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Random pages of Coupland

Previously I praised Douglas Coupland’s typography, and explained that:

Often when reading Coupland’s books, I use my smartphone camera to capture the unique layouts

I have collected a number of those photos and gathered them together with some commentary in the galleries below. Have a click through, and enjoy some pithy quotes, equally insightful and random.

Microserfs (1995)

jPod (2007)

Extraordinary Canadians Marshall Mcluhan

My short review.

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books, politics, review, tech

A slim crisis β€” a review of Disruptive Power

cover of Disruptive Power

Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age by Taylor Owen

From the book:

Coupled with the power that is derived by the state’s increasing sophistication in this space β€” whether through automation, biometrics, or the new forms of social control and the violence they enable β€” there is reason to question the narrative of empowerment that has been explored throughout this book.

Emphasis added. This quote comes from page 184 (of 210). That is 88% of the way into the book. It reflects my frustration with this book, as I spent much of my time questioning the “narrative of empowerment.”

Owen does a good job giving an overview of the state of tech and the state. Each chapter tackles big issues in tech and the way we govern ourselves: “activists, humanitarians, journalists, … terrorists”. All the usual suspects make an appearance β€” Anonymous, Bitcoin, Ushahidi β€” and the tried and true analysts like Shirky, Benkler, and Castells are cited at length.

But there is a shocking lack of critique.

A simple example:

Anyone can now disseminate information on a new media infrastructure. Blogs, social networks, and the wider Internet all allow people to self-publish and have the capacity to reach most people around the globe.

This completely ignores the inherent power imbalances the incumbents have (ie. talent pools, media relationships, existing audiences etc). Joe Sixpack blogger != CNN. This kind of statement has been debunked time and again. Throughout Disruptive Power there are a number of these observations which are seated more in the cyberutopian wishful thinking of the 1990s, than the analyses bourne out in the past few years.

Throughout the book Owen derides hierarchy, lauding liquid democracy and the “flat” structure of Occupy Wall Street. This belies how fractured and terrible the decision-making was/is in OWS and the Pirate Party. Owen pits hierarchy against networked organizations β€” yet, hierarchy is simply a type of network architecture. The book is riddled with such simplifications, and it detracts from his overall argument.

Owen cites tech critics like Evgeny Morozov, so he is surely aware of the negative aspects of the tech-boosterism he seems engaged in. His Twitter activity is also evidence of this. So why is this book so one-sided? Later in the book Owen takes on a more critical tone, and these chapters are much more satisfying. It is almost like this book was written in the same order it is presented, and the longer he researched, the more nuanced his opinion became.

A more likely hypothesis is length: Disruptive Power is a mere 210 pages (plus endnotes), and gives a whirlwind tour of some very large trends. Books have been written on each of the chapter topics. Owen barely scratches the surface. I would have liked him to add another 120 or so pages and include a more rounded-out argument. Disruptive Power may be a good primer on these topics, but it is not a thorough critical analysis. Read it as the beginning of a journey into this topic, not to get caught up on the current state of affairs.

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Naginata-hoko against modern skyline
Canada, community, Japan, Kelowna, travel

In between worlds β€” thoughts from a short trip to Japan

Every time I come back to Japan I ask myself: could I live here again? I spent 8 years here. I met my wife here. Both of my daughters were born here. There is so much about this country that I enjoy. The infrastructure is great, the safety, helpfulness, richness of culture and history.

Yet, I don’t think I could live in Japan again. At least, not at this point in my life. And the reason is a simple one: community.

We have lived for 3 years in Kelowna. Since leaving my hometown at 18, this is the longest I have ever lived in one location. I am involved in a few different community groups including the startup community, Japanese immigrant community, the wider immigrant community, and others. Once my children are more independent, I plan on being involved in more. This year, my oldest daughter completed kindergarten. That has a whole new community, a long term one made up of teachers and best friends and other parents. I care about what goes on in my city, province and country, and think of myself as an active and engaged citizen. I cherish my right to vote, and can voice my opinion to my political representatives which I have pretty much all met at one time or another.

If we moved back to Japan, I would lose all of this.

My wife takes our daughters back about once a year and puts them in school for a month or so, that they might have some Japanese education. Walking the kids to school, listening to the daily recap from the teacher, attending assemblies β€” even though I am pretty fluent in Japanese, my outsider status is pretty apparent. Not having the same shared experiences, I cannot contribute to my full potential.

This year’s visit coincided with the Gion Festival, a month long series of events, dating back to 970CE, heralding the beginning of summer. Gion matsuri is one of Japan’s three major festivals and the pride of Kyoto. It is a hot sticky mess as the summer rainy season brings humidity and typhoons. Everyone looks forward to going out in the (slightly) cooler evening, admiring the 33 floats, running into neighbours, drinking and revelling. Families are out with younger children way past their bedtime. Teenagers run around, flirting and sneaking drinks. It is a real carnival atmosphere. The floats represent different city neighbourhoods and are maintained, built and paraded by the community members. There are months of preparations, meetings and dance practices, bringing the community together. Parade members are selected as representatives of their neighbourhoods. The participants are full of pride, and are looked on by their community members with pride. Although there is the occasional foreigner in the mix, they are inherently a “guest.” Experiencing Gion matsuri this year just reminded me of how difficult it is to integrate into a foreign society.

My 8 years in Japan were not as an “expat”, but as someone who intended to live their forever. I am fluent with the language, knowledgeable about history, know more about Japanese traditional culture than many Japanese, and kept up with domestic politics and economic issues. Even armed with all this knowledge, lacking a common experience with natives makes it exceedingly difficult to integrate completely. I think most lifers in Japan find a comfortable niche and make it work for them. This would have been my approach, had I chosen to stay.

These challenges in integration have given me a little insight into the immigrant experience, which has been very useful in Canada. My wife got her Canadian Permanent Residency over 5 years ago, yet there are still many struggles. She is grateful that I can understand her feelings and at the same time be her “inside man” when it comes to Canadiana. I enjoy helping other immigrants, not from a pedestal of privilege (as a white male) but as a pool of understanding, to be drawn upon if needed.

I am a collection of strange experiences, without any real special skill or knowledge. I have always been in between worlds, serving as connective tissue between different communities β€” stuck between Canada and Japan; between Eastern and Western Canada; technology and politics; nerds and “normies”; between the past and the future. Always cartilage, never the bone.

However, at this point in my late thirties, with all the connections to the local community that I have been building over the past few years, I am finally achieving a sense of long-term belonging. Japan is a wonderful place, a place that we Canadians can certainly learn from and aspire to in many things. But for now, I am content just visiting. I have much to live for at my home in Canada.

Summer 2015 in Japan

For those that are interested, here are a bunch of photos and videos from my trip to Japan this summer:

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hilarity, podcasts

The time I was outed as the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard’s bus-driving supervisor from the interstellar Gnarian realm

The most recent episode of the Dead Author’s Podcast has our intrepid host H.G. Wells interviewing Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in Part 2 of an extended interview which started a few months ago. As is the custom, H.G. asked his guest questions sourced from Twitter, and my question is included. Here’s the clip:

This is a fun podcast I have been listening to for a while and is done in support of the 826LA Time Travel Mart.

Watch some video promos to see if there are any other eps you should listen to. Well, you should listen to all of them, but I particularly recommend Plato, Ayn Rand and my all-time favourite Confucius.

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books, movies, review

Quarterly review: FY15Q2

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

I am still a couple of books ahead of my 2015 Goodreads challenge, for which I am grateful since I recently started reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and Infinite Jest, both which are over a thousand pages. Yes, finally I am doing an Infinite Summer, which is a sort of summer reading/support group to get through this challenging but worthy novel. I am already way behind, but the book is amazing so far.

Other than Tehanu (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†) I did not write any short reviews this quarter.

It was a strange month, with some strange books, including Iterating Grace β€” a short, fun read with an interesting mystery behind it.

Recently I have been doing some research on the plight of Canadians of Japanese heritage during WWII. Reading Obasan (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…) I was exposed to a beautiful, sorrowful account of that dark stain on Canadian history. Typically assigned reading in high school, I somehow missed this book. Now, I recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it is like to be treated as an “other”, even when you are in your own country. I will certainly encourage my kids (who are half-Japanese) to read it when they get older. Whether they realize it or not, it is part of their heritage.

Looking back on my reading this quarter I have learned is that I should be more diligent in writing little reviews. It helps me remember the book better, and justify the ratings I award them.

Film

My family has been away for the past 6 weeks, which means that the number of children’s movies I saw has dropped precipitously, which is unsurprising. More surprising, however, is how much my film viewing overall has dropped. Despite all my new-found spare time, I have only watched 5 films since my temporary bachelorhood, and written only three micro-reviews for the entire quarter:

β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜† Avengers: Age of Ultron

β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜† Mad Max: Fury Road

β˜…β˜†β˜†β˜†β˜† 47 Ronin

Most of my screentime went to catching up on TV shows: I finished off Agents of SHIELD, Arrow and enjoyed The Flash; Daredevil was fun and I even liked Agent Carter; lastly I started watching Vikings and am halfway through the second season.

I still need to get caught up on Game of Thrones. I still haven’t even seen Season 3 yet.

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hilarity, startups

Putting humanity back into startups

Startup culture is pretty absurd. You can seriously criticize its neoliberal, technocratic ideological underpinnings, or you can satire it with shows like Silicon Valley. Hackathons are ripe for criticism too, but there is a place for laughs. Listen to this great Radio Berkman ep about “Comedy Hack Day,” where they embrace the absurdity of the “app-happy Cloud of anesthetized convenience”:

This reminds me of another Hackathon I heard about from last month:the Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon where an amazing CLI for Tinder was released, among other stupid and funny inventions. At last year’s local Startup Weekend Okanagan the winning team used humour to get an edge, building an app that routes your txts through a friend for approval before sending β€” for those times when one is inebriated and should not be sending ill-advised, late night missives to former lovers.

Baratunde Thurston (of The Onion fame) ends the Berkman podcast (at about 10:20) with a comment worth highlighting:

Technologists, I think, its very important as architects of our future… that there’s a dosage of humanity in that. And there’s not much more human than humor.

These examples aren’t specifically political or social critiques about technology per se, but the potential is there. I like to read (and sometimes write) high-minded, literary critiques of this business that I am in. That is certainly valuable, and works. But humour is another way to make people aware of the absurdities of this business, and is an enjoyable and artful way to valuable tech criticism.

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letter from tom mulcair

Nice letter from Thomas Mulcair, leader of the Official Opposition and the NDP. It is with regards to this. After having my loyalty questioned in the House of Commons last week, I am glad somebody in Ottawa appreciates what we did.

Canada, privacy and surveillance

Letter from Tom Mulcair

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A photo of pollution in Wuhan
movies, politics, review

China’s Inconvenient Truth

Photo: Residential buildings in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Darley Shen/Reuters.

In late February, Under the Dome, a documentary by former television news anchor and investigative journalist Chai Jing, was released criticizing China’s environmental record. Her quiet, understated approach is charismatic. Armed with statistics, footage and interviews from a number of impressive sources, she flexed her investigative journalist muscles. The film went viral in China.

Within a week, the Party shut it down. The film was “spirited away by gremlins.”

Of course, it still exists online outside of China, and I recommend you watch it. The entire film is on YouTube, the translation of which was apparently coordinated by a grade 12 student from Mainland China via GitHub.

(I watched via this playlist by a different translator, which I had discovered before finding the project above.)

Even if you are not a China watcher, the presentation is very engaging β€” a master class in presentation skills. Many have compared it to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Chai examines the impact of China’s energy mix, criticizing coal, diesel, oil, as well as the lax enforcement of the various ministries responsible and the corporations that control them. She closes with a number of suggestions including market competition and people power. I don’t know if opening up the market is the right answer, but surely the stricter enforcement that she calls for is necessary whether or not China reforms its energy sector. She promotes apps made with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs that allow the public to see and report businesses with excessive emissions to environmental watchdogs and publicly on Weibo.

Harnessing China’s powerful netizens to work with environmental NPOs might seem like a risky move. But just this year the government introduced new new environmental protection provisions that encourages “naming and shaming” of illegal polluters. Last year, President Xi himself declared war on pollution. This is an interesting use of open data, and can only be executed by having the right legal infrastructure in place (ie. buy-in by the government) and an engaged citizenry (ie. buy-in by the people).

Chai points out that this is a chance for Chinese citizens to test the fortitude of these laws and their government. The government is asking for transparency and public involvement in solving to pollution crisis in China. But as the pulling of this documentary demonstrates, they don’t want transparency and public involvement in pointing out how the government has failed thus far.

That criticism aside, awareness of how bad things are in China (and soon to be in India) is an important step, especially since they offer tools for the public to get involved. In Canada, emergency environmental reporting is devolved to the provincial and sometimes city level. This isn’t as convenient as China’s hotline number “12369” (which I can already recall by memory, just from watching the film), but just knowing that such infrastructure for reporting exists in the first place should be made common knowledge.

Documentaries like Under the Dome promote conversation around these issues (even though sometimes the politics involved can be … ahem … toxic). China is attempting to shut down the conversation in its own country, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the problem here. And if Canada wants to grow that $20B in trade we do with China, we can make sure that our government does so in a responsible way, leveraging the laws that the Chinese government has already put in place.

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politics, tech, travel

More than computers β€” A recap of LinuxFest Northwest 2015

For me, this year’s LinuxFest Northwest 2015 was learning more about the politics of the Free Software movement. This track featured some excellent and eminent speakers, and I enjoyed it very much. Here is a short recap of each session:

1.

Deb Nicholson, the Director of Community Outreach at the Open Invention Network gave an entertaining talk called Patents and Copyright and Trademarks: A Primer for Developers. Using plain language and funny pictures, she delineated trademarks (how it looks), copyright (the content), and patents (how it works) in a simple way. I enjoyed her examples of “trademark collision” and where things get fuzzy with regard to patenting software.

2.

screen cap of slide

Bradley Kuhn, former director of the Free Software Foundation brought the controversy in his talk Considering the Future of Copyleft: How Will The Next Generation Perceive GPL?. You can see a previous version of the talk on YouTube. Basically he advocated the enforcement of licenses, the abandonment of weak copyleft, and bringing the principles of copyleft to a new generation of coders. Javascript and Android are the new fronts for free software in this age, and the young devs coming up are used to wiring together frameworks and APIs without much knowledge or background about licensing. This is a long-term problem for the free software movement. As I summed up in my tweet from the event:

3.

Every year at LFNW there is an ACLU/EFF Panel Discussion. This year Seth Schoen from the EFF partnered with ACLU Washington state’s Technology and Liberty Director Jared Friend. Seth was great as always, and I was really impressed with Jared. As usual the crowd got pretty riled up. The discussion included stingrays, the terrible DMCA exemptions process, and fighting 215. The EFF must make a chunk in donations on LFNW weekends, but I feel like we in the crowd want to do more, but can’t, and feel helpless.

4.

The final talk I took in was an intro to The Free Software Foundation Licensing & Compliance Lab; We Fight for the User by Donald Robertson who is a Copyright and Licensing Associate with the FSF. This was a more informational session, but I came away with a much better understanding of the FSF and its activities.

Other interactions

With 1800 attendees and a bunch of exhibitors, you can bet you are going to meet some interesting people at LFNW.

Late Saturday, on the way to our traditional drinking spot Uisce, we stopped by The Foundry, Bellingham’s Makerspace. They had a really nice setup with electronics, sewing, woodworking corners in addition to the “traditional” 3D printers, laser cutters and the like. Check out my album on Flickr to see their amazing PAPER 3D printer. This thing blew my mind. (They have better pics on their

(http://www.bellinghamfoundry.com/gallery/)). We capped off the visit by playing a 3D printed guitar and 3D scanning my head. Good times.

screen cap of Chad's 3d scanned head

On Sunday I wandered the exhibitor’s floor rather than going to sessions.

I spoke with the executive director of Geeks Without Bounds, and we had a good discussion about balancing fervor for technological solutionism and the realities of delivering aid through established frameworks. I am confident that GWOB isn’t simply about air-dropping mobile phones across the developing world and telling them to simply apt-get install democracy.

There was another deep discussion with Aaron Wolf from Snowdrift.coop, which is a platform for coordinating donations to F/OSS projects to make a bigger impact on development (those are my words). Rather than tons of disparate small donations going to disparate projects, getting everyone to put there money in the same place can push a project forward in a meaningful way. The vision of the project, and the idea to convince proprietary projects to go open once a sustainable ecosystem is developed is intriguing and worthy, even if extremely challenging. Check them out.

In conclusion

LFNW is about more than computers. There is a rich background of history and culture to the Free Software movement and the Free Culture movement. Learning about the ways these organizations fight for every user’s rights through legislative, legal and technical means is empowering. It is not all about the tech, but about the politics and social norms that underly every human endeavor. This recap should demonstrate that you do not have to be a Linux geek to enjoy LinuxFest. There are tons of learning and networking opportunities for developers and users of all kinds.

I did not touch a command line all weekend. Which suits me, since I only have a Mac and wouldn’t want to be scorned by all the true neckbeards there. ;-)

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design, dev, usability

Resources for Web and Mobile accessibility

Derek Wilson, a Career Development Practitioner with the Neil Squire Society, visited the Okanagan Developer’s Group yesterday to discuss with local devs accessibility online and on mobile. He gave us a demonstration of various assistive technologies such as VoiceOver and the Rotor on iPhone, and JAWS a popular (and expensive) screen reader application.

It was very enlightening to the designers and developers in the room, most who have never seen a visually impaired person use a computer, nevermind a touchscreen device.

I think it was enlightening for Derek as well. He got some insight into how real developers work, and was surprised that only one person in the room was a formally trained programmer (and his background was still unconventional, with much of his training in mathematical programming).

The fact that the web can work without knowing anything about standards is a boon to permissionless innovation, but a bane to users that require adherence to standards.

Below is a list of resources that Derek shared with the audience at OKDG to help them be more inclusive in their work. Follow him on Twitter @culturemate for more resources.

WAI Specs diagram

Standards

Other Resources

Tools

Articles

Videos and Audio

Screen Readers and the Web (YouTube)

See Web Accessibility Training Day, put on by The National Federation of the Blind Center of Excellence and the Maryland Technology Assistance Program. Below is a selection recommended by Derek. All links to the MP3 files are on the NFB site.

  • Accessibility: The Natural Outcome of Innovative and Inclusive Business, Eve Hill (Department of Justice)
  • Panel on Enterprise Implementation of Accessibility, Tony Olivero (Humana), Peter Wallack (Oracle), Steve Sawczyn (Deque)
  • Panel on Education Implementation of Accessibility, Kara Zirkle (George Mason University), Janna Cameron (Desire2Learn), Cheryl Pruitt, Susan Cullen (California State University)
  • The Trusted Tester Program, Bill Peterson (Department of Homeland Security)
  • PDF Accessibility in an Enterprise Setting, Shannon Kelly (Actuate)
  • HTML5 Accessible Design, Paul Bohman, Preety Kumar (Deque Systems)
  • Google MOOC Introduction to Web Accessibility, Louis Cheng (Google)
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