Event: OnPoint – Do we need a new relationship with transportation and mobility in our region?

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What are the possibilities for city beyond transportation? How do we think about transportation in terms of making a city more vibrant, rather than a deadening concrete grid where we travel isolated in our cars?

On December 8th I will be on the panel for the Urban Systems On Point Series Getting Unstuck – Do we need a new relationship with transportation and mobility in our region?. The event is the fourth in the series, and happens at the Laurel Packinghouse from 7PM. There is wine, food and music, and about 200 to 300 interesting people to meet and mingle with. See all the details and get your FREE tickets here →

I will be on the panel with a few others to discuss transportation. Here are some related posts on this blog that will likely be mentioned on stage:

The unexamined blog is not worth writing

Blogging is an activity I have been doing for more than a dozen years, under a few different guises: an anonymous personal blog, a pseudonymous group blog, and then another pseudonymous Tumblr which actually provides the basis of this blog.

Almost 8 years later I am now at 500 posts on this blog.

500

Early in 2009 I laid out why I was writing this blog. Looking back, it is interesting to see how things have certainly changed over time. I view this public repository of writing as a sort of changelog of my thinking. And over 8 years, scrolling through my old posts, I can see that it has changed quite a bit.

This blog started out with lots of Apple and tech punditry from Japan. I spent a lot of time talking about things like why Japanese cellphones aren’t that smart and how Japan got emoji on the iPhone. It was a lot of hot takes. Short pieces that were too long for Twitter.

Looking back on that writing in Japan, probably the only real lasting stuff is on parenting. Posts like The Baby Staring Problem are memorable. Even today I share End of paternity leave and a lesson on negative support, in which I share how to better support my wife as a new mother, after finishing 6 months of paternity leave. The Japanese version was published in a feminist newsletter in Japan.

After returning to Canada I still wrote about tech and design, and less about Japan. Around this time I also decided to forgo anonymity and began to use my real name on the net. That was a big turning point. For six years I used pseudonyms. For the last six I have been very open. Maybe too open.

My love affair with tech began to widen beyond interaction and design and into entrepreneurship. Startups became a featured topic, especially after moving to Kelowna and participating in the startup community here. I also started thinking more about thinking, not only about dealing with information overload but also in wider society: how public intellectualism has changed in the internet age, and maybe more importantly, how audiences have changed. After a few years out of graduate school, numbing myself with mindless hot-takes on tech, I started to wake up and think and read more critically again. This was the beginning of another turning point, a new evolution in my thinking.

Working in startups and having my critical faculties engaged I began to see more and more of the problems of tech. In about 2013 I started digging more into techno-optimism. Just a few months later I was in San Francisco and saw the social division first hand. In the beginning of 2014 my faith in tech started to fall down and by late 2014 it was lying down. And then I came to the realization, that it wasn’t “tech” per se, that tech is just a symptom.

2015 is probably the year I completed my conversion from neoliberalism to leftism… a far cry from my years as a center-rightist at Coming Anarchy. Since then I have written more about politics and social issues: journalism, anticonsumerism and environmentalism (downsizing), racism and the immigrant experience. Tech still makes an appearance, especially when I write about privacy and surveillance, but to a much lesser degree.

Having your thoughts on record, even if they are in a private journal, makes for interesting retrospection. You can see how much you have grown and changed over the years. In 2009 I wrote:

My life is ruled by four themes: 1) international politics, 2) Japan, 3) technology and 4) design.

International politics are important, but I focus more on local politics now. I will write more about Japan when I move back someday. I still think about tech, but not as a cheerleader anymore. Design is the only thing on that list that no longer interests me to the same degree.

Things have changed. Eight years later and nearing 40, I am more interested in grassroots community building and living the “examined” life: working to make things better for my family and the people around me. Still, writing this blog and putting my thoughts on “paper” and out in public, is a great way for me to practice being examined — whether by others or by myself. Here is to 500 more.

Interac and your privacy

If credit cards are merely thin plastic behaviour trackers leaking your private information into a sea of marketers, cash seems the only way to maintain your privacy. What about debit? That is the question @dchymko had in response to my post on how I use cash pretty much exclusively these days. Daryl asks:

An interesting question. If you use the debit card of a small credit union, it is unlikely that they have the bandwidth to be selling on your consumer activity. But what about the debit network itself? That network sees all transactions and would be a treasure trove of data, ripe for monetization. Time for an investigation. interac logo

I was surprised to find that Canada has a pretty interesting system. In the US, credit card companies typically provide debit card services (which probably means they are a privacy sieve just like regular credit cards), but in Canada we have Interac running the inter-bank system, which turns out to be a non-profit! That sounds positive. Even more positive, when Interac tried to become a for-profit company in 2010, it was rejected by the Competition Bureau, which may have indirectly protected the private information of millions of Canadian debit users. But that is just speculation.

Magic 8 ball: sounds pretty great

All in all, this sounds pretty great, but I wanted to be sure. Looking at the Interac website, I could see that they do release some consumer purchase information, but it seemed pretty high level. I wanted to find out more, so I sent a mail to privacy@interac.ca. Unfortunately, I got no reply. After a few weeks I asked on Twitter and was able to get ahold of a communications manager. My email to Interac asked:

Credit card companies often partner with marketing intelligence agencies like Experian and Axiom, with whom they share consumer information like purchasing habits etc.

Does Interac or Axcsys collect and share or re-sell consumer data to third parties?

Interac’s reply:

Thanks for reaching out. To answer your question, no, we do not share or re-sell personal consumer data to third parties. The only data we share is limited aggregated data. For example, the number of debit transactions in 2015, how many e-Transfers are conducted annually, etc.

None of this data used in aggregate could ever be linked back to individual consumers. Hopefully this helps, let me know if you have any additional questions.

Magic 8 ball - Hrmmmm

Seems pretty positive, but that term “limited aggregated data” stuck out to me, so I followed up:

As someone who has worked in big data, “aggregated” is a relative term. I would like to get as specific as possible.

Do you categorize consumer spending patterns? Can you share a small sample of the data?

Who do you share this aggregated data to? Can you give me examples? How much does it cost? Is there a public pricelist?

That email was sent on October 13th 2016 and has yet to receive a reply.

I asked those questions thinking about Bell’s RAP program, which used “aggregated user data” to target ads, a program they had to give up. I wanted to determine if Interac had some sort of categorization scheme like Bell which they could use for either purchases or individuals. But the comms guy at Interac has gone dark, and my investigation seems to be over.

If we could get the proper assurances from Interac, I would love to use debit more. As @chrisfosterelli points out:

Off White

Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X was released in 1992 when I was just 14 years old. Denzel Washington’s performance was powerful and it struck me. I became very interested in Malcolm X. During a trip to a nearby city I bought one of those X caps. The next week I wore it to school. I was a young white kid in a rural mountain town that was overwhelmingly white. My highschool went from grade 8 to 12. I was in grade 9, and let me tell you, some of the older non-white kids did not appreciate my expression of solidarity. I suffered at their hands. Although I did know that racial hierarchy was wrong, at 14 I did not have the sophistication to know how to navigate it.

From this incident I took the wrong lesson — a lesson that I think many white Canadians learn at a young age — when it comes to race: keep your opinions to yourself.

Canada has over 200 ethnic groups, but is 80% “white.” Canadian policies make it easy to ignore our race problems. The multiculturalism policies enacted since 1971 allow us to hide under a veneer of inclusionism. The truth is since we don’t collect data on race we have no idea how big our race problem is. Canada’s last segregated school was closed in Nova Scotia in 1983! In 2016 we are more integrationist than the United States. Our government has a dedicated foundation to dealing with racism that nobody has heard of, and we have hundreds of years of discriminatory policy towards the indigenous population.

angus reid chart

As the majority, white people have a responsibility to stand up. The first step is confronting whiteness.
Continue reading “Off White”

Top of the bottom

“Why don’t you show them something Japanese?” the teacher suggested.

Each week at the private school, a parent comes into class to talk about what they do. There is a wide variety of professions to expose the kids to. There is the dad who is a musician. One mom taught the kids some yoga. Then there is my friend: a businesswoman who happens to be Japanese.

The school is predominantly white, well-to-do, and teaches an alternative pedagogy to the public school where my kids go (mixed race mingling with a blend of ethnic and economic heritages all lumped together). My friend is probably the only Asian in that school of privilege. She stands out. When it comes to her turn to talk to the children about what she does, she is stripped of her years of experience and skills and reduced to what she is.

“Why don’t you show them something Japanese?”

Upon hearing this I snarked, “You should tell the teacher you are gonna teach the kids how to make maple syrup! Or, teach them the rules of hockey! Show them white people what for!”
Continue reading “Top of the bottom”

Quarterly review: FY16Q3

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

★★★★☆ Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism

★★★☆☆ Canticle

★★☆☆☆ Zero K

★★★★☆ If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

★★★★★ The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

★★★☆☆ The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)

★★★☆☆ The Men Who Stare at Goats

Film

★★½☆☆ The Men Who Stare at Goats

★★☆☆☆ The Good Dinosaur

I didn’t write a review, but I enjoyed Oliver Stone’s new film Snowden and also the Adam Curtis documentary The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom which you can see for free online at Thought Maybe.

Thoughts on Citizen Energy

The “right to the city” is described by David Harvey as:

The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

Although it was a bit of a slog, I enjoyed the ideas presented in his book Rebel Cities, and have continued to think about how I as a citizen can play an active role in the shaping of my city’s development. Thus, I was very excited to welcome Kusunoki Masashi of Citizen Energy Ikoma to come and speak about how his group put solar panels on the rooves of public buildings. see previous post about the talk.

What Japan and Germany have been doing

Japan is particularly vulnerable when it comes to energy disruption since it needs to import more than 80% of its energy requirements (if you want to know more in excruciating detail, see my master’s thesis on the topic). But the 2011 Fukushima disaster was a massive blow. The 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake caused a tsunami which triggered the nuclear meltdown causing nearly 16,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. Five years later, Japan is still heavily engaged in the cleanup. In the wake of the disaster, all 50 of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down. Starting last year, despite much public protest, the Abe Administration has begun restarting nuclear power plants.

In the meantime there have been a number of citizen-led movements for safer, more resilient energy resources similar to Citizen Energy Ikoma. Many are inspired by the experience of Germany. As part of the Energiewende (“Energy Transition”), decentralizing and democratizing energy production has been a key effort. Municipalities and citizens have been taking back energy utilities and in 2012, one in sixty Germans was an energy producer. The number of energy coops has risen to over 1000 in 2015.

german_energy_cooperatives

The Energiewende policy started in 2010, but after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany set policy to shut off all its nuclear reactors by 2022. (The Energiewende is a very complex topic beyond the scope of this post. If you want an overview, check out this dispatch in FP and this National Geographic piece.)

Using our right to our city

Distributed energy supply, disaster-proofing resilient communities, and fighting climate change at the local level… it is all pretty inspiring stuff and makes me think about how this can be applied to my own city.

Kelowna gets about 305 days of sun a year, with 1950 hours of bright sunshine. Plus it gets very little snowfall: only about 5 days a year with more than 5cm, and 1.4 days with more than 10. (data) What this means is that we have a lot of flat rooves. All that flat area and all that sunshine makes for a good argument for putting solar panels everywhere.

Just this summer Kelowna City Hall replaced its roof. What if they had installed solar panels up there? Scratch that: what if we installed solar panels up there? How many other public buildings, schools and open areas could be used towards these ends? If the city does not have the capacity to do this, Ikoma and all the other cities in Japan and Germany prove that we as citizens can. They serve as examples of how to use our right to the city.

Citizen Energy

On Sunday (18 Sep) we had a special guest give a talk about how citizens installed solar panels on public institutions in Ikoma City, Japan. Kusunoki Tadashi is a boardmember of Citizen Energy Ikoma (市民エネルギー生駒), a citizens group who took the fight against climate change into their own hands by leveraging public space to produce electricity locally. They put solar panels on the rooves of public buildings decreasing the local carbon footprint, and used the profits of the excess electricity sold back to the utility into other public projects. Mr Kusunoki spoke for about 30 minutes telling us about the groups story, its objectives and business model, and the status of the three projects that they have completed so far.

ikoma map

Ikoma, a 200,000 person bedroom town between Osaka and Nara City, has a particularly eco-friendly history. It is aiming to be the most most energy efficient municipality in Japan. Citizen Energy Ikoma (CEI) was founded in 2013 and was the first in Nara Prefecture to execute such an energy initiative. They set out on this program with a few things in mind: First, they wanted the initiative to be citizen-funded. There was to be no money from government agencies or banks, and no corporate interests at play. They collected a lot of small contributions (in about $1000 increments) from private citizens. More than 70% of the contributions were from Ikoma locals. A second point was to involve retirees, to use “Silver Human Resources” (シルバー人材) as Mr Kusunoki put it. They wanted to empower retirees and show how they could give back to younger generations.

CEI worked with the city and secured space on the roof of a building at a local water treatment plant. They installed 273 solar panels at the cost of 17M yen (about $220K CAD). The installation was completed in March of 2014 and produces about 50kW of electricity.

The business plan was developed to extend over a 20 year period. The original citizen donors are able to get a small return (better than bank interest says Mr Kusunoki) on their $1000 investment. Profits from selling electricity back to the electricity utility go into new projects or programs. So far they have paid for signage at the children’s facility, power conditioners for the seniors home, and sponsored a number of environmental education initiatives including workshops for kids to learn how to make solar-powered cars and trains.

The success of the first installation lead to the development of two more facilities. In 2015 a new children’s facility (南こども園) was being built, and CEI was able to install 297 panels on the roof.

CEI also installed 224 panels on an open bank behind a senior’s facility. Both of these installations can produce about 50kW each, bring the combined total of all three facilities to 150kW. This removes about 55,000 kilograms of CO2 out of the air, and saves on about 40,000 barrels of oil per year.

The children’s facility was of particular interest to the CEI. It is an official Emergency Muster Point, meaning in the case of a disaster like an earthquake, it is deemed a safe place for people to retreat to. Having a ready-made energy supply at such a muster point is pragmatic strategy.

Mr. Kusunoki said that the future is bright for the children of Ikoma. They are trying to make Ikoma a model and promote it as the best place to live in the Kansai region. Their goal is to show how empowered citizens can create safe, local energy and contribute to a more resilient distributed energy supply chain in the case of a natural disaster. In the future the CEI is looking at how these initiatives can turn into second careers for retired people. Furthermore, they are exploring more ways having for citizens become local energy producers.

It was a pleasure to have Mr Kusunoki speak to us. It definitely encouraged me to think more about what we could do in our own communities (see my next post Thoughts on Citizen Energy). You can read more about what the CEI is doing in Ikoma here:

Nostalgic utopianism — a review of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

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Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity  by Douglas Rushkoff

Power corrupts and money ruins everything. These are basically the premises that Douglas Rushkoff starts from in his latest book, a critique of the concentration of power in the digital economy and the inequality it breeds. He uses the protests targeting private Google buses in 2013 to highlight the inequality driven by the US economy dominated by the monopolous forerunners of the digital economy. I was in SF at the time, and commented on what I saw:

I was struck by how conflicted the city is. The chasm between those in tech and those not in tech is nearly at class-warfare levels. Almost daily there are articles about the chasm widening (eg. the recent Google Bus demonstration). To get better sense of the civic strife, read the following link-filled article: Silicon Valley Is Living Inside A Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance.

Rushkoff has always been writing on the edges of technology and society. Now he tries his hand at technology and economics. His argument is that the digital economy is not a disruption, but merely an extension of the industrial age, with the problematic bits of that era even more acute. He takes great pains to show the monopolistic tendencies of networks and the ill effects of “digitally accelerated capitalism.” The evidence that he provides is damning, but his framework of analysis is not particularly convincing. His mistake is to analyze corporations using McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which ends up looking like this:

  1. What does the corporation enhance?
  2. What does the corporation make obsolete?
  3. What does the corporation retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the corporation flip into when pushed to extremes?

It is an interesting thought experiment, but ultimately fails where more traditional economic arguments would succeed. The results are muddled. For example in chapter 21 he criticizes mainstream economic education, yet nowhere in the book does he name alternative economic models. The terms “neoliberalism”, “socialism”, “socialist democracy” never appear in the book. “Communism” pops up a handful of times, but only in a defensive matter:

For a business to find its appropriate size even if this means scaling down is not a Communist Plot. [pp. 105]

Rushkoff fears being accused as “communist” above all else, and that ends up undermining his argument. For Rushkoff, there is only Capitalism and Communism. His understanding of political theory comes off as unsubtle, but maybe it is the the limited of understanding of his audience that is influencing him, aka. the big tech CEOs that ask him for advice running their companies or hire him for highly paid corporate speaking engagements. This economic calculus might be the reason for Rushkoff’s lukewarm critique. He is not willing to go to the radical, or use radical language for fear of alienating his audience (née customers). The result is a fuzzy, friendly, plush toy critical theory. He is good at pointing out how damaging capitalism is, but instead of rejecting it, he dreams of a more “conscious” capitalism, a more “humane” capitalism. His solution is go back to a pre-industrial economic model, like the putting out system. Imagine a massive distributed network of makers 3D printing bespoke items for their neighbours out of their handmade cottages. This is how it should have been. Rushkoff is a nostalgic utopian, and this is further evidenced by his analysis of the internet.

Many of the greatest hits of 1990s internet theory are covered in this book, each critiqued and shown how they were not bourne out in the past decade and a half. Rushkoff gives a recent history lesson, showing how terrible things currently are, but then wishes things were like the old theorists thought it would be. Rushkoff is an early model cyberutopian.

However, there is a difference: the saviour of our society is not necessarily technology(!). In fact, Rushkoff argues that it comes down to how we structure our firms and our economy that will save society (aka. politics). That being said, he still thinks that distributed technologies can play a big role in achieving a less centralized system. Thus, Rushkoff’s view might be categorized alongside Steven Johnson’s peer progressivism (see some of my old thinking about PP here).

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus might not be the final wrench in the gears of our system of unfettered cyber-capitalism, but it is still worth the read. There are some excellent arguments in here against our addiction to growth, some cool examples of alternative transaction systems (local currencies, time dollars, LETS), and a spectacular takedown of startups and venture capital near the end of the book. Despite coming up short in its overall analysis, it is a good book to recommend to a friend who has just started to smell something bad in tech, knows something wrong, but is not quite ready for a full-blown attack on the real underlying problem: capitalism itself.

A short trip to the Sunshine Coast

The Sunshine Coast is a region of mainland British Columbia just up the coast from Vancouver. Originally inhabited by the shíshálh people, the area was settled by westerners in the mid-nineteenth century. Now, about 27,000 people live there. The Sunshine Coast is less than two hours from downtown Vancouver, accessible by transit, and gets just half the rain of Vancouver. Its small-town feel, yet nearness to the city makes it popular with retirees.

My wife and I visited the region for the first time. I took almost 500 photos and videos. I put some of them up on Flickr, splitting them into albums for each leg of the trip, as detailed below.

sunshine_coast-horseshoeWe took the Greyhound to Vancouver ($34), then a city bus from downtown to Horseshoe Bay ($3.75). From there we walked on to the ferry ($7.50), and after crossing over took a short bus ride ($2) into Gibsons. Once in Gibsons we used the Coast Car Co-op, a carsharing outfit partnered with our local OGO Carshare Co-op. It was nice since I just used my regular fob to get into the vehicles.

sunshine_coast-gibsonsWe spent just two nights at the Sunshine Coast. We were based in Gibsons, and explored the area including the marina where Molly’s Reach is located. This is the restaurant featured in the long-running CBC show The Beachcombers which was set in Gibsons. We drove around the various neighborhoods, checking out the town, and down to the beach at Chaster’s park. My wife was so happy to see the ocean. I am always amazed at how green and verdant the coast is with its temperate rainforest. Even the rocks on the beach were green with seaweed and moss. The whole area is teeming with life, especially when contrasted with dry Okanagan.

sunshine_coast-davisUnfortunately it rained heavily the second day. We drove to Davis Bay, where the weather started to clear up. There is a long sandbar jutting out into the ocean at low tide, and a number of people were fishing at the tip, where a freshwater stream emptied into the ocean. I asked a fisherman what people were catching and he replied with a smile, “Salmon!” Of course… why didn’t I think of that.

sunshine_coast-secheltThe weather started to clear and we visited Sechelt, the center of the Sunshine Coast district. I had caught a cold in Vancouver on the first day of our trip and was feeling pretty terrible. We viewed a number of totem poles, and enjoyed the waterfront as it started to warm up. Unfortunately the shíshálh museum was closed. I was looking forward to learning more about the nation and the original four settlements in the region.

sunshine_coast-smugglersWe drove east to Halfmoon Bay and the sun started shining. Finally, the Sunshine Coast we came to see! There are a bunch of hiking trails so we took one into Smuggler’s Cove, the location of an aboriginal settlement which was later used to smuggle alcohol during the the prohibition years. The hike only took an hour or so, and there was a surprising number of people we met along the way.

Davis Bay, Sechelt and hiking to Smuggler’s Cove made for a busy day. We headed back to the Garden Cottage B&B (which I highly recommend, see my tour video here) and relaxed, viewing the stars as they came out. The next day we headed back to Vancouver via ferry and bus, and then back to Kelowna. It was a whirlwind trip, and we enjoyed it so much that we plan on going back next spring.

All 99 photos and videos can be viewed here →