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Mar 11 / Great Apes

The Social Cost Of Getting An Education

When I was growing up, the importance of getting a university education was strongly impressed upon me.  This wasn’t a family thing – I was, as far as I know, the first person in my family on either my mother or father’s side to get a degree.  But I was told, by family, educators, and the media that if I wanted to get a good job when I grew up, I should go to university.  At any rate, I finished high school with no real desire to do the kind of work that was available to me, so off to university I went.

It wound up being simpler and less expensive to move to the city I was attending school in rather than commuting, so that’s what I did.  After I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided I wanted to go to grad school, so I moved again.  After I finished my MA, my girlfriend at the time (who I’m still with) was about to start her PhD in another city, so I moved there with her.  I wasn’t getting very good work opportunities there, so I moved once more, to Ottawa, where I still reside a few years later.

While I got one more degree than many people do, I suspect my story sounds somewhat familiar to most people who have gone to university, and especially to anyone who has done graduate work.  You move around, get settled, then move around some more.  Hopefully at some point you find a place you can actually stay, or you just get tired of packing your stuff up and decide you’re sticking around whether the city is working or not.  Not only is this story pretty common, it’s what you’re told to expect.  If you can’t find work in one place, you’re supposed to go find work somewhere else.

People often talk about the career sacrifices they make for family; how they got offered a great job somewhere other than where they currently were, and how they held back their career because it didn’t work for the other member(s) of their family.  But we don’t really talk about a much more common trade-off, which is that we sacrifice our friendships and our social networks to advance our careers. read more…

Dec 27 / Great Apes

Games of 2015

This is my 3rd (and final) look back on media I enjoyed this year, after music and books.  There are probably games released in 2015 that you liked that I didn’t include in my list.  Here’s the reason:

1. The game is Undertale – I haven’t played it yet.

2. The game is not Undertale – I played it and it was terrible. Or I didn’t know it existed. Or I’m waiting for it to go on sale. Or you just made the name of a game up to test my hipster cred and now you look mighty foolish, don’t you?

Last year there were 7 games that I liked best.  Coincidentally, there are 7 this year too.  Or maybe it’s not a coincidence and this is some Book of Revelations thing. At least we’ve got a rapture to look forward to.

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Dec 21 / Great Apes

Books of 2015

Below you’ll find brief reviews of every book that I read in 2015.  I included anything that I read at least half of, so a number of things that I picked up and quickly decided not to read are not included on this list.

Like last year, I’m dividing the list into separate categories for fiction and non-fiction.  I’ve also added a new division where each category is separated out into sub-lists of books I enjoyed vs those I didn’t.

And now . . . books!

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Dec 14 / Great Apes

Music of 2015

I used to do write-ups about my favourite records from each year, but I’ve become convinced that trying to capture the joy of a song with words borders on impossible.  I, at the very least, am not good at it.  And at any rate, I suspect most people don’t really care about my personal connection to a song or an artist or whatever, so I’ve just cut that out entirely.  Instead, I’ve compiled a list of the 16 best records I heard that were released in 2015, and I’ve included a song that you should check out if you’re not familiar with the album in question.

I was originally going to list a top 15, but there were 16 albums I wanted to include, so here they are.

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Nov 16 / Great Apes

What Does Defeating ISIS Actually Mean?

In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris this weekend, there has been a renewal of calls to defeat ISIS.  Take, for example, this New York Times op-ed:

The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris, is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq.

One big problem with these kinds of calls to action is that it’s never entirely clear what it would mean to “defeat” ISIS.  This is not a trivial question.

Most peoples’ ideas of war are based on historical conflicts like World War 2.  It’s relatively clear how you win a conflict like that: you roll back the Nazi front and force Germany to surrender.  For inter-state conflicts resulting in one state invading the territory of another, this is a good and workable model.

The problem is that it’s not a model that can be applied to a conflict with non-state groups.  ISIS isn’t the government of a state, it’s not really an army, and it can’t surrender (even if leadership surrendered, it’s doubtful that all of their followers would concede with them).  So the inter-state model of conflict resolution doesn’t hold.

So if ISIS can’t be defeated in the way a nation-state could be, that leads to the question of what, exactly defeating them would mean.  Let’s look at a few possibilities.

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Oct 25 / Great Apes

Election Projection Sites In Canada Are Still Awful

As I acknowledged in my day-after-the-election musings, I have been quite critical of Canada’s major polling companies in recent years, but they correctly pegged the results of the popular vote nationally.  The same can not be said for the variety of sites trying to cash in on the trend of election projections kicked off by Nate Silver when his blog Five Thirty-Eight was still part of the New York Times.  I’ve explained in the past why election projections in Canada are doomed to fail, and I think that analysis continues to be accurate.  But let’s look at this particular election in more detail.

It seems likely nearly every day there was a new election projection site springing up during this campaign.  I tried to ignore them, so I don’t know what most of them are.  It’s entirely possible that one of them pegged the results properly; the more people making guesses, the greater the odds that someone will be right just by dumb luck.  But I know of three projections that were relatively prominent.  One is the Globe and Mail’s (Canada’s 2nd largest national newspaper by circulation), one is from the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, and the other is Eric Grenier (better known for his Silver-aping blog title Three Hundred Eight).

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Oct 20 / Great Apes

2015 Election Musings

A few unrelated thoughts on the outcome of last night’s election.

1. The Liberals won more than the other parties lost

It is easy to view the results of last night’s election as an anti-Harper statement or a shift from the NDP to the Liberals, but I don’t think the data really supports either conclusion.  It’s easy to draw cynical conclusions about elections, but I think the Liberal victory suggests reasons for optimism even if you’re not a Liberal supporter (and I’m certainly not).

Take a look at this chart:


Party 2011 Votes 2015 Votes Difference
Liberals 2,783,175 6,930,136 4,146,961
Conseratives 5,832,401 5,600,496 -231,905
NDP 4,508,474 3,461,262 -1,047,212
Green 576,221 605,864 29,643
Bloc 889,788 818,652 -71,136


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Oct 15 / Great Apes

Why Is Harper Bringing Out The Ford Brothers Now?

Stephen Harper has started doing campaign appearances with Rob and Doug Ford.  A lot of people find this confusing, given how divisive the Fords are.  It seems especially confusing in light of the Conservatives’ drug messaging: they’ve taken out ads claiming (falsely) that Justin Trudeau wants to make marijuana more accessible to children, while Rob Ford has admitted to smoking crack cocaine in the recent past.  This strikes people as hypocritical and confused messaging.  But I don’t think it’s too difficult to see how it might actually make sense.

Part of the problem is that people mistakenly view voters as making rational, informed decisions about who to vote for on the basis of policy decisions.  But politics are considerably more tribal than rational.  To be clear, I don’t mean “people I disagree with are irrational”; it’s true across the political spectrum.  Voters identify with specific parties or movements in such a way that things are considered right or wrong by virtue of who they’re associated with.  One obvious example: many Democrats who vehemently opposed NSA wire-tapping under George W. Bush have become loud defenders of NSA wire-tapping under Barack Obama.  Same with drone strikes, and so forth.  It’s important to remember that, for many voters, Rob Ford is part of their tribe and so his specific actions are less important than his tribal affiliation.

The tribal nature of politics helps get to my theory on why the Conservatives are bringing the Fords out to campaign for them.  We’re now just four days away from election night.  At this point, there probably isn’t going to be a lot of shift in who voters support.  Policies have been explained, slogans have been repeated, ad campaigns have been purchased.  But what might matter is something known as “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV).  GOTV is the processes by which, on election day, parties try to get the people they’ve identified as their supporters to the polls to actually cast ballots.

I’m highly skeptical of the value of GOTV.  I think politicians and pundits both dramatically over-state the value of the “ground game”.  For example, many people argued that it didn’t matter if the NDP was leading in the polls in Quebec in 2011 because they didn’t have staff or volunteers on the ground in Quebec, and thus couldn’t turn their theoretical support into actual votes.  Obviously the NDP won an enormous electoral victory in QC with no ground game.  Nevertheless, the importance of GOTV is something that political parties deeply believe in.

At this point most people seem to believe that the election is going to be a relatively close one between the Conservatives and the Liberals (I’ve stated my own deep skepticism of electoral projections in Canada).  In a close election, political parties become more convinced than ever of the importance of GOTV and the ground game.  In particular, the Conservatives likely fear that the Liberals are poised to take seats in the GTA’s suburbs, which have been a Conservative stronghold in recent years, and where the Fords have typically found considerable support.  The reasoning behind bringing the Fords out is not that Harper believes they’re going to attract new voters, but that they need to get their base in the GTA out on election day in order to hold on to seats that have been an important part of the Conservatives’ electoral base for much of Stephen Harper’s time as CPC leader.  They likely fear that if they lose the GTA suburbs, they will lose the election.  So teaming up with the Fords is a perfectly rational response.

The plan may not work (or I may be wrong about what the plan actually is).  But if you think about a federal parliamentary campaign as a bunch of small elections rather than as one big one, it’s not too difficult to see why Harper might be teaming up with such a potentially toxic family.

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…