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On Thursday, Feb 24, I will be speaking at a local food symposium organized by some very talented friends, associates and complete strangers.  The intent of this evening is to elevate the discussion around local food and what it means to us as Islanders, as East Coasters, and to us as Canadians.  (You can check out the website or Facebook group for details)

As I am the ‘urban chicken’ guy (or at least the only one crazy enough to out myself in the media) I thought it would be appropriate to discuss urban agriculture.  Though we may shun the idea of animals living in the city, the idea behind urban agriculture is widely accepted throughout the world, and not just in developing nations.  Market gardens were very much commonplace in England, even after the necessities of WWII subsided.

While I won’t divulge everything I am going to talk about in 6.5 minutes (thanks to the Pecha Kucha style selected for the evening) I will say that urban agriculture needs to have a place in our future lives.  We cannot afford to export the responsibility for a our food, and the complicit effects on our communities and economies, to other nations.  As both water, land and the bodies to toil in the fields of mega-farms begin to dwindled, we will have to assimilate food production back into our lives.  We won’t all be farmers — I love the amenities of the city and don’t want to give them up — but raising a supplementary food source requires only a little effort and a desire to change.

I’ll post more (no, seriously, — stop laughing!) after the presentation and try to flesh out each of the talking points a little more.

Part of the election campaign by Barrack Obama included the declaration that his presidency would provide the ‘way forward’.  Casting himself as a beacon of hope in a turbulent world, this promise of a guidance in an uncertain world was interpreted as a return to little-r republican values — hard-work, honesty, democracy, freedom, and prosperity.  George W. Bush, and rightfully so in my mind, was portrayed as a crack-pot dictator who frightened the American people into believing that the world was out to get them and that the US military might, backed by legions of US intelligence operatives, could protect us from an unseen enemy.

The American people, and with them most Canadians and Brits, fell for it hook, line and sinker.  I can remember watching the invasion of Iraq on CNN and thinking — “Fantastic!  Once the invasion is done, and Saddam is gone, we can get back to business as usual.”  Yes, I was that nieive.

Today I watched the movie End of America, based on the book of the same title by Naomi Wolf.  In that movie, Wolf makes the assertion that the US government, along with countless other dictators of the 20th and 21st centuries, have begun to systematically remove the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution of the United States as set for by the founding fathers.  She repeatedly drew similarities between actions of the US government and the Socialist party, later the Nazi Party, in Germany in the 1930s.  This struck a chord with me as I had similar feelings when the Department of Homeland Security announced a joint effort with Wal-Mart stores across the United States in which shoppers were to watch each other and report any “suspicious” behaviour to store managers.  Much as the SS encouraged Germans to watch friends, neighbours and even family during the Nazi rule, Americans are being asked to be the eyes and ears of an already oppressively complex and invasive surveillance network that has tentacles throughout the world.

As I sat pondering what Wolf was saying in her movie, I wondered if there is a way back?  Obama promised a way forward, but I’m not particularly fond of where the United States, and my own Canada, are headed.  The environment is taking a beating because we are trying to restore an economy that was built on promises that couldn’t be kept, a veritable Ponzi scheme of stocks, bonds, pipe-dream prospectuses.  Civil liberties have been suspended for the good of society, at least that is what we tell ourselves as long as it isn’t us or our families who are being targeted by those laws.  Voters distrust their elected officials, yet they still vote along partisan lines in the hopes that, although the system is permanently fractured by nepotism, cronyism, and exploitation, that somehow they can get a few crumbs of the pie and come out ahead.

Wolf addresses the idea of a way back, but doesn’t leave much hope for reversing the exploitation of democracy.  Like sand in a clenched fist, she describes, the harder you try to hold onto the grains, the more easily they slip through your fingers.  Her analogy doesn’t offer much in the way of opportunity to fight this oppression, except through outright rebellion and revolution.  I don’t believe that is the only way, but avoiding that route requires more people to give up their bread and circuses and to give a damn about politics, the economy, the environment, their community, and spend less time worrying about themselves, getting ahead, retiring in Boca Vista, at the age of 50, or any other of those egocentric behaviours that have been fed to us as “our right”.

So, do you think that there is a way back?  If so, where is back anyway?  Once we know where we are going back to, how do we get there?

I love to tell people who I am a recovery video game addict.  That is to say that I still fall off the wagon occassionally and play video games, though I try very hard to avoid playing them because I know that they become all-consuming in my life.  I know this because I grew up in the coming out period for video games, when they transitioned from the massive arcade consoles to hand-helds in what seemed to be a few short years.

It was, in that context, that I watched the video I’ve embedded below about Jane McGonigal, a video game designer who also happens to have a PhD from UC Berkley.

If you haven’t watched the video yet, I would suggest that you do.  Yes, I am asking you to invest 20 minutes of your life listening to a crazy professor (and aren’t they all crazy at UC Berkley) tell you have the world is going to be a better place if we can invest 21 billion hours a week in, what amounts to, neural entertainment.  I spent the better part of those 20 minutes thinking to myself, “this lady is crazy!”, but what she is trying to say is that we need to change the way that we perceive the world and the challenges that lay before us.

Think about it.  How many times have you thought you should do something, but were too afraid, unsure, reserved, or otherwise intimidated into not pursuing the idea?  Ok, admittedly not every idea is a good idea, and certainly not every idea represented in a video game is a good idea, but consider this theory.  The generation that is now most active in the work place, that would be 24-35 crowd, is the generation that has spent the most time playing video games of any of the working class groups.  When McGonigal talked about video games as trainers for engaging in real life I realized that while I wasted the better part of my youth playing video games and Dungeons and Dragons that I exhibited many of the traits she claims video games teach.  (No, I don’t credit video games with everything that I am, nor do I blame them for everything I am not — just hear me out.)

With a solid foundation of home life, a robust education that included science, art, music, math, architecture, religion, etc., video games instilled in me a sense that things can and do change when we act in pursuit of them.  People often wonder how I end up doing some of the things that I do, and being involved in some of the things I become involved in my life.  My response is usually — ‘I don’t know, they just happen.’ — the reality is that they happen because I am doing something.

Ok, maybe video games didn’t teach me everything I need to know to be a contributing member of society, but if we can use video games to teach people how to be creative and dynamic thinkers, if video games can be used to field test new ideas about economics, science, farming, sociology, etc. then we can harness the analytical powers of hundreds of millions of players to help solve problems that are more than just slaying dragons and leveling up, they might actually help save the world.

When the sitting Liberal government announced, via the throne speech, that Islanders were going to enjoy a 14% reduction in the costs of electricity, even my usual pessimism of political proclamations gave way to a momentary sense of euphoria.  Having enjoyed the ridiculously low rates of Ontario for so many years, coming to PEI and paying $0.15 per KWh vs $0.06 was very hard to stomach.  However, recent disclosures by the Premier and the CEO of Martime Electric reveal that this is simply a game of Hide-The-Debt.

The PEI government is going to assume $35,000,000 of Maritime Electric debt to be repaid at a rate of 4% over the next 25 years.  As a result (but only in part) of that assumption of debt, Maritime Electric has agreed to reduce electricity rates by 14% over the next 2 years.  If your BS alarm is going off — good, it should.  Here`s why:

1)  Maritime Electric made $236 million in profit last year and their parent company, Fortis Inc., holds over $12 billion in assets.  Does a corporation that has consistently returned a profit, that has a market capitalization of $5.2 billion, really need the PEI government to float them a $35 million loan?

2)  Maritime Electric might be reducing the electricity rates of Islanders by 14%, but what sort of savings does that actually guarantee us?  According to Stats Canada, the average Island home used ~8300 KWh in 2007.  Given that usage hasn’t changed, and using the cost per KWh from October 2010, we can assume that the average home spends $1328 / year on electricity.  If we were to save 14% ($185.92) per year for 2 years, and given that there are 72,000 households in PEI (as per StatsCan) that means our total savings would be $13,386,240 / year or $26,772,480 over the 2 years.

Now, I’m not much of a mathematician, but that leaves us almost $10 million short on that loan we made to Maritime Electric/Fortis Inc.  As was suggested on the CBC forums, if we had just handed over the $35 million to Islanders we’d have saved ourselves an additional $114.27 per household.  Instead we use some convoluted process to route savings through a corporation that may or may not result in any real long-term savings for Islanders.

3)  Long-term savings are non-existent.  According to Martime Electric, the $35 million loan will be repaid, according to Maritime Electric, by the ratepayers.  I don’t know about you, but my home is not off the grid, nor do I have the fiscal capacity to take it off-the-grid in the next two years.  That means that, in addition to loaning Fortis Inc. $35 million, of which we’ll only see about $26 million of that returned in rate savings, we’ll also be on the hook for re-paying a loan than we lent.  This is a true “rob Peter to pay Paul” scenario.

Unfortunately we are disconnected from the political process.  There is no accountability for poor investments (ahem!) like this, nor is there a way to hold the government accountable until we go to the polls again in a little over a year.  By that time obfuscation of the truth, combined with the short-term attention spans of the general electorate, will mean that little will be debated or accounted for as politics continues its downward evolution into a popularity vote.

I’m sure there are lots of other loopholes or fiscal considerations I haven’t made in this article.  (My wife mentioned the fact that borrowing money for energy upgrades to your home is 6% — and that has the treble effect of increasing property values, reducing energy consumption, and reducing associated pollution)  If you have any other ‘gotchas’, let me know in the comments.

(Note:  I’m neither Liberal nor Conservative.  I vote for whomever strikes me as being the most able to address the short and long-term needs on my community.  Rest assured that my displeasure with this deal is not personal, but fiscal.  All I want is transparency and clarity from our elected officials, is that too much to ask?!)

My garden is an absolute mess.  Recent gale force winds pummeled my questionable tomato supports, punished my beans, and generally exposed my ineptitude for growing vegetables.  Yet year after year I thrill at the chance to crack open seed catalogues as a child devours (or did before the advent of the internet) the toy catalogues at Christmas.  Each spring, as chilly grasp of winter is pried away by penetrating sunbeams, I begin to plot, plan, and scheme my way into the most grandiose garden plans.  I am not alone.

Recently, I decided to take up the guitar, something that I should have done as a teenager when discretionary time was simple that, discretionary.  My declaration to be the next Hendrix revealed scores of friends and co-workers who were accomplished musicians, many on multiple instruments.  My spring gardening obsession has the same effect, coaxing plans of gardens great and small from the minds of otherwise tech-head friends.

As I stood staring at my aching fingers, calloused by guitar strings and etched by dirt from the garden beds, I wondered why those who build the online world are so drawn to the natural world?  Take Peter Rukavina.  A brilliant programmer, and self-described psychogeographer and personal telemetrist, Peter is a journeyman printer of yesteryear, a trade that he has returned to in recent months with the acquisition of an Adana Eight Five letterpress.  Peter who, through his company Re-Invented, is most firmly focused on environments that at least originate, if not solely exist, in the digital world, has a passion for paper and ink that borders on insanity.  He is not alone.

Consider Dan James, CEO of SilverOrange and landlord, friend, and cohabitant of Peter Rukavina.  With numerous downtown real estate holdings, including  the Queen Street Commons and the SilverOrange headquarters, Dan has opted to take the higher road in not just renovating, but restoring his buildings.  The Commons (as it is affectionately known) received a heritage preservation award while the current renovations around the corner at the SilverOrange HQ seemed poised to the do the same.  It might have been cheaper, certainly faster, to have ripped out, torn down, or covered over the architectural detailing of either building, but Dan has a passion for getting his hands dirty.  He is not alone.

Perhaps it is, as the name of this blog suggests, that the malaise of modern life is too much to bear for those whose lives and livings are entrenched in the online world.  Surrounded by digital realities, connected by online social networks, even shopping and sharing via online communities, knowledge workers must hold on to the tangible and real world around them.  Others, like Rob Patterson, have wrangled virtuosity into an extension of their already complex social and professional lives.  Whatever the passion, the need is the same — an anchor, a foundation, in the real world.  A tangible connection to the planet and the people who inhabit it.

It is in this predominantly digital world that the need to be connected to other people and to the world we live on has become so important to so many.  Facebook and Twitter connect communities, but they are /not/ communities unto themselves.  Technology is a tool that helps us connect to each other in new and fascinating ways, but when you build, maintain and live in that world, sometimes grabbing a hammer or a fistful of dirt is all you can do to keep yourself tethered and remind yourself, you are not alone.

Open Government

The UK has data.gov.uk.  The US has data.gov.  Even the miserly Windsor (also my former hometown) has recently decided to get into the open data game by publishing crime statistics to a Google Maps-powered portal.

Welcome to Government 2.0.  Yes, I know that web is working its way into the version 3.0 (if you listen the pundits), but government is still stretching to web-enable services and information almost 10 years into the 21st century, let alone open the troves of data that it has stashed away in its archives.  Unlike some conspiracy theorists, I don’t believe that the dogged pace that government releases data is a direct result of some secret oath, but rather a historically slow adoption into digitized information and information sharing.

Data, once digitized, has a tendency to gather with like data.   Simply put, it has been my experience that, once a piece of information is digitized, even in notoriously closed formats like PDF, that the information will ultimately find a way into the open, whether directly or through relational databases.  Peter Rukavina’s OpenCorporations.org, now aptly named ClosedCorporations.org, is a brilliant example of what happens to digitized data.

I truly believe that if the political will to bring open data to government, whether federal, provincial or municipal, is there it will succeed.  San Francisco has been publishing municipal data in open formats for years.  Vancouver, BC has recently jumped onto the open data bandwagon with data.vancouver.ca.

So, to the candidates who will knock at my door, to those who wish the job (some may say burden) of representing the electorate for the next 4 years, I remind you “ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

HT @roblantz for getting me thinking about open governments again.

To kick things off on The Malaise of Modernity blog I thought I’d re-post two entries that were a part of the original blog from all the way back in 1994.  Yep, we’re going to the vaults to dig out these (ahem!) gems.  I hope you enjoy.

12 June 2004

Guilty as charged! It’s true, I did steal the name of a lecture by Charles Taylor for this blog. Of course, it is out of the upmost respect that I made this selection. Mr. Taylor and his lecture on “the culture of narcississm” has profoundly changed my life and the life of my family. I realized that I had succumbed to the ego-centric lifestyle that has infected our society and that I needed to make drastic changes as a individual, husband and father.

I’ve recently realized that I have spent the past 5 years trying to keep up with the Jones’, and I don’t even know any Jones’! Having attained all of my goals for material and financial matters, as limited as they were, I was left with a rather hollow outlook on life. It was the realization that life is much more than the preservation of the individual, but is the advancement of the whole, that rescued me from a chronic melancholy. It is the knowledge that we each play a vital role in success or failure within a multitude of microcosms, and that each microcosm contributes to the success or failure of society at large that has exacted near cosmic changes in my life. I needed to recognize that it is the obligation of each individual to recognize the needs of others and act as though those needs were their own. In a society where each citizen concerned themselves with the personal well-being of everyone else there would exist a self-sustaining balance in the preservation of the whole through the maintenance of the individual.

The beauty of Taylor’s views, and those like him, is the unity it brings to my long standing personal views on life, politics, religion and relationships. The adoption of Taylor’s theories and ideals has propelled my marriage and relationships with my children beyond a basic survival mode and into the realm of creativity and enjoyment.

I will continue to post my views on the world at large, the social and political landscape in Canada, and the admittedly utopic, but achievable, world that I want to raise my children to be a part of in the future. There is a surreal happiness that is part of life when you realize that life is greater than this moment, and far greater than any individual. The choice to take upon oneself the burdens of the world earns the priceless gift of true freedom.