Why kids should be on public transit

By | Environment | No Comments

North Americans generally tolerate rather than embrace public transportation.  It’s crowded, slow, inconvenient; an option of last resort for those who through disadvantage of age, infirmity, or credit rating don’t drive their own vehicle.

The pain-in-the-ass factor is is multiplied with kids; go to any subway station in Toronto to witness stroller-pushing parents fruitlessly searching for a elevator, or swaying on the bus, whimpering toddler in their arms, while commuters feign sleep or stare dead-eyed at electronic devices. In smaller cities and suburbs designed for cars where transit ridership is normally an indicator of financial hardship or Kanye-level eccentricity, it’s even less appealing.

As result,  except for the occasional Santa Claus parade or similar child-friendly mob scene where parking is impossible, those who can afford it mostly stick to the family SUV.

And yet public transit is exactly where kids should be.

Michael Chabon wrote that his was “the last generation of children to be left alone – mostly – by adults.” Mine too, I think. We’d get up on a summer morning, hop on our bikes and spend the day in parks, playgrounds and streets, playing with kids we knew, and kids we didn’t know, with not grown-up in sight. Games were spontaneous and chaotic and sometimes dangerous, but that’s how we learned to live in a society.

Public transit is like that.  It can be dirty, noisy, and uncomfortably populous, but it’s also the way to somewhere new.  The first time my friends and I were allowed to take the bus downtown by ourselves, it was a rite of passage, that ability to travel miles from home without parents,  and to feel the liberation and the danger of being on our own among strangers. But we trusted ourselves, and we trusted each other, and we were right.

Finding your way out of the bubble of friends and family, exposed to a more diverse world, is important when you’re young. And public transport does that.  The world and the people in it aren’t what you’re used to, but that’s fine. And better than fine, interesting, fun and dynamic.

My son is almost six, and though I’m not quite ready to send him on the subway unaccompanied, he loves travelling on it with me. He’s so proud when he marches down the aisle, steadying himself against the rocking of the car as well as any grown-up, and calling out the names of the stops ahead of time.  It’s a confidence he won’t develop strapped into a car seat.

Not living life on autocomplete

By | Food for thought, technology | No Comments
When does technology top assisting our actions and start directing them? And what can we do about it?
A while back, Gmail started suggesting responses for me. They’re generally pretty solid – when asked if I can make a meeting, it offers up “Sounds good, I’ll be there!” and “Sorry, can’t make it” as options;  a document for review triggers  “Got it, thanks!” and “These are great!” (Gmail-bot is unwaveringly enthusiastic and considers exclamation marks the default punctuation for ending sentences).
All this is super-convenient, especially if I’m punching out a reply on a mobile device with my stubby sausage-fingers while walking down the street carrying a hot beverage. But it’s also insidious.
Communication is about more than just responding with the fewest possible clicks. It’s about tone, feeling, and personality. It’s about connecting.
When we let an algorithm answer for us, we save time. But what do we lose? What would that response look like if it were human? Are there questions that could be asked, or social niceties beyond “thanks!”?
And remember, regardless of how the product people at Google pitched it, features like this aren’t added out of altruism. If Gmail saves me keystrokes, I’ll use it more, meaning Google can scrape the details of my virtual life more effectively, the better to follow me around the internet with advertising for variable rate mortgages and dad jeans and other non-needs that occupy my online time-wasting.
Still, all in all, pretty harmless. and if I eschew  a personalized “Hey, Marlene, thanks for the feedback,  do you still have that cottage because I’m free all summer” reply in favour of an automated “Great! Thanks! This is the best thing ever!” it’s not the apocalypse.
So to cycle back to the original question, should we worry about this?
Damn right we should, because it will own us if we let it.
Want to buy a thing? The machine will help.  It will use all that it knows about you – which is a lot, because even if you don’t Facebook, Google, or Amazon much, your friends, family and demographic cohort do – to guide you through the online maze and make sure you land on products and services that you are predisposed to buy.  The machine will serve you the ad, tell you where to buy, and if you need the thing RIGHT NOW and can’t wait for next day delivery, it will point the way to the store.   When you leave the house, the machine will turn off your lights, play soft jazz music for the cat, then queue up some TV for you to watch when you get home. Hell, it knows you so well that you’d be crazy NOT to do what it suggests.
Meanwhile, it’s recording all your responses and storing them in a massive server farm, the better to flesh out its predictive model.
The machine knows the things you want it to know (when’s my next meeting?) and the things you wish it didn’t know (once your spouse walked in unexpectedly while you were creeping your ex’ Facebook page and your heart rate spiked like a triathlete in the final stretch) and the things that you don’t even know yourself (last month you spent more money on wine than you did on books and clothing combined).
And it knows how to make us do what it wants, because like any good boss, it aligns its needs (to sell stuff) with our own (to fill the aching void in our lives with consumables.).
While it’s unclear just how much free will we have anyway (some science suggests that our brain makes decisions for us before our conscious mind is aware of it), it seems preferable to have decisions taken by our own neural synapses rather than the great porn and bling vending machine that is the wired world.
But let’s face it, we’re not going to sacrifice this kind of convenience, anymore than we stopped using the bags from the grocery store just because we saw a picture of a dying sea turtle belching plastic.
So what can we do?
There’s been a lot of excitement about mindfulness in the corporate world over the last few years, with everyone from professional nerds to jocks jumping on the neuroplasticity brain train all the way to meditation station.  And while it’s sometimes oversold as a grand panacea that will keep your employees healthy, cheerful, and efficient for the cost of an hour’s training and a few yoga mats (it won’t), there are tangible benefits that are helpful in making peace with our digital overlords.
Mindfulness isn’t just crossed legs and chanting, although you can do that. Just as important is learning to live in the present moment, to be always aware of what you’re doing, and not dwelling on mistakes of the past or fears of the future. To be thoughtful. To be awake.
And that’s the key to managing all your polite but pushy devices and the algorithms behind them. Ask simple questions: is this really how I would answer an email? Is bingewatching seventeen hours of Peaky Blinders really the best way to spend my Saturday? Do I really need a samurai sword and a year’s worth of freeze-dried lasagna?
All these and many others are reasonable questions that if asked and answered honestly, can help us reap the benefits of technology without becoming simple commodities to be exploited.
The machine is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. We forget that at our peril.

Climate Change is Here and We Need to Do a Whole Lot More

By | Climate change, Environment, Politics | No Comments

 

Last year, three record-breaking hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria) plowed through the Atlantic, turning Houston into a poison lake, wiping out entire Caribbean islands, and sending thousands of Floridians on a reverse Snowbird flight north in emergency evacuations.  South Asia was battered by a devastating monsoon which killed at least 1200 and forced millions from their homes. Massive wildfires, attributable in part to record high temperatures, burned through unprecedented acreage from BC to Texas, sending smoke wafting across the entire North American continent.
By now it’s obvious to anyone with the wit of a golden retriever that anthropogenic climate change is here, and it’s pissed.
Everyone, that is, who isn’t running the US government or an oil company.
The GOP and the Trump administration in the US set the gold standard for climate ignorance, of course. President Trump famously tweeted in 2012 that climate change was a Chinese hoax, and doesn’t seem to have changed his views since.
The Republican base, against all science and simple observation, follow their leaders and Fox news, with only 15% believing that climate change contributed to the increased ferocity of recent storms.
We’ve been ignoring warnings about the catastrophic effects of our greenhouse gas emissions on the planet’s climate since1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the US House of Representatives of the strong correlation between rising temperatures and human emissions.
Since then the evidence has gotten stronger, with only the timing and scale of our self-immolation in dispute.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say there is a greater than 95 per cent certainty that the eccentric behaviour of our climate is tied largely to human activity.
97 per cent of climate scientists agree that it’s real and caused by greenhouse gases, not sunspots or cosmic rays or Satan or whatever the right-wing crazynet is pitching these days.
The World Bank, which has cheerfully funded a host of environmentally disastrous mega-projects over the decades, has identified a warming planet as one of the greatest threats facing humanity today, and called for immediate action.
Even the Pentagon, which spends hundreds of billions annually figuring out more efficient ways to kill people, thinks that climate change is probably a bad idea.
While such reports are often swaddled in the soothing language of bureaucracy, the between-the-lines message is clear: we have very little time to act before we are unavoidably and irreversibly pooched.
Consider that global average temperature has risen less a degree and a half Celsius since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and  we’re already seeing the predicted heatwaves, superstorms, dustbowls and deluges all around the world.
Scientists say that an increase of less than two degrees Celsius is necessary if we’re to avoid a civilization-threatening disaster (although some believe even that modest increase is too high). In spite of this, our international climate change conferences and even the heralded Paris treaty, have devolved into expensive vacations for bureaucrats, where non-binding commitments are made and ignored and action deferred.
As it stands, our business-as usual-approach will see temperatures rise at least 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Start building your Thunderdome now.
And floods and fires are just the tip of the melting, flaming, iceberg. Recent research suggests that reduced oxygen levels from overheated phytoplankton could wipe out humanity within a century or so,  and an unrelated study from MIT finds that we’ve set ourselves up for a mass extinction in the same time frame.
To avoid disaster,  we’ll have to dramatically  reduce our carbon-spewing habits. A study published in the journal Science found that most known fossil fuel reserves would have to remain unburned if we’re to stave off catastrophe, and that new sources like the Arctic cannot even be contemplated.
All of this is bad news for those of us who plan to continue living on earth, but since we’re aware of the problem, and technologies exist that could pull us back from the brink, we’ll just fix it right?
You’d think.
But at odds with what Bill McKibben called “global warming’s terrifying new math”, and the host of justifiably panicked Cassandras shrieking from the wings,  is the unbridled enthusiasm of governments around the world, including Canada’s own grinning hypocrite Justin Trudeau, for more and more extreme efforts to find and burn carbon, from fracking to deep sea drilling to the Alberta tar sands.
In support of this multi-billion dollar suicide machine, governments, fossil fuel companies and their PR minions engage in upbeat, green-tinged marketing campaigns to assure the public that these efforts are “ethical” and that the continued use of fossil fuels is benign and necessary for “energy security.”
Since there are few things in the human experience less ethical  or secure than the reduction of civilization to bands of scavengers roaming the fetid swamps north of the Arctic Circle,  it’s bewildering that so many of our captains of industry and political leaders apparently want to take us in that direction. Because whatever their flaws, these people did not get where they are by being stupid.
How then, have so many jumped on board on the most massively self-destructive enterprise in human history?
The least charitable explanation would be that our leaders are simply sociopaths, who understand the risks but reason that the short-term personal benefits are enormous, and that they and their progeny will insulated from it by wealth, geography, or luck.
This idea is delusional. Even if you’re going full prepper and dropping a couple million on a converted missile silo, our collective future of  massive storms, collapsing infrastructure, food and water shortages, and migration of environmental refugees is not going to be good to you, a realization that will probably hit home as you’re wheezing your way up a hundred flights of darkened stairs to your penthouse before the neighbourhood kids catch you and turn your perfumed 1 per cent ass into Soylent Green.
It’s also possible that the Republicans and their fellow travellers genuinely believe, in spite of the in-your-face evidence, that anthropogenic climate change isn’t really happening,or at least that the risks have been wildly exaggerated by the Big Green Conspiracy.
There are a plethora of online echo chambers, comforting virtual Disneylands for the ignorant and the delusional, where non-scientists can spout non-science “proving” such things.  Such an explanation would also account for the Canada’s last Conservative government’s zeal for closing labs and destroying research libraries (policies now being emulated by the Trumpists) –  it’s much easier to believe something when you’re not being constantly confronted with irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
And self-interest can be very convincing. The fossil fuel industry has trillions locked up in infrastructure and reserves, which must make it easier to convince yourself that the planet isn’t actually warming, or that if it is the outcome will be less Dune meets Waterworld and more sunbathing in Nunavut.
But now is the time to face facts.
Whatever your reason for ignoring the reality of climate change, whether you’re a bonus-bound executive running a colossal fossil fuel company, or a politician whose next term in office depends on contributions from said company, or a comment troll who thinks climate change is too annoyingly liberal to be true – it’s time to end the fight and join the rest of the human race.
Because no amount of  money or self-righteous blather or value to shareholders is going to shelter you or anyone else from what’s coming if we don’t act now.
So rich folks, while you’re sacrificing interns to Cthulu at Bohemian Grove or pantsing your fellow plutocrats at Davos, remember that you and your kids and grandkids have to live here too. Noone is going to Rapture you. Elon Musk is not taking you to Mars. And we’ve run out of time.

Welcome to Guesswork

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

The overall purpose of this site – blog sounds too 1990’s – is described under Bio, so I won’t repeat it.   I’ll post content on topics that appeal to me, which in no particular order are sustainability, science, technology, philosophy, family and absurdity. I may occasionally write and post fiction, which I started doing recently and enjoy, though I claim no great skill.