Sunday, April 10, 2016

Grace notes and missed opportunities

Rob Ford has died. Rest in peace.

After a pause, a very brief pause, in the interests of decency, the negative assessments of Rob Ford's performance as mayor have started. And indeed, Rob Ford's tenure in the mayor's office was a disaster, most of all for Rob Ford. Edward Keenan's got it mostly right. Heck, nearly everybody has it right. Rob Ford's talents, his outlook, did not match the skills and the perspective a mayor needs.

Rob Ford believed in servant government. Politicians should believe in servant government. If more politicians really wanted to serve the people, instead of socking away money in off-shore tax havens, we wouldn't just have better government, we'd have a better world. Rob Ford wanted to solve people's problems. He wanted to serve as the kindly scullery maid handing leftovers out the back door. He wanted to answer phone calls and get potholes filled. Despite his lapses, he did a good job as a councillor.

A mayor, on the other hand, needs a different skill set. A mayor needs to understand how the city can work for everyone. A council member can play the role of the kindly scullery maid, but the mayor needs to act more like a butler or majordomo, someone with a vision for the way the household needs to work for everyone, and the toughness to carry it out. A mayor has to say no, much more than a councillor. Councillors can press for a road their constituents want; the mayor has to read the report from the traffic engineers on where the cars will go after that road reaches the ward boundary. Rob Ford never fully understood that. I remember him speaking at the opening of a bike lane: despite the blather by Don Cherry about "pinkos" and bikes, Toronto actually put in a good few bike lanes, and protected lanes, under Mr. Ford. Rob Ford understood people wanted these lanes installed, and I could sense real good will from him. He wanted people in Toronto who want bike lanes to have them. It hurt to hear him, because he didn't grasp that to have a bike lane network people can use, you sometimes need to put bike lanes where the people don't much care about them. You can't build a transportation system where everyone who wants subways gets subways, and everyone who wants roads gets roads, and everyone who wants bike lanes gets bike lanes. A transport system built to cater to everyone's wishes would have people hopping on and off bikes, in and out of cars, down into subways and up into streetcars.

That lack of an overarching vision doomed his attempt to do the mayor's job. In almost everything, a mayor needs a vision for the city: the way it can work, the way it can develop, what it can grow into. Taking the easiest next step at every point leads to something computer scientists call the greedy algorithm, and it doesn't get you where you want to go at the lowest cost. Rob Ford tried to cut city expenses wherever he could, but he had little in the way of an effective plan, and he failed.

In some important ways, Rob Ford succeeded. He succeeded in galvanizing opposition to his cuts all over the city. He succeeded in getting people in Bloor West to organize to protect our High Park Zoo. The threat of losing public services to the cutting agenda brought people from all over the city to talk about what we value, what we want to keep, and why. Both  Rob Ford and the city lost an opportunity to have a positive conversation about what services we want and how best to provide them. The community in Bloor West organized to preserve services and amenities. Part of the credit for that goes to an active city councillor: Sarah Doucette of ward 13. Much of it goes to an engaged public. But a little credit has to go to the Fords for starting the conversation. All of this happened without much conscious thought on the part of Mayor Ford and his staff. What could he, and we, have accomplished if the mayor's office had made a conscious choice to decentralize the civic government with the involvement of all the people of Toronto?

Rob Ford's election jolted the complacent assumption that the Toronto that "matters" consists of the rectangle bounded by Eglinton Avenue to the north, and the Don and Humber Rivers to the east and west. The sense of entitlement felt by residents of "old" Toronto often passes without comment, but I remember vividly sitting in a meeting and hearing a self-appointed representative of the Toronto "high culture" community suggest the world exists to support their quest for perfection. By providing a means for the rest of the city to rebuke that arrogance, the Fords did the city a real favour.  Unfortunately, the rebuke has taken a long time to develop into a serious conversation about the respect residents of different parts of the city owe to one another. Again, Rob Ford did the city a good service, but he could have done much more.

Rob Ford never found a way to really celebrate this city's vibrant commercial culture. Walk down most shopping streets in Toronto, and at least have the businesses have signs and designs you won't see anywhere else. We don't give this city enough credit for that enormous creativity and, yes, courage; in most cities of Toronto's size, close to three quarters (or more) of the businesses consist of national chains or franchises, all the signs spelling out internationally trademarked names, all well advertised on TV and Google. We still wait for the city's political culture to figure out a way to celebrate that singular achievement.

Rob Ford's personal failings have had plenty of attention; of them all, his homophobia had the worst effect on the city. In 2014 Toronto hosted World Pride, and the mayor did not show up. That may have a salutary effect in showing how far we have to go, but it did not reflect well on one of the most tolerant cities on the planet.

Rob Ford found himself in a position he had neither the education nor the temperament for. Through his term in office he missed more opportunities than he seized, he delayed more important initiatives than he put through, and other people on city council did what it took to keep the city running. His homophobia reflected badly on the city, and reflected worse on him. None of this we should forget; let us not also forget that, mostly by accident, he exposed problems in the city government that we have to address in order to solve; let us also remember, to his credit, that he really cared about the city, served it as best he could, did not give up on himself, and faced illness and death with a dignity that eluded him during he pit of his addiction.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Four words closer to the safety of life

In one of his more recent screeds against cycling, Jim Kenzie, the Star's car reviewer, wrote this chilling sentence: "We still kill more pedestrians and motorists on Toronto roads than we do cyclists."

We shouldn't kill anybody. I'll say that again: we shouldn't kill anyone. We should never accept death as a price for anything. Any violent death, any injury, in the course of any activity means that something went wrong and needs correction. When it comes to automotive technology, and the million odd deaths it causes world-wide, we need to do a lot of correcting. We need a safety culture.

The safety cultures I know best, marine and aviation, have four defining principles, summed up in four words: priority, transparency, authority, and accountability.

Start with priority, as in the safety of life has absolute priority. Nothing trumps the word unsafe. Not convenient, not fast, not efficient, not cost-effective. Having a deadline does not justify an unsafe act. Money does not justify a lack of safety.

In aviation and marine activities, that goes without saying. In a sane and decent road culture, it would go without saying as well. We do not need to pay road tolls in blood. Not only does trading a certain number of deaths for speed and convenience create a dire moral calculus: when we pay the price in lives, we don't get the convenience or the speed. If an aircraft cannot take of safely, it does not take off. That not only saves lives, it saves money and in the long run, it saves time as well. Yet somehow, a callous, or perhaps fatalistic attitude finds its way into our discussion of road safety.

We cannot make safety a meaningful priority without transparency, broadly defined. Transparency means first making transparent what has failed, then making that information widely available. It means not only the publication of information, but also the collection of that information. It means adequately investigating every loss of life incident, every personal injury accident. It means making public what happened, who died or suffered an injury, and who else the incident involved. Privacy should apply here only in very limited circumstances. What we do on the public roads we do in public, and by definition we cannot make claims of privacy for public actions. Nor should the authorities tasked with investigating incidents settle for an inadequate investigation to save money or to get the roads open quickly. In fact, to avoid compromising investigations in order to appease impatient drivers, the Highway Traffic Act should specify a minimum road closure for any accident that causes a death. Once the accident investigation team arrives, the clock starts; they have as much time as they need to gather evidence, but all the affected lanes and a buffer lane must remain closed for a minimum period.

Authority: in the marine and aviation safety cultures, the authority to do whatever it takes to ensure a safe flight or a safe voyage, rests with the person who has the most at stake and the greatest ability to assess any situation: the pilot in command of an aircraft or the commander of a vessel. In contrast, on our roads the state, primarily through the police, operates as a surrogate parent to drivers. This does not work. If drivers have no authority, neither law nor custom can really hold them accountable. Treating the nearest traffic police office as the actual commander in charge of each car simply relieves the person at the steering wheel and brake pedal of their responsibility. And whatever expertise traffic police officers bring to their work, they cannot possibly supervise all drivers. I propose simple addition to the highway traffic act: no peace officer shall issue, and the courts shall penalize no road user for failing to obey, any unsafe order.

That brings us to accountability. Pilots and mariners have the authority to operate safely, and both law and custom lays upon them an unconditional responsibility for doing so. To the excuse of ignorance, the safety culture replies: you had a responsibility to know. To the excuse of a mechanical failure, the safety culture replies that a pilot or captain has a responsibility to ensure the mechanical and structural integrity of the ship or aircraft in their care. Anyone who operates a two tonne steel bomb in public has an obligation to ensure the safety of their vehicle, to know or learn the relevant road conditions, and to conduct themselves in a safe manner. And a road crash truly arises from circumstances no reasonable preparation could have avoided, that usually changes the target of accountability. If the road design makes it impossible for any driver to operate safely, then the road design needs to change. In the case of a mechanical failure, the vehicle manufacturer has an obligation to correct the problem.

If faults go uncorrected, then dangerous vehicles have no place on the road, and the government should not register them. When accident investigations implicate infrastructure, then authorities responsible for that infrastructure have a responsibility to do whatever makes that infrastructure safe, whether that means changing the infrastructure itself, changing the conditions for using it, or even closing it to traffic altogether.

But most crashes happen because someone made a mistake, often a culpable mistake. Here the infrastructure and economy we have built around the automobile makes accountability difficult to enforce. The economics of motoring led successive governments to reduce the requirements for a driving license to a level nearly anyone could meet, while the design of cities and suburbs made use of a car necessary for daily life. A permanent revocation of a driving license, as well as a long suspension, appears to many as an extended house arrest.

Here again, aviation provides a model: the penalty for most safety errors in aviation consists of more training. I propose a back-end graduation on licensing: for most relatively minor offences, such as careless driving or careless driving causing injury, the license of the driver at fault should reset to the lowest level, and the driver should then have the burden of going through the training process again.

For more severe culpability, particularly dangerous driving causing injury or death, the law should provide a restricted license. A restricted driver would have the right to drive directly to the closest available medical facility with a sick or injured family member. For all other trips, whether shopping, commuting to work, or otherwise, the holder of a restricted license would have to get specific permission, providing the route, time, reason, and the reason public transit would not suffice for the trip. Such a license would rule out pleasure driving; it would also come with the same restriction on alcohol as a graduated license: drivers would be required to have no alcohol in their systems while operating a vehicle, period. This may seem harsh, but it strikes a middle way between prohibition on driving and full restoration of driving privileges.

We do not have to treat death on the roads the way we treat our mortality, as inevitable. We can have a safety culture, and a properly implemented safety culture does have the potential to reduce if not eliminate the carnage we see on our roads today.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Theology as Logos...

The American eangelical school Wheaton College has apparently decided to fire one of their professors, Dr. Larycia Hawkins for stating that Christians and Muslims pray to the same G-d. Wheaton claims that this statement violates their profession of faith, which the institution requires all staff and students to assent to. The institution has come in for criticism: some strong, and some balanced between support and criticism. Some of the support they have received makes specific reference to the need for institutions of learning committed to a specific viewpoint to ensure all the scholars adhere to that viewpoint; to, as Rod Dreher's comments put it, "police their theological boundaries". Whatever the value of setting limits to enquiry in a religious school, doing so carries a risk: that the school may end up enforcing an logically contradictory position. You can't alter a logical conclusion by firing someone for following it.

Start with an element of basic Christian theology: G-d as universal, the Creator of all things. We know (and can prove) that by its very Nature language does not and cannot encompass the universal (Gödel's proof). Therefore, as Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12) says: we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
It therefore follows that if we pray to G-d simply as we conceive G-d to be, we necessarily pray to an incomplete idea of G-d. As  C. S. Lewis put it, we must, logically, pray to G-d as G-d knows G-d's self to be. If we do this in humility, acknowledging our inadequacy to fully conceive of G-d but directing our worship to the great "I am" (Exodus 3:14), and if Muslims do the same, then they and we necessarily pray to the same G-d. And if we do not, if we pray to our conception of G-d, then we can only hope in humility for G-d to bridge the inevitable gap between the limited concepts in our minds and the transcendent reality. And if Muslims do the same, do we dare ask that G-d not grant them the same mercy?

Friday, December 25, 2015

All I want for Christmas...

is a safety culture on Ontario's streets, roads and highways. And some respect for vulnerable road users would be good, too.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

These aren't the droids you're looking for -- and by the way, this is the best movie ever

It's probably just me, but somehow the rave reviews for "The Force Awakens" have a whiff of jedi mind tricks about them. It's not that it's a truly bad movie. Certainly, if you compare it with "Phantom Menace", it's a real accomplishment. But it's been called the best movie of the year, which seems just a little excessive in a year that saw the release of "Room" and "Spotlight".

For those who go to movies looking for spectacle, "The Force Awakens" delivers. For those who want to see plot twists, this movie will more than satisfy. If you want to see moments of convincing acting between the explosions, it comes across as well. For those who want to see truly coherent, truly excellent writing: see "Spotlight", or see "Room".

In his book "The Empty Space", the great English theatre director Peter Brook wrote about the disconnection between plays that described inner lives and plays that addressed the great sweep of world events. Brook points to the Elizabethan theatre as proof that writers could address both interior thoughts and feelings and world events, exposing the conflicts and interactions between the fears and hopes of individuals and the great events of the world. Perhaps Star Wars aims to do the same thing on a mythic scale, but it misfires badly.Star Wars has a red shirt problem. The first movie of the series, in 1977, began with the destruction of the planet Alderan.

All story-telling risks a kind of narcissism: telling a story inevitably means telling it from a particular point of view, and the listeners come to understand, and to that extent sympathise with, that view. Some story-tellers resist, making a conscious effort to remind their hearers that people outside the circle of the story also matter. Other storytellers happily capitulate to the limits of the form, even turning effect into ideology. Star Wars explicitly defines some of its characters as "chosen", some as auxiliaries placed by fate in the orbit of the chosen, and the vast majority as grist for the cosmic grinder. But this juxtaposition of the few who matter with the many who do not creates jarring inconsistencies in the heart of the story. At the end of Return of the Jedi, the film clearly presents Annakin Skywalker as fulfilled and redeemed, together with Obi-wan and Yoda which leaves the audience to wonder where in that afterlife the inhabitants of Alderan have got to.  "The Force Awakens" does not change this; it doubles down on the anonymous slaughter.

The problems with "The Force Awakens" start with, well, the force. An invisible, quasi-religious and very loosely defined principle associated with a set of abilities, mostly telepathy, the ability to manipulate others, and telekinesis, the Start Wars movies describe it as a grace somehow passed on by heredity. The force, in fact, provides a continual deus ex machina for the series, and particularly for the current film. The film depicts one of the principal characters as a scavenger, scratching out a subsistence living selling parts scavenged from the debris of space battles of a generation ago to an exploitative and oppressive junk dealer. Yet this character goes on to display excellent piloting and combat skills, skills that take decades to master and in fact act as the hallmarks of military aristocracy. Who taught this character these skills? Why would they? It should not surprise any viewer that the film makes it abundantly clear that the force is strong in this one. The films express a vision of profound inequality, and "The Force Awakens" does not change this.

Some of the best works of literature and drama to describe great historical events and movements have done so from the point of view of a random participant, as "Casablanca" tells the story of the Second World War, or from the point of view of the victims, as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" or "Johnny Got His Gun" do. The protagonists of these stories represent the millions of people who went through the same experiences. Other accounts tell the story of major events from the point of view of people who happened to make specific decisions that had a profound impact. The choice of protagonist matters, and in Star Wars, the choice of protagonists, by an impersonal blessing from the universe passed on in the family line, contradicts the ostensible theme of the series, the struggle to preserve, then the struggle to restore, then the struggle to maintain a democratic state. The writers of Star Wars do not manage this tension well. "The Force Awakens" is spectacular; it has good acting between the blasts, but it does not tell a compelling story.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cultural appropriation and the millennial environment

The recent protest at Yale University over issues of cultural appropriation and Halloween have received support, analysis and condemnation. Responses opposing the protestors run the gamut from thoughtful concern about free speech to indignant clucking.

Much of the thoughtful criticism focuses on the supposed "intolerance" of the protesters, asking what happened to the legendary free speech protests of the 1960s. Some of the writers objecting to these protests seem to think objections to racial caricature, at Halloween or any other time, represent a new low in public support for free speech. That would probably come as a shock to the Nuremberg tribunal, who found the vicious anti-semitic caricatures of Der Sturmer had helped fuel the hatred that drove the Nazi persecution and mass murder of Europe's Jewish population. The court sentenced the publisher of Der Sturmer to death for crimes against humanity. Free speech has always had limits, and most Western countries acknowledge that in a society that aims at tolerance and diversity, incitement to hate lie falls outside these limits.

To understand why student complaints about the use of cultures in Halloween often seem to focus on practices that do not seem hateful, it helps to understand the environment the millenial generation has grown up in. The Internet has shifted the context in which today's students experience restrictions on speech. The power of the Internet has made the actual repression of information and opinion very difficult, except for extremely authoritarian governments willing to endure considerable self-inflicted harm. Students today have never lived in a world where censorship of ideas can plausibly come from an American civil servant or a judge. Instead, they have spent their lives in the world of the DMCA, where expressions get blocked not by laws but by licenses, not by bureaucrats but by lawyers, not by state power but by private claims of ownership over ideas. The controversy over cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes involves not free expression but property.
"MGD06JesusSaysBuyMoreArt" by Infrogmation - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons -
Connor Friedersdrorf quotes the offending email by Erika Christakis: "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?" That looks to me like a naive and nostalgic view. In Halloween celebrations of the 1960s and 1970s, parents whipped up costumes for their children, Halloween decorations were made at home, and students pulled sheets of their beds for toga parties. Some parents still make costumes for their children, but Halloween today is a multi-million dollar business. Stores pop up in major cities in September and October, selling multitudes of ready to wear costumes. These costumes come with design copyrights, trademarks, even business method patents. The only people who do not get to make claim on this revenue stream are the people who created and maintain the living culture that gives many of these costumes their meaning. Cultural appropriation is not kids being transgressive; it is yet another an example of big business using the powerless as raw material to make a buck. Moreover, it is one means of turning that many things appropriated from the powerless into cash that individual students can choose not to participate in.  The email from Erika Christakis advised students offended by a costume "...if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other." That misses part of the point. Costumes are big business. By the time a student puts on an offensive costume, the exploiters have rung up another sale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


for the people of France mourning loved ones. And the people of Lebanon. And Syria, Iraq and Russia. Pray for everywhere terrorism leaves its ugly imprint.