Links Retrospective, January – February 2020

So, I read a lot of stuff. Links Retrospective is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month period. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism. The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Here are my picks for January and February, 2020:

When “Life Hacking” is Really White Privilege – jendziura, 2013

Skipping ahead of people in line, even when invited to do so, is better referred to as “being an asshole.” And obliviousness to your own privilege is no excuse. If you’re absorbed in your phone and not really sure if you’re rightfully next in line, it’s your job to look around and say, “I’m sorry, were you here before me?”

When you are an affluent-seeming white man and you ask for things that don’t belong to you, sometimes you’re not really asking. It’s sort like Bill Clinton asking Monica Lewinsky to have sex with him. There’s a context behind the asking.

When you ask a serviceperson for something that doesn’t belong to you, there is often a subtext of, “If I complain to your manager, you know your manager is going to listen to me. Just look at me, and look at you.”

If you seem to be “getting everything you want,” you should probably examine whether you’re getting it at someone’s expense, or whether you’re just constantly, in small ways, making the world worse.

This is an interesting and well done piece from a bygone era of SJW blogging, when people were a lot more high-key about pointing out white privilege. I don’t really miss that era because I feel like most content put out then were unnecessarily inflammatory, but occasionally there would be an article like this one, that does a nice and tight analysis within the framework.

Pairs nicely with Siderea’s article on the Asshole Filter (check the “readability” box on the top right corner) from 2015, which has another perspective on the issue of assholery.

h/t Evan for putting it on my dash!

When the Hero is the Problem – Rebecca Solnit, 2019

In a farming valley on the Laxa River in northern Iceland in August 25, 1970, community members blew up a dam to protect farmland from being flooded. After the dam was dynamited, more than a hundred farmers claimed credit (or responsibility). There were no arrests, and there was no dam, and there were some very positive consequences, including protection of the immediate region and new Icelandic environmental regulations and awareness. It’s almost the only story I know of environmental sabotage having a significant impact, and it may be because it expressed the will of the many, not the few.

We are not very good at telling stories about a hundred people doing things or considering that the qualities that matter in saving a valley or changing the world are mostly not physical courage and violent clashes but the ability to coordinate and inspire and connect with lots of other people and create stories about what could be and how we get there.

Our largest problems won’t be solved by heroes. They’ll be solved, if they are, by movements, coalitions, civil society. The climate movement, for example, has been first of all a mass effort, and if figures like Bill McKibben stand out—well he stands out as the cofounder of a global climate action group whose network is in 188 countries and the guy who keeps saying versions of “The most effective thing you can do about climate as an individual is stop being an individual.”

Down with the cult of the individual, up with collective action.

Amy Discovers Jo’s AO3 Handle and Drags Her in the March Family Group Chat – Peyton, 2020

Beth: did she literally write sherlock holmes fanfiction about the time i got pneumonia and almost died

A piece of fiction. There’s getting fandom culture, and then there’s being able to capture the exact mixture of humiliation and nostalgia from unearthing your old Homestuck fanfiction from 2014 in the year of our lord 2020.

I absolutely love everything about this, but this is in large part because I’ve been heavily involved in fandom for over half my life at this point.

Do You Even Bake, Bro? – Dayna Evans, 2018

Bread requires little and it has existed in some form for thousands of years, relatively unchanged, because it’s simple to make and it feeds you. But if you were to scroll through Instagram, or watch recent YouTube tutorials, or read the libraries of blogs and self-published e-books, you might come away thinking that making bread was more challenging than performing brain surgery. That’s because bread-baking in America has, of late, found a friend in the unlikeliest of people: engineers, technologists, and the Silicon Valley-centric and adjacent. The image of a folksy baker laboring from muscle memory over her humble daily loaf, this is not.

Bread is back. And it’s being disrupted.

Man, I just relate to the author of this piece so much.

Like, all my friends are tech nerds, and I’ve dated one for five years. I just have a major soft spot for these adorable weirdos who feel a compulsion to debug and optimize every part of their existence. And I think she probably can relate to that because she’s married to one of these weirdos as well.

And also like Evans, at the same time I’m super frustrated with the, I guess, insularity that they exhibit whenever they find a new hobby to disrupt.

On one hand, it’s like, this is why representation is important, you know? When you see someone in a novel field that’s like you, it makes the field more approachable to you. This is why we want more women in politics, and people of colour in academia, and queer folk in board rooms etc etc etc.

When these nerds discovered bakers that spoke their language of debugging and standardization, it’s natural that it’s those (overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male) bakers that the tech bros gravitate towards.

Again, this is the same phenomenon that we want, for more “underrepresented” groups, in more important fields. So being like, “ugh, these techies, so cliquey,” (to be clear this is not a thing that Evans says, I’m just saying like, in general) seems pretty disingenuous? Humans are cliquey, we like people who are like us. As the Gen Zs say, it’s not that deep, bro.

But on the other hand, the techies have a fair bit of cultural capital, and the end result is that, once again, the dudes in a female-dominated field are the ones that are spotlit, and any knowledge that hasn’t been formalized is belittled, putting them at a higher risk of being lost.

So like, wow, both those hands are pretty crap. The last thing that I think we need is people becoming intimidated by something as simple as baking bread.

We already have corporations telling us that doing everyday things like cooking and mending clothes and any other form of self-sufficiency is too hard and that you are right to be intimidated by it. Telling us that you should shell out money to let the professionals handle it instead, and continue being completely dependent on our incredibly fragile current system.

But then again, how can I say no to scientific inquiry and better troubleshooting when one of your loaves inevitably fails in some way? Trying to advance the field, and make the network of bakers stronger to facilitate better knowledge transfer, are both good and admirable goals.

For my part, I just try to push back against the narrative and tell my friends that, no, really, baking bread is pretty easy. I’m sending everyone who expresses even VAGUE interest the simple and entertaining recipe that inspired me to bake my first loaf. And once they bake bread for themselves, it’s a lot harder to believe that baking bread is as hard as brain surgery.

How to Draw a Horse – Emma Hunsinger, 2019

To learn to draw horses, you can’t just want to draw them; you must NEED to draw them.

A comic about middle school and doodling in class.

Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)