BC votes

In just over two weeks BC goes to the polls. Political franchise is one of those hard-won privileges that Canadians take for granted, choosing mere words over actions. This is the first time I have been an eligible voter in BC and I am taking my civic duty (and civic right) seriously.

Voting is multidimensional. Some people vote based on ideology, toeing the party line. Personality is important to some — remember how George W. Bush was someone “you could have a beer with?” Demographic similarities such as sex, age, race etc. can make a difference. Issue-based voting accounts for the 19 political parties in BC. Strategic voting is often related to values or issues-based voting. Prejudice and personal bias can play a role too, limiting the viable choices. Of course, there is the idea of “the greater good” which is an oft-cited if subjective reason for voting a particular way. Finally, for the politically savvy is levels analysis: how do local voted affect things at a provincial and federal level?

Considering all of the above I have been trying to learn more about the candidates in my riding of Kelowna-Mission. They are:

Tish Lakes does not have much info out there. This was obviously a last minute nomination with the resignation of Dayleen Van Ryswyk from the NDP. Lakes’s Twitter feed is filled with inanities and her website is brutal. As a web-connected voter, appearance on the web is an important indicator to me. Especially when the candidate has a web-presence beyond the election. It helps me to judge the authenticity of the candidate.

Mike McLoughlin does well in that respect. He has been maintaining a sort of blog for a year. He has a good Twitter following and was the only candidate who replied to my request on Twitter. Furthermore he is an entrepreneur and has listed “Listening to Audio Books” as one of his interests. Sounds like I have a lot in common with him. Too bad his religious activity rubs my bias the wrong way.

Steve Thomson (who didn’t engage on Twitter) is also a business guy and helped establish the Okanagan Innovation Fund which is now the Southern Interior Innovation Fund, something that we in the startup community are very familiar with. His position on fiscal responsibility is also promising, but other than this and his grandchildren, I can’t find much about him.

Finally, the wildcard: the well coiffed Dayleen Van Ryswyk, formerly of the NDP and now running as an independent. She is really the only one with her principles stated on the front page of her website which is admirable. Her promise for advocating shortened wait times for FOI requests actually jives with my federal party affiliation, and her stance on lowering small business taxes would be good for local entrepreneurship. Having an MLA who does not simply parrot the party would be a nice monkeywrench to throw into Victoria. However, she has two strikes against her: she is formerly NDP (there’s my prejudice showing again!) and of course, she is crazy.

So it comes to this: do I vote for the incumbent, who I probably know the least about as a person and whose only negative attribute seems to be his pallidness, utterly lacking in strong political convictions. Or do I try and pull a strategic maneuver? I have no particular love of the national Liberal Party, and as the The Tyee predicts Thomson will win maybe I should overcome my personal prejudice and vote for McLoughlin in the hope of achieving some sort of “balance”. I have yet to decide, but I welcome your arguments either way. See you on the 14th!

Embracing the Z-axis — OKDG after action report

“Technology changes society” is a truism but it is always worth asking “how?” At last night’s talk to the Okanagan Developer Group I used my trip to MakerHaus last February as a jumping off point to explore this question in light of recent advancements in the Maker Movement.

Me presenting at OKDG
Photos c/o @jvdwdesigns and @gunsinger. Yes, that is Lenin in the background.

MakerHaus (see my photos here) is a symbol of the democratization of manufacturing. Historically, putting the means of production into the hands of the people has wrought massive changes on society. Digital fabrication and personal manufacturing technologies like 3D printers, CNC machines and laser cutters are the latest iteration of this pattern. To paraphrase Chris Anderson, in the 1980s the Desktop Publishing revolution gave us the PRINT button and changed everything; in the 90s the internet revolution gave us the PUBLISH button and changed everything; now our computers are getting a MAKE button, and it will and change everything.

My talk at the Okanagan Developer Group focused on three dynamics: better tools, better products and the evolution of manufacturing. “Making” is not new. Humans have 200,000 years of evolutionary history as makers. The difference this time round is the new community of makers: typically digital creatives. These people are good at manipulating bits, and now have the power to turn bits into atoms. 30 years of computing heritage is disrupting 200,000 years of traditional making. We are already seeing exaptations from the digital into the physical world. The new makers and their new tools will lead to better products. It is time to apply the Long Tail to manufacturing. Small batch manufacturing means more customization and niche products. Rapid prototyping means tighter iterations in physical product development and more innovation. Similar to the digital world “beta” physical products are now a possibility. We are also seeing the evolution of manufacturing returning to the time of the single craftsperson, able to design and create a complete physical from scratch. Yet this new craftsperson has the power of globalization at their fingertips.

In this new age of digital fabrication and personal manufacturing you can send physical objects over the internet. It will result in changes in patterns of consumption and new design techniques, which we touched on in our discussion last night. Some of the products I introduced included:

However, there will be unintended consequences, and social problems that will need to be solved as 3D printers become more mainstream. We talked about the copyright problem, and the printing of illicit materials such as guns, viruses and drugs. Pollution was another big topic, including the issue of space, and our already huge problem with plastic. Consider when every household has a device that can create stuff at the push of a button, and that overwhelmingly that stuff will be made of plastic.

I closed by encouraging the audience to get involved by learning and doing, for example at OK Makerspace. For those that don’t want to actually make things, there is a lot of opportunity to get involved in the new industrial revolution by thinking about creative solutions to the problems raised. Furthermore I implored the audience to involve their children. The generation before us had to foresight to give us computers. We must do the same for our children.

During the question period the topics of printing food, the advancement of materials science and how 3D printing might change our economic relationship to China came up. It lead to intriguing discussion and I even got to deploy my thinking on what 3D printing and future recycling techniques will mean for Plato’s Theory of Forms. Overall, everyone seemed engaged and the reaction afterwards and on Twitter was encouraging.

Below are some links to resources, products and services that I mentioned in the talk. As usual, feel free to hit me up to learn more, or if you want to discuss these issues.

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson (my review here)

New Disruptors interview with Ellie and Mike Kemery of Makerhaus

New Disruptors interview with Chris Anderson

Make Magazine

makerbot.com
studiofathom.com

ponoko.com
shapeways.com

alibaba.com
mfg.com

thingiverse.com

makerhaus.com
3rdward.com
adxportland.com

Future classic — a review of The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

NOTE: Originally posted on Medium.

Modern genre fiction, that is science fiction and fantasy from the post Cold War era, is certainly entertaining, but not challenging — a meal replacement pill as compared to Haute cuisine. The authoritarian communist threat is done, and the public generally views space exploration as passé. As scifi authors, Huxley and Orwell were born at just the right time to write about “big” ideas.

I said as much to Jason Snell in a Twitter conversation. He answered my question “What value genre fiction?” with the question: “What value fiction at all?” and recommended I read some Paolo Bacigalupi. His first novel The Windup Girl had a difficult task: besides telling an engaging story, Bacigalupi had to restore my faith in genre fiction. He did splendidly.

The Windup Girl’s biopunk setting of 23rd century Thailand broaches current topics such as GMO, seed banks, monocultures and disease, anti-globalism, corporatocracy and nationalism. In this post-hydrocarbon setting potential energy is generated by genetically engineered mammoths and stored in springs(!). The book is certainly engaging and filled with imaginative solutions to futuristic problems. But is it a classic?

Extremely good storytelling and imaginative ideas aside, two factors determine if a piece of genre fiction will become a classic: 1) it is subversive in its challenge to current social norms; 2) it is prescient. Some examples would be Huxley’s Brave New World (written in 1931) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949).

Bacigalupi’s premise of a world destroyed by industrial farming and advances in genetic engineering might be particularly prescient — we will have to wait and see. However his futuristic contribution to the present debates over “Frankenfood” and globalization are certainly challenging, and follow the model of scifi as speculative social commentary. This book is certainly a potential classic, and Bacigalupi has restored my faith in modern scifi.

Some criticisms

I put this at the end simply because I am not confident my issues with the book will impact your reading of it. Ignore the following if you like.

One aspect of the writing that bothered me throughout the book was a sense of overpowering orientalism. I am not sure how much time Bacigalupi spent in Asia, but I felt his Asian characters had their “Asian-ness” turned up to eleven. The Japanese boss introduced near the end of the story is found clothed in a kimono in a tatami room adorned with “samurai” swords painting sumie. Wow. I’m surprised he wasn’t described as short, buck-toothed with small round glasses and Nikon camera hanging around his neck.

Another example: the character use of poetic simile. Even the lowest Thai street urchin has the poetic sense of a Basho or a Li Bai. Bacigalupi romanticizes stereotypical Asian sensibilities of nature worship, and expresses that romanticism through almost every character. Such a sensibility certainly does exist, and sprinkling it throughout the story subtly would have been very effective, but drenching the story as he does in this “special sauce” makes it hard to swallow.

This ties in with a second criticism regarding how religion is depicted in the novel. Bacigalupi is careful to represent both sides of the globalization debate, GM food debate, and the AI debate, providing arguments both for and against. He does however take a solidly anti-corporatist stance. But he does not justify the power of Asian religion in the 23rd century (he does explain the western Grahamite resurgence, describing them as biotech reactionaries). Only the company men are atheists while nearly every Asian in the book has a tight relationship to their various gods, including New People (GM humanoids)! What accounts for this new religiosity?

As someone who lived and travelled throughout Asia for most of my adult life, I would love to learn more of Bacigalupi’s experience there. How many years was he there? How well does he speak Thai? His other book Ship Breaker attests to his deep interest in South Asia. I would like to learn more about the man, and maybe I can through reading his other books.