Vox et praeterea nihil

Proving Plutarch Prescient

Category Archives: Calgary

Hello, again. How’ve you been?

Well, the old blogaroo has languished in some dark, musty corner of the interwebz for far too long. Here’s my latest shot at making it active again!

This is a little game I like to play called “If a city were a person, what kind of person would it be”. And the city we’re going to play the game with is my current location–YYC, aka Calgary, AB.

One of the things I like to do is think of cities as people–i.e., if this city was a person, what kind of person would it be? So here’s my “caricature” of Calgary. It’s a very young city–even compared to places back east (like Fredericton, where I grew up), let alone places on virtually every other continent. It’s still trying to find its identity and place in the world. In other words, Calgary is like a teenager. It also feel very male, for whatever reasons.

So my mental picture of the person Calgary embodies is this: A big hulking prairie farmboy in his late teens who yearns to leave the farm and move to the big city. He’s a pretty smart kid, somewhat of an autodidact, and has pretty high goals and aspirations, with a strong sense of ambition to achieve them, but he’s not terribly worldly and still has some way to go in terms of his educational growth. He’s a big, strong fellow–but he’s going through a massive adolescent growth spurt, so he’s not quite in full control of his massive body–still a little awkward and ungainly, even clumsy at times.

Like all adolescents, he’s desperately searching to find out, decide, and accept who he is–he’s looking for an identity. So he’s trying on a variety of identities, taking and rejecting bits and pieces from each one he tries. Like all adolescents, he’s deeply insecure. But also like all adolescents, he desperately wants to hide that insecurity from everybody around him–so he projects a false front of (over)confident bravado, hoping, to a certain extent, to bluff his way along. He tries his best to project an air of supreme confidence, hoping nobody will notice it’s a mask.

Like all adolescents, he see a world of opportunity and possibility ahead of him, and can’t wait to get there–so he’s in a bit of a hurry to get there, and makes some pretty big mistakes in his rush. Like all adolescents, he feels a certain sense of invulnerability, and is prone to taking some risks that give his older and wiser family members a certain amount of concern–but he doesn’t really want to listen to them, so sure is he of his adolescent convictions. He cares about where he comes from, but he’s not old enough yet to be nostalgic–for him, the world is much more about the future than it is about the past…and maybe even the present.

He’s starting to learn about and understand people and places around him, both near and far, but again, this isn’t fully formed. Similarly, he’s starting to develop an appreciation for things he thought he’d never care about–art “and stuff like that”, but once again, his understanding of this realm is still somewhat raw and not yet fully formed. He’s a great kid–earnest, sincere, well-meaning–but he’s still a kid.

And THAT is the mental picture I have created of Calgary and carry with me everywhere I go. It gives me what I THINK is a great frame of reference by which to look at and think about the city. If anybody out there wants to play, I’d love to hear your character sketch of Calgary–or anywhere else, for that matter!

Vote Kit (plus some shameless self-promotion)

First the important bit: I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of volunteering with an amazing group of people trying to increase voter participation in the municipal election in Calgary this month. What we’ve come up with is a website called VoteKit. If you live in Calgary, please check out the website, our Facebook page, or follow VoteKit on Twitter! Turnout in municipal elections is historically quite low, and all we’re hoping for and trying to achieve is an increase in the turnout rate. VoteKit is a completely non-partisan project. It does not support any candidate(s), nor does it take a position on any issue(s). Everybody working on VoteKit has set aside their personal opinions for the work we’re doing on the project–but we also openly acknowledge that outside of VoteKit, we do have our own personal opinions.

In my case, I have a strong personal interest in a couple of things: arts & culture, and the plans for a new central library in Calgary. I plan to vote for the candidates who show the strongest support in these two areas. To get a sense of where the various candidates stand on arts & culture, Arts Vote Calgary did a survey, and you can find the responses to that on their website.

And now the shameless self-promotion bit: I’ve contributed a couple of posts to the VoteKit site. The first one has to do with why I think municipal politics and governance may be the most important of the three levels of government in Canada. The second one has to do with exactly what it is we elect our Councillors (and yes, they’re finally called “Councillors” here in Calgary instead of “Aldermen”!) to do–the roles and responsibilities of elected representatives in our fair city. It’s not posted yet–I’ll update this post as soon as the link is live.

Again–if you live in Calgary, please take the time to learn a bit about the candidates for mayor, council, and school board. Once you’ve done that, vote–and take a friend with you!


Cursive is an Obsolete Platform

The “Great Cursive Debate” just won’t go away. Just search “cursive debate“, and you’ll find plenty of articles.  It was a topic on the September 2, 2013 edition of the CBC Radio 1 current affairs program The Current.

For what they’re worth, these are my thoughts on the subject. I’m one of those people who “can’t” write in cursive. Or perhaps I should say I’m a person who prefers not to use it–or, increasingly, ANY form of “writing”.

I’m in my 50s, and I certainly learned cursive way back when in the 1960s. Actually, I first learned “European” (Germanic) cursive. My dad was an academic, and we lived in Switzerland the year I was in Grade 1. I learned cursive there, with a good old-fashioned fountain pen (not even a cartridge pen!). I still have some notebooks from back then, and my European/German cursive was quite nice.

But when we came back to Canada, the teachers of the day decided that my European handwriting was “wrong”. They forced me to “unlearn” it and learn “proper” North American handwriting–Palmer or Zaner-Bloser. The result was that my cursive became an essentially illegible scrawl. (And the point is that cursive–at least back then–was not thought of us a means of acquiring fine motor skills or creative self-expression. It was highly ritualized, codified, and orthodox. One was “judged”, to a certain degree, on one’s “penmanship“.)

By high school in the 70s, I had figured out that block lettering worked far better for me. I could read my own notes, and teachers could read my essays and test answers. I’ve stuck with block lettering for everything that has to be “written” ever since. I can sign my name in cursive for official documents, but that’s pretty much the full extent of my use of cursive these days. Even my use of block lettering–putting ANYTHING on paper–is rapidly waning.

I rarely take notes in meetings or any other situation in which note-taking is required by hand any more. I typically use one of my (portable) electronic devices for that. More often than not, I use a “Swype” enabled keyboard, and a note-taking app like Evernote. It’s fast, easy, and makes my notes searchable and available across all my devices (phone, tablet, notebook, desktop, whatever). Best of all, I don’t have to worry about losing a scrap of paper with an important (and perhaps illegible) note on it!

I also have two sons who are in Grades 6 and 4. They go to a charter school here in Calgary, which equips each student with an iPad. They do virtually all of their school work with it. They have little or no “need” to put anything on paper–be it in cursive or block lettering. They also have art, music, and drama classes, so they’re learning motor skills–both gross and fine–as well as creative self-expression through channels other than learning cursive. That being the case, and given the technologies they will be able to use when they grow up, I fail to see the necessity or benefit of putting time and energy into teaching or learning cursive.

Like it or not, cursive is dying. It may still continue to exist as a “decorative or expressive art” (as calligraphy already does), but it’s pretty much dead already as a basic or necessary form or medium for communication or record-keeping. To use a technological metaphor, it’s a dead or dying “platform”. Chisel and stone, clay or wax tablet and stylus, papyrus and reed, vellum and brush, parchment and quill, slate and chalk, fountain or cartridge pen and linen paper, Bic ballpoint and Hilroy (or Campfire) notebook–all “platforms” that have come and gone in the history of writing. Add cursive and any surface upon which to write it to the list of dead platforms.

I, for one, say good riddance to cursive. I say so as someone whose “penmanship” long made me “the most illegible bachelor in town” (with apologies to Billy Bragg). It is, simply put, obsolete. Any argument in favour of cursive is purely romantic or nostalgic. It no longer serves any essential function or need, and as such, there is no utility or benefit to continuing to teach it in school. Let’s put our time and energy into teaching our kids more important things–like critical thinking, financial literacy, and digital literacy and citizenship–not a dying skill with no use in the modern world.

Preston Manning, Municipal Governance, and “True Democracy”

Dearest reader(s)…

Preston Manning, founder of the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education and the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, had a comment piece in today’s Globe and Mail. The following is my response. I have also submitted it to both the “Letters to the Editor” and Comment email addresses at the Globe, but since I suspect there will be no response, I have decided to “publish” it here.

Before we get to it, though, you may want to take the Manning Centre’s “What kind of conservative are you?” quiz as a warm-up exercise or just for kicks and giggles. It turns out you can’t be anything BUT a Conservative, no matter how hard you may try–just a certain “type” of Conservative. (Apparently I’m a libertarian conservative. I love the little hedgehog graphic I got, but I’m not sure how to interpret my “42%, 21% below average” score. I guess I’m a below average libertarian conservative??? But let’s not go down THAT rabbithole!)

Anyway…on the with the show!

While Preston Manning did not say as such in so many words, I wholeheartedly agree with his implied assertion that municipal government in Canada is incredibly important. In fact, I would suggest that in many ways municipal government is the most important level of government in the land. It certainly has the greatest direct impact on our individual and collective daily lives. For most Canadians, police, fire, and other emergency services are provided by municipal government. So are the water we drink, the roads we use most frequently, parks, libraries, swimming pools and soccer fields, and on and on. Municipal government is also directly responsible for decisions large and small about land use and (urban) planning–everything from the height of a fence between neighbours to comprehensive growth and development strategies.

Local government and “politics” directly and tangibly touch our daily lives in many more ways than their provincial and federal counterparts do. They truly are “grass roots democracy”. But as Mr. Manning quite correctly points out, voter turnout for local government elections is generally far less than it is for provincial or federal elections and is indeed abysmal. Given that local government is perhaps the most important to voters’ daily lives, this is truly ironic and depressing.

Where I wholeheartedly, emphatically, and unequivocally disagree with Mr. Manning, however, in in his assertion that the “solution” to this “democracy deficit” is in the introduction of “think tanks, training programs, and communications vehicles” to the municipal arena. I would propose that it is precisely the introduction of such third-party entities into the “democratic” and/or “political” arenas that is the direct cause of the “democratic deficit” that Mr. Manning laments. We need only look to our neighbours to the south to see how “think tanks” and “communication vehicles” (Super PACs, anyone?) have co-opted, corrupted, and virtually destroyed “democracy” in the United States. To propose these sorts of bodies and organizations as a means of “improving” local governance across Canada seems naive at best and pernicious at worst.

While Mr. Manning’s call for “strengthening the knowledge, skills, ethical foundations, and leadership capacities of candidates” for local office may seem innocuous, benign, and even desirable on the surface, one also needs only to look more closely at both the “Manning Foundation for Democratic Education” and the “Manning Centre for Building Democracy” (and most specifically at the “Municipal Governance Project” of the latter) to see that these bodies and projects are not by any means “non-partisan”, “apolitical”, or “non-ideological”.

A stated “value” of the Foundation for Democratic Education is “free markets, freedom of choice, and limited government”. A gentleman named David Seymour “leads the Foundation’s project to develop market oriented policy for municipal government”. The slogan of the Centre for Building Democracy is “Building Canada’s Conservative Movement”. And the slogan of the Centre’s “Municipal Governance Project” is “improving local government through free markets”. (All quotations taken directly from the Foundation and Centre websites).

Mr. Manning may claim that he and these bodies that bear his name are “neutral” and only interested in “strengthen(ing) democratic governance in Canada at its most basic level”, but this is a patent and undeniable falsehood, as the evidence above clearly demonstrates. These are not apolitical entities intended purely to supposedly improve the quality of candidates for local office (and presumably by extension, to increase voter participation in municipal elections). They are entities explicitly intended to promote a certain form of “Conservatism”, and carry an equally explicit “free market/libertarian” ideology.

You’re right, Mr. Manning. I do “see a conspiracy behind such attempts to innovate”–at least this one. It is precisely the sort of double-speak which seeks to thinly veil or cloak ideology behind seemingly lofty, “apple pie and motherhood” rhetoric about “democracy” that I find disingenuous, deplorable, unconscionable, revolting, and frankly not only undemocratic but anti-democratic. If this is the sort of think tank, interest group, or communication vehicle that Mr. Manning wants to introduce into the municipal democratic process in Canada, I for one say a polite, “No, thank you”.

I certainly hope that the “best and brightest” consider offering themselves for elected public service, with honorable intentions, at all levels of governance in Canada. I sincerely wish more people took it upon themselves to be informed, educated, and engaged citizens. And I profoundly wish more people would vote–especially at the municipal level! I may not know how to achieve those things, but I do know with absolute certainty that the introduction of third-party think tanks, training programs, interest groups, and/or “communications vehicles” into the municipal electoral process is precisely what we do not want or need to do. I’m equally certain that if we do, voter cynicism, disenchantment, disengagement, and participation will only get worse, not better.

(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.

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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