APOLOGIES TO MAURICE SENDAK

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The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 23

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POVERTY, PLUTOCRACY AND A PLACE TO LIVE

Last December, the controversial Rev. Ric Matthews resigned from the First United Church, citing the clash between official safety requirements and the overflow of Vancouver homeless seeking shelter. The very same day, The City of Vancouver, Reliance Properties, and ITC Construction Group rolled out their 230-square-foot “microloft” apartments, pitching the $850 a month rentals as “an affordable and much needed non-subsidized rental housing opportunity in downtown Vancouver.”

It’s no surprise the grand opening was met with protest. These snazzy Tombs With a View did little to address the parallel problems of poverty and housing affordability in Vancouver. They were a bit like offering a starving person some itsy-bitsy foodie morsels with an Urban Fare price tag. (The Woodwards development in the same area, with its mix of social and market housing, stands out for being an exception.)

A friend recently wrote me an email about the “great moral shame about people in poverty in Canada.” He feels we all need to ask the most basic question: “why?” Not why are “they” struggling every day, but why do we accept things as they are? He wrote: “Why do we accept that the waitress who just brought us lunch needs a church’s food pantry to feed her daughter for the rest of the month? She’s working and that should be enough. Why do we accept the family living in their car, the mentally ill and the addicts who die on our streets, and the children who go to school tired and hungry? Maybe we accept things as they are because poverty has always been with us and we think nothing will change. Or maybe we accept things as they are because it’s so easy to look away. Are the two intimately linked? Are our feelings of powerlessness linked with our indifference?”

I prefer to think our sense of powerlessness is linked more to “compassion fatigue” than indifference. There is also an impulse to blame the victim—to lump in the mentally ill and substance abusers with those who have failed, for whatever reasons, to successfully “compete” in the market. The spiralling real estate values on the West Coast can’t be pegged on the B.C. Liberal government. But when our leaders say they can’t sustain a previous generation’s expectations for health care, housing and education, what they don’t tell you is that they slashed corporate income taxes to 10 per cent from 16.5 per cent in 2001. This, and along with the Liberals’ other tax cuts, have helped choked off their revenue stream. Like their Tory brethren in Ottawa, the provincial Liberal government keeps telling us that big government doesn’t work—and damned if they haven’t gone and proven it.

Perhaps the big home with the two-car garage is going the way of the hula hoop and automotive tailfins. Personally, I have no problem with the last generation of SUVs and Hummers rusting away in driveways, as laneway homes spread like rhizome from Mount Pleasant to Marpole. That being said, this city, this province, and this nation is awash in capital. It’s just that our investment models are embedded in free market fundamentalism. Communities with strong social funding networks actually produce significant economic spinoffs. Scandinavian nations consistently perform at the top for global economic competitiveness, while supporting strong public sectors. Why can’t we?

I could go on about the decades-long dynamic between poverty and plutocracy, yet noble-sounding words in newsprint aren’t of much use to someone desperately seeking shelter in our “world class city.” Whether they are a 9 to 5 wage slave or a single mother and her kid, the only thing they have the energy to investigate is a church bulletin board, or Craigslist, for a place to rest their heads.

Neither do I have a good answer to my friend’s question about why we shrug at the day-to-day shame of poverty in this province, and accept the highest child poverty rate in Canada. What I can say is we need to stop reelecting politicians who say they represent the struggling many, when they have proven over and over that their true allegiance is to the prosperous few.

Or we can all sit back and just trust the market to weave its long-deferred magic on us all. After all, didn’t those hip microlofts rent out in a matter of hours?

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 23

“INTERNET OF THINGS” WILL TAP EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE

Back 2001, I bought a silver 2000 Chevrolet Cavalier. The windows operated by cable-not electrically-and that appealed to me. I’d heard stories about the expense of replacing electronic panels on vehicle dashboards after the failure of a single chip, so I preferred a stupid vehicle over a smart one.

Soon every other consumer device will be as “smart” as our cars and phones. If you haven’t heard about the “Internet of Things,” you will soon. A growing range of artifacts, from airline seats to ovens to coffee pots, are being engineered to communicate across information networks.

Years ago the U.S. Defence Department and Wal-Mart began to equip their shipping palettes with radiofrequency identification tags-chips that tracked the destination of everything from helmets and hairspray. RFID tags have been used in consumer products like running shoes and apparel, allowing manufacturers to track their inventory in real time, even after purchase.

RFID tags are yesterday’s news; digital sensors are the new big thing. As reported in the New York Times, these sensors “can measure and communicate location, movement, vibration, temperature, humidity, even chemical changes in the air.” There are “countless numbers” of them around the world, in “industrial equipment, automobiles, electrical meters and shipping crates.” Their increasing use means a torrent of information, and a growing need to interpret it on the fly. A recent report from the World Economic Forum describes data as a new economic asset. There’s gold in them thar code.

Technocrats, marketers, and state-level snoops are drooling over this rich seam of ones and zeroes. It’s no longer just about cross-referencing your comments on social networking sites with your shopping patterns, education level, political interests, friends, religious affiliation, holiday plans, medical condition and insurance status. The “Internet of Things” will include the very objects you interact with. Electronic networks are increasingly able to “see” and “hear” into the physical world through these devices. It’s hard to believe that the global rollout of smart meters won’t involve some such Panopticon scheme in the future. Gary Murphy, B.C. Hydro’s project manager for smart meters, tells me that if the technology becomes “stable enough, customers will have a choice to hook up their appliances” to some form of smart grid, although Hydro “cannot sell information to a third parties without the express permission of the customer.”

Yet smart meters are embedded in social context where information is increasingly up for grabs. A few years back, a voice recognition software project midwived by the U.S. Pentagon was spun off as a Silicon Valley startup. Apple bought Siri in 2010 and millions of iPhone users are now speaking commands into their phones and sharpening their profiles ever further through distant servers connected to supercomputers. Siri will keep on getting smarter, and the urge to merge the data with more meta-programs spat out of the classified world will undoubtedly prove to be irresistible.

The Internet is already the “greatest spying machine the world has ever seen,” according to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The lines are becoming blurry between commercial data-mining, law enforcement snooping, illegal hacking, and covert intelligence gathering.

Two years ago, Wikileaks released a surprising document by the INDECT Consortium: the “Intelligence Information System Supporting Observation, Searching and Detection for Security of Citizens in Urban Environment.” It’s a mouthful, but in simple terms, INDECT is “working to put a human face on the billions of emails, text messages, tweets and blog posts that transit cyberspace every day; perhaps your face,” wrote Tom Burghardt in an article for globalresearch.ca. This is just one program among many, designed to get a fix on every person in the developed world not living in a tent or tree. If and when home appliances becoming part of the much-ballyhooed “Internet of Things,” does that mean being surrounded by consumer-grade snitches?

Way back in 1993, the wise journalist Barbara Ehrenreich expressed reservations about a future where “your checkbook balancing program and the sonnet you were writing in your spare time will be joyously commingling with everything from Beverly Hills 90210 to the weather report from Reykjavik.” Welcome to The Cloud, Ms. Ehrenreich.

On a final note, I’ve had to upgrade my computer hardware almost a dozen times since 2001. But my stupid old Cavalier still runs fine in its original form. http://www.olscribbler.wordpress.com

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 16

ROBO-CALLING AND THE LAW OF HOLES

Image“The first law of holes” is to stop digging when you’re in one. For the past two weeks the Canadian federal Conservatives have been furiously tunneling toward the center of the Earth, with dirt flying and denials of voter suppression echoing from the bottom – including Harper’s coal-mining ballad about a “smear campaign” against the Tories.

The stakes couldn’t be higher with the robo-calling controversy. If Canadian pundits position the evidence of voter suppression in the last federal election as just another political story to file before falling asleep – and the people don’t rise up to demand accountability – then the future of this country is in serious doubt. We’ll be Nigeria in all but name, and last thing we’ll have to worry about is blowback from Internet banking scams and penis extension ads.

Harper’s majority hinged on as little as 8,000 votes in the last election. And so far 31,000 Canadians have contacted Election Canada about calls, live and recorded, misdirecting them to nonexistent polling stations. We don’t know how many voters were sidetracked – the calls apparently targeted Liberal supporters – but whatever their effect, illegal activity accompanied the last federal election. Without a full public enquiry into the matter, at this stage the federal Conservatives cannot claim to govern with the people’s consent.

Some historical context here. At the 2003 Progressive Conservative convention, leadership candidate David Orchard brokered a deal with candidate Peter Mackay. Orchard sent delegates his way under the condition there would be no merger talks with The Alliance. (He has published this signed agreement online.) Then in October 2003, MacKay and Stephen Harper signed an agreement in principle to merge the Progressive Conservatives and the Alliance to form the new Conservative Party of Canada.

The rebranded Tory party was hatched through deception, full stop. But at least the antidemocratic dicking-around wasn’t at the legislative level. That had to wait until December 2008, when Harper prorogued Parliament over a threatened nonconfidence vote from a coalition of Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc. He did it again a year later, citing the Olympics as a reason, rather than the ongoing investigations into treatment of Afghan detainees. Then in 2011, in a historic first for a sitting Canadian Prime Minister, the Commons Speaker ruled the Conservative government in contempt of Parliament, for stonewalling on crime-bill costs. The nation shrugged.

Each time this cabal screws around in the laboratory of democracy, they turn the   Bunsen burner up another notch. And we, the sleepy amphibians in the pot, blithely paddle around as the mercury goes up. If there was ever a time to go ‘ribbet’, it’s now – before we start croaking.

On the robocalling issue, we have the ‘what’, the ‘where,’ the ‘when’ and the ‘why.’ We have the ‘how’. We’re even at the first level of ‘who,’ by identifying some of the call companies involved. But don’t be fooled if the Tories choose to throw a few disposable bodies from Guelph under the bus. A nation-wide phoning campaign using voter rolls that identify tens of thousands of Canadians was not hatched from the minds of overenthusiastic young Tories. It took considerably higher-level involvement, and a whole lot of bucks, to pull this off. This connects to the political culture around Harper the same way my foot has some distant connection to my thigh.

Harper was brought into office through the decade-long efforts of Alberta oil industry interests, right-wing think tanks, politically connected evangelical groups, US corporate lobbyists/advisors, and national media apparatchiks. Yet I’ll bet even some of these folks – some, not all – have a problem with voter suppression. I have a hard time imagining many Canadians wanting to see their kids grow up in a country where ‘one person, one vote’ is replaced with a Mubarak-like ‘one strongman, screw you’.

On a personal note, I do funny drawings and rants about political figures for a living. In some parts of the world, that kind of gig can get you imprisoned or worse. I have a personal stake in desiring a country that doesn’t muzzle scientists, blow billions on unneeded military jets, define environmentalists as terrorists, spy on Internet users, rubberstamp torture, and imprison backyard gardeners. Or suppress votes. And you do too; because once this sort of thing begins, we have no idea how far down the hole we’ll be taken.

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 9