By Geoff Olson

Photo from The Vancouver Courier

Home renovation. Everybody’s talking about doing it. Or doing it and then talking about it with everybody.

How do I put this delicately? It’s bad enough when so many people go on about heritage this drizzled with artisanal that, or refer to green beans as haricot verts. But when foodies and hipsters put a 5 percent down payment on a million-dollar Vancouver crack shack, suddenly they’re seeing the world through Mike Holmes’ cement-dusted safety goggles.

From first-time buyers to empty nesters who’ve morphed into bling-addled bowerbirds, everyone wants a piece of a gravity-defying real estate market. And they just can’t shut up about sheet rock. Too many times to count, I’ve found myself trapped in conversations with people oversharing their epic schemes for heated floor tiles, or the like.

I know there are plenty of worse things to spend money on than granite-top kitchen islands with shiny gas ranges, but people usually keep mum about their drug addictions or big losses on – tales which are generally more interesting than home improvement overshoots. When did those of us with extra bucks turn into such bourgeois bores?

Or maybe it’s just me, a guy who has trouble with any tool more complicated than a pencil, and who is no more capable of wiring a laneway home than back-engineering the Large Hadron Collider out of Lego blocks. A spatially-challenged sort who failed to board the home improvement bandwagon, but who remembers a time when people talked about other things – like books, films, music, politics, and ideas.

On second thought, it’s not me. It’s everyone else. And their televisions.

Yes, the boob tube. There’s strong evidence that HGTV and other purveyors of reno-porn are responsible for the outbreak of spacklespeak. A report from Altus Group says home improvement shows have set off an explosion of home reno spending in Canada. The spending has doubled in the past 15 years, with a spike in 2013.

(Speaking of explosions, the much-anticipated Mayan Apocalypse of 2012 failed to put a dent in the home reno market. But for a short time afterward at Rona, you could pick up a deeply discounted, MesoAmerican calendar wheel made from resin. Perfect for the solarium.)

75 per cent of home renovation spending in the past 15 years “went towards improvements, with the rest going towards repairs and conversions,” notes a recent CBC report . Not surprisingly, Canadians have a significantly higher household debt-to-income ratio than their neighbours to the south, a people not known for delayed gratification.

That’s just fine with me. By all means, go stimulate the Canadian economy like Miley Cyrus with a giant foam rubber finger. Flip your house like a damn pancake. Just don’t share your fables of the reconstruction with me.

Not that you’re likely to get a chance; I have constructed a conversational igloo out of friends’ bodies, so to speak. Most of them are renters, so the talk rarely strays into reno territory. But I admit to one minor problem with this satisfying arrangement. As a homeowner among renters, I have more to fear from entropy than they do. My friends have their strata councils and cooperative members to keep track of problems. All I have is myself, a wife, two pets, and a house that is falling apart.

My wife is more the reno enthusiast than me.

Don’t get me wrong. The roof is fine and…well, the roof is fine. The deck back needs repairs, the copper pipes are well past their best-before date, and the kitchen floor has a slight pitch to it. You get the picture. (See how boring other people’s domestic infrastructure issues are?)

Because of my aversion to home reno,  my least favourite topic for conversation has become one my partner’s favourites, by default. And her focus isn’t misplaced. We either have to  talk about some serious domestic projects or move into something more solid.

But every time I think about the scale of the work required, I am paralyzed into tongue-tied inaction. And then I worry about what I could become:  the stranger sitting across from you in a coffee shop, saying in a hushed voice, “You think you’ve got problems? Let me tell you what contractors found when they ripped out our bathroom tiles. It was like a scene out of True Detective.”

The Vancouver Courier, July 25



by Geoff Olson

A few weeks back, news outlets and tech blogs erupted with a story that a ‘supercomputer’ had passed the so-called “Turing Test” for the first time.

Named after the 20th century information scientist Alan Turing, this is a proposed test of a computer program’s capacity to pass as a conscious entity. The Turing Test requires that one of the participants in a keyboard and screen dialogue should be a computer undetectable by a human participant.

A computer programme developed in Russia convinced 30 percent of participants that it was a 13 year-old boy – an age chosen by programmers to hide gaps in their creation’s information base.

Some of the news stories gave the impression that scientists had cooked up an artificial intelligence worthy of Stanley Kubrick’s HAL. Not so. There is a world of difference between constructing a mainframe that refuses to open the doors on a spacecraft and writing a script that mimics human conversation.

The Russian program was more hack than a HAL – a “chatbot,” actually. But even though chatbots have no innate intelligence, they behave otherwise. For example, every once and a while I’ll get a tweet or a message on my blog that appears to be from a reader, but it’s just a bot that combed through my archive for keywords.

Just as algorithms operating at millionths of a second constitutes most of the traffic on the world’s stock exchanges, “bots”  engineered to mine data constitute the bulk of Internet traffic. Some researchers estimate that only 35 percent of the average Twitter member’s followers are actual human beings.

I’m not concerned here with automated e-mail scams out of Nigeria, or other varieties of spambots. I’m focusing on the chatbots that pollute social media sites. Like the Russian program, these are scripts engineered to convince the target at the other end that they are dealing with another person.

Many chatbots follow sleep-wake cycles that keep them from being flagged as mindless programs. They travel across cyberspace  ‘liking’ posts and collecting friends, while trawling news and marketing databases for keywords that might intrigue their marks. Some chatbots have social network accounts of their own, for the sake of a plausible digital footprint.

When the dating site Ok Cupid ought and redesigned another dating site, the programmers observed a sharp decline in bots in the refurbished site, “along with  a sudden 15 percent drop in use of the new site by real people,” according to  2013 report in The New York Times.

This decrease in traffic in the redesigned site occurred because bots had been posting flirtatious messages and automated “likes” to members’ pages, luring them toward pay-for-service pornography sites and other profitable portals. With the redesign, some of the bots apparently got lost.

In mining responses from the lovelorn, the bots  “had imbued the former site with a false sense of intimacy and activity,” notes the Times report.

“Love was in the air. Robot love,” said Christian Rudder, a co-founder and general manager of OkCupid. The company programmers had a battle plan, he said: to create bots of their own to flirt with the invading drawing them to a special forum – “a purgatory of sorts” – to conduct endless cycles of lovey-dovey bot-chat.

If that’s not crazy enough, even the dead can now get a piece of the bot action.  In a tech development worthy of a Philip K. Dick novel, there are multiple firms offering posthumous social media services. With their help, you can keep your online profile active long after you’ve popped your clogs.

The slogan of LivesOn is “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.” The Twitter service, developed by London-based advertising agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine, reportedly mines clients’ past tweets to analyze their syntax and favourite topics.  It uses the data to predict what they would tweet about, and how.

So there you go. In our brave new wired world, your friends and relatives won’t need an Ouija board or James Van Praagh to access your spirit. Cloud-based bots can keep yammering on indefinitely on your behalf,  in 140-character bursts.

Computer programs may never achieve full consciousness, but given how far they’ve come already, will that even be necessary to convince most of us they are alive – or once were?

The Vancouver, July 11


Last week at the Orpheum, singer-songwriter-shaman Nick Cave put on a hellfire performance with his band, The Bad Seeds. The Monday night show alternately felt like a gospel revival, a black mass, and a gymnastic event. Cave worked the audience like Moses directing the Red Sea. At one point, he strode across the backs of theatre seats into and above the worshipful crowd. For a young woman standing behind me, I was no more than a hairy handgrip in her technical climb toward the 56-year old rock god.

Nick Cave showing how it’s done at the Orpheum in Vancouver. Politicians take note: only trained professionals should attempt this. (photo by Geoff Olson)

After witnessing this epic performance, I am convinced more than ever that public servants should be discouraged from song and dance.

Some political leaders have a tendency to overshare their creative side interests. Needless to say, they usually come off badly in the end. Living in a bubble doesn’t help; just as no Roman senator convinced Nero to put down the violin while flames were licking the corners of the Capitol, it seems there’s no one in Harper’s inner circle  to tell him it’s inappropriate for a scorched-earth theoconservative to publicly sing songs by four peace-loving Liverpudlians.

It just seems wrong to fiddle with tunes while either Rome or the planet are burning.

in 1985, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney hosted the “Shamrock Summit” in Quebec City, a post-Trudeau rapprochement of powers that prefaced three decades of outsourcing, downsizing, and pocket-lining. In an online CBC clip, Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy are doddering next to Brian and Mila as the PM bellows the final line to “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”

The two leaders – a baritone ex-lawyer from Baie Comeau and the lead actor in Bedtime for Bonzo – set the musical precedent for politician-as-performer. Bill Clinton sealed the deal by playing saxophone on Arsenio Hall during his 1992 presidential campaign (not the last time a wind instrument would come up during Slick Willy’s two-term reign).

In 2002, US Attorney General John Ashcroft belted out “Let the Eagle Soar”, his looney composition about American exceptionalism, at a theological seminary function.  Two years later, US Secretary of State Colin Powell busted a move at trade conference for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He sported a hard hat and tool belt while singing “ASEAN” to the tune of The Village People’s “YMCA”.

Not to be outdone by the glee club members in his administration, President George W. Bush clumsily danced and drummed (let’s call it ‘dunced’)  with a group of African guests on the White House Lawn in 2007.

In January 2012,  President Barak Obama managed to warble a line from “Let’s Stay Together” during a fundraising stop at Harlem’s Apollo Theater without bringing dishonour to the family of the Reverend Al Green. But a month later, in a PBS broadcast of In Performance of the White House, OBomber’s effort to carry “Sweet Home Chicago” in the presence of blues greats Buddy Guy and B.B. King went the way of a Tehran-jammed Predator drone.

To quote Samuel Johnson slightly out of context, a politician tackling a popular song in public is “like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

This brings me back to Prime Minstrel Harper, who has taken to interpreting sixties music with his in-house band of Conservative conscripts – a team whose musical palette stretches from paint-by-numbers to painful.

In a video taken during a January 2014 state dinner in Jerusalem, even Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks unimpressed with Harper’s butchering of “Hey Jude”. Like Pinnochio’s efforts to pass himself off as something more than a wooden puppet, the PM’s na-na-na’s came off as another shnozz-stretching misadventure.

Anyone remember the 1992  mockumentary, Bob Roberts? Tim Roberts starred as a Conservative Republican folk singer – yes, folk singer – who takes an electoral  run at the US Senate. In his travels across Pennsylvania, Roberts strums his guitar and sings songs about drug abusers, welfare cheats, and the victory of family values over sixties counterculture.

Bearing Bob Roberts in mind, things could be worse for us in Canada. Instead of ransacking the catalogue of boomer-era rockers, the Prime Minstrel could be performing songs of his own about the dangers of science, the virtues of asbestos, and the glory of shrinking the CBC down to a five-dollar smart phone app. Imagine, indeed.

The Vancouver Courier, July 4


For your edification, I have stitched together some of the  jaw-dropping political performances mentioned above: