Vox et praeterea nihil

Proving Plutarch Prescient

Monthly Archives: November 2012

(Pseudo) Democracy in (Semi) Action

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” (Winston Churchill)

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter” (Winston Churchill)

Well, I’m pooped after a 14-hour day as a poll worker in yesterday’s federal by-election in Calgary Centre. (After 35 years of voting in many an election, I decided it was high time I put myself on the other side of the plastic folding table for once. Bottom line—everybody should do it at least once.)

Since the action was, shall we say, somewhat less than frantic, I had a fair bit of time to daydream (and there are now lots of studies (Jonah Lehrer self-plagiarism alert!) suggesting that daydreaming boosts creativity, helps solve complex problems, and is basically the best way to spend your waking hours!). Surrounded by virtually innumerable forms, envelopes, and cardboard ballot boxes, I fell into a reverie.  In my reverie, I began to imagine a new and improved electoral process in Canada…and here’s what it started to look like.


I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for pollsters—right next to the banjo strummers. The same goes for pundits, prognosticators, analysts, the crowd of “usual suspect” political scientists (oxymoron alert!), spin doctors, and the rest. There might not be much that can be done about “fair and balanced” “news” organizations, but let’s just say—purely for fun—that the media are obliged to stick to “straight” reportage on platforms, policies, debates, etc; the campaigns are only allowed to extol the virtues of their own candidate (no saying bad things about the other candidate(s)) in their advertising; and the pollsters et al. can’t make a peep.


Surely to God, there has to be a better way for people to vote. What is this, 1512? We’re barely beyond dropping coloured pebbles into a bag. People just might be more inclined to vote if it were even a smidge more “user-friendly”.


For those of you who think this is a touch authoritarian, or some sort of intrusion into mythical and mysterious “individual freedoms”, all I will say is that if a country essentially founded by folks who had, at the very least, a few issues with authority can do it (you know who you are, Australia!), why can’t we?


Preferential ballots, some form of (mixed member) proportional representation, whatever it may be, there’s got to be a better way to express “the will of the people” in the determination of just who gets to toddle off to do whatever it is our elected representatives do with their days. Again–90 countries around the world do it…so why can’t we?


At the moment, rural areas are significantly overrepresented and urban areas are significantly underrepresented. Regardless of where one lives, each vote should carry equal weight.

Imagine that…a campaign sans polls, pundits, and attack ads; a better, perhaps even mandatory, voting process; a selection process that actually allocates representation in accordance with how people voted, and each vote cast carrying equal weight. I know there’s about as much chance of that happening as Penelope Cruz showing up on my doorstep tomorrow to whisk me away as her love slave, but I would gladly relinquish all claim to the latter for even a remote possibility of the former coming to pass.

Short of a benevolent dictatorship with me as your glorious leader (and a selection of hand-picked friends as advisors), Winston Churchill was absolutely right that “democracy”, warts and all, is better than anything else we’ve tried as a species. He was also absolutely right about the best argument against it—but that’s why the average voter isn’t making public policy, thank goodness.

It has also been said (variously attributed all over the place) that we get the government we deserve. Right now, we get pseudo-democracy because we don’t demand better. We all knew yesterday’s by-election was going to produce one candidate in the mid to upper 30s, another in the low 30s, and a third in the mid to upper 20s in terms of popular vote percentage—the whole whopping 30% or so of eligible voters who could be bothered to participate. The “winner” in such a scenario has a “mandate” from about 11% of the electorate.

Regardless of political stripe, that’s simply a ludicrous and unacceptable way to select the people to govern our fair land. Sorry, but it’s just not good enough. Even if the average voter is the best argument against democracy, they’ve got to take part in it. And collectively, we’ve got to find a way to translate popular vote into representatives.

I don’t have all the answers about mechanisms, implementation strategies, and all that good stuff. But we can work all that out. If we don’t, I fear it’s bread and circuses for a long time to come.

Squawking about Tweeting and Writing

I always read Russell Smith’s column when it appears in the Globe and Mail (the good old-fashioned one that arrives with a thump on my doorstep, that is), but I read today’s on “Twitter fiction” read with particular interest.

(Disclosures: 1) Russell and I are acquaintances, going back to Queen’s University in the mid 1980s; and 2) I read this particular column with particular interest because I myself have been sporadically working on a multi-platform experimental writing/performance art project of which one component would be a Twitter stream. I won’t bore you with details, but thought I should mention it.)

Russell and the writer he quotes in the piece, Nathaniel G. Moore, make some cogent points and observations, but I’m not sure they fully explored the idea. Russell quotes Nathaniel as saying, “Twitter as a genre is already overdone”. My immediate reaction when I hear dismissive proclamations like that from hipsters and the cognoscenti is to dismiss them in turn. How many times have we heard that absolutely everything is “overdone”, “exhausted”, “finished”, or “so last week”? “Twitter fiction”–or at least one particular form within that highly constrained little world–may indeed by “overdone” in Moore’s circles. But does that necessarily mean that exploring Twitter as a medium of artistic creation and expression in any way, by anyone, anywhere is “overdone”? If you think of it as a fad or passing fancy, perhaps so. But Twitter itself, and social media more broadly speaking, were (and continue to be) dismissed by some as fads or passing fancies themselves.

Is it just a case of too many people doing something? Or is it perhaps an illustration of the “too cool for school” mentality that as soon as something is “discovered” or “goes mainstream” it’s no longer hip and therefore “overdone”? As Russell mentioned in his column, the inaugural Twitter Fiction Festival is happening this week. Twitter has been promoting it. Wired wrote about it. Various other sites and bloggers have written about it. Heck, the Guardian even has a section called “Twitter Fiction” on its website. Is that the problem? Is that way Moore can say, apparently without hesitation or reservation (but quite possibly with an eye roll, a certain tone of voice, and maybe even a theatrical yawn), that Twitter fiction is already overdone?

Russell does give several examples of long-form Twitter-based work–projects by Jennifer Egan and Junot Diaz–and says there are pleasures to be had, while admitting he didn’t read any of them as they were tweeted. The fact that he didn’t read them in “real time” is totally fine. What I find less fine is his admission that he didn’t at least in part because he “(has) no patience for a story that unfurls as slowly as that”. Good thing he didn’t live in the 19th Century–however would he have handled the “episodic writing” of Dickens et al.? Would he have been able to wait to find out what happens to Little Nell? Would he have preferred–or been able to–wait until The Old Curiosity Shop was done and the whole story was compiled somewhere so he could read it all at once?

Actually, the column conflates two different types of Twitter fiction–the “long-form” of Egan and Diaz (lengthy narratives “written” a tweet at a time) and the “small fates” of Teju Cole (miniature stories contained in a single tweet, to which I would add the work of Montrealer Arjun Basu).  They are quite different forms, and raise different issues, but they are treated by Smith & Moore (sounds like a law firm or something!) as essentially the same and illustrative of Moore’s assertion that “Twitter is not a real genre”–full stop.


It seems to me that some of the very things being explored and some of the very questions being asked with long-form tweet-based pieces are precisely issues such as the relationship between reader and text, the construction of narrative, the ability (or lack thereof) to construct a coherent whole from fragments of text, the relationship of tweet-based writing to more conventional forms, issues of temporality itself, and so on. If writers are just “goofing around” with Twitter, then there really isn’t much to Twitter fiction. And perhaps when Twitter has a fiction contest and the Guardian asks “top writers” to “try their hand” at 140-character stories, it does devolve into a glorified limerick contest or parlour game. But if at least some writers/artists are indeed exploring some of those bigger issues–theoretical and abstract though they may be–then I think it’s far from overdone.

In the early part of the last century, Surrealists took part in a “parlour game” called exquisite corpse. One could argue that it was nothing more than a trivial pursuit. But one could also argue that it was an integral part of the Surrealist “weltanshauung” and artistic practice. This year, there have been two projects derived from the exquisite corpse concept–the film “The Exquisite Corpse Project” and the writing project “The Electronic Corpse: A Storytelling Experiment“, which was in turn part of Social Media Week.

And these are far from the only examples of “literature” or “art” either using Twitter as a platform or even interrogating Twitter as a medium. There is, of course, a plethora of Twitter accounts doing historical “real-time” tweeting, including JFK1962, War Cabinet, WW 2 Tweets From 1940, Samuel Pepys, Robert Falcon Scott, R.L Ripples and more. There is another sub-genre (oops–Twitter isn’t a genre…sub-something-or-other) using algorithms with various sources to “create” tweets, such as Markov Chocolates, Deleuze and Guattari, TED-esque Talks, Horse ebooks, and others. And there is still another sub-whatever that is tweeting source texts in their entirety, including Vanessa Place and everyword.

(It is to this last group that my own on-again-off-again project would belong–undertaking the quixotic quest of tweeting the entirety of one of the many English-language translations of Don Quixote, in part as a type of “performance art”, in part to explore issues of public domain,copyright and intellectual property; in part to explore some of the theoretical issues discussed previously; in part to explore issues of transcription, translation, transferance, transposition, and transmission…but that’s another story.)

There is also a world of “Twitter art”. The account tw1tt3rart is just one example, but it’s easy to find many more. Personally, I’m not as interested in that world as I am in the world of writing, so I haven’t explored Twitter art very extensively.

If Smith and Moore like the idea of live storytelling in front of a real audience with meticulous rehearsal and memorization of scripts (which is far from new!), I suggest they check out the next PechaKucha event closest to them. Mind you, I just wrote a snarky piece elsewhere on this blog about how that concept is seeming stale and overdone, so perhaps I should just scurry back to my glass house. Sigh…

Turning Point, Indeed!

For the first time in many years, I have been actively involved in politics for the past several weeks. When I say “actively involved”, I mean more engaged than simply paying attention and voting—although even that is, tragically, more “active” involvement than many folks seems to be capable of mustering.

Background: I spent many years in radio journalism, where my job required me to maintain a certain distance from active political engagement. I then spent close to a decade living in the belly of the beast known as the United States, where my foreign student visa status prevented me from being involved. (Although many have been quick to point out that living in Berkeley, CA and Ithaca, NY isn’t exactly living in “real America”…but that’s another story.) Anyway, in 2004, my family and I moved “home” to Canada—specifically to Calgary.

I say “home” in quotation marks because until we arrived to live here, I had never set foot in Calgary. I grew up in Fredericton, NB. I also lived, went to school, and/or worked in Saint John, Halifax, Kingston, Ottawa, and Toronto, and briefly “ran away from it all” to the US Virgin Islands, where the temptation to work under the table as a bartender and live the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle was strong indeed, believe you me! I even spent two years as a kid living in Switzerland and Austria while my father was on sabbatical leave—but within Canada, I had never really ventured west of approximately Guelph, so I carried a lifetime of every possible “eastern” stereotype about Alberta and Calgary. (It didn’t help that the first day we were here a rather large tumbleweed rolled in front of my car…)

As such, Calgary was entirely terra incognita to me. As far as I knew, there lay dragons. I was pretty sure I knew that the social, cultural, political, and physical climates were going to be, shall we say, “challenging” for me. Boy was I in for a surprise!

There are definitely days when the physical climate does indeed pose a challenge for my skinny self. But for the most part, that aspect of life is OK. On the social front, I have been blown away. We have met and made friends with an amazing bunch of people here—people with whom we share all kinds of interests, attitudes, and values. We don’t necessarily see eye to eye with absolutely all of them on absolutely everything, but one of my myths about “Calgary” was very quickly shattered and laid to eternal rest.

Culturally, I have been even more amazed. The quality and diversity of what Calgary has to offer in every aspect of cultural life was astonishing from the day we arrived, and has only grown exponentially since then. There’s even starting to be some interesting architecture and design in the public realm (another topic for another day)!

That leaves political life. At the community and municipal level, we have again been pleasantly surprised, to say the least. I don’t need to say anything that hasn’t already been said a zillion times or more about the last municipal election. Provincially and federally, it’s been another matter entirely, and that’s the only area where my stereotypical impressions about Calgary and Alberta have thus far been completely and utterly disappointingly confirmed…until now.

Engagement in provincial and federal politics in Calgary—until now—has been a profoundly dispiriting exercise. Trudging off to the polling station to vote, knowing that regardless of whether you’re voting for someone/something or against someone/something , the outcome is as foregone a conclusion as it would be in North Korea made the entire exercise as pleasant and enjoyable as standing in line for stale pickles in Vladivostok on a pre-dawn January morning.

But today, things are so entirely different that it’s hard to put into words. Today, there is a real opportunity to throw off the shackles of living in a single-party state. Today, it is not only worthwhile but incredibly exciting to be involved in federal politics in Calgary.

I had met Chris Turner a few times before the campaign in Calgary Centre began. I can’t say we were friends, but we were acquaintances. I had read “The Geography of Hope” and some of his other work. While I didn’t agree with every word (we need to talk about New Urbanism vs. Modernism, Chris!), I was extremely impressed with the quality of his research, the logic of his articulate arguments, and the elegance of his writing. I also agreed entirely with his focus on real, meaningful, and achievable solutions to many of the crises we face—whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

Bu the same token, I had been a member of the Green Party for several years. But, to be perfectly honest, I had let that membership lapse. I had become somewhat disillusioned and more than somewhat frustrated—both with the party and with the political process. I have been adrift, completely disenfranchised and virtually stateless, since landing in Calgary.

Well before the by-election was really on anybody’s radar, I went to the Walrus Glenbow Debate on “Calgary’s Cowboy Culture: Living Legacy or Just History?”, where Chris and Chima Nkemdirim were facing off against—as it happens—Joan Crockatt and Mercedes Stephenson. I called it the “Massacre at the Max” (Bell Theatre, that is). Chris and Chima made powerful and articulate arguments, while Joan and Mercedes trotted out banal “conventional wisdom”. Remember—this is well before the by-election. I was not only highly impressed by Chris and Chima, but utterly appalled at the paucity of ideas and the inability to express them by Joan and Mercedes. Chris has taken some unjustifiable partisan heat for his recent Walrus magazine article about Calgary. I believe that the city is actually finally ready for an honest look at itself, and the Massacre at the Max confirmed that for me.

When Chris announced that he was running, I was literally elated. Here at last was the kind of person I could support without reservation for political office—extremely well-versed in a broad range of crucial policy issues, a political “outsider” and not a “party hack”, extremely smart and articulate, and standing for public office for good and honorable reasons.

When Joan won the CPC nomination, I immediately flashed back to the Walrus debate, and simply knew that I could not accept being “represented” by her. Simply negate every reason for supporting Chris from the preceding paragraph and add a bunch more I need not list for the explanation. Meanwhile, Harvey Locke and Dan Meades are both decent, honorable guys, but the bottom line is that they’re both too (in)vested in the existing problematic political parties and dynamics that have hijacked and arrested public discourse in Canada for far too long.

As I said already, I am a lapsed Green Party member (and, for that matter, a lapsed Liberal and NDP member in various provinces as well). I am not voting for Chris Turner in Calgary Centre out of any party allegiance. I am voting for him—and doing what little I can to support his campaign—because he has ideas but is not an ideologue; because the “real”, diverse Calgary needs a diversity of voices in Ottawa and not a monolithic block of sycophants and toadies; and because we—not just Calgarians but all Canadians—stand to benefit tremendously from the reasonable, necessary, and positive perspective he will bring to public policy discussions and decisions.

I will be working as a poll clerk on November 26th, so I will of course be entirely non-partisan that day. But before that day, I will do everything I can to support the Turner campaign. And I will look forward to a new political reality in Calgary after that day—a reality in which my voice in political conversation and (infinitely more importantly!) my actual vote are truly meaningful.

PechaKucha and the Fonz?

Has PechaKucha Night jumped the shark, run out of steam, shot its wad—if not globally, here in Calgary?

The immediate and superficial response would be to declare the question ludicrous. After all, (free) tickets now routinely “sell out” in a matter of minutes. Demand for the last one or two PKNYYC events has actually overwhelmed servers. So if sheer popularity is the only measure, the answer to the question is immediate dismissmal.

But surely popularity is not the only measure. I’ve been attending the local PKN events going back to #6 in November of 2010 (with a couple of misses along the way). Unfortunately, I have to say that PKNYYC#14 may well have been the last one I will attend. It was profoundly disappointing. Basically, it amounted to nothing more than a mutual admiration society among the “cool kids” in town and an orgy of Twitterati self-congratulation. I’m trying not to call it a (T)wankfest, but the temptation is hard to resist.

When the best presentation (by far!) has precious little to do with the stated theme of the event; when the second-best presentation is a last-minute “what I did on my summer vacation” substitute (albeit fun and thematically relevant—perhaps the most thematically relevant of all, which is a sad commentary in its own right on those who had much more time to prepare); and when the remaining 8 presentations are lackluster at best and downright lousy at worst, the only possible conclusion is to give the event a 1.5 out of 10—a failing grade by any measure.

We got a “purpose-driven life” derivative (albeit with pretty pictures), several cringe-worthy “personal stories” (more than one of which was nothing more than shameless self-promotion (and even corporate promotion)), and a couple of “institutional” presentations (which may have had some decent content but were sadly lacking in, shall we say, panache). That’s it?!?

Rigorously examined from the perspectives of form and content, then, PechaKucha Night Calgary #14 can only be classified as an extremely disappointing event. If it were to be “reviewed” by a “critic” and subjected to the same standards of expectation and scrutiny as a film, play, concert, dance piece, or any other performance, it would have to be panned mercilessly.

As a social event, it’s fantastic! I’m on the periphery, but some of the folks I’ve just said harsh things about are at least acquaintances, if not friends (or even relations). But sometimes you have to have frank conversations with the people in your life, right?

I have been harboring some concerns about the Calgary PKN events for a while, but I’ve been keeping them to myself, figuring that it must be “just me”, since everybody else (both in meatspace and in the Twitterverse) is consistently full of nothing but gushing and lavish praise. But even if it is just me, I can hold my tongue no more.

Like TED before it, PKN’s initial focus was essentially on technology, art, and design. Remember—PKN was launched (almost exactly a decade ago) by architects in Tokyo in an attempt to draw people to an experimental event space. The content was largely focused on design. The form was witty, clever, and a critique of (or metadiscursive meditation upon) the ubiquitous and banal “PowerPoint presentation”—the acknowledged bane of all humanity.

The decision to create (the now institutionalized and increasingly banal) “20 slides, 20 seconds, auto-advance” structure was inherently a commentary on PowerPoint and the “typical” form and content of agonizing presentations—the kind we have all had to both make and endure. It was a design or artistic practice. It also had a certain formal and cultural resonance with the Japanese social, cultural, artistic, and technological context in which it was launched.

But now that thousands of PKN events have been held in almost 600 cities around the world, it has become an institutionalized structure. The artistic or design intentionality is long gone, replaced by codified ritual and Beaudrillardian simulacrum (how’s them for fancy words?!?). It’s like going to Benihana instead of Sukiyabashi Jiro or even some little hole in the wall in Tokyo. PKN has become as bland and boring as any other PowerPoint presentation (in fact, its principles have permeated into PowerPoint “culture” at large, I would also argue).

To the point, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anybody do anything innovative or creative with either the form or content of a PKN “presentation”. Speakers are more or less animated and engaging. They are more or less text-bound. They are more or less able to stay in sync with their “slides”. But when was the last time somebody did anything truly “performative”?

Slides are more or less “pretty”—but they’re all pretty darn static. The occasional text box flies or dissolves in or out—oooh, ahhh. When was the last time somebody did something that actually interrogated the actual medium of PowerPoint or deployed it creatively in any way, shape, or form?

In the same way that TV news is merely illustrated radio (try this at home kids—watch the news once with the picture on and the sound off, then once more with the sound on and the picture off, and think about which one still lets you get the gist of the story), PKN talks are now nothing more or less than illustrated mini-lectures. (I actually did the “TV news” experiment at PKNYYC#14, and my hypothesis was confirmed.) Yes, there’s the occasional “funny” slide that’s supposed to “speak for itself”—but even that minuscule bit of cleverness is all too rare.

Also like TED before it, PKN has suffered from a certain dilution of the original premise as it has both aged and spread around the world. TED itself continues (more or less…and increasingly less) to hew fairly closely to its original premise of concentrating on technology, entertainment, and design. TEDx events, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. I have attended both TEDxCalgary and TEDxYYC events, and in both cases walked away wondering what they possibly had to do with the “TED concept” other than in name only.

Perhaps a certain amount of dilution is inevitable as the TEDs and PKNs of the world proliferate. Perhaps a certain ossification is inevitable as they “mature” (i.e. age) and become institutions. There is absolutely no doubt that local TEDx and PKN events take on the character of the cities where they take place—and I fully support that “localization”. But there’s absolutely no reason that TEDx and/or PKN events should devolve into bland, banal, feckless, and potentially irrelevant quasi-events.

To return to the original “jumping the shark” question, it’s interesting to note that PKNYYC#15 will be an “All-Stars” format. All I will say to that is that we need only to look at the world of (reality) television (viz. “Dancing With the Stars” (coincidentally in “Season 15”) et al.) to know what the “All-Stars” ploy prefigures.

Before I proceed, let me say that I did initially try to submit this diatribe privately to the organizers of PKNYYC, but that proved to be rather difficult. The Feedback tab on the home page for PKNYYC only directs the user to a generic forum. The “about” page on the Calgary Culture website also provides a handy-dandy link to the generic “contact” page for CADA. But nowhere is there any specific information about the actual person(s) responsible for planning, organizing, and executing PKNYYC events—no names, no email addresses, no nothing.

Herewith, then, are my unsolicited (and probably unwelcome) suggestions in the form of a fabulous “Five Point Plan” to rescue PKNYYC, even though sheer popularity would suggest it needs no intervention and that I should summarily and forthwith piss off:

  1. Decrease the frequency of the event. It now takes place 4 times per year (February, May, September, and November). Rather than 4 mediocre events, let’s have 2 really good ones per annum. Shall we say November and May?
  2. Organizational transparency: Clearly identify the people involved in planning PKNYYC events, their roles, and now to contact them. What if I might want not only to whine and moan but perhaps get involved? It sure would be nice to know how it all works and who to get in touch with!
  3. Open call (event transparency): Every time I attend a PKNYYC event, the theme for the next event is announced. A few weeks later, the preliminary roster of presenters suddenly and mysteriously appears. As the event draws closer, another name or two is added from time to time. Speakers frequently refer to having been “invited” to participate, so one can only assume that the process is (largely) by invitation. This leads directly to the problem that so deeply troubled me about PKNYYC#14—i.e. the palpable sensation that the event was by and for a club of mutual admirers and follow-me-follow-you Twitter cool kids. This is what happens when you rely on friends and colleagues—no matter how “wide”, “broad”, or “diverse” your “networks” may be. It’s high time to open up the process.
  4. Juried submissions (quality and fairness): If the event were to be held semi-annually rather than quarterly, there would be ample time to announce a theme (entirely appropriately determined by the “shadowy cabal” that is PKNYYC), put out an open call for submissions, jury the submissions, and have a much better event. (If the same “cool kids” are the ones we keep seeing again and again, at least the process has been open and transparent, and apparently they’re just really good at coming up with interesting PKN presentations!)
  5. Keep it focused: Yes, themes are great, but more importantly, remember the founding principles of PKN, and try to keep the events focused on design (in ALL its forms!), arts/culture/entertainment, and technology. Far too many PKN (and TEDx) events seem to have drifted into the world of social causes. Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for social justice and making the world a better place, and design, culture, and technology all have crucial roles to play in that—but maybe there should be another kind of similar event for social activism. PKN (and TEDx) are far more interesting to me when they explore the topics for which they were originally created. Personally, I would much rather attend an unthemed PKN in which 10 people talk about design, culture, and/or technology (an event at which themes and commonalities in fact may well emerge!) rather than a themed event which does not deal with the founding topics and in which presenters struggle (and often fail, or succeed only in trivial ways) to address the theme.

I adore the basic premises and potentials of PKN and TED/TEDx. But the realities are increasingly disappointing.  I don’t expect the best sushi in the world, but I do hope for good sushi and not just a Benihana simulacrum.

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