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Aug 27 / Great Apes

On Cynicism and Representative Democracy

As this federal election campaign moves on, I’m seeing an increasing number of people complaining that none of the parties are a good option.  In particular, I’m seeing a lot of people complaining about the NDP, but that’s not surprising given that I move in generally progressive social circles.  And this gets at something about how a lot of voters approach politics that really annoys me.

It often seems like what people want is a party with a platform that just says everything they want it to say and nothing that they don’t.  On one level, that obviously makes sense; we want the things we want.  But it also ignores how representative democracy works.

We live in a country with tens of millions of potential voters.  Those voters have different circumstances and priorities.  Any party that has realistic aims of governing has to find ways of convincing huge swathes of people who have fairly major disagreements to work together anyway.  Politics is, at its core, the art of negotiation.  We talk a lot about “coalition” governments, but in reality all governments are coalitions.  People who differ on some issues but agree on others come together to find a way for each group to get some of what it wants.

This isn’t a flaw of representative democracy, it’s the point.

Let’s have a look at the party that I’ve long been a supporter of – the NDP.  Do I agree with everything Thomas Mulcair says on the campaign trail?  No.  Do I agree with every policy announcement he makes?  No.  So why am I still strongly supporting the NDP?

Because an NDP government will do things that are important to me.  An NDP government will repeal C-51, the Conservatives’ awful terrorism legislation.  An NDP government will institute a national daycare program.  An NDP government will probably bring in electoral reform, and an NDP government will likely end Canada’s military involvement in Iraq.  Those are all things that are important to me, and they’re things the other parties won’t do (with the possible exception of the Liberals wanting some form of electoral reform).

An NDP government will also likely do things I don’t agree with, like extending the home renovation tax credit.  But that’s OK.  I recognise that in order to get the things I want,  I need to be willing to work with other people on the things they want.  That’s how democratic governments are formed.

Jul 12 / Great Apes

What I Learned In My Week Without Twitter

Some people take Twitter breaks because they feel like some element of the service is toxic for them.  That’s not the case for me.  I like Twitter a lot (as you can probably tell if you look at how many tweets I’ve made).  I’ve met cool people through Twitter (like, real life meeting, not “we exchanged a few tweets where we bonded over agreeing how awful the Mars Volta are”), I’ve learned a lot from people on Twitter, I’ve laughed a lot, I’ve found tons of cool things to read or listen to or play, and so forth.

Nevertheless, I decided to take a week away from Twitter.  Why?  Because – to put it as melodramatically as possible – I was starting to wonder how Twitter was affecting my mind.  We are all deeply affected by our environment, and the technology we use is a part of that.

People often object to the idea that we’re shaped by our environment by arguing that people are rational and know what they’re doing.  For example, when the issue of whether people are influenced by video games comes up, people will argue that only an idiot doesn’t know fantasy from reality, and so of course video games don’t influence people.  And in the big picture – the “does playing Grand Theft Auto turn players into violent sociopaths?” picture – I agree, people aren’t influenced by video games.  But that’s a very narrow idea about what “influence” means.  [As an aside: No one ever seems to question studies showing that video games can positively influence players.  Funny, that.]

Let me give you a simple example using a different technology: e-books.  I do most of my fiction reading on a tablet these days.  One of the cool features of e-readers is that if you select a word in the text, a dictionary will pop-up with that word’s definition displayed.  Cool!  But something weird has happened as I’ve spent more time reading on my tablet.  Sometimes when I’m reading a paper book and come across a word I don’t recognise, my brain will briefly be struck with the idea that I should press my finger to the page to find out what the word means.  Now, I’ve never actually pressed on a paper page and been surprised that a dictionary didn’t come up, but the seed of the thought is there.  Reading on an e-reader has affected how my brain works; it has influenced me. read more…

Apr 30 / Great Apes

Outrage, Kindness, and the Benefit of the Doubt

On Twitter we are often misunderstood to be an extreme stereotype of whatever view we’re expressing.  A person who says Corsi is one useful way to evaluate hockey players gets painted as someone who views Corsi as the only useful way to evaluate hockey players.  A person who wants to cut funding for one particular government program that they think is wasteful gets painted as someone who wants to replace the government with corporations.  A person who thinks a particular police officer should be held accountable for killing an unarmed, fleeing suspect gets painted as someone who thinks all police officers are bad people.  And on it goes.

I say “on Twitter” but I suppose I really mean “on the Internet.”  I don’t know why this is.  I can’t remember any instance of this kind of thing happening to me in an offline conversation, but for whatever reason it seems to be a common behaviour in any kind of online community – if someone says something you don’t agree with, they become a representative of the most extreme version of whatever argument they’re making.

This makes it easy to ignore and/or attack the person you disagree with.  “What an idiot who holds these extreme and sinisterly-motivated views that I, the rational person, must tear down!”  The problem with that attitude is that you’re very rarely criticising something the other person actually believes. read more…

Feb 18 / Great Apes

Fixing People

In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande tells the story of Bill Thomas, a doctor in a nursing home who comes up with an unusual idea to improve the lifeless atmosphere in the building.  He convinces the nursing home’s director and state authorities to purchase two dogs, four cats, and a hundred birds to keep the residents company.  The animals are at the centre of his plan to help the residents feel more lively and involved in their own lives.  He makes some other changes to the nursing home as well, such as replacing a big lawn on the premises with a vegetable garden that the residents can tend to.  Two years later, these were the results:

[Researchers compared] a variety of measure’s for Chase’s residents with those of residents at another nursing home nearby.  Their study found that the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half that of the control nursing home.  Psychotropic drugs for agitation, like Haldol, decreased in particular.  The total drug costs fell to just 38 percent of the comparison facility.  Deaths fell 15 percent.

You may be tempted to think that the key takeaways here are the decrease in deaths and the incredible cost savings.  But I think there’s another very important story here.

read more…

Jan 10 / Great Apes

Games of 2014

Last year I gave every game a rating on a 10 point scale, similarly to how many gaming sites do.  But I tried an experiment: while most sites refuse to give games a rating lower than 7, resulting in most games bunching up between 7.0 and 8.5, I took 5/10 as the rating for an average game and meted out higher scores sparingly.  Here’s a more detailed description:

I’ve started by treating an average game – that is, one that I enjoyed but didn’t stand out in any way – as a 5 out of 10.  Good games would be 6s.  Very good would be 7s.  9s would be rare and 10s would be reserved for only the greatest of experiences.  Conversely, 4s would be games that were OK, 3s would be games I disliked, 2s would have major flaws, and 1s or zeroes would be virtually unplayable.  Using this system, I came up with 6 games that seemed to fit in a list of “best of the year”, and I describe those games below.  After discussing those 6 games I’ll post a list of all of the games I played in 2013 and how I would rate them.  Assuming that I’ve been honest, the average should come out pretty close to 5 (possibly a bit higher since I tend to play games I know I’m more likely to enjoy).

The resulting average was 5.25, pretty close to my goal.  I’ve rated all the games I played this year on a similar scale, though I’ve come out with a slightly higher 5.8 average.  There were actually fewer good games this year, but I did a better job of steering clear of games I really disliked.  This year there’s only one game below 5; last year I gave out two 1s.

Last year I wrote more detailed reviews for every game I gave a 7 or higher.  This year that’s only four games, so I’m expanding my criteria a bit this year and giving brief reviews to everything that got a 6 or higher.  In general it was kind of a disappointing year for games, with nothing beyond the top two or three really standing out.  But first, I’m going to start with a brief talk about a game that missed the cut.

read more…

Dec 30 / Great Apes

Music of 2014

I usually write quite a few words in my end-of-year recaps, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that most music criticism is essentially meaningless.  I have things that I want to say about these albums, but they would mostly be about my relationship with the music, not the music itself, and we both know that you’re probably either here because:

  • you want to see if any of your favourite albums are on my list; or
  • you want to find new music to listen to

So I’m not going to do write-ups for these records.  Instead I’ll just link a song that I think you should check out (or a music video if one exists).

read more…

Dec 15 / Great Apes

Books Of 2014

Inspired by my pal Michael I’ve decided to do a brief review of every book I read this year.  Hopefully you’ll find it interesting, maybe discover a couple of new books.  If nothing else, it’ll be interesting for me to organise a year’s worth of reading habits in one place.

A few observations first:

This year was the first time in a while that I’ve read a significant volume of fiction.  This list includes 14 fiction and 7 non-fiction titles, which is more of the former than I would have guessed, but much less of the latter.

Another major shift for me has been the move to e-books.  I read only one paper/printed book this year, and it was given to me as a gift.  My own book purchasing habits have moved almost entirely to e-books.

And of course, this year my own debut novel The Disillusioners was published, which I read multiple times throughout the editing process.

read more…

Nov 11 / Great Apes

Gavril Ivolgin

This is one of my favourite passages in any novel.  It comes from the beginning of Part IV in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  I have long felt a kindred of Gavril Ivolgin (called by the nickname “Gania” in this passage).

read more…

Nov 2 / Great Apes

Why Civilization IV Is One Of The Best Games Ever

A little over a week ago, Beyond Earth, the latest instalment in the Civilization series of video games, was released.  It’s built on the engine of Civ V, and I’ve seen many people complain that it doesn’t stand up to the excellence of Civ V.  I always find these kinds of comments interesting because, while Civ V is a good enough game, for me it pales in comparison to its predeccesor, Civ IV, which I consider to be among the top few games ever released.

Why is Civ IV a better game?  Because it offers more strategic complexity.  Sid Meier, the creator of the original Civilization game, is known for saying that a game is “a series of interesting decisions.”  Civilization IV is constantly providing the player with interesting decisions, while Civ V  isn’t.  [Note that this post probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve played at least one of these games, and ideally both of them.  Additional note: I’m going to be comparing the original Civilization IV (prior to any of its expansions) and Civ V after both of its expansions, which most players agree improves the experience.]

read more…

Oct 16 / Great Apes

A Quick Thought On Growing Up With The Internet

This post is about the ridiculous furore about the gaming press lately, but only tangentially, so stick with me if you’re not really interested in gaming.

So one of the primary complaints about “ethics” in games journalism that I see is that sites aren’t responding to things they disagree with.  One of the most frequent complaints I hear about Anita Sarkeesian in particular is that she refuses to respond to particular criticisms that some people have of her work.  There seems to be this real feeling among some of her critics – and critics of the gaming press more widely – that any concern that is voiced requires a response.  That anyone who raises any issue is entitled to have that issue replied to directly by whoever they are complaining about (whether it’s Anita, or the editorial staff of a gaming web site, or whatever).

I suspect it goes without saying that I think that attitude is nonsense.  But what I’m wondering is whether it’s an attitude primarily held by people who have grown up with the Internet.  The people who are most angrily strident about these issues certainly do seem to be young people.

These are people who have, for most of their lives, felt connected to their sources of information in a way that older generations didn’t.  If you grew up in the 1980s, for example, there was no real way to connect to TV personalities.  Newspapers and magazines accepted letters to the editor, but only a few of them were printed and virtually none were ever responded to directly.

But for people who are in their late teens or early 20s now, there’s a sense of connectedness with public figures.  If you post on Twitter, there’s no real distinguishing characteristic between regular users and public figures, aside perhaps from the Verified checkmark.  Everyone’s mentions go into the same column, everyone’s tweets appear side-by-side in the timeline.  Many writers for large newspapers or magazines even respond directly to questions, comments, or discussions.  I’ve personally exchanged tweets with major media figures from a number of outlets in both Canada and the U.S., which would have been unthinkable when I was in high school or university.  The gap between “readers” and “writers” has collapsed to a large degree.  You can extend this out to comment sections too.

Basically, many people who’ve grown up with the Internet have frequently been told that their voices are important, and content distribution networks are now often designed with this idea in mind.  So what I’m wondering is whether this feeling of immediacy, of being connected to public figures and having forums to contribute (in)directly to media, has lead a lot of young people to believe that not only is it their right to be heard, but to be responded to.  Is part of the attitude toward Anita, and Gamasutra, and so forth, a result of the ways that young people have learned to connect through media?

I don’t have a real answer to that, or any major conclusions to draw, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.  And this obviously wasn’t all going to fit in a tweet, one that could fit in on your Twitter feed right beside the latest story from the NY Times.