Houses of Cards

Francis UrquhartWhile there are parallels between them, there is no direct, simple comparison between the original, British mini series, House of Cards, and the American series of the same name. The latter, aired 13 years after the original, owes much of its first-season content to the BBC’s production, but it quickly went its own way. Like its contemporary, The Bridge, the American version took on a life of its own – and a very distinct, American character – and can’t be considered a simple adaptation. Both are excellent shows.

In part, the vast differences between American and British political systems compound the problem of comparison and understanding.

Canadians, on the other hand, will easily understand the machinations of the characters in the British show because our system is quite similar, but they are more opaque in the American version. From the outside, American politics seem designed to increase confrontation and partisanship. And political venality (it seems all American politicians and votes are for sale to the highest bidder…), but that’s not my point here. Americans might find the British version equally incomprehensible.

We finished watching season three of the American series recently and began to watch the British series again, after several years hiatus (it remains one of my favourite series). The latter is somewhat dated – aired before the internet and cell phones – but still well worth watching: the acting is superb. As are in most British series. But the cast in the American House of Cards is, for the most part, among the best I’ve seen in an American series (Kevin Spacey excels).

The British version has more humour, albeit dry, wry wit. It might be best described as either a political satire or dark comedy. I’m not sure everyone will appreciate its subtlety.

The American series has some of this in the first season, but less as it progresses. It’s more of a drama-cum-soap opera with less satire. Underwood speaks to the camera a lot more in the first season than in later ones. And that’s too bad because I think it adds to the viewer’s engagement.

The main characters – Francis Urquhart in the British (Ian Richardson), and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the American – are very different in style and behaviour. Urquhart speaks more to the camera than Underwood, and offers more knowing, sly glances and smiles than his American counterpart. Underwood is far more about raw power; the underlying tongue-in-cheek attitude of the British politicians is absent.

The roles and the power associated with each leader is very different, too. Urquhart has to be more cunning than Underwood because his system is very different from the American. Underwood can sometimes batter his way through to success, where Urquhart has to squirm.

Continue reading

915 total views, 740 views today

The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction

I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,

…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory[1] and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.

While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.

Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.

But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.

Continue reading

3,585 total views, 675 views today

The Hidden Agenda in the Strategic Plan

Hidden agendaMy final comment for the next while on the town’s committee-based wishlist (the so-called community-based strategic plan, of which it is neither) has to do with biased and partisan comments made in the document’s introduction.

This material was presented to council in the recent versions (approved by a 7-1 vote, as expected, with one councillor absent) but not included in all earlier draft versions. I believe it represents the influence of the former VOTE (Voters Opposed To Everything) special interest group and their later followers in the deputy mayor’s special interest group, known locally (and humorously) as Better If I’m Elected, Collingwood.

What sort of strategic plan contains politically-charged and clearly partisan statements about former councils? The comments in the introduction expose the hidden agenda behind the wish list, and for council watchers this helps identify the shadowy players who pull council’s strings behind the scenes. This was less a community project than one manipulated by special interest groups.

For example, the document notes:

There have been in recent years, however, some challenges in the manner that Collingwood has managed its financial obligations and communication with Town (sic) residents. This has resulted in cynicism and a loss of faith in local politics within the public-at-large (sic).

This, or course, is complete malarky. There has been NO loss of faith was among the public at large (what survey, or what community-wide poll showed this?).

The small group of naysayers who worked their followers into a froth of vituperation and anger over the previous council do not represent the public at large. This small group never lost faith because they had none to start with, and was cynical from the very start.

Their raison d’etre is and has always been negativity towards anything they alone did not conceive, plan, or accomplish. True, they managed to garner a biased media’s support for their agenda later in the term, but the media ceased to represent the community, and instead represented the special interests – the point being made when the outgoing editor/reporter personally endorsed the current deputy mayor during the election campaign.

The facts about financial management are quite different. Last term, council was able to pay down its inherited debt by $8 million with only a single year of increased taxes (less than 1% blended rate), while building reserves, and constructing two beautiful, efficient recreational facilities without adding to the debt.

The financial management last term was superb – better in fact than any council I was part of previously and better than any I reported on as a reported and editor since 1991. What is there to challenge? That it was done so well, and so efficiently? This council’s first major act was to RAISE taxes in order to give itself a pay hike.

Continue reading

452 total views, 72 views today

Ex Machina

Ex MachinaEx Machina – “from the machine” – is a British film that is more about philosophy and morality than science. It opens a can or worms, philosophically, that underscores issues now being raised by advancing and increasingly intelligent technology. Its spare but crisp production reminds me of George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138.

Spoiler alert, by the way…

It is, in its essence, a modern exploration of the themes presented in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, using artificial intelligence as the  fulcrum, rather than the reanimating of dead tissue.

The film poses questions that are current in all AI research, but are also important on the larger ethical scale about how we treat intelligence outside our own, robots in this case being metaphors for companion and food animals:

  • How do we define sentience?
  • How do we recognize sentience in others?
  • How do we treat sentience?
  • Is there a separate morality and behaviour for our interaction with non-human intelligence?

None of these are answered in the film, although the quest for the answers is part of the plot (which is also part-thriller). And lingering over all of it is the Turing Test: is it real sentience or simply the illusion of it? And how can we tell the difference?

It also suggests the question of what exactly emotions are:

  • Can emotions be programmed?
  • Are emotions predictable and quantifiable?
  • Can a machine experience emotions?

Then there are the questions about gender and sexuality:

  • Is gender programmable?
  • Does sexuality reside in the intellect or the physical appearance? or both?
  • What attracts men and women?

The film also poses the question that is paramount in Frankenstein:

  • Is the human creation of an intelligence moral or ethical? Can it ever be?
  • What treatment or response does the creation deserve?

And as a sub-theme, the film throws in the morality of slavery and male domination: earlier models of robot appear to be kept as sex slaves by their designer (particularly Kyoko, the assistant and cook, who is revealed to be a robot only half-way through the film – and is perhaps more enigmatic and interesting than Ava, the lead character).

Are these merely sexbots: tools and devices for use, or are they sentient beings? Plus, the main robot, Ava, has evident and expressive sexuality. Is it real/authentic (i.e. a native response) or simply programmed? Are the males  – who both play a dominant role – sexist or sympathetic in their responses to the female robots?

Continue reading

595 total views, 121 views today

Putting Homeopathy to the Test

HomeopathyHomeopathic products often make a lot of outrageous claims. Given that these products are just water, or sometimes water and sugar, anyone with a gnat’s worth of common sense doesn’t believe those claims. Nor are they backed by any evidence. It’s no wonder homeopathy is called the “air guitar of medicine:”

It should not be a shock to learn that homeopathy has no basis in scientific fact – should anyone doubt this I invite them to peruse Edzard Ernst’s systematic review of the practice.
Homeopaths have gone to incredible lengths to avoid having their air guitar of medicine tested in any rigorous fashion. Instead, they have created their own self-justifying means of establishing that it works. They call this “homeopathic proving”.
A “proving” typically involves a dozen people, who will take a homeopathic remedy and record their thoughts, feelings and even dreams. These diaries are then used to “discover” what the remedy can supposedly cure.

Ernst’s review of more than 2,000 studies, referenced above, noted (emphasis added):

Collectively they failed to provide strong evidence in favour of homeopathy. In particular, there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions.

Ernst’s study reviewed 225 research papers, 11 independent studies and 1,800 medical studies on the health effects of homeopathy and found no reliable evidence in them to back its homeopathy’s claims of effectiveness. It didn’t work any better than any other placebo. In fact, the study concluded, “homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are serious or could become serious.”

In simple terms: homeopathy is bunkum and don’t use it if you’re sick. It doesn’t work. It can’t work because it is not based on science, not on research, not on medical principles, not on chemistry or biology. It is based on magic and superstition.

That’s what you get when you buy a homeopathic product: magical pills.

But in any nation connected to the internet there are enough gullible folks that homeopathy manages to fool someone. Like alien abductions, 9/11 conspiracies, feng shui, acupuncture, crystal therapy, psychic surgery, angels, bigfoot, chemtrails, gluten-free fads, detox fads and other wacky notions and conspiracies, homeopathy has a ready audience of people willing to open their wallets, and close their minds.

As a writer noted in The Herald, it’s hard to combat superstition with science:

Many preventable deaths and serious illnesses have been caused by the use of homeopathy over real medicine. And qualified, caring, medical experts worldwide are at their wits ends trying to counter the hype and nonsense spread by many in the homeopathy business who are trying to increase the huge profits they make out of their sugar and water pills.

That’s what it’s really all about: that huge profit. Scamming the public out of its money.

Continue reading

325 total views, 55 views today

Trivial Pursuits


Now that the draft version of the so-called “community-based strategic plan” has been presented to council, I felt it appropriate to comment on this latest version. I have already posted several pieces on the earlier draft. If you haven’t read them, you should start with there:

Strategic Planning, Part One: The Woo-Hoo Factor
Strat Plan Part 2: The Shuffle Game
Strat Plan Part 3: The Waterfront
Strat Plan Part 4: Economic Vitality
Strat Plan Part 5: Healthy Lifestyle
Strat Plan Part 6: Culture and the Arts
Strat Plan Wrap Up: Addintional Comments

All the comments and criticisms made in these earlier posts still have relevance in this latest draft.

I say the document is so-called because it’s not really community-based: it’s committee-based, and it’s just a wishlist, not a plan. It doesn’t even adumbrate a plan.

A proper plan should have measurable actions, a detailed timeline, specific costs and budget laid out. This has none of that. It has some vague time frames listed a S-M-L (short, medium and long terms) but these are 1-3, 3-5 and 5-10 years, respectively. Nothing to aim at as an immediate goal.  And no priorities are identified among the wishlist items.

Given that no council can bind a subsequent one, and there is but three years left in this council’s term, and equally that after five years, almost every plan or policy is out of date and needs revision, planning beyond the short term for most of these wishes is pointless. Not to mention that there is no indication who will pay for these wishes, or how.

First let me say that the new draft is very pretty. It looks attractive in the way that every other generic, bland strategic plan of this ilk does. However, style cannot top substance, and no matter how much of the former is present, the document lacks the latter. So let’s look at the presentation while we measure the content.

Continue reading

320 total views, 70 views today

Server upgrade coming

Sometime in the next two weeks, I will be amalgamating servers for the several sites I manage and conflating them onto one, new and (I hope) faster and more efficient server. There may be some downtime while the files and databases migrate, like virtual birds, to their new home.

I hope that the digital gods of server migration allow my moves to go smoothly. I would sacrifice a virtual dove to propitiate them, if I could only find their virtual altar… would that I were the digital Odysseus…

For most users, it will, I expect, be but a momentary blip in the service, a temporary lapse of rant soon reconstructed. No more than a couple of hours of downtime while the ether is busy with transient bytes flitting hither and yon. My biggest concern is the Blue Agave forum which operates on an Invision system… the transition to the current servers wasn’t all that smooth when I moved a few years back. But we’ll see how it evolves… I might need the aid of Invision’s tech team, too…. but that should not concern you.

If things don’t go smoothly, and it takes longer than expected, it may be the result my clumsy handling of the tools (while still technically inclined, my edge has, I admit, lost some of its crispness as I age). Or it may be some deeper, larger problem that requires tech support to save me from myself and the quicksand of SQL content.

I can migrate the static files easily enough, but depend somewhat on online tools to make the transition for the blog and WordPress databases. And then there’s all that PHP stuff…

Anyway, things may appear and disappear, and off error pages emerge, but take heart that I am not vanished from the network, merely taking the high road to the deep north, as Basho did, but of course virtually, and expecting to return momentarily. Should my site appear gone, take heart that it has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but merely retired momentarily to a far, far better place…. and will reappear when the digital stars align.

Refresh, refresh, refresh and return and it will all be made clear. I hope. If not…. well, I can always start afresh.

200 total views, 35 views today

17 Pages of Blather

Snake oilZero point zero zero zero three eight. That’s the percentage of the population of Collingwood who made the effort to comment on council’s much-touted, revised, 17-page code of conduct before it was approved, Monday night. That’s 0.00038%, based on an estimated 21,000 residents. In other words: eight people.

Only eight people out of 21,000 cared enough about council’s efforts to pump the bureaucracy to comment on the proposed code.

Eight people. I hope they were all residents. One, I’m told, was a member of council, so if you take that person out of the equation because that’s what he or she was elected to do, that leaves a mere seven residents commenting. That’s only 0.00033% of the population.

Hardly a tsunami of public engagement.

The rest, I suppose, were more concerned about things that actually matter: taxes, water rates (both of which this council raised), roads, sewers, sidewalks, potholes, parks and so on. These things are, however, not nearly as important to council which prefers to waste its time on grandstanding initiatives like revising the code of conduct.

For eight people it was stirring stuff.

The other 99.962% of us  – 20,992-plus residents – clearly couldn’t give a damn.

Apparently this low response was such an embarrassment that the actual number of respondents is not mentioned anywhere in the staff report. The public just didn’t care. But around the council table, backs were patted and laudatory, saccharine statements were made for having accomplished such another landmark in governance ennui.

Continue reading

250 total views, 70 views today