at my workplace were concerned for their kids. They were soon reassured: by early afternoon, the schools re-opened. The threat appeared to have passed.

Only, we still don’t know what’s going on. Police don’t know where the killer is, or if it was an intentional act.

By 6 p.m. Monday police had made no arrests and said “the risk to public safety is not yet known.” People are urged to be vigilant, aware of their surroundings, and report any suspicious activity to police.

“These types of incidents bring trepidation and uncertainty,” Chief Bryan Larkin said in a statement. “We live in a very safe community and the public can rest assured that our members are committed to a thorough investigation and to restoring a sense of calm.”

“Man dead after being shot by arrow”, The Record, 5 October 2015

Someone is dead and we don’t know why. Nobody saw the shooting happen. And the best advice our police can give us is to be vigilant. It’s now three days later and there are no suspects. Under the circumstances, the community is impressively calm.

Make no mistake: this was a shooting death, but it wasn’t gun violence. The victim was shot with an arrow. And that puts a bizzare angle on the whole ordeal.

I have to imagine things would be playing out differently if the killing involved a gun. There would be widespread fear about thugs running our streets. Police would be swarming the city. We’d hear loud calls for action in the news and on people’s Facebook walls. Instead, the atmosphere in Kitchener-Waterloo is more nervous and confused.

The fact that the weapon was some kind of crossbow or bow-and-arrow is difficult for us to respond to. On the surface, it seems wacky and absurd, and makes it easier to laugh and shrug off the news as a freak accident.

We’d sure like it to be a freak accident. As I bike through that neighbourhood on my way to and from work this week, I’ve felt an odd sense of fear wrapped up in confusion. It’s not the fear of street crime or the feeling of a “dangerous” neighbourhood. It’s not quite the fear of an unknown other, although that plays into it.

It’s the fear that this wasn’t a mistake. That someone could be out there, ready to target their second victim, and that I’m exposed. Riding through the quaint streets, swiftly, like a gazelle on the open plains. And I’m being hunted.

Bridging the web-native gap Sun, 20 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400 The line between websites and apps is becoming blurrier every day. What with entire operating systems being made with HTML5, and the recent influx of native adblockers on mobile platforms, there’s all kinds of cross-pollination that is absolutely good for the industry and good for the web in general.

Despite this, there’s still quite a gap between native apps and the web. One glaring example that Twitter users have had to deal with for nearly three years: Instagram’s decision to remove photo previews from tweets. This political decision has caused a truly horrible user experience for all of us.

Yeah, nobody’s going to click that Instagram link. Not only is the preview missing, but this link will open up in your phone’s browser instead of the Instagram app. Even though you may be logged in to the Instagram app on your phone, you’ll likely have to log in again through the browser.

So let’s recap. If you want to fav an Instagram photo you found on Twitter, just follow these simple steps:

  1. Click an obscure photo link that has no preview
  2. Get directed to your browser, which is probably a second-rate experience compared to the native app you already have
  3. Log in with the browser, even though you’re already logged in on your app
  4. Get redirected to your home page feed. Now you’ve lost the photo you wanted to see.
  5. Switch back to the Twitter app
  6. Follow the same link you already clicked in step 1
  7. Double-tap to fav

Here’s our problem: the browser doesn’t know your apps exist. Your apps don’t know that other apps exist. Your default browser gobbles up every link that comes across its path and the experience is terrible.

A better vision

This week, I’ve been musing about what a standards-based, backwards-compatible way to bridge the web-native gap. The more I thought about it, the more simple the solution seemed. We have the necessary tools at our disposal, but nobody seems to be using them to solve this problem.

There some truly mind-boggling proprietary URL schemes and workarounds out there. Relying on a new URL format or third-party app are not long-term solutions. These over-complicate the problem and drive a wedge further between the web and native.

What if all links to were opened by your Facebook app by default? Any link to would get intercepted by your Twitter client instead of opening in the browser. Same deal with Instagram.

This concept could be expended further. Let’s say you’re browsing Project Gutenberg to find a sweet ebook to read. You have an ereader app that listens for .epub links, and adds them to your library with one click. This saves you the steps of downloading the file, opening the app, and importing it manually.

Sounds nice. How do we get there?

The chokepoint here is the operating system itself. Right now, you can download alternative browsers and set them as your default. We need OSes to mash-up this functionality with a little regex and let any app be the “default browser” for certain kinds of links.

This preserves backwards-compatibility by opening links in the default browser if the user doesn’t have the app, or if they’re browsing on some other kind of device that doesn’t have apps. It’s the best of both worlds.

I’m not sure what the next step is: petition the smartphone OS makers? Build support in the developer community? Rally users on a per-app basis?

This solution really has benefits for all three groups of people. OS makers can save the time and energy they’re wasting on duplication of the HTTP protocol — no need to reinvent the wheel. Developers can offer deep integration with the web while offering first-rate native user experience. Users don’t have to feel shuffled around like sheep and get a smoother user experience.

Let’s talk about this. What do you think?

Update (1 Nov 2015): It looks like the newest versions of iOS and Android will support app-to-app links, also called deep linking. This is a good step forward, but unfortunately could also mean a step back. Both OSes will require apps to prove they own the URL, thereby crippling functionality for third-party clients and limiting the creative potential of the native mobile experience.

Strategic voting won't help you Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Strategic voting is a mirage. It’s like gambling, or predicting the stock market — there’s a whole industry of people trying to figure out how to game the system, and most of them fail.

Progressives have been hand-wringing for the last decade about how to unite the left (without actually, you know, uniting all the left-leaning parties). We really really want to kick Harper out this time, and strategic voting seems like our last option in a system where the cards are stacked against us.

Remember when Joyce Murray ran for the Liberal leadership, proposing that progressive parties unite behind one candidate in key ridings? Nathan Cullen, vying for the NDP leadership, also pushed for cooperation to defeat the Conservatives. They both lost.

Now we have Trudeau and Mulcair at the helm of their respective parties, and neither is interested in electoral cooperation. That ship has sailed. A minority NDP or Liberal government may need support from the other party to pass legislation in parliament, but there’s no way they’ll be endorsing each others’ candidates in this election race.

With that door shut, we’ve turned to strategic voting as the next best thing. But it’s not the next best thing. It’s not even a good thing. It’s hardly even a thing.

Polling can’t help you in tight ridings

The aggregate poll results at, run by writer-journalist Éric Grenier, have been an excellent resource over the last three elections. The site dredges through the panoply of polls across the country to come up with an informed outlook of what could happen on election day. It’s more than just an average of polls — Grenier uses a projection model that gives a percentage likelihood of each riding’s winner.

So, that’s great news! We have a smart statistics-man that did all the hard work to tell us who we need to vote for to defeat Harper! Right?


Polls and projection models can be pretty accurate on a nation-wide or regional level, but they lose accuracy fast when you’re trying to predict results for a particular riding. This is the Achilles’ heel of strategic voting — Canadians don’t vote collectively as a country. We’re carved up into 338 ridings, each a world unto itself. And when you get down to the riding level, there’s so much uncertainty that it’s difficult to figure out how to vote strategically.

According to the ThreeHundredEight projections, ridings with tight two- or three-way races have less confident predictions about who will win — and these are the only ones that matter for strategic voting. In my riding of Kitchener-Centre, where the NDP, Liberals, and Conservatives are in a dead heat, the polls are fluctuating between a 50-60% chance of a Liberal victory. That’s the statistical equivalent of throwing up your hands and shrugging your shoulders.

What about Leadnow?

This election, the advocacy group Leadnow has a shiny new campaign called VoteTogether. They hope to mobilize a hivemind of progressive voters in key ridings to tip the scales on voting day and stop Conservatives from getting elected.

I don’t doubt that Leadnow has very smart people working for them, and they’re trying their hardest to give people accurate information. But it didn’t work in 2011, and Leadnow isn’t doing anything substantially different this time around.

In 2011, there were two organizations trying to mobilize the strategic vote. They didn’t do so well:

  1. Project Democracy ended up making the wrong call in 19 swing ridings, were caught off guard by 10 ridings where the Conservatives gained a seat, and failed to make a dent in 33 targeted ridings where Conservative MPs were re-elected.
  2. Catch-22, only endorsed 2 candidates that ended up defeating a Conservative incumbent. 34 of their picks came second, and 8 came third.

But maybe, just maybe, Leadnow has it figured out. The strategic voting movement for #elxn42 has coalesced around VoteTogether and they claim to have identified 72 Conservative swing ridings where a united left can keep the Conservatives out.

I wish them all the best, but the math of strategic voting is working against them. They say the only poll that matters is the one on election day — and the only poll that matters for strategic voting is the one just before election day. Leadnow won’t have any useful polling data until a couple weeks before the election. Hopefully, this gives their on-the-ground teams enough time to collectively choose which candidate to support, get the word out, and finally, cross their fingers in hopes that everyone obeys their pledge.

It’s a tall order. For the strategy to work, the popular vote intention can’t change much in the last stretch of the campaign. If we see another late surge of support, like the NDP enjoyed in 2011, it will be impossible to navigate all those shifting goalposts in each riding.

I don’t want to diminish the real and valid mission behind a coordinated anything-but-Conservative effort. It’s a fantastic display of solidarity against the dismal legacy of Harper’s government. But the strategic vote is like herding cats, and has a dangerous potential to mislead.

Solidarity is not a numbers game Thu, 07 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Apparently, the University of Waterloo doesn’t know what it means to be an ally — but will gladly accept accolades and prestige for kind of thinking about it. Over the last few days, the UW administration has been trumpeting its partnership with HeForShe. It’s a worthy cause and a necessary approach to address systemic sexism, but I can’t find anything to suggest my alma mater is taking the campaign’s purpose seriously.

Launched last year, HeForShe is a great initiative run by UN Women. It recognizes that we need to change the conversation around feminism to engage men and boys, to recognize privilege and male-centredness in our societies, and for males to act in solidarity to dismantle the sexist norms embedded in our culture. It aims to get one billion pledges from men and boys around the world.

HeForShe is gaining steam, and UW has jumped on board as the only Canadian institution to take part in its IMPACT 10x10x10 pilot initiative — a fact it will repeat ad nauseum for the next little while. Good on UW for signal-boosting the excellent work of HeForShe, but I feel like it has missed the point.

In the section of the HeForShe website geared to universities, a helpful framework document is available, complete with action items that are tailored specifically to post-secondary institutions. There’s lots of good, succinct discussion about the problem HeForShe is trying to solve:

The achievement of gender equality requires an inclusive approach that recognizes the crucial role of men and boys as partners for women’s rights, and as having needs of their own in the formulation of that balance.


These principles build upon the agreed conclusions of the 48th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women held in 2004, which urged that men and boys have a greater role and accountability in the achievement of gender equality. Despite this recognition, the enlisting of men and boys as equal partners in the crafting and implementing of a shared vision of gender equality is yet to be fully realized.

And the document also outlines what role universities should play:

Under the HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10, UN Women will partner with at least 10 universities to mobilize university campuses to reshape the global discourse on gender equality. HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 will engage with universities at the administration and student level on gender sensitization and gender-based violence.

The suggested action items in HeForShe’s framework document touch on a bunch of great ways to bring the campaign to life on campus, including inspiring men on campus to join the campaign, addressing assault and misconduct, and training faculty and staff to build gender equality into their day-to-day roles.

However, when I look at UW’s commitments for the HeForShe campaign, It’s like reading another language. Despite the clear intent of HeForShe as a solidarity movement — one where men use their privilege to build upon and move with women’s struggle — UW’s commitments don’t engage men at all:

  1. Attract more female students in STEM programs
  2. Attract more female faculty members
  3. Attract more female leaders in senior academic and administrative positions

Do you notice a pattern? UW has clearly framed the fight against sexism as a pipeline problem — there aren’t enough women in the university, so let’s try to add more. Then we’ll eventually have gender parity and sexism will go away.

But structural sexism is more than just a numbers game. It’s also dangerous to conflate solidarity with numerical parity. And what surprises me most is how UW has erased all mention of social and cultural reform from its commitments. This puts the onus on women to fill the pipeline, and neatly avoids confronting men in positions of privilege.

So what happens when women are encouraged to fill the pipeline in an environment that remains hostile to them? Consider this observation from a UW student on what it’s like to be a woman in the Computer Science program:

There can only be one of us in a group of men, and we need to be exceptional. This is an incredibly limiting and unfulfilling role for women to play in CS. Many of us can’t or don’t want to handle the attendant social and academic pressures, so we end up switching programs or dropping out of school.

From Exclusion and Exceptionality in the Pipeline, by Julia Nguyen

So, yes. I’m disappointed and cynical about UW’s approach to the HeForShe campaign. That said, there is some work being done to foster male allies in the broader university community.

The Sigma Chi fraternity released a video last fall urging men to “Break the Silence” around sexual violence and rape culture. It was in the local news cycle for a few days, and laid down a much-needed challenge:

We are shifting our culture by changing ourselves, so we can influence our communities. And through this video, we want you to do the same.

A little further afield, McMaster University recently announced that it would increase the salaries of female faculty to correct a systemic pay gap. This is a great example of a university recognizing injustice and moving swiftly to rectify a structural bias.

Through HeForShe, UW could show some real leadership as an institution and engage men to act in solidarity against deeply-rooted sexism. Instead, it plans to just increase the number of women coming through its doors. Without more robust commitments, the university’s intentions fall flat.

This isn’t to say HeForShe can’t succeed at UW; if you’re a student there, sign the pledge on your own. Join the movement and make your own commitments. The university’s engagement has been lukewarm so far, but don’t let that stop you from doing better.

Twenty-first century brutalism Sat, 14 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Brutalist architecture is having a bit of a moment in the public consciousness. A surprisingly favourable one. I’ve long heard buildings like UW’s Math & Computer building or U of T’s Robarts Library described as oppressive, faceless, and institutional. I’ve always associated the style with a big brother-esque presence in the urban streetscape. They were built to stand as monoliths, and people have always harboured a desire to see them torn down. Right?

A few years ago I started hearing whispers about the heritage value of brutalist buildings. Heritage? Really? I thought they were universally reviled. Who would ever want to keep these hulking concrete blocks around and make it difficult for them to be replaced with something sleek and modern? (Heh, modern — now there’s an interesting word for this discussion.)

The University of Waterloo’s Math and Computer Building. Photo by parudox.

Public opinion is varied and changeable — over time, we may grow to appreciate a style of architecture for the cultural importance it carries, or simply because it’s become part of our urban fabric. But I’m still surprised at the number of brutalism apologists I’ve come across lately. There’s a weird semi-ironic nostalgia for brutalism that is becoming less ironic and more compelling the longer I think about it.

On Twitter, This Brutal House posts a steady stream of austere art and concrete architecture to 15,000 followers (including myself). Shawn Micallef, who I admire for his writing on urbanism, tweets things like “Windows are tyranny,” and I can’t tell if he’s half-joking or not.

I got into a surprisingly long Twitter conversation when I casually retweeted a photo of a brutalist housing project near a town that my Dad and I had visited on our last trip to England:

Several of my followers, most of whom I don’t interact with on a regular basis, came out of the woodwork to retweet, favourite, and post their own photos of brutalist buildings. I was taken by surprise at this groundswell of — what? Appreciation? Love? Nostalgia? — for the brutalist era.

So why, I wonder, does brutalism seems to ignite these passions nowadays? Is it just another throwback aesthetic whose time has come? Or is there something more meaningful behind it all? I have a few ideas about what brutalism means to us in 2015.

The Immaculate Conception Church, Orsova, Romania. Photo by fusion-of-horizons.

Faux nostalgia

One explanation of brutalism’s newfound popularity is the lazy argument that everything old is new again. But I’ll include it here because it’s partially true. There’s a nostalgic aesthetic around brutalist buildings that stirs up the same feelings as when I see an old typewriter in a thrift store and think, ‘I want that.’

Old Stuff, especially Old Stuff made with strong, heavy materials, has a certain attractiveness that also imparts a sense of reliability and stability. That aesthetic flies in the face of planned obsolescence and our magpie-like obsession with the 6-month tech cycle. And it’s actually quite refreshing.

Pilgrimmage Church, Neviges, Germany. Photo by SEIER+SEIER.

Minimalism and flat design

On the other side of the coin, brutalism has much in common with our sleek, smooth, buttonless devices. Solid colours, flat surfaces, and simple shapes are the graphic design standards of the moment. With the release of iOS 8, Apple really brought flat design into the mainstream and by now, I would say it has been normalised into our culture. So as our digital aesthetic has become more simplified and less flashy, maybe the flat walls and simple geometric shapes of brutalist buildings don’t seem so out of place.

Glass and steel overload

Urban apartment and office towers these days are covered in steel-and-glass curtain wall. It’s smooth, sleek, and ultramodern. Unlike the brutalist era, where windows are tiny cubbyholes in a hulking wall, today’s skyscrapers forego the wall entirely for the appearance of one long, continuous mirrorlike cocoon.

In places like Toronto (especially along the waterfront), all this glass is just too much. It’s cold and corporate. By comparison, the concrete of brutalism almost feels warm and cosy. The heft and stability of concrete now seems comforting when surrounded by these twisting shards of glass and metal.

The Sheraton Centre, Toronto. Photo by Canadian Pacific.

A glimpse into the future of the past

Finally, perhaps we are warming to brutalism because it harks back to a space-race era of unbridled optimism about the future. Humanity had reached the moon! Expo 67! Monorails! Canada’s centennial came and went, and things were looking up.

Brutalism embodied a kind of futurism that put faith in logic and ingenuity, and those platonic ideals are expressed in the clean lines and authoritative presence of brutalist buildings. They didn’t need any architectural frills — their engineering stands on its own merit, unencumbered by ornate details.

I feel like today’s vision of the future is more fraught with cynicism and ambiguity. It’s more incremental, less ambitious, less clear. In that sense, 1960s and 1970s futurism — and by extension, brutalist architecture — is comforting. Plus, the brutalist age is not so old that it becomes laughable or kitschy, like the steampunk futurism of the Victorian era.

* * *

I definitely think we’ve arrived at a new appreciation for brutalism. It deserves respect, and it deserves to be thoughtfully conserved as our cities grow and change. If you’re an astute policy wonk, you might notice my careful use of the word conserve. In the lexicon of Ontario heritage policy, conservation means anything from protecting the entire building, to respectfully integrating it in redevelopment, to simply documenting heritage features for the archives.

I don’t think we need to keep every concrete monstrosity that was built in our cities. But I do think they have really great bones, that they have evolved as physical and cultural landmarks, and that they could be retrofitted to be more pedestrian-friendly and inviting at the ground level.

I would love to see a “walkable brutalism” movement among urban designers and planners, in much the same vein as our strategies for sprawl repair and reintroducing street grids. It’s all about fixing mistakes that were committed over the last century, and oddly enough it’s quite an incremental vision for the future of such an ambitious architectural style. Brutalist buildings may be a far cry from good urban design, but I believe they can be tweaked and reformed rather than demolished and replaced with yet another glass-and-steel tower.

Faith in the system Thu, 27 Nov 2014 00:00:00 -0500 We want to believe that the systems and institutions that govern our lives are mostly good. We want to believe that if we just keep our noses clean, we have nothing to fear. It’s a lie you tell yourself because it’s easier to ignore systemic injustice than to do something about it — that is, unless you’re the one being marginalised. Then it’s impossible to ignore.

There have been a few phenomena over the past six months or so that got me thinking about the relationship between privilege, marginalisation, and cultural norms that perpetuate injustice. Specifically, I’m interested in peoples’ reactions and responses to events that expose these systemic issues.


May 23, 2014. Isla Vista, California. Elliot Rodger kills six university students, then himself, after writing a misogynist manifesto. The typical media narrative — mentally unstable lone wolf goes on a tragic, horrifying shooting spree — is derailed by men’s rights advocates who defend Rodger’s actions and his worldview.

They form an unexpectedly large contingent of sympathisers, and it becomes apparent that a counternarrative needs to happen. So men take to Twitter and begin to defend… themselves. The #NotAllMen stream stumbles awkwardly out of the gate as a collective hand-washing exercise, essentially saying, It’s okay, don’t worry, we’re not all like that. Don’t listen to those guys. As if gender equity will happen by simply ignoring raging misogynists. As if closing your eyes will make the problem go away.

At this point, #YesAllWomen becomes a necessary rebuke to the self-centred non-sequiturs of #NotAllMen. It steers the conversation back to the central issue, back to violence against women and the cultural norms that enable it. We get discussions about rape culture and how rigid gender roles enable the structural oppression of women. It becomes a platform for first-hand accounts of marginalisation, injustice, and abuse. People feel empowered to tell their story.

And I, with my male privilege, lose a little more faith in the system. I learn to believe in victims that speak out. I learn to amplify feminist voices. I learn to think more critically about my role in perpetuating harmful gender norms.


August 9, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri. Darren Wilson shoots Michael Brown dead. When it comes to law enforcement, cynicism runs deep for a lot of people. On the other hand, those that still have faith in the system can have an unshakeable loyalty and respect for police. Which of these worldviews do you lean toward? If you’re not sure, think about your initial reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Whose motives do you question? What about your reaction to the ongoing confrontation between police and protesters in Ferguson?

Residents mobilise against the injustice of Michael Brown’s death, and the Ferguson police respond with force and military equipment. Some of us international onlookers shake our heads in exasperation, thinking, Well, as long as the protesters don’t get violent everything should settle down. As if settling down to the way things were will eradicate police brutality. As if the onus is on unarmed civilians to use restraint when they’re staring down the barrel of a tank. This line of thinking is dangerous — it comes from a place of complacency, of comfort with the system, of privilege. And it invites harmful red herrings like tut-tutting looters and arsonists. When the government turns heavy artillery against its citizens, it’s not time to talk about what some ruffians did to the local pizza shop.

Yes, in times of chaos and mayhem, some people will steal things, damage property, and set stuff on fire. It happened in Ferguson. It happened in the UK riots of 2011. It happened all throughout the Arab Spring. It happened in Toronto during the 2010 G20 summit. It happened in the 2006 youth protests in France. That isn’t news. That isn’t the point. It diverts attention away from the reason people are out in the streets in the first place.

To illustrate: what if all sports reporting failed to mention the score of the game and instead focused on the drunken behaviour of a few fans? Tonight’s showdown between the Leafs and Sens erupted in violence when two men got into an aggressive barroom fight in the arena’s restaurant. What a black mark on the Air Canada Centre. Now with a look at this year’s Grey Cup predictions…

Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby

Let me briefly mention Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, two entertainers that are institutions in and of themselves. Here, the concept of “faith in the system” is more a personal affinity that one feels with a celebrity. Ghomeshi and Cosby have built careers on their personality, with legions of adoring fans.

So when news breaks that they’ve been sexually assaulting women, my very first reaction is one of disappointment and betrayal. Aw man, I liked Jian Ghomeshi. Q won’t be the same with him gone. Or: Thanks Bill Cosby, now my childhood memories of your show are tainted. As if it’s all about me. As if the worst thing about assault is that I can no longer think of the perpetrator as a nice guy.

This kind of reaction is understandable, because public figures like Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby are people who you’re supposed to identify with. But it’s far too easy to keep sympathising and making excuses for them. That’s what you do when you don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth. That’s how you silence their victims and perpetuate the problem.

What next?

That little seed of disappointment you feel when you hear about police brutality, sexual assault allegations, or any kind of injustice, reveals that your faith in the system has just been taken down a notch. Not just police, but the entire legal and justice system benefits from a sense that justice prevails and the rule of law is fair. As if the legal system doesn’t have its own prejudices and habits.

Having faith in the system means valuing the institution over victims of injustice. Once you recognise this worldview, you recognise your privilege. Which is a great first step, as unexamined privilege is the perfect vehicle for maintaining the status quo. So, as a privileged person in an unjust system, it is my responsibility to think, speak, write, and act consciously in ways that push against that balance of power.

Moving forward, I’m keeping these questions in the forefront of my thoughts and putting them into practice:

  • Which marginalised voices can I amplify?
  • Who can I donate to or support?
  • How can I remove or report hate speech?
  • Where is there misguided or misleading discussion happening? Can I identify any red herrings?

I no longer believe that the systems and institutions that govern our lives are mostly good. Systemic injustice is pervasive. Here’s hoping my cynicism spurs action rather than complacency.

Losing the internet Fri, 29 Aug 2014 15:00:00 -0400 When I was fifteen years old, I came across a web design forum called Open Source Web Design (OSWD) and fell in love with the community there. Members would create XHTML/CSS templates that anyone could use for free. We gave feedback on each others’ designs, chatted about trends in the industry, and the more experienced folk were more than happy to show the ropes to a young grasshopper like me.

There were never that many people in the OSWD community — maybe 100 active users at the most. Logging into the forum felt like entering a cosy clubhouse, one that was small enough to get to know everyone. Not that it was an exclusive club; it’s just that not many people knew about it.

OSWD was headed up by a man named Frank Skettino. Beyond that, I didn’t know anything about him. But that was fine; he was the site’s benevolent dictator and nobody really gave it much thought — until he stopped approving new submissions. Shortly thereafter, the forums were removed. The site has been frozen in amber since.

Members of the community tried to find a new home, but it was never the same. This thread on shows a few of the “old guard” trying to make sense of just what’s been going on (I’m acousticsam). But by that time, the community had begun to dissipate.

They say the internet never forgets, but really it’s so easy for years of content to be erased in the blink of an eye. At the end of the day, a website’s users are at the mercy of whoever holds the keys.

The web loses chunks of its history every day. The masses of small- and medium-sized web services that are being snapped up by the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, & Co. follow a well-worn pattern: build up a loyal following, sell out to a major corporation, then delete all your users’ data. When Yahoo bought Geocities, then subsequently shut it down, millions of webpages died.

This past week, the phenomenon hit closer to home., a forum for urban issues and development news in Waterloo Region, has been “temporarily” shut down, after users started voicing their discomfort with the way the site was being managed. I feel like this is going to be OSWD all over again.

Once a site is down, there’s not a whole lot you can do to recover the content. I’ve set up a central repository with some last-ditch methods people can use to recover what they can from the ether. But it’s like setting a library on fire and then trying to rescue the books. We’ll never be able to get it all back.

Curiously, I received an email today from the owner of WonderfulWaterloo, who had evidently caught wind of my rescue attempt:

Please remove the images/files from your recovery page: You don’t have their licences.

I spent hundreds of hours taking photos such as this, they aren’t for you to post publicly on any other websites:…2b%20R.jpg

I believe that people have a right to the content they’ve created. That includes the right to delete it from public record, and if I can ascertain the veracity of the owner’s claims, I’ll happily erase his photos from the repository.

The irony here is that when site owners pull the rug out from under a community, it’s a huge betrayal of trust. OSWD could never get back on its feet after the first unannounced shutdown, and it will be difficult for the WonderfulWaterloo community. Years of photos documenting the region’s growth, discussions, and debates about important community issues have been wiped clean.

Even if the site comes back online, will users trust WonderfulWaterloo with their data anymore?

Peace is too meek for its own good Wed, 06 Aug 2014 01:00:00 -0400 This most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has echoed loudly through the streets of Paris these past few weeks. Among the French media and politicians, there is much hand-wringing over l’importation du conflit — the risk of “importing” the conflict into France. It’s a turn of phrase that intrigues me for a couple reasons:

  1. The notion that a conflict can be “imported” suggests that it exists in its entirety outside our borders; that the French foreign minister isn’t actively involved in diplomacy, and that it doesn’t affect a diverse city full of immigrants such as Paris.

  2. This language frames violent conflict in much the same way as, say, protecting against invasive species. The subtext is clear: we need to beef up security and surveillance to prevent these foreign elements from contaminating our society. The conflict becomes a spectre.

Of course, this frame of mind is like candy for journalists. Coverage (exhibits one, two, three) of the recent demonstrations in Barbès and Sarcelles included breathless commentary about rogue, religion-crazed bands of provocateurs, bent on derailing an otherwise peaceful protest.

Over the next few days, the spectre would get larger and more menacing. Reports of arrests and charges, complete with voyeuristic accounts of who “those people” are. Official statements from the President and Prime Minister, who condemn the violence and want to forbid further demonstrations. All this is happening in the margins, next to the daily front-page photos of absolute hell on earth. Nobody wants to import that conflict.

When tensions are high, peace becomes a footnote. Indeed, the Libération article linked above concludes with a dry, single-sentence paragraph that seems almost as if it was thrown in at the last second to meet the word count:

Samedi, en province, des manifestations propalestiniennes se sont tenues sans heurts, notamment à Lyon, Bordeaux et Montpellier.

Saturday, elsewhere in the country, pro-palestinian demonstrations were held without incident, notably in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Montpellier.

As a pacifist, it pains me to see people resort to violence to make a point. It’s important to call out that behaviour and condemn it. But we have gone past that; we’re fetishising it. The successful, peaceful demonstrations in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Montpellier deserved in-depth analysis and follow-up articles. They deserved to be more than a token silver lining on the cloud of fear that has settled over this country.

* * *

This past Sunday, I learned that a pro-peace rally was to be held that afternoon at the Place du Louvre. I went to lend my voice and see what it was all about. In response to the violence, hate speech, and polarizing climate of the previous weeks, the organisers sought to push a simple message of coexistence. They went to great lengths to cooperate with the authorities, including changing the location at the last minute.

To prevent any potential flare-ups, Palestinian and Israeli flags were banned from the gathering — only the French flag was permitted. Pre-authorised signs were distributed among the crowd, bearing one-word messages: “Peace”, “Fraternity”, “Equality”, “Coexistence”. We sang the Marseillaise to kick things off, patted each others’ backs for not being bigots, and finished the hour-long ceremony with All You Need is Love. It was perfectly peaceful, staid, and forgettable. It’s as if all the passion had been squeezed out by bureaucracy.

Near the end of the ceremony, one of the organisers challenged the crowd: “Extremists will always be vocal. We, the silent majority, must continue to give peace a voice.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. I was waiting to hear about next steps. Maybe these rallies would become a weekly thing? Should we attend the next tense political march as a contingent for peace? How can we build momentum?

No next steps materialised. The microphone cut out, the crowd dissipated, and I was left wanting. I asked an organiser when the next rally would be. “Oh, maybe in September when school’s back in session,” she replied.

* * *

If I’m painting a bleak picture of the movement for peace, know that this rally did get picked up by the media — AFP and France Inter were there with cameras and microphones. Libération published a story about it in Monday’s newspaper. So it wasn’t fruitless. But there certainly won’t be any follow-up articles.

Sadly, I think that we’ve been telling ghost stories for so long that we’ve forgotten how to imagine a happy ending. But if we can keep promoting peace, especially on the ground at future demonstrations, we just might be able to scare away the spectre.

I’d love to make a dent in this importation du conflit boogeyman. And who knows — in the process, we might end up with something worth exporting.

Imagining a more walkable Abu Dhabi Sun, 06 Jul 2014 23:55:00 -0400 In June, I spent a couple weeks travelling around the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Of course, Dubai is far and away the poster child of the region, with its gee-whiz projects like The World and the 209-storey Burj Khalifa — but neighbourhing Abu Dhabi, where I spent most of my time, is just as ambitious, if less flashy. In fact, the whole country (made up of 7 semi-autonomous Emirates, each with its own ruling Sheikh) is soaked in oil wealth and foreign investment, which the Sheihks spend with varying degrees of extravagance.

To infinity and beyond

Having sprung up out of the desert in the mid-1900s, Abu Dhabi has grown at an astronomical pace and isn’t slowing down. Its main island is more or less built out. Master plans for the neighbouring Al Reem island and Saadiyat island are going full steam ahead. But at the same time, the city has entered the second life cycle of its infrastructure. Sooner or later, Abu Dhabi will have to divert its energies away from chasing the Next Big Thing and invest in maintaining its existing neighbourhoods.

Al Reem and Saadiyat islands, to the city’s northeast, are on the cusp of a greenfield development boom. Will it come at the expense of the central city?

Unsurprisingly, restraint and maintenance are the last things people want to talk about here. Abu Dhabi is not content to stop at the status quo. Everyone I met had a glimmer in their eye about the city’s future. Checking into a hotel, the concierge exhorted me to visit the newly-built Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. “It’s a world wonder! Ten stars! People will be coming from all over to see it!”

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, photo by Andrew Xu

This is a city relentlessly looking forward. Once-decent apartments built in the 80s are being demolished — too short, too old, out of fashion. Why restore and upgrade outdated infrastructure when you can build a new gleaming steel-and-glass masterpiece in its place?

Even the old medina has been razed and forgotten. In its place stands Abu Dhabi’s World Trade Center. Of course, they’ve incorporated a contemporary souk to honour the traditional market: roomy, air-conditioned, with all the old-world charm of a theme park.

High curbs and wide roads

For such an ambitious place, Abu Dhabi (like the other Emirates) has taken quite a lax approach to active transportation. Walking and cycling is not just inconvenient, but often downright impossible. When I first arrived at the central bus terminal in Abu Dhabi, my destination was only two blocks away. I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to walk, despite the 40-degree weather and a suitcase to pull.

Poor pedestrian infrastructure on Old Airport Road.

Boy, was I wrong. Sidewalks and pedestrian crossings are an afterthought, if included at all. Curb cuts are almost non-existent, so people with strollers, wheelchairs, luggage, or carts simply can’t get around safely. Sidewalks zigzag at ninety-degree angles to accommodate parking stalls. If you’re not travelling on four wheels in Abu Dhabi, you are indeed a second-class citizen.

Abu Dhabi is planned along a strong grid pattern, with four-lane urban highways slicing the city up into neighbourhood units. These major roads usually have a landscaped median with fences, making jaywalking and mid-block left turns impossible. Many car trips start by heading in the wrong direction until you can make a u-turn.

No jaywalking over this barrier… nevermind the 3 lanes of high-speed traffic each way

Within the neighbourhood units, though, communities are surprisingly complete. In the places I visited, there were all sorts of independent businesses on the ground floors of every building. Supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, tailors, laundry services, hair salons, doctors’ offices, housewares stores, even the odd karaoke bar or covert nightclub. Each neighbourhood certainly had a mosque. All that’s missing are schools within walking distance.

The standard setup within neighbourhood units: this building is home to two hair salons, a travel agency, a fish market, and what looks to be an office supply store.

The bones of livability

These neighbourhoods are dense, with almost everything you need for day-to-day life — that’s two points on the urbanist scorecard. But I wouldn’t say they are walkable. Why not? Let’s take a look at some aerial photos of the Tourist Club neighbourhood. Despite the name, it’s not a haven for tourists; just a working-class neighbourhood nestled between Abu Dhabi’s emerging financial district and the beachfront Corniche area.

The northern part of Tourist Club. A neighbourhood unit is outlined in green.
Zooming in, we see that there’s no continuous pedestrian network. The space between buildings is almost entirely taken over by parking.
Here’s the view from street level. Not very pedestrian-friendly, is it?

I call this “towers in the parking lot”. It’s a shame that the area feels so hostile on foot, because you’ve got all this mixed-use density, you’ve got buildings in a more-or-less grid pattern, but what fills the spaces between them? A parking lot with little regard for active transportation. Sidewalks hug the edges of each building, but there is no connectivity for pedestrians to move around the neighbourhood comfortably.

Abu Dhabi’s Walking and Cycling Master Plan

It’s with great interest, then, that I came across Abu Dhabi’s recently-announced Walking and Cycling Master Plan. Could it be that they’ve got a plan in motion to address this issue?

The Plan starts with some strong rhetoric, declaring that “walking and cycling will be accessible, safe, convenient and enjoyable for all.” Among the challenges to a walkable city, it lists “Car oriented urban areas – large blocks, very wide streets with very fast traffic, huge parking lots and unorganized parking.” ()

The Safety section says, “The urban environment will be safer and more accessible, no longer dominated by motor vehicles at the expense of all other users.”

Abu Dhabi has done great work on its Corniche by building a widely-used cycle track and recreational pathway.

All good policy. Abu Dhabi clearly recognises the problems with car-dominant cities and wants to do something about it. So how do they plan on getting there?

Achieving broad and far reaching change inevitably draws on multiple stakeholders, necessitating involvement and close collaboration across a number of sectors – transport, police, health, industry, civil society and special interest groups. To have the greatest impact, it is essential that comprehensive institutional buy-in is achieved so a coordinated response can be effectively delivered. — WCMP Highlights, page 18

Re-read that last bit. Comprehensive institutional buy-in: this approach excludes incremental, lighter-quicker-cheaper interventions at the local level. Instead, the Emirate’s way forward is to garner everyone’s support for the already-finalised Master Plan, which the relevant authorities will fund, coordinate, and effectively deliver.

Unfortunately, the Master Plan says nothing about retrofitting the “towers in the parking lot” phenomenon in neighbourhoods like Tourist Club. Either the Planners aren’t aware that it’s a walkability nightmare, or it’s just not a priority.

And if neighbourhoods acted on their own?

Hypothetically, then, what could happen if neighbourhoods — say, under the structure of local Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) or property owners’ associations — were given the authority to plan, fund, and implement their own solutions?

What if instead of lilypads among a sea of parking, the buildings in Tourist Club were connected by proper walkways?

What if a parking structure — generating revenue for the local BIA — freed up some of that scarce asphalt for a basketball court?

What if restaurants and cafes had enough sidewalk space for patio seating?

Maybe Tourist Club could look a little more like this:

Or maybe it would look completely different. And that’s okay. But if Abu Dhabi is going to maintain a resilient urban core, it can’t ignore the infrastructure improvements needed within neighbourhood units. Maybe the neighbourhoods themselves are the best entities to carry out this work, since high-level government seems ever-focused on the big and shiny and new.

“Towers in the parking lot” have no place in a walkable city. So if the Walking and Cycling Master Plan won’t do anything directly to reverse this destructive pattern, local-level associations should be empowered to take the reins.

It’s hard to believe that radical local empowerment could happen in an authoritarian monarchy… but I prefer to sell it as another leap forward for Abu Dhabi’s ever-ambitious society.

The fairytale museum Mon, 19 May 2014 08:30:00 -0400 Prague is called “The Fairytale City”, which is a pretty apt description of the atmosphere it exudes. Anyone who has been there tells me, “You’ve got to go! It’s so beautiful!”

Breathtaking architecture in a hidden corner of Prague’s old city

It is beautiful. Prague has retained an architectural heritage spanning several centuries, from Gothic, to Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau. There was no large-scale urban renewal like in Paris or Barcelona; in World War II, it didn’t see nearly the same scale of bombing as in Dresden or Warsaw. The buildings are maintained in good condition (at least in the tourist areas), and modernism has not been permitted to dominate. Yes, you’ll find Gehry’s dancing house if you look for it, but you won’t see a London Eye or CN Tower peeking up over the medieval rooftops.

Gilded embellishments on buildings near the astronomical clock
Beautiful buildings framed by throngs of fellow tourists… and this is on a rainy day!
The famous astronomical clock

Walking around the old city, I get the distinct feeling of being in a huge outdoor museum. Clusters of tourists, shepherded by their guides, make their way from attraction to attraction: the Astronomical Clock, the Powder Gate, the Charles Bridge with its parade of statues, the Tyn Church, the Municipal House… a visit to Prague is a long checklist of impressive things to gawk at.

The Tyn Church keeps a watchful eye on Starometske Namesti
The municipal building, an Art Nouveau marvel

On my day-long stroll through the old city, I saw virtually zero people who looked like locals. Every second storefront was a tacky souvenir shop. You know, the kinds of establishments that sell “I heart Prague” shot glasses and screenprinted t-shirts with “Czech me out” written in Comic Sans or some such atrocity. When it starts raining, boxes of ponchos and umbrellas appear at the entrance beside the postcard racks.

Yes, Prague is a museum — one where the gift shop is interspersed among the exhibits. Cafes and restaurants are plentiful. All bohemian decor and authentic Czech cuisine, with menus in perfect English, of course. They feel like a sort of museum exhibit as well.

Feeling a bit smothered by the hordes of cameras and fanny packs, and curious to see the other side of Prague, I turn against the flow of tourists and walk East, back past the train station, under an overpass, and emerge in a ghost town.

It’s noon on a Saturday and all the shops are closed on Siefertova, one of the main streets in the residential district of Vinohrady. Graffiti abounds; a small huddle of teenagers mill around a bus shelter. Every few minutes a tram rolls by, packed with people heading to the centre of town.

I take a meandering stroll through this desolate neighbourhood and notice that the 19th-century buildings are in varying states of repair. Some have a fresh coat of paint, some are chipped and peeling. They look like Haussman’s Paris, but more colourful and ornate. Again I think about museum exhibits. Vinohrady is undergoing restoration — that’s why there’s no one here. Soon, it will be suitable for the viewing public.

I make my way South and then West, looping back around to the old city, taking in the sights along the winding medieval streets. I join the throngs of people all funnelling toward Charles Bridge. It’s a grand, triumphant crossing over the Vltava River. Towering arched entrances mark both ends of the bridge, and a dozen or more statues line the sides, watching over the teeming masses with a benevolent air. Most of the statues are gilded. All of them are saints or religious figures. A life-size Jesus hangs from a cross at the midpoint of the bridge.

Some visitors are taking their next Facebook profile photo with one of the statues. Others approach in supplication, grasping the hem of a stone cloak as they offer a prayer.

Reaching the end of Charles Bridge, with Malá Strana in sight

I come to the end of the bridge and continue through the archway to Malá Strana, the Little Village. It’s similar to the rest of the old city; the abundance of decorative architectural features risks becoming stale. I wonder if I don’t already have enough photos of beautiful rooflines and streetscapes. I take a few more pictures anyway.

A typical souvenir shop. Best viewed from a distance.

As I continue past more souvenir shops and restaurants hawking goulash and pork knee, I’m beginning to think I’ve seen all of what Prague has to offer; but that attitude quickly vanishes after I climb the long set of stairs up to the Prague Castle. Perched on a hill, I get a breathtaking view of the whole city laid out before me. It strikes me how small it is, and how much history is packed in among those narrow streets. I see the train station where I arrived that morning, and try to retrace my steps. But the streets are too dense to see any one route clearly — it’s all just a jumble of rooftops.

I have a couple hours left before I need to take the train back to Dresden — I smile to myself at the prospect of getting lost again in this Fairytale museum.

Identity politics Thu, 08 May 2014 02:30:00 -0400 On April 24, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) made a radical change to the way its members are represented. Gone are the directors representing faculties and colleges. Instead, a lone at-large director will accompany ten representatives for various identity groups that are not divided along faculty lines:

  • LGBTQ students,
  • racialized students,
  • indigenous students,
  • international students,
  • mature students,
  • students with disabilities,
  • commuters,
  • athletes,
  • women, and
  • first-year students.

To quote Robyn Urback’s scathing opinion piece on the matter, “This plan doesn’t include any council representation for the white, male, second-year student who lives on campus and doesn’t play sports — but he has his privilege, right?”

The UTSU board has brought in this overhaul in order to “better represent students”, but by defining which identity groups get special treatment, it has set up a starkly divided class system. Some groups get a special representative. Everyone else will have to clamour for the attention of that single at-large director.

Make no mistake: this is the worst kind of misguided tokenism. But at the same time, the tradition of faculty representation is not neutral; there are over- and under-represented interests embedded in the status quo, too. They’re just arranged differently.

Looking at the latest minutes available on UTSU’s website (which unfortunately are five months out of date), some topics of discussion in the board meeting include:

  • a rumoured new pricing strategy for tuition fees,
  • updating bylaws to meet federal legislation,
  • how to respond to private tutoring companies soliciting on campus, and
  • a proposed student residence.

Now, if you had to bring a group of people together to discuss these kinds of issues, would your ideal system be to split up their constituencies based on what subject they’re studying? Nonsense. These issues transcend faculty lines and have nothing to do with the differences between academic programs.

So what would a more reasonable constituency look like? Well, it depends on the issue. If you’re talking tuition fees, it might be a good idea to get proportional representation from each income bracket. Whether a student is rich or poor will surely impact their views on tuition more strongly than whether they study Political Science or Biology.

What I really want to talk about, though, is how this concept translates to the wider world of politics. In every level of government, elections are organized in geographic ridings. Naturally. Obviously. How else would we do it? You vote for a councillor, MPP, or MP to represent your neighbourhood, your city. It just makes sense.

Does it?

Are most policy issues geographic in nature? At the municipal level, they probably are. But at higher levels of government, constituency groups are more likely to be divided along lines of income, family structure, age, ability, and cultural values. A 75-year-old with arthritis living in Guelph is likely to have similar views on healthcare as would a 75-year-old with arthritis living in Sudbury. More so than the average Guelph resident, at least.

Ontario is in the opening stages of an election campaign right now. Imagine if, instead of deciding who should represent your neighbourhood or city, you had to decide who will represent your age bracket. I identify as an 18-25 year old much more than as a resident of Durham Region. I’d argue that the needs and interests of 18-25 year olds across Ontario are more cohesive than those of all residents in Durham Region.

Of course, I’m revealing a bit of personal bias here. I have never found much identity in geography. I was born in Ottawa, spent my childhood hopping between Whitby and Port Perry, went away to school in Kitchener-Waterloo, worked in Toronto and Hamilton for a spell, and now I live in Paris, France. I have family in the USA, UK, Sweden, Germany, Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. My co-workers are six timezones to either side of me. I do not find my identity in geography.

Like the faculty division of student unions, geographic ridings seem like the natural default option for representing citizens. But the way these geographic boundaries are formed are steeped in social identity. For example, I agree that it makes sense to have different representatives for rural and urban areas — but not because of geography. There are cultural and social differences between city life and country life, and those differences are what’s really important.

Another reason to abandon geographic representation is just to call a spade a spade. Gerrymandering, the process of manipulating electoral boundaries, is a perennial problem in politics. But it’s really just a way to define constituencies by their social identities. Currently, it’s done in a sneaky piecemeal way to the advantage of incumbent parties. Why not remove the question of geography from electoral districts and let people vote based on their social or demographic identities rather than a geographic one?

Some would say I’m adopting a segregationist argument here, but nothing could be further than the truth. In the current system, politicians can say whatever they damn well please and claim to be acting on behalf of their constituents. But they’re really only acting for the continents that align with their values. And in Canada’s winner-takes-all electoral system, the majority of voters go without any representation until the next election.

We can do better. And as misguided as the UTSU’s restructuring plan is, they’ve done one commendable thing: they recognized that certain interests were being underrepresented, then turned the tables. Their list is incomplete and doesn’t account for the fluid, multifaceted nature of identity; the implementation was rushed; UTSU isn’t keen on taking criticism seriously. But this doesn’t mean that the status quo of faculties and colleges is the best way to represent students’ interests.

A Paris cycling adventure Sun, 04 May 2014 13:00:00 -0400 Less than half of Parisian households own a car. It’s easy to understand why: you’re never far from a Metro station, and the city gets nice bike-friendly weather pretty much year-round. Not to mention that it’s an absolute pleasure to walk in Paris. A growing bikeshare network, dedicated bus lanes, and the annual transformation of the Georges Pompidou Expressway into Paris Plage reinforce the message: it’s time for cars to take a back seat.

With private automobiles being pushed more and more toward the bottom of the totem pole, it seems that the informal rules of the road have adapted accordingly. I can’t speak to the evolution of Parisians’ rush-hour behaviour over time, but I can tell you that coming from North America, it’s something of a culture shock.

In Paris, staying in your lane is a matter of artistic interpretation. Many of the white lines have long since faded from the cobblestones, and the flow of traffic can become a sort of dance. Of course, as a cyclist, I’m grateful for the comprehensive network of segregated bikeways, bike boxes, sharrows, and dedicated traffic signals. But let’s talk about what happens when this civilised hierarchy loosens its grip.

I’m riding down Avenue Kléber, about to enter the roundabout at the Place Charles de Gaulle. The Arc de Triomphe is looming ahead and the scene is particularly thrilling. Six or seven layers deep, all manner of cars, taxis, tour buses, city buses, scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles are circling, circling, like pilgrims at the Kaaba.

Shifting down to second gear, I prepare to enter the fray. Comparisons to Mecca aside, the atmosphere is anything but meditative. To my left, a taxi peels away, darting toward Kléber and leaving a gap in this chaotic carousel of traffic.

Now, dear reader, the next action is up to you. Oh, yes — this is a choose-your-own-adventure story. You’re now a confident urban cyclist in Paris. Good luck, and make your first choice:

Enter the roundabout or Wait for a bigger gap in traffic

A guide to getting settled in Paris Wed, 19 Feb 2014 02:00:00 -0500 There’s lots of advice around the internet for expats looking to settle in France (and Paris in particular). Before coming here, I read up on countless forums and blog posts about how to look for a place to live, set up a bank account, get a phone plan, and all that wonderful bureaucratic stuff. Still, when I arrived in Paris it was sometimes overwhelming and confusing to jump through all the hoops.

So here’s my modest contribution to the corpus of advice. I’m going to go through each task in detail, listing the documents you’ll need, fees you’ll have to pay, things to watch out for, and timelines for how long you’ll have to wait.

Before I begin, a disclaimer: this post is based on my personal experience in January 2014. By the time you read this, it might not be accurate any more. Post corrections in the comments and I’ll edit the post as necessary. Also, FYI, I arrived in France with an EU passport and a work contract. If you don’t have these documents, think about what other equivalent papers you could use (e.g. student visa and a school acceptance letter).

I’ve organised the following sections in more-or-less chronological order. For example, you can’t get a phone plan without a bank account, and you can’t get a bank account without proof of residence. So finding a place to live is going to be one of the first things you need to do.

If you have any questions or want to share details about your own experience, leave a comment! Now, let’s get started.

Get a prepaid phone plan

It doesn’t really matter with whom. But unlock your phone before you come, and once you get here buy a cheap prepaid SIM card with basic calling and texting. This shouldn’t require any ID or paperwork. But you’ll need a French phone number for all that other paperwork you’re going to fill out.

Done? Good. Now, let’s really get started.

Get a Vélib’ membership

Paris’ bike-share network, Vélib’, is a great way to get around the city. For me, it takes slightly longer than the Metro to get around, but I get to look at beautiful Haussmannian streetscapes instead of a dingy tunnel on my commute.

Vélib’ stations like this one are peppered throughout Paris and its suburbs.

You can get a year-long Vélib’ membership for €29, or €19 if you’re under 26 years old. that gets you unlimited trips of up to 30 minutes throughout the whole city (you can bump it up to 45 minutes for an extra €10). And yes, if you’re getting close to your half-hour mark, you can just dock it at any station and hop on another bike — the timer starts again at zero. Check out this map for all the Vélib’ station locations.

What I’m saying is, get the Vélib’ membership. It’s dirt-cheap and Paris is a nice city to bike around in. The first step is to grab a Vélib’ Express card from one of these locations — it’s faster than waiting for a card to be mailed to you.

Once you have the card, go to the Vélib’ website and sign up. You’ll need a French phone number, but a foreign credit card will work fine for the payment — you don’t need to set up a French bank account for this.

Find a place to live

There are a lot of shady landlords and rental scams in Paris. So the first tip here is to be vigilant, don’t give anybody money unless you have a signed contract in your hands, and never feel pressured into making a decision right away. I know that Paris is a tight rental market, and landlords can afford to be discerning because there’s just so much demand. But if someone is pressuring you give you cash right now, it means they’re the one who’s desperate. Don’t feel bad about taking 24 hours to decide if you really want the place or not.

Now, unless you already have a French bank account set up, you will likely have to deal in cash when looking for a place to live. Either that, or a wire transfer. Landlords don’t like cheques, especially not foreign ones. Just make sure that you get receipts for the money you hand over.

Many of the affordable studio apartments in Paris are on the top floors of buildings such as this. Don’t count on an elevator, a window facing the street, or a private toilet.

Where to look

There are a few useful websites for finding rentals:

These sites mostly feature ads by individual landlords, not real estate agencies. Agencies will typically charge a one-time fee called an honoraire, so watch out for that. Another word you’ll come across is garantie, which is the security deposit. It’s normal to pay a one-month security deposit, whether you rent from an individual or an agency. Furnished places might have a garantie higher than one month’s rent.

When looking at the listings, often you’ll also see the words charges comprises (CC) — utilities included, or hors charges (HC) — utilities extra.

If you’re looking for a studio, you’ll see listings that mention WC sur palier, douche sur palier, or both. This means the toilet and/or shower is shared among multiple tenants, and is usually located on the same floor as your unit.

Arranging a visit

When arranging a time to view a place, it’s better to call than to send an email. Most of the time, people won’t respond to an email.

When you decide on a place, you may be asked to provide your landlord with a copy of your ID and work contract. While the first payments will have to be done via cash or wire transfer, your landlord will also want your French bank account details once you set that up — which leads us to the next step.

Open a bank account

I got my chequing account (compte courant) from La Banque Postale. Most branches offer on-site consultations without an appointment, so just go into a nearby location and ask to open an account. (This is true for most banks — check out this comparison tool if you want to shop around for one that meets your needs.)

You’ll need to bring the following documentation:

  • ID (e.g. a passport)
  • Proof of residence (e.g. signed rent contract)
  • Proof of income (e.g. work contract)

The account setup took me about 2 hours. Most of the time was spent watching the bank representative type information from my documents into her computer.

Now, I don’t know about other banks, but La Banque Postale also offers cellphone plans, health insurance, renter’s insurance, overdraft protection, et cetera. Be aware that they will try to upsell you on all this stuff while they are opening your compte courant. I declined all of those upgrades, and at the end of the day, I’m paying about €10 every three months for this bank account.

Also, unless you’re a fan of snail mail, be sure to tell the representative that you want online statements — it wasn’t the default option when I opened my account.

After all my information was inputted into the computer, I made a nominal deposit of €20 (cash) to formally open the account.

Then I was given a provisional Relevé d’identité bancaire (RIB). The RIB is an important document in France. It is a standardised form with all your bank account details that allows for preauthorized deposits or withdrawals — say, for paying bills or getting your salary deposited automatically. Your employer needs a copy of your RIB. So does your landlord. So does your phone company, internet provider, and the electricity company. It’s a good document to have.

I should emphasise that I received a provisional RIB. I had to wait 10 days to receive the final RIB, along with my debit card, in the mail. Until you receive your final RIB, the bank account is not technically active. If you want to make a deposit, you have to ask the bank teller to “force” the transaction. And since you won’t have a debit card, you can’t withdraw money from an ATM. So plan for a good 10 days before you can begin using your French back account.

After your bank account is finalised, you can ask for a chequebook. Note that for La Banque Postale, I needed to have a minimum account balance of €160 before they would send me a chequebook. It arrived about two weeks after I ordered it.

Set up your electricity bill

If electricity isn’t included in your rent contract, you’ll have to set up your own account with Électricité de France (EDF). You can do this over the phone, and you’ll need the following before you start:

  • A RIB (provisional is fine)
  • A French phone number
  • If possible, the name of the previous tenant (ask your landlord)

To set up your account, call EDF client services at +33 09 69 32 15 15. Tell them you’re a new tenant and that you want to set up your account. They’ll ask you for the numbers on your RIB, and you’ll need to provide them with some basic contact details like your name, phone number, email address, and the address of the building that you are living in. If you can provide the name of the previous tenant, it’s easier for them to transition the account to your name.

They’ll also ask you some questions about the apartment, including the size in square metres, how many appliances you have, if the stove is gas or electric, if you have your own water heater, etc. Based on this information, they’ll estimate the apparent power of the apartment and group you in a fee category.

To give you an idea of the fee structure, my 12-square-metre studio puts me in the cheapest fee bracket. Taxes included, I pay €52.11 per year as a subscription fee, plus €13.72 per kWh that I use. In the higher fee brackets, the per-kWh rate is the same, but the annual subscription fee increases.

Since EDF estimates your power usage based on your answers to the questions, they’ll charge you a flat rate every month and then correct it at the end of the year to reflect your actual usage. So you may end up paying a little more or a little less than you thought.

Again, unless you’re a fan of snail mail, be sure to tell EDF on the phone that you want to receive your monthly bills by email.

Get a phone plan

If all you want is a prepaid SIM card, you can walk into any store and buy one with cash. No ID, no bank account required. But if you want a monthly phone plan (which generally gets you more bang for your buck if you need lots of data or overseas calling), you’ll need to have the following:

  • ID (i.e. a passport)
  • A RIB
  • A debit card
  • Proof of residence (Your RIB may already have your address on it, but if not, bring your rent contract.)

As you know from the section on banking above, it can take at least 10 days to get your RIB and debit card. So my advice is to grab a prepaid SIM as soon as you get to Paris, then switch to a monthly plan when all your ducks are in a row.

Note: you probably won’t be able to keep your phone number when you switch from a prepaid SIM card to a monthly phone plan. I was told that it would be no problem, but in the end the technicians at Virgin Mobile couldn’t make it work. So, a word of warning, but your mileage may vary.

Use this website to compare the different phone plans available in France. If you have all the documentation ready, you should be good to go with the operator of your choosing. I’ve dealt with three phone companies here, so I’ll elaborate a little bit on that.

First, I got a prepaid SIM card from SFR, and I don’t have much to report on that front other than to say it worked well, they had decent coverage, and they sent me text messages when my credit was almost used up. No complaints.

For my internet needs, I got a mobile broadband hotspot from Bouyguyes Telecom. They were actually pretty lenient on the documentation requirements. They signed me up for a 1-year contract even though at the time I only had my provisional RIB and no debit card/void cheques. They noted my RIB details, and told me to come back to the shop with my void cheque once it arrived so they could put it in the file. (Specifically, I went to the Forum des Halles location and the staff there are great.)

The third operator I’ve dealt with is Virgin Mobile (they had a decent plan with unlimited calling back home to Canada, which I found appealing). But they were more strict than Bouygues, requiring both a finalised RIB and a debit card in addition to my passport.

Enjoy Paris!

Now that you have a place to live, a way to get around, a bank account, internet, and a phone plan, get out there and live your life already.

Oh, and if you’re in Paris and reading this, drop me a line and let’s meet up for coffee (at least that doesn’t come with an application process).

How the cities of yesteryear reacted to the automobile Sat, 08 Feb 2014 23:00:00 -0500 Debate over the role of the automobile is a mainstay of urban politics. A quick scan of the last few months’ headlines reveal a debate over surface parking in Minneapolis, Washington Metro’s push for more transit-oriented stations, mixed messaging from Hamilton’s downtown parking study, and Waterloo’s propensity for buying up land to build parking lots. That’s just a small taste of what’s happening today, as cities contend with the opposing forces of an entrenched car culture, and a desire to promote more sustainable modes of transportation.

The 20th century saw automobiles reshape the urban fabric of every city in the world. But what were things like at the beginning of this era? In the 1910s and 1920s, when automobile ownership started to rise, we didn’t have standards for parking lots or traffic signals or any of the infrastructure to support cars. Cities scrambled to create policies that would manage this boisterous addition to urban life.

In this blog post, I’ve compiled a short selection of news articles from local U.S. newspapers that offer a glimpse into the public reaction to automobiles at the time. (I found them while browsing the U.S. Library of Congress website, which has a fantastic searchable archive of local newspapers dating back to 1836. It’s a great way to waste an afternoon.)

This first article is my favourite one. Published in the Chicago Day Book, a publication geared to the “95 percent” of the population (ring any bells?) saw the arrival of the automobile as a class struggle.

The Day Book (Chicago, IL) — July 16, 1914

The big bugs win again

The South Park board again came to bat for the big fellows yesterday when it O.K.’d the plan to hand over to auto owners a big slice of Grant Park to be used as a parking place for autos.

They’re even going to build for the big fellows, at the taxpayers’ expense, a lovely bridge, so that the autos might not have any bother in getting to the parking place.

And then they’re going to let the big fellows have the use of a squad of their own park cops, so the auto owners won’t be troubled by ordinary folks hanging around.

Two years later, another article about car parking appears in the Day Book. It’s less vehement, but highlights the problems that autos are causing for the existing streetcar network.

The Day Book (Chicago, IL) — August 16, 1916

Would forbid auto parking near street cars

Automobiles should be forbidden to park within two street car lengths of a street crossing, according to recommendations made in the latest report of the board of supervising engineers, which has made a study of traffic conditions.

In nearly every other big city, street car loading spaces are reserved at every crossing in which vehicles may not be parked.

The board also recommended: The installation of electric semaphores at busy street crossings, to be operated by a policeman from a raised platform; a new ordinance limiting width of vehicles or burdens carried through downtown streets; stricter enforcement of vehicle parking ordinance.

Skipping ahead to 1919, Philadelphia envisions a giant, cylindrical parking garage to solve its congestion woes. (It would be another 45 years before a similar project was completed in Chicago.)

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA) — November 17, 1919

Skyscraper garage to solve auto-parking problem

How a suggested plan by E. G. Higgins to overcome the problem of housing automobiles in congested city areas, where parking spaces are growing smaller, would look if adopted in Philadelphia. The scheme is to build a garage in the form of a tower, with a spiral driveway, from which on etiher side there could be 700 car stalls. At the center there would be a spiral leading downward, access to which could be had at intervals from the ascending driveway. The entrance is at the right-hand side.

The sleepy town of Bisbee, Arizona, came to grips with its own parking issues by converting a public plaza to a parking lot.

The Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, AZ) — December 25, 1919

Opens plaza for parking of autos

The plaza in front of the post office was opened yesterday to automobiles for parking only. Because of the heavy traffic along Lower Main street and through Subway street it has been impossible for the police to find parking space for the vehicles. Chief J. A. Kempton yesterday rescinded the order permitting autos to park along Subway street when City Engineer Halleck said the plaza pavement would not be damaged by automobiles parking in the plaza.

The dirt covering the pavement while it is being cured will not be removed until December 28. Shortly after that Main street will be opened.

This next article highlights the attitudes of business owners in Richmond, Kentucky, towards the automobile epidemic. Interestingly, curb parking was not seen as “good for business” — it prevented people from walking across the street and hindered access to storefronts.

Richmond Daily Register (Richmond, KY) — June 19, 1919

New parking plan seem to please

The parking of cars in the business section of the city is making access to stores on each side of the streets much easier and business men say that their customers and callers can get into the stores far easier than by the old method of parking cars at the curb. Street Commissioner Allman has nicely marked white lines, indicating the parking areas.

All motor vehicles parked on Main and First streets shall be parked in the areas herinabove set out and described; they shall be parked on Main street at right angles to said street, side by side in single file. In removing any motor vehicle from said parking area, same shall be driven forward then in the direction which shall keep the curb of the street on the side upon which operator is driving, on the driver’s right. Motor vehicles passing along this parking area shall drive to the right side of same in the direction in which they are driving.

Motor vehicles parked on First street in the area hereinabove described shall park in a position at right angles to said First Street; they may park in two ranks, where practicable. When leaving said First street parking area said vehicles must be driven forward, where practicable, and then proceed in accordance with the traffic laws now in force, relative to driving to the right. When it is unavoidable, motor vehicles may be backed out of said parking area, and then proceed in accordance with the traffic laws, relative to driving to the right.

It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to stop or cause to be stopped any motor vehicle for a period of more than three minutes, at any point at, along or near the said parking areas, or the curb lines running along and parallel thereto.

The above article doesn’t say what the new parking areas look like, exactly, but this follow-up article makes things a bit more clear. The convention at the time was for cars to park in the center of the street, effectively creating a median of parked cars. Evidently, that system didn’t work so well. The city issued an ordinance to return parking to the curb once more.

Richmond Daily Register (Richmond, KY) — October 9, 1920

New parking rule to be established: Center of city streets will be kept clear as in greater cities—new plan

That there will be a new parking ordinance within a short time is admitted by members of the Richmond city council, and that the regulations of the same will be enforced is another statement that indicates a change in the city parking system that will be of unusual importance to everyone owning an automobile.

According to plan being discussed at present, there will be no center street parking, this privilege being confined to the sides of the streets, leaving the center of the thoroughfare clear. The parking at the sime of the streets will be admitted, an hour given for each parking period.

This, the officers as well as the councilmen declare, will do away with the congestion of the center of the street and cause drivers of vehicles going in either direction to pay more attention to keeping to the right and the street clear. It is the intention to arrange the matter of parking to the best adventage of all, and while the above plans have not been definitely decided upon, they are favored by many of the officials at present.

One city councilman stated this was the manner followed in greater cities, with the result that there is not the turning around of automobiles caused by center street parking, and those going one way will turn to the right, this mode being more satisfactory in every way.

The matter of parking will be taken up, it is expected, at the next meeting of the council when an ordinance is expected to be presented and the plans will be completed within a short time governing the movement. while there may be “backing out” upon the part of drivers from the gutter after parking, there will not be the turning around of the machine in the middle of the street or square, and, this is one of the dangerous practices, it has been discovered in greater cities. there will be a traffic officer provided for the up-town streets, and officers declare there will be arrests for the first violation of the new ordinance after its presentation.

In Washington, the Metropolitan Garage is trumpeted as “one of the largest and most complete” in the country. I include this little article to show how unprepared we were for the tidal wave of cars that would continue to flood our streets. The picture’s hard to see, but a single 7-storey parking garage just won’t be enough to meet future demand.

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — May 1, 1921

The Metropolitan Garage — A large modren fire-proof garage which will be built on L street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets nearly opposite the Dewey Hotel. the greater part of the stock in this establishment has been subscribed for by Washington business men—the stock available is being handled by Donald G. Fisher, of the Vermont garage. When completed the Metropolis garage will be one of the largest and most complete in the United States.

A year and a half later, and we see that Washington is coming to grips with the sheer scale of the automobile phenomenon. The knee-jerk response? Buy up land, demolish buildings, and erect more parking garages!

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922

Garages for parking cars considered to relieve traffic: Highways must be freed

Laid out to avoid traffic congestion, the average width of Washington’s streets being considerable in excess of that of other cities, nevertheless, traffic conditions developing during the busy hours of the day throughout the central sections are declared to be the despair of those responsible for the enforcement of regulations governing vehicles in the use of highways.

This condition, it is pointed out, is of comparatively modern development. Its incipiency may be traced back to the advent of the automobile, according to highway engineers. Hence, they say, the chief traffic problem consists in finding a solution to the question of parking automobiles in the central districts of the city.

It is estimated that no fewer than 10,000 motor vehicles are parked at times in the highways traversing or leading into the business quarter of the city. In certain blocks in that section each side of the street is lines with autos tailed in or nosed in so closely that it is impossibel for the pedestrian to cross to the opposite side without going to an intersecting street. This is not the condition of a single block. It extends generally throughout the entire downtown section, and with the increasing use of automobilesin creeping out into adjacent sections.

To park thousands of motor cars within the limits of the commercial section, it is said, is the greatest problem faces by the authorities, and that until a satisfactory solution has been found for it little improvement in traffic can be expected.

Those who have studied the auto-parking situation here closely admit that the final solution to safe, sane and satifactory parking of autos cannot be reached through any regulations prescribing the particular way in which autos must be placed in relation to curbs… It is conceded that it is no longer a question of ranking and parking. The final solution of the traffic problem involved in the presence of autos left standing in the streets rests, it is asserted, in providing parking quarters off the streets.

Free the highways of the central section of the city of the thousands of automobiles left standing along the curbs for hours each day, it is urged, and a long step will be taken toward solving the other traffic problems, especially that of reducing the number of street accidents to a minimum.

While not authoritatively stated, it is understood that consideration is being given a plan which would result in the District Commissioners acquiring sections of land within certain blocks now used by the property owners as backyards, and converting them into sites for District Parking garages. Ont hese locations, it is pointed out, it would be possible to erect fireproof, substantially constructed buildings several stories in height, each having a capacity of from 500 to 1,000 autos. The garages would be equipped with powerful elevators capable of hoisting five or ten autos at one time to the upper parking floors. These floors would be divided into a given number of spaces. Each space would be numbered and a check corresponding in number to the space given the motorist.

In addition to providing parking space, the District garages, it was suggested, could provide service, including the cleaning of cars and the making of slight repairs. This would provide additional revenue, a nominal parking charge being made. According to those favoring the District garage plan the lower floor of each garage would be reserved for motorist parking cars for a few hours only, while the upper parking floors would be used for all-day parking.

Those familiar with the parking situation express the opinion that five District garages, having parking accommodation for from three to five thousand cars, would meet requirements for the next five years, while the withdrawal from the highways of a corresponding number of automobiles would free the streets from the dangers and inconveniences incident to existing conditions and parking methods.

From the same issue as the above article, here’s a succinct description of the dangers that parked automobiles brought to crowded urban centres.

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922

These cars are fire danger

Traffic congestion resulting from the parking of thousands of automobiles in the streets throughout the business section of the city has resulted in a general disregard of the parking rule requiring an open space of five feet between each motorcar. The illustration shows how this disregarding of the spacing provision practically results in the formation of impassable barriers along the curbs of many of the downtown streets during business hours. Fire department officials declare the condition created in this way in the streets greatly increases the work and the danger in fighting fires. District parking garages, it is said, would free the street congestion existing at present.

It’s fascinating to look back and see how cities tried to manage the presence of cars in the urban environment. Of course, now we know the failed legacy of overzealous off-street parking development — huge tracts of unproductive land that break up our downtowns and make them less appealing to live in.

The parking issues of yesteryear still remain in many cities, but we can’t keep trying to solve them with 1920s policies. A shiny new parking garage is not a panacea, it’s a band-aid solution. In the 2020s, car congestion will only be solved by making other forms of transportation attractive — and the cities that don’t will be forever mired in the past.

Oh, one last article: this one’s not about parking, but it is about automobiles and it’s hilarious.

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922

Judge tries out car; speeder loses case

CHICAGO, Dec. 29 — Hyman Miller, arrested for speeding, put up the familiar claim in court yesterday that his machine could not make forty miles an hour.

“Come on,” said Judge Schwab, reaching for his hat and overcoat. “I can drive a car a little, and we will see what your boat can do.”

Hyman and his father, a policeman and the judge piled into the car and the judge took the wheel and stepped on the gas. Half an hour later they came back. The speedometer showed forty-five miles an hour, so Hyman lost his car and the judge also imposed a fine of $50.

Exploring permaculture in Portugal Sat, 25 Jan 2014 00:30:00 -0500 I first came across the word permaculture while looking for volunteer opportunities online. Melissa and I had our hearts set on visiting Portugal and we were finding lots of organic farms that were willing to host us in exchange for a few hours’ work each day. At first I glossed it over as another sustainability-related buzzword, but after six weeks of permaculture experience, I was actually pretty excited about the concept.

The easiest way for me to describe permaculture is in comparison with monoculture and polyculture. Whereas monoculture optimises the land for a single crop, and polyculture encourages crop rotation and biological diversity, permaculture goes a few steps further. People who practice permaculture seek to enhance ecosystems, achieve energy independence, and pursue cultural richness while working towards long-term food security. Permaculture recognises that growing crops is only one part of a complex social-ecological-economic system.

Like sustainability, permaculture has no concrete definition and is very much adaptable to the context in which it’s practiced. From my experience in Portugal, permaculture’s strongest evangelical tool is the proliferation of permaculture design courses, which provide tangible tools and knowledge for farmers and land owners to work within their ecological context.

When it comes to these practical methods of permaculture design, I was surprised to learn that permaculture doesn’t shy away from altering the landscape. In particular, it’s common to create microclimates using man-made lakes, terracing, and large rocks. Sepp Holzer, permaculture’s most famous celebrity, has diverted whole watercourses to create artificial lakes on his property.


Our hosts in the Algarve, with whom we stayed for two weeks, practiced permaculture at a household level. They had installed solar panels to meet their energy needs, used the natural topography of the land to irrigate their orchard with greywater, and created terraces and rock walls to make a warmer microclimate for growing food.

But it’s important to point out that our hosts plan to go beyond just stewardship of the land. They have built a small cabin overlooking a lake on their property, and want to rent it out as part of a retreat/meditation centre. This is in keeping with the golden rule of permaculture, which is to have different kinds of systems working together. Money coming in from cabin rentals would provide a measure of financial stability in the case of a bad harvest, for example.

Of course, this is just one family and their property, so it’s hard to be completely self-sufficient. Yes, the family goes into town to buy groceries and one of the parents still has to work outside the home. But this is a husband and wife with two young daughters who are already off the grid, and already growing many of their own fruits and vegetables. That’s a significant lifestyle and culture shift, and they’re only been at it for two years.

Vale da Lama

During our stay in the Algarve, we also visited a 42-hectare permaculture institute called Vale da Lama that espoused many of the same goals as our hosts, but operated on a much larger scale. They had many hectares of land devoted to food forests, different types of orchards, stable woodland, harvestable woodland, grazing pastures, an herb garden, and communal outdoor space.

A map of Vale da Lama, showing the agricultural areas and the venues for their many events.

Vale da Lama’s brochure explains their motives this way: “Our objectives are to regenerate soil life and re-establish the innate diversity of ecological, social, and economic systems, bringing back the natural health of the land and its people, and improving their capacity to locally respond to the challenges we are faced with nowadays.”

It’s an impressive agricultural operation, but that’s not all Vale da Lama does. It relies primarily on yoga retreats, conferences, getaways, and permaculture design classes to financially support the agricultural activities.

In fact, Vale da Lama got its start thanks to a multimillion dollar investment from an wealthy American business owner. It hasn’t yet found a way to become financially sustainable, and that seems to be the hardest part of the permaculture puzzle to crack. But more on that later.


Our second volunteer experience was in the centre of Portugal, near a town called Oleiros in the heart of the Estrela Mountains. Our hosts here had similar ambitions to those in the Algarve: they own a small olive farm (about 250 trees), and plan to offer permaculture design workshops in the future.

Quinta da Corga, an olive orchard oasis in the middle of the Estrela Mountains.

Our hosts were well-read on permaculture theory, and had a few books by Sepp Holzer. We actually implemented some of this theory during our time there, building a few raised beds following Sepp Holzer’s hugelkultur method (that’s hill culture in German). The idea is to make a pile of dead wood, cover it with compost, cover it all with dirt, and then plant some stuff on top. The core of rotting wood will provide a steady source of moisture and nutrients for the raised bed, cutting down on the need for irrigation and fertilizer. Here’s a youtube clip showing how it’s done.

Building a raised bed, Sepp Holzer-style.

System change is hard

The glaring hole in these approaches to permaculture is that their long-term plans rely on money coming in from one-off retreats or workshops — that is, people with a lot of disposable income who want to go on holiday and learn about permaculture. With permaculture courses ranging from €800 to €2000 in this part of Portugal, it’s not exactly accessible to a large part of the population, especially considering the employment crisis in Europe right now.

If the demand for classes and retreats is to keep ahead of supply, permaculture must always be an alternative, minority lifestyle. For permaculture to become a widespread phenomenon, its economic stability cannot rely on rich urbanites and expats to foot the bill.

Practicing permaculture should lead toward a circular economy — one where the value produced by the land and the people living on it is reinvested in the local community. That’s really difficult to achieve, but permaculture can’t continue to grow as a movement if it needs to be funded by the current economic system.

Why Portugal?

So why is Portugal such a hotbed for permaculture? Honestly, despite my criticisms, I think Portugal has a lot going for it. First, its population still has a cultural connection to rural life. Many young adults can remember their parents’ or grandparents’ farms and the country has only recently urbanised at a large scale.

Second, a desparate young workforce, plagued by unemployment, is returning to the land and seeking alternative lifestyles. The rural exodus of the past 30 years or so has left hundreds, maybe thousands, of abandoned villages in Portugal (mostly in the central region). There are whole villages, complete with fixer-upper stone houses and neglected farmland, that are just begging to be brought back to life.

While not quite abandoned, the nearby town of Frazumeira has lost a lot of its population. Many homes and streets have become overgrown with vegetation.
An abandoned but salvageable shed in Frazumeria.

Lastly, Portugal has a fantastic climate for growing a range of produce. In the Algarve, our hosts grew lots of citrus in the orchard, and could even make bananas work if the winter was mild.

Permaculture could be the blueprint that Portugal needs to get out of its economic slump and breathe new life into its countryside. But before a pastoral revolution sweeps the country, permaculture advocates need to do two things: 1) make permaculture education more accessible, and 2) transition away from relying on retreats, workshops, and the like for revenue.

Portugal has the natural climate, social capital, and rural infrastructure to make permaculture happen in a very real way — here’s hoping it succeeds on the economic front as well.

Jakriborg, the medieval suburb Fri, 17 Jan 2014 01:00:00 -0500 After turning off the highway, we travelled for a couple of minutes down a dirt sideroad and arrived at the entrance. A man in a neon green vest waved us through a set of gates. It sure didn’t look like a medieval town — all I could see were large sheet-metal storage sheds and, as we cleared the gates, a vast parking lot. However, past the sea of vehicles I could make out a jumble of pointed wooden roofs, typical of northern German architecture. So, I thought to myself, Welcome to Jakriborg.

The parking-lot entrance to Jakriborg, the medieval city guarded by a chain-link wall.

Entering the town was much like arriving at a theme park. Having left our car several hundred metres back, we walked across the pavement to a gap in the chain-link fence that separates Jakriborg from the parking lot. Guided by the smell of carnival food, we ventured forth into the bustling, festive atmosphere of an old-timey Christmas market — or at least a current-day incarnation of one.

Jakriborg is a small town in the south of Sweden, planned and built from scratch in the 1990s. Nestled next to the sleepy town of Hjärup, halfway between Lund and Malmö, it is the brainchild of Jan and Kristian Berggren. These brothers decided to develop a town with a small-scale medieval aesthetic as a response to the construction boom of soulless towers in the 1960s and 70s. It’s worth noting that Jakriborg is built entirely on private land. The Berggren brothers own everything, which allows them to have tight control over everything from the design of buildings to who is allowed to hold demonstrations in the “public” square.

Taking its cues from Hanseatic architecture, Jakriborg is a nice place to visit — a quaint, nostalgic, master-planned oasis. Of course, true medieval towns had no such planning to guide their development, but they also had bubonic plague and feudalism, so I’m glad Jakriborg isn’t attempting a completely accurate historical representation.

Jakriborg from the air. The rail line in the bottom-right corner separates it from neighbouring Hjärup.

The Jakriborg Christmas market runs on the second and third weekends of December, attracting visitors from the surrounding metropolitan areas of Lund and Malmö. Thousands of people visit every year to buy Christmas gifts, admire the faux-German architecture, and entertain the kids. It makes for a fun day trip, wandering the cobblestone streets and cute little boutiques with the spirit of Christmas in the air.

As a viable town, though, I can’t help but think that Jakriborg is failing. The first phase of construction covered an area of 11 hectares and brought in about 1,000 people. Although it has good train service to Lund and there are plans to open up better pedestrian connections to Hjärup, there just aren’t enough jobs within Jakriborg proper to sustain a community.

Since cars are relegated to beyond the city walls, Jakriborg is a completely pedestrian-oriented community. This means it needs a critical mass of people, shops, offices, and industry in high enough densities to be economically self-sufficient. Sadly, it’s not there yet. Without a solid core of people living and working in this town, it will forever rely on the boom-and-bust cycle of the Christmas market and summertime tourists.

Small business turnover is a large problem in Jakriborg. Although it wants to maintain a small-town, pre-industrial image, the town is too small and isolated for independent businesses to risk investing. A supermarket chain has taken over the role of butcher, baker, dairy, and greengrocer on the main commercial strip, Köpmannagatan. Although the architectural heritage of the building has been preserved to a degree, Jakriborg can’t avoid the same retail giants as every other suburb — only this time, there’s a different coat of paint.

A Tempo supermarket has taken over the ground floor of this building for nearly an entire block. There’s not much opportunity for independent retailers to compete.

I actually decided to get my hair cut on the day we went to Jakriborg. The salon was located just at the south end of Köpmannagatan, close to the train tracks that divide Jakriborg from Hjärup. My hairdresser turned out to be quite talkative, so I peppered her with questions about life and business in Jakriborg. As it turns out, she and a friend started this business together less than a year ago, though they wouldn’t be surprised if it went under in another six months. And her reason for starting a business here is the first place? She grew up in the area. Aside from childhood nostalgia, there’s nothing tying her to Jakriborg, nor does it seem there’s much incentive to invest in a business that isn’t geared towards tourists.

Köpmannsgatan, Jakriborg’s main commercial street, is lined with lovely little restaurants and arts & crafts shops.

So how does a town like Jakriborg survive financially? It is endowed (or rather, endebted) with beautiful cobblestone streets and immaculate plaster-and-timber buildings. Its reputation as a Christmas tourism hotspot depends on this cheery, clean atmosphere — nobody wants to walk into a Dickens novel.

So far, the Berggren brothers have succeeded in developing a tourist attraction. But for Jakriborg to be successful in the long term, their task will be to plan a town that’s big enough to sustain itself economically (without plunging into debt on the up-front infrastructure costs). Can they achieve this while maintaining private ownership of all the land? If a return to the medieval city is what they’re after, perhaps feudalism is on the horizon after all…

Operation polyglot Wed, 01 Jan 2014 14:33:00 -0500 Starting next week, I’m going to be teaching English to kids in Paris. So it only seems fitting that I should hone my language skills at the same time. I’ve made it my new years’ resolution to improve my skills in four languages. By the end of the year, I want to be able to:

  • Read a Henning Mankell novel in the original Swedish without having to reach for a dictionary
  • Build a web app from scratch in Ruby
  • Have an intelligent conversation with soemone in French about a book we’ve both read
  • Use a full-stack Javascript framework like Node, Ember, or Angular to rewrite my Real World Index website

Programming languages are still languages, right? Here’s my weekly schedule, in case any of these resources pique your interest:

Day Language Resources
Monday Basic Swedish SwedishPod101 Audio lessons
Tuesday Ruby Codecademy
Thursday Advanced French Duolingo
Friday Full-stack Javascript 7-Week javascript course on Reddit
Node.js for Beginners
Node and Angular series from Scotch

Ruby Tuesday, get it?

I’ll need to beef up my list of resources for Swedish, Ruby, and French, but this should be enough to get me started for the first month or so.

Happy new year!

Generational aptitude Tue, 24 Dec 2013 01:30:00 -0500 There are few things quite as irksome as watching someone type “” when they can just search from the address bar. It’s like counting out a hundred pennies to pay for a pack of gum. Why would you do that?! My internal monologue screams.

My grandparents and parents approach technology in a fundamentally different way than I do. When personal computing became mainstream, they had already reached adulthood. In their formative years, computers were something that very smart scientists and engineers built for large institutions. Knowing how to operate a computer was closer to rocket science than to auto repair, for example — and to some extent, I think this mentality still sticks with them today.

Anytime my father asks me how to do some new tech-related task, I write out step-by-step instructions on a piece of paper. My grandparents are the same way. They need those instructions written down like a recipe because they want an authoritative source of information.

If for some reason my instructions don’t anticipate every scenario — a dialog box that I failed to account for, or a software update that changes the layout of a page — they are reluctant to experiment. They’re not likely to google the problem, nor are they keen to click around and see what happens. Fear of pushing the wrong button prevents them from taking a guess.

In a way, this generational gap in computer literacy is similar to learning a new language. Immerse a child in Russian, and they’ll absorb the language as they learn and grow. Teach Russian to an adult as a second language, and their learning is skewed by the structure of their native tongue.

I’m not saying that everyone over 40 is a luddite. My dad actually adopts new technology faster than I do — he’s really excited about his new seven-inch phone-tablet hybrid while I hold onto my QWERTY Blackberry for dear life. My grandparents use software to edit photos and map out our family’s genealogy, and they subscribe to a PC power user magazine to keep themselves up-to-date on the latest trends in tech.

As I think about the generational differences in the way we approach technology, I realise that in some cases, the aptitude gap goes the other way. My 78-year-old grandfather has no trouble driving with manual transmission, but I wouldn’t know where to start. He also has a fascinating low-tech solution to encrypt the PIN codes for his various payment cards. It’s basically a cipher that he keeps in his wallet on a piece of paper the size of a business card. I would never have thought to secure my data in this way, but it works — and it’s far from the prying eyes of the NSA.

Indeed, I have my own mental ruts and preconceived expectations when dealing with new technology. I still hunt for a save button when working in Google Docs, and I’m sure that other innovations will continue to trip me up down the road. I may have come of age at the same time as the Web, but it’s evolving faster that I am. How long will it take for me to feel like I’m really out of my element?

Sunrises, side streets, and swindlers in Fes Fri, 01 Nov 2013 18:38:00 -0400 After deciding to slowly make our way up through Europe to arrive in Sweden for Christmas, we also decided that we would slowly make our way through Morocco before we arrived in Europe. We’d been living in Casablanca for a month, but hadn’t made time to visit Marrakech, Fes, Tangier, Essaouria, the Saraha desert… all the touristy parts of Morocco were still as foreign to us as the day we arrived.

Our first stop would be Fes, then on to Tangier before catching a ferry to Spain. The areas south of Casablanca would have to wait for another time.

We stayed at Funky Fes, a hip riad just inside the Bab Jdid gate of the medina. There were lots of young travellers from all over the world, and it felt good to meet new people after the relative isolation of life in Casablanca. Plus, the rooftop patio had an amazing view over the medina. Watching the sun rise over all those satellite-dish-covered buildings was a breathtaking moment.

The common room of our hostel retains the traditional tile floor of a typical Moroccan riad.
Sunrise over the medina.
And now, animated! Satellite dishes are an essential piece of the Moroccan landscape.

The Fes medina is a magical place. A veritable rabbit hole of alleyways that always seem to spit you out at the same four or five public squares, it was a joy to walk around and get lost for a few hours. Casablanca’s medina, the only reference point we have, pales in comparison. Eager to discover what would be around the next corner, we thoroughly enjoyed oursleves while sampling homemade nougat and fresh lemonade, eyeing beautifully crafted tin lamps, dodging the mules and horses that serve as taxis in these cloistered streets, and breathing in the damp musty smell of tanned leather.

In one of the squares, men hammered away at sheets of metal, forming pots and pans before our eyes.
A mule taking a rest. Soon, he’ll be laden with carpets, pots and pans, or whatever other merchandise needs to be transported through the medina’s winding streets.
Honestly, Fes makes me feel like I’m walking through an issue of National Geographic.

Of course, Fes is known for its tanneries — yes, I had seen the photos online of men practically dancing atop vats of dye containing all the colours of the rainbow. Animal skins are arranged like decor around the perimeter in various stages of cleaning, dyeing, and drying. It’s a perfect postcard scene, and of course we wanted to visit one. We failed in our first attempt to get there, getting lost and then harassed by a shop owner who eventually made it quite clear that he was personally aggrieved that we didn’t want to buy his wares. We fled back to the hostel to look at a map and get some proper directions from the staff.

All of the travel advice I had read warned that it’s not easy to just walk up to the tanneries and take a peek. You have to know someone who knows the tannery owner, and that usually means going on a guided tour. Of course, every other person you meet on the street will offer to take you to see the tanneries, but they often get you lost in the bowels of the medina and then demand an exorbitant fee to take you the rest of the way.

Despite this knowledge, we decided to make a go of it the next morning, armed with a map and our newfound sense of direction. Other people in our hostel had gone to the tanneries without a guide, so we figured it wouldn’t be too difficult. Deftly avoiding eye contact with yesterday’s haranguing shop owner (it turns out we were on the right path the previous day), we made it to an alleyway where the stench of leather was palpable. Through the cracks of windows and doors, we caught glimpses of the famous vats as we walked along — this was definitely the right place.

An unassuming man selling some kind of cheap trinkets or made-in-China scarves (there were so many of them, it’s hard to keep track) caught us as we passed by, asking if we wanted to see the tanneries. Having rebuffed dozens of similar approaches, we began to walk away — I was wary, and wanted to at least get the lay of the land before agreeing to let someone show us the tanneries. But he kept talking, and we kept listening, and eventually he assured us that he wasn’t looking for any payment, that he knew the owner of the nearest tannery, and that we could walk in and observe without paying a cent. “Of course,” he added, “the stench is quite strong from ground level so he also has an elevated observation deck which will only cost you five dirhams to access.”

Ah, there’s the catch — wait, five dirhams? That’s $0.63 Canadian. Okay, let’s do this. The man left his storefront and led us around a corner, into another shop where he introduced us to his friend, the tannery owner. With a hurried apology, the first man explained that he needed to get back to his shop. The tannery owner, a tall, suave, calm gentleman, gave us each a sprig of mint. “For the smell,” he explained. He led us up a winding staircase which opened onto the rooftop. From here, we had a brilliant view of the tanning process.

This tannery uses all-natural dyes: poppies for red, indigo flowers for blue, and saffron for yellow.

After taking in the scene (and taking a few photos as well), we headed back down the stairs and bought some handcrafted leather goods as Christmas gifts. Despite my terrible poker face, we managed to haggle down to two-thirds of the original asking price. Sure, we didn’t get the best deal in the world, but our experience was a far cry from the doom-and-gloom travel advice I had read.

Still, getting swindled in the local markets is a rite of passage for any tourist, and in our case it happened that afternoon.

In general, we had been surprisingly good at negotiating for souvenirs on our own. That said, we planned to do a lot of Christmas shopping in the medina and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t being played for fools. Our hostel runs a scheduled afternoon shopping trip, where a local guide will take you around to buy what you want and negotiate with the shopkeepers on your behalf. So we thought, sure, why not.

Unfortunately for us, the real swindler was our guide. Having meandered around the medina on our own, we had a fairly good idea of the prices we could negotiate by ouselves. Perhaps my strong French and possibly-maybe-Moroccan complexion made the shopkeepers go easy on us. But as soon as we were accompanied by a guide, we were definitely branded as foreign tourists. In some cases, the final price negotiated by the guide was more than what we had paid for the same item earlier that same day.

These pouffes were more expensive the second time around.

On top of that, the guide only took us around to shops run by his friends — you can be sure that they had an agreement worked out. After adding in the customary 10% tip to the guide at the end of our shopping trip, needless to say I was frustrated.

Well, let’s call that a lesson learned. Life goes on, and Fes is still beautiful. We unwound with some lemonade in one of the public squares, before venturing back into the medina for Moroccan pizza. We headed back to the hostel for a pot of mint tea and spent the evening atop the rooftop patio. All in all, it was a good day.

National Geographic, am I right?!
Rabat conference notes — Part 2 Mon, 28 Oct 2013 00:00:00 -0400 See my previous post, Rabat conference notes — Part 1, for my notes from the Les Ateliers de la Terre conference.

The second conference I went to in Rabat was hosted by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global association of municpal policymakers, academics, and political figures. Held on October 1-4, this conference was branded as a “World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders”, with the motto Imagine society, build democracy. Here are some recaps of the most memorable discussions:

Making Africa’s cities more attractive

The first event I went to was a panel discussion about making African cities more attractive [PDF] hosted jointly by the Africa chapter of UCLG and Jeune Afrique, a news magazine. It was held at the offices of the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so I was subject to a passport check at the door — good thing I decided to bring mine with me, just in case!

Cost of living

One of the topics of discussion was about the comparatively low cost of living in African countries. Even if a household living in Rabat could make twice as much money in Europe, they can afford to live a wealthier lifestyle by staying in Morocco. The panelists agreed that this is a great comparative advantage that African cities should promote to attract wealthy immigrants.

There are two points that I want to make about this, both of which were not addressed in the panel discussion. First, the cost of living in African cities is an advantage right now, but how long will that last? As economies grow (and
Africa’s economy will grow at a faster rate than Europe’s in the next generation), the cost of living will necessarily increase. I’m not convinced that there is anything intrinsically different about Africa that will allow middle-income Europeans to live here like royalty forever.

My second point is that the comparatively low cost of living in African cities is built upon a system of gross inequality and government lassitude. Case in point: there is a huge megablock redevelopment under construction near where we live in Casablanca — the Roudani Center. It will soon be upscale apartments and offices, but the living quarters for the construction crews are absolute squalor. On the edge of the muddy building site is a row of shacks, built with stacked cinder blocks and corrugated tin sheets for roofing. Walking past one day, I could see rats scampering about and bare lightblubs hanging from the ceilings, the wiring exposed and tangled. A mattress was tucked int he corner of one shack. There was no sign of plumbing. So what’s more important — that Morocco keeps attracting welathy Europeans, or that all Moroccans get an acceptable standard of living?

Construction is underway on the Roudani Center.

Big data

Charbel Fakhoury, representing Microsoft’s CityNext initiative, gave an overview of his company’s efforts to bring the power of big data to cities. By way of introduction, he declared: “By 2016, smartphones and tablets will put power in the pockets of a billion global citizens.” That’s powerful stuff.

He went on to argue that analytics and real-time information can help eliminate silos in public administration and help governments to make more informed decisions about service delivery and political priorities. He also noted that big data makes effective citizen engagement and two-way dialogue possible, and allows cities to provide personalised services for residents and businesses alike.

Most importantly, this all relies on a backbone of smart infrastructure. Every new piece of infrastructre should be equipped to provide feedback to the city — traffic lights that measure automobile and pedestrian volumes, garbage trucks that map out how much waste is generated by each city block, you name it.

Going back to Mr. Fakhoury’s opening statement, the million-dollar question will be how Microsoft can actually convince governments to use this data to empower citizens, and not keep this information confined to city hall. That requires a culture shift in many administrations, not just new technology.

Infographic from Microsoft’s CityNext marketing materials. Governments connected via the cloud, while citizens… talk to each other?


Chief Tokunbo Omisore, President of the African Union of Architects, spoke about how economic growth and investment shouldn’t leave future generations indebted. Affordability — for citizens and cities alike — is key. Solving our short-term needs by scrambling to fund large infrastructure projects does nothing for long-term sustainability.

These sentiments were echoed by Louis-Jacques Vaillant, executive director for external relations of the Agence Française du Développement. He cautioned Africa’s local leaders to avoid making the same mistakes that Europe did. In other words, don’t dig a financial hole to finance development. He pointed out that reaching out to the private sector for financing is one solution, but the key hurdle with that approach is that there is an imbalance
between the financing cycle (short-term interests) and the project cycle (long-term interests).

Sustainable development

Kenza Abbad Andaloussi from OCP group, Morocco’s state-owned phosphate company, highlighted a new urban development being undertaken by OCP, called Ville Verte Mohammed VI. Located in Benguérir, this city is the poster child for OCP’s efforts to add complex, value-added, integrated planning to its mining operations.

A model of OCP’s master plan for Ville Verte Mohammed VI

Ville Verte is 1000 hectares, with a projected population of 100,000 people within 25 years. Every single building will be LEED certified. The few existing neighbourhoods around the phosphorus mine are going to be incorporated into the Ville Verte’s master plan, which includes polycentric nodes loosely arranged along a rapid transit corridor. A linear park forms part of the transit corridor, making the spine of the city a haven for active transportation. The city also includes a major university and research centre, which is already in operation.

While I am generally averse to large-scale master planned developments (especially those with little to no involvement from the local municipality), it’s worth noting that OCP isn’t actually doing all of the construction itself. It has a list of building typologies that it want to see built in certain parts of the city, and other private firms will bid on a block-by-block basis to construct them, adhering to certain conditions such as LEED certification.

Citizen engagement

While I was at the UCLG conference, I happened to read an editorial in L’Économiste, a major national newspaper in Morocco. It lamented the fact that most Moroccans struggle to name their own mayor, but they are intimately familiar with the real urban issues of the day — the deplorable condition of streets and sidewalks, for starters. Among residents, there is a general feeling of powerlessness in the face of the great administrative machine which is city hall.

Outside one of the conference venues, the sidewalk extends one block before fading into a dirt path. In the downtowns of Morocco, broken-up sidewalks are the norm.

The editors of l’Économiste suggested that before hosting big showy conferences, Morocco’s leaders ought to focus on transparency and accessibility in their own municipal affairs.

This awareness was alive and well at a panel discussion on citizen engagement that I attended (if you’ll excuse the irony). With speakers from Sweden, Chile, Brazil, East Africa, and France, I got a good appreciation for the issues in different parts of the world. And with so many languages firing about, I was very grateful for the translators!

Anders Knape, president of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, opened the discussion by saying that bureaucrats and politicians who are “in the system”, so to speak, often think that democracy has strong roots, that we can depend on policies and process, but that’s not the case. The system is sluggish, and it’s slow to respond to the unique needs of citizens. When it comes to public participation, people don’t want to be part of “politics” per se, but they want to be able to influence politics in very specific ways and on very specific issues. Rather than forcing them to work within the framework we have, governments need to adapt. And if they don’t, they can expect a deep-seated cynicism to take hold in their constituents. In many places, it already has.

Professor Jassy Kwesiga, representing a group of East African local government leaders, insisted that we think of public participation in terms of power balance. It’s important to treat citizens as the experts of their domains and really listen to what they have to say, rather than looking at them as simply the passive recipient of a service. Citizens aren’t experts in the political process — they do need legal backup and institutional support — but their concerns should be at the centre of decision-making. Especially in East Africa, this means accommodating the myriad local languages and engaging people who are illiterate or geographically isolated.

Jean-Claude Frécon, a French Senator, declared that a loss of confidence in governments has been bolstered by the economic crisis. There is no faith in public institutions anymore, and governments aren’t taking the initiative to turn this around — they’re disconnected. Which is understandable, since the political class is a woefully inadequate representation of the population. This situation breeds both apathy and extremism — two logical reactions to a government that doesn’t respond to the needs of the people.

Maria Lorena Zárate, president of Habitat International Coalition, talked about government’s tendency to want to control and formalise decision-making at the local level. She sees this as a wrongheaded move, especially when politicians try to manage so-called illegal slums on the edge of cities. These people are empowered. They have community. Improve their standard of living by harnessing that connection, not by bringing authority down on them. Furthermore, participation can happen without the involvement of official authorities. People have a right to the city; they also have the right to freely associate and self-organise. Government should not see itself as the master of this process, but as an equal participant alongside organised labour, civil society, and neighbourhood associations.

Silvio Caccia Bava, founder of the Pólis Institute, a think-tank in São Paulo, closed things off with a recap of the recent protests in Brazil. Two million people in 400 cities took to the streets. Who were they? Young adults. 80% of them had never protested before. 70% of them had no political affiliation. But they were united in protest largely because the creeping privatisation of common goods had made urban life unbearable. The retreat of government in Brazil had made the public sector not just irrelevant, but traitorous in the eyes of the people. The protests were largely a rebellion against the commodification of life.

Mr. Bava echoed the other panelists in urging governments to envelop themselves in culture of their citizens, not demand that the citizens learn how bureaucracy works. Protests are not simply fires to be quelled. They point to structural problems that need to be fixed from the bottom up.

Urban mobility and accessibility

Jean-Noel Guillossou of the Africa Transport Policy Program gave a very interesting talk in a small lecture hall about the current transportation issues facing many African cities. Current urban transportation patterns prioritize the fastest, heaviest, wealthiest, and most polluting forms of travel — that is, private automobiles. This mentality is at the root of inaccessibility in our cities.

He went on to talk about the importance of the informal sector in the public transit system. Common in many African cities, these are usually minibuses that straddle the line between a taxi and a city bus. They are affordable, easy for private operators to maintain, and hard for central governments to regulate. Each operator may have a schedule in place for its fleet, but a central scheduling system is immensely difficult to implement. So too are across-the-board improvements such as emissions standards.

As cities grow and invest in more large-scale rapid transit systems, what is the role of these informal minibuses? It’s important to recognise their legitimate position in the hierarchy of transportation modes and make sure that rapid transit doesn’t completely alienate the industry. This could mean opting for bus rapid transit instead of light rail, since the skills of the minibus industry are more readily transferable to a bus rapid transit system. This way, you can hire more local people and keep money flowing within the local economy. A jump straight to light rail may result in high unemployment and leave a whole section of the population in the lurch.

Rabat’s LRT system is a success, but in other cities where minibuses are more popular, perhaps BRT is a better solution?

Disasters and risk management

Margareta Wahlström, head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), opened the panel discussion about disasters and risk management by talking about access to information. Actively monitoring disaster risk is increasingly necessary and viable as new technologies become more affordable. Access doesn’t just mean “it’s out there somewhere” — information needs to be easy to access by citizens, and it needs to be easy to manage by those who are responsible.

Claudia Schneider, also from UNISDR, emphasised that the principle of resilience begins by knowing more. Knowing more about how disasters can affect a city’s infrastructure; about what resources are in place now; about what deficiencies the system has; about when a disaster is likely to occur; about who will be notified, when, and by which methods; and about how citizens can feed information back into the system.

When it comes to risk assessment, national averages mean nothing. We need to be able to drill down the data to a scale that makes sense. Furthermore, cooperation between cities is necessary — disasters don’t respect administrative boundaries.

Many of the conference events were held here, at the National Centre for Research and Technology in Rabat.

Land development

Lydec, the company in charge of service delivery for utilities and waste management in Casablanca, presented a discussion about infrastructure financing. Honestly, the details of financing models were not all that interesting to me, but what I really got out of this session was an appreciation for the massive role that the private sector plays in Moroccan land development.

Development on the periphery of Casablanca is happening in complete absence of a master plan. That said, Casablanca does not only exist as an administrative body. Just because there is no master plan doesn’t mean that there is no planning going on. The current trend is “strategic urbanism”, based around large projects that have enough private financing to stand on their own.

Strategic urbanism presents a challenge for government — since it doesn’t have any rigourous policy in place to judge a project’s vision, the city is unwilling to raise objections lest they lose the investment. What this really means is more sprawl with little regard for affordability or complete communities. An ineffective property tax system further exacerbates the irrelevance of the state. If government is not involved in planning, financing, or taxing development, why bother regulating it?

A map of Casablanca in 1942. The Maârif neighbourhood, now considered to be “downtown”, is on the urban fringe.

That’s all, folks

These notes cover most, but not all, of what I saw and heard at the UCLG conference, and there were a lot of other sessions that I didn’t get a chance to see. The conference was a four-day affair with loads of simultaeous debates, lectures, cocktail receptions, and ceremonies. And I haven’t even touched on the trade show that was happening at the same time!

The full programme is on the UCLG website, so if there’s a topic you see there that I haven’t talked about, leave a comment and I’ll let you know if I remember anything about it.

Rabat conference notes — Part 1 Sun, 20 Oct 2013 22:00:00 -0400 In mid-September and early October, I attended two conferences in Rabat, a short train ride from Casablanca. As Morocco’s political capital, it’s a comparatively sleepy government town where lots of important people decide important things.

Playing host to dignitaries and heads of state certainly gives Rabat an edge in the cleanliness department. The comfortable, tree-lined streets are a welcome change from Casablanca’s gritty concrete. It is said that Rabat has 20 square metres of green space per resident — plenty of room to breathe. And boy, are people are willing to pay to live here. The King recently sold off a portion of the royal palace grounds in Rabat — an orange grove, to be precise — for private development. The villas that are going to be built there are, as one might expect, palatial.

Against this backdrop, I spent a few days in swanky hotel conference rooms, government buildings, and auditoriums. I listened to discussion panels, participated in plenary sessions, and chatted with all kinds of people from around the world.

The Sofitel Hotel, surrounded by lush greenery in Rabat’s Agdal district

This post is part 1 of my notes and reactions, covering the most memorable points of the first conference I attended. Enjoy, reflect, and share your reaction in the comments! I’d love to discuss any of these topics further if you want more detail.

Les Ateliers de la Terre — Global Conference, Rabat Round

The first conference I went to was hosted by an organisation called Les Ateliers de la Terre (Planet Workshops in English) at the Sofitel Hotel on 18-19 September. Being a free conference, there were a lot of students in the crowd. The theme was Morocco: leveraging green growth between Europe and Africa.

The programming of the conference mostly consisted of panel discussions, with some time at the end for audience questions. Unfortunately, the moderation wasn’t as good as I had hoped, and nearly all the sessions ran late. Nonetheless, it was a worthwhile experience and I was excited to hear some Moroccan and European percpectives about big-picture sustainability thinking.

Reversing growth

In the introductory plenary session, a student in the audience questioned Morocco’s aspirations for growth as a matter of principle. Looking at the unsustainable levels of waste and resource use in rich countries, is it really reasonable for African cities to aspire to the same fate? Should our efforts not instead be focused on making better use of what we have, and not pursuing a model of economic growth that will bankrupt future generations? The introductory plenary was about the ways that corporate social responsibility (CSR) can enhance private sector growth, so the question was quite appropriate.

Mme. Christine Bargain, Director of CSR for La Poste, the pseudo-monopoly postal service in Europe and Morocco, responded first. She gave an expertly vague answer, noting that the definition of growth need not be the same as in the past. She rightly called the GDP an outdated method for measuring growth and suggested that society could adjust it to make something more meaningful. Whichever way we define growth, she remained convinced that private enterprise will continue to play a central role in achieving it.

I’m not surprised that the representative for a multinational corporation can’t imagine a sustainable future without big business. But it’s a pretty weak vision of the future, if you ask me. Europe’s finances are in shambles, yet governments still give massive tax breaks to profitable companies. Under the guise of creating wealth, these companies take public money and use it for executive bonuses. Meanwhile, countries like Spain and Greece are at 27% unemployment. The need for fundamental economic reform has never been greater.

The second panelist to respond was Mr. Lionel Zinzou, President of the Benin branch of PAI Partners, a global investment firm. He responded quite bluntly, saying that the urgent needs of today trump the possibility of risk to future generations. The consequences of growth, he said, are for your grandchildren to deal with. For now, we need to feed people, we need to reduce illiteracy, we need to invest in shelter, and all of these depend on economic growth. I’ll say I was impressed by Mr. Zinzou’s candour, if not the substance of his argument.

Agriculture and food security

In a discussion about which agricultural model should be pursued to ensure food security, Mr. Abdelfettah Derouiche, President of the Association Terre et Humanisme (a Moroccan NGO), stressed the need for universities to become partners in sustainable agriculture. We need to link academic knowledge and research with the know-how of rural populations. Working together will allow for new techniques and approaches to food security that are tailored to the local context, not copied and pasted from the best practices of some other region.

Mohammed V University is one of many postsecondary institutions that could partner with local farmers to enhance food security in Morocco.

Curiously, peak phosphorus was not discussed. I thought that it would be the topic of discussion for food security, seeing as phosphorus makes agricultural fertiliser, and Morocco controls 85% of the world’s supply. With several decades of reserves left, it’s not an immediate concern for the daily lives of Moroccans, but the phosphorus mines will one day cease to be productive and I’m sure it’s on the radar of the researchers, business leaders, and students that were at the conference.

Creating smart cities

Smart infrastructure, big data, and new communications technologies are big news, and discussions about what’s next are always bound to be interesting. In this panel discussion, two stories struck me most. They both involve specific technology examples in African cities, and they were both recounted by Mr. Lionel Zinzou, the Presdient of PAI Partners that I mentioned earlier.

The first story is set in Nairobi, where a cashless economy is more than a dream — it’s been reality for a long time. Let’s say someone wants to take a taxi to his hotel, but forgot his wallet. He texts his brother, who sends him some credit via text message. Our tech-savvy protagonist can then transfer funds to the taxi driver to pay the fare, and again at the hotel, all via text message. In this regard, Kenya is miles ahead of Canada in terms of smart mobile infrastructure.

The second story highlights a surprising constraint for a city seeking to invest in renewable energy. In Bamako, the air pollution is so bad that the sun is often blotted out by constant smog. This is bad news for solar energy — no direct sunlight means reduced effectiveness of solar panels, which drives up the price of renewable energy. Affordability concerns hamper the adoption of green technology, and people continue to rely on fossil fuels, further exacerbating the pollution… it’s a vicious cycle indeed.

Part 2, covering the 4th Congress of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), will be up soon!

A tramway's transformative influence Thu, 03 Oct 2013 14:18:00 -0400 Jeune Afrique, a weekly magazine that covers current affairs and politics across Africa, has published an excellent article chronicling the success of Casablanca’s tramway system. The trams have been rolling for less than a year, but they’re already absorbed into the city’s daily life.

As Waterloo Region prepares for ION (and as other Ontario municipalities march toward some kind of mass transit), I thought I’d translate a few excerpts from the Jeune Afrique article that illustrate the tangible impact Casablanca’s tramway has had for its citizens.

More than just a transportation solution, the tramway has brought benefits for heritage preservation, economic development, public safety, and pedestrianisation. Some of the evidence is certainly anecdotal, but cities in earlier stages of the planning process can definitely learn — or, at the very least, gain some courage — from Casablanca’s experience.

Take, for example, the attidudes of Casablancans as the tramway was being built — it’ll never get done on time, it costs too much, construction is causing traffic headaches, we don’t want this — opposition which quickly dissipated as soon as the trains actually started running. In fact, a second tramway line is already in the works.

Without further ado, here’s my translation of the article’s most salient points:

For four long years of construction, Casablancans cursed this tramway that was supposed to revolutionise transportation, but seemed to bring only dust, traffic snarls, and parking headaches. Although opposition to the project never reached the fever pitch of the Stop TGV movement (which railed against a high-speed train from Tangier to Rabat), it was still viewed with deep scepticism. […] Even as late as June 2012, most citizens thought that it would never be finished on time. Despite this pessimism, the project was completed on schedule and an inauguration ceremony was held as planned on the symbolic date of 12/12/12 by King Mohammed VI.


Less than a week after the tramway’s inauguration, it confronted its first big test: the biannual football derby between bitter rivals Wydad and Raja. Marred by violence in the past, would this match sully the reputation of Casablanca’s new tramway system as a clean, quiet, and civilised mode of transport? Would the hordes of hooligans descending upon downtown Casablanca make quick work of the brand new trains?

As if by miracle, the tramway functioned normally that day. “Nothing happened,” remembers Réda, a sports journalist. Surveillance cameras in the trams and on the platforms, as well as police officers patrolling the stations, proved to be enough to maintain peace and order on the tramway during the football derby.


In reality, the tramway is already part of the scenery. The long period of construction included road realignments, over 200 kilometres of reconstructed sidewalks, and the installation of new signalisation infrastructure – and Casablancans are now comfortable and familiar with the tramway. In some places, the change is spectacular. One part of Mohammed V Boulevard has been completely pedestrianised. In fact, an old tramway circulated along this same artery until the 1950s. Building facades, some in Art Deco style, have been revitalised. The tramway has spurred property owners to take ownership of the city’s architectural heritage, which had been threatened by decades of neglect.


The 31-kilometre tramway line, stretching from the Sidi Moumen neighbourhood to the beach at Ain Diab, reunites urban neighbourhoods that had been segregated by the city’s erratic street network. This summer, beachgoers took to the tramway en masse, tolerating the long, winding route for the comfort of an air-conditioned train.


Even if it hasn’t yet replaced other modes of transport, the tramway is the best choice for travelling along certain routes which have traditionally been very congested. To get to the Derb Ghallef market, the city’s hub for buying and selling electronics, the tramway is unbeatable. Same goes for Hassan II Avenue, which houses the city’s financial district. For students seeking an affordable commute, it’s also the best way to get to the universities in the South end of town.


Perhaps the most striking transformation that the tramway has brought about is in Sidi Moumen – once known as the neighbourhood that raised the terrorists who carried out the 2003 bombings, it is now home to the tramway’s maintenance facility, which employs 1,200 people.

Casablanca: first impressions Fri, 27 Sep 2013 00:59:00 -0400 We’ve been in Morocco for three weeks now, and as I said in my last post, I’m trying to think of Casablanca as my new home. So why not start with a tour of our apartment?

Kitchen, dining area, and living room. Facing the kitchen, our front door is to the left, and the bathroom and bedroom are to the right.

We live in the Maârif neighbourhood, a dense grid of narrow streets packed tight with mid-century apartments (we’re on the fifth floor of a six-storey building). We’re steps from local fruit, fish, and bread vendors, a small grocery store, innumerable cafes, restaurants, and a lovely pedestrian mall.

The view from our balcony at dusk.

Looking down, you can see our friendly neighbourhood produce vendor and the bustle of everyday life. Good luck finding a parking spot!

Rue Oussama Ibnou Zaid is a pedestrian mall lined with cafes, bookshops, clothing stores, and offices. The Maârif cultural centre is just on the left edge of this photo.

What’s interesting is that I haven’t laid eyes on a single-detached house since arriving in Morocco three weeks ago. Other than spotting a few clusters of farmhouses during the descent toward Casablanca’s Mohamed V airport, it’s apartment buildings as far as the eye can see. From the historic medina, to the oceanfront entertainment district, to the outskirts of town, to blank-slate greenfield developments, Casablanca’s urban form is a consistent swath of 3-to-6 storey brick and concrete apartments. One exception I can think of, but haven’t seen yet, is the seaside villas.

In and around Maârif, there are quite a few construction projects going on. Most are small-scale, making use of manual labour more so than cranes and heavy machinery. Not to say that megablock developments don’t exist here, but most of the construction activity looks like this:

A 30-minute walk north of us is the Parc de la Ligue Arabe – a veritable oasis in the middle of the city. This is where young couples go to sit and hold hands, where middle-aged men gather for a game of boccee, where kids play a dusty game of soccer, and where lots of people simply walk through on their way from point A to point B.

The park is also home to l’Église du Sacré-Coeur de Casablanca. Really, it’s a focal point for people of all walks of life.

A short tram ride away is the Place des Nations Unies, a large public square like the one in Maârif but with more people and trendy street furniture:

In an innovative bit of station design, the tramway runs right through Place des Nations Unies at a level grade, allowing for the free flow of pedestrian movement when the trains aren’t there. When they do approach, the trains slow down and people get out of the way.

Speaking of transportation design, many of Casablanca’s major arterial roads have an underpass in the middle lanes, which is not something I’ve ever seen or heard of before. The underpasses let through traffic zip along for three or four major blocks at a time, avoiding the cross-traffic of intersections.

If you spend even a little bit of time walking around Casablanca, you’ll notice that sidewalks are often out of commission. Sometimes a shop has taken over the entire width of the sidewalk, or a garbage bin is blocking the way, but more often than not it’s because cars are parked there.

The concept of a legal parking space appears to be a bit fuzzy here… cars will take any space they can get, and double-parking is par for the course.

While I’m talking about transportation, I might as well show a photo of the main train station in Casablanca – Casa Voyageurs. We arrived here by train from the airport, and Casa Voyageurs was our point of departure for a trip to Rabat last week, to attend the 2nd Global Conference de Rabat (but more on conferences another time).

I’ll end this post on a note about food. In short, it’s delicious and inexpensive. There are 8 dirhams to a Canadian dollar, and a fresh baguette costs 1.20 DH. A smoothie with fresh-squeezed oranges and mangoes? Around 10 DH. Fresh orange juice is everywhere, and boy do they love their pulp. I mean, straw-standing-up-on-its-own kind of pulp:


Of course, Morocco was under French colonial rule for some time, but it appears their influence on the country’s cuisine is mainly focused on breakfast – which is completely fine by me. An assortment of pastries to get the day started? Yes please.

Melissa is blogging too! Check out her latest post for photos of street art that I didn’t include here.

Serving up responsive background images on the fly Mon, 23 Sep 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Over the past 6 months or so, I’ve been redesigning my website. The design itself is pretty much final, but it’s an iterative process and there are always improvements to be made. One of my goals for the redesign was to cut down on bloat – both in terms of the CMS structure and users’ load time.

On the CMS side, I ditched WordPress in favour of Kirby. Its core files weigh in at 136 KB zipped, compared to WordPress’s 4.3 MB. Plus, Kirby uses a flat-file data structure that’s dead simple to install, backup, and modify.

But what I really want to get at with this post is my technique for serving up responsive images. As you can see on the homepage, there’s quite a large photo in the header, and I wanted to make sure that visitors get an appropriately-sized image for their device (nobody on a smartphone wants to download a 4000-pixel-wide behemoth).

I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject, and responsive image techniques have been tackled by a lot of people who are much smarter than me over the past few years. But this is a solution that’s easy to implement and gives appreciable results.

It’s important to note that the images I’m working with here are background images – so why don’t I just use media queries to serve up a responsive image? Well, because I have over a hundred of these images, and I plan to add more. They’re mostly travel photos, and I don’t want to manually create 3 or 4 different versions of each image. Your use case may require a different solution.

The code

Now that the caveats are out of the way, let’s get to it. I used the excellent TimThumb to do most of the grunt work. This method redirects requests for images through to a PHP script that will fetch the image, and scale and crop it accordingly. The implementation is simple:

// Load original image
<img src="/path/to/image.jpg" />

// Load resized & cropped image
<img src="/path/to/timthumb.php?src=/path/to/image.jpg&w=500&h=100&zc=1&q=75" />

timthumb.php accepts five variables:

  • src: absolute path to the image
  • w: width in pixels
  • h: height in pixels
  • zc: zoomcrop – possible values are 0 (no crop) and 1 (crop). (delault is 1)
  • q: image quality, out of 100 (default is 90)

My header area takes up the full screen width, so that should be the width of the image, too. As for the height, that depends on the size of the window because this is a responsive design. I’ll have to wait until my logo loads to measure the height of the header with javascript.

Here’s what it looks like. This script is placed right after the closing </header> tag:

    document.getElementById('logo').onload = function(){ // wait until #logo is finished loading
        var height = document.getElementById('header').offsetHeight; // measure the height of #header
        var width = window.outerWidth; // measure the width of the window
        document.getElementById("header").style.backgroundImage = "url(/path/to/timthumb.php?src=/path/to/image.jpg&h="+height+"&w="+width+")"; // set a background image to #header, using the height and width calculated above

Of course, putting a plain CSS background-image style inside a <noscript> tag will ensure graceful degradation for those without javascript enabled. Just manually set the width and height to something middle-of-the-road.

The results

So what does this mean for performance? Let’s take a look at the results of two image downloads: the first is a full-size, 261 KB image of the Bastei bridge in Germany. The second is the same image, but resized to 1280px * 206px (this is the appropriate size for a header image on my 13” laptop screen).

Original Resized
File size 261 KB 71 KB
Latency 0.493 s 1.190 s
Total download time 10.78 s 6.96 s
Calculated download speed 24.2 kbps 10.2 kbps

I’m currently on a weak mobile internet connection, which is why these download speeds are so slow. But the main point here is that even though my connection speed was slower when I downloaded the resized image, it still completed the download faster. If the connection speeds had both been 24.2 kbps, the resized image would have downloaded in 2.93 seconds.

As you can see, the latency is higher when we resize an image, because TimThumb needs to do some server-side processing before sending data back to the browser. But the resulting file downloads more quickly, more than offsetting the initial delay.

That’s all there is to it! This solution is working for my header images at the moment, but the next step is to make all the images on this site responsive. Perhaps my best bet will be to extend this method; maybe I’ll need a parallel system; or maybe I’ll start from scratch with a comprehensive solution. Who knows? For now, I’m happy with yet another speed improvement.

No such thing as a free appetizer Sat, 14 Sep 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Melissa is blogging about our travels too! Check out her posts at

Melissa and I have been living out of our backpacks for the past week or so as we play hopscotch from continent to continent. Now, after a few days in Casablanca, my internal clock has adapted and my mind is transitioning away from vacation mode. But before I get to writing about Morocco, I want to talk about the places in between.

Booking the cheapest available plane tickets to Casablanca meant starting our trip with a two-day layover in Lisbon, Portugal. We stayed in the hip Barrio Alto district, where the view outside our hostel was absolutely stunning.

The view from the gardens at Rua Sao Pedro Alacantara. See more photos on my travel page.

Lisbon is a tourist’s dream. It had the impression of being well worn-in, like a favourite pair of old shoes. It’s a city that seems more concerned with maintaining its historic character than reinventing itself – and I mean that as a compliment. Whether for the sake of pride or tourism or nostalgia, Lisbon has gone to great lengths to preserve its old city centre.

When I say historic character, I’m not talking about grand and ancient monuments or cathedrals (though they are well-preserved). I’m talking about things like the white cobblestone sidewalks that are a distinctive part of Lisbon’s streetscape. Outside some of the older buildings, shop names are inlaid with black stones on the sidewalk in front of their respective establishments. This is a nice bit of flair that helps to give Lisbon a cosy, small-town feel.

But it’s not just centuries-old bookstores and cafes that get this special sidewalk treatment. I was amazed to see the same style of black stone inlay outside a seafood restaurant that was established in the 1970s. For a city as old as Lisbon, that’s not too long ago. When vinyl and formstone were the building materials du jour in North America, when inner-city freeways were destroying neighbourhoods and urban renewal was in full swing, a small seafood restaurant opened in Lisbon, and its cobblestone sidewalk was carefully reassembled to feature the restaurant’s name, as had been done for hundreds of years.

White cobblestone sidewalks, sometimes with designs or shop names inlaid in black stone, are a distinctive part of Lisbon’s streetscape.

One building near our hostel had been completely renovated, inside and out. However, other than the construction equipment visible through the open windows, it was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding buildings. Intricate tilework and small balconies with wrought-iron railings – the same architectural style that has defined the city’s streetscape for generations. It’s a new building, but its architecture respects history to the letter.

On our first day in Lisbon, after unloading our luggage at the hostel, we wandered over to a nearby cafe for lunch. We were pleasantly surprised when the waitress brought out a basket of bread and olives for us to sample while we waited for our meal. They were delicious, but little did we know that this pleasant surprise wasn’t free. At €1.50 per slice of bread, and a few Euros more for the olives, the cost added up quickly on our final bill. It just so happens that unlike the unlimited free bread at many North American chains, restaurants in Lisbon have a “don’t eat, don’t pay” policy (which the waitress declined to inform us of).

In the following days, we would be tempted many more times by what appeared to be compimentary appetizers. This ruse was not only limited to bread and olives; we were even presented with a plate of assorted local cheeses and fish cakes at one restaurant. We declined that one, as it was the third such appetizer that the waiter had brought to the table, setting it down with a suggestive smile.

However, these seemingly free appetizers were nothing compared to the tourist trap that is Fado music in Barrio Alto. Fado is a traditional genre of folk music in Portugal, characterised by romantic tales of woe and longing. Barrio Alto is home to a vibrant nightlife scene, but the Fado venues there have a cover charge upwards of €25, with €10 glasses of wine once you’re inside.

Thankfully, we consulted with one of the hostel staff, who steered us towards a different neighbourhood known for Fado, one where the venues wouldn’t charge cover and where local amateurs perform alongside career musicians. On his advice, we headed towards Rua dos Remédios, at the end of the metro line.

The street was deserted, strewn with litter, but we could hear the forlorn wailing sounds of Fado music leaking out from a few bars. Despite the vacant street, each venue was packed to the gills – we ended up on the doorstep of one of the bars, craning our necks along with the other people who couldn’t get a seat, to catch a glimpse of the musicians. It was beautiful.

We flew out of Lisbon on Saturday morning, stopping in the Madrid airport for an 15-hour layover before continuing on to Casablanca. Drinking vending-machine espresso, brushing my teeth at 2AM in the airport bathroom, and sleeping on departure-lounge benches… I felt like I was in a remake of The Terminal.

When we arrived in Casablanca, we took the train from the airport into the city, then a taxi to Hôtel Centrale, a hotel in the old medina that has apparently been in operation since the French arrived to colonise Morocco.

The public square outside our window was lively at all hours of the day and night – motorbikes rumble through the area, young children play with soccer balls, merchants hawk their wares, and people meet, sit, and chat at the cafes. Sometimes there’s even impromptu music:

Like in Lisbon, the restaurants here will bring out a plate of bread and olives. Like in Libson, it’s not free – but at least we know that now.

The cuisine here is delicious, though. On our first night, we enjoyed a tajine, mint tea, an assortment of moroccan salads, and of course, bread and olives, at a restaurant called Sqala, located inside an old fortress that looks out onto the sea.

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get over the sweetness of Moroccan mint tea – it’s delicious, but honestly, sometimes it tastes like I’m drinking warm Kool-Aid. Just in case the tea isn’t sweet enough, some cafes will give you a couple packets of sugar that you can add to your shot glass-sized cup of tea.

After my first few days here in Casablanca, I’ve noticed that the muezzin’s call to prayer is not nearly as loud as the constant din of motorbikes and car horns. Traffic is chaotic, and overwhelming at times. It’s hard to shake the low-level anxiety that walking around this congested city brings. But after all, I’m still a tourist. As I get to know Casablanca better, the overwhelming will become the familiar. And next time I write about life in Morocco, I’ll be writing about my new home.

Morocco bound Tue, 03 Sep 2013 00:00:00 -0400 If I were to make a word cloud of all my discussions with people over the last year regarding my and Melissa’s plans to live abroad, one question would be right in the middle in 100-point text: “Why Morocco?”

Depending on the tone of the question — concerned, baffled, enthralled — Melissa and I would answer the question with a slightly different twist on the same few talking points:

  • “Oh, it’s really stable politically and pretty welcoming to foreigners.”
  • “It’s a pretty central location for travelling around Europe and the Mediterranean.”
  • “Well, they speak French, so we’ll be able to get by in the local language.”
  • “There’s a lot of infrastructure investment and development going on, so job prospects look good.”
  • “Basically, we wanted to go somewhere exotic.”

In many of these conversations during the past few months, my mind was on autopilot. We had booked our flight months ago, and the idea of moving to Morocco seemed like old news already, almost routine. When someone new inevitably asked, “Why Morocco?” I would often play through a string of well-rehearsed lines.

Now, though, it’s really happening. We leave tomorrow. Here’s my luggage, all packed up:

As our departure inches closer, I have to remind myself that this is not routine, that reading travel guides and phrasebooks and blogs and expat forums won’t prepare me for everything. (If it did, what would be the point of travelling at all?)

More importantly, I have to remind myself that the quick list of reasons I gave above isn’t inspiring, and it’s not what got Melissa and I excited about Morocco in the first place. So I find myself asking in earnest, why Morocco? On this last day that I have in Canada, let me venture an answer that I don’t have filed away for quick retrieval. An answer that actually stirs my desire for wanderlust and fills me with excitement.

So let’s try this again. Morocco: because I have spent over 95% of my life inside this tiny red circle, and the world is so much broader than that.

In an age where we have the world in our pocket, it’s easy to discover new places and cultures, see the wonders of the world, or read a local newspaper from halfway around the globe. It’s all standardised, sanitized, coming at us through a 4-inch screen.

The internet has made our world smaller and more accessible, but the Earth is still here, as large and majestic and full of life as ever. And the daily rhythms of 7 billion people are hard to hear when you’re tucked away in one corner of the auditorium.

Goodbye, Reeder. Hello, MnmlRdr + Fluid. Thu, 08 Aug 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Google Reader is no more, which has opened up the feed reader app scene to new ideas and business models. With the plethora of new feed readers out there, I won’t get into a comparison of the different products on offer. After all, it has only been a month since Google Reader was shuttered. I’m sure the landscape will shift significantly over the next few months as smaller companies and independent developers vie for a slice of Google Reader’s former userbase.

I like my feed reader to behave like an email client – running in the background, collecting articles so I can read when it’s convenient for me. Up until recently, I had been using Reeder, but the app’s author has neglected to update it to work without Google and frankly, I’m tired of waiting.

While searching for a Reeder replacement, I soon noticed two things: one, most of the new crop of feed readers are web-based. Two, the Mac apps on offer typically don’t support Snow Leopard.

I ended up settling in with MnmlRdr, a no-nonsense web-based feed reader being developed by Jordan Sherer. By eliminating superfluous features like social sharing, MnmlRdr has carved out a nice niche for itself in the flurry of Google Reader alternatives to come out in the last month. Its responsive design feels comfortable on my old Blackberry for on-the-go reading, which is a major perk. I’ve emailed the developer a couple times with bugs and feature suggestions, and he’s always quick to respond.

Since MnmlRdr is in a private preview right now, Here’s a quick screencast to show what the user experience is like:

You’ll notice that I have MnmlRdr running as a separate app on my computer. I used Fluid to make that happen, and it works beautifully. After a couple tweaks, MnmlRdr feels comfortably at home on my desktop.

Tweak #1: the icon

MnmlRdr’s boxy logo looks great on the website, but it’s a little imposing when nestled among my other dock items. So, I created an alternative logo.

To use this icon for the Fluid app icon, save the image and go to Preferences > General. Click the Change... button next to Application icon to update the icon.

Here you go:

Tweak #2: the badge

If you purchase the paid version of Fluid, you can add userscripts to your apps. this lets you do neat things like have a badge showing the number of unread articles. Here’s how.

Go to Window > Userscripts, and click the plus sign in the bottom left corner. Change the pattern from ** to *mnmlrdr*.

In the script field, copy and paste the following code. This will check the page’s title bar every 5 seconds to see what the unread count is, then display it as a badge on the app icon.

window.fluid.dockBadge = '';
function updateDockBadge() {
    var title = document.title;
    var regex = /\((\d+)\)\s/;
    var res = title.match(regex);
    if (res.length > 1) {
        var newBadge = res[1];
        window.fluid.dockBadge = newBadge;
    else {
        regex = /MnmlRdr/;
            window.fluid.dockBadge = '';
setInterval(updateDockBadge, 5000);

So, that’s my setup. If you subscribe to RSS feeds, how have you adapted to a post-Google Reader world?

Flash, bam, alakazam Sat, 20 Jul 2013 00:00:00 -0400 “Orange Colored Sky”, originally recorded by Nat King Cole, is one of my favourite jazz classics. If you’ve never heard it, take a listen. Its lyrics provide an oddly fitting frame for the story I’m about to tell you…

I was walking along, minding my business…

I woke yesterday morning feeling refreshed and optimistic. A cool breeze greeted me, heralding the end of a week-long heatwave. A notification on my phone greeted me too: Tornado WATCH in effect for Waterloo Region. I gave it little thought; there had been extreme weather warnings on and off for the past week. At the moment, the prospect of a breezy bike ride to work was a much more commanding presence.

When out of an orange coloured sky…

At lunch, I enjoyed listening to a jazz quartet at Waterloo Town Square. It was the first day of the weekend-long festival, and everyone was in high spirits. Settling into a plastic patio chair, I ate my lunch and got blissfully lost in the dull rumble of the double bass, the vocalist’s smooth timbre, the unexpected path of a guitar solo…

Keeping time with the band, my morning breeze crescendoed into a gale-force wind. Toppling canvas shelters and sending sheet music into disarray, mother nature sought to add her own improvised percussion to the mix. And the band played on.

Flash, bam, alakazam!

Fast-forward to 5:00 PM, when the clouds burst above me on my commute home. Fat drops of rain cooled my back and hissed against the hot pavement. It was the definitive and welcome end to a week of unbearably hot weather.

Back at home now (and having changed into dry clothes), a storm quickly gathered. I watched the rain begin to fall in sheets, and the prospect of sauntering in a summer thunderstorm was too much to resist. In a split-second decision, Melissa and I fled out the front door and up the puddle-strewn street, laughing, running, splashing —


A beautiful, big old tree in the yard behind Suddaby School snapped in half before our eyes. Buffeted by the wind and heavy with rain, its limbs could not withstand the pressure of the storm. Its top half hung down, limp, hinged by a few remaining strands of bark.

This tree snapped like a twig before our eyes. Photo taken two days after the storm.

We stared in amazement – first at the tree, then at each other. Furtive steps across the schoolyard to take a closer look. Nervous jumps as lightning cracked above us. But we had to keep going. Circling around the south side of the 150-year-old school (avoiding the more heavily treed north flank), we came upon a scene of carnage.

Unlike the storm’s first victim – a clean execution, no mess – Suddaby School’s majestic front yard was littered with the mangled bodies of saplings, mixed among limbs and leaves of larger trees. The two tall, thin evergreens that frame the school’s entrance were bending dangerously in the wind.

Melissa and I scampered up the stone steps to seek shelter in the main entranceway. We surveyed the destruction with awe and paid our respects to the dead. The evergreens creaked – our cue to leave.

We crossed the road, welcoming the relative safety and open space along Otto Street, running past the Centre in the Square. The rain had intensified, and the drops felt like hail as they pelted through our wet t-shirts. The wind, too, had strengthened enough to knock me sideways like an unexpected bodycheck.

Approaching Queen Street, we saw that the traffic lights were down – both figuratively and literally. A grand old tree (albeit with a rotting trunk) had snapped at the base and took down the adjacent light pole when it collapsed. Like a paperclip in a fidgeter’s hands, the traffic light pole lay irreparably twisted across the sidewalk.

A stump of the pole remains standing, but the mangled metal tubing has been cut into neat pieces by City crews. Photo taken two days after the storm.

Temporary traffic lights stand in for the real thing until City crews remove the tree and install a new pole. Photo taken two days after the storm.

Wonderful you came by…

At this point, we met two teenage girls who had been walking along Queen Street. The four of us quickly multiplied to eight, with the introduction of a father and his son, another man and his golden retriever. We got the sense that there was more we could do than stand, gaping, at the destruction. Together, we got to work on removing a tree that had fallen across Queen Street, kiddie-corner to the mangled traffic light. The man and his dog directed confused drivers away from the blocked street, while the rest of us lifted branches and cleared debris. Front yards filled up with branches, the notion of private property having been lost to the common good.

At the next block, there was another fallen tree blocking the road. And one block further, yet another. As we made our way along Queen Street to repeat the anarchic ballet that we had started, our numbers grew. Eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two… By the time we had successfully cleared a lane for traffic, there were dozens of neighbours out on the street.

Eventually, someone brought a saw. Someone else had an axe. Branches that were too big to move by brawn alone were chopped and sliced in a flurry of machismo by men self-consciously approaching middle age.

Front lawns became the de facto holding areas for debris. Photo taken two days after the storm.

One look and I yelled, “Timber!”

Our work on Queen Street done, Melissa and I decided to venture back toward home, nervously anticipating the fate of our little house, not to mention the 100-year-old tree that towers above it.

The orderly street grid of Central Frederick had become a labyrinth. Downed trees and power lines hampered access for cars and pedestrians alike. Lancaster Street, Chapel Street, Brubacher Street, Samuel Street – they were all subject to the ravages of the storm.

A Police cruiser and fire truck tend to a smouldering tree on Samuel Street. A downed power line had set the wood on fire in the middle of the street. Photo taken the day of the storm.

A tree limb thicker than my waist landed with a thud on a Lancaster Street home, cracking the roof and ceiling. Photo taken two days after the storm.

Our house, thankfully, was safe and sound. Our regal backyard tree, however, had lost a large portion of its crown. One limb flattened our neighbour’s fence to the rear. Another large branch fell to the side, damaging the tin shed next door.

Fortunately, the limbs that broke off our tree all fell in the opposite direction of our house. Photo taken two days after the storm.

Over the next few hours, I heard reports of similar occurrences in Victoria Park, the Mary-Allen neighbourhood in Waterloo, Bloomingdale, and even as far away as Hamilton and Toronto. The storm lasted a mere half-hour, but we’ll be dealing with the aftermath for weeks.


I referred to the spontaneous community that came together on Queen Street as an “anarchic ballet”. Strangers coming together to help one another out is always a good thing, but I don’t want to confound our unity against the storm with a broader, more general unity. As beautiful as it was to work ad-hoc with so many people pushing, pulling, sawing and hacking away to clear the road, once the job was done we all disbanded. Our cooperation was largely utilitarian.

Without a regular stream of crises to force the community together, it will quickly revert to a collection of individuals, bound together only by geography. The storm also created tension among neighbours. Many trees fell on other peoples’ property, ruining gardens, damaging sheds, and tearing up lawns. Long after the streets are cleared and hydro lines are repaired, animosity will continue to bubble under the surface. Irritation that was originally directed at the storm will find a new target – first the tree itself, then the person on whose property the tree stands (or once stood, as may be the case). Filing insurance claims and coordinating fence repair are not the best foundations for a relationship.

All this to say that with the storm over and clean-up looming ahead, be gracious and humble with one another. And never forget that we hold collective responsibility for the increase in extreme weather.

For more photos of the aftermath, check out this Facebook photo album from Tina Shields, a resident in my neighbourhood.

Taming traffic mayhem in my backyard Fri, 05 Jul 2013 00:00:00 -0400 I love living in Central Frederick — it has a wealth of century homes on comfortable tree-lined streets, a beautiful school, neighbourhood parks, and a corner store. This is one of Kitchener’s oldest neighbourhoods and, like many areas of K-W, the street grid can get a little wonky.

In the above satellite view, you can see Lancaster coming down from the north and meeting up with Krug Street. Mere metres from that intersection, there is a set of traffic lights where Cedar Street crosses Weber. These two intersections are too far away from each other to function together, an unfortunate confluence of history and geometry that wreaks havoc at rush hour.

Lancaster is a pretty significant north-south route that connects Kitchener to Waterloo and the Conestoga Parkway. Though by the time it approaches Krug, Lancaster has become a narrow two-lane street, it still carries lots of rush-hour traffic. Add that to the volume of vehicles passing through the Cedar/Weber intersection, and this area gets real messy around 5:00 PM on a weekday. Take a look:

(Did you notice the blue van at 0:41? At 1:07, it gets fed up with waiting, and escapes up Lancaster instead.)

As a pedestrian, I get frustrated with the Lancaster/Krug intersection a lot. I live on the East side of Lancaster Street, a few blocks up from here, and it’s well nigh impossible to get to that side of the street without dodging the traffic coming off Weber. Besides my own comfort, this neighbourhood has a lot of young families — there really should be a better pedestrian crossing here. Suddaby School is close by. In the mornings, there is a veritable parade of children that have to traverse this treacherous intersection, one way or another.

I decided to sketch out a possible solution to this mess — a pedestrian island that doubles as a traffic calming device:

1. Looking south from Lancaster Street East. Vehicles must yield to pedestrians and Krug St. traffic. The island also prevents left turns onto Krug St.

2. Looking west from Krug Street. With the island in place, Krug gets the right of way and has a full range of turning movements.

3. Looking from Weber Street toward Krug/Lancaster. No left turn onto Lancaster; the only option is to continue along Krug St.

Drivers coming from the Weber/Cedar intersection will not be able to turn left onto Lancaster; but perhaps that’s a good thing. After all, this is a school zone, and most vehicles that use this section of Lancaster are looking for a shortcut to avoid Weber St.

As a general rule, I don’t like restricting turning movements, but this street grid is just too messed up to allow the current free-for-all at Krug/Lancaster to continue.

You don't need another "read-it-later" app. Sat, 18 May 2013 01:47:00 -0400 If you’re anything like me, you know that keeping on top of news and finding interesting things to read online can become a chore. I find that I often build up a glut of bookmarks, get overwhelmed by it all, and promptly turn to Canvas Rider to relieve the pressure. Before I know it, I’ve wasted two hours on a mindless game and feel even worse about not getting around to the articles that I had wanted to read.

A while ago I started fiddling around with a concept for a unified “favourites feed” that would capture all of my favourited tweets, starred Google Reader items, and saved Reddit posts. (Unfortunately, with Google Reader going the way of the dodo, I’m not going to waste time trying to integrate it now.)

This is different from services like Pocket or Instapaper, because it’s not another app that I have to worry about. It’s just a convenient homepage that brings all my favourite posts under one roof. I can keep favouriting Tweets and saving Reddit posts as normal, and they’ll show up like magic.

With so much information overload these days, it’s easy to drown in the firehose. Pulling all my favourites together helps me keep an eye on what’s important, and I hope it’s useful for you too.

Check it out here:

Right now, it only supports Twitter and Reddit. Let me know what other web services you’re interested in!

Freeing Toronto from the clutches of the OMB Wed, 01 May 2013 18:19:00 -0400 Last week, I wrote an article explaining my reservations with the Ontario Municipal Board’s disregard for democratic policymaking. What’s worse than its sweeping power is the fact that it justifies its decisions so poorly.

I was happy, then, to learn that Bill 20 is making its way through the Ontario Legislature. If passed into law, it will mark the first step in giving municipalities authority and independence in land-use planning matters. Currently, it’s just a lowly private member’s bill aimed at the City of Toronto. But Bill 20 seems to be gaining steam, and will hopefully serve as a blueprint for a broader bill that includes all municipalities. Catherine Fife, the MPP for Kitchener-Waterloo, recently wrote an op-ed in favour of OMB reform. It’s clear that there is an appetite for change outside the Toronto area, too.

Bill 20 is a tedious, technical document. However, the explanatory note gives a good overview of the proposed changes:

Currently, under various statutes that govern land use planning, certain municipal decisions can be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. Amendments eliminate those rights of appeal with respect to decisions of the City of Toronto. Amendments also eliminate a right to make certain other types of applications to the Board with respect to the City.

The City is authorized to establish one or more appeal bodies to hear any of these matters and to hear such other matters as the City considers appropriate.

I’m no lawyer, so it was difficult for me to understand what exactly the “default” authority will be under this new legislation. If the City of Toronto chooses not to establish its own appeal body, does the authority for appeals go to the OMB? Or will the buck stop with City Council?

Hopefully these questions will be cleared up as the bill is discussed in the coming weeks and months. But all in all, I think Bill 20 is a good blueprint for municipal autonomy going forward. It’s about time cities started to push back against the undemocratic practices of the OMB.

Edit: I received an email response from the office of Rosario Marchese, the MPP who initiated Bill 20:

The bill ultimately seeks to remove the City of Toronto from the oversight of the OMB altogether. This would leave the municipality responsible for the establishment of its own appeals process, meaning that the municipality would decide if they would create their own tribunal or other body to hear appeals.  The other possibility is that the municipality may decide not to create a body to hear appeals.

[…] Bill 20 leaves the full responsibility of dealing with development and planning issues under the jurisdiction of the City of Toronto.

Well, that clears things up. Looks like more municipal autonomy is on the horizon!

Welcome to the OMB, where everything’s made up and the rationale doesn’t matter Thu, 25 Apr 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Throughout my undergrad degree in planning, I was taught to take pride in the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). My professors lauded the virtues of this independent, arm’s-length body that rises above petty politics in the name of ‘good planning’. Supported by provincial legislation that gives it the power to overturn city council decisions, the OMB is a safety net for our profession’s integrity.

That’s the typical rose-coloured perception, anyway. Viewed in another light, OMB Chairs are quasi-judges with immense decision-making power, no accountability, and a modicum of transparency. Personally, I think the OMB demeans our democratically-elected municipal councils and encourages them to slough off tough decisions. More worryingly, it gives status-quo developers a way to dig in their heels against change.

Take, for example, the Region of Waterloo’s efforts to limit suburban sprawl. The Region’s new Official Plan directs future growth to already built-up areas, in line with Provincial policies that set targets for intensification by 2031. Only 85 hectares (210 acres) of farmland on the edge of town has been permitted for development expansion. The rest of the growth will have to come through intensification.

The Red Condominiums, currently under construction in Uptown Waterloo, are a great example of the Region’s vision to build up, not out.

Some developers that had bought up land on the outskirts of the urban boundary don’t like this vision for more compact urban growth. So they took the Region to the OMB, arguing for an additional 1,053 hectares (2,602 acres) of developable land. And they won.

The OMB’s rulings on land use are final; they are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes ‘good planning’ in Ontario. The only way to reverse an OMB decision is to appeal to the courts on narrow legal grounds. This is what the Region did. It is encouraging to see them stand their ground, and it is even more encouraging that the Province (which appoints OMB Chairs in the first place) is siding with the Region as the case goes to Divisional Court. I’m hopeful that this will be a pivotal moment for planning in Ontario, and that it will begin to expose the cracks in the OMB’s foundation.

Dissecting the OMB’s decision

So with a court challenge looming, I thought I’d do a little armchair analysis of my own. What does the OMB’s decision look like, and how does it justify the continued expansion of our urban areas into some of the country’s best farmland?

To be honest, I was taken aback by the utter lack of rigour in this decision, the full text of which you can read here: Case No. PL110080 [PDF]. The OMB Chair seems to have picked a few straw men rather than taking a comprehensive look at the implications of endless greenfield development.

We do not intend, in the course of these reasons, to address or detail each argument advanced and calculation made, but rather, refer to those matters (“Determining Factors”) which influenced our decision as to which land budget was most appropriate in this case. These Determining Factors are Aging in Place, Range and Mix of Housing, Land Inventory, Additional Apartment Units and Conflict with PPS.

— Para. 49

That’s a pretty short list of ‘Determining Factors’. What about the unsupportable cost of building and maintaining suburban infrastructure? What about the increased transportation options that compact cities provide? What about the importance of protecting our farmland for regional food security? These are all important factors not only in the Region’s new Official Plan, but also in the Province’s Growth Plan.

What irks me more than the OMB’s selective choice of ‘Determining Factors’ is that there is no rationale to explain why they were chosen in the first place! The decision seems to be stacked against the Region from the start.

If the OMB’s list of ‘Determining Factors’ befuddled me, I was stunned beyond belief to read that it considers the Province’s time-bound intensification targets to be mere guidelines. This has huge repercussions not just for the future of growth planning in Waterloo Region, but for any municipality that is trying to rein in sprawl.

The Region argues that, based on the language of s. of the Growth Plan, the requisite density target must be achieved by the year 2031 and, as a result, the Landowners’ Land Budget is fatally flawed. We do not agree.

[…] The section clearly states that the density target “will be planned to be achieved” as opposed to “will be achieved”. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, no date is specifically mentioned. The language used is simply not as demanding as what the Region suggests.

— Paras. 69 & 70

Why don’t we go through the Growth Plan and look at how often it reiterates the importance of a 2031 target.

In the Growth Plan’s introduction, section 1.1 starts off by explaining the Plan’s purpose:

“It is a framework for implementing the Government of Ontario’s vision for building stronger, prosperous communities by better managing growth in this region to 2031.”

Section 1.4, bluntly titled How to Read this Plan, spells it out again:

“This Plan informs decision-making regarding growth management in the GGH. It contains a set of policies for managing growth and development to the year 2031. While certain policies have specific target dates, the goals and policies of this Plan are intended to be achieved within the life of this Plan.”

Section gives the reader some forecasts to inform municipal decision-making. These forecasts stop at 2031:

“Population and employment forecasts contained in Schedule 3 for all upper- and single-tier municipalities will be used for planning and managing growth in the GGH.”

This brings us back to Section, which the OMB claims is free from the 2031 target that permeates the rest of the Growth Plan:

“The designated greenfield area of each upper- or single-tier municipality will be planned to achieve a minimum density target that is not less than 50 residents and jobs combined per hectare.”

Looking back to Section 1.4, How to Read this Plan, tells us that “the goals and policies of this Plan are intended to be achieved within the life of this Plan”. What is the lifetime of the Plan? Until 2031.

When you actually read the Growth Plan, it’s clear that a 2031 density target matters. Democratically-elected Provincial and Regional governments have put an immense amount of work into planning for compact, vibrant, sustainable communities, and we can’t get there without a real deadline to limit sprawl.

This OMB decision unravels the last 10 years of progress, and we simply can’t let that happen. To the Region of Waterloo and the Province of Ontario, I wish you all the best at Divisional Court.

In Boston, real reporting falls prey to hysteria Sun, 21 Apr 2013 01:53:00 -0400 The ferocious zeal with which news organisations have tried to piece together an explanation for the Boston Marathon bombing is astounding. Tripping over conflicting reports in a rush to break the story first, they appear to have done more harm than good.

Mere moments after the explosions, we all began searching for answers. Who, what, why, how? A mad scramble for leads began. False accusations were trumpeted from millions of TV screens, adding tragedy to tragedy as families of the wrongfully accused were torn apart. We saw the same thing happen in the wake of the Newtown shooting just a few months ago. The bigger the story, the more fact-checking gives way to sensationalism.

At this stage, journalists don’t know what evidence the FBI and police have collected. In the absence of material facts, the news stories of the last few days have become little more than thinly-disguised speculation.

Before charges were even laid, never mind a guilty verdict, family and friends were asked to publicly judge the suspects’ character. Dogged journalists dug up hobbies, school records, past feuds and misdemeanours, to paint a detailed, if mostly irrelevant picture of the suspects.

I don’t much care what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wore to his high school prom. Nor do I think that his mother’s run-in with the law for shoplifting has much bearing on the marathon bombings. If a nation full of journalists were desperate for an excuse to incriminate me and my family, I’m sure they would dig up some dirt too.

The story has now shifted: no longer focused on the tragedy of the bombing and how it came to pass, the media is left to pick apart the facts that are not protected by the confidentiality of an ongoing investigation. Somehow, in the frenzy, reporters have become no better than tabloid paparazzi, trying to peer into the private lives of the Tsarnaev brothers and their families.

In an age of instantaneous communication, it is not a mark of strength to be the first to scramble out of the gate. Real strength lies in the ability to set a story aside when you have nothing new to reveal.

Raw data for the 2013 Liberal leadership results: you're welcome Wed, 17 Apr 2013 04:42:00 -0400 Good on the Liberal Party of Canada for releasing riding-by-riding results as soon as the leadership vote was over. The website they used was decent enough for drilling down to a particular riding, but unfortunately they didn’t publish machine-readable data that can be parsed and analysed with any depth.

This wasn’t a close race by any stretch of the definition, with Justin Trudeau snagging just over 80% of the points and 79% of the popular vote. But even the most landslidey of landslide victories (I’m serious, I think there are only two ridings in BC that he didn’t win) is no reason to avoid digging into the numbers.

Edit: Matthew Carroll has released data in a similar format as I did, and his methods of collection were more reliable than mine. So I’ll take mine offline, leave the rest of this post up for posterity, and urge you to check out his version. Best not to have too many different copies floating around. Well done Matthew.

Without the option to download a raw data file of the riding-by-riding results, I went ahead and created one (well, a few in different formats). Copy and pasting values from the website was actually not too onerous once I got a system going. So for the benefit of all you curious political enthusiasts out there, here are the complete results in a few different formats:

  1. Google Spreadsheet: View the riding-by-riding data in your browser. Includes a couple pivot tables to summarize the results by province.
  2. CSV File: Open this in Excel and go nuts. Includes calculated vote counts alongside the vote percentages for each riding.
  3. JSON File (Flat): Standard machine-readable format. Formatted like so: { "Province or territory": "Alberta", "Riding": "Fort McMurray-Athabasca", "Eligible voters": "105", "Blank ballots": "1", "Ballots cast": "77", "Turnout": "73.33%", "Cauchon": "2.63157", "Coyne": "1.31578", "Hall Findlay": "5.26315", "McCrimmon": "1.31578", "Murray": "13.15789", "Trudeau": "76.31578" }
  4. JSON File (Multidimensional): Standard machine-readable format. Formatted like so: { "Province or territory": "Alberta", "Riding": "Fort McMurray-Athabasca", "Eligible voters": "105", "Blank ballots": "1", "Ballots cast": "77", "Turnout": "73.33%", "Vote percentage": { "Cauchon": "2.63157", "Coyne": "1.31578", "Hall Findlay": "5.26315", "McCrimmon": "1.31578", "Murray": "13.15789", "Trudeau": "76.31578" } }

I didn’t include vote counts in the JSON files because they were not explicitly reported. However, it’s pretty simple to calculate the number of votes cast for each candidate by multiplying their vote percentage by the total ballots cast.

Obligatory disclaimer: I copy and pasted this data on 17 April 2013 from the Liberal Party’s results page at Human error is always a possibility (but I tried really hard to avoid mistakes). Let me know if you find any problems.

Portrait of a frozen city Sat, 13 Apr 2013 00:01:00 -0400 As Winter reluctantly hands control over to Spring, a city just about to bloom is frozen in time.

Branches yearning for the sun are wrapped in a cocoon of ice.

Even street signs get caught in the cold, glacial embrace.

Buds, about to burst from their shells, are trapped like flies in amber.

The evergreen trees, welcoming the cold, wear pearls of ice like jewelry.

And then, just as quickly as it came, the cold snap melts back into an April shower.

Thoughts on a decade of digital media Mon, 08 Apr 2013 17:40:00 -0400 Ten years ago, I had barely begun to use Google. I was using (run by C|Net) to explore the web, simply because I had guessed the URL one day and had never heard of other search engines. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the state of digital media today, how I got here, and whether I’m more satisfied now than in the past about what kind of information I have access to. In the last ten years, entire communication patterns and social norms have been rewritten. That’s exciting to think about.

Where I’m at

The web today is a delicious soup of services, all interacting and competing simultaneously. To illustrate this, I’ll tell you the story of how I heard about Google Reader’s demise (which in itself is an important milestone in the history of the Web).

As I remember it, I first heard the news from a Tweet by Andrew Coyne. I then opened a new tab and searched for “google reader shutting down”, which brought me to a Google blog post explaining the decision. After reading the post, I hit up Ars Technica and Mashable to read more about the news. Then I talked about it on Twitter for a bit. I considered posting about Google Reader on Facebook - no, too techy - and then went to see what my favourite third-party Google Reader app, Reeder, had to say about it on Twitter. Later in the day, I came across a good discussion of the issue on /r/webdev.

This is how I consume and interact with media - bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a chaotic flurry of information. The pace of change in digital media is astounding. New platforms for content are being created all the time, and it’s tough to decide what not to read. Personally, I’m looking for a way to separate signal from noise. I waste so much time reading and responding to content that just goes in one ear and out the other.

I’m at the point now where I crave curation, which is why I recently picked up a copy of Alternatives Journal. A bimonthly, dead-tree publication. Think about that. A paper magazine won out over the torrent of information available on the internet. Why? I know that it will have staying power - the content in this magazine needs to be relevant for at least two months. The prospect of trusting in someone else’s editorial judgment, is more attractive than desperately scouring social media for the Next Big Thing.

How I got here

Ten years ago, news portals were the de facto gatekeepers of the internet. Most people had a website like Yahoo! or MSN as their homepage. These websites adapted the concept of a literal front page from broadsheet newspapers, making the transition to online media comfortable and familiar.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, blogging came to the fore. A source of independent news and commentary, free from the shackles of the corporate media structure, people took to livejournal or blogger to voice their opinions rather than write a letter to the editor. This is also what I would call the first instance of social media, because comments allowed readers to leave unfiltered remarks and generate discussion.

Facebook took the best parts of the blog - comments and freedom from editorial control - and made it easier to write, share, and discuss with family and friends. Facebook’s insistence on building upon real-world relationships is what began to bridge the gap between the Internet and the so-called real world.

Twitter burst on the scene at the end of the decade, quickly becoming an explosive force in digital media. The service’s character limit lends itself well to headlines and pithy quotes, making back-and-forth debate easy. By mainstreaming the use of hashtags, Twitter created an environment that is organised by topic, rather than personal relationships. For some types of media coverage, namely political punditry and sports, where minute-by-minute reporting makes sense, Twitter has become a dominant medium for discussion.

Tweet from the address bar in Chrome and Firefox Mon, 25 Mar 2013 19:44:00 -0400 Update (8 March 2014): The original title of this post was “Tweet from Chrome’s address bar”. I’ve updated it to include Firefox, which supports the same functionality.

I love keyboard shortcuts. There’s something satisfying about shaving off precious seconds from routine tasks, even if they are as trivial as sending a tweet.


Chrome has had the ability to add custom search engines for a long time - but I recently realised that you’re not limited to search engines, per se. Any URL that accepts variables will do. Take, for example, the URL to send a tweet. Here’s how to set it up.

  • Copy and paste chrome://settings/searchEngines into your address bar, and hit enter.
  • Scroll to the bottom of the window and add a new search engine:
    • Put whatever you want for the search engine name, I wrote ‘Tweet’.
    • The keyword is up to you too, but I put ‘t‘ because it’s nice and short.
    • For the URL, enter - the %s is important!
  • Click “Done”. Your search engine should look something like this:

Now, you can type “t <space>” to start composing a tweet inside your address bar. Hit enter to continue, or Cmd-Enter (Ctrl-Enter for Windows) to continue in a new tab. You’ll see this page if you’re logged in:


With Firefox, you can set up this same behaviour by adding as a new bookmark. Just like in Chrome, set a keyword like ‘t’ to precede your tweet.

Unlike Chrome, Firefox doesn’t include the word “Search” before the preview label.

The cool thing is that Twitter will shorten any URLs you include before you hit “Tweet”, so you can still make the most of that sweet sweet character limit.

Road tolls are a barrier to complete streets Fri, 15 Mar 2013 21:08:00 -0400 I took my bike out of hibernation yesterday and rode from my home in Kitchener to the University of Waterloo. The commute was refreshing, after a season of being beholden to the bus schedule. Along the way, I stopped off at the bank and ran a couple errands in uptown Waterloo. This is the kind of flexibility I was missing over the winter. Biking season is here, and I couldn’t be happier.

But, the roads. Oh, the roads! I’ve never fully appreciated what a freeze-thaw cycle can do to asphalt, but boy was it obvious yesterday morning. The familiar potholes had grown deeper and wider, and unexpected new cracks had formed during the winter. The stretch of Waterloo Street from Roger to Moore, which used to be a tad bumpy, was nearly unrideable yesterday. I may have to plan out an alternate commuting route.

The immediate reaction is obvious: the city needs to fix these roads. But it’s more than that. As a cyclist, I want the city to fix the roads. Even as a bus rider, I appreciate a well-maintained road. There’s nothing worse than trying to remain standing on a lurching, jolting bus ride.

We tend to automatically think of roads as “infrastructure for cars”, which factors into debates about investing in transit. This dualism is not helpful and it’s absolutely not accurate. Bike lanes and bus bays are absolutely part of the road, and planners need to think about the road network as intermodal infrastructure if we want to encourage alternative forms of transportation.

This is why I’m not sold on the idea of congestion charges or road tolls in urban areas. These measures reinforce the perception of automobiles as the primary users of the road. Because motorists pay a user fee, they feel entitled to a road system that puts their needs ahead of other modes. These schemes have a singular focus: improving automobile congestion (i.e. timing traffic lights, increasing the rate of through-traffic, removing on-street parking). Such plans fail to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians, and mass transit.

A counter-argument might be that road tolls and congestion fees make motorists pay the “true cost” of the road and might encourage them to drive less. My counter-counter-argument would be: why should automobiles pay for the use of the road and not cyclists? Pedestrians? Transit riders? We all use the infrastructure. Let’s look at it as a common good and plan for multiple modes. Designing and maintaining comfortable roads for all modes will get drivers out of their cars more effectively than user fees ever will.

FYI, there is a good discussion about this post happening on reddit, as well as in the comments below.

How strong is your keychain? Mon, 04 Mar 2013 22:03:00 -0500 Password strength is always relevant, with security vulnerabilities being exploited all the time. Nobody is immune to attacks: within the past 9 months, Twitter, ABC Australia, Yahoo, and LinkedIn have all had their passwords leaked.

Of course, there are many factors at play beyond the strength of your password. Using a slow algorithm like bcrypt to secure passwords is generally more important than having a strong password in the first place. But, as an average web user, you don’t have control over the security infrastructure of websites you visit. So what’s the best password strategy?

We’ve always been told to use uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters in our passwords. These are good rough guidelines, but a complex password is not necessarily a secure password. As illustrated by this excellent XKCD comic, it’s more important to have a long, easy-to-remember password than a short, complicated one. The reason? The longer one has more bits of entropy. Measuring the entropy of a password is a better way to determine how difficult it would be to hack in the real world:

A password with, say, 42 bits of strength calculated in this way would be as strong as a string of 42 bits chosen randomly, say by a fair coin toss. Put another way, a password with 42 bits of strength would require 242 attempts to exhaust all possibilities during a brute force search.


There are a number of calculators out there that figure out how many bits of entropy are in a given password. I like Dropbox’s calculator, since it breaks down the method that would be used to guess each part of the password.

Most of the discussion centres around the strength of an individual password. But if you use the same password on every site, it only takes one of them to fail for someone to have access to your Facebook account, email, banking information, and more.

The reality is, most people reuse their passwords. So how strong does a password need to be for you to safely use it everywhere?

Here’s a randomly-generated 6-character password with letters, numbers and symbols: vL5e$Q. It has 39 bits of entropy - that’s less than desirable, but not bad (correcthorsebatterystaple, the password used in the XKCD comic, has 45). If you log in to, say, 50 websites with different randomly-generated passwords of this kind, your entire keychain has 1,950 bits of entropy.

So how long does a single password need to be to achieve 1,950 bits of entropy? Well, you’d have to type out the first 15 or so verses of Genesis to get 1,950 bits with lowercase letters.

The moral of the story: even if you have a strong password, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you use it everywhere.

A cost-of-living tax system Sun, 10 Feb 2013 23:44:00 -0500 Taxes are an exercise in income redistribution that every society goes through. It’s a way to level the paying field and invest in the public good. But the system we have in Canada is terribly over-complicated, with loopholes that favour the rich. When filing your taxes becomes so time-consuming that you need to buy special software or hire an accountant to do the job for you, it’s high time for change. The complexity of the income tax system means that the only people who can navigate it effectively are those with time, money, or expertise to spare.

(There are similar issues with the corporate tax structure, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish, so let’s save it for another day.)

The fact is, paying taxes is one of the few responsibilities that we have as citizens. And like voting or jury duty, this should be something the average citizen is capable of doing on her own.

Tax incentives are a favourite tool among governments for offering all kinds of incentives, from the wildly popular home renovation tax credit, to the arts and sports tax credit, to the transit tax credit, to charitable donation tax receipts.

Part of the tax system’s nebulousness is due to these kinds of exceptions and tax brackets meant to make taxation fairer. So how to strike that balance between fairness and simplicity? The Fraser Institute, among others, have advocated a flat tax, regardless of income, marital status, or number of dependents. That’s simply too blunt an instrument. But there is a way to make taxation work better: tie it to the cost of living.

Before I dive in, let’s take a look at the current federal tax system. Canada has four tax brackets (details here), and these charts show how much of your income is taxed depending on your gross earnings.

Now, what would tax rates look like if we accounted for cost of living? Statistics Canada keeps track of a Market Basket Measure (MBM), which fluctuates based on the cost of food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and other necessities to live modestly. The MBM differs depending on what province you live in and how large your community is.

For the sake of illustration, let’s take a look at Toronto. Its MBM for 2010 was $33,177. In a hypothetical tax system based on cost of living, income below this threshold would not be taxed because we want everybody to afford at least a modest lifestyle.

The flipside of this issue is what is considered an extravagant income? I’m very much a believer in income ceilings, so I want my tax system to reflect that. A ceiling for some is necessary to provide a solid foundation for all.

With this in mind, let’s lay out some tax brackets.

  • Income lower than the MBM will be taxed at 0%
  • Income between 1 and 2 times the MBM will be taxed at 15%
  • Income between 2 and 3 times the MBM will be taxed at 20%
  • Income between 3 and 4 times the MBM will be taxed at 25%
  • Income between 4 and 5 times the MBM will be taxed at 30%
  • Income over 5 times the MBM will be taxed at 90%

The tax rates are defined as multiples of the MBM, so that they reflect the actual cost of living. People in the top tax bracket are earning at least 5 times more than is required to live modestly.

Let’s take a look at the hypothetical average tax rates for Toronto under this system:

Let’s circle back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post: our taxes are overcomplicated because of all the incentives that have been piled on by governments. This patchwork attempt to level the playing field and encourage certain behaviour has left us with a tax system that is too nebulous for regular people to take advantage of.

Tax brackets based on the MBM threshold would remove the need for some of those incentives - the transit tax credit and the northern living allowance, for example. Ideally, your income tax return would have only three questions: 1) your gross income; 2) your place of residence (so the MBM can be calculated); and 3) how many dependents you have.

As for other things not covered by the MBM, I’m of the opinion that the tax system is not the right place for them. Want to encourage post-secondary education? Lower tuition. Want to encourage kids’ sports? Subsidize municipal athletic programs.

Taxes should be simple, transparent, and based on the cost of living. Is that too much to ask?

The West ain't what it used to be Fri, 04 Jan 2013 01:33:00 -0500 The role of language in constructing a worldview has always interested me. Terms like “Western society” and “the global North” are common ways to juxtapose the lifestyles of rich people with an often romanticized notion of Noble Savagery.

“Our Western culture focuses so much on excessive consumption.”

“We in the global North must do our part to help those in the global South.”

“The Western media is controlled by corporations.”

When we talk about a singular “Western” culture or society or civilisation, are we really thinking in terms of geography? Is there an equal and opposite “Eastern” counterpart?

This kind of language is a veil; it puts a distracting geographic veneer on statements that are actually about class and wealth. So next time you make a generalisation about culture, society, class, or wealth, take a moment to think about what it is you’re really trying to say and don’t pussyfoot around it.

The good news is that the phrase “Western [blank]” has been falling out of favour since the mid-1990s. But it’s interesting to see how its use has mirrored historical shifts in power.

I plugged in some phrases to Google Ngrams, that wonderful database cataloguing the last 200 years of the written word. We were far more focused on the Western/Eastern binary in the 1960s, but today, Western society and civilisation are not talked about in relation to an Eastern “other”.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the recent increase in both Western and Eastern “culture”. On one hand, it could be a resurgence of binary thinking. But I think it’s rather two independent trends. “Western culture” increased sharply from 1985-1995, perhaps as English-language speakers tried to define ourselves in a rapidly globalising world. The upshot in “Eastern culture” during the same period is, I think, a result of a kind of “oriental intrigue” in the English-speaking world - the growth in popularity of Yoga, secular Buddhism, and manga/anime might explain it.

Of course, I could be totally wrong. What do you see in these charts? (Click to expand)

References to Western society, civilisation, and culture in the English language
References to Eastern society, civilisation, and culture in the English language
Line length and readability: speed vs. user experience Thu, 27 Dec 2012 03:17:00 -0500 There is no shortage of opinions about the optimal line length for content on the web, especially in today’s world of varying screen sizes and fluid layouts. However, many of these articles tend to focus on the speed and efficiency of reading rather than on users’ perceptions. In my opinion, the user experience is much more important than actual reading speed. I don’t care how long it takes someone to read an article; I just want them to enjoy their time on my site.

With that in mind, all the research I’ve found concludes that readers prefer reading content with fewer characters per line (cpl), no matter how they perform objectively in terms of speed.

Dyson and Kipping (1997) compared a single-column layout with a line length of 100cpl to a 3-column layout with a line length of 30 cpl. They found that while a wide, single column results in faster reading speeds, people prefer reading in multiple narrower columns.

Dyson and Haselgrove (2001) found that a line length of 55 cpl (as opposed to 25 cpl or 100 cpl) “produced the highest level of comprehension and was also read faster than short lines”.

Bernard, Fernandez, and Hull (2002) compared line lengths of 45, 76, and 132 cpl. They found that medium-width and narrow line lengths (45-75 cpl) make it easier to concentrate on the text, and that a line width of 76 cpl provides the most desirable layout.

Ling and van Schaik (2006) found no significant differences in reading speed or efficiency for different line lengths (options were 55, 70, 85, or 100 cpl), but participants preferred the 55 cpl line length.

Based on these findings, it seems that the old print industry standard of 45 to 75 cpl is still a useful measurement for content on the web.

This is a good thing to keep in mind when designing websites that cater to a plethora of browsers, screen sizes, and default font settings. The Kindle, for example, eschews the standard 16px default font size. Devices with higher pixel densities like the iPhone cause all kinds of other layout issues.

Going forward, we have to start using em-based layouts. Hardware will only become more fragmented, and em-based layouts ensure that content will look right no matter how it’s accessed. Through all this, it’s important to keep content at a readable width. The trick is, how will you define “readable” - based on speed, or based on the user experience?

Tips for the unprepared night-time cyclist Sat, 08 Dec 2012 02:01:00 -0500 I love cycling, especially in the City. I can hold my own in heavy traffic and stick to the rules of the road as best I can - I sure don’t need to give cars more reasons to be annoyed with cyclists. But inevitably, I sometimes forget my lights. And at this time of year, when the days are getting shorter, nightfall can easily take me by surprise when I leave work.

So what to do when you’re stuck without a light but need to use your bike? Obviously the letter of the law says that you can’t be riding on the road without a light, and you also can’t be riding on the sidewalk. But waiting until sunrise is rarely an option, so if you must cycle in the dark, here are the rules I use to keep me alive.

Lower your expectations
You don’t have a legal right to be riding your bike right now, so you’re going to have to be extra cautious. Double the time you would expect to arrive at your destination under normal conditions. Forget any notion that you have the right of way, ever. Expect to creep along behind pedestrians until there’s a safe opening for you to pass them. The world doesn’t owe you anything - you’re the one breaking the law.

Constant vigilance!
This is the kind of think that goes without saying, but needs to be said anyway. When you’re biking at night, treat every driveway and intersection as if a Hummer will come thundering out of nowhere at any second. Every ten seconds, you should be thinking, I could die tonight. For the other nine seconds, you should be training your catlike senses on your surroundings.

Pretend you’re invisible
This is the most practical tip I can give. Nobody can see you, and nobody knows you’re coming. You’re invisible, so you’ll have to wait for the rhythm of traffic to sync up in your favour before you cross it. Think of it like Frogger, but where you only have one life.

Stick to the road less travelled
Trails, residential streets, alleyways and sidewalks are your friends. Unless there are absolutely no cars on the road (and this is why it’s good to take detours on quiet residential streets), use the sidewalk. But don’t treat the sidewalk like a bike lane, because it’s not.

Speaking of the road less travelled, here are some of my favourite nighttime routes in KW:

Alternative route through Downtown Kitchener: Halls Lane

Alternative route from Uptown Waterloo to Downtown Kitchener. Park Street sidewalks are usually empty.

Rail path through the Mary-Allen neighbourhood

A heavy summons Tue, 13 Nov 2012 04:03:00 -0500 Sleep is such a fragile thing
Broken by a simple touch, an inadvertent creak or brush
The creeping light that morning brings
Balanced on the knife-edge between one world and the other
The other? — Or, perhaps but one
of many I’ve yet to discover
Like a switch flipped, then zipped around
To alternate realities
Each complete in its own right
In each a new normality —
In each a new morality!
From dawn to dusk, life has become such dull and dry formality
I live, and breathe, and eat
To feed the part of me that never sleeps

I wanted to go to bed early tonight, but Melissa wouldn’t let me. I managed to get a 20-minute nap in after dinner before she woke me up and forced me to stay awake until a reasonable hour like a grown-up should. I was in a funny sort of headspace, and wrote this poem in a fit of inspiration.

Atlas Shrugged (and eventually, so did I) Sat, 20 Oct 2012 15:56:00 -0400 Some people try to make a boring speech more interesting by throwing in a story or two. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand does the opposite - stuffing a mediocre story full of excessive diatribes and long-winded monologues. The result is a sad hybrid of philosophy and fiction that brings out the worst in each. It’s a philosophical text that lacks the structure and rigour of a treatise, and at the same time a poorly-told story that cannot stand on its own.

If you haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, and want to, you’d better stop here because there will be spoilers.

I will concede that it was a book that made me think. Virtually every page contained an opinion, accusation, or challenge, forcing me to evaluate and justify my own assumptions about the ideal socio-political system. This is what I gathered as my own Coles Notes version of Rand’s philosophy in Atlas Shrugged:

  • It is right to earn rewards based on merit, but wrong to receive alms based on need. Charity is blasphemy against the sanctity of human ability.
  • People should be rewarded commensurate to their ability, even if the reward is exceedingly above anything they could hope to spend or need. The fruits of their labour - and nobody else’s - are theirs by right.
  • Nobody should feel compelled to sacrifice for the sake of others. If one acts for the benefit of another, that benefit ought to be a mere byproduct of the pleasure gained by the actor.
  • Healthy capitalism means businesses do not cut corners to make profit, but see labour as an investment in the highest calibre of skilled workers.
  • Those who implement an idea are infinitely in debt to the person who thought of the idea in the first place.
  • It is futile to talk about the public good without first specifying which public you’re talking about.
  • One has no moral duty except to one’s own rational mind.
  • It is wrong to gain power or wealth by means of bribery, favours, loopholes, extortion, imposed monopoly, or force.
  • A society that rejects need and celebrates ability will see its members use their minds to overcome any obstacles, thereby producing enough value to exchange for all their wants and needs.

I won’t get into too much detail about my position on the above bullet points, but suffice it to say that I think they are mostly wrong.

The overwhelming sense in my mind as I read Atlas Shrugged was, “get on with it!” - the characters’ endless inner monologues quickly became repetitive, reducing their persuasive impact. It was the equivalent of the type of person who has made their point long ago, but keeps talking in circles because nobody has forced them to shut up yet. I could only get through John Galt’s speech - that arrogantly, pretentiously long lecture - by keeping track of the page numbers and reminding myself that I was not, in fact, reading the same paragraphs over and over.

The narrative also suffered from repetition and a lack of originality. If you’re going to write a 1,200-page book, you’ve got to find some more creative ways of describing how Dagny’s clothes frame the fragility of her feminine body.

Probably the biggest disappointment for me was the entire concept of Galt’s Gulch. The idea that if you disagree with the prevailing social order, you and your friends can carve out a little piece of the world and live in peace without having to worry about anything or anybody else. Oh, and that such a place will have plentiful copper resources, agricultural lands, metal ore for smelting, and enough space for each person to live in whatever kind of house he chooses - whether it be a secluded cabin in a forest or near the main market street.

Ayn Rand’s glorification of the rational mind goes to such extremes as to make her philosophy nothing more than a pipe dream. The idea that by sheer willpower, Hank Rearden could buy up depleted mines and find some way to extract more minerals from them is a cop-out at best. No need for the people of Galt’s Gulch to worry about energy security either - John Galt figured out how make a motor that produces electricity from the air. How convenient!

If you’re like me and consider a 1,200-page book to be a fairly arduous endeavour, Atlas Shrugged is not worth reading. The story is not compelling on its own merits. None of the characters are likeable, and the plot is simply a vehicle for the author to project her philosophy in the form of fictional monologues.

There are entrenched notions of good and bad, which do not shift at all through the course of the book. Instead, the same themes, opinions, and scenarios are played out again and again, like a punished schoolchild forced to keep writing a lesson on the blackboard until his hands begin to bleed.

Woefully Horrid Method of Insuring Safety (WHMIS) Thu, 06 Sep 2012 00:10:00 -0400 Health and safety are important, but WHMIS certification (at least, my experience with it) is a joke. I first learned about WHMIS in Grade 9 or 10, as part of a mandatory “workplace skills” course. We learned all about the different hazard symbols, material safety data sheets, the rights and responsibilities of workers, and ended up with a certificate at the end stating that we were all WHMIS certified.

The certificate itself was a piece of paper with my name and a congratulatory heading - printed on standard paper in black and white, without any security features or unique identifier - laughably easy to falsify.

In the following years, I jumped through the same WHMIS certification hoops when I got my first part-time job at a grocery store; when I started each of my subsequent summer jobs; two or three times in University courses; and again, this afternoon, at my new office job. Sometimes I got a certificate that was photocopied with my name stuck onto it. Sometimes I didn’t get any notice of certification.

In any case, the whole concept of certification is void when it comes to the way WHMIS is administered. Each time I ran through the paces once again, my fellow new hires (or classmates) stared, glassy-eyed, at a video or presentation until we were fed the answers, one by one. None of us wanted to be there. None of us were learning. And none of us cared, because we knew that the tortuous hour-and-a-half was a necessary bureaucratic formality. Once it was over, we could get on with real work.

I wonder if the Ministry of Labour has any systems in place to review the effectiveness of WHMIS education. If they do, I wonder what metrics they use. Because in the current system, everybody passes the test whether they’re actually competent or not. Sure, we have certain rights and responsibilities enshrined in legislation, but what effect do they have beyond adding an hour or two of mindless drivel to employee training sessions?

My proposition is this: why not have a real WHMIS certification program, much like the Boating Licence, that workers need to complete once in their adult lives. The Boating license can be completed online, allows for unlimited retries, and upon successful completion of the test you’re sent a Pleasure Craft Operator Card in the mail. If you’re stopped on the water by police, they can look at your card and verify that you’re certified.

Surely, if we can trust people to pass such a lenient test to safely operate a motorboat, the same could be done for WHMIS. Pass it once, then you’re good for life. Put the certificate number on the HR form next to your social insurance number so the employer meets its legal obligations. I’d even be happy with a 5- or 10-year renewal period - health and safety regulations do change over time, after all.

But for the love of God, don’t make me sit through another WHMIS training session so I can lose two hours of my life to get another meaningless certification for the umpteenth time.

The University of Waterloo rolls out an unnecessary redesign Fri, 17 Aug 2012 01:50:00 -0400 The University of Waterloo released a new website design today, foregoing its dark, photo-centric layout in favour of a brighter, more content-heavy homepage. It has received mixed reviews; some love the new design, some hate it. But it’s best not to dwell too much on the design change, because when it comes to aesthetics you’re never going to please everybody.

What we should dwell on, though, is the reason why UW needed to redesign its website at all. There were some legitimate concerns with the old site. It failed to meet certain accessibility requirements set by the province, and it wasn’t mobile-friendly. The old site had interactive panels and dropdown menus that just didn’t translate well to small screens. Surely, these issues could have been addressed by refining the existing website, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Back in May 2010, UW released its Positioning Guide - a set of policies governing what colours, fonts, and emblems should be used in communications and publications put out by the university. The new website does not follow these policies. Rather than using the “Waterloo Yellow” specified in the colour palette (#FECB00 for those interested), the new website uses #FFDD00. It’s a slightly lighter shade of yellow, which isn’t the end of the world. But if UW isn’t following its Positioning Guide on its own homepage, what purpose do the policies have, really? This represents a glaring lack of communication between the staff that set the policies for UW’s brand identity and those who implement it.

In December 2009, White Whale Web Services (a firm from California that specialises in web development for higher education institutions) was contracted by the university to redesign the website. Extensive identity branding and public consultation happened over the course of 20 months - meetings with students, staff, and the Web Advisory Committee, mockups and screenshots, revisions, beta tests of the new designs, online polls and feedback forms. The redesign was complete by Fall 2011.

I don’t know how much money UW paid White Whale to fly back and forth from California all that time and redesign the website from the ground up, but the effort put into it in 2010 and 2011 certainly dwarfs the two days of consultation that were done before this most recent design was unveiled.

I want to specifically address the issue of accessibility. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) is the industry standard for making sure all people, regardless of ability, can access content on a web page. Back in July 2010, a special meeting of UW’s Web Advisory Committee was held, where it was decided that the White Whale redesign would meet the WCAG requirements to Level AA. (PowerPoint file, see slide 9) Now, we’re being told that that website did not, in fact, meet the guidelines. If it was a project requirement in the first place, why was the website allowed to go ahead without being WCAG compliant? To boot, this new redesign is apparently only Level A compliant a less stringent, and therefore less accessible, target.

One last point: it appears that all references to White Whale Web Services have been erased from the UW website, and its archives now only go back as far as November 2011. The blog that charted the progress of the White Whale redesign is gone. Most of the Google search results for “white whale uwaterloo” are now dead links. I have no idea why this is the case.

To conclude, I am utterly confused as to why UW felt the need to completely revamp its website and erase any trace of the previous redesign, which was an epic undertaking of nearly two years. This new site doesn’t adhere to the university’s positioning guide, sets a lower bar for accessibility, and was definitely the wrong way to go about solving the problems of the previous website.

First flush Mon, 23 Jul 2012 04:37:00 -0400 On a whim, I decided to go for a bike ride today. I left my wallet and phone behind and spent a couple hours on the Grand River Trail. It’s a great ride; I started at the Economical Insurance Trailway (point 13 on the above-linked map) and continued to Kolb Park, then turned around. It wasn’t too hilly, but I did have to work up a sweat at times. It was about equal difficulty on the way there and on the way back, which is nice - it stops me from coasting too much.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. As I passed Bingemans on the way down, it started to rain a little. By the time I reached the Victoria St. underpass, it was a veritable torrent of fat, hot raindrops soaking my clothes through to the skin. I didn’t mind, the air was still warm so I decided I would continue riding along the river until the rain stopped.

It stopped after 10 minutes or so. I found myself riding through Kolb Park - and there was a slightly overgrown fork off the main trail that looked interesting. I veered left and ducked under the sodden, low-hanging branches. After about a minute my path was blocked; a dead end. But there  was a footpath down to the river. So I propped my bike up onto a tree, and walked down to the water’s edge.

As the tree canopy opened up before me, I saw a little beach of sorts - strewn with rocks and weeds and springy mud. An insect buzzed incessantly around my ear. A flock of ducks were floating in the water; a seagull stood guard from a rock on the opposite side of the river. Through the overgrowth, in the distance, I could spot a new suburban development, creeping toward the river from Breslau.

I had found quite an idyllic spot. I set my rain-streaked glasses down on a rock; took off my shirt and wringed it out; skipped a few rocks; stretched my legs; and after a sort while, I figured it was time to head home.

But as I walked back up the footpath to my bike, I heard the sound of rushing water grow louder. It wasn’t the river. It was a surge of water coming down the riverbank. In the time it had taken me to stop and take a breather, the intense but brief rainfall had filtered through the sewer system to end up here. It wasn’t an idyllic beach at all. It was a drainage area.

I scampered back down to take a look at the runoff. This was the first flush phenomenon in action - one of those concepts that I had learned theoretically, but hadn’t experienced first-hand. I could see the runoff making its way through the rocks while I stood on one of the larger ones. It was a thick brown liquid, kind of like hot chocolate, no doubt tainted with oil and sediment from the nearby industrial area. It smelled of sewage. Cigarette butts floated in the inky mixture. And it was travelling fast. Rocks the size of my fist were being displaced by the powerful flow. A spider, who had been basking atop a rock, was swept under. I moved to higher ground as the toxic effluent began to touch my shoes.

When the runoff met the water’s edge, it formed a visible brown streak as the river carried it downstream, cigarette butts and all. The ducks stayed put, seemingly unfazed. This must have been an all-too-common occurrence for them.

To imagine that this was happening at innumerable points up and down the river, as a result of rainfall lasting less than half an hour, baffled me. Is our water even being treated properly? Is the wastewater treatment system so overwhelmed by an afternoon shower that it had to divert raw sewage into the river?

After about 10 minutes, the effluent started to clear up. It was still brown, but less oily-looking. Does anybody test this water? I wondered. And if they do, a 10-minute delay would give wildly different results. I pondered all this as I rode back home.

This isn’t necessarily a suburban problem; but we need to be smarter with how we develop urban areas. We can’t accept the status quo - hectares of new impermeable pavement and kilometre after kilometre of engineered concrete sewer lines. If we want to keep the natural beauty of the Grand while encouraging population growth in the region, we need to incorporate the natural environment into our water filtration system on a large scale - before it gets dumped into the river.

Making sense of "sense of place" Sat, 07 Jul 2012 04:29:00 -0400 In Planning school, we’re taught that an area’s sense of place can make or break a neighbourhood. It’s that elusive uniqueness that ties a place to its history while forging an identity of its own. We often explore this through design, where the use of visual elements is the go-to method for achieving a sense of place.

But I think it’s a shame that we don’t focus as much on sense of place in other areas of planning — in policy development, in social planning, in employment strategies, in zoning, in transit planning. Because for me, sense of place is more than the character of a neighbourhood as I walk through it. It’s the immediate emotional response I get when someone mentions the name of a place. It’s the preconceived notions and prejudices that jump to the front of my mind. It’s the expectation of who I might see there, what I might do there, how I will feel there, that define sense of place. A neighbourhood’s sense of place has far more to do with what goes on inside our heads than how the area is actually designed.

Take these Toronto place names for example:

  • Bay Street.
  • Yonge-Dundas Square.
  • Queen’s Park.
  • Rexdale.

You’ve already got an image in your head of what these places are like, whether or not you’ve actually been there. You know that Bay Street is the financial centre of Canada, glistening with skyscrapers. You know there are festivals and concerts at Yonge-Dundas Square. You know that Queen’s Park houses the Ontario Legislature and that the words are often used as a replacement for “the government”. You know that Rexdale is home to many new immigrants. The connotations around these place names have already begun to form a sense of place in your head.

And it’s the same story with Kitchener, the city I now call home. I go to school in Waterloo, and there is a definite distinction between the two cities. I avoid telling people I live in “Downtown Kitchener” — that will only conjure up images of cheque-cashing establishments and the dirty bus terminal. Instead, I tell people I live in “Kitchener, close to Victoria Park and the Library”. With my careful use of words, I’m already creating the sense of place that I want people to feel.

There is no “Downtown Waterloo”. The city centre is called “Uptown”, which boasts vibrant nightlife, chic restaurants and cafes, a public square, high-end lofts, and government offices. “Downtown” is Kitchener. “Downtown” is where you go because you need to, not because you want to. “Downtown” is where you’ll get harassed for spare change on every other street corner. These are the things people think of when they hear “Downtown Kitchener”.

But the differences are not only perceptual — there are real divisions between the two cities. Melissa and I went for a night on the town this evening — we caught a bus to Uptown Waterloo (naturally), where we were going to attend a free ballroom dancing lesson in the public square. Sadly, the lesson was cancelled because they were setting up booths for tomorrow’s Turkish Festival. But we enjoyed ourselves with dinner at a small fish and chips place, followed by drinks at Starbucks and a slow meander back home to Kitchener, where there is no Starbucks.

As we walked along King Street, we tried to define exactly where it stopped feeling like “Waterloo” and started feeling like “Kitchener”. Such an intangible concept, but we both agreed that there was something utterly definite about the perceived character of both cities.

We walked past the Bauer Lofts, with its accompanying bistro, hair salon, and high-end grocer. This was most definitely still a Waterloo atmosphere. Once we crossed John Street, though, the ambiance had drastically shifted. The changes were subtle - a Dairy Queen that should have been renovated 10 years ago; streetlights placed just too far apart; a flickering neon sign on an old brick house that read HOLISTIC MEDICAL CARE; a once-grand estate lot that now looks haunted and decayed. We had crossed the boundary into a “Kitchener” sense of place. Never mind the fact that we were still technically within Waterloo. The sense of place was totally incongrous with the vibrant Uptown where we had spent our evening.

We hopped a bus to zip through the concrete wasteland of undefined urban space between Uptown and Downtown. When we reached the edge of Downtown Kitchener, we got off and continued to walk, trying to hammer out the reasons exactly why this city feels so different from Waterloo.

Transit patterns

In Waterloo, the Uptown bus stop serves the busiest mainline bus routes. The stops are located right on King street, adjacent to the public square. From there, you’re a stone’s throw from shopping, eating, and people-watching. The constant flow of buses encourages you to be spontaneous, hang out, and wait for your next transfer in comfort.

Meanwhile, nearly all the buses in Kitchener bypass the main Downtown strip around City Hall. They all detour a couple blocks before to get to Charles Street Terminal, the massive transit hub where schedules and maps are plastered everywhere, where clocks count down the seconds until the next departure, where you need to know which of the three staircases to take to get to your platform.

Charles Street Terminal is not a place to hang out. It is completely removed from the streetscape, and even though it is located right next to beautiful Victoria Park, there is no access through that side of the property. It encourages you to turn your back on the city and get out of there as fast as you can.

Retail environment

There’s no escaping it: in the 15-minute walk from the north end of Downtown to our house at the extreme south end, Melissa and I counted three cheque-cashing establishments, two dodgy furniture leasing stores, three pawn shops, and a “WE’LL BUY YOUR GOLD” store. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these places, and I’d expect any city to have some of them. But to have them all concentrated along the major main street in Kitchener is detrimental.

Most importantly, these are the kinds of establishments that prey on poverty. I don’t know what disturbs me more, the fact that so many informal lenders are still in business, or that other business interests haven’t pushed them out of Kitchener’s prime retail space yet.

Indoor Malls

I hadn’t noticed until today, but Kitchener has a lot of cavernous, glassy-walled indoor malls. Some of them, like the Manulife building, are a kind of unassuming labyrinth that offers no visual stimulation from the streetscape, and no incentive to come inside and explore. It also doesn’t help that it’s closed weekdays after 6PM and on weekends. The Market Square proudly boasts a McDonald’s sign and a Canada Post emblem on it front entrance, but peering in will leave people confused as they see a run-down tailor’s shop, a private college, and not much else. Those who continue down King Street looking for an alternate entrance will be rewarded with an entire city block of blank brick walls and service bays.


When I ask the question, “What’s missing in Downtown Kitchener?”, I think the answer is employment. Manufacturing and heavy industry was the lifeblood of this city for a hundred years. That has stopped. the old factories have been converted to lofts. The residential boom is here, and we’ll have a critical mass of people soon that will be commuting to Waterloo.

Sure, The Tannery is a tech-sector success story, and I’m hotly anticipating the live-work development at the Breithaupt Block. But those are on the fringes of Downtown. We need major employment to come to King Street. We need to make use of the second- and third-storey spaces that are currently abandoned. We need to fill in the missing teeth in the streetscape.

Final thoughts

This post has become horribly long. If you’ve read up to this point, I congratulate you. But I would be remiss to neglect the lack of a full-service grocery store in Downtown Kitchener. Central Fresh Market seems closer to Waterloo than to Downtown Proper, and the Kitchener Market is only open on Saturdays. I think the Bargain Shop at the corner of King and Benton would be a prime candidate for renovation into a grocery store.

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on sense of place - can it be expressed tangibly, or will it always be an elusive concept? Leave a comment.

Now it's easier than ever to fine-tune your Bandcamp players Sun, 24 Jun 2012 14:22:00 -0400 Is your player not working? In October 2012, Bandcamp changed the way they handle layout files. If you created a custom layout prior to this time and it’s not working, you’ll have to make a new one, I’m afraid.

Back in 2010, I created a handy little app to generate JSON code for the Bandcamp API. The API lets you customise your bandcamp players, offering detailed options beyond the standard five or six layouts.

Now, I’ve completely rewritten the app to make it faster and easier to use. You don’t need to know a thing about JSON anymore, nor do you need your own server to upload the layout files. It’s just point, click, copy, and paste.

Having complete control over the look and feel of your embedded Bandcamp players has never been easier. So head on over and try it out!

And by the way, you can generate players for any album on Bandcamp, including big name artists like Sufjan Stevens and Coeur de Pirate. Awesome, eh?

"Arctic Ready" Shell website is almost certainly a hoax Sun, 17 Jun 2012 20:00:00 -0400 A new website has popped up, purporting to be an attempt by Shell Oil to win over public support for drilling in the arctic. They’ve apparently set up a make-your-own-postcard tool to encourage people to share the message of “Let’s Go”.

I was duped by it. I joined in the schaedenfreude and hilarity, writing a scathing postcard of my own. But after a closer look, it appears that this is all a big elaborate hoax.

None of the links in the footer of the website go to an actual website. Everything redirects to A whois lookup on the domain name shows that the site is owned by an anonymous individual in Vancouver, Washington. Meanwhile, the whois lookup for clearly shows administrative and technical contacts at the company’s head office in London.

At the time of this post, the website had over 1700 shares on Facebook, 713 Tweets, and 59 Google Plus Ones. A jolly good effort, Mr. Vancouver man. Here’s hoping the actual Shell doesn’t shut down your site first thing on Monday morning.

Imprint: The Trials of International Development Thu, 17 May 2012 23:05:00 -0400 For those who haven’t read it yet, my piece on the University of Waterloo International Development program is finally up on the Imprint website. It’s been out in paper format for a couple weeks now, but for those who haven’t been around campus, here you go:

INDEV students are a tight-knit group. Most of them spent their first year together at St. Paul’s University College, and with a class size of 23, it’s not hard to get to know everyone. But some students have found that being guinea pigs in a new program has its downsides as well. […] “It felt like they were telling me, ‘If you can’t survive this, you shouldn’t work in the field,’” said Allison. After six weeks of further discussion, INDEV staff urged her to come home on account of her pressing health concerns. But, four months away from graduation, they would not provide her with an alternate way to complete the degree requirements. This question was left hanging, and only added to Allison’s burden. Read the full article

Word on the street is that the INDEV administration is looking to beef up their contingency plans in response to this article, so hopefully they go through with substantial changes and include students in the decision-making process.

Our soldiers are just another political prop Thu, 03 May 2012 19:45:00 -0400 If there’s one thing the Conservative party’s limited roster of spokespeople do well, it’s controlling the narrative. The party’s spin machine is unrivalled, and reaches its tentacles deep into the operations of all government departments.

Government-employed scientists aren’t allowed to talk to the media? Oh, employee censorship is a common practice in any organization.

Recklessly speeding through the pipeline environmental review process? Oh, don’t worry, the only people concerned are radical foreign environmentalists.

Changing the definition of fish habitats and completely rewriting the environmental assessment act? Oh, it’s a minor budgetary measure.

The cost estimates for planes we don’t need were lowballed by $10 billion? Oh, it was just an accounting error.

This government’s arrogance demeans the intelligence of its fellow parliamentarians and of Canadians as a whole. I’m not of the opinion that Stephen Harper has a secret Reaganesque agenda that he will suddenly impose upon the Canadian people. The government’s decisions are made hastily, without proper debate or analysis. The fact that it hides so much of its policy from the rigour of public scrutiny speaks to a sense of entitlement beyond comprehension.

There are a lot of things about the Conservative government that make me bristle. But what really made me taste venom today was the excerpt in today’s National Post from Noah Richler’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War. He lays bare the plight of our injured military personnel, who get kicked to the curb if they’re no longer fit to serve.

If they die, they are hailed as heroes with a ramp ceremony and all. If they lose a leg, suffer PTSD, or commit suicide, the government quietly ignores them while scaling back supports.

Nothing is so callous as ordering young men and women to fight for a perceived sense of national security, then punishing them for not being quite dead.

Refining reddit Tue, 17 Apr 2012 01:44:00 -0400 Reddit is a fascinating blend of news aggregator, niche forums, and social network. I went from curious to hooked in a matter of days, and the website quickly climbed to the coveted top spot on the “most visited” list of my browser’s start page.

But for a website that I spend so much time on, boy is it ugly.

Reddit Enhancement Suite is a popular browser add-on that offers fine-grained customization of your reddit experience. But my problem was the opposite. I didn’t want more knobs and twiddly bits - I wanted to get to the content as quickly as possible, and make posts and comments easy to read and navigate.

I didn’t want to get caught up in the karma game. I didn’t care about custom banners or flair. I wanted to read, respond, and vote with as few distractions as possible.

So I made a CSS theme for reddit that strips out the extraneous details, makes content king, and facilitates reading. If you’re a redditor, please do install it and let me know what you think in the comments. These are a few of the key features:

  • The header area sticks to the top of the page as you scroll, so you have easy access to all your subreddits and your inbox
  • Vote counts are hidden - the post’s position on the page is a good enough indicator of its popularity
  • The content area is narrower, so you don’t have lines that stretch across the entire screen
  • The softer colour scheme is easier on your eyes

P.S.: Two other browser add-ons have significantly added to my pleasure of using reddit: Hover Zoom and Reddit Hover Text. I suggest you install them if you browse reddit at all; it cuts down significantly ont he amount of clicking you have to do.

tl;dr: I made a minimalist reddit theme. Download it here.

Me, myself, and I Fri, 23 Mar 2012 02:25:00 -0400 I got a library card the other day. I’m part of something communal, something larger than myself. I borrowed a book. A fiction book. I haven’t read fiction in ages, haven’t lost myself in a good story since God knows when. Over the Christmas break, I brushed up on my Rousseau - enlightening, but not necessarily light reading. So it felt good to read for the simple pleasure of watching words come alive.

More than the joy of reading, I felt good walking into the library and choosing the book in the first place. I belong here. I have a library card, I’m part of the club.

Being part of the club is important when you’re lonely. We’re all lonely in a way, but the feeling intensifies when you live by yourself.

For all the downsides to having roommates - labeling your food, coordinating shower times, splitting the utility bills - there’s still that tenuous bond that comes with cohabitation.

I’ve tried to fill that lack of community in different ways. Playing at open mics and hanging about in a few of my favourite coffeeshops helps to quell the loneliness for a time. Sometimes I’ll get cabin fever and spring from my desk chair as if from live coals, and head over to Baltimore House for a pot of Earl Grey tea with that slice of lemon they put in it.

Other times I’ll go for a walk in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, just to stir my sense of adventure. There’s nothing like curiosity to stave off the dull insanity of being alone. I breathe the unfamiliar sent of someone’s cedar hedge and fantasize that I’ve lived here all my life, pretending that that whiff of fresh greenery holds childhood memories.

The greatest distraction from my solitude is food. There’s always a new cafe to check out, always a new corner store to get that same old late-night junk food. But the black licorice, bags of jujubes, and chocolate-covered almonds can only do so much for me.

I find I impulse-shop a lot more when I’m living on my own. A picture frame here, some exotic spices for an unusual recipe there, maybe a book or a dvd that I don’t really need. It’s certainly an appreciable difference from my spending habits when I’m living with friends.

Is it callous to attempt to quantify this? If I added up all my excess expenditures, would I be able to measure the value of companionship? I’ll leave that question hanging for now, because I can’t bear to find out how much I’m missing.

Blackforest coffeehouse turns 40 this friday - join me at the party! Wed, 29 Feb 2012 12:46:00 -0500 In 5 years of playing live shows, my fondest memories have been at the annual St. Paul’s Blackforest Coffee House. Maybe that’s because St. Paul’s was my first home-away-from-home. Maybe it’s the laid-back atmosphere and the heaps of black forest cake. Certainly, part of it is the company. The event’s lineup of hugely talented musicians (not counting myself in that number) always makes for a great night of music and mingling.

So, if you’re in the Waterloo area this Friday night be sure to come out to St. Paul’s and enjoy the festivities!

This year is especially special, because the event turns 40! Word on the street is that one of the performers from the original 1972 show will be playing his set list from back then - phenomenal! Bring your daisy chains, people.

Friday, March 2, 2012
St. Paul’s University College
190 Westmount Road North
Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G5

Admission at the door ($5-10 I assume?)

Aspiring asceticist Sat, 25 Feb 2012 05:00:00 -0500 I like minimalism.

There’s something liberating about paring life down to the essentials, shunning extraneous material goods, and taking pleasure in the simple life. Of course, the Waterloo co-op schedule makes it difficult to accumulate too much because I know I’m going to have to move all my stuff out of my place every four months.

Digital decluttering, though, is a whole different animal. There’s a similar satisfaction of accomplishment when I delete old random files on my computer, or purge my Facebook friends list. Tonight, I decided to go a bit further and deactivate my accounts on a bunch of websites that I’ve decided I can live without. Posterous, Bitly, Reddit Radio, Kobo, Stock.Xchng,, Songkick… it’s quite a tedious job to log in, seek out the account settings page, and possibly go through the help documentation to find out how to sever ties with the website in question.

It was through this process that I realised a hidden benefit to alternate login options like Facebook Connect. Logging in to third-party websites through Facebook or Twitter makes it a lot easier to close one’s account - it’s a simple matter of going into my preferences and revoking the third-party access.

I had always avoided using Facebook Connect because I felt that I had more control and freedom by signing up to each website individually. The flipside of that is an intensely tedious process when I want to delete my accounts. It’s a trade-off, but Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon so I think I’ll know how I’m going to approach Facebook Connect in the future.

Measuring what matters Fri, 03 Feb 2012 12:54:00 -0500 Traffic, weather, stock markets, gas prices, the value of the Canadian Dollar… Traditional broadcast media bombards us with real-time updates about these indicators throughout the day.

Because we’re told about every dip and surge in the stock market, our society pays attention. We watch the markets and ascribe value to them, not least because they affect many of our bank accounts.

Knowledge is power, and the more information we have access to, the better off we will be. Up-to-the-minute traffic updates on the radio can help us adapt to unexpected delays and find a quicker route home. This is a good thing.

But there are huge gaps in access to real-time information. There are other factors that impact our day-to-day lives more directly than the TSX, but are hardly reported at all.

Imagine the evening news reporter saying something like this: “Strong winds across the province today caused a spike in wind energy, pushing the share of turbine-powered electricity over 10 percent. The surge allowed coal-fired and natural gas plants to wind down, resulting in a 2-point drop in the air quality index.”

This isn’t just speculation. The real-time information for these measures exists, somewhere. The challenge is to liberate it and make it accessible to the average citizen.

So that’s what I’ve begun to do.

I’m developing a website that shows, at a glance, how our society is doing right now in areas such as electricity generation, air quality, and crime. (I mean actual measurements of criminal activity, not just lopsided reporting of the most sensational cases.)

My goal is to have these indicators of social well-being reported on CBC Radio with the same frequency as the traffic and weather updates.

The website probably won’t be ready for a public unveiling until the spring, but I want to start getting other people involved sooner.

So this is where you come in. What else do you want to see reported on the news? Rates of charitable giving? Organic food production? Deaths by automobile accident? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll try my best to hound them down.

Making development proposals "realer" Sun, 22 Jan 2012 02:09:00 -0500 I’ve had an idea kicking around in my head for the past year or so about how to engage people who don’t read the news or come to council meetings. When it comes to new development (or redevelopment) proposals, many citizens don’t know what’s going on until construction starts. And by that time, it’s too late to complain about a monstrous Wal-Mart in your backyard or an ugly condo conversion.

Another defect in the traditional consultation process is that it doesn’t feel very “real”. I mean, proposals come in on maps and diagrams and 45-degree aerial renderings, but when you actually walk over to the proposed site, it’s tough to visualize what the development will look like in that real, 3-D space.

The rise of Google Sketchup has solved some of these problems, but I’ve lot a low-tech idea that just might help.

Say there’s a missing tooth in the urban fabric that a developer wants to fill in with an 8-storey condo building. What better way to visualize the impact it will have on the neighbourhood than going over to the site and being able to actually see what it would look like? What if you could give feedback, right there on the spot, instead of relying on an abstraction in your mind to decide if you like the proposal or not?

So here’s what I propose. Take a viewfinder and clamp it onto a telephone pole (or a stop sign, or whatever’s there, as long as it’s in a fixed position). On the viewfinder’s lens is a rendering of the building. When you look through, you see the real streetscape - not a blocky, pastel-tinted Sketchup version of reality. You see the proposed building, as if it’s already been built.

Perhaps you’d be able to flick through a few different variations, like one of those old Kodak View-Masters that I played with as a kid.

And why not have a comment box there so people can leave their feedback? If anything, it would give people a reason to stop and mingle in the street.

What do you think? Is this idea a step forward in public consultation or am I just wearing sepia-coloured glasses?

Airports as public spaces Thu, 22 Dec 2011 01:41:00 -0500 I’ve travelled a lot in my short life, and airports have been a constant companion on my trips. There to see me off and welcome me to new lands, the airport is a gateway to the unknown.

Right now I’ve got two hours until my plane leaves from Pearson, so I have some time to kill and I’m thinking about how airports function as public spaces. More importantly, I’m thinking about how they can be better cultural standard-bearers and more welcoming places.

I said airports are a gateway to the unknown, but most of them are, in fact, depressingly predictable. Whether you find yourself in Karachi, Geneva, or Newark, you can be sure to find duty-free alcohol, book and magazine stores, jewelry, cologne, and tacky souvenirs. In other words, you can buy stuff you probably don’t need at prices you probably can’t afford.

If you’re lucky there might be some artwork up on the walls (and Pearson’s Terminal 1 has a beautiful echo chamber art installation), but it is rarely the focal point. It seems that public art in airports is mostly used to fill in the uncomfortable gaps between Starbucks and the duty-free shop. They are not attractions - a distraction, more like, from the steel-blue uniformity of the departure lounge.

Airport departure lounges are the perfect places for public amenities. I’m talking about museums, indoor gardens, recreation facilities. Flight delayed? Why not shoot some hoops to pass the time? Or why not have a proper museum with some Group of Seven paintings where I can get lost for half an hour? Because right now, my main options are either to buy some cheap rum or overpriced coffee, and neither looks very appealing.

If we transformed our airports into more than just malls, maybe travellers would feel like more than just cattle.

Politically Correct: 2011 redux Sun, 04 Dec 2011 18:59:00 -0500 In May of this year, I started writing a political commentary column in Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s student newspaper. In June, I came on board The Opposition, a new start-up website dedicated to fostering intellectual debate about Canadian and international politics.

With Imprint taking a break until the new year, I thought now would be a good time to take a look back over what I’ve written in the past year outside of this blog. It’s been a tumultuous time on the world stage, not to mention two elections and some major policy debates at home.

Without further ado, here’s a list of all the articles I wrote this year. I’m looking forward, anxiously, to what 2012 will bring.

20 May - Apathetic students or a pathetic system?

It is a common tautology that students, and young people in general, don’t participate in the political system because we’re apathetic about politics. This reasoning, as convenient and ubiquitous as it may be, is false.

3 June - Realizing the Tunisian dream

Tunisia is in a state of flux. Ben Ali is gone. Elections are approaching. A bright future is on the horizon. And we’re in this in-between place where Tunisians are taking an active role in shaping the kind of country they want to live in.

17 June - A new deal for first nations

The Auditor General’s report makes it clear that the centralized programs of the past decade haven’t done much and are certainly not the way forward. To be frank, what the government can offer is money.

26 June - Make no little plans

We need an unorthodox alternative to the current Senate system that involves more than just scrapping the institution completely. If it’s regional equality we need, Harper and his reformists are thinking too small. If we’re going to reform the Senate, let’s do something wild. Something so crazy, it just might work.

30 June - Let the games begin

Now that the NDP — a party with significant ideological differences from the Conservatives — is the official opposition, we can expect more standoffs like this in the years to come.

3 July - The political schizophrenia of the Melancthon mega-quarry

Ontario doesn’t put an additional tax on aggregate, as some jurisdictions do, which makes sprawling subdivisions more lucrative for developers than inner-city redevelopment or infill projects. This project goes against the very kind of compact, vibrant cities that Ontario says it wants to have.

15 July - Has climate change become taboo?

Shh — don’t mention the elephant in the room. Perhaps it’s better that way. More comfortable, I suppose. If we don’t use the c-word, it’s easy to portray the icebergs as rogue wonders of nature, imposing themselves for a moment upon civilization. The reality, of course, is 200 years in the making.

17 July - Why let a good election go to waste?

It’s a disturbing trend to see the pre-election jostling play out more like an elaborate game of Risk than a real political contest. The focus is not political; it’s territorial.

19 July - Improving healthcare doesn’t have to be so difficult

Our dead-last rankings on timeliness and quality of care are certainly cause for concern. And the current C. Difficile outbreaks illustrate the need for a new model of healthcare in this country.

29 July - Campus politics revisited

Academic institutions have a reputation in modern history as hotbeds for political change. The best example is probably the May 1968 protests in France. Similarly, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood emerged out of universities in the 1970s to become a dominant political force. The list goes on. In Canada, however, the reverse seems to be happening.

6 September - What does Ontario’s election mean for our cities?

The most important issues in this election will be about more than education, healthcare, and HST. Many of the public services that Ontarians use every day are provided by municipal governments. So what will this election mean for Ontario’s cities?

12 September - Jack’s dream lives on

Jack Layton’s legacy isn’t wholly his own — nobody’s ever is. He was continuing the work that a great leader before him had started, and Layton was proud to carry on that tradition. And now he has passed the torch once again. This end is only somebody else’s beginning.

20 September - Towards an effective environmental lobby

It’s one thing to piss off the government, but when mainstream media won’t get onside either, the party’s over. At this point we’re left with a few fringe media organizations lauding the CYCC in a show of self-congratulatory hyperbole. This gives the government more reason to write off the hoax as hippie angst, not worth addressing seriously.

20 September - Vote with your heart and avoid a one-night stand at the ballot box

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—election season! Yes folks, once again, your candidates (the provincial ones this time) are knocking on doors and burning up photocopiers all over town just to get your attention. Doesn’t it feel nice?

22 September - Tough on crime? Not by a long shot

At the end of the day, this new crime legislation doesn’t mean much for the federal government—all the real work is outsourced to the provinces. Maybe that’s why Harper seems so happy about it. If crime continues its declining trend, he can take credit for the success. If judicial efficiency doesn’t improve, he can blame the provincial leaders.

30 September - We need a new way of doing politics

Much of my political activism has centred around the process of voting. I’m more comfortable encouraging people to vote and advocating for electoral reform than I am talking about actual policy. But for this election, I feel the need to highlight one K-W candidate who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and whose vision for our community is frank, honest, and achievable.

11 October - Breaking the glass ceiling in Alberta

Kevin Libin zeroes in on the preferential voting system that the party uses to elect its leaders, throwing suspicion on the process as if it were a black box full of voodoo. In reality, this system injects a measure of proportionality that made Alison Redford’s victory more legitimate.

14 October - Sixth Decade Plan: what about us?

Political leadership is about having a vision for how a community should evolve. But the administration seems to have made up its mind about what direction to take, so it’s worth asking, why is it feigning interest in what students have to say?

21 October - Punch-card politics in the digital age

In politics it’s far too easy to criticize policies that I don’t agree with. So when I see something worth congratulating, I make a point of saying something about it. My friends, it is with great excitement that I present to you the Senate of Canada’s Twitter account — in both official languages.

28 October - Occupy all streets: part one

I knew of Anonymous’s amoebic leadership structure, its non-centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making. And on Sep. 17, I watched that system in action for the first time.

4 November - Occupy all streets: part two

So, where do we go from here? If the Occupy movement is going to continue gaining momentum, protesters in individual cities will have to coalesce around specific demands.

11 November - Eurozone solutions should come from the people

Put simply, the European Union is united no more. Where there are unifying forces, they are spurred by fear, uncertainty, and preservation of self-interest.

18 November - Why the cold feet on Syria, Conservatives?

As the international community moves swiftly to rein in Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the Government of Canada is dragging its heels on the issue.

25 November - Stimulus funding won’t save student life

The stimulus programs, responsible for so much of the construction on campus in the last few years, focused largely on academic and administrative space, ignoring the other infrastructure necessary for student life - study space, lounges, performance venues, and all the other things that connect students to their campus on a social level.

2 December - Our visceral civic duty

Since last May’s election, the political dynamics have changed, and those of us on the left are struggling to keep wind in our sails. The opposition parties cannot band together to block legislation anymore, but that doesn’t mean the wheels of democracy stop turning.

I Predict a Riot Sat, 03 Dec 2011 05:55:00 -0500 UK hip-hop artist Reveal’s reflection on the 2011 Tottenham riots is an amazing work of art. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for the past week, and I’m not complaining.

The lyrics are a raw blow-by-blow account of how a peaceful protest by people disaffected with the police was transformed into a senseless rampage of violence that spread across the country.

I attempted a cover of my own, layering piano and guitar underneath the vocals and incorporated more harmonies in the chorus. Have a listen and let me know what you think! That said, the original is totally worth a listen. Reveal can pack more emotional punch in his delivery than I have ever seen before.

Reflections on Advent Sun, 27 Nov 2011 16:58:00 -0500 Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the lead-up to Christmas that’s steeped in religious tradition. Growing up, my mum would bring out four candles and light them in sequence as each Sunday arrived, bringing us closer and closer to December 24th with each puddle of wax.

This was a cultural, rather than a spiritual practice for me; much like baking gingerbread or putting those kitschy Swedish wooden horses by the fireplace. But I saw Advent from a more spiritual perspective when today, at church, it was juxtaposed with Jesus’ warning of his second coming.

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the door.


But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.

— Mark 13:26-29

It’s an unconventional passage to be quoting during Advent, when we’re supposed to be thinking of sweet baby Jesus and wise men following the star to Bethlehem. But Advent is about anticipating the arrival of the messiah - so it’s not a huge leap from Jesus’ end-times speech.

It’s that image of actively waiting, being on guard, being alert, that got me thinking. This kind of eager anticipation means that everybody I meet, every sight I see, every rock and tree and bug, has the potential to be Jesus incarnate.

This goes beyond “treat others as yourself” and “we are all children of God”. If everyone and everything is a potential Jesus, I have to be prepared to love those things and people unconditionally. I must see the good in everyone. I must see the Jesus in everyone.

What if anticipating Christ’s return means living as if he has already manifested himself in everything I see and touch and feel? Do I have the ability to love the world in this way? To devote myself to the world and everything in it? Maybe I do, if Christ is also manifested in me.

Bus, train, streetcar, LRV... what's the flavour this week? Sat, 19 Nov 2011 07:44:00 -0500 The oohing and ahhing over Toronto’s new LRVs (for God’s sake, don’t call them streetcars!) has got me thinking about how we tend to market public transportation.

Having spent time in both Waterloo and Hamilton during their respective campaigns for rapid transit, I can attest that much of the debate about sustainable transit initiatives revolves around the vehicles themselves. Sure, there are small differences in comfort or aesthetics, but when it comes down to it, there isn’t always a substantive difference between rail or bus vehicles in terms of efficacy or environmental impact.

Yes, buses emit exhaust. But so does every GO and VIA train (they’re all diesel powered - at least for now). And while electric trains and LRVs don’t generate greenhouse gases, they do weigh heavily on the electricity grid. Which is why it annoys me to hear people speaking about LRT as a “zero-emission” transportation solution.

But I digress. My point is that modal choice shouldn’t matter nearly as much as planners and urban enthusiasts make it out to be. It’s wrongheaded to make a type of vehicle the standard-bearer of sustainable transportation. There’s a grain of truth to the claim that LRT advocates are blinded by their desire for fancy toys.

It’s highly contextual. Right now, for example, there is a big push for all-day GO Train service to downtown Hamilton. The current bus runs every 20 minutes to Toronto and arrives in under an hour. While a train seems like the “better” transit solution, it would have to stop in Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga … and would take significantly longer to get to Union Station. In this case, the express bus is the best possible transit solution for getting to Toronto. It’s fast, convenient, and predictable. Even if all-day train service were to come, it would serve a totally different purpose than the current bus.

Don’t get me wrong, there are cases where rail handily trumps bus. But that decision should be made on substantive merits, such as capacity, projected ridership growth, peak frequency ability, construction impacts, development potential, and capital and operating costs.

Without a well-planned, convenient transit system behind them, these new TTC vehicles are no more than fashionable accessories. And, to paraphrase one of my favourite urban theorists, fashionable things tend to fall out of fashion.

Occupy All Streets Fri, 04 Nov 2011 13:38:00 -0400 This post first appeared as a 2-part article in Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s official newspaper.

On Sep. 17, I was poking around the Internet when I came across news of a protest organized by Anonymous, the hacktivist collective known for circumventing state censorship to help the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. I was led to a video — a call to action, really — calling on New Yorkers to set up camp in Wall Street to protest the corporate dominance of American politics.

The video opened with this observation about Barack Obama: “People say things when they are running because they don’t know the powers that really control the house they are going to live in.”

Anonymous is an organization (if you can call it that) that I had heard plenty about, but I didn’t quite know how it functioned. I knew of its amoebic leadership structure, its non-centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making. And on Sep. 17, I watched that system in action for the first time.

A self-organized movement

What amazed me most in the early days of Occupy Wall Street was the consensus-based general assemblies. The crowd numbered in the hundreds that first night, and it was difficult to hear who was speaking. So the demonstrators used a call-and-answer format, complete with hand gestures, where each sentence the speaker said was echoed back in unison by hundreds of voices. In this way, people at the very rear of the crowd were still able to hear what was going on.

Hearing the multitude of voices, young, old, male, and female, all shouting the same thing, gave me goosebumps. It was the voice of revolution:

— “I propose,”
— “I propose,”
— “That we sleep on the sidewalks of Wall Street tonight,”
— “That we sleep on the sidewalks of Wall Street tonight,
— “Which is legally permitted,”
— “Which is legally permitted,”
— “As long as we don’t obstruct the entire width of the sidewalk.”
— “As long as we don’t obstruct the entire width of the sidewalk.

I watched the first hours of the occupation unfold on a live streaming video site, where someone was broadcasting from their camera phone. After a while, the phone battery was about to die and he (or she) directed viewers to another demonstrator’s video channel, where the broadcasting resumed from someone else’s phone. This is self-organization at its finest.

Expansion and loss of focus

The first few days of Occupy Wall Street were remarkably focused on the issue of corporate control. Protesters rallied against the injustices carried out by American banks that led to the recession.

Since then, support for the movement has exploded — along with the number of issues people are protesting about. With the massive amount of people that have joined the movement in just about every major city in the world, the original message has fallen apart. No clear demands are evident anymore, aside from a general feeling of leftist discontent. I heard a protestor in Washington, D.C. clamouring for “a crowdsourced rainstorm of slogans.”

As support for the protest went global, Oct. 15 was agreed upon for the launch of the international Occupy movement. By this time, there were far too many issues on the table. A New York occupier said, “We have about three times as many agendas as there are people here!”

In Toronto, the Canadian Auto Workers union, along with other representatives of organized labour, threw their support behind the Occupy movement. Unfortunately, this provided an easy way for critics to write off the movement. With the hand of big unions seemingly behind the scenes, Occupy’s credibility as a bottom-up people-power movement was diminished.

It wasn’t just big labour diluting the message. In New Mexico, advocates for aboriginal rights changed the name of their protest to (Un)occupy, to acknowledge that the U.S. is actually stolen indigenous land that was “occupied” by settlers.

This movement didn’t start out as a rallying cry about income inequality or unemployment or aboriginal rights. As far as I can tell, an end to corporate dominance was the original goal. But this movement evolved rapidly and is now going in a thousand directions at once.

Easily misunderstood

Without a central rallying point (except for perhaps the vague notion of “the 99 per cent”), critics of the Occupy movement are able to see what they want to see in these protests. “Stop protesting and get a job,” has been a common refrain. The National Post published an editorial deriding the movement for complaining about inequality in one of the richest countries.

The problem with the vastness of Occupy is that it allows people to protest whatever they want, and it allows the critics to pick whatever easy targets they want. In the mainstream media’s analysis of Occupy, different narratives can breeze right past each other without actually trying to justify their arguments or address what’s really happening. Bill O’Reilly, a political commentator for Fox News, even managed to conjure up a scary storyline about the anti-semitic intent of Occupy Wall Street.

This knee-jerk reaction from right-wing media outlets is actually more disorganized and ridiculous than the Occupy protests themselves. For the first time since the Cold War, free-market capitalism is being challenged en masse. The conservative establishment  has been caught off guard and it’s not quite sure what to do as the protests gain momentum.

What’s most disappointing is that the reactionary comments by the likes of Bill O’Reilly confuses the issue for people that are trying to figure out what Occupy is all about.

So where do we go from here? Amid the misconceptions and lack of focus, I believe that real change is brewing. But it’s not the kind of change you’d expect. This isn’t the rise of the New Left. Rather, it’s the start of a new political paradigm.

Moving towards concrete change

If the Occupy movement is going to continue gaining momentum, protesters in individual cities will have to coalesce around specific rallying points. In Canada, for example, we could demand corporate lobbyists be prohibited from contacting Members of Parliament. There is a specific law, the Lobbying Act, that governs such behaviour in Canada and could be easily amended to explicitly prohibit certain actions.

And this is really my crucial argument: ideally, the Occupy movement will drive real change. But to get there, we need to formulate concrete demands that the media and our politicians can understand.

I would even go so far as to specifically target a single MP (say Charlie Angus, the NDP’s ethics frontman) and petition them to put forward a private member’s bill to limit the power of lobbyists in Ottawa.

Herein lies the difficulty: It’s easy to rally around big ideas like “corporate welfare.” But when you start getting into specifics, people lose interest. I’ve seen it first-hand when I was advocating for a change to our voting system during the last two elections. People’s eyes glaze over trying to get their heads around the Schulze method of the Single-Transferable Vote, even if it would be fairer than the current electoral system.

I’m not saying that everybody on the front line needs to be an expert — there isn’t an effective protest in all of history that has accomplished that. But I am saying that the Occupy movement needs to start getting more specific if it wants to make a difference.

Not one movement, but many

As I look back to the first weekend of Occupy Wall Street, I can see that consensus-based decision-making was effective and focused because of the relatively small number of demonstrators. And while it was a stunningly impressive display of getting things done, that model doesn’t scale well to a global movement with tens of thousands of supporters.

But why should it? The issues in New York are different than those in Toronto, Rome, or London. Perhaps Occupy should not be seen as one massive, aimless, confused protest. Perhaps the multiplicity of views is just a reflection of unique local issues.

This is why I say Occupy is not the rise of the New Left. This isn’t a binary reaction to conservatism per se. It’s safe to say that people are generally distrustful of The Man and have very different ideas of how to change things for the better.

If there’s anything the Occupy protesters don’t want, it’s to be labelled and categorized. In a New York City General Assembly on Oct. 23, Occupy Wall street participants rejected the idea of “aligning ourselves with an ideological Left.” So when journalists speak of Occupy as a springboard for the resurgence of left wing politics, I’m not buying it.

The start of something new

The issues that protesters have been dealing with over the past month and a bit have been very pragmatic: finding places to sleep, getting food, cooperating with police, organizing marches. I think that the real social solutions coming out of the Occupy movement will be equally practical and locally-focused.

This is not the Arab Spring 2.0. There are no clear calls for constitutional reform, no demands for leaders to step down. Occupy is not a protest against dictators. A radical overhaul of civic institutions will not materialize from this movement. At least, not right away.

Occupy has given people a reason to self-organize. It has formed a foundation for progressive social change. The movement is made up of lawyers, musicians, students, tradespeople, activists, optimists, pessimists, and anarchists. These people have created a common language that cuts across cultures and allows people from different walks of life to work together for a brighter future.

The seeds of revolution have been planted. Expect those ideas to bloom and mature in their own way, from the bottom up.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt Mon, 31 Oct 2011 18:19:00 -0400 At the University of Waterloo, co-op interviews are some of the most stressful parts of student life. Despite the many benefits of the program, those in the throes of Jobmine can tell you a darker side of the story, fraught with danger and uncertainty. For some, the co-op process is like riding a unicycle on a dental floss tightrope over a wilderness of razor blades. Co-op can backfire.

One of the downsides of co-op is the constant packing up and moving to other cities. I do 4 months of school, then 4 months of work - back and forth until I graduate. It takes a toll. So I was really gunning for a job in the Waterloo area, so I wouldn’t have to move out of town again. But, not willing to put all my eggs in one basket, I applied to some jobs in other cities.

The interview process can be stressful enough, but the real mindgames happen during the ranking period. After each interview, employers rank the candidates from most to least favourable. But I’m not allowed to see my rankings until all of the interviews were over. This caused co-op to permeate my consciousness as I replayed each interview, fretting over the details of the conversation. Did I present myself professionally? Did my questions sound cheesy? I hope they didn’t notice me fidgeting with my cufflinks. Maybe the cufflinks were too much, should I have opted for a regular dress shirt? I hope my palms weren’t sweaty when I shook her hand.

After a month of waiting, the results are out. I’ve been offered a few jobs - good jobs - but none of them are in Waterloo. The rest of the job applications show a cryptic message: “Ranked”. One sterile word, and yet full of nuance. I wasn’t the top candidate, but I don’t know where in the ranking I place. It’s a vague message that says “You’re good, but not the best. You might be good enough, though, if the top-ranked person doesn’t want this job.”

From these tea leaves, it’s my turn to rank the jobs according to my preference. I can give a rank of 1 to one of my “Offers” and be guaranteed employment, or I can take a chance and go for a job that I was only “Ranked” for. One of my classmates was offered two jobs in Waterloo, one of which she would obviously have to decline. I was ranked for both of them.

With the top candidate out of the running, I strategized. I weighed my options. There were two jobs that I really wanted. I was offered Job A. It’s a good job, but out-of-town, so I’d have to move. Job B was the one recently declined by my classmate. Equally good, located in Waterloo, but I wasn’t completely sure that I’d be next in line.

If I ranked Job B above Job A, I might be able to stay in Waterloo. But then, I might not get any of the jobs and be unemployed for the winter term. It was a tricky situation. What would the other candidates be thinking? How would they rank their jobs? This was no longer a simple co-op application: it had become a study in psychology and game theory.

Desperate for more information, I emailed all the other candidates. This is a common tactic that has helped many co-op students navigate the shadowy ranking process in the past. I revealed my preference for Job B, and asked if anyone else had plans to rank it number 1. That way, we could get a better idea of what everyone else was doing.

I felt better. I also felt devious, like I was gaming the system. But then, it dawned on me that I was, unknowingly, manipulating my competitors. By announcing that I was going to rank Job B as my first choice, I influenced their decisions. I effectively said, “If you want this job, you’ll have to get through me first.”

This should have made me more confident, but it just made me all the more anxious. Now I was worrying about how the others would react to my email, on top of all my other calculations. No one responded to my email, so the risk of unemployment was still present if I went for Job B.

I chose certainty. And so the results came in, and I was matched with Job A.

Then came the unwelcome news: Job B was left unfilled. All the other applicants had come to the same conclusion as me: “I’d better not risk it if someone else ends up being ranked higher than me and I get left without a job.”

The secretive nature of the job-matching process makes it worse off for everybody. The applicants, in our fearful uncertainty, don’t know how we should do our rankings. Employers like Job B end up with positions unfilled. What a tragic irony, to be made pawns by an unfeeling computer algorithm.

The perils of Presto Sat, 08 Oct 2011 19:48:00 -0400 I had high hopes for the Presto card. In theory, it would be great for transit users across southern Ontario. A single transit pass that could take you from Hamilton to Bowmanville, on any GO bus, train, or local transit service. No more keeping exact change in your pocket. No need to hold onto paper transfers. Loyalty discounts depending on how often you take transit. Online payments from your smartphone.

The potential was huge. And I think it’s fair to say Presto hasn’t lived up to expectations. There are frustrating flaws at every level of the system, and if we’re going to save Presto before it completely collapses, a real overhaul is in order.

The experiences I’m about to describe are my own anecdotes; they may not be representative, but they represent problems that need to be fixed. The reason so few of my friends have signed up for a Presto card is partly due to the bad experiences recounted by me and others.

In the midst of last August’s heatwave, I tried to board the Lakeshore West train in Oshawa. When I arrived at the platform, the Presto machines are out of order. A few minutes of confusion later, I realized that there might be a working Presto station inside the station building. Thankfully there was, and I got on the train in the nick of time, after trundling back and forth with my luggage.

Upon reflection, this is what I think happened: it was 42 degrees outside that day, and the sun was shining directly onto the Presto machines. They overheated and stopped working. I’m not sure how thoroughly these machines were tested, but reliability is key in any computerized system, which is only as strong as its weakest link. If the card readers can’t stand a summer heatwave, I don’t look forward to their performance in a February blizzard.

Second anecdote: This has happened several times, but I often fail to tap my card when I get off trains. (For the uninitiated, you have to tap once when you get on and once when you get off so the system knows how far you’ve travelled. The catch is if you forget to tap off, the system charges you for the furthest possible destination you could have gone to.)

When I get off the train, I’m at my destination. The trip is over, and I’m moving on to where I need to be. The nondescript Presto card machines don’t grab my attention as I leave, because most of them are oriented towards people entering the station. This has happened to me at Rouge Hill, Stouffville, Oshawa, and Union Station.

The fix for this is simple. Put card reading machines directly on the platform so I see them when the train doors open. Or, better yet, have the machines inside the train doors so I can tap off before I leave.

Third anecdote: I boarded the bus in Mississauga, tapped on, and got off in Waterloo. As I leave the bus, I tap off and am about to walk off when the bus driver calls me back. He thinks I didn’t tap the card properly, but I definitely saw the green light go on. He was under the impression that he had to personally take my card, and tap it himself. Which he did, thereby charging me another $4.20 to initiate a new trip. I was frustrated, but the old guy obviously didn’t know how the payment system works. So, staff training appears to be a big issue. I phoned the help line later that night, but they couldn’t verify the transaction, because it takes 24 hours for transactions to appear on my account.

Which brings me to the fourth anecdote: A 24-hour wait time? Really? You know, this is 2011. I can buy something on eBay and send the funds to a vendor on Hong Kong in a matter of minutes. This applies to topping up my account online, too. After filling out my credit card information (there’s no PayPal option), I have to wait a full cycle of the sun to use my Presto card. That means I can’t top up my account if I realise that I won’t have enough to make the trip into Toronto to see that concert tonight.

On the topic of their online tools, a Presto account forces you to use a 4-digit numeric PIN as a password. That’s about the least secure password system ever, and it handles my credit card information. Does that make me feel safe? Of course not.

One last anecdote: I checked my Presto balance yesterday morning. $39.26. Good. On the trip home for Thanksgiving, I boarded a bus at Scarborough Town Centre and tapped my card. A red light flashed. “Insufficient funds.” Exasperated, I started to explain to the driver that I did have money on the card, that I checked it just this morning. It must have been be a machine malfunction.

The driver seemed equally exasperated. “Forget it. I don’t have time to deal with this. Get in, I have a schedule to stick to.” So I rode the bus for free because the Presto system was too glitchy and time-consuming to bother with.

I think all these problems can be traced to the organizational structure of Metrolinx and GO Transit. Presto actually runs as a separate division under Metrolinx, the arms-length agency mandated by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to plan the transit system for the Greater Golden horseshoe. GO Transit is also, technically, an independent division under Metrolinx. One of the fundamental problems with this setup is that GO and Metrolinx have different mandates. GO Transit’s service area includes cities like Barrie and Kitchener, which are outside of Metrolinx’s focus on the Greater Toronto/Hamilton Area.

I haven’t the faintest clue why Presto is its own division, separate from GO Transit, underneath an arm’s-length organization that has only sporadic contact with the government. The bureaucracy is unfathomable.

Presto was supposed to be about making transit more convenient and seamless for people. Needless to say, it hasn’t delivered. We need to get rid of the silos. We need interregional transit planning to be integrated with the realities on the ground. And that means bringing everything back under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation. Public transit is a public service, and new departments shouldn’t be made for each little project.

For the ideas of Presto to succeed, we must kill the organizational structure that threatens to strangle it.

Interview with Peter Davis Tue, 27 Sep 2011 02:53:00 -0400 Peter Davis is running as an independent candidate in the October 6 election. He’s no stranger to politics - his mother ran for Ward 6 councillor in the last municipal election.  Don’t let his soft-spoken demeanour fool you, though - he’s got big plans for Kitchener-Waterloo. On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, we met in a cafe in uptown Waterloo to discuss his campaign and his vision for this community.

What follows is an unedited transcript of our conversation.

Sam: So why don’t we just start with introducing what your campaign is all about?

Peter: I’m running a campaign that is designed to try to change the way that people see politics, change the way that people get engaged and involved in politics as well. I have more drive and ambition - I mean, I don’t think I can change a community the size of Kitchener-Waterloo in 30 days, but it’s still an opportunity to talk to people, it’s an opportunity to make positive changes.

I’m most interested in the way that people behave to each other, and the way that we have boundaries between each other.

So you’re trying to break down the barriers between people and their community?

Yeah, and just increase the number of interactions, really. For instance, I’m going door-to-door, I’m knocking on doors, trying to talk to people about politics and society and community. I’m trying to encourage politicians to do the same. To get everybody meeting strangers more often, and struggling against that resistance.

The thing that I’ve noticed through this process is that I become more sensitive to other people by knocking on a thousand doors. At first, when I was running I would see somebody who’s younger, and I’d ask them “Oh, are you planning on voting?” As though they would almost be less likely to do so.

I went to a debate at WCI and every single question was on education. A student is a student and will be interested in student things. But is there not a connecting thread between the student, the immigrant, the elderly person? Every person is human, so is there not a common interest that we can talk about that transcends those issues?

Who is Peter Davis? How did you get into politics and what’s your motivation for doing this?

Well, I’ve always been interested in politics, even as a young kid. I took politics in high school and got a C-minus. I took politics again in high school to try to bring up my mark and got a C-minus. And then I took politics in first-year university and I got another C-minus. So I switched into economics. [Laughs] I got a BA in economics and did very well with the BA. Then I spent a year teaching English in Japan. I then got into a master’s program in Switzerland in International Affairs.

In Switzerland, the tuition was so much lower - even for international students! The first year of the two-year program, I was getting paid $1800 a month to study, and then the second year I had to pay $5000 in tuition for the whole year, as an international student.

Do you see that as an education model that Ontario could learn a lot from?

Sure, I mean, these things grow out of a particular history and culture. So I’m not about to run and change anything, but I definitely see the possibility that you could have a much better system.

You organized some events at the polling booths during the last federal election. Could you speak a little bit about what you did?

I’ve been following movements in cultures, and seeing a big growth in the sort of social movements through free association. So movements that don’t necessarily need any kind of funding or government support to just do something positive. So I wanted to see if I could get people to vote in a more social way. I decided to have a picnic at one of the advanced polling stations to try to get people to come out and share a meal at the same time as casting a ballot. So it was trying to draw a connection between the community meal and community voting.

I went around campus and got a bunch of people to sign up, but only about three people ended up coming to the event. So I’m not quite sure that picnics are the way to revolution.

You talk a lot about the ability of local businesses to make decisions for themselves, to make some sort of voluntary positive change.

On policy I’m really not a typical politician. I’m actually probably really a libertarian. I would love to see a society without government. I think there’s a responsibility of people to help people. But unlike most libertarians, I don’t think we should cut services to the poor and then hope that people cover each others’ backs.

So more of a realist libertarian?

Yeah, we need to solve problems together first, then we won’t need government programs, then we can cut taxes.

A lot of libertarians would say “cut taxes first, and then people will self-organize”.

That’s not very compassionate, I don’t think.

Some people have taken a look at what you’re running on and thy accuse you of not having a “real” or full platform. What do you say to that? Do you think it’s a fair judgment?

I think that traditionally, policy has become the objective of politics. So you elect a politician to pass legislation to force your neighbour to treat you with respect. And now, I think we’re entering into a very different time, where policy is no longer the objective of politics.

Politics is now almost about circumventing policy and finding ways that we can change society without actually changing any legislation. I see the successful movements of the future being volunteer-based, charity-based, these kinds of things I have a lot of hope for.

I think that we always underestimate what we are able to achieve ourselves. Imagining an all-powerful government to solve our problems, I think that’s unrealistic. that’s imaginary. Especially in a society where half the voters are conservative and we’re going to keep electing governments that aren’t going to be solving these problems.

You have to make the people more compassionate if you want a more compassionate government. It’s not about protesting, it’s not about lobbying, because we have a government that reflects the people. That’s the beauty of democracy, which makes social change sometimes more difficult, but in other ways, much more possible.

Do you think that people have become less compassionate over history?

I think that before the industrial revolution, say 200 years ago, people lived in communities. They had an historical connection to communities. Then with the industrial revolution, they moved out of their communities, they moved in search of jobs and prosperity and personal ambition. And desperation, too, because these were extremely tough economic times.

But then they lost the ancestral connection to community. they lost the value of community-specific knowledge from ten generations passed down. And we developed an entirely new education system based on this. And it’s an education system that teaches people knowledge, but not ethics. Not how to relate to each other.

I think there’s a lot of arrogance that’s built into our economic system that encourages us to look down on the past. To look down on the poor. To look down on developing countries. To say, “Look at what we have, look at all of our cars, look at the wonders of our society,” when really, we’re no happier. And if you start to look at other countries, other people, and you start to look at what they have that we don’t, look at their festivals! Look at how they celebrate together! Look at how their community comes together and how they support each other! Maybe they eat less than us, but we’re fat!

Just a few months ago, when the conflict in Libya was beginning, I found an article in the New York Times about Libyan refugees that were pouring across the border into Tunisia. Thousands, tens of thousands, even. But there are no refugee camps. Where do the refugees go? They are taken into the homes of the Tunisians. It’s possible. In Waterloo, could we support twenty thousand refugees? We have trouble supporting a hundred, two hundred. I’m not sure of the exact number, there are a lot of refugees in Waterloo actually that we don’t see.

So is this a case where institutionalisation, making refugee camps, would actually be making the problem worse?

I don’t want to say that, because just to take away the refugee camps and tell them to depend on the hospitality of others? No. I think that if a community wanted to get rid of refugee camps, they could welcome them into their homes. In Arabic cultures, there’s that concept of hospitality that says “If we have bread, we can eat it together. And if we don’t, we can be hungry together.” That’s such a strong idea for community, but try applying that here, and it’s a lot more difficult.

How have you been reaching out to the student population, given the large part it plays in society here?

Well, I’ve been involved in two election before this. Both times, trying to organize a student vote campaign. In the federal election I organized the picnic, and I was involved with vote mobs and LeadNow - different organizations trying to mobilize students. And, it was just really frustrating. If you look at the turnout, I don’t think the turnout at the federal election was that much different, despite all this Rick Mercer stuff and despite all the excitement about how students are “becoming” more engaged.

So in this election, I decided to try something a little different. I’m volunteering at Supportive Housing of Waterloo, and the policy of SHOW is “Housing first”. Right? So you don’t ask people to make changes to their lifestyle before you give them a house. You’re not telling them you can’t drink and live here. You’re not telling them you can’t do narcotics and live here. There are some rules that you have to abide by, but basically we’ll accept you as you are and support you in any changes that you wish to make.

So I thought about applying that concept to students. I think that students are under a lot of pressure to constantly be having fun, and going out and partying, and that is probably, for some students, 90 per cent of their mentality. Ten per cent is like, “Okay, I’ve got to do the work to get this grade,” but the majority of students are really focused on enjoying themselves. So I decided that I would campaign at night, wandering around parties and bars, and finding students who are having a good time. I talk to them about voting, talk to them about a balance in their lives between dissipation, having fun, and doing something for a greater cause, a greater good.

And it comes to the idea that it’s not a big commitment to vote. It’s a very small sacrifice, it’s one hour. It’s like going to church once. It’s a very small commitment. But after you do it once, you reflect on it. So even if you vote with no knowledge of any candidates, and you just toss out a ballot, then after the fact maybe you’ll reflect on it and I think that you’re likely to vote in the next election, and maybe even learn something about the candidates. And then later on down the road, maybe you’re thinking “Maybe I can get involved”.

So what’s been the response generally from people when you walk up to them outside a bar on King Street on a Friday night?

I was expecting to get hit [laughs]. I was expecting that students would have no time for me. But I was totally surprised when it went in the opposite direction. They were excited to talk to me, they were really happy that I’m talking to them. And over time, I realize that I was never involved in politics when I was in university. I was never involved in anything to do with the province or the federal government. I spent three years out of the country. But if somebody had talked to me in first year, and said “Guys, come on, vote for me”, then I probably would have said “Well, sure, I’ll try it.” And now I’m that guy.

Do you think being an independent candidate makes you more approachable than if you were representing one of the other big parties?

I think that there are barriers to participation in politics for a lot of students. I think that knowledge is a really big barrier. When you’re a student, you’re sort of quite young, and you imagine that everybody knows what’s going on in the world. And then you hear this policy stuff, like “What’s your stance on education, what’s your stance on hospitals?” And nobody really knows what is the best mix of these programs. We want some of this, some of this, and some of that, right? That’s the mix, and it’s chaotic. It’s different, if you go to France, if you go to Switzerland, if you go to Germany, it’s different in every country. There’s no right answer for foreign policy. I think the idea that you have to have knowledge about all these policy areas, that’s a myth. And I think that’s preventing a lot of students. So running as an independent candidate helps, but I think that running as a candidate without trying to tell people to support such-and-such a cause, I think that helps as well, not trying to ram policy down people’s throats.

I noticed in the debate on Monday, there were some questions where you just said “that’s not an area where I have a lot of knowledge and I’ll just decline to comment”. Was that part of a strategy, to show your honesty?

To be honest, in the debates I get fatigued. Because, I mean, you try standing in front of 200 people, having compassion for these people, and they’re asking you questions about HST over and over again, and I mean, I’m not going to say that the HST is good or bad. But I am going to say that the HST is not a strong enough reason for me to give up a month of my time to help you. That’s not my objective, that’s not why I’m here. And to say that over and over again, I don’t like to anger people. I don’t like to piss people off by telling them that the thing they care about isn’t important to me, but it’s not the most important thing to me. I think we could all work towards something bigger than cutting the HST!

Voter apathy is a chronic problem for students. If you had 30 seconds to get someone’s attention and convince them to vote, what would you say?

I would ask them to think realistically about the sacrifice that it is. So first of all, start thinking: how many years of your life are you going to live? Probably about 80 years. 12 months in a year. About 30 days in a month. 24 hours in a day. So how many hours in a life? You’ve got a heck of a lot of hours. And, yes, it’s good to have fun. I go out and I have fun myself. But to vote, it’s one of those hours. Do you have that much control over yourself that you can take an hour out of your day to do something? And if it’s something that you’ve never done before, I think that’s a choice. That’s an exercise of freedom, and that’s saying something about your life and the fact that you have control over yourself.

I mean, going out and having fun is good, and you can do that a lot. And if you think about how many hours you do that for, I don’t want to say it’s a waste of time, but I think that you could spare one hour.

What do you offer that the other parties don’t, and why did you choose to run as an independent?

I think that I’m talking about something that is very different from what the other parties are talking about. The other parties are trying to use politics and policy to get votes. I’m trying to talk about the real things, the process, the canvassing, the volunteering, these kinds of things to get votes. And to some that may seem more cynical, but to me that’s more honest.

It’s about building an organization of people that support each other to make positive social change. There’s no detail more necessary than that. I think that the more that you talk about party policy, the more you take away from your own individual power to make change.

And if you’re going to talk about policy, I think you should talk about policy outside of an election. There’s the whole process of creating policy that goes on inside the party structure. So if policy is important to you, I think you should join a party, and then you should develop the policies democratically within the party.

To find out more about Peter Davis, check out his website. And don’t forget to vote!

Love at First Vote Sun, 18 Sep 2011 20:01:00 -0400 It’s the most wonderful time of the year - election season! Yes folks, once again, your candidates (the provincial ones this time) are knocking on doors and burning up photocopiers all over town just to get your attention. Doesn’t it feel nice to be doted on by politicians?

Of course, these people and their minions are going to be courting us relentlessly for the next few weeks, so it’s important not to give it up too easily. Your vote, I mean. As nice as it may feel to hold the fate of their careers in our collective hands, be assured that these people are doing some pretty clever strategizing of their own.

It’s all about a return on one’s investment. How many votes can I get for a minimum time committment? Should I spend 3 hours at a fundraising gala? Only if TV cameras will be there. Door-knocking takes longer than a phone call, but most people hang up the phone, whereas I can stick my foot in the door if they try to shoo me off their front porch.

But have no fear, average student voter. In the face of such cold, calculated politicking, remember that you want a return on your investment, too. If you’re going to spend an hour lining up to vote, you’d better get some satisfaction out of it.

Remember this when you go to vote on October 6th. (You are going to vote, right?) It’s always more satisfying to choose the candidate you like best, instead of settling for a “lesser evil” that has a better chance at winning. This kind of strategic voting - the kind driven by fear - isn’t what you want in a political relationship. It’s like trying to convince yourself that it’s okay to date a drug dealer because, well, at least he doesn’t hit you.

Left-leaning voters sometimes cling to strategic voting for dear life in places like Kitchener-Waterloo, with the hope that it’ll bring about a sliver of progressive social policy. But what it really does is make you lie to yourself and dismiss your ideals as unachievable. What a sad, pale optimism to hang your hat on.

With the re-election of Peter Braid in May, the pitfalls of strategic voting became painfully clear. In Kitchener-Waterloo, as in ridings across the country, strategic voting advocates made wrong predictions that ended up wasting the time and the votes of everyone involved. This screw-up helped bring the Conservatives to a majority, which was probably not their intention. This speaks less to the incompetence of the organizers than it does to the inherent fallibility of strategic voting, and the difficulty of predicting election results before they happen.

This is why it’s so important to find The One. And for all you virgin voters out there, make the first time count. Don’t waste it on some so-called champion unless, of course, so-called champions are your thing. Find your perfect match. Mark your ballot. Seal it with a kiss. And walk away happy in the knowledge that your vote mattered.

This article was originally published in Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s official student newspaper.

Uniting the left is a bogus idea Mon, 12 Sep 2011 16:17:00 -0400 A Liberal-NDP merger is the story that just won’t die, so I might as well weigh in with my thoughts. My thoughts are that it’s a terrible idea, in case you were wondering.

Arguments in favour of a merger can be boiled down to this: Power is better than ideological purity, and we need to unite the left, because the right already did it and now they’ve won a majority government.

There are a few reasons why I think a merger will bring along more regrets than solutions.

  1. It’s a shortcut that doesn’t solve the greater problem: proportional representation. A Liberal-NDP merger would just perpetuate the reality that only “the big parties” have a chance at actually getting elected.

  2. Rather than being a bigger tent, a merged party would alienate voters from both sides. Many NDP voters would defect further left, probably to the Greens, and right-of centre Liberals would defect to the Conservatives. A Liberal-NDP merger wouldn’t “unite the left” at all.

  3. There are irreconcilable policy differences between the two. Think about corporate tax cuts, for example. Of course, compromise is a fine thing, but if the Liberals and the NDP merge then the CCF might as well start up again, because there would certainly be room in the political spectrum for more parties.

  4. An outright merger is an extreme jump that’s hard to reverse. Liberals and Dippers have worked together in parliament well over the years, but why not run as a coalition first, to test the waters? Despite the knee-jerk hysteria whenever coalitions are mentioned in Canadian politics, the majority of Liberal and NDP supporters were in favour of the move in 2008 - and that’s when the Bloc Québécois was still in on the deal.

Like I always say, more parties is always better, because then voters have actual choices. Rather than letting parties dissolve into one another, let’s work on cooperation across party lines and short-term, pragmatic alliances.

Winning battles feels good. Fri, 02 Sep 2011 22:30:00 -0400 It’s a good day to be an environmentalist in Ontario.

As you may know, a giant quarry one-third the size of Toronto is proposed to be dug in the heart of our best agricultural land. I’ve written about this before. It would have devastating impacts to local vegetable production, water quality, and suburban sprawl.

I was stopped yesterday by a woman at the farmer’s market who was collecting signatures for a petition against this quarry, sponsored by David Tilson, the Federal MP for Dufferin-Caledon. This was interesting, because up until now the issue has been provincial in scope. I was relieved that a federal member of parliament was willing to step in to ensure a full environmental assessment.

And so I was delightfully surprised to hear this morning that the Ontario government had changed its mind. I don’t know if this decision came about as a result of citizen protest, the upcoming election, pressure from the feds, or a combination of all these. But one thing’s for sure: this quarry will not pass an environmental assessment in its current proposed form, and that’s good news for all Ontarians.

The cherry on top of all this is an announcement that came today from Steve Paikin, host of The Agenda. For the lead-up to the Ontario election, the Green Party will be included in all debates on TVO. It’s about time. Though the Greens haven’t yet got a seat at Queen’s Park, they are most certainly a legitimate political party, increasing their vote share every election since 1999 and even beating one of the traditional parties in 18 ridings.

Our energy future is certain to be a hot topic this election, and I’m excited to hear a Green voice at the table on this and many other issues as the debate heats up.

Indeed, it’s been a good day for the environment. I’m going to celebrate with some organic soy milk and fresh, local produce.


Good politicians don't need imaginary friends Thu, 11 Aug 2011 01:30:00 -0400 The term “silent majority” is often used as a cop-out by politicians that don’t want to address the concerns of those opposed to them. It’s an illegitimate tool used to artificially inflate the importance of one’s ideology. Inflated, in fact, by nothing more than hot air.

Wikipedia tells me the phrase was popularized by Nixon to justify his support of the Vietnam War in the face of immense opposition from the American people. It’s such a convenient term to use, because this “silent majority” cannot be identified, questioned, or verified. And yet, it lends such weight to empty arguments.

There’s a reason that the majority of people are publicly silent on most issues. Simply, they don’t care. At least, not as much as those who make their opinions known. What gives politicians the right to appropriate these peoples’ value systems for their own, like some maladroit conquistador?

If politicians can’t count on the support of the “silent majority” to bolster their unpopular policies, then are they reduced to mere mouthpieces of the most vocal citizens? Heavens no. All I ask is that they take ownership and responsibility for their ideas. Visionary leadership often runs counter to popular opinion; but that’s no reason to hide behind the veil of the “silent majority”. Politicians should not be afraid to go to uncomfortable lengths if it’s for a cause they believe to be for the common good. As Trudeau said, “Just watch me.”

It is with frustration, then, that I read Giorgio Mammoliti’s reaction to the hundreds of delegates who came to city hall to speak against the City of Toronto’s proposed service cuts. According to him, their concerns aren’t valid because a “silent majority” of people who support the cuts were too busy working to attend. Regardless of your political convictions, it’s a gutless, cowardly move by Mammoliti. If he had said, “Despite the opposition, these service cuts are essential for the City to be fiscally stable and I intend to pursue them,” I’d have more respect for the man. But he chose instead to deflect responsibility.

The term “silent majority” used to have a different meaning. It was used in the 19th century to refer to those who had died, and, euphemistically, “joined the silent majority”. It’s about time we brought that meaning back and laid the silent majority to rest.

How green is your city? Sat, 06 Aug 2011 23:48:00 -0400 I’ve grown to love Hamilton’s parks, trails, hills, valleys, streams, trees and waterfalls. Last night, I went to a concert at the Ancaster Fairgrounds - basically a farmer’s field at the edge of town. It was the opening night of the Festival of Friends, a weekend-long festival with music, pony rides, and deep-fried Mars bars.

When Dallas Green took to the stage, he puzzled over the Tourism Hamilton advertisement next to him. “Is this true? Hamilton’s the waterfall capital of the world?”. Raucous cheering answered his question. “Well, nobody ever told me about this. What, you just keep it to yourselves?” Apparently so.

Consider this my small contribution to casting off the old, grungy, industrial image of this great city. I live a short walk from King and James, the heart of downtown Hamilton. Unlike, say, Yonge-Dundas square or Union Station, the concrete here is tempered by mature trees, grass, flowerbeds and benches in Gore Park.

The Niagara escarpment, which contains the Bruce Trail, cuts right through the middle of the city. The impracticalities of developing buildings on a sheer rock face means that this strip of natural beauty has been more or less preserved, even in close proximity to a built-up urban area.

In the north end, Bayfront Park is filled with the sounds and sights of children playing, boats being launched, fishing rods, boom-boxes, joggers, and folks chatting. Biking through it the other day at sunset, I was struck by how similar the atmosphere was to my childhood vacations at Presqu’ile Provincial Park. No wonder Bayfront Park was named one of Canada’s best public spaces by Spacing Magazine.

I’ve always found it funny how new suburban subdivisions aggressively market their forest-lined lots and proximity to a rural paradise where everything is green. Little do those prospective homeowners know that their precious vista to the hinterland will be razed and replaced by more tract houses in a matter of months.

If you want to live somewhere that actually protects its green spaces and makes them accessible, Hamilton’s your city. I’ll let the photos I’ve taken in the past few months speak for themselves. These were all taken within a 20-minute bike ride of my house.

How's this for efficiency? Wed, 03 Aug 2011 01:48:00 -0400 Imagine working in a hospital, trying to treat 300 patients a day with a staff of 5 doctors and 16 nurses. Now, imagine trying to do it in a revamped farm just outside Mogadishu. That’s what Dr. Hawa Abdi has been doing since 1983.

The famine currently sweeping East Africa - worse than the famines of the eighties and nineties - has brought thousands more to the doorstep of her hospital, and what was once a daily struggle is now an insurmountable wall of need. If one child dies in the hospital, that’s a great day.

But this isn’t just a hospital. The former farmland, which Dr. Abdi owns, is a tent city. People are free to stay here, where there is access to water, shelter, and healthcare. The people live more or less peacefully, governed by two simple rules that Dr. Abdi enforces (it is her private property, after all) - no talk of clans or politics; and no man shall beat his wife.

Dr. Abdi’s daughter (who is also a doctor) explains it like this in a TED video from 2010: “Three hundred patients per day, ten, twenty surgeries, and still you have to manage the camp - that’s how she trains us. It is not like beautiful offices here, 20 patients, you’re tired.”

To put this in perspective, 300 patients a day is roughly the number of patients that go through the emergency rooms of Mount Sinai Hospital and Toronto General Hospital combined.

Medical miracles aside, what fascinates me most about Dr. Hawa Abdi’s work is the role that non-violence plays in the hospital’s operations. The no-beating rule mentioned above helps to keep things civil, but the fact remains that the area is controlled by Al-Shabaab. This militant organization, when they took over the area, proclaimed that, as a woman, Hawa Abdi could not be in a position of leadership.

They held Dr. Abdi hostage and demanded to take over the hospital. She flatly refused, not least because they wouldn’t know the first thing about running a hospital. Furthermore, she wasn’t about to be ordered around by misogynist terrorists on her own private property. After a week of pressure from the people in the camp and from the international community, Al-Shabaab backed off. They now leave the hospital more or less alone. What’s more, Dr. Abdi demanded a written apology from the organization.

Not a hand was raised against those militants, and now the business of caring for the sick and feeding the hungry continues.

It’s refreshing to hear about an organization doing so much not only to care for the immediate material needs of its community, but also to instil a sense of unity, respect, and peaceful co-existence.

What’s more, they take PayPal - so throw them a few bucks to help keep the food, water, and medical supplies coming.

Urban Essentials Thu, 28 Jul 2011 00:10:00 -0400 Transportation has a huge role in shaping the way cities function and grow. Everyone wants to to be close to a subway station, so naturally cities coalesce into dense clusters around those station areas. Nobody wants to live on a highway onramp, so highway expansion pushes urban sprawl outwards in all directions. So it’s not without reason that city staff the world over are trying to marry these two ideas of transportation and land use, i.e. planning for the kinds of buildings and activities that lend themselves to dense, walkable neighbourhoods.

It makes sense to conduct land use planning at the same time as a large transportation project. All over the GTA (and Hamilton!), municipalities are expanding their rapid transit networks. And it helps with getting provincial funding if you can prove that land use policy won’t be at odds with the new subway, LRT, or rapid bus system you’re hoping to build. But there’s a delicate dance that needs to be done to ensure land use policies aren’t dependent on a billion-dollar transit line.

Increased transit options are always a good thing. So are comfortable walking environments. But while they complement each other, they both shouldn’t be scrapped if the transportation project doesn’t pull through. If, for example, transit funding is stonewalled by a city council that doesn’t want to commit or by a change of heart at the provincial level, more progress might be made by focusing on walkability alone.

The great European cities to which we lowly North American urbanists aspire grew up without the automobile. Walking, the main mode of transportation, shaped those cities before there was such a thing as centralized city planning. So, we shouldn’t expect rapid transit alone to save us from suburbia. We should work on making the original transportation mode - walking - easier and more comfortable.

Accommodating pedestrians doesn’t cost very much - wide sidewalks, trees for shade, benches to sit on, predictable crosswalks, flexible street networks, these are all things that have evolved naturally in cities that aren’t based around the automobile. And those cities have been better prepared to embrace rapid transit than those that start with cul-de-sacs and concrete cloverleafs.

Investment in rapid transit is a chicken-and-egg situation. The community may not, at present, have the population to sustain a new rapid transit line. But the argument is that the advent of rapid transit will cause people to flock to the area in order to use it.

That’s all good and well, but sometimes it’s difficult to convince the decisionmakers of the benefits that rapid transit will bring. Not to worry - throw them an easy choice by shifting the focus to the pedestrian environment. Everyone is a pedestrian at some point in their day, whether they’re going for a jog, walking to the corner store, heading to their car in the parking lot, or making their way to the bus stop. Enhanced sidewalks and other pedestrian features are not just for the elderly and disabled - we all benefit.

The crucial point, though, is that this change of focus can only happen quick enough if the land use planning is not intertwined too tightly with the rapid transit planning. I’m all for integrated urbanism, but let’s try to prevent politicians from throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Check out my new album, Hello World Sun, 10 Jul 2011 19:00:00 -0400 Inspired by my 5-month stint in Lausanne, Switzerland, “Hello World” is a 5-song EP that drops today.

Featuring two songs in French, it reflects my experiences living on the Old Continent. Hello World, the title track, explores the desire for meaning beyond shiny toys and credit cards. Tout de même is a reflection of my uneasiness at being thrown into a new and foreign place. As I began to feel more comfortable and meet people, I wrote Stitching the Sky as a celebration of true brotherhood, and a call to reach out to our neighbours. The Courts are Closed on Sundays is a sobering reminder that relationships (and not just romantic ones) can crash and burn, and when they do, it’s hard to keep your chin up. The album ends with La vie est belle, a song that pays tribute to the beautiful city that is Lausanne.

The digital album is pay-what-you-can, and the Creative Commons license lets you share and remix to your heart’s delight.

So have a listen, comment, spread the word and download it!

Speak now, or forever hold your peace Sun, 10 Jul 2011 16:44:00 -0400 If you’ve heard about the Melancthon mega-quarry in the last few weeks, no doubt you’ve been asked to sign a petition or watch a YouTube video explaining what’s going on. Essentially, some of the most fertile vegetable farms in Ontario will be dug up to make a strip-mine. Unless public opinion convinces her otherwise, the Minister of Natural Resources, Linda Jeffrey, will approve the project.

But the time window for official comments is closing fast. Midnight tonight is the last chance to voice your opposition. If you do so through the government’s official submission form, that gives you the right to appeal decisions further along in the process (for example, if the decision goes before the Ontario Municipal Board). Basically, if you don’t act now, you don’t have the right to speak up later on.

This is more than just a petition. If you submit a comment on the government’s environmental registry, Minister Jeffrey is required to consider it as part of the formal consultation process for this development application.

So here’s the call to action. You have until midnight tonight (Sunday, July 10) to submit comments to Minister Jeffrey. Use the submission form on the government’s website.

This is what I wrote. Feel free to copy it, or write down your own reasons for opposing the mega-quarry.

Though I respect the right of private enterprise to conduct its business freely, government has a responsibility to encourage the kind of economic development and urban growth that is consistent with the policies laid out in the Provincial Policy Statement, Greenbelt Plan, Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan. Each of these documents encourage compact, intensified urban growth in southern Ontario by limiting sprawl. The suburban growth model of the last fifty years has produced inefficient infrastructure, environmental degradation, and the encroachment of residential neighbourhoods on fertile farmland. The aforementioned policy documents recognize this and set out policies to prevent it from worsening. The availability of cheap aggregate for greenfield construction has been a major factor encouraging suburban sprawl in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The Melancthon mega-quarry would perpetuate this unsustainable development model, and would reduce the incentive for Ontario’s municpalities to meet their intensification targets. The approval of the Melancthon mega-quarry would be a step backwards for Ontario’s urban growth. Please heed the government’s own policy documents, and refuse this application.
The Whiteness of the Whale Wed, 06 Jul 2011 02:28:00 -0400 Over the past month or so, I’ve been getting through the audiobook of Moby-Dick. I knew nothing of the book prior to starting other than its status as a classic and the fact that it was about an albino whale. Though long and meandering, the story has become a meditative sanctuary of sorts for me, because it is the kind of story that doesn’t beg to be finished quickly, nor does it move so slowly as to bore the reader (or, in my case, the listener).

To be honest, Moby-Dick has to have the slowest-moving plot of any book I’ve read (including philosophical works like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). But what it lacks in action, it makes up for in enchantingly beautiful prose. Herman Melville delights me with his turns of phrase and rich vocabulary. To be sure, it is this quality that makes the novel’s epic length not just bearable, but pleasurable and even invigorating.

Nowhere is this quality more nakedly apparent than in chapter 42, The Whiteness of the Whale. Yes, this entire chapter is devoted to exploring the meaning of the colour white, and how that meaning is perverted when juxtaposed with a great and terrible creature such as a shark, or a polar bear, or in this case, a sperm whale. It’s superfluous, for sure, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

It would seem Herman Melville has a subtle sense of humour (or obliviousness), because he introduces chapter 45 like this:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, … requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood …

Some might go mad trying to read a story as pretentious and lethargic as Moby-Dick. But when I’m listening to the audiobook, I just pretend I’m listening to a wise old man, perhaps with a bit of Alzheimer’s because he keeps repeating things (though that doesn’t explain the absurd amount of detail).

If you have the time and patience, read Moby-Dick or listen to the audiobook. When you emerge from the 136 interminable chapters, you won’t regret it.

Like headless chickens Thu, 23 Jun 2011 00:09:00 -0400 It was a painful experience, watching the media frenzy amid today’s detainee document dump. The pre-dump anticipation was building on Twitter. Everyone wanted their hot little hands on one of those USB keys, packed with 4,200 pages of mostly-still-redacted documents. Tweets started to stream in with snippets of information, sensational, attention-grabbing, and out of context. justin_ling: “Most security detainees appear to have their legs shackled…at all times. This is inconsistent with international standards.” #afdocs No references. No further explanation. Just a stream of the most headline-ready phrases that could be found while skimming the documents. Which, to be honest, is to be expected from Twitter. I flip to CTV’s PowerPlay, where two journalists are squaring off on a debate about the significance of the just-released documents. Which is all fine and good, except neither of them had even read the documents. It’s not like they had the chance; 4,200 pages takes a little while to sift through. Nevertheless, Malorie Beauchemin made the bold comment that there’s still a lot of black marker in these documents. Robert Fife, not to be outdone, wisely reminds viewers that we can all have faith in the decisionmaking skills of former Supreme Court Justices. As can be expected, the lack of substance forces these journalists to get into a debate about what they think might have happened in Afghanistan - which is to say, not much of a debate at all. It’s stories like these that make the age of instant communication frustrating. There’s nothing to communicate yet, but that won’t stop the media from spewing whatever nonsense it can! With the fit of madness mostly over now, I think Kady O’Malley put it best: kady: Alright, that’s it for the #afdocs briefing — I’ll recap of what we learned when I get back to my desk. Spoiler Alert: Not much more. But hey, at least they didn’t take the Sarah Palin route and release the 4,200 pages of documents in hardcopy only.]]> The butchering of Hamilton's street grid has to stop Tue, 14 Jun 2011 21:40:00 -0400 Today, the inadequacies of postwar traffic engineering were unceremoniously laid bare as a power failure in downtown Hamilton forced thousands of people out of their office towers and onto the few arterial roads that traverse the lower city.

For those unfamiliar with Hamilton’s traffic history, traffic engineers in the 1950s converted the lower city’s main throughfares to one-way streets, in order to facilitate the movement of commuters from the Mountain to the steel factories at the waterfront. The one-way conversions succeeded in moving large amounts of traffic very efficiently - but only if that traffic was moving along a predetermined route. Traffic signal timing, lane widths, no-left-turn intersections - these were all engineered to create efficient vehicular flow. The problem is, if you feel like taking a different route or have a different destination in mind, good luck. Because the traffic gods will ensure that you get kicked back on to Main St. or King St.

Hamilton has a very old downtown core, with a tightly meshed street grid. However, since the 1950s, parts of that grid have become broken. Many of the smaller neighbourhood streets have been converted to one-way, and de facto dead-ends are littered throughout the lower city. Practically speaking, this means that you can’t use Jackson Street, for example, to travel east-west because there’s a dead end where it runs into City Hall’s parking lot from both sides. Another example is King William Street. Travel far enough west, and you’ll be confronted with an intersection that forbids you to go straight or turn left. The only option is to divert your route several blocks north to Cannon or Wilson, both major arterial roads.

The problem with funnelling all traffic onto a select few streets is that it doesn’t take much for the city to grind to a halt. Using this model, the efficient flow of vehicles requires precise control of traffic signals and as few complications as possible. Something as simple as a power outage can throw the whole system into chaos.

Because there were no other viable routes out of the city, today’s power failure forced everyone working downtown to simultaneously squeeze into four arterial roads: two going eastbound, two westbound. Even on my bike, which normally allows me to breeze past gridlock, I had to jump down the back of a parking lot and cut across City Hall and Victoria Park to rid myself of the congestion.

When I was eventually kicked back on to King Street by a dead-end, I spent a good half-minute watching an ambulance trying to break through a row of cars four lanes across and two vehicles deep. When emergency vehicles can’t bypass the afternoon rush hour, that’s a problem. Peoples’ lives are at stake. Yes, this rush hour was especially bad because of the power outage (which forced everyone to leave at the same time), but it’s exactly these kinds of crises where emergency services are needed the most.

I’ve studied the grid street network countless times, and I can spew all the rhetoric about how it dissipates congestion by providing alternate route options. I’ve heard Duany’s lectures and I know the theory. But seeing it unfold so clearly in front of my eyes made me realise just how fragile the collector-arterial system really is.

It’s one thing to build five-lane expressways through downtown Hamilton. It’s quite another to butcher the streets around it so that everybody is forced to use that one road. Choice is essential in a functioning transportation network. That includes the choice to use alternate modes of transportation, but also to take a detour if you need to. As long as motorists and cyclists are punished for trying to avoid congestion, Hamilton’s lower city will continue to be a traffic nightmare.

Avant-Garde Wed, 08 Jun 2011 01:05:00 -0400 Those that know me know that I’m an avid cyclist. I love to maneuver through city traffic at rush hour, and, paradoxically, I feel much safer riding 20 pounds of aluminum than in a cocoon of steel and glass. But I wasn’t always this way.

My dad can attest to my early teen car obsession - religiously reading the Wheels section of the newspaper, fawning over taillight design (of all things!), going to the Auto Show in Toronto every year… I was set on getting my own car the day I turned 16.

As it turns out, my 16th birthday fell around exam time so I put off getting my licence for a month. The allure of driving started to fade. I got my first road bike the following autumn. And I never looked back.

Two years later, I had made the decision never to own a car. What prompted my abrupt turnaround? Part of it was environmentalism. I was becoming aware of climate change, deforestation, and the pitfalls of the industrial development model. Around this time, I also decided to be a vegetarian for environmental reasons. Automobile ownership wasn’t something I could square with my new worldview.

Part of it was my first-year Urban Planning courses, which had basically conditioned me to hiss under my breath at the mention of expressways, drive-thru restaurants, and surface parking.

The single biggest influence on my conversion to bicyclism (it’s a word) was probably one of my co-workers, Kevin, who was a fellow lifeguard ay Cedar Park resort in the summer of 2007. Now, if you’ve ever been to Cedar Park, you’ll know that it’s in the middle of nowhere. The rural roads that lead there take you up hills and down little valleys as you make your way past farmers’ fields. But Kevin biked to work. Up those calf-splitting hills, both ways, every day. Alongside pick-up trucks doing 90 km/h. And he liked it. What was even more fascinating was the fact that he used to be a big car enthusiast. Had a souped-up Civic. But he gave it an engine that was too powerful, and it exploded. So now he has a $2000 bike with all the bells and whistles (literally). To be honest, it’s a lot less maintenance and Kevin was fit. That was the first time I saw cycling as a really viable option for my primary mode of transportation.

I still have that road bike I bought in 2006. I’ve upgraded the wheels, got some better brake shoes, and replaced the handlebar tape. I feel like I’ve bonded with it over the years, like one would with a horse. And recently I took another step towards sustainable transportation and bought a cargo trailer for my bike.

After a few weeks of use, I can confirm that it was money well spent. I took it to the grocery store, and loaded it up with two week’s worth of food plus a big cake. It was delicious. It’s a liberating feeling to carry big, heavy loads without requiring a car. Yesterday, I biked an hour across town with my cargo trailer in rush hour traffic to get a computer desk that someone was getting rid of. The trailer handled the task beautifully. It was an added bonus to see the amused looks of bewilderment from people as I headed home on Barton Street with a big desk bungee-corded to a bike trailer.

I think part of what makes me enjoy this kind of cycling so much is the interactions with motorists on the road. For the most part, drivers are either nervous or extremely courteous around me. For all the rhetoric out there about angry drivers, I find that if I’m confident and well-aware of my surroundings, I have zero problems. And I hope that my presence on the road will make motorists stop and take a second look at the status quo. I hope that more will see cycling not as an alterative form of transportation, but as a viable first choice.

Admittedly, we need more pioneer cyclists out on the road to make that happen. So dust off that bike in your garage, strap on a helmet, and leave the car keys at home. Let me assure you that busy roads are not scary places, and that you can carry a computer desk through downtown Hamilton on a bike.

Here’s some inspiration:

Tempest in a Tweet-pot Sat, 28 May 2011 02:15:00 -0400 There’s a fair bit of knee-jerk criticism making the rounds about this INDEVOURS event next week. So I thought I’d share my opinion on the matter.

Next Friday, the University of Waterloo’s International Development program will be hosting an event featuring Roy Sesana, an activist for indigenous rights in Botswana. Students were sent a mass email with details about the event:

Winner of the 2005 Right Livelihood Award, Roy Sesana is a medicine man of the Gana Bushman from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. Speaking through a translator in his native clicking tongue, Sesana speaks about land claim issues in the Kalahari between the indigenous populations, fighting to stay on their ancestral lands, and the local government.

Attached to that email was this poster, which has also been plastered around campus:

The poster was designed by International Development students, approved by the program’s staff, and then sent out to bulletin boards and email inboxes across campus.

When I found out about this event, I was super excited to hear about land claims negotiations straight from the horse’s mouth - a welcome change from the dry academic guest lecturers that are typically invited to university events. (Remember Joe Hulse in INDEV 100?) Also, the fact that this event lands on my birthday is an added bonus! I’m psyched.

But apparently, some people aren’t too thrilled:

Well, actually, A.Y. has a fair point. I would also like to know what the “clicking language” is called. That sentence is a bit vague. But borderline racist? Definitely not.

Twitter is a double-edged sword in that it frees us from the control of established media… but it also immortalizes forever any random stream-of-consciousness thoughts we decide to plonk down. A.Y.’s subsequent tweets were a testament to the latter. She ranted about the lack of Roy Sesana’s name in the event description, despite the fact that it’s plastered in big bubbly letters across the full width of the poster. She opined that the event was marketing him as a circus attraction. She takes offense to the fact that he’s wearing shell beads.

Oh sure, INDEVOURS could have used a nicely cropped headshot of Roy Sesana, clean-shaven, wearing a collared shirt and a tie. He’d look right professorial. Because then it’d look proper, wouldn’t it?

So, as A.Y. stamps her feet and fires off tweets about courtesy and respect, I have to wonder: what isn’t respectful about this? What version of courtesy is she looking for? Is it racist to display a picture of a dancing medicine man? I don’t think so. Traditional medicine and indigenous cultures around the world need to be preserved and celebrated. In fact, it’s the very thing that Roy Sesana is advocating for.

Prologue: Apathetic Students or a Pathetic System? Sun, 22 May 2011 22:41:00 -0400 On Friday, the first installment of my new biweekly column was published in Imprint. Broadly, I’m going to write about politics on a local, national, and global level - and how political issues impact students. Or, more to the point, why we should care about the way we’re governed.

My first column highlighted the rise of new media and open data in the political realm, and how it might best be used to engage students today. (Spoiler: politicians have a lot of catching up to do.) I don’t pretend to be the first to think of this idea, but I was astounded when, after firing off the final copy to my editor, I came across my exact argument in a book by Pierre Berton called The Smug Minority.

It was published in 1968.

Pierre Berton was talking about TV in this particular instance, but his words are uncannily relevant today.

Nobody can expect the politicians to give any sort of a lead here since the politicians, least of all, understand the new medium. When they use it at all, which is rarely, they use it atrociously, and they have made a law which prevents them, specifically, from using it dramatically. It is a measure of our political perception that most candidates for office continue to use the Nineteenth Century medium of the public meeting during election campaigns … One would think Sir John A. Macdonald were still running for office.

Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil, I guess.

Hoop Jumping 101 Wed, 18 May 2011 02:21:00 -0400 I’m in the University of Waterloo’s co-op program, which means my schooling is interspersed with chunks of work experience to let me get some practical knowledge of the field. It’s a great system on the whole, but talk to any co-op student at UW and they’ll tell you the same thing: PD is terrible.

PD: Professional Development. Also known as How to Pontificate About Nothing, or perhaps Hoop Jumping 101. These online courses, which we take in tandem with each work term, are like a welcome mat for our transition into the working world that reads: “Follow the crowd. Do as I say. Don’t ask questions.”

The courses are structured in the worst kind of linear, there-is-only-one-right-answer format that squashes creative thought and stifles discussion. They ensure that we graduate with a standardized set of essential workplace skills, because God forbid we forget to use the S.M.A.R.T. checklist when we communicate in “the real world”.

I’m doing PD3: Communication right now, which contains such absolutist nonsense as “All employers will be pleased to be addressed by their last name!”. In a half-baked attempt to be relevant, one module had a story about Star Trek, which illustrated that it’s always better to be “civilized” than “barbaric”. I didn’t realise we were still in colonial-era England.

One exercise asked me to pick the “best” ending to a dialogue between co-workers, then write a paragraph about it. This was my paragraph.

This exercise took the classic “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” approach to presenting three alternate endings. It’s a formula that is predictable and guides the reader towards the last option - synthesis - requiring very little critical thinking on my part. Because of this, I can confidently say that Jim’s third response was his best. It combined the attempt to foster community (“I’m sorry you’ve had some issues”) with the attempt to keep company operations moving smoothly (“It might be worthwhile to ask her for a meeting”), all tied together with a requisite qualifier to absolve the speaker of responsibility (“I don’t understand all the circumstances”). The lesson here is to always speak as if you’re reading an HR Best Practices guide word-for-word.

PD encourages us to avoid risks, water down our ideas, and conform to become productive employees. All things, might I point out, that run counter to Waterloo’s marketing pitch as an innovative institution that embraces the “spirit of why not”.

Can I borrow a cup of sugar and a capo? Fri, 13 May 2011 01:09:00 -0400 Mark your calendars for Sunday, June 12 - that’s when I’ll be performing alongside The Billie Hollies, Lazu Lie, and other great local talent at the first annual Grand Porch Party in uptown Waterloo!

The Grand Porch Party is the ultimate combination of music and good old-fashioned neighbourliness! Musicians will be playing free outdoor shows on the front porches of homes in uptown Waterloo, behind the Town Square.

Sponsored by Alternatives Journal, this is sure to be an afternoon of awesomeness. Bring your friends and come chill on the porch! You know I’ll be bringing my tambourine and conga drum, and I’m looking for audience participation.

Check out the details here:

Peak knowledge Wed, 11 May 2011 03:12:00 -0400 I’m suffering from post-election politics burnout, so I’m just going to riff on an idea here and see where it leads.

It seems every government, from City Hall to Parliament Hill, is trying to “position ourselves in the knowledge economy”. There is much fanfare about technological pioneers in the Life Sciences, Aerospace, Cleantech, and Software sectors, to name a few. But I have to question this idea of a “knowledge economy”. What do the words mean, anyway? It’s a term that’s been bandied about since the 60s, when we suddenly realized that a new Millennium was dawning and we’d better have some flying cars and stuff by then. But I think a more fitting term would be “abstract economy”.

The knowledge economy is, after all, preoccupied with pushing the boundaries of human intellect such that it loses its connection with the real world. It is not dependent on the natural systems that sustain life on this planet. It is isolated from issues of social inequality, blissfully free from societal constraints.

The problem is, nobody seems to want to invest in the real world anymore. It’s like being forced to eat ramen because you spent your OSAP loan on video game character upgrades. We are hollowing out our natural and social capital, supporting instead new and exciting innovations that have little direct benefit to society.

I don’t advocate ceasing research and innovation. I concede that antibiotics and solar panels have largely been a benefit to humankind, and that I wouldn’t even be typing these words if it weren’t for the internet. But if you’re going to have a “knowledge economy” at all, it must be supported by a firm foundation of agriculture and manufacturing. Farmers really do feed cities, and I think that reality gets lost in our ever-more-virtual world.

What business does government have giving grants to tech startups when most farmers have to find a second job in the city to get by? We are a nation that can design a new smartphone every 6 months, but we can’t even clothe or feed ourselves. The longer we take our Primary and Secondary sectors for granted, the more spectacularly our “knowledge economy” will crash and burn when the tipping point comes.

The other option, of course, is to just get Mexico to grow our food and Taiwan to manufacture everything for us. I’m sure they don’t mind.

Change is gonna come Tue, 03 May 2011 03:36:00 -0400 I have to admit, a few weeks ago I believed that this election would result in a parliament very much like the last one. Liberal, Tory, same old story.

How wrong was I.

The NDP are on track to nearly triple their 2008 seat count. The Bloc Québécois has been crushed to just 3 seats. And Elizabeth May looks poised to win Saanich-Gulf Islands. There are, of course, lots more newsworthy stories coming out of this election, but I want to focus on these three.

I’ve got the election updates from Sun TV playing in the background, and they don’t even have pictures of many of the NDP candidates. David Akin, upon seeing that “default avatar” was in the lead for a significant number of Québec ridings, exclaimed with a baffled tone, “Who are these kung-fu-karate-socialist-commie-separatists!?” I think it’s safe to say nobody was expecting the NDP’s late-campaign surge to be quite so big. All I can think of is Ignatieff’s snarky comment during the English leaders’ debates that Layton would never be in government. And now Ignatieff is probably going to lose his riding.

As for the BQ, most of their support drifted to the NDP once Layton promised to reopen the constitution. For the past 20 years, the nagging question of separatism has dogged federal politics in Canada. That threat has now lost a lot of its bite. The Bloc will not even be recognized formally as a party (you need 12 seats to do that). That means they get no time to ask questions during Question Period, no formal recognition in the proceedings of parliament. That in itself is a shocker.

That brings me to Elizabeth May. I was a little let down when the first poll results started rolling out, because the Green popular vote is hovering around 3.5% nationally - about half of what it was in the 2008 election. The NDP surge has served to unite the left in a way, at the expense of smaller parties. So it’s remarkable that Elizabeth May is staying ahead of Gary Lunn in Saanich-Gulf Islands. What this means is legitimacy for the Green Party. Representation in the House of Commons, no matter how small, is the first step in our new multi-party reality. We need to be prepared for more Canadians to vote with their hearts and to elect representatives from smaller parties. And of course, more MPs coming from smaller parties, elected by people who really believe in them, is my political fantasyland.

A parting thought: what with all this change, I don’t expect parliament to become more respectful or civil. But I do expect fewer circular arguments and more fiery, divisive, policy-driven debate. I have the feeling we’re going to start talking about real issues in this country. And I think that’s a good thing.

Students want something to vote for - where is it? Fri, 29 Apr 2011 21:37:00 -0400 I’ve already raised the issue of the inability of Canada’s political parties to resonate with people’s concerns. Now, the Canadian Education Project has released a report about the voting intentions of students across the country. Check out the report itself (PDF) for all the nitty-gritty, but what I find most interesting is the last section, where they break down the respondents’ reasons for not voting (see the chart above).

The chart doesn’t add up to 100% because respondents could choose more than one answer. It’s clear that apathy does take a big chunk of the pie, but I’m not sure it’s the most important obstacle. It’s impossible to be certain without more detailed data, but I’m convinced that the “I’m just not interested” slice is a result of some of the other, more fundamental reasons for not voting.

Take a look at some of the other answers: 24% of non-voters don’t like any of the candidates. 31% don’t see any relevant issues being discussed in the campaign. And even if they like the idea of voting, 28% don’t think their ballot will matter. All of these issues can fuel disinterest in the election. The fact is that many students feel they are not being represented by the current political options out there.

The solution to this is to vote with your heart and allow fringe parties to flourish. Some, like the Pirate Party of Canada, have already risen up to address an issue that the traditional parties have largely ignored. I firmly believe that this trend will be a long-lasting benefit to our democracy, but it requires a couple things to survive. First, an overhaul of our voting system that makes representation in the house of commons reflect the popular vote. And second, a culture of cooperation on Parliament Hill where it isn’t taboo to make short-term alliances across party lines.

The puzzling question for me in all of this is how to go about making such a seismic change in Canadian politics. Do a flurry of new fringe parties need to crop up in order to force a change in political culture? Or do we need to reform the voting system first, sending the message that a vote for a fringe party isn’t a wasted one?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Putting the Mother back in Nature Wed, 27 Apr 2011 17:30:00 -0400 It’s raining. Melissa and I are biking down highway 6 from Tobermory, letting the fat drops of water hit our faces as we cycle towards Singing Sands Provincial Park. We know the forecast called for scattered showers today, but we’d been cooped inside for the last two days and cabin fever got the best of us. A warm front preceded the deluge, raising the humidity and leaving us with fogged-up glasses as the first raindrops touched our heads. It feels good to be surrounded by the elements. It feels good to welcome nature, to remind myself that the world is not synthetic. The Earth is alive. It breathes, cries, shudders, and screams. It shelters, it provides, it performs.

Last night, we watched a lighting storm dance in the sky over the Georgian Bay. We laid on soft white pillows looking through double-paned balcony windows at the sudden flashes and cracks across the sky. The majesty of creation, framed by the window. Picturesque. Manageable. I opened the window just enough to hear the crash of thunder, but not enough to let the falling water invade our room. Just enough so the raging storm didn’t become a threat to our comfort.

We are at a point in human history where nature is a luxury. Parks and open spaces have become a social amenity, a quality-of-life indicator. More and more people are leaving rural areas to populate the world’s cities. Fewer people live off the land, and those that do are treating nature in an ever more formulaic fashion. This living, breathing, mega-organism we call Earth has been reduced to simple inputs and outputs.

Scientific evidence and cold, hard, peer-reviewed facts have helped make the case for environmentalism. But they have also changed the nature of our dialogue. The “Lungs of the Earth” have become “Carbon Sinks”. “Save the Whales” has become “A Biodiversity Crisis”. The Earth that we are trying to save is becoming faceless and far removed from our everyday lives.

So here I am, riding down highway 6 as rain beats down on my face, soaking my hair, blurring my vision, and I feel whole. An inexplicable happiness bubbles up inside me, and I’m reminded of these lyrics:

Rain, another rainy day Comes up from the ocean Gives herself away She comes down easy On rich and debt the same And she gives herself away (Daisy by Switchfoot)
Want politicians to work together? Vote with your heart. Sun, 10 Apr 2011 23:10:00 -0400 I went to see Elizabeth May today as she stopped by the Kitchener-Waterloo Green Party campaign office to deliver a pep talk. One of her catchphrases this election season has been “The problem isn’t vote splitting, it’s vote abandonment.” She mentioned this the other night while being interviewed by Peter Mansbridge, and I expect she’ll bring it up again tonight when she’s interviewed by CHCH TV in Hamilton.

That got me thinking, because I’ve advocated in the past for left-leaning voters to vote strategically if they’re in a riding where the frontrunners are neck and neck. I have to admit that now I’ve changed my mind.

So what is vote abandonment? Well, 41% of eligible voters decided to stay home in the last federal election. That’s a larger chunk of votes than for any individual party. Heck, all those abandoned votes could have formed a majority in the house of commons! So you see, this is a block of voters who have huge potential to influence the outcome of an election. But they just don’t feel like it.

The Liberal party has tried to position itself as “the big red tent in the centre” that left-leaning voters should vote for if they want their vote to count. Because, sure, it’s good and noble to vote with your heart, but in the end, the Liberals are the only left-of-centre party with a real shot at forming a government. That logic doesn’t work anymore, and here’s why.

  1. A coalition by any other name would smell as sweet… As Andrew Coyne points out, “[Ignatieff] has ruled out a coalition; he has not ruled out a minority government of some other kind. Nor should he.” The 2008 coalition left a bitter taste in our mouths, but that certainly won’t prevent a power-sharing deal between the Liberals and the NDP, should they get enough seats to command parliament. For left-leaning voters, this means we can freely vote NDP because the Liberals will have to rely on New Democrat MPs to have a stable minority government. In fact, a vote for the NDP would just give them more bargaining power when it comes to negotiating a power-sharing deal with the Liberals.
  2. Vote abandonment. If people think voting with their heart won’t make a difference, they’re more likely not to vote at all. Votes for smaller left-wing parties don’t cannibalize the Liberals’ numbers. The rise in popular support for the Green Party, for example, didn’t come at the expense of the other parties. It came from people who finally cared enough to go and drop a ballot in a box for the first time.

These two issues - vote abandonment and coalitions - are going to shape the future of Canadian democracy. The only way to increase voter turnout is for parties to put forth platforms that actually resonate with people. And that could well mean a number of new, smaller parties entering the political arena. I’d love to see the Wildrose Alliance step up to the federal scene and give right-of-centre voters some real choice. By increasing the number of parties, cooperation across party lines will become even more necessary than it is now. Short-term, issue-specific “coalitions” between parties will not be vilified, but rather celebrated as our MPs find common ground.

To conclude, a call to action: on May 2nd, vote. But don’t just vote for the lesser evil that you think might have a good chance of winning. Vote with your heart. Take a close look at all your candidates and be true to yourself when you approach the ballot box. If you don’t like any of the candidates, deface your ballot. It’ll get counted by Elections Canada as a rejected ballot - a sign that we need better political candidates who have something to offer the 41% of voters who are dissatisfied with the current political options.

/ End rant.

Download "One Big Shot", my anthem for peaceful protest Sat, 09 Apr 2011 01:56:00 -0400 The great thing about releasing music online is you can add bonus songs to albums long after the official release date. My latest song, “One Big Shot”, is a call to action for peaceful protest, celebrating the bravery of the demonstrators at Toronto’s G20 summit last summer. I just got around to finishing it up, and today it’s released as the fifth track on my “Colours and Signs” EP (which was originally released back in August).

Take a listen and download it for free!

Our generation will reform politics Fri, 01 Apr 2011 00:17:00 -0400 This is a message to Generation Y. The Millenials. The Echo Boomers. This is a message to all of us who grew up listening to the Backstreet Boys on cassette tapes. This is a message to all of us who spent our childhood playing with Crazy Bones and Pokémon cards.

We are the generation that will slowly dismantle and rebuild politics in Canada. We are the ones who will rescue the public service from its big-tent, populist, homogenous, polarizing culture.

Let me explain.

In 1990, I was born into a brand new world order; one where the divisive and polarizing decades of the Cold War had come to an abrupt end. In my infancy, world leaders came together in Rio to discuss how humanity should care for our precious Earth. When I was old enough to have an awareness of the world around me, I was flooded with the rhetoric of inclusion, tolerance, and the celebration of diversity. I remember learning sign language from Sesame Street in preschool, and realising that deaf people were people too. I remember the talks about racism and bullying in school. I remember the narrative of the global village, and the need for all of us - all of humanity - to stand together in solidarity.

My generation hasn’t had to fight for our rights. That groundwork had already been laid down by the passionate, dedicated activists of the sixties and seventies. From civil rights to environmental activism, the time was right to enjoy the benefits of our predecessors’ labour.

What does this have to do with politics? Well, our generation hasn’t grown up with a cultural scapegoat. We didn’t have that narrative of the “other” - slaves, Jews, whalers, commies, “the Man” - that permeated previous generations. We didn’t grow up with a system to rebel against or a group of people to victimise. We don’t buy the “us against them” argument that so often crops up in political debate. We’ve been bred to welcome diverse opinions and build consensus. We’ve been indoctrinated on the power of the individual and the importance of subjectivity. Everyone is special.

Generation Y has eschewed the rigid labels of our parents and grandparents’ generations. We see this in religion: despite a general acceptance of personal spirituality, Canadians aged 15-29 are the least likely to have a religious affiliation. In politics, young adults’ voting intentions are pretty evenly split across all parties.

We have grown up in a culture that celebrates our differences. This is our social narrative. And we know that this is the way things should be.

So here’s the problem: our elected representatives are stuck in the old social narrative of political dualism. Our voting system favours the two big parties, squeezing out other political views from the debate. It’s our job to change that.

This election season, grill your candidates on electoral reform. Send them emails and attend debates, demanding that they support a fair voting system (like the Single Transferable Vote).

Gen Y has had a pretty easy life so far. Now it’s our turn to shape the system.

Find out where federal parties stand on key issues Sun, 27 Mar 2011 18:39:00 -0400 I should warn you that there will be a lot of election-related posts in the next few weeks. I’ll try to keep them short and to the point.

The CBC has put together a wonderful survey that lets you compare your opinions with that of all five major federal parties. Questions are broken down into subjects like Defence, Economy, Immigration, Environment, etc. so you can see where you agree and disagree on certain issues.

Tools like these are a huge help in trying to figure out how to vote. There are lots of political compass surveys online, but this one is great because it looks at all the major Canadian parties so you can make a practical conclusion. You might be surprised - in the picture above, you can see that I don’t disagree with everything the Conservatives say!

Take the survey here:

The cure for Jaded Voter Syndrome Sun, 27 Mar 2011 04:50:00 -0400 It’s often touted in news reports and government talking points that “Canadians don’t want an election”. Regardless of whether it’s true or not, this statement is often accepted as canon. The question then becomes: why are Canadians opposed to an election? The usual reasons have been bandied about forever: it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money; politicians are all corrupt; what happens on Parliament Hill doesn’t affect the daily lives of regular people… the list goes on.

I want to touch on one of these perceived issues: the resigned, jaded attitude many voters have towards elections. Especially with this coming election, many people don’t think much will change in the political landscape. We don’t entertain the thought of progressive political change because we’re hammered down by the first-past-the-post system, a crude approximation of fair representation. Individual votes are often cast not for a candidate we support, but for a party that “has a chance of winning”.

This is telling - more and more, voters are realising that the ballot box doesn’t do a good job of representing all Canadians. Apathy is on the rise, but apathy is not the root problem. This infection has nestled itself deeper. It’s a systemic rot that’s eating away our democracy from the inside.

It’s time for electoral reform.

I grew up in the Whitby-Oshawa riding, stronghold of the Flaherty family. Our current finance minister, Jim Flaherty, is a local celebrity in my hometown. His house, atop a hill at the corner of Manning Road and Garden Street, is enclosed by a thick hedge and surrounded by a big green lawn. A Canadian flag flies proudly above his pseudo-mansion, proclaiming the Flaherty legacy like a royal standard. Every time I pass by his house or his ivy-covered law office in downtown Whitby, I’m reminded that I’m in the minority and that my voice doesn’t count.

For this reason, I’ve never voted in my home riding. I know Flaherty will continue to win there as long as he’s in politics, so my votes are better spent elsewhere. But not everyone can pick another riding to vote in. This election season, we need to bring electoral reform to the forefront of the debate. Because every Canadian deserves to have their voice heard.

So, this election season, I’m going to be volunteering with FairVote, a citizen’s campaign for voting reform. It’s not easy to make structural changes to a centuries-old electoral system, but it’s absolutely essential to the future of Canadian democracy. This is what we need to do:

  1. Educate yourself. Find out for yourself why our system is broken and how other countries do democracy better.
  2. Sign the declaration of voter’s rights. Add your name to thousands of other Canadians that want fair representation.
  3. Attend meetings, town halls, and rallies. Ask the candidates tough questions and figure out where they stand on these issues.
  4. Discuss with peers. Get your friends interested and involved. Make it personal.
  5. Go to the polls. On May 2nd, make your voice heard and vote. We can’t boycott the system that we’re trying to improve.
Windowpane menus with CSS Mon, 21 Mar 2011 03:05:00 -0400 I’ve got a handful of web projects on the go, but none of them are ready for the limelight yet. I wanted to unveil some of them by now, since I feel like I’ve been posting a lot about politics lately. Instead, I’ll show you a neat way to create a menu using a single background image.

It’s actually very simple. The <ul> element has a background image. The <li> elements have a transparent background, and a solid border that blocks the background image from showing through. Finally, the <a> element has a semi-transparent png that is removed on hover to make the background image shine through brighter.

No need to splice images in Photoshop - you can achieve the same effect with some super clean code and a little creativity!

Take a look at the demo to see the final product. You can also download the source files (including images).

The HTML structure is as simple as can be:

    <li><a href="#" class="selected">Tickets</a></li>
    <li><a href="#">Showtimes</a></li>
    <li><a href="#">Tour Info</a></li>
    <li><a href="#">Merch</a></li>
    <li><a href="#">Contact</a></li>

And this is the CSS:

ul {
    display: block;
    float: left;
    background: white url(navbg.jpg) no-repeat;
    list-style: none;
    margin: 0;
    padding: 0;
ul li {
    float: left;
    border-left: 10px solid white; /* Blocks the background image from showing through the cracks */
ul li a {
    background: transparent url(overlay.png) repeat; /* Semi-transparent PNG lets the background image show through. */
    color: #fff;
    display: block;
    line-height: 20px;
    padding: 0 10px 2px;
    text-decoration: none;
    padding-top: 100px;
ul li a:hover, ul li a.selected {
    background: transparent;

Admittedly there are limitations with this method. First, the area around the menu must be a solid colour (unless you use a border-image, which doesn’t have enough browser support yet). Also, the entire menu needs to be floated, so you might have to do some clearing to make it work with your layout.

As always, if you can make this code better or know someone else who has, please let me know in the comments!

It's too easy just to fall apart Fri, 18 Mar 2011 17:52:00 -0400 This is the new TV commercial for Joe Fresh Style, a clothing company owned by the Loblaws chain of supermarkets. Like the time that I blogged about Canwest, I saw this advertisement and immediately realised that something wasn’t right.

The music for this commercial is the song “You, Me and the Bourgeoisie” by The Submarines. It’s a wonderful song and I’ve tweeted about its inspiring and challenging lyrics. Here’s the chorus and a couple of the verses:

Oh my baby don’t be so distressed
Were done with politesse
It’s time to be so brutally honest about
The way we think long for something fine
When we pine for higher ceilings
And bourgeois happy feelings

And here we are with the pleasures of the first world
It’s laid out before us, who are we to break down?
Everyday we wake up
We choose Love
We choose light
And we try, it’s too easy just to fall apart

Plastic bottles, imported water
Cars we drive wherever we want to
Clothes we buy it’s sweatshop labor
Drugs from corporate enablers
We’re not living the good life
Unless we’re fighting the good fight
You and Me just trying to get it right

In the center of the first world
It’s laid out before us, who are we to break down?
Everyday we wake up
We choose Love
We choose light
And we try, it’s too easy just to fall apart

Love can free us from all excess
From our deepest debts
Cause when our hearts are full we need much less

(full lyrics)

As I said, it’s a beautiful song. It’s an anthemic call to action for our materialistic, consumer-driven society to eschew these “pleasures of the first world” because “when our hearts are full we need much less”.

Needless to say, I’m dismayed that this song is now being piped through our TV sets to endorse a line of budget clothes made in Bangladesh. Loblaws doesn’t mention Joe Fresh Style at all in its corporate social responsibility targets - the company has made great strides with organic and local food, but this line of clothing is the same crap that gets pushed out of South Asian factories to Wal-Mart and Zellers.

With this in mind, the commercial doesn’t even make sense. It’d be like playing John Lennon in a recruiting advertisement for the Armed Forces. I’m a little hurt because when I hear that song, it’s a personal challenge to resist consumerism and live with love. Pairing those lyrics with an ad for Joe Fresh Style makes me think that the band must have lost its moral compass - and that the lyrics are less genuine because of it. Sellouts.

I’m equally disappointed with Loblaws, who thought that just because they throw in a catchy song, people will buy their crap clothes. The advertisement splices the song into an unoffending 15-second clip, whitewashing its true meaning. Corporate greed knows no bounds.

Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends. Mon, 14 Mar 2011 02:33:00 -0400 The title of this post, a famous quote from Lewis Mumford, just about sums up my feelings after attending an information session about the City of Waterloo’s new proposed rental bylaw.

If you’re a resident of Waterloo and haven’t heard of the proposed bylaw changes, read up on it here and then send the city staff an email with your feedback. We need as many people as possible engaged in this issue.

While I agree with most of the proposed changes, there’s one part of the report that I’m not happy about. The proposed bylaw will require anyone who rents out a room to get a license. I’m fine with that, but one of the prerequisites for this license (as I understand it) is to provide at least 1 parking spot for each unit on the premises.

At the consultation meeting I went to, Director of Bylaw Enforcement Jim Barry held a wonderful Q&A session where I asked why the provision of parking is necessary in a rental bylaw. The way I see it, the city and the region are both encouraging dense, intensified development and investing heavily in our public transit systems. My concern was that these parking spaces might become gaping holes in the urban fabric along future transit corridors, such as Erb Street.

Mr. Barry’s response was that the demand for parking is actually increasing, not decreasing, and that this requirement would prevent people from parking willy-nilly on their front lawns for example, which would be a bylaw violation. Fair enough points, but I have some further concerns after having mulled this issue over in my head for a few days.

In my mind, the parking requirement should have nothing to do with the rental bylaw. A rental bylaw is not the appropriate place to lay out traffic policy. What is relevant in the rental bylaw is issues that directly affect the well-being of tenants (such as the fire code). But this parking requirement seems superfluous, considering a large chunk of renters in Waterloo are students who don’t own cars.

I would advocate for leaving the parking issue up to the discretion of landlords. Not all renters require a parking space, and for some tenants, that space may be more attractive as an outdoor amenity space for barbecues or patio parties.

Mr. Barry says that the demand for parking space is rising. But I have the feeling that it will decline in a few years once the region’s rapid transit grid starts to mature. This part of the proposed bylaw will become obsolete when there are more transportation options available.

For this reason, I would keep traffic policy separate from rental policy. The city’s zoning and traffic laws are better-suited to respond to the parking issue than a rental bylaw. The worst case down the road would be to have a redevelopment project stymied by an archaic clause in the rental bylaw that requires a slab of bare concrete on every rental property.

To sum up, this parking requirement doesn’t belong in the rental bylaw, and it contradicts the city’s progressive work towards better mobility for all its inhabitants.

The numbers don't lie Fri, 11 Mar 2011 15:50:00 -0500 Take a look at these three statements. They’re conclusions that myself and others have made about the results of a survey that asked students, among other things, if they support the incorporation of a Starbucks franchise into the new EV3 building.

“Majority of respondents don’t support Starbucks in EV3”

“Majority of respondents are in favour of or ambivalent to Starbucks in EV3”

“Student opinion is split on Starbucks in EV3”

You really can use statistics to prove anything. For clarity’s sake, here’s the actual breakdown of responses:

How do you feel about having a Starbucks franchise in EV3? Number of respondents Percentage of total*
I support it 250 42.5%
I don’t support it 236 40.1%
I don’t care 99 16.8%
No response 3 0.5%

*adds to 99.9% due to rounding

Now that you know the numbers, which statement from above is the most fair? I would say the third one best represents the numbers. It’s clear that no one opinion has a majority. So the first two statements above are misleading because they co-opt the “don’t care” category by implying that it supports one of the first two responses.

It’s inappropriate to add the “don’t care” category with one of the other responses and say that the majority of students “support or are ambivalent to Starbucks”. By the same token, saying that the majority “don’t support Starbucks” because the three last responses are not explicitly in support of Starbucks is equally inappropriate.

So when drawing conclusions from this, or from any poll where there is a large block of undecideds, only make statements about the people that have actually made up their minds. So it’s most appropriate to calculate the results as a percentage of decided respondents. This way, it becomes 51% for “I support it”, and 49% for “I don’t support it”. That’s a very different picture than declaring victory for one side or the other.

Side note: this particular set of questions is flawed from the start because the responses are not mutually exclusive. I can not care and at the same time not support a Starbucks in EV3. A better set of responses would be “Support”, “Oppose”, or “Don’t Care”. That way, “oppose” is equally forceful as “support”.

Video: a new song from Monday's show Wed, 09 Mar 2011 15:57:00 -0500 On Monday night, I played a set at Sweet Dreams Tea Shop. They have wonderful bubble tea and board games in their lovely little cafe. I played a bunch of new songs that I had written in Europe, and this is one of them. It’s called Hello World.

(Sorry the audio quality isn’t great.)

Amn Dawla: Is Egypt another France, Russia, or Germany? Tue, 08 Mar 2011 01:48:00 -0500 The accounts from bloggers and tweeters out of Egypt today are absolutely fascinating. Thousands of protestors have converged on the Amn Dawla (State
Security) Headquarters in Cairo’s Nasr City neighbourhood:

“Tonight Egyptian protesters managed not to only to encircle the fearful building by thousands but they have also entered it for the first time not as detainees blindfolded but actually as victorious revolutionaries who had enough from that castle of terrorists.” - Egyptian Chronicles

I won’t waste my breath telling you what’s happening, as there are already lots of on-the-ground accounts, first-hand videos, and news stories. What I want to focus on is where this could be going.

When I heard the news and saw a couple of the first-hand videos, I was amazed at how peaceful everyone seemed to be. Sure, there was lots of yelling and people running about, but that seemed to be more a case of excitement than aimless looting and plundering. After all, if you were suddenly inside the secret police headquarters, with free access to secret files, videotapes, and equipment, wouldn’t you be excited? In fact, the only destructive behaviour I saw in these videos was the forcing open of doors into offices where documents were held. Check it out:

But, back to my original question, where is this going? I haven’t the faintest clue, but a few possibilities have popped up in my head. This moment - the storming of a formerly repressive institution - has been a turning point for many a revolution. Let’s take a look at some examples from history.

First, France. In July 1789, the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris was ransacked by protestors who stocked up on weapons. This led to the storming of the Bastille, which, speaking broadly, ended in bloodshed. Needless to say, I don’t want another Robespierre followed by Napoleon in Egypt.

Second, Russia. The Bolsheviks’ looting of the Tsar’s Winter Palace in 1917 didn’t cause much bloodshed (compared to the French example), but it was definitely intended as a violent confrontation. Had the cossacks not handed over the palace so easily, many more would have died. This day was a defining point in Soviet history, laying the groundwork for the murderous, autocratic reign of Stalin.

Third, Germany. On January 15, 1990, protestors broke into the Stasi headquarters in East Berlin and basically started trashing the place. The destruction was short-lived, as peaceful protestors gradually convinced their fellow dissenters to stay peaceful and keep a cool head. As in Egypt, much of the documentation had already been shredded by the secret police.

Of these three examples, I think Germany’s most closely resembles Egypt’s situation. And I hope the Egyptian revolution will come to a similar conclusion. Twenty years later, Germany is widely regarded as a global leader in their economy, manufacturing, and alternative energy, and standard of living. Egypt was once the centre of the world’s innovation in art, science, religion, and culture. Let’s hope Egypt gets restored to its former glory from the bottom up.

Coffeehouse concerts coming up! Thu, 03 Mar 2011 17:28:00 -0500 Hey everyone,

Just a quick shout out that I’m going to be playing at two events in the next few days:

Blackforest Annual Coffeehouse (St. Paul’s, UW)
Friday at 7:00 PM (Tomorrow!), my set is at 11:00 PM
Tickets: $7 at the door
Facebook event:
Google map:’s+college,+university+of+waterloo

Sweet Dreams Tea Shop Open Mic Night (Campus Plaza, Waterloo)
Monday at 8:30 PM, my set is at 11:00 PM
Free admission
Facebook event:
Google map:,-80.538818833333

That’s it! Hope to see you at one of the shows - I’ve got a lot of new material and you won’t want to miss it!

The anarcho-libertarian paradox Thu, 03 Mar 2011 17:02:00 -0500 Our Canadian parliamentary democracy is a slow, crippled, corrupt beast. It’s a threadbare patchwork of centuries-old traditions and bureaucratic roadblocks. But, to quote Churchill, “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)

The content of this post will be a mashup of one of my videoblogs and a letter to the editor I wrote last year. I haven’t been writing much in the past few weeks, since I was on vacation and then moving into my new place in Waterloo. I’m recording some new tunes so I’ll have some music stuff to share with you soon!

The anarchist-libertarian political identity is appealing, even fashionable, among youths and young adults because it lets you oppose everything without having to actually come up with a better alternative.

Max Weber, the German economist and sociologist, first coined the term “monopoly on violence” to define a state’s raison d’être. Though Weber intended this statement as purely an observation, anarcho-libertarians have used this concept to argue that there is a universal systematic oppression by governments upon their own citizens and foreign countries through the military and police force. Though it may be true is some cases, the simple existence of government doesn’t mean that it will use force to oppress its people.

Anarchy in a nutshell is this: whatever the government does, private citizens can do better. I don’t agree, because in my mind, such a system would implode fantastically. The privatization of public services necessitates a profit motive. This profit motive could be currency, but my illustration works under a barter system too. So when you combine a profit motive with zero regulation, there’s no way ordinary people can get transparent information.

Let’s take health care as an example. If you go to your family doctor, or the emergency room, you can be fairly confident that the clinic or hospital has passed a set of publicly-available health regulations. You can look at your doctor’s licence and be satisfied that she went through the appropriate training to be an expert in medicine (the requirements of which are publicly available). You may not agree with the regulations that the government imposes on the medical profession, but at least you can know exactly what they are and vote to change them.

In the anarcho-libertarian system, you have two options: blind trust in your doctor (whose motive is profit and not your well-being), or, if you yourself are a medical expert, you can ably discern where to go for good treatment. Therein lies the problem of anarchy: you must become an expert at everything. All the responsibilities taken on by 308 Members of Parliament working full-time have to be internalised by each and every individual in a purely libertarian economy. Frankly, I don’t think that’s desirable nor possible. The only logical result is that lots of people will get swindled and taken advantage of by profit-seeking businesses masquerading as social services.

One more anecdote: when Stephen Harper prorogued parliament in 2008 and 2010, there was a cry of jubilation from the libertarian segment of the right wing. Obviously, less government seemed to be a good thing. But the irony is, there wasn’t actually less government during the prorogations. Parliament was prorogued, not Harper’s government staff. What this means is the Conservative party was able to work unfettered by such trivialities as defending their decisions in question period or seeking approval from the opposition parties. Far from diminishing government, prorogation allowed the work of government to steamroll ahead without any checks and balances.

As fashionable as it is to rebel against “the man”, I seriously doubt Canada needs a revolution. What we do need is an evolution of our democracy, changes to our constitution, and a truly representative parliament.

Frankly, what we need most of all is for young people to actually give a damn and vote. But more on that in a later post.

Liveblogging the EV3 Town Hall Discussion Wed, 16 Feb 2011 23:01:00 -0500 At 12:00 noon on Wednesday February 16th, Interim Dean Mark Seasons held a town hall meeting to discuss developments in issues that affect the Faculty of Environment. I live-tweeted the event, but here is a more detailed (and structured) account of what happened.

People starting filling up the empty seats in the EV1 courtyard at around 11:45, but not everyone was there for the Town Hall. Most people were eating lunch or working on their assignments, oblivious to the Town Hall meeting about to take place. This turnout was a marked departure from the last town hall I attended (regarding changes to the Environment degree programs), when the room was filled to the brim with concerned students.

Flyers were strewn around the courtyard, highlighting Howard Schultz’s connection with pro-Israeli political groups. The message was basically that buying Starbucks coffee contributes to the occupation of Palestine and the egregious human rights abuses that the Palestinian people suffer. The flyers reminded me of Bogdan Caradima’s opinion peice that appeared in the Imprint a couple weeks ago.

Three issues were on the agenda: space allocation for researchers and grad students, the proposed Starbucks location in EV3, and details of the EV3 building itself. Mark Seasons tackled space allocation first, saying “space is a big political issue for us, internally.” A space committee will be formed with representatives from undergrad and grad students to allocate the scarce space fairly. The final decision on space allocation stays with the Dean though.

There was no further debate on space allocation, so we moved on to Starbucks. UW Food Services is in the process of hammering out an agreement with Starbucks. However, Starbucks is taking issue with a couple clauses regarding competition. It doesn’t want anyone else selling food in EV3, and is stalling negotiations. Apparently it is normal for large corporations like Starbucks to have non-compete clauses in their agreements with institutions.

Because of this rigmarole, UW Food services is looking for alternatives to Starbucks. Which is shocking to hear, because we were led to believe months ago that the selection committee had done its job and Starbucks won the contract. Other options are now being considered. One suggestion is to have a cafe similar to the Eco Fresh fairtrade cafe in the accounting building. However, such a cafe would compete directly with ESS coffeeshop. Mark Seasons is clear on this point: ”The bottom line is, we don’t want to compromise the ESS coffeeshop viability.”

At this point, debate from the pro-Palestinian lobby starts to heat up. Seasons understands their opposition to Howard Schultz, but sees it as a separate issue from Starbucks’ corporate policy. “Do you hold CEOs accountable for how they spend their own money?” He goes on to explain that all corporations come with some political baggage.

The concerns about Starbucks’ implicit affiliation with Israel persist. The pro-Palestinian attendees say that by boycotting Starbucks, we can encourage corporate policy changes and prevent Starbucks’ profit from being funnelled to human rights abusers.

Seasons reiterates that we can find fault with all corporate franchises. “If we think American companies are ghastly imperialists rampaging around the world, how do we deal with American companies? The bottom line is that people will choose what they want to consume.” Basically, if you don’t agree with Starbucks’ involvement with Israel, don’t buy from there. “There are different constituencies that I have to listen to,” says Seasons. “I’m not going to roll over and concede to special interest groups, because that’s no way to run an administration.”

The pro-Palestinian attendees continued to push for a Starbucks boycott: “Think about the added value at the end of stopping this occupation,” said one. Another added, “If the Faculty accepts Starbucks, we are showing our support for oppressive regimes.”

So far, the discussion has been a back-and forth between the pro-palestinian attendees and Seasons. He explains again that the Israeli issue is not about Starbucks corporate policy, but about the private investment of its CEO. “If Howard Schultz sold his shares, would you still oppose Starbucks?” Seasons contends that the issue is not with the corporation as a whole. Furthermore,”we don’t want to be seen as anti-corporate, because the University needs corporate money to survive.”

Finally, some counter-debate from another attendee, who was involved with the Food Services selection committee. He pointed out that a less environmentally sustainable franchise like Second Cup or Timothy’s would cause more of an uproar with the Faculty of Environment. The truth is, Starbucks has the best enviromental record of any major coffee chain. And environmental sustainability is, by definition, a core value of this faculty.

It’s good to see the debate move away from the Israel/Palestine issue. Another attendee says that Starbucks has created their own fair trade label that competes with established fairtrade-organic standards, so there are ethical concerns with this kind of smokescreen. We shouldn’t just take Starbucks at its word that it’s doing a good job.

Others have mentioned that we shouldn’t even be considering a corporate franchise if we want to stay true to the values of environmentalism. But painful as it is, Starbucks is the best option right now. We need a food outlet ready to go by September. Another independent coffeeshop would put the ESS coffeeshop out of business. And there is no better alternative as of yet. That’s why Mark Seasons has ordered a broader search for alternative food outlets.

The discussion moves on to the negotiations. Food Services tried to get the EV3 Starbucks to serve exclusively fair trade products. Starbucks has promised that they will always have a fair trade option, but not exclusively. For example, the espresso beans that they use for North America are not fair trade, and neither is their signature coffee. But Starbucks refuses not to sell those products. Other concessions like using china dishes and implementing a composting system were accepted by Starbucks. As it stands, 40% of the product line will be fair trade.

A GLOW director who was following my updates on Twitter asked for me to put forth a question about the EV3 building itself. We had been talking about Starbucks for the better part of an hour and I was glad to introduce a new topic. The question was whether or not EV3 would include gender-neutral bathrooms. This is a huge issue for the transgender community, and one that is extremely important in light of the proposed changes to Canada’s Human Rights Act to include explicit protection against discrimination of transgender and transsexual people. Mark Seasons replied that EV3 will not have gender neutral bathrooms, nor is it possible to put it on the negotiating table “at this stage”.

After some redundant debate about Israel-Palestine, one executive from the ESS coffeeshop pointed out that while there are human rights concerns about Starbucks’ support for Israel, most people “won’t have it on their radar” and just think that the coffee tastes good. Similarly, Seasons summed up the feelings of a large chunk of the people in attendance by stating that ”this has become a divisive issue that is taking up more time than it’s worth.”

We were almost out of time when another issue was raised about the Starbucks negotiations: do we even need more coffee shops? How about actual food outlets? Come to think of it, I’d much rather a Booster Juice or pita shop or sushi bar than another coffeeshop in EV3. We already have the ESS coffeeshop, multiple Tim Horton’s, and all the other faculty-run coffeeshops on campus. Why not try something different? Seasons replied that UW Food Services thinks that the Starbucks is viable, and that it’ll do a lot of business seeing as it’s right on Ring Road and lots of people will be walking through the building to and from the Colleges. However, Seasons said he would consider broadening the search for alternative establishments so it’s more than just coffeeshops.

At 1:15 PM, Mark Seasons adjourned the meeting. “I’m hungry, so I’m going to leave.” It’s a pity he can’t go to a sushi bar in EV3 to have his lunch. Hopefully that’ll change.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword Mon, 07 Feb 2011 21:02:00 -0500 I’m pretty extreme in my views on pacifism. I believe that violence is unacceptable in any situation, no exceptions. I’ve had conversations with people over the years about this, but I feel like I should write down my thoughts in a somewhat coherent blog post. Most people don’t like violence. It’s obviously not the best way to go about settling disputes or expressing your opinion. When I ask people what their views on violence are, typical responses range from “It depends on the context” to “It’s a necessary evil that needs to be used sometimes as a last resort”. As a pacifist, I am categorically, unconditionally opposed to the use of violence for any purpose whatsoever. Non-violence as taught by Jesus Religion has been a huge motivator for war over the centuries, and it pains me to see systematic, strategic violence carried out in the name of God. A central theme in the New Testament is humility, which I think is a cornerstone of Christian faith (Luke 14:11, Matthew 23:12, Luke 18:14). As a Christian, I am called to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29). I am called not to exact revenge on wrongdoers, but to love them unconditionally (Luke 6:32, Matthew 5:46). When Judas brought “a crowd armed with swords and clubs” (Mark 14:43) to sieze and arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword and attacked the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. John writes that this gang of thugs was carrying “torches, lanterns, and weapons”. They were on a witch hunt, and they wanted blood. But Jesus admonished Peter for using violence, even in self-defence: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Jesus commands his followers to deny themselves, and to take up their cross daily. I really like the way that The Message translation interprets it: “Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.” (Matthew 16:25) This theme of self-sacrifice, of submission, is a defining characteristic of the early Church. When the apostles were beaten by the Jewish leaders for teaching the Gospel (Acts 5), they were “full of joy because they were given the honour of suffering disgrace for Jesus.” No, God didn’t protect them from suffering. Good things happen to bad people. And we’re called to submit joyfully. (For a more eloquent article about Christian nonviolence, check out Jesus: The Prince of Peace by Keith Giles.) So you just lie down and take it? When I tell people I have a zero tolerance policy for violence, one of the arguments I often hear is something along the lines of: “Yeah, but what if some thug was beating up your best friend? What if someone had a knife to your throat? Are you just going to stand and do nothing?” I must say, I’ve never found myself in such a situation so I can’t guarantee I’d stick to my convictions. But I’d like to think that I would. Let me first explain what violence is, and what it isn’t, according to the Sam Nabi Dictionary of Subjective Meaning. Violence, for the purposes of this blog post, is a physical action with intent to harm. Self-defence (or defending a friend) does not excuse the intent to harm another human being. But pacifism is not just standing by while injustice happens before my eyes. While I wouldn’t hit an aggressor over the head with a frying pan, I would try to dissuade and restrain him. If simple reason and level-headed discussion doesn’t stop someone from committing a violent act, my last resort would be a defensive physical act. I’m talking a bear-hug, full-nelson, or other technique that can be used to immobilize the aggressor without causing pain (I wasn’t on my high school wrestling team for nothing!). Without causing pain is the key factor here. My goal is not to punish the person or exact revenge, but simply to prevent him from hurting someone else. From this position, I can cool the situation down, let everyone take a deep breath, and possibly make the target more receptive to a conversation. But the moment I take advantage of the situation to “get even” by putting a little too much pressure on a headlock, I’ve failed at pacifism. Obviously, there’s a microscopically thin line between what I call a defensive action and an intent to harm. But the difference is there, and intent makes all the difference. Stopping someone from using violence doesn’t mean I have to use it myself. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as a wise man once said. What about the death penalty? I firmly believe that nobody is irreversibly evil. Everyone can change. And someone who has committed terrible acts of violence should not be defined by those acts. Someone who has taken another’s life is not just a murderer. She is also a daughter, a mother perhaps, a friend, a music enthusiast, a citizen, a child of God. The word “murderer” makes it seem like their entire being is defined by a single act of murder. We need to look at people as individuals. Individuals with hopes, dreams, regrets, and a complex history that makes them who they are. No criminal is beyond rehabilitation. For this reason I oppose the death penalty. Capital punishment is just the institutionalisation of our primal, sinful gut-reaction to violence - an eye for an eye. It is reactionary, encourages hysteria, and degrades human beings by treating them like killing machines. Yeah, but pacifism doesn’t actually work. Violence is a logical, instinctive reaction when confronted with an aggressor. It’s fight or flight, and there doesn’t appear to be a third way. But there is. By responding to violence with violence, what’s to say I won’t make the situation worse, provoking further retaliation? Even if I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, resorting to violence is such an unpredictable path to go down. Maybe I’ll succeed in knocking the aggressor unconscious. But maybe I’ll further endanger the lives of those around me. The pacifist approach has its uncertainties too - who’s to say an aggressor is going to engage in rational dialogue? But the odds of success are probably about the same. In the same way that violence could work for stopping the aggressor, so too could non-violent conflict resolution. What about oppressive regimes? One last thought on war and violent conflicts: many a revolution has overturned the powers that be through the use of violence. These revolutions can be swift, decisive, and end up with a lot of martyrs. The problem with this is that the healing process takes a very long time. Gradual, peaceful social change takes longer to achieve the end result (if there even is a such thing as an end result), but I’m willing to wait if it means preventing the bloodshed of my brothers and sisters. Alright. That’s enough ranting. I wasn’t as coherent as I had planned, but hopefully you got something out of it. Did I stir the pot enough? Leave a comment and let me know what you think! (Edit: looks like comments aren’t working at the moment. I’m on it.)]]> Water water water loo loo loo Tue, 01 Feb 2011 15:44:00 -0500 I’ve been away from the UW campus for almost 10 months now, and though I’ve had lots of new experiences working and studying in other cities, I’m really glad to be going back home soon.

Yes, home. I think of K-W as my home more so than my parents’ houses. My dad moved to a new apartment while I was working in Toronto, so I now have no family left in Whitby. And I never had much connection to Port Perry, where my mum lives.

I’ve been reminiscing about all the things that have happened while I was away from Waterloo, like:

  • The Campus Plaza fire
  • The Groupvestor/Mel’s Diner fundraising debacle (man, that one really backfired)
  • The Queen’s visit
  • Governor General David Johnston
  • Municipal elections and the fluoride referendum
  • FedS disbanding CASA
  • Nikki Best getting misquoted in Maclean’s
  • Mark Seasons shaving off his facial hair
  • The EV3 Starbucks debate
  • The LRT rally
  • That incognito guy (what was he doing, anyway?)
  • FedS election campaigning

Of course, I was kept up to date via Facebook and Twitter, but it’s just not the same as being there. To be honest, the Université de Lausanne has less community spirit than UW, almost zero student clubs, and after spending five months with its 1970s techno-paradise architecture, I’m ready for a change. Maybe if the University was still in its beautiful original downtown building, I’d have warmer feelings about the institution.

I love my school, I love my city, and I can’t wait to be back where I belong.

Whatever happened to Newfie jokes? Fri, 28 Jan 2011 09:26:00 -0500 I can remember specific events in my life that have triggered societal change. Whether on a global scale or just within my circle of friends, these are events that I look back on and recall exactly where I was and what I was thinking at the time. Y2K. The 9/11 bombings. The day Pokémon stopped being cool. Sex Ed class in grade six. The 2003 blackout.

On the other hand, there are social norms that have changed slowly over time, without me noticing, until one day I think back and say, “Hey, whatever happened to… ?”.

I had a moment like that a couple weeks ago. Newfie jokes. Whatever happened to Newfie jokes? Have I lived through a social change in Canadian culture without noticing?

I can recall with clarity a point in my life when it was socially acceptable to tell a Newfie joke. I could crack a punchline about a cod fisherman to my friends, my babysitter, my parents, my friends’ parents, or my parents’ friends without getting scolded. One particular Newfie joke from my dad’s childhood became a family favourite when my sister and I were young.

So this phenomenon wasn’t a generation-specific thing that I outgrew, like jokes about poop. It also isn’t part of the cadre of jokes that are still widely used (though recognized as distasteful) like ones about keeping women in the kitchen.

Somewhere over the last ten years, though, it seems like Newfie jokes have migrated from silly humour to the league of the N-word and comparisons to Hitler: you just don’t go there.

I’m not pining for the day when I could spout off Newfie jokes without consequence - it’s a great development for our country that we’ve stopped marginalizing one province in our humour. But how did it happen, exactly? Did Canadians just collectively stop thinking Newfie jokes were funny? Or has the character of Newfoundland changed?

In the before times, I thought of Newfoundland as the province of quirky folk music and the hopeless cod fisheries. Now, when I think of Newfoundland, I think of General Rick Hillier, the offshore oil boom, and the populist, Harper-bashing political success of Danny Williams. Perhaps Newfoundlanders have beat down their old status as a have-not province through sheer pluckiness, overturning the old perceptions about its inhabitants.

I must say, I haven’t felt the need to tell a Newfie joke in years. It’s like forgetting that vanilla ice cream exists, and upon rediscovering it, thinking, “Oh well, it wasn’t that exciting anyway”. The country has moved on, whether or not I noticed the change.

Maybe there’s just a greater sense of national unity now than in the mid-to-late nineties. After all, Quebec’s 1995 referendum was fresh in the Canadian public’s mind and could have been a factor in pitting the provinces against one another.

I’ll just venture one more theory: my parents’ generation was born just after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. Perhaps some of them would have seen Newfoundlanders as less Canadian than the rest of us, the odd little province that joined Confederation 50 years too late, stuck onto Canada’s tail with their fiddleheads and half-hour time difference. But by the time my parents’ generation had kids, Newfoundland had been a part of Canada for long enough to give it equal status. And when my generation started to leave home in the late aughts, there was no reason to carry those prejudices with us.

At any rate, I’m just musing. I have no clue why or why not Newfie jokes have stopped being funny. All I know is, it’s a good thing.

Now, I wonder how long it’ll take for us to grow tired of American jokes?

3D box effect with CSS Tue, 25 Jan 2011 09:27:00 -0500 (For the impatient, here’s the link to the live demo with source files.)

While we wait (and wait… and wait…) for CSS3 to be implemented across all the major browsers, I thought I’d post my method for creating a 3D box effect using plain old CSS2 and less than 300 bytes of images. Of course, the border-image property will eventually make this method obsolete, but who knows when that will be?

First, a caveat: with this method, you need to specify a fixed width and size the images accordingly. A fluid width version wouldn’t be too hard to do, but it would involve some nested divs and more images.

Take a look at the screenshot above. The box is made up of 3 divs (I know, I’m cringing too, but I couldn’t find a simpler way of doing it without relying too much on images). Here’s the html:

<div class="box-top"> </div>
    <div class="box-content">
        <h1>Content Title</h1>
        <p>Content goes here.</p>
<div class="box-bottom"> </div>

These are the only two images you need (source files here):

And now for the CSS to pull it all together:

.box-content {
    width: 180px;
    background-color: #FEFF91;
    margin: 0;
    padding: 1px 10px; /* Top and bottom values cannot be zero */
    border-left: 20px solid #D8D97C;
.box-top, .box-bottom {
    height: 20px;
    width: 220px;
    background: #FEFF91 url(box-top.gif) no-repeat;
    margin: 0;
    padding: 0;
.box-bottom {
    background-image: url(box-bottom.gif);
h1 {
    margin: -15px 0 0 0;

Easy! If you want to see a live demo and download the source files, check it out here. It’s really easy to change the colours of the images with the paint bucket tool in Photoshop (or even Microsoft Paint, whatever).

Straight Outta Saxony Thu, 20 Jan 2011 22:57:00 -0500 So I spent a week in and around Dresden with my uncle’s family over the Christmas/New Year holiday, during which I wrote a long poem-turned-rap about everything that we had gone to see and do. I just had time to record it today. I think I hit all the major points!


It’s your boy S-Nabs
Straight outta saxony

Hangin’ in the Neustadt, phasebook in hand
Hot chocolate on the menu is the only thing I understand
I’ve got this far with “danke” and “gutentag”
Finding some creative ways of avoiding dialogue
German radio is playing hits from seven years ago
I flip through Der Spiegel like I understand the articles
Sitting in a cafe trying not to give away
The fact that I’m a tourist so I smile and nod and look away
Two euros seventy, lay it on the counter
Then I walk around the block and see what I encounter
Four-storey buildings, ground floor retail
Cobblestone pedestrian streets right up near the light rail
You can take a Saturday, walk around randomly
Find yourself a music shop, pool hall, or bakery
There’s so much do to here, it’s already sunset
I haven’t even crossed the river to the other side yet

In Dresden, saxon city where dreams are made, oh
There’s nothing you can’t do
Now you’re in Dresden, after all that it’s been through
This city will thrill you
Only in Dresden, Dresden, Dresden…

Now we’re rockin’ Bautzen, upstream on the Elbe
Lookin’ at medieval buildings that survived the decay
Back in GDR times, yeah those were the hard times
Sorbian families were displaced to dig a coal mine
Day trippin’ to Leipzig home of revolutionary
Students in the eighties, lookin’ back it’s kinda crazy
Stasi informers, brick wall borders
Two-stroke cars with cardboard doors
Killing off the memory of the former bourgeoisie
Tough luck if you got West German family
But now we’re rockin’ Beemers, Porches from Stuttgart
Cruisin’ down the autobahn until we reach the ausfahrt
Now we’re on the country road headed to the Bastei
Sandstone mountains are a climber’s favourite pastime
And we got that old bridge overlooking everything
Hidden in the forest like it’s something from Lord of the Rings


Now we’re at the Frauenkirche, landmark of the city
Blackened bricks recall the darkest time of modern history
And we got the Opera House, known internationally
Even if Americans think that it’s a distillery
Now we’re down in Pragerstrasse, rebuilt and remodeled
People walkin’, shoppin’, talkin’, poppin’ champagne bottles
This is what it looks like, risen from the wreckage
Dresdeners, get that dirt off your shoulder
For you romantics, go and take a long walk
Down the River Elbe you’ll see churches with their big clocks
Top of the hour listen to the bells ring
Over the whole city like a disembodied choir singing
Take a look around, son, all this baroque architecture
Didn’t come by chance son, this is Europe’s cultural center
Small pubs and museums, treasures in the green room
Tributes to Augustus the Strong I know that you’ll see ‘em


So if you’re touring Europe, don’t bother with Rome
Or the south coast of France ‘cause you might as well stay home
Come on up to Dresden, it’s more interestin’
Better than a weekend in Munich Oktoberfestin’


Bikes and buses: friends or foes? Sun, 16 Jan 2011 21:01:00 -0500 I had some time to kill at the Lausanne metro station today, so like a good planning student I read the fine print of the Lausanne Public Transit bike policy (they had a poster on the wall). It is astonishingly different from what I had expected. Here’s the relevant part, translated from French (original here).

Cyclists already have one method of transportation at their disposal; therefore, public transit is an alternate form of transport for them … At morning and evening rush hour, it is nearly impossible to board our vehicles with a bicycle. Cyclists must be conscious of these constraints.

Compare that to the policy of Grand River Transit, which has installed bike racks on the front of all its buses:

Combine the energizing activity of cycling with the convenience of GRT. You will find a bike rack on every GRT bus. Each rack holds two bikes of most sizes and styles. If the bike rack is full you may board the bus with your bike. Make bus ‘n’ bike your convenient choice - for your health, your pocketbook and your environment!

Notice the diametrically opposed ideology of the two transit operators. Lausanne sees cycling as an isolated method of travel, parallel to (and incompatible with) the bus and metro network. GRT, on the other hand, recognizes that cycling is not always a substitute for a long bus ride - and that the bus network can mesh seamlessly with the bike network to give travelers continuity between modes of transportation.

I find this particularly astonishing because Lausanne has such good coordination between other modes of public transportation - bus, light rail, and commuter train - with concentrated nodes that make it easy to transfer and get where you need to go. It even has a city-wide bike sharing program; one would think the cycling network should be built into its overall transit strategy a little better.

All's Well That Ends Well Fri, 14 Jan 2011 02:07:00 -0500 I’m now typing from the comfort of my bedroom in Lausanne, following a series of unfortunate events last Monday that left my travel plans tattered and useless. I am happy to report that I did arrive in Brussels on the scheduled train from Cologne without a hitch, but that’s not to say the rest of my journey home was uneventful!

The Bruxelles-Midi train station, where I found myself late on Monday evening, is not the image of Brussels that one expects. There were no diplomats speedwalking through the station with their little black travel briefcases, flanked by co-workers or bodyguards. There were no black limousines at the station entrances ready to welcome high-ranking politicians to the city of the EU headquarters.

The station was pretty grungy, and as the shops in the station started to lock up their chain-link gates and turn out the lights, I realised this was probably not a place I would want to spend the night. Through a convoluted series of attempts to place a phone call including the purchase of a defective SIM card, a rejected credit card at the phone booth, and wireless internet that wouldn’t let me use my VoIP, I finally got a hold of the people I was supposed to meet in London that night to tell them that I would have to take the first train the following morning instead.

Then I called my dad, who is an obsessive collector of points programs. I had got in touch with him in Cologne, and he had told me that if I needed a place to stay in Brussels, he had enough points to put me up in a hotel near the train station for the night. I usually give him a hard time about being shackled to corporate loyalty programs, but in this case I must concede that it proved to be useful.

The following morning I was back at the station bright and early to catch the 6:50 AM Eurostar. We zipped through Lille and Calais before crossing the channel to London. Upon stepping off the train, I noticed a gaggle of security guards milling about the exit, cherry-picking “random” passengers to question before leaving the station. As I approached the archway, a burly man in a white and black security uniform called me over. I noticed that a young man from Tunisia had just been called over by another guard. Yes, those being questioned were mainly young men, travelling alone, with an above-average melanin content. I think it was the first time I’ve been consciously profiled.

The security guard had an uncanny resemblance in both appearance and demeanor to Vernon Scripps, which lightened the mood considerably (for me at least). He asked if I was travelling alone. I said yes and handed over my Swedish passport.

“Samuel Nabi, eh? Doesn’t sound very Swedish to me,” the guard mused.

I explained that my mother is Swedish, and probably went into more detail than I needed to. “You see, The name is from my dad’s side, but I’m a Swedish citizen too. My Dad was born here, actually. Well, not here here. In Liverpool. But I’ve never lived in England. I’m actually living in Switzerland right now, for a term studying abroad. But that’s not where I live full-time. Originally I’m from Canada.” I paused to catch my breath, trying to decide if what I had just said made me look like I was running an international drug cartel.

“Very well, what are you studying?” He asked. When I told him urban planning, he looked confused. “Urban planning? Do they allow that?”


“The Swiss. Do they allow urban planning? I’ve heard they’re very strict with that sort of thing.” I was just as puzzled as he seemed to be, so I answered cautiously that yes, urban planning is allowed in Switzerland.

He moved on to questions about the purpose of my trip. I told him I would just be in London for a couple days to visit some friends.

“Oh yeah, goin’ to hit the pubs with yer mates, are yeh? Goin’ to have a laugh?”

“Well, they’re family friends - I don’t think we’ll be hitting many pubs. I haven’t seen them in a while though, and it’ll be good to catch up.”

“Right, right then. Comin’ to London to have a laugh with your friends, then?” He seemed really adamant about me having a laugh with my friends. So I gave a vague, non-committal answer and he handed me my ID back. “Right then, off you go.”

What a strange welcome to the city.

Lost in Translation Mon, 10 Jan 2011 17:03:00 -0500 Well, this is interesting. When I booked my train trip from Dresden to London - with connections in Hanover, Cologne, and Brussels - I knew it was complicated but I didn’t think I would run into any major problems. After all, I had left three hours of buffer time for my transfer in Brussels.

But alas, nothing went as planned.

My uncle dropped me off at the Central station in Dresden - my train was due to leave from the first track, right next to the parking lot. Perfect. We said our goodbyes and I sauntered up the stairs to the track, where I was greeted by one of the staff who kindly told be that the route had been rescheduled for today. I’d have to go to the Neustadt station instead. But no worry, I just had to go to Track 19, catch the next train, and get off two stops later. Then I should still have time to catch the train to Hanover.

Fine enough. I jumped through the required hoops and got going on the (re)scheduled train due west. We left about a half-hour later than I had originally expected. But at least I was headed in the right direction.

The train stopped in Leipzig, and everyone got off. I was the only one left on the train, naively thinking it would carry me on to Hanover, when I realized the destination had been changed to Dresden. It was going back the same way it came.

Uh oh. I hastily gathered by things and ran to the information counter. The lady there looked over my itinerary, printed a new one, and told me to get on Track 18. That train would take me to Hanover. I would now arrive in Brussels with two hours wiggle room. Still not bad.

The train was an intercity route, not the express that I was supposed to take, which means we stopped in every little rinky-dink city from Leipzig to Hanover. There was also a 25 minute delay along the way, and I knew I wouldn’t make my connection in Hanover. So I asked one of the train crew members what I should do. They said not to worry, the train would continue on to Cologne anyway so I could just stay on it.

I slept most of the rest of the way to Cologne, and arrived at the station at 4:45. The train for Brussels had left at 4:42. Drat. And I was so excited to get to a place where I actually understand the language, too. Oh well. Up to the information counter once again I went, expecting that the next train would be in an hour. Just my luck, the next train was two hours away and wouldn’t arrive in Brussels until 8:32 - a full three minutes after the Eurostar would have already left for London.

Up until this point, I was fairly sure that I would still make all my connections. But I now realized my trip was going to have to be drastically reorganized. The train I was supposed to take to London was the last one of the day.

I spent 10 minutes on hold with Eurostar, praying that my phone credit wouldn’t run out. I finally got a hold of a sales rep, who said he could get me on the first train tomorrow morning. Well, at least it’s the next best option. I told him that would be great, and then - click - the line went dead. My phone buzzed cheerily. “Crédit épuisé!”, it declared.

OK. So now where does that leave me? I’ve got 45 minutes until my train leaves from Cologne. Once I’m in Brussels, I’ll actually be able to communicate and get a hostel for the night or something, after securing my spot on tomorrow morning’s train. That’s my plan, anyway.

I’ve got 90 euros to my name. Let’s see how well I do.

To be continued …

Silos suck. Fri, 07 Jan 2011 17:34:00 -0500 It’s common knowledge that one can do a job well, or do it quick, but rarely is it possible to do both. And in the glacial pace of government policymaking, often neither criteria is satisfied. Such is the case with the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Thursday’s Globe and Mail featured an excellent editorial by Maude Barlow that points out some of the environmental consequences of CETA (spoiler alert: it doesn’t look good). If CETA is brand new to you, peruse this backgrounder from Paul Wells. The negotiations have been going on for a long time - talks of cooperation between Canada and The Old Continent date back to at least 1998. It’s basically NAFTA, but on an intercontinental scale.

Canadian and European representatives are still in the thick of negotiations, so I’d like to chime in with my thoughts and observations in the hope that they will, in some small way, push our delegates in Brussels to think of the big picture.

In the article linked to above, Maude Barlow says that “… this deal is a bid for unprecedented and uncontrolled European access to Canadian resources.” In the same way, Canadian companies will have greater access to Europe’s natural resources once the CETA is implemented. This is a problem because more actors are competing over the same scarce resources, but more importantly, Canadian firms see Europe as an untapped market and nothing more. The farther removed a company is from its operations, the less it cares about the social and environmental impacts of its economic activity.

If you follow my logic, it’s like a slightly tweaked Tragedy of the Commons. Canadian firms feel more connected to and responsible for Canadian resources. We have a national identity (however fragmented it may be) that ties us symbolically to our forests, rivers, mineral deposits and groundwater. Europe’s resources don’t evoke the same kind of emotional attachment because  we feel further removed from them (and therefore, less guilty about extracting them to turn a profit). The same situation happens in the opposite direction with European investment in the oil sands because, hey, it’s not their oil sands, right? They don’t have to answer for the destruction of Alberta’s forests. In fact, they can sue the Canadian government if environmental regulations are too strict!

And that’s the crux of the problem. Social and environmental responsibility are nowhere to be seen in this trade agreement. In a questionnaire that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to gather public opinion from firms and industry associations, environmental regulations are presented as “Technical Barriers to Trade” and included in a long list of “issues” that would restrict the trade of goods.

The ministry is siloing itself. Its focus in these talks is purely on economics and trade, but CETA will have repercussions that reach much further. The rights of indigenous peoples, protection of the environment, and sovereignty over our resources are some of the areas that need to be discussed openly in these ongoing discussions. And to get there, we need to have more ministries at the negotiating table. Why is the Ministry of Environment not a part of these discussions? It’s plain to see that CETA will encourage heavier investment and development of the oil sands by European firms. Surely this agreement falls beyond the scope of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

The provincial governments are having their say at the negotiating table, too. I worked for Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade last summer, and the water-cooler talk about the CETA negotiations was very centred around economic technicalities. Compatibility of certain Canadian business models in European markets, that sort of thing.

On my desk that summer I had a mousepad in the shape of a big red circle with the word SILOS crossed out. No silos. It’s an attempt to facilitate cross-communication between departments and ministries. To actively seek the big picture, to see the forest despite all the trees. It’s a noble goal.

Unfortunately, silos seem well-established in Canada’s provincial and federal governments. It’ll take some serious political will to break these barriers and broaden the debate around free trade. This is my challenge to all our Canadian delegates around the negotiating table to think bigger. There is more at stake than GDP or government procurement procedures or industry revenues. CETA is a sweeping change to the way international trade works, and all affected parties should have a meaningful voice in the decisionmaking process.

Untss untss untss untss (repeat) Thu, 30 Dec 2010 21:03:00 -0500 Being away from home, far from my guitar and microphones, has put a digital spin on my songwriting and composing lately. In keeping with my idea of making an EP for each city I live in, I’ve written a few songs inspired by my time in Lausanne. The problem is, I can’t record them until I’m back in Waterloo, unless you want an EP recorded with a warped guitar from the Salvation Army and a laptop microphone.

That said, I’ve been laying out the foundation for a couple songs in Logic. Things like time signature, some percussion, and background textures to make the recording easier once I get back home. Since I can’t record any guitar or vocals, though, I’ve been playing around a lot with the virtual instruments in Logic. Synths and drum kits and strings, oh my! I have a feeling that this EP is going to be a lot more electronic than my previous ones. The gated synth sound is so cool.

No autotune though, I can promise you that. I can’t stand autotune.

We have a new winner. Wed, 22 Dec 2010 22:23:00 -0500 This is it. The Best Tea Ever In The Whole World. Which is saying a lot, if you’ve heard me recount what was formerly my best tea experience. The now-second-place tea was a wonderfully strong, throat-scorchingly spicy chai that was homemade from scratch by my youth pastor’s Indian parents at a house party after his wedding reception a few years ago. A tough act to follow, certainly, but I can now say I’ve found a more elating infusion of spices.

Galanka root. Star anise. Cardamom pods. Whole peppercorns. Cloves. These and other ingredients, brewed for at least 20-30 minutes, emerge, fully-formed, as the perfect cup of Marrakech tea, as served by l’Échoppe à Thés at the Lausanne Christmas market. Yes, the gypsy-junk aesthetic of the caravan you see above conceals a delightfully sophisticated spectrum of scents and flavours. The Marrakech tea is spicy enough to clear out a head cold, with a pleasantly unexpected hit of anise and cloves to round out the taste. Simply amazing.

What’s more, they had the loose-leaf concoction for sale - enough to make ten litres. It was marked up at an embarrassingly steep price, but I quickly forked over multiple paper bills of Swiss currency, receiving in return a couple coins and a glorious bag of loose leaf Marrakech tea spices, which is now sitting on my shelf like an idol.

Merry Christmas, everyone. No need to get me any gifts; my material needs for the next couple lifetimes have been fulfilled. Of course, if you think you know of another tea that could top my list, be sure to let me know so that I can prove you wrong.

(On a slightly related note, my Best Plate of Pasta Ever In The Whole World has gone undefeated since the summer of 2008, when a little italian restaurant in San Francisco put me on cloud nine with their simple spaghetti and pesto.)

Everyone loves GIF animations. Mon, 20 Dec 2010 20:44:00 -0500 I had a nice stroll down by the lake today, and ended up taking a ridiculous number of pictures. So many pictures, in fact, that I managed to snap at least one decent photo of a wave crashing into the rocks, the spray just about to hit my camera. That’s the money shot right there.

Never content to be just ordinary, I have decided to showcase some of my photos in the most fun image format known to mankind! Get ready to party like it’s 1999 everybody, ‘cause here come the GIFs!

Yeah, I took some videos too, but this is much more entertaining.

This lovely swan was very keen to have her picture taken. She kept waddling up to the lens with her beak all up in my grill.

Man, staring at the water in that last picture reminds me of this scene in Minority Report. Great movie.

(By the way, if you want to see some actual serious photographs, I uploaded them to my Panoramio page. That’s where I keep all my travel photos.)

Connected? Fri, 17 Dec 2010 22:35:00 -0500 The first song on my self-titled debut CD (released in 2006) laments the replacement of real human relationships with digital communities. When I wrote the song, I didn’t even know about Facebook yet, and needless to say lots has changed on the web since then. But then again, plus ça change, plus c’est pareil… I saw this tweet today, which inspired me to write a few verses on the subject. Enjoy the poem :)


Digital shackles, now there’s a cute thought
To throw into the web two-point-oh melting pot
Our electronics try to connect us in vain
As we swipe, left to right, glancing at dates and names
That we’ve dumped onto hard drives, bypassing the brain
But it’s alright, with two clicks, there’s my fiancée’s
Cousin’s last name and what he had for lunch today
He gave five shiny stars to the chinese buffet
Where he checked in with his friends from work and became
The new mayor of the hot and sour soup of the day
You see, badges and followers are the new rat race
Yeah, we’re still chasing money and fame in new ways
Giving newborn babies their own Facebook pages
But this isn’t anything new that we made.

Remember the mix tapes that we made as kids
By pressing record on the top forty hits
Except for commercials and the talking bits
To create our own specially curated playlist?
Well, I’d bring it to school the next day and hit play
And get comments and likes and retweets
Well, the retweets were telephone games but the concept’s the same
That was my social network back in ‘98.

The S.T.A.R. program taught me well. Wed, 15 Dec 2010 22:43:00 -0500 Through a contact here in Lausanne, I managed to get some freelance work designing a fundraising booklet for one of the student organisations on campus (I’m keeping it real general so as not to identify anyone here).

The booklet was commissioned by the finance committee - once complete, it would be sent out to potential corporate sponsors to provide funding for the following year’s activities. They gave me a bunch of great photos from past events to work with, and I got going on a first draft.

A couple revisions later (mostly layout and colour changes - they had supplied the content), all parties seemed satisfied and I packaged up the project files to be sent off to the printer. That’s when I got this message from my contact:

This all looks really great Sam, but there’s just one thing. One of the pictures is showing two women in hijabs, and that’s probably going to make some of our potential sponsors uncomfortable. One person on the committee pointed out that it might hurt our fundraising efforts. I think you should swap it out for another picture.

Now, this contact of mine was just relaying a message, and I know this wasn’t his opinion. But I was baffled. Paralyzed, even. I weighed the moral dilemma in my head. On one hand, I was hired to design a booklet according to the specifications of the committee. On the other, this was blatant racism. What made it all the more bewildering was the fact that the organisation’s mission statement celebrates its “international diversity”.

I took a deep breath and wrote a reply, pointing out that the organisation’s core values would be compromised by removing the photo. It would be a concession to the xenophobic sentiment sweeping Switzerland and a step backward for the organisation. I said I was disappointed. Nevertheless, I drafted up an alternate layout where the photo in question figured less prominently. But I refused to eliminate it - that would be like ethnic cleansing via Photoshop.

There was a deeper problem here than simple racism. A structural problem. The finance committee (or, at least, one person on the finance committee) was acting in direct opposition to the values of the organisation as a whole. This is what happens when bureaucracy creates silos. It prevents cross-communication and accountability. The finance committee, tasked with fundraising, had such tunnel vision that it ignored the central goals of the organisation.

The next day, my contact sent me an email:

Thanks for all your work. We’ve decided to stick with the first design after all. It’s not worth compromising our raison d’être for the prospect of more fundraising dollars.

So, a happy ending after all. I’m not sure if it was my email that turned the tables or if the other committee members talked some sense into the guy that was objecting. But I’m glad it turned out the way it did.

I honestly thought for a while that I would have to resign from the project. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that people tend to listen when you speak honestly and stay true to your values. So if you find yourself in a similar situation, at odds with your boss, or your professor, or your client, don’t back down for fear of getting fired/failing a class/losing business. You don’t have to conform, especially not when you find yourself at odds with what you believe in. You’ll be respected for it, and maybe even shift a paradigm along the way.

Have we turned the corner yet? Fri, 10 Dec 2010 18:14:00 -0500 It’s been disappointing to read the coverage of COP16 in Cancún, but I can’t say our Canadian delegation’s attitude is surprising. It’s the same old myopic strategy of hiding behind our economic ties with the USA to justify inaction. Canada has now taken home five Fossil of the Day awards (three in the first day!) for such accomplishments as touting our non-existent regulations to ban coal power, and pushing for a new Kyoto with no actual targets. Well done!

In Minister John Baird’s talking points, I found the following gems:

“Countries that have signed on to the [Copenhagen] Accord are responsible for more than 85 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.”

That’s lovely, Minister Baird. It’s too bad that none of those countries are actually legally bound to do anything about their emissions. But give yourself a pat on the back for talking about it, at least.

“Success in the fight against global warming will only come with everyone aboard, everyone with an oar in the water and everyone rowing together.”

Since you and Japan seem to be the only ones not ready to board the second phase of Kyoto, I can only assume you’re talking about the delegation’s travel plans for the trip back to Canada. Bravo, I do say! I was wondering why you only bought a one way plane ticket, you sly fox! This is a wonderful concrete example of reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“This year, Canada finalized standards for regulating emissions from passenger vehicles and light trucks that are aligned with those of the U.S. We are also working towards doing the same for heavy-duty vehicles.”

Well, no wonder this government still thinks the oil sands are a good idea - your negotiations happen slower than geological cycles.

“We are striking out on our own as we work to regulate coal-fired electricity generation…”

Oh really? Because that is the most waffling, unverifiable statement I’ve heard so far. You’re working towards regulating coal plants, which probably means nothing at all. We’re working towards cold fusion and world peace, too. This is hardly “striking out on our own”. More like just striking out.

“Our provinces and territories demonstrate a real leadership and will contribute significantly to greenhouse gas reduction. For example, Quebec has done its part with green energy.”

Well, at least you got something right, Minister Baird. I knew there was a reason you got appointed to House Leader! While the federal government has been Turning the Corner for three years, Quebec took the inside track and has been setting measurable, verifiable greenhouse gas targets in its policy documents. Seriously, feel free to copy-paste their greenhouse gas reduction targets - it’s what you’re doing with the USA’s policies anyway.

I recommend checking out the Canadian Youth Delegation’s blog for on-the-ground reporting of what has been going on this week in Cancún.

Generate the JSON code for those new Bandcamp embeddable players with my handy little app. Tue, 07 Dec 2010 20:44:00 -0500 Edit: There is a new version of this app that’s easier than ever to use! Check out the new version.

If you’re a tech-savvy musician and haven’t heard of Bandcamp, you’re missing out. One of their many phenomenal features that was recently released is the ability to have complete pixel-perfect control over the layout of your embedded media players (like the one you can see in the sidebar to the left).

To create the settings for these custom layouts, you need to muck around in JSON (which is not very fun). So I put together a little app that lets you customize your player through a form, and then copy the code that it generates - easy as pie. Check it out:

Leave bug reports and feature requests in the comments below. I hope this is useful for some people!

Note: There are still a couple features to add, namely support for text colour and tracklist row height. I’ll get to those after I’m done my research report - this app is a result of me procrastinating on that!

Reclaiming the Big Box Plaza Tue, 07 Dec 2010 19:42:00 -0500 When I look at an ugly strip mall or a sprawling suburban development, I try to think of ways that it could be turned into a vibrant, compact neighbourhood. Though I don’t agree with everything James Howard Kunstler says, I think he’s right when he says that the decline of oil production will cause our cities to shrink and force us to develop more dense, mixed-use communities within the framework we already have.

So I saw this site plan for a new power centre that’s going to be built on the Western border of Kitchener-Waterloo.

It’s not the worst design in the world, but I wanted to paint a picture of what that block of land could become in the future. After spending 15 minutes with Photoshop, I had my vision of what this development could be 50 years from now.

A tight street network with active storefronts, pedestrian esplanades, reclaimed green space, and a nominal amount of parking, all without touching any of the existing buildings.

That’s what I hope many of our big-box suburban developments will become in the coming decades. Real neighbourhoods in place of monofunctional pods. What do you think?

We interrupt this program for a very important smoke break Tue, 07 Dec 2010 13:24:00 -0500 I knew before coming to Switzerland that smoking was a much more significant part of the culture than it is back home. In Ontario, the provincial government has been on the offensive against smoking for years now. Banning it in schools, then all public establishments; preventing merchants from displaying cigarettes on store shelves; and a huge advertising campaign urging people to quit… I had been lulled into thinking that smoking was a fringe activity that sane people don’t take seriously.

Well, let me tell you, I was in for a shock. Smoking is so much a part of everyday routine that even class schedules are built to accomodate the activity.

At the Université de Lausanne, a full one quarter of the time allotted for lectures is devoted to smoke breaks. At the top of every hour, without exception, the professor will stop for fifteen minutes to give students the opportunity to feed their nicotine craving. This is problematic, because those of us who don’t smoke (which is still usually more than half) will inevitably find something distracting and unproductive to do to fill up those fifteen minutes.

I’m no good at multitasking. I would much rather focus on the subject at hand for the full 2 hours, using my free time more wisely afterwards. Besides, you can’t get anything fulfilling done in 15 minutes. That’s why those with laptops revert to checking Facebook and playing YouTube videos during the break.

And then the other half of the class comes back in for the next chunk of the lecture smelling like cigarette. “1970s bowling alley” is not the kind of vibe I’m looking for when I’m trying to learn about Comparative Politics in Maghreb.

Of course, it used to be worse. Smoking indoors was allowed up until September 2009. I was talking this weekend with a former student who said that one of his professors would smoke so many cigarettes during the course of the lecture that a cloud of smoke gradually obscured what he was writing on the blackboard.

I grew up learning to loathe smoking. They showed us black lungs in school and told us about the horrible ingredients that were in cigarettes: rat poison, battery acid, cyanide. When I was seven or eight years old, I was riding in the passenger’s seat of my Dad’s ‘92 Cavalier when a guy in a red pick-up truck pulled up beside us, a cigarette dangling from his fingers outside the window. I rolled down my window and yelled, red-faced, “Smoking kills, you know!

Somehow, I don’t think that tactic will fly over here.

Something good can work and it can work for you Thu, 02 Dec 2010 21:43:00 -0500 Photos that I take at concerts usually turn out as a disappointing smear of blurred figures and blinding lights. The combination of a jostling crowd, dark atmosphere, and a cheap compact camera don’t make for the best mementos. So I’m glad that these ones kind of turned out.

I went to Les Docks with a few friends last night to see Two Door Cinema Club, an Irish pop band that is apparently huge in Australia. I had only heard one of their songs before the concert, Something Good Can Work, which always brings a smile to my face when it pops up on shuffle.

They performed a decidedly short set of solid, danceable electro-pop tunes. I had a good time!

Bring out those silver bells, Richard Thu, 02 Dec 2010 11:56:00 -0500 It’s December! Time to bring out those silver bells… I’m a huge fan of Christmas music. Give me some Burl Ives or Dean Martin to listen to on repeat all day and I’m good. My favourites are the songs that are recorded from the Christmas TV specials, where you’ll have Dean Martin soliloquizing before he starts to sing.

Folks, last night I took a stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, and you know, strange things are happening there. Store windows have been turned into glittering fairylands, street corners are sprouting lighted trees, and everyone seems to be wearing a very special kind of a glow. So I said to myself, “Dean-o, you know something? It’s beginning to look like Christmas!”

But besides the classics there are some seriously good contemporary Christmas songs out there. And I don’t mean modern remakes of Deck the Halls. Here are a few of my favourites, in no particular order:

Andrew Allen - I Wanna Be Your Christmas

Jessie Farrell - Christmas At My House

Hanson - Everybody Knows The Claus

Rosie Thomas - Why Can’t It Be Christmastime All Year?

They don't teach this in PLAN 103 Sat, 27 Nov 2010 00:26:00 -0500 When you present information in an unconventional way, people listen. So I’ve got an idea. It involves a group of poets who take an active interest in municipal politics. Sounds interesting, no? Read on.

Here’s what I’m thinking. All of us lyrically-inclined politicos will get together and look at the agenda for council’s next meeting. A cursory glance through the agenda for Waterloo’s November 29th council meeting reveals some hot-button issues that will be discussed: zoning changes on Regina street, a proposed extension of GRT route 4, parking issues around the hockey rink in the park, and new tax exemptions for veterans’ organizations.

I think it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this. We’ll find an issue that interests each of us, write poetry about it, and show up to the council meeting to express our views. It’s not a joke; it’s not satire. It’s about students getting involved in the political process and getting the attention of the decision-makers.  There’s always allotted time for the public to address council with their concerns or questions. I’m betting that the student demographic is a tad underrepresented in the sea of white hair that makes up a typical council meeting audience.

The best thing about this political poetry club would be having rap battles with each other during council meetings. I can just picture it happening with the LRT…

Good evening, your Worship, I’m here to defend
The idea of light rail, now I know we gon’ spend
Many millions before it’s complete, but the end
Will be worth the means if it means bucking the trend
Of our car-centric suburbs and all their dead ends
Where I don’t feel at ease as a pedestrian
This here streetcar will bring life to Uptown again
Watch as cafés and third places invest and then
You’ll see people like me and my friends at events
Near that brand new town square where they’re jacking the rents
Because property values tend to represent
The most dynamic, vibrant places - it makes sense.

Ha! That was fun. The ending was a little weak, but hey, it’s late and I’m tired.

So basically I want to start this up as a student club when I get back on campus. Who’s with me?

Finding truth through tradition Tue, 23 Nov 2010 20:53:00 -0500 I was visiting Paris this past weekend, and on Sunday I went to a Catholic mass for the first time. Now, I’m more comfortable in a casual protestant crowd, but since I was in Paris, home to some breathtaking cathedrals and a healthy Catholic culture, I wanted to experience mass for myself. So on Sunday evening, I found myself sitting on a wicker chair at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a beautiful old cathedral in the 6e arrondissement.

The liberal protestantism that I identify with doesn’t ascribe much importance to clerical garments, relics, or rosary beads. I tend to dismiss them out of hand as a materialistic distraction from spiritual growth. But I decided to put my prejudice on hold and experience mass with an open mind. What I found was a new perspective and a deeper respect for tradition.

Through the haze of incense, I couldn’t quite make out the priest’s face. That annoyed me, because I like to see people when they’re speaking. By tilting my head slightly to the left, I could barely get a view of the altar through the sea of heads in front of me. I’m used to seeing an energetic pastor speak from a well-lit stage, accompanied by easy-to-follow PowerPoint slides. For a moment, I felt disappointed. But then I realised: it must be intentional.

Once I stopped judging the mass based on my own expectations, I saw the good in this setup: by not being able to see the priest, I was concentrating less on the man and more on the words he was speaking. The white robe he was wearing served to further blur the identity of the man. His individuality had been stamped out by religious symbolism. Ironically, this made me feel as if God’s word was being spoken to me more directly.

I say ironically, because one of the main criticisms of the Catholic church is that it ignores the “priesthood of the believer” - that is, it appoints specific intermediaries between God and people. But in this situation, I felt like the intermediary was far less present than a typical Pentecostal pastor.

When a preacher of God’s word is an identifiable human being, I find that I interpret his or her message as “Pastor so-and-so’s commentary of Luke Chapter One”. On the flipside, this Catholic priest’s identity was shrouded in ritual and symbolism. Since I couldn’t relate to him as a person, I saw him purely as a messenger of God. Funny how that works.

Forget senate reform, showing up to work is hard enough Thu, 18 Nov 2010 00:01:00 -0500 Bill C-311, with the punchy title “An Act to ensure Canada resumes its responsibilities in preventing dangerous climate change”, is the closest thing Canada had to meaningful climate change targets. I say had, past tense, because the bill is no more. It got voted down today in the senate, more than a year and a half after it was introduced — the first reading was in February 2009. Delaying tactics much?

I’m not going to talk about how this is a Conservative conspiracy orchestrated by the PMO (Elizabeth May and The Globe already did that). What interests me is the fact that this bill would have been passed on to committee if all the Liberal senators actually showed up to work that day.

This is what was written in the Globe article mentioned above:

The absence of more than 15 Liberals from the Senate allowed the bill to be defeated by a margin of 43 to 32.

Seriously? How can the second-highest decision-making body in our political system have such an embarrassing rate of truancy? If your job is to serve as a check and balance against the partisanship of the House of Commons, the least you can do is show up to work. This happens a lot with MPs in the House of Commons too. What’s the point of a representative democracy if your elected representative doesn’t even show up to vote?

What saddens me more than this, though, is the tired rhetoric that gets thrown back and forth in the senate (full transcript here):

Debates of the Senate, 16 November 2010

Senator Mitchell: Honourable senators, when I asked the leader (Senator LeBreton) a question some months ago about how much of the stimulus funding had gone to green projects, she rose with a triumphant flourish and listed projects that she said had received funding from the green tech fund that applied to green technology, greenhouse gas emissions reduction and so on.

As it turns out, we now see that only 3 per cent of that fund of $200 million has actually been allocated. Would the leader stand in the Senate today and apologize … or will she just remain part of that spin strategy out of the PMO that cannot distinguish between announcing something and actually doing it?

Senator Comeau: Do it with a triumphant flourish!

Senator Di Nino: At least we do it.

Senator Mitchell: You do not do it; you just announce it.

Senator LeBreton: The Honourable Senator Lapointe has accused me of being a good skater and a good tap dancer, but I have never been told that I have done it with a triumphant flourish.

Senator LeBreton: We are taking action to make Canada a clean energy superpower. We have committed to reducing our emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Senator Mitchell: Could the leader (Senator LeBreton) indicate to me … exactly how much greenhouse gas reduction will be attributed to each one of those projects and how that will relate to the 2020 objective that was set so we can see whether the government has any chance on God’s earth of doing it?

Senator LeBreton: (Avoiding the question, Senator LeBreton rambles on about how Jim Prentice was a good Environment minister and she hates to see him go.)

Is it too much to ask that our elected (and unelected) decision-makers actually try and get stuff done, rather than getting in partisan catfights?

Side note: the Conservatives’ 2020 emissions target is just pathetic. Elizabeth May breaks it down in a blog post… 17% below 2005 levels is actually aiming to be above our 1990 levels in 2020!

The worst pies in Geneva Mon, 15 Nov 2010 17:53:00 -0500 I’ve never been in a city that reminded me so much of Sweeney Todd.

My dad has been over here in Lausanne, visiting me and touring around for the past couple weeks. It’s been a welcome change to have a bit of familiarity amid all the new experiences. Having my dad around helped quell the homesickness a little bit.

He had to fly out of Geneva to go back home this morning, so we spent the weekend there. Who’d have thought the city that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Calvin called home would be so… drab?

It was drab in a tough, nostalgic kind of way though. I felt like there should be orphan boys running around in the street and newspaper vendors strolling about. There was something so grey about the old downtown that made it look like it belonged in 19th-century London.

To be fair, it was a late Sunday afternoon when my dad and I went walking around the downtown and there were basically no shops open. The streets were pretty dead, which added to the subdued atmosphere.

A few smokestacks and horse-drawn carts would have made it the perfect place to open a questionable barber shop.

Lest We Forget Thu, 11 Nov 2010 07:48:00 -0500 A year ago, I wrote a scathing letter to the editor at Imprint, titled “The Hypocrisy of Remembrance Day”. As a pacifist, my main beef with Remembrance Day is that it seems to glorify a violent, intolerant chapter of our history.

On Remembrance Day, we should reflect on the atrocity that is warfare, and the damage it causes, rather than putting our military forces on a pedestal. I am saddened that a complex socio-political and humanitarian crisis has been dumbed down to three ambiguous words: “Lest We Forget”.

I went on to explain that “Lest We Forget” originated in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which was intended as a call to renounce pride and to acknowledge that military might alone does not make a nation great.

Today, Conrad Grebel’s Centre for the Study of Religion and Peace is holding an event that aims to do just this. The colloquium, held tonight at 7PM in the CIGI atrium, is billed as a “forum for respectful dialogue” about the complex linkages between religion, violent conflict, society, and politics. (Not to mention, E will be there, and if you haven’t heard him debate before, you’re missing out!)

This is the kind of Remembrance Day we should be having.

Ambition is in the eye of the beholder Wed, 10 Nov 2010 21:31:00 -0500 Tonight, I was working on an outline for the undergrad thesis I’m writing this term. It’s about waste management in the Lausanne region. Exciting stuff. Right?

Well, It was supposed to be a lot more exciting. At the beginning of the term I sat down with my advisor, starry-eyed, telling him of my plans to research the waste management system of Abuja, Nigeria, a city that’s been growing by 20-30% per year over the past couple decades. The growth was, and still is explosive, so much so that unruly slums started appearing despite the city’s best efforts at rigid urban design. Now, the people are flooding in and development can’t keep up. And all that waste has to go somewhere… it must be a nightmare trying to tame the garbage.

Cool, right?

Almost. My advisor took me down a few notches, pointing out that there’s not really any research on Abuja, and unless I was going to fly down there to do some myself, I’d have a hard time completing this undergrad thesis in five months.

So, plan B. I talked to my advisor about the garbage strike in Toronto a couple summers ago, and how it threw the whole system out of whack. He said a similar thing happened in Naples; maybe I could do a comparative study?

Well, that didn’t pan out either. I thought since I’m studying in Lausanne, I might as well use it as the European example, instead of Naples.

Then I dropped Toronto out of the picture.

So essentially my thesis is now comparing backyard composters to curbside waste collection. In Lausanne.

What’s this about a lack of ambition among young Canadian men?

If it's in black and white, is art colourblind? Sun, 07 Nov 2010 11:40:00 -0500 I went to a photography exhibit at the Musée d’Elysée in Lausanne yesterday with my dad. Called “Les Petits Métiers”, the exhibit showcased dozens of portraits taken in 1950-52 by Irving Penn. The photographs themselves are mildly interesting, but what is really fantastic is the sheer variety of job descriptions - “longshoreman”, “cucumber vendor”, “rag and bone man”, “parking attendant”, “charwoman”, “busboy”, and the list goes on.

Seeing all the different jobs - from “chief constable” to “coal man” - presented with a consistent artistic theme has an equalizing effect. All of Irving Penn’s subjects were photographed with the same backdrop, in the same style, no matter what their social status.

Also on display were some copies of magazines that featured Irving Penn’s work. The picture to the left, above, was accompanied by the following caption in the February 1951 edition of Vogue Britannica:

MAN WITH A PICK, the best-known figure in the industrial scene. The odd-job navvy - in cap, strong boots, oldest clothes for heavy work, scarf knotted at the throat, features and bearing often cast in much the same mould of dignity and patience as those of that other heavy manual worker, the coal-miner.

Imagine Vogue today, covering the fashion trends of, say, working-class Fort McMurray! How bizarre.

My bread dilemma Sat, 06 Nov 2010 01:24:00 -0400 I try to consume consciously. When it comes to grocery shopping, I rarely buy anything that isn’t fair trade, locally-produced, or organic. Being a conscious consumer has its pitfalls, though. Often I find myself in a hopeless spiral of uncertainty when choosing between two similar products. A whole array of factors come into play, complicating matters so much that I am reduced to eenie-meenie-miny-moe or abandoning the eneavour altogether, leaving empty-handed. I’d like to walk you through one such experience: buying a loaf of bread.

The Contenders

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve already narrowed down my choices to two loaves of bread. I can get a 500g loaf of whole wheat for about CHF 3.00 at an independent bakery in Renens. On the other hand, the neighbouring supermarket sells one-kilogram loaves of pain bis for CHF 1.90.

Taste isn’t a deciding factor. The two loaves do taste different, but I like a little variety and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They’re both baked on the premises, the day of.

It would seem that my thought process should pretty simple. On the one hand, I can get a large, cheap loaf of bread at a big chain store. On the other, I can pay a premium price for a smaller loaf at a local bakery. It’s a matter of price versus, well, everything else. Obviously, the bread at the local bakery is quite a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it to support small business.

But is it really that clear-cut? Let’s see.


While the loaves of bread are comparable, they don’t have the exact same ingredients. Sometimes when I can’t decide between two similar products, I take a look at the ingredient list and see which one passes the ingredients-I-can-pronounce test. Too much carnauba wax and soy lecithin is never a good thing.

The whole wheat loaf is probably healthier for me than the supermarket’s pain bis, which is a blend of white and whole wheat flour.

Unfortunately, in this scenario, I only have the ingredient list for one of the loaves of bread - the pain bis from the supermarket. It contains wheat, flour, water, yeast… the typical ingredients you’d expect in a loaf of bread. But it also lists E200, an artificial preservative.

Because the bread from the small bakery doesn’t come with an ingredient list, I’m led to believe that it has more “real” ingredients - or, at least, doesn’t contain preservatives. This can be a dangerous assumption to make, because there’s no reason the local baker couldn’t use a preserving agent as well. Nevertheless, my experience has generally been that the products with the fewest artificial ingredients are those that come in simple packaging with little or no labelling.

Business Structure

Another thing I get preoccupied with in my vortex of doom decision process is the type of vendor I’m buying from. (I would just buy a bag of Wonderbread from Wal-Mart if price was my only incentive, but I can’t justify supporting a corporation that forces unfair labour practices on its suppliers in the name of profits and low prices.)

In this case, the local bakery is a sole proprietorship, a profit-driven business. Sure, it’s not in the same league as Wal-Mart, but there’s still a profit motive.

What about the supermarket? Here’s the interesting thing. In Switzerland, the two largest grocery chains are cooperatives. So while they have a store in just about every city, town, and village in the country, it’s not the same picture of corporate pillaging as, say, McDonald’s. With the supermarkets, any Swiss resident can sign up to be a member and be involved in the organization’s decisionmaking.

This is an atypical scenario, and one that challenges my assumptions. I’m used to associating large stores with greedy captialism. But in this situation, it could be reversed. Perhaps the independent bakery is leveraging its “traditional” image to inflate prices and make an obscene profit for the owner!


The amount and type of packaging is a big factor in weighing the environmental impact of my purchases. Over half of the household waste generated in Switzerland comes from packaging. I try my best to minimize that figure.

When I go to the independent bakery, the cheerful lady behind the counter grabs the whole wheat loaf off the shelf and puts it in a white paper bag with the name of the bakery printed on it. It’s simple, sturdy, and 100% recyclable.

The pain bis at the supermarket sits on the shelf in its paper-and-plastic bag. The plastic, which has holes pricked into it to allow for airflow, makes up 50% of the packaging.

It may seem insignificant, but there is a real difference in the type of waste generated by the two loaves of bread. If I really wanted to, I could eliminate the waste entirely by asking the local bakery to just hand me the loaf as-is and put it directly in my shopping bag.


The supermarket bread, being twice as big as the one from the bakery, lasts me a good two weeks - and it doesn’t go stale before then (must be those E200 preservatives.) The 500g loaf from the bakery will last a week, and then I’ll have to go out and buy more.

It seems like this wouldn’t really matter one way or the other, as long as I’m not wasting food. But whenever I get the supermarket bread, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m buying into the Costco culture of “more, more, more” and “bigger is better”. When I walk home carrying a massive loaf of bread, I feel like I’m making a subconscious statement, and it’s not one I’m very comfortable with.

By the same token, going for the local bakery’s bread means that I spend twice as much time traveling to and from the bakery to do my groceries (thereby putting twice the load on Lausanne’s transportation network).

Also, economies of scale leads me to believe that the supermarket can make bread more efficiently than the local bakery.

The Verdict

Part of the problem with these questions that bounce around in my head is that they involve a lot of guesswork and comparing apples to oranges. Buying the supermarket bread means I’ll put less strain on the transportation network, but will the preservatives kill me? At the local bakery I can make a zero-waste purchase, but what if it means I’m funnelling money into a wealthy business owner’s casino fund? There are no real ways to quantitatively compare these different factors.

In the end, it mostly comes down to what is on my mind at the moment. If I’m particularly concerned about the environmental impact one day, I could just as easily get hung up on the injustices of the capitalist system the next time I go shopping.

One thing is certain: no matter which loaf of bread I buy, I will find a reason to feel guilty for it.

Highlight the current category for single posts in WordPress Wed, 03 Nov 2010 22:59:00 -0400 When you browse a category in WordPress, a current-cat class is added to the category’s list item in the wp_list_categories menu. This is really useful for styling your menu so readers have a visual cue of where they are in your blog.

But when viewing an individual post, the current-cat class doesn’t get generated. To generate it when your visitors are reading a single post, insert the following code in your theme’s functions.php file.

// Generate the current-cat class when viewing single posts
class singlePostCurrentCat {
  function wp_list_categories ($text) {
    global $post;
      if (is_singular()) {
        $categories = wp_get_post_categories($post->ID);
        foreach ($categories as $category_id) {
          $category = get_category($category_id);
          $text = preg_replace(
            "/class=\"(.*)\"><a ([^<>]*)>$category->name<\/a>/",
            ' class="$1 current-cat"><a $2>' . $category->name . '</a>',
    return $text;
add_filter('wp_list_categories', array('singlePostCurrentCat','wp_list_categories'));

(Adapted from Kahi’s Highlight Used Categories plugin.)

Grab the new EP - Colours and Signs Fri, 20 Aug 2010 16:38:00 -0400 Hello friends!

So, even though Sufjan stole my thunder, I released an EP today too! It’s called Colours and Signs.

That’s right. If you came to my show last night at The Bean, you would have got a sneak peek of the fourth and final song in my summer EP. And now, you can download the entire album for free, just because I love you guys so much.

So have a listen and share it with your friends!

SOS Children's Villages Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 Intro

On 12 February 2010, we left Toronto and flew across the ocean to spend a week in Dubai and Pakistan. It was our first trip to this area. We met countless new relatives, saw breathtaking sights of natural and architectural beauty, and got jostled around in the frenzied traffic of Karachi. We got to experience for ourselves a culture that is too often skewed by the headlines in the newspapers. (In the week before we left, there was an attack between religious sects in Karachi.)

On the day we had planned to tour the Karachi SOS Children’s Village and Youth Home with our cousin Romina, there was a strike called by one of the Sindhi nationalist parties. The entire city may grind to a halt. It’s hit-and-miss when a strike is called. Sometimes life goes on, but sometimes all the shops close and people take to the streets. The strike didn’t shake our plans. They were both amazing facilities, and Romina showed us around everywhere.

SOS Children’s Villages of Sindh

We got to go to the Karachi SOS Children’s Village, a place for orphans and street kids to grow up in a safe and caring environment.

The first SOS Children’s Village in Pakistan was established in Lahore in 1975. Today, there are four provincial associations, including one for the province of Sindh.

For security purposes, each village is a self-enclosed community. This village in Karachi contains the association office for Sindh province. Each village usually contains houses, a mosque, a school, recreational facilities, and a medical clinic. (In the Village Guide below, the labels include houses designated by sponsor name, e.g., Rotary Club.)

The school is a two-storey building with four wings. It has an enclosed courtyard with recreation equipment for kids to play on.

The classrooms are bright and adorned with children’s schoolwork, much like in any Canadian school.

The computer lab is an example of the use of targeted donations.

Nothing is thrown out that can’t be fixed; chairs in need of repair sit waiting to be mended by the custodian.

The chemistry lab features a fully stocked cabinet of beakers, vials, liquids, and other substances. Marble and tile countertops provide a clean, spacious learning environment.

The houses are arranged in clusters of four, facing inwards to a common courtyard. There are three bedrooms in each house: one for four boys, another for four girls, and a third for the live-in mother. There is also a living room and a kitchen. In some cases, the girls that grow up in the Village in turn become mothers for a new generation of kids.

Canadian visitor David Nabi and his niece Romina, a committee member at the Sindh association, pose for a picture by the Rotary House. Many of the houses are sponsored by humanitarian organizations, government agencies, and businesses.

SOS Youth House

This SOS Youth House was incorporated on 2 February 2010, two weeks before we arrived. The Youth Home is a place where the kids from the Children’s Villages, now adolescent, have a bit more independence.

The youth home residences enclose a volleyball net that takes up most of the space in the central courtyard.

As with the Children’s Village, many of the youth homes feature plaques recognizing the sponsors of each house. In fact, CIDA was one of the donors that helped finance these projects – it was exciting for us to see in a tangible way what aid organizations are able to do on the ground.

Closing Thoughts

The unique thing about the SOS Children’s Villages is that they function as complete communities, not simply as a distribution point for humanitarian services. A child living on the streets who is brought in to a Children’s Village is not only given the healthcare and education she needs to rise out of her dire situation; she is also introduced to a neighbourhood full of people with which she can build relationships and feel a sense of belonging. This community fulfils an emotional emptiness that might otherwise be satisfied by returning to the streets or joining a gang, becoming tangled up again in the cycle of poverty.

The boys at the Youth Home are given the same kind of fulfilment. The vocational training that they undertake ensures that they will have a marketable skill to contribute to the broader community once they leave the care of the Youth Home.

SOS Children’s Villages and Youth Homes tackle the true causes of youth homelessness and poverty, rather than attempting a quick and easy solution. With care and compassion, they ensure that today’s orphans can grow up in a safe, fulfilling environment. They are changing lives for the better, and they are here to stay.

22 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 8:35 AM

We’re at the departure lounge in Dubai International, and people have just started to board. This trip has been surreal for me. I’ve met dozens of family members that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve stood at the foot of the world’s tallest building. I’ve travelled in a two-stroke rickshaw around Karachi’s busiest streets. I’ve taken a camel ride on the beach. I’ve seen the tangible results of CIDA’s aid projects. I got to play cricket for the first time. I’ve had my t-shirts laundered and pressed by a servant. I’ve seen centuries-old islamic architecture that simply took my breath away. And I’ve eaten. A lot. Dal, chipatti, chickpeas, curry, you name it. Every meal, there were new dishes that I simply had to try, even if I was still stuffed from the last feast.

It’s mind-boggling.

I’m still going to be turning all these experiences over in my head a week, or a month, or a year from now, trying to make sense of it all. This was a pressure-cooked holiday, with so many new people and new things to meet and do in such a short time. It has certainly changed my view of the Middle East and South Asia for the better, and I’ll be back again someday.

That much I know.

21 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 7:21 PM

We’re just hanging out at the hotel in Dubai, waiting to go and meet another relative - Anjum. We took today to see the city a little bit and explore Deira. We took the metro, which is the the world’s longest fully automated rail system. The whole metro network is brand new, and it shows. It was such a smooth ride - they must be using rubber wheels on the cars. The inside of the train was totally open concept - you can see all the way through right to the front car. And it smells like a dentist’s office. Like the powder off the latex gloves that they use to poke at your teeth.

We went with Shahram and his family to an electronics store to buy a voltage transformer. My camera battery’s dead, so I haven’t been taking pictures for the last two days-ish. But there wasn’t really anything of great interest that got missed - airport, flight, hotel. Yadda yadda.

We leave tomorrow morning bright and early to catch our 9:00 AM flight. It’s hard to believe the vacation is coming to an end already!

12:07 AM

Anjum showed us around to some other parts of Dubai that we hadn’t seen yet-the three or so days that we’ve been here certainly don’t do Dubai justice. We went out to the Palm to see the Atlantis Hotel, then went to Medina Jumeriah, a lovely covered market area that attempts to replicate the old souks. With the intricate woodwork on the ceilings, to the warm, sweet smell of shisha smoke wafting through the air, to the view of the Burj Al-Arab rising up out of the skyline, Dubai exudes opulence. This is a city with the business model of a theme park. It’s a surreal fantasy land, where any zany idea that the sheikh cooks up can become a reality.

19 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 1:50 PM

Hasan has left to the mosque for Friday prayers, so we have some time to get our stuff in order today before leaving for Dubai tomorrow morning. There was a strike called today by one of the Sindhi nationalist parties, so Hasan said the entire city may grind to a halt. It’s hit-and-miss when a strike is called. Sometimes life goes on, but sometimes all the shops close and people take to the streets. We had planned to go to the SOS Village with Romina, but we may not be able to.

8:12 PM

Well, the strike didn’t shake our plans - we got to go to the SOS Village (a place for orphans and street kids to grow up in a safe and caring environment) and Youth Home (where the kids, now adolescent, have a bit more independence) to see the operations there. They were both amazing facilities, and Romina showed us around everywhere. In fact, CIDA was one of the donors that helped finance these projects - it was exciting for me to see in a tangible way what aid organizations are able to do on the ground.

Dinner with Riaz has been cancelled, which means a much quieter evening, though people will be stopping by to say goodbye and such. Nida just left, after having tea with us and brainstorming ideas about Volunteer Karachi. I think it’d be great to start up a similar organization in Waterloo.

18 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 6:50 PM

I’m exhausted once again, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion. After a much-needed 8 hours of sleep last night, we packed ourselves into the Toyota Prado (me, Dad, Hasan, Shahnaz, Romina, Nida, and our driver Nasir) and went to Thatta for the day. On the way there, we careened all over the highway, playing chicken with oncoming traffic, navigating around trucks overburdened so much with animal feed that they take up two lanes, all the while whizzing by tiny villages and makeshift homes.

The first thing we saw there was another mosque. This one was 400 years old, and it was simply a masterpiece. Islamic architecture is so ornate and majestic - it just knocks me off my feet every time.

The man who was showing us around was the manager of the Thatta branch of Pakistan National Bank. Our relative Rashid is the area manager for PNB, so his name carries a lot of clout around here. He arranged for us to be shown around the town, and I later learned that he “wanted no complaints”. What a rude awakening for the branch manager, who didn’t know we were coming because it was his first day on the job. He sure snapped to attention when we dropped Rashid’s name! He took two of his employees off duty and tasked them with showing us around the city. While we were out seeing the sights, he arranged for a full meal to be prepared and set on his desk in the manager’s office. I think this sort of hospitality is the defining characteristic of Pakistani culture.

After the Thatta mosque, we went to a shop in the area and Nasir bought gifts for me and Dad, at the request of another of our relatives. We each received a beautiful, ornate Sindhi hat and scarf. This is traditional dress for the men of this area, and it defines them as Sindhi when they travel outside of the province.

On our way back home, we toured the necropolis on the outskirts of Thatta - tombs 400 years old with intricate carvings and awe-inspiring monuments. It was quite a full day, but we got to see lots of new things and soak in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. It’ll probably take me a whole other week to digest everything I’ve experienced (and eaten!) here.

12:45 AM

As if the day could not get any fuller! After we got home, I went with Nida to the 50th annual All-Pakistan Music Conference - part of a 3-day festival showcasing traditional classical Pakistani music. The atmosphere was simply breathtaking. As we entered the venue, we were given plastic bags in which to put our shoes. We continued, barefoot, onto a floor that was covered with white sheets. People of all ages (including a lot of students) were sitting on the pillows that were strewn about on the ground. An atmosphere of profound egalitarianism descended upon me for the second time this trip.

The music itself was stunning - the sounds of the harmonium, sitar, sarod, and tabla, among other instruments, filled the air with a sweet, mysterious sound. We had to leave at 12:30, but I’m sure the music continued well into the early morning. It was such a relaxing atmosphere and a great way to wind down. I just let the music surround me.

17 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 12:55 PM

We’ve just returned from The Forum, an upscale mall just outside of the housing scheme. I bought some turquoise earrings for Melissa; we go the the “authentic” market this afternoon, where there are all sorts of clothes and fabrics. We are presently setting out for the Sind Club, where we are to meet Sheryar for lunch. It’s right next to the U.S. Embassy.

4:30 PM

We had lunch at the hoity-toity Sind Club, where Sheryar is a member. That was about as fun as a stuffy colonial business club can be. Then, we were driven to the clothing market. this is the place to get all sorts of t-shirts, jackets, pashmina shawls, trinkets, hookahs, you name it. There were boys on the street selling everything from orange juice to designer watched to sparrows. Shahnaz helped me negotiate for a few things. It was a pretty terse atmosphere when the bargaining was going on.

11:30 PM

Before dinner tonight at the Defence Authority Club, Nida took me to see a talk at The Second Floor, a nonprofit run hub of social activism and creativity, run by Peace Niche (kind of like The Working Centre meets The Artery). There was a discussion and Q&A about geoengineering - using huge technological advances to combat climate change. There was a lively discussion, and a fiery debate at one point. It was so cool to see how Pakistanis feel about these issues, and what topics were of primary concern. The anti-USA sentiment was alive and well here, as well as concern about the effects of globalization on local food production (among other things). These people speak my language.

16 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 5:40 AM

The night is hot and sticky. Even in a t-shirt with the fan on, I can’t sleep well. This is the winter season, and it’s till too warm for cotton t-shirts. I’ll have to wear light dress shirts if I want to keep from sweating outside. Perhaps another thing keeping me awake is the anticipation of our tour of Karachi. Finally, we’re going to immerse ourselves in the local flavour.

There’s a mosque next door to Hasan and Shahnaz’s house - which means the first call to prayer of the day should be resonating through the neighbourhood soon. There are five calls to prayer throughout the day.

The flooring in this house is entirely stone tile and marble. The custom is to keep footwear on at all times, even inside, on account of the dust that builds up everywhere. At least that’s what Shahnaz says. This house is kept immaculately clean.

3:25 PM

I got some email access this morning, so it was good to have some fleeting contact with the world back home before going to explore Karachi. Our guide, Azmat Khan, showed us through the city streets where stray dogs lay next to piles of burning garbage, to the breathtaking art of the Mohatta Palace Museum, and to the Mausoleum where Pakistan’s founder is buried.

First, we went to a very unique mosque. Whereas most mosques have a dome on top, the entire structure of this one was a single dome. On the inside, the curved ceiling was covered with 70,000 tiny mirrors - the small amount of light given off by the lanterns near the doorways was reflected again and again to illuminate the entire building (which has a capacity of 5000 people). The acoustics we such that the tiniest whisper was echoed around the entire room. Aside from the barrier enclosing the women’s area, it was the most awe-inspiring, egalitarian place of worship I’ve ever seen.

Next, we went to the Mausoleum where Pakistan’s founder is buried. Our guide managed to get the guards to unlock the entrance to the underground chamber, where the body is actually buried. I was stunned at the extensive use of marble for everything from the casket to the pathways outside. This marble comes from Baluchistan, and is relatively cheap compared to Canadian prices. It’s the ultimate material for building public spaces with beauty, durability, and accessibility.

We were then treated to a ride around the neighbourhood on a rickshaw - the three-wheeled, 2-stroke vehicles that act as taxis all over the city. The joke is that they’re so bumpy, a pregnant woman shouldn’t use them lest her child fall out.

Then, we took a ride on a horse-drawn carriage around the block. It’s amazing to see all these different modes of transportation - cars, buses, rickshaws, bikes, motorcycles, donkey carts, horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians - all sharing the same street. Everyone is conscientious of everyone else. Rather than following rules of the road, they follow a sort of collective common sense.

Our next stop was a visit to the Mohatta Palace Museum, where there was a photography exhibit, as well as a showcase of ancient ceramics and tilework. After that it was off to Clifton Beach, where we had the pleasure of taking a camel ride. The beachfront is largely barren, but there is massive high-rise residential development about to happen here. At the moment though, all that exists is a block of luxury apartments and a golf course. There are also a variety of food outlets right along the beach.

11:45 PM

We spent the evening at BBQ Tonight, a four-storey barbecue restaurant in KArachi. Every time we eat, I’m introduced to so many new kinds of food! I had vegetable kabobs, with yogourt dip, dal, spinach with cottage cheese, fried bread, and vegetable curry. The carnivores had all sorts of meat that had been roasted on a spit over hot coals. It was quite the dining experience, especially since we got to sit on the top floor. Pakistanis typically eat their dinner very late - around 9:00 PM. When we left the restaurant at 11:00 PM, there were still families with children going in to eat.

Food is the ultimate form of hospitality here. Everywhere we go, our relatives lay out any number of exotic dishes for us to have. It doesn’t matter if we’re hungry or not, they will offer us everything under the sun. “Eat, young Sam!” Hasan will say, scooping yet another spoonful of dal onto my plate. There’s little I can do but smile politely as he watches me eat.

I met Nida, Romina’s daughter, tonight at dinner. She’s done a master’s in the USA for Special Education. We talked all night about all kinds of topics. She has invited us he The Second Floor tomorrow to see a talk by the author of Hacking the Planet.

15 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 9:52 AM

We’re about to head out to play golf at Hasan’s club. For breakfast, we had toast with guava jelly and eggs, served by Ferhan and the other servant. There is a cleaning lady that comes in the mornings too.

3:15 PM

We played nine holes at the Karachi Golf Club, and went out to see the Pakistan Air Force Museum. On the golf course, there were so many labourers working on maintenance and landscaping. There must have been about fifty of them; we saw less than five other golfers. They used donkeys to move piles of sand as there was no heavy machinery. In Canada, the jobs of ten of these workers would have been replaced by one guy with a backhoe.

All the water features on the course made use of greywater. The smell of sewage in the breeze was a constant reminder of Karachi’s water scarcity. Even in this “oasis in the city”, the electricity is shut off for one hour, three times each day. It’s part of the rolling blackouts that are necessary because Karachi’s energy needs outpace its grid capacity by 15-20%.

Tonight, there is a big gathering at Hasan’s mother’s house. There will be 36 guests, or thereabouts.

7:38 PM

So. Much. Food. The call for evening prayers has been going on for a while… we’ve had warm chickpea salad, cold guava salad, German cake, and tea already, and we haven’t even left for dinner yet. Trying to wrap my head around this family tree is exhausting. With so many people, we’re certain to go late into the night. Hasan said Pakistanis regularly stay up till 1:30 AM.

12:40 AM

Well, it’s not quite 1:30, but it’s late nonetheless. Before heading out to dinner, Hasan produced a hand-drawn family tree to make it easier to identify who’s who. Pakistanis typically marry their cousins - like Hasan said, “it eliminates many of the unknowns” - so family trees can get complicated.

I had a great conversation with Romina and Saman about The Second Floor, or T2F. It’s a venue in Karachi for local art, poetry reading, book signings, public lectures, and the like. It seems like an amazing cultural hub for the highbrow activist student community - it has a cafe on the ground floor, and Saman said she loves to go there (she’s a graphic designer). Romina also mentioned a famous restaurant where they roast chickens and various other animals by the hundreds on a big spit - she assured me that there would be a veggie kabob too. We’ll probably hit both of those places before the end of the week - I’m excited to actually go into the city and get a taste of Karachi!

We met so many different people tonight, it’s difficult to remember them all. Hasina, who is over 90 years old, recounted stories from her childhood with Ashfaq (they were siblings). She remembers Ashfaq sneaking into their mango orchard as a child, picking the choisest ones and eating them all himself. Ashfaq’s sister-in-law one-upped that with a story about how, when young Ashfaq would come to visit, he would sneak into her bedroom and put on her clothes and lipstick and then sit gleefully on the bed.

The amount of new people - and new food - we experienced tonight was pretty overwhelming. It’s clear that Pakistanis value family over most anything else - how else to explain the warm hospitality shown to a couple of English-speaking North Americans that they didn’t even know existed a few months ago? Tomorrow, we set out on a guided tour of Karachi to see what this city’s all about.

New tunes for old friends Fri, 30 Jul 2010 16:39:00 -0400 The upcoming EP is slowly trickling into existence, one track at a time…

The newest song, Smoke Signals, is perfect for a mellow night, sitting by the campfire. Just what you need to make this long weekend great. Also recently released is Metropolis, an anthem for the hustle and bustle of the city. Perfect for when you’re stuck in traffic on the 401, trying to get to cottage country!

Good news: you can download both of them right here. You’re welcome.

Have a worry-free long weekend,


PS: If you haven’t seen it yet, check out Sam’s Soapbox #8. I talk about the census and libertarianism and such.

We'll salute you, dilute you, then mute you. Sun, 11 Jul 2010 16:41:00 -0400 A summer videoblog! I’m so excited! No, it’s not about the G20. I wouldn’t know where to start.

Our dear old Queen came to visit last week, so I spent some time thinking about the monarchy. How it shaped our politics, how it affects us as citizens, and what influence it still has. Here are my thoughts, summed up by a new song at the end of the video! :)

14 Feb Sat, 05 Jun 2010 00:00:00 -0400 3:40 PM

We’re driving to the airport now in Shahram’s SUV - we’ve been around Dubai all day to the two malls, the Burj Khalifa, and the Palm Strip. It seems that the vehicle of choice over here is the SUV. The bigger and more rugged your vehicle is, the more you can assert yourself on the road. Not surprising, since gas is 40 cents a gallon. A gallon! And Shahram says that’s pretty expensive (in Saudi, it’s only 9 cents).

Another thing — the pictures of the Sheikhs are everywhere. on highway billboards, painted in tunnels, on screens in the mall between Dior and Mercedes… Once you get past the sweltering heat and palm trees, though, Dubai has an overwhelming sense of placelessness. It is a city of emulation, of cheap facades and hollow buildings. Sheikh Zayed Road is the osteoporoic backbone that resists breaking only because it is attached to Abu Dhabi’s oil money.

5:17 PM

Possible second cultural faux-pas: waiting in the lounge for our plane to start boarding, I crossed my leg over my knee, inadvertently showing the sole of my shoe to the lady sitting next to me. I’m not sure if she saw before I hastily put my foot back on the floor. We got through customs alright. One of the security checkpoints just waved us through without even looking at our passports. They’re certainly less hyper than North American security guards.

It’s surprises me every time I realize that this freewheeling, money-hungry metropolis is a Sheikhdom. There’s no democracy; but who said that democracy was necessarily the best form of governance? The education minister, appointed by Sheikh Mohammed, has held his position since the eighties. He’s been able to come up with long-term policies, and has enacted funding for women’s education unencumbered by the politics of a 4-year election cycle. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s just a different system of governance.

11:30 PM

Hasan and his wife picked us up from the Karachi Airport. Even the drive over to their house was an eye-opening experience. Traffic was crazy; an eclectic mix of cars, buses, and motorcycles weaving in and out of lanes and up onto the shoulder. We saw one bike with a family of four perched precariously on the seat (that link is from Afghanistan, but you get the picture).

On another, a man drove the motorcycle while his wife sat sidesaddle on the back, clutching a bag in one hand and an infant child in the other. No need for helmets, of course. The confusion of the traffic is compounded by the psychadelic, intricate decorations on the buses… not to mention the fact that they drive on the left.

There were other windows into the world of Karachi too. Along the side of the road, some billboards shouted, “END POLIO NOW”. As we stopped at intersections, preteen boys ran up to the driver’s window with bouquets of flowers, dodging traffic and barely getting out of the way before the light turned green again. A guard lifted the barrier to let us into Hasan’s gated community, called the Naval Housing Scheme. We met his two servants, and sat in the living room while the servants prepared tea. We munched on Kinnu and Guava (fresh and local!) as we talked about the week’s plans. Tomorrow, we go golfing.

New sights, new sounds... do I hear an EP in the works? Sat, 15 May 2010 20:38:00 -0400 So it’s been a couple weeks since I moved into the big city… I’ve been overwhelmed by the new sights and sounds, which inspired me to finally record a new song! It’s been a while, but now you can head over to my Bandcamp page and download “Asylum”. It’s pretty rockin’.

Yes, that’s right. It’s a free download! What’s more, it’s licenced under Creative Commons so you can share, remix, and distribute (but not sell) to your heart’s content! The best way to tell your friends is to just give them the website URL (

This track is part of a larger project that I hope to complete before August. I’m going to be moving around a lot over the next couple years, so I thought it’d be cool to create a sort of musical scrapbook for every new city that I live in. Over the next two months, I’ll be exploring this city, writing new songs, and recording them. Eventually, I’ll have an EP that captures my impression of this city.

To keep up to date on the project, follow me on Facebook or Twitter. If you want to be the first to receive new freebies and extra awesomeness, subscribe to the mailing list!

A price is on his head... Mon, 10 May 2010 01:37:00 -0400 Here’s a quick update about the songwriting contest I entered back in January or February… the semifinals of the Grad House Songwriting Competition were held last week, and I played my heart out for the $1,500 grand prize that will be awarded in the final round. I’ve just posted a video of my performance on YouTube if you didn’t have the chance to make it out. Here ya go:

I didn’t make it through to the final round, but it was quite the ride while it lasted! I wouldn’t have envied being the judges, everyone in the semifinals was phenomenal. To check out the other performers, as well as when the finals are going to be held, check out RJ Entertainment.

12 Feb Sun, 25 Apr 2010 02:04:06 -0400 12:40 PM

Waiting for Dad to come pick me up - I’ve got most of my stuff packed and ready to go!

8:50 PM

So this plane is the Airbus A380 – it has two levels and 800 passengers! We’re settled in nicely. The guy that took the shuttle with us is sitting in the same row. I was reading the documentation on this plane, and it’s pretty fuel-efficient: 3.1L/100km per person (providing all seats are filled, which they are). Not bad!

10:30 PM (Dubai Time)

Well, I’ve made at least one cultural faux-pas so far. Our friend hired someone to guide us through customs and take our bags through the airport. I made the mistake of reaching for my suitcase as it came off the carousel. The hired man turned and said, sternly, “That’s my job.” Oops.

Dad’s University friend, Shahram, met us there and we went over to his house for tea. As we drove through Dubai, he pointed out the landmarks and neighbourhoods. There are so many skyscrapers and flashing lights, one could be fooled into thinking it is just the same as any number of American metropolises. But, there is one major difference, as Shahram explained. “This might look like a carbon copy of Vegas, but no one knows what’s happening inside these buildings, or even if they’re empty. There’s no transparency here. Every single one of these structures is owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Of course, Dubai doesn’t have Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, so all this is built on borrowed money.”

We’re in the Sheraton Dubai Creek now, watching the olympics. We weren’t allowed to carry our own bags; the bellboy took them up the seven floors to our room. We tipped him 10 dirhams (about $3).

Sam’s Soapbox #6 – When in Afghanistan, Do as the Afghans Do Wed, 21 Apr 2010 13:17:00 -0400 About time! Sorry it’s been so long since I did a videoblog… I know you’re just waiting for me to rant about the government’s latest screw-up. But there’s a twist! This time, I’m talking about what our MPs are doing right on parliament hill! For the first few minutes, anyway.


Pre-Trip Thu, 04 Mar 2010 00:00:00 -0500 21 December 2009

I’m home for Christmas and Dad and I have started planning in earnest for this trip to Pakistan. We found an online forum where people have uploaded lots of pictures and videos of everyday life in Pakistan. It was fascinating to look through the dozens of pages of pictures; I can’t wait to go!

I had to apply for a new passport for this trip; my current one expires soon. That was a struggle. I must have visited the passport office five times only to get my application denied each time for a different reason. First, my guarantor was too young (even though she’s 19?), then they couldn’t read my worn and tattered birth certificate so I had to get a new one of those as well. Anyway, it’s processing now so I should have a new passport by January 4th. Then I still have to get my Pakistani visa. It’s all quite exciting!

30 December 2009

Two days ago, a suicide bomber killed 43 people at a Shiite rally/religious procession in the heart of Karachi. We now know that the Taliban Movement of Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the attack, and plans to carry out more attacks in the next 10 days. The Shiites are commemorating Ashura.

So far, we have found security in the fact that none of the tribal fighting or terrorism has occurred in Karachi in the recent past. I guess we’ll have to be extra careful now.

1 January 2010

There was another bombing today. This time it killed 88 people in the NWFP, near the fighting going on in North and South Waziristan. Perhaps Obama’s increased attention towards terrorism in Pakistan has made the situation more tense.

5 February 2010

Took my second dose of Dukoral this morning. Protection against diarrhea and cholera in a fizzy, raspbeyy-flavoured drink… What’s not to love?

Also, our flight details are confirmed:

12 Feb 21:40 - depart YYZ
13 Feb 19:20 - arrive DXB
14 Feb 18:15 - depart DXB
14 Feb 21:10 - arrive KHI
20 Feb 12:10 - depart KHI
20 Feb 13:15 - arrive DXB
22 Feb 09:20 - depart DXB
22 Feb 14:50 - arrive YYZ

All flights are on Emirates. All times are local times.

(later) Another bombing in Karachi today. On another group of Shiite attendees to a religious festival. The Sunni extremists attacked a bus, then detonated a second bomb at the hospital where the victims from the first blast were being treated. I’m feeling a little nervous; it crossed my mind that maybe I should write a will before I leave. Hoo boy. Well, at least there aren’t any religious holidays that I know of going on during our stay.

Dubai and Pakistan Trip Journal Thu, 04 Mar 2010 00:00:00 -0500 On 12 February 2010, I left Toronto with my father and flew across the ocean to spend a week in Dubai and Pakistan. We met countless new relatives, saw breathtaking sights of natural and architectural beauty, and got jostled around in the frenzied traffic of Karachi. We got to experience for ourselves a culture that is too often skewed by the headlines in the newspapers. These are my thoughts and observations.

Two concerts – March 4 &amp; 6 Wed, 03 Mar 2010 05:06:00 -0500 Are you suffering from post-reading-week stress? Need to wind down and hang out for a couple nights? Don’t want to pay $15 to see Lights at Fed Hall?

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

I’m playing 2 shows this week, on Thursday and Saturday. Both are raising money for charity, and I’d love for you to come!

S.O.S. Coffeehouse for Haiti Relief at POETS Lounge, CPH (University of Waterloo)
Thurs March 4, 7:00 PM
Tickets: $4 at the door
Proceeds go to Haiti Earthquake relief effort

38th Annual Black Forest Coffeehouse at St. Paul’s University College (University of Waterloo)
Fri March 5 & Sat March 6, 6:30 PM (I’m playing on the 6th)
Tickets: $6 for one night, $10 for both (sold at the door)
Proceeds go directly to a local charity (to be determined)

Two great shows, two great causes! As always, $1 from every CD sale will go towards the night’s fundraising efforts. So come on out and support independent music!



Cheer me on at the Grad House Songwriting Competition! Fri, 12 Feb 2010 19:19:00 -0500 On Tuesday, February 23, I’ll be competing in the 1st Annual Grad House Songwriting Competition at the University of Waterloo. There will be judges there to critique my performance and decide if I get to move on to the semifinals in May!

I’m the very first performance right at 6PM. So come on time!

Go and check out the Facebook event for more info:

I hope you can come; it’s gonna be awesome!

Video from CD Release Concert Tue, 15 Dec 2009 01:27:00 -0500 As promised, here’s a video collage of some of the songs I played at my CD release concert.

If you haven’t got a copy of Chance of Rain yet, head over to to buy a physical copy or download it instantly!

Sam’s Soapbox #5 – My Political Christmas Wishlist Sun, 06 Dec 2009 03:02:00 -0500 This year, rather than wish for world peace, I decided to try something a little more tangible.

Here are 5 simple things Canada should do to make government work better and get people excited about politics…

CD Release Party – December 11th! Tue, 24 Nov 2009 04:06:00 -0500 Yeah YEAH!

All you cool cats who find yourselves in the Kitchener-Waterloo area on December 11th, come check out the CD Release concert for Chance of Rain!

Facebook event page:

Guest performances by:

  • Off Victoria
  • Long Range Hustle (Well, Paul and Jay anyway)
  • Hugo RB
  • Kyle Stephens
  • And possibly The Fringe? (If they’re going to trek out from Port Perry, they deserve some stage time!)

$5 cover, 19+


Tell all your friends, it’s gonna be a great night!


Much love,

Sam Nabi


Sam’s Soapbox #4 – Social Classes, Elites and the Masses. Fri, 06 Nov 2009 15:30:00 -0500 You gotta see this one… Possibly my foray into the hip-hop scene? :)

Not likely. But it was still fun!

Sam’s Soapbox #3 – Voting for change Sat, 10 Oct 2009 22:31:00 -0400 Here’s a new video blog for y’all.

Ah, voting. For those of us who care, it an be an excruciatingly tough decision. Do I vote according to my ideology, or should I place my vote strategically for a party I don’t like as much?

What kind of change can I create with my vote?

Watch this video blog about strategic voting, and go to aftwerward to check out your riding’s voting history, and decide whether or not you should vote strategically.

Now accepting credit cards… wooo! Sun, 06 Sep 2009 18:56:00 -0400 For all you people out there who wanted to buy my music but don’t have a PayPal account, your time has come!

The Sam Nabi Store, over at, now accepts all major credit cards - Visa, MasterCard, Amex, and Discover - in addition to PayPal. Wonderful!

Heads up: this is only for digital downloads. You’ll need a PayPal account to purchase physical CDs or other merch, at least for now.

Head over to to check it out!

Chance of Rain CDs are here! Tue, 09 Jun 2009 17:34:00 -0400 I went to pick up the CDs from the printer yesterday, and boy do they look gorgeous! Here’s some photos that you can feast your little eyes on until the CD release concerts this saturday! That’s right, only 4 days till you can claim one of these beauties as your own!

Sam’s Port Perry Doubleheader - Two concerts for the price of one! (They’re both free)

Saturday June 13 @ 1:00 - For the love of Jo Coffee House. An afternoon warm-up for the big concert later on… I’ll be playing through all the new songs on Chance of Rain! Directions here:

Saturday June 13 from 4-9 PM - Concert Extravaganza featuring yours truly alongside 8 other bands/artists. Details here:

Without further ado, here are the CD pictures, hot off the press:

4 days wooooooooo

Sam’s Soapbox #2 – Question Period Sat, 30 May 2009 19:11:00 -0400 More political musings and satirical songwriting from yours truly. This one’s about Question period. Warning: contains footage of Stéphane Dion trying to act tough.

We have a winner! ... and some cover art too. Wed, 20 May 2009 01:08:00 -0400 Drumroll please….


The winner of the second-album-title-naming-contest is Becky, with her submission Rain Heavy At Times! Unfortunately, that’s also the name of a book about living with cancer, so I decided to change it up a little. The new CD’s gonna be called Chance of Rain. (Don’t worry Becky, I’ll still throw a free CD your way.)

So, what does Chance of Rain look like? Well, after a little photo shoot and a weekend with photoshop, here is the cover art for the new CD! Yum!

Sit tight! Chance of Rain will be out soon… For now, you can go to my website to pre-order a copy for yourself!

Album title contest ends soon! Wed, 13 May 2009 02:45:00 -0400 It’s down to the wire for the album title contest! I will make a decision this weekend! The possible winners so far are:

  • Walking Travels
  • La Bastille
  • Rain Heavy At Times
  • Bombastic

Think you can do better? Post your idea as a comment below!

Come up with my next album’s title. Get a Free CD. Easy. Fri, 08 May 2009 02:37:00 -0400 Hi wonderful people,

My room is currently a jumble of microphones, mic stands, and every sort of cable that you could possibly imagine. (Side note: this just made me think of the song What You Need by Galactic. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.)

My guitar case is open on the floor, beside the keyboard and my amp. If I want to go to bed I’ll have to find somewhere else to put my guitar. I think there’s sufficient messiness to justify not cleaning up until I’ve recorded the rest of the second album.

Speaking of which, I only have 3 songs left to record! I just spent all afternoon/evening working on Daylight, and I now have 7 songs recorded. It’ll feel good when I’m done.

So I still don’t have an album title. This is where you come in. You obviously care enough to read this blog, which is good enough dedication for me :) Here’s the deal: if you haven’t already, read my previous blog post. Now, based on those hints, I want you to think really hard of an album title that fits. Something cool, catchy, and not too complicated. Post it as a comment here. There’s a free copy of the CD in it for you if I like your idea, so let’s get at it!

P.S. Feel free to post more than one!



Second album track list teaser! Mon, 04 May 2009 03:42:00 -0400 So, for those of you who don’t know… I’m on the road to making my second album, woohoo! I’m not going to give away all the details yet, but I will tell you that this one will be more political, less introspective, more outspoken, and a little more quirky than my first album.

After a gruelling auditioning process, I have chosen 10 songs out of my chicken-scratch songbook to appear on the CD! I’ve chosen NOT to divulge the names of these songs yet, but I will describe each song in one sentence so you can get a feel of what this new album is shaping up to be.

Here goes! (From serious to lighthearted)

  • Regardless of idealistic intentions, revolutions cause terrible violence and unspeakable horrors.
  • What is war good for - can’t we just use our words?
  • The automobile is ripping apart the fabric of our societies.
  • We are too pampered and comfy to genuinely care about others.
  • We’ve all done wrong, and as humans don’t deserve much at all.
  • I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
  • I’m out of my element here, but, hey, that’s life.
  • Where do you draw the line between friendship and romance?
  • Big Brother is watching you. But maybe he’s just lonely and needs a hug.
  • It’s really awkward when you look at strangers and they look at you too.

I know some of you will be able to tell which songs are which - but not all of them, I bet!

Stay tuned for more updates!

— Sam

I'm setting up a proper blog. Fri, 01 May 2009 22:42:00 -0400 Hey hey! I’m trying to get all my social networks in line and playing nice with each other, so I only have to post a blog once and it’ll go everywhere. I’ve got my Twitter, Myspace status and Facebook status all synced together, and I’m trying to do the same for blog posts.

Anyway, bear with me as the next few blog posts I make will probably be me trying to figure this whole situation out.

— Sam

Sam’s Soapbox #1 – Canwest is in bed with the auto industry! Mon, 20 Apr 2009 19:23:00 -0400 Well, this is my foray into videoblogging territory, because I figure that Music+Politics=Awesome! After I hop up on my soapbox and finish criticising Canwest, you’ll get to hear a new, yet-tobe-released song that i’ve been working on called “the city of lovers and friends”. Happy viewing!

In the good old summertime… Thu, 16 Apr 2009 17:47:00 -0400 So, I wrote my last exam yesterday… and today, I’m moving out of my dorm room to head back home for the summer. They just finished cutting the grass and the smell of freshly cut grass is coming in through my window… mmmmm…

I really want to get going on a second album this summer, and hopefully have it all together before I go out west to Edmonton in July. This summer will be full of adventure for me, and I really don’t know what to expect.

What you can all expect, though, is some new tunes rolling your way pretty soon! It’s been over a year and a half since I released my first full-length album, so I think it’s about time for another one!

I want to do something fun with the release of this second album, I don’t know, maybe have a contest to design the cover art, or stream a different song each week leading up to the release, or … something completely random, I don’t know!

If you have a fun, quirky idea for the CD release, leave a comment… if I use your suggestion, of course, I’ll throw a free autographed copy your way!

The weather’s great, the sun is shining, and I’m lining up an album chock full of good new tunes! What could be better?

Day 9 Sun, 22 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 8:05 AM

My bags are packed and I’m ready to go. I’m a bit sad to be leaving so soon, but at the same time I’m sure that I’ll come back to this part of the world again sometime. The last thing we have planned before heading to the airport is to buy hammocks in the market.

11:47 AM

Wow… the Usulutan market, what a place! People crowded in over every square inch of the place, selling all sorts of things: bootleg CDs, raw meat hanging from hooks, toothbrushes, tomatoes, cashews, clothing, you name it. Makeshift stalls with tarps covered the street strewn with garbage. A warm, sticky smell hung in the air as thousands of people – and a few trucks – passed by us in the 3-metre-wide street. There were a few beggars taking up the space on the street corners, looking up with amazement as we walked by. Surprisingly, I only heard one or two calls of “Hey baby!” or “Gringo!”. We all bought hammocks; probably the best souvenir yet. They’re so colourful… we managed to push the price down from $25 to $15 each, thanks to Dennis.

We’ve just sat down to our final meal here at Hotel Campo Real – pupusas with beans! Yum yum. In less than 12 hours, we’ll touch down at Pearson.

2:33 PM

Well, that was easy. Security is pretty lax here at the San Salvador airport. The plane boards in an hour and a half. Lindsay and I are at the gate, minding the bags (and the $1800 cash that are in the bags). The others are out shopping. I have one whole dollar left on me. I think I’ll spend it on candy.

(Eastern time) 8:00 PM

The plane ride has been pretty good so far, despite some turbulence and the fact that we didn’t get to sit together. Lindsay, Melissa, Susie, and I have single seats in economy class, while for some reason the rest of the group got bumped up to business class. They just finished showing City of Ember, which was a pretty good movie. I didn’t get to see the very beginning, But I think I understood most of it. The lady to my left speaks only spanish and is from Managua. she’s applying for a Canadian citizenship. The lady to my right is an American high school librarian who speaks only english and is returning from a vacation in Costa Rica.

The Nicaraguan lady asked what time it was – the American lady was the only one with a watch, so I had to translate for her: “Ocho de la noche.” In a funny way, I feel like that’s a fitting metaphor for the reason and purpose of my trip to El Salvador: to seek a middle ground between two vastly different cultures. Sure, I came to build a house… but the masons and hired help could easily have done it without us. Sure, I’ve bonded with my friends in residence, but we could have got to know each other on a trip anywhere. I think the biggest thing that I’ve taken away from spending a week in El Salvador is a greater knowledge and appreciation of a social atmosphere completely unlike my own. The trip has opened my eyes to a different way of living that is more family-centred, a tight-knit community that’s so intertwined with each other, it blows my mind. We played for an afternoon in a soccer field with a bunch of neighbourhood kids that we’d never met before. In Canada, their parents would tell them not to talk to strangers. I don’t know if I’m gonna have some culture shock or not when I get back, but I hope that everything I experienced in El Salvador will stay in the back of my mind when I look at my own life.

Day 8 Sat, 21 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 8:43 AM

We went to bed really early last night. I woke up at 6:30, had a cold shower and sat by the hotel pool to watch the birds and see the sun rise. The bus’ll be here at 9, so we’re just waiting by the parking lot now.

1:54 PM

I’m so glad we came to the beach – it’s a great way to finish off the week. The water seems saltier than in San Francisco – it’s so terribly salty. I couldn’t go in the water for more than 20 minutes. But the waves here are nowhere near as powerful as in San Fran. What is powerful is the undertow. I’ve never felt anything like it in my life; it pulled me under once or twice. After swimming and sitting on the beach for a while, we went to the hotel room that we had rented for the day – 2 minutes from the beach – and got our money and changed into some dry clothes. Along the beach there are a few restaurants that all have pretty much the same food. We stopped at one of them for lunch. Most of us had a whole fish – eyes, tail and all – that had been fried, rice, tortillas, avocado, and a tomato-onion salad. I had all that, minus the fish. It was absolutely delicious – I’m definitely not getting tired of the ever-present corn flour tortillas. Surprisingly, we’ve only had beans once on the trip. That must be a Mexican thing rather than a Salvadoran one.

As we were finishing our meal, a lady came to our table with a basket on her head. Inside were all sorts of homemade candies. We all bought lots because they were so unique and interesting – sugared coconut, candied anise, caramelized jam mixed with milk, roasted cashews… she made our day because there isn’t really any shopping here aside from the restaurants. A man came by a little while later with wooden bracelets for sale. I bought a few for myself and for gifts to other people.

Now we’re back on the beach – there isn’t a cloud in the sky. The ocean is in front of me, with palm trees and mountains behind me. El Salvador is a beautiful country. To get here, eduardo drove us along a tiny, winding road through the mountains for about an hour. Maybe it’s just because I’m used to February in Waterloo, but there’s so much green here!

Vendors, like the ones that came to our table at lunch, are walking or riding bicycle-carts up and down the beach, selling snow cones, ice cream, bracelets, dried fish, candies, chicken, sandals, water, and I’m sure lots of other things as well. I’m having a great time; it’s so good that Dennis could be our team leader. He’s a great translator, and he’s lived here for many years during his volunteer career. This trip has worked out so well! It’s hard to believe that we’ll be in an airport 24 hours from now.

7:18 PM

Our time is almost done here in El Salvador. I think I’ll take this time to list off some of the unique things I’ve noticed about this wonderful country.

  • There really aren’t any speed limits.
  • There really aren’t any lines on the road either.
  • The number of passengers in a vehicle is limited only by the size of the pickup truck’s bed.
  • You don’t flush toilet paper. You put it in a wastebasket beside the toilet when you’re done with it.
  • They eat a lot of corn flour tortillas.
  • If you’re a foreigner walking down the street, every car that passes will whistle or shout at you.
  • Politics is everywhere: on the radio, on telephone poles, on painted rocks in the middle of nowhere…
  • Cellphones are a lot more common than landlines. In fact, the only landlines I saw were in the hotel, and they didn’t even work.
  • We’re wusses – the masons didn’t wear gloves or steel toes. Half the time, the hired helpers didn’t even wear shoes.
  • Garbage disposal is all over the street.
  • Razor wire, chain link, walls topped with broken glass, and barred windows are commonplace.
  • The bus stop is wherever you can jump on it.
  • Coke is the favourite soft drink – they pour it into plastic sandwich bags, tie a knot, and poke a straw through it to drink the pop.

7:43 PM

Just got an amazing massage from Julian. the list continues:

  • The national food of El Salvador should be chicken.
  • All popular music as the same beat.
  • There are no postal codes.
  • “Si”, “no”, “gracias”, and “bueno” can get you pretty far.
  • Bucket hats are a preferred alternative to sunscreen.
  • Refrigerators are rare.
  • You can cut open a coconut with a machete.
  • There’s not a culture of saving here – most people spend all they have.
  • If you don’t take in the bucket for your well at night, someone might steal it.
  • Shoes are optional.
  • Don’t expect hot water. You won’t need it.
  • Don’t expect running water all the time.
  • There are lots of volcanoes and thousands of mini-tremors every day.
  • Armed security guards, police, and the military are everywhere.
Day 7 Fri, 20 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 6:47 AM

I had a pretty restless night. I don’t think my stomach agrees with what we had to eat for dinner. I’m feeling a little better, after popping 2 Pepto-Bismols at 2:30 this morning. Aside from that, I’m really excited to build today – it’s starting to look more and more like a real house!

12:48 PM

We’re on lunch break at the build site, listening to Brian’s CD. Most Salvadoran music has that horse-trot backbeat; it’s really interesting to hear. I’m amazed at how high the house is built. It’s probably 6.5 feet now. I’ve had fun with Gonzalez and the masons. He’s told me to listen to Daddy Yankee, a big artist here in Central America. I probably could have used the half day instead of straight to 4:00, but it’s cool to see everything coming together with the house.

4:41 PM

Back at the hotel. Today was such a good day; I’m glad we stayed till 4 PM. We ended up sitting and talking a lot, then at the en we had a long water fight with Brian and Jenny. It was loads of fun; we all got soaked to the skin. All in all everyone ad a great time at the build site today. We ad to use scaffolding to reach the top of the building; we got about 10 blocks high today. I’m gonna miss Brian, Nefri, Jenny, Alex, Julio, Elias, Gonzalez, and the rest of the gang. I had a life-changing week of building, for sure, and I’m not likely to forget the experience anytime soon. It amazed me how accepting the locals were of us foreigners. Especially the mason Julio, who could do everything far more efficiently ith his assistants than with us, kept us involved and working throughout the week. I will never forget my conversations in broken Spanish with Gonzalez; it reminded me of trying to communicate with Måns in Swedish. I couldn’t have asked for a better week.

We’re back at the hotel now, and I think this is a lie-in, relax night for everyone. The bus will be here at 9 AM tomorrow to take us to the beach.

7:20 PM

Julian and I are hanging out in our room. Melissa and Lindsay are over. It started to rain in bursts over the last few hours – rain in the dry season! I think we got a lot more than we bargained for this trip.

Day 6 Thu, 19 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 6:36 AM

Beach today. I ache. All over.

4:03 PM

OK. No beach today. Also, no more building. Erica came to the build site today to tell us that Sheila had broken her tailbone in two places, and possibly one of her vertebrae. She’s being airlifted to Canada at the earliest opportunity, and we’re to follow. Lindsay was with her all day. So when me, Melissa, Christina and our fill-in translator Dennis heard the news we were pretty down. We said a jovial farewell to the masons, Gonzalez, and the family, and then left a few presents – a puzzle, a bag of marbles. Now we’re on the bus.

Melissa and I have been thinking; technically our contract with Habitat should be over on Friday; we’re of age, why not just stay on our own? We already have a flight booked for Sunday and a hotel reserved in San Salvador. We’d just need to find a way to get from here to the capital, and then to the airport. We could manage; Julian and Christina are on board too; but everything’s up in the air – the flights and hotels might already be cancelled.

7:51 PM

Everything’s still up in the air, but now we have a little more certainty as to where it’ll all land. We had an impromptu closing ceremony because we were pretty sure that we weren’t going to build tomorrow. The families and masons were here and everything. They were very grateful for our help and monetary contributions, and I think we gained an unforgettable experience in working with all these wonderful Salvadorans. We ate a huge dinner and took lots of pictures.

Then Sheila tells us we’re staying. It’s pretty certain that we’ll be here till Sunday, with Dennis as our impromptu trip leader. As far as I know, Sheila is being flown first class to Toronto tomorrow, and we’ll be ere in Usulutan for the rest of the trip with Dennis. That means no shopping in San Salvador, but it does mean we can check out the Usulutan market and go to the beach!

9:26 PM

These past two days have certainly been filled with drama. But at least, now we know what’s really going on. Sheila is going to Toronto tomorrow, and then to the hospital in Ottawa. Dennis is now our team leader. He’ll be on our build site tomorrow as the token bilingual person (and the token american gringo). It turns out we’re building for a whole day, not a half day tomorrow. I wonder how much Dennis I’ll be able to handle. Saturday we’re all going to the beach, and then we leave for the airport on Sunday morning. We’ll be staying here in Usulutan at the Campo Real for the whole time. I guess we can hang out in the town on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

In light of all the itinerary changes, Sheila’s been doing a great job at keeping everything organized and keeping the team together. I hope she understands how much we appreciate her and how sad we are to see her go.

Day 5 Wed, 18 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 6:48 PM

Today’s build was more cement mixing and laying blocks. It seemed pretty quick; the sun was really hot today so we were more tired than usual – I was glad when the bus came for sure. Gonzalez (pronounced Gonchalez) was really friendly today; we were talking about sports and popular music. At lunchtime, about 6 kids from the neighbourhood came to play with us… we brought soap bubbles and balloons and played with Nefri and his siter and their friends – it was a lot of fun, and we stayed for about an hour on the soccer field, playing with them and making conversation with the mother and older siblings. It’s really humbling to see how happy the mother was to see her kids having fun with the balloons. It’s the simplest things – a wave, a smile, that brings people together here.

Our trip encountered a second hiccup when we got back to the hotel. Upon entering the pool, Sheila slipped and hit her tailbone on the edge of the pool. I was coming down to head off to the market with Melissa, Susie, and Christina. I had my backpack, ready to go, and it was a good thing that I left the first aid kit in there from the build today. I took out the ice pack and gave it to Lindsay to crack open for Sheila. She couldn’t get it to break the seal, so she put it on the deck and told me to step on it. I did; nothing happened. Sheila told me: “Step on it harder, it won’t break!” So I gave it all my strength, and the bag of chemicals popped out of the ice pack and fell into the pool. We had a good laugh. But then I had to run upstairs to get Sheila’s kit. We got her out of the pool and put the new ice pack on her back. Well, that was fun. We decided to head off to the market before it got dark; the sun was low in the sky so we didn’t have much time. We ended up buying a bunch of bananas for $1 before having to go back.

We returned just before dinner; it turns out Sheila had really hurt her tailbone and is going to get an x-ray tonight. We’re not really sure what this means for our build, R&R, or going to the beach tomorrow, but we’ll find out whenever she gets back. José, the Habitat affiliate here, has arranged to pick her up soon. Lindsay is accompanying her; hopefully it won’t be anything major. We all really want to keep building these houses.

9:18 PM

Sheila and Lindsay are back. We just finished having a pow-wow in Sheila’s room, and everyone seems to be in pretty good spirits. She went to a doctor because the hospital was closed. (At least the x-ray part of it.) They gave her a shot and a pill, and the pain is starting to go away. Long story short, the worst case scenario is that we all have to go home ASAP on the next flight out. Sheila’s going for an x-ray in the morning. She’s still up for the beach, and we’ll be building as usual tomorrow (minus Sheila). The volcano climb is definitely out of the picture though, we’ll just be hanging out in San Salvador instead. But let’s cross our fingers for tomorrow and hope that Sheila’s alright!

Day 4 Tue, 17 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 6:58 AM

Rise and shine! Day two of the build is here. My lower back is so sore today, I can feel it now. Alright, time to get going for breakfast and another day of hard labour.


What a workout! As we’re eating lunch, I can see a pile of mixed concrete waiting to be put into the foundation. There’s some concrete already in the foundation, and the masons have already made a frame for the walls out of rebar. Cement mixing is… an ordeal to say the least. It makes me so thankful for cement mixing trucks in Canada. We had to shovel piles of gravel, sand, and cement, mix them together by hand – with shovels. Then spread out the pile into a volcano shape, and fill up the bowl of the volcano with water. Then we mixed it all together, scooping cement mix into the centre to be soaked up by the water. The hardest part was continually mixing the concrete with the shovel so it wouldn’t dry out. We had to get it into the wheelbarrow and into the foundation while the rest of us kept mixing. A truck came by to drop off concrete blocks and steel bars/sheets, but I have a feeling we’ll be mixing concrete all day. Only 2 of the outside walls are filled in so far.

On a positive note, the kids have definitely warmed up. Earlier today we had the soccer ball out and I was playing pass-the-ball with Brian. Nefri and Jennifer were playing with balloons and rubber balls with the girls. They cranked up the radio, so we’ve been working to the beat of Salvadoran remakes of American hip-hop chart-toppers. Also, we had mangos for our snack, and hey are absolutely awesome! Right off the tree, they’re green and a little sour but so unlike any other fruit. We had them plain, but the locals eat them with chili sauce and lemon juice.

3:00 PM

Snacktime again! As predicted, we’ve been shoveling concrete all day. We’ve got a lot of progress, though. All of us, the masons, and the helpers have filled in a little more than half of the foundation. We’re having a lot of fun, nonetheless, singing songs and taking shifts for mixing the concrete. This day has been going very quickly – I can’t believe it’s almost the end of the day!

5:01 PM

Woke up from a well-deserved nap. Contrary to what you might think, we’re not home yet. We’re in the bus, near the other build site, waiting for people to come back from picking coconuts. We actually finished early today and played soccer on the street – then we found out there was a soccer pitch beside the build site. This was at about 20 to 4:00, then the bus came to get us. We were confused when the other team wasn’t at their build site, but the driver spoke to the neighbour, who told us where they were. Now we’re just waiting; we’ve been in the bus for over an hour.

7:22 PM

Well, the hour-long wait was worth it. The second half of our team came back with four huge coconuts, which we got to drink the milk out of. They also got some cashew fruits for us. I learned something new today: cashews are grown on trees! There’s the cashew tree, that had cashew fruits growing on it. These look sort of like red peppers from the outside, but they’re mushy like a peach, I guess. The skin is smooth like a red pepper, though. Anyway, the actual cashew nut grows out of the bottom of the fruit, in a hard shell that you need to crack open. That was exciting!

We ate the coconuts when we got back to the Hotel Campo Real. They were really good; I’ve never had fresh coconut flesh before. We were too tired to swim. I think it’ll be an early night for everyone. All my clothes are full of dirt, and my nose is too. I’ve never sneezed out concrete before. I took the liberty of shampooing my hair when we got back; I feel like a new man.

Day 3 Mon, 16 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 5:34 PM

Well, this is my first journal entry of the day – goes to show that I didn’t have much time to sit down and write today! It was the first build day, and while I don’t ache as much as I thought I would, I’m pretty exhausted. Let’s see if I can recount everything that happened.

After a breakfast of cheese omelettes and fried potatoes, we got ready and set off to our build sites. I put sunscreen on, but not bug spray: I hadn’t seen mosquitos the entire time ere, and I still haven’t been bitten once. My team – me, Sheila, Melissa, Lindsay, and Christina – were dropped off first. The build site was much more urban than I thought it would be. It seems like the daughter bought part of the backyard of the mother’s house – enough to build a house on. It’s a very crowded space. They have a garden, chicken coop, toilet, shower, washing-up area, table, existing house, and future house packed into about 300 square metres. The existing house is painted pastel green and it has two brightly coloured hammocks in the living room, in front of a small colour TV. It’s difficult to tell who lives here and who is a neighbour; who’s hired to work and who is just helping out. Everyone’s at work on the foundation; it’s nearly done being dug out by the time we arrive.

We meet our mason, Julio, and his assistant. He reminds us that his name sounds like “July”. We start by moving the piles of dirt to the outside of the future house site that have been extracted to make the foundation. Te shovels they have are about 3 feet tall; this’ll be good for my back by the end of the week. For the first half of the day we alternate between this and cutting and tying the rebar together. The masons help us with the rebar, making marks in blue pencil where we need to tie the pieces of steel together. For our first break we had a big bowl of sliced pineapple and melon; the lady who served us was friendly, but only politely so. I think it’ll take a few days before we feel like “one of the gang”. At lunchtime, we’re all gross, dirty, and sweaty, but our spirits are high. Despite a slip-up by Habitat resulting in 6 chicken dishes (there are 5 of us, 3 of which are vegetarians), we’re optimistic about the build. We’ve started telling each other, “You’re attractive when you sweat.”

We continued with the same jobs after lunch, but I felt a stronger sense of camaraderie with the Salvadorans this time, despite the language barrier. We started to mix concrete for the foundation after we were finished moving the dirt around. We had to take the white dirt from the road, mix it with the cement, and pound it into the foundation with water. Overall, I’m getting more comfortable with this construction stuff, and the kids on the site seem to be getting more comfortable with us. Lindsay and Nefri certainly had fun with the soccer balls, and Melissa was friendly with the rooster, even though he was cock-a-doole-doodling all through the day.

We were relieved when the bus came to pick us up at 4. We swung by the other site to pick up the rest of the team – their site is a lot more rural… but they have no shade at all! I’m glad we have a lot of trees and buildings around to block out the sun.
To sum things up, it was a lot of work, but I was glad the kids started to open up near the end of the day. My hands hurt now, but that might be from the writing rather than all the digging.

Day 2 Sun, 15 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 7:53 AM

Woke up. I fell asleep after one round of cards last night. it was a long day. There was a wedding reception going on in the plaza, but the music didn’t keep us up.

9:26 AM

On the way to an artisan market. I can’t believe how good the road conditions are here! We haven’t had a bumpy ride yet. We have passed so many houses that are just stacked bricks and tin roofs. The people are sitting outside, riding bikes, walking around, but they all stop to look at us as we pass by in our bus. Eduardo is driving crazy through all the little towns (barrios?). I don’t want to know what would happen if people didn’t heed his honking. Also, the painted telephone poles indicate we’re in republican territory. Eduardo has an FMLN sticker on his bus. I should find out more about the election.

9:36 AM

On the road winding up the mountain to Alegría. There are piles of garbage along the side of the road. Interesting insight from Sheila: the more garbage strewn about, the more disposable income the people have.

9:51 AM

New party territory: “C.D.”. Their colours are blue and yellow, painted on the rocks on the side of the road.

10:07 AM

Saw another painted rock. It’s the “Cambio Democratico”.

11:31 AM

Leaving the laguna: it was a lake fed by sulfur springs and we walked around for a while. There were mountains all around, and it felt like we were in a bowl. This was a stop on the way to Alegría. Now we’re heading down the mountain to find a restaurant in Alegría.

2:17 PM

The restaurant was so amazing! We were serenaded by two mariachi bands, who sang songs for us. I had tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers on my dish, but I don’t feel too bad yet. I don’t think I have hepatitis. Now we’re walking around in town, buying souvenirs in Alegría. There is quite a bit of advertising for both FMLN and ARENA (the republican party); I bought a ceramic FMLN cup, and might buy another for Mr. Edwards. I thought there would be more shops; we’ve only seen about 5. This’ll be our big spending day; tomorrow we start to build!

3:40 PM

We found a lot of other cool shops in Alegría. I’ve pretty much taken care of everyone on my list, except maybe a few friends from res. But the find of the day is definitely a FMLN cup and saucer for Mr. Edwards. I’m more comfortable in Spanish now; I was able to haggle for the price of a bamboo flute and ask the lady to wrap the ceramics I bought in newspaper so they wouldn’t break. We’re headed back to the hotel to eat dinner and get ready for the build tomorrow.

4:36 PM

Home sweet home. I’m back in my bed, fitting a new bracelet I bought in Alegría. I think we’re all just gonna chill until dinner and swimming.

Day 1 Sat, 14 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 4:05 AM

Rise and shine! It’s time to get up, wash my face, have a bite to eat and head out for the airport. We’re in the kitchen, cutting up the poppy seed loaf for everyone to eat.

5:39 AM

We’re at the airport now! Just finished putting tags on our luggage. Waiting for Christina now…

6:20 AM

Well, that was fast. We cleared customs, checked our bags and are now in the lounge waiting for our flight to leave. We’ll be waiting a couple hours. I’m sure we can find things to occupy our time. I wonder what I’ll do with my sweater and sweatpants when we get there…

8:05 AM

Getting ready for takeoff… who’s excited? I am! I’m going to try and learn some spanish from Dad’s old conversation guide so that I can find out where the telegram office and discotheque are.

9:18 AM

Well, I have the window seat but the window is closed because the sun is shining right into it. I’ve got my stylin’ 90s sunglasses though, it’ll be alright. I’ve gotta find somewhere to stash my sweatpants, it’s a good thing I wore swim shorts under them. They’re coming down with the food now. Zumo de manzana, por favor. Sin carne.

(Salvadoran Time) 11:07 AM

I think we may have just flown past the southern edge of the USA. We were flying over land, then we hit a vast expanse of bright blue water. All I can see now is the ocean, with a smattering of clouds.

12:59 PM

Just packed onto the bus that will take us away from the airport. Let the fun begin!

1:18 PM

They paint their trees here. I suppose it’s for repelling insects, but Rob says they do it for aesthetic purposes too. Phone poles and the like are painted red, white, and blue: the colours of the republican party. There will be elections in March, so there’s a lot of propaganda going on. I saw a sign for the FMLN – a sister of the Nicaraguan FSLN?

7:37 PM

What a fabulous place! El Salvador is such a vibrant and colourful place. At least, Usulutan is. OK, first things first. We drove through Usulutan City on our way to the hotel. The hotel is called Campo Real. The city is so colourful, with buildings that are turquoise, red, yellow, pink, absolutely awesome.

We got settled in at the hotel and had a snack – tortillas filled with beans and cheese called pupusas, and cabbage… simply amazing! The first family came in and introduced themselves. They were a father, mother, and toddler daughter who are struggling to make rent. Manuel, the dad, was really excited to help build his future house. I won’t be working on that house though; we’re split into 2 teams, building 2 different houses. We meet the other family on Monday.

After that, we took a trip into the town. It was about a 20-min walk. Certainly an eye-opening experience. The streets are littered with garbage. Stray dogs are commonplace. Vendors line the crowded streets with their grungy makeshift stalls. Children run around barefoot in traffic. And you’d better get out of the way, or a bus will hit you. But there was an undeniable sense of community trust and camaraderie in this setting. We were obviously outsiders, but aside from one cry of “Gringos go home!”, everyone smiled as we walked by. We got lots of horn toots and whistles (there are only 3 guys out of the team of 11 people). It’s so carefree here. Many people are poor, or seem so on the face of it, but a part of me already wants to have grown up here, despite the pollution and low health standards.

Now, we’re all playing cards to wind down after a good swim in the hotel pool. That’ll feel good after a long day of building!

El Salvador Trip Journal Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 On February 14, 2009, I set out on a trip to El Salvador with 10 friends. We went with Habitat for Humanity to help build two houses near Usulutan, a major city in the southwestern area of the country. This travel blog encompasses my thoughts and observations for the ten days we spent there.

Pre-trip preparation Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 Saturday 7 February 2009 – 8:54 PM

Well, I’ve decided to start a travel journal for this trip. I don’t know why I’m starting so early; we don’t leave for almost a week. I guess I’m just really excited!

Mum came over last weekend to drop off my camping backpack and a first aid kit – I’m slowly getting everything packed for the trip! Dad comes tomorrow.

I still have to sort out how I’m going to take my medicines so that I don’t get Hep A or Malaria.

Sunday 8 February 2009 – 10:44 AM

I wonder if I should buy some more oil of oregano. The bottle I have is really small.

Monday 9 February 2009 – 11:13 AM

Oooohkay. So I’m taking my first round of pills and herbal extracts. Grapeseed, oil of oregano, those two were fine. I gagged when it came to wormwood, like, literally almost threw up. I’m going to see if I can get that in capsules instead of liquid extract.

9:12 PM

Well, that was better. Bought some capsules today. They taste much nicer than the extract. But I don’t know what to do with the bottle of extract now… I also got some talcum powder, milk thistle capsules, and insoles for the boots. Only 4 more days!

Thursday 12 February 2009 – 1:54 PM

Only one more day! I packed my bags last night (this morning) except for some clothes that are still drying on the clothesline. I did laundry last minute too. I’m getting really pumped! I still have to buy bug spray – I’ll make a trip uptown.

11:59 PM

Just got a Facebook message from Elisabeth – she says Mr. Edwards is jealous of me. :) Which prompted me to make a list of people to buy gifts for.

Friday 13 February 2009 – 10:40 AM

I’m so excited! Divyesh’s dad is coming to pick us up in an hour and a half; I’m trying to calm down by listening to Remy Shand. I only have a few more things to pack, namely my passport, money, and this journal. In less than 24 hours we’ll be on the plane!

9:17 PM

Everyone who’s supposed to be here is over at Melissa’s house now – Julian, Constance, Joan, me, and Melissa! The rest of the team is spending the night at Lindsay’s house. We just had a colossal dinner and now are in the basement trying to find a movie to watch.

4 unreleased tracks to download! Wed, 26 Nov 2008 03:31:00 -0500 I’ve put up 4 songs from my radio session with Steve Krysak over at the Mixed Frequencies studio. They’re up on my website now - these songs have never been released before! They’re completely free to download, so what are you waiting for?

Go to to stream and download the interview.

On the air: Monday 20 October! Tue, 07 Oct 2008 20:35:00 -0400 All right, so I have a date set with 100.3 Sound FM on 20 October (it’s a Monday), during the Mixed Frequencies radio show from 1:00 to 4:00pm.

Make sure you tune in, and if you’re not in the K-W area, you can listen online here:

I'm on the radio! Sat, 04 Oct 2008 01:39:00 -0400 Sound FM 100.3 in Waterloo, Ontario is bringing my music to the K-W area!

My debut CD is now in the playlist, so if you listen on Mondays from 1-4pm, during Steve’s Mixed Frequencies program, you might hear one of my songs!

I’m getting a date set soon for an acoustic set on the air, so stay tuned for that as well!

Thanks for listening!

Download a new song! Tue, 26 Aug 2008 01:41:00 -0400 Hey everyone,

As summer draws to a close and many of us are moving on to bigger and better things, I thought I’d write a song about my anticipation, and dread, at starting a new chapter in my life.

This song is free for everyone to listen to and download. I hope you take it with you wherever you go, and remember that change is constant; ready or not, here life comes.

Get the free track at

The Eye of the Storm Thu, 03 Aug 2006 01:02:00 -0400 The weather around here was forecasted to be pretty bad today, I heard they even got tornadoes near Guelph and Waterloo. The past few days have been blistering hot, so the winds and downpour tonight came as somewhat of a relief.

I was sitting in my living room, watching TV, when at about 8:30 the whole sky outside darkened instantly. I stepped outside to see what was up, and I could see, directly above me, the dividing line between a clear blue sky and thick, black thunderclouds. The storm was moving in quickly, and in about 15 minutes it passed. But in that quarter of an hour, I couldn’t believe how rapidly the weather changed.

The first thing I noticed was that the wind started to pick up. The trees in my backyard started rustling, and I put the lawn chairs that were out in the storage shed. I stood there, watching the clouds move closer as the wind kept getting faster. I thought I saw funnel clouds forming once or twice, only to be swept away by the moving mass of clouds before they got a chance to do any harm.

The first few drops of rain were a welcome change to the humid and sticky air that was around me, even with all the wind. As the trees continued to sway and bend, and small waves formed in my pool, tiny drops of rain fell sporadically on my face. Yet, this was only an indication of what was to come.

Suddenly, the rain stopped. The waves in my pool slowed to mere ripples. The trees stopped swaying, in direct contrast to the swirling, churning clouds overhead.

A flash of lightning, followed by a thunderous boom, summoned the the torrential downpour which was to ensue for the next few minutes. Rain fell in sheets, like a bucket of water dumped over an unsuspecting friend. The wind howled, and the air was filled with creaking and thunderclaps. I stood on my porch, sheltered from the downpour, being subject occasionally to a spray of mist from each gust of wind.

Amid the lightning and heavy rain, I saw a small patch of blue in the dark thunderclouds. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the storm ceased. It represented a metaphor for me; I realized just how volatile our lives can be, and that you should try and enjoy every moment, even if you’re in the middle of a storm.

Old music isn't all bad Sun, 30 Jul 2006 03:41:00 -0400 I’ve just realized that most of the songs in my iTunes library are over 2 years old. That’s kind of sad. But what’s even more shocking is that I haven’t grown tired of it yet. I don’t usually listen to music just for the sake of listening; most of the time it serves as a background for other things I may be doing. Take washing dishes for example, or homework. The repetition of songs keeps me in a kind of groove that helps me work better. I guess it gets kind of redundant, but I find that I still like most, if not all, of the songs. Sometimes I think i should get some new tunes, but I really don’t feel like it.

The other thing I notice is that when I listen to the same songs over and over again, I hear so much more of the song. My selective hearing gets so good, I can tune out every part of the song except for, say, the bass, or the background trumpet. When you tune in to different parts of the song, you can learn to appreciate it more as a whole.

So, before you ditch your old music collection for the latest CDs, try listening to them just one more time. You’ll hear a lot more than you expect.

Cliques & Faith Sat, 29 Jul 2006 16:32:00 -0400 We all have our own little cliques, groups from which we hope to find acceptance and try to forget our problems. To escape our lives at home, we do drugs, or commit petty crimes, or join a gang, or lose all respect for those around us, or just stop caring about the world.

Assigning labels to people further segregates us as youth, splitting us apart until our lives revolve around nothing more than our cliques and those peers that we consider to be friends. At the heart of this problem is an unstable foundation; we are unsure where to put our trust and our faith. Ususally, we put in in the hands of our peers, or ourselves, or an idol, or rock bands, or skateboarding, or music, or a video game, or sports, or in nothing at all.

But the only safe bet in to rely on Jesus to help us through the rough patches of life. He is the only one with enough power, love, and understanding to stand beside us when we’re at our worst, and say: “Go. You are forgiven.” Jesus’ awesome power is what unites Christians and promises that with him, you may be down, but you will never be out.

Why do I stay up so late? Thu, 27 Jul 2006 03:08:00 -0400 What value is there in spending countless hours in front of the computer monitor? What outcomes does it have in my subconscious mind? Are there psychological factors at play which tie me into the realm of the Internet? I think I am fascinated with the wealth of information and opportunities for self-expression that the Internet has to offer.

There is so much to explore, and it’s so vast that I will never be able to satisfy my desire to learn more. I think that the reason I started getting into web design is that it fulfilled a creative desire for me, but even more so, that I could reach out to a community with the click of a mouse.

I wanted to understand more about the inner workings of the Internet, and I think I chose web design because it lets me get down and dirty with the source, but it’s not such an overwhelmingly complicated task that I’d have to devote my entire life to it. I love the creative side of things, and the various forums that I can go to for help, and to help others, builds a sense of community.

I am obsessed with the web browsing experience and what I can do to make mine better and more fulfilling. I recently downloaded Opera and Flock, two browsers that stray off the beaten path that I walk with Firefox and Internet Explorer. I now find myself using IE a lot more, now that I have downloaded the IE7 beta. Its visual experience is superb and it’s very easy to use. My previous bias against the browser has softened a bit with the introduction of IE7. Flock, in my opinion, is the best browser out there for teens. The built-in blogging tools and photo uploading tools are amazing. This integration into the browser makes things so much more streamlined, in the goal of optimizing time.

But the more useful features I find, the more time I seem to be spending on my computer. It’s hypnotic, really. There is no end. there are no limitations. On the Internet, I can mask my identity, change who I am, play through countless roles, and experience so many different things. It’s a wealth of knowledge and interactivity, which at the same time stimulates my imagination and makes me zone out into a state of subconsciousness. Sometimes, I look around, and the moment I tear my gaze from the monitor, everything seems so much more real.

That’s the thing about the Internet. It seems interactive, but you’re only using 2 of your five senses. I should really spend less time surfing the net, and more time out doing stuff. Stuff that will stimulate both my mind and my body. The Internet is like a black hole, sucking the vast majority of teens into itself via myspace and youtube. It’s dangerous. As the saying goes, go out and smell the roses. (Is that really a saying? I thought it was, but now I’m not too sure.)