May 31, 2007

A new StatsCan report has found that Kingston has the highest proportion of people with PhDs among the country's 27 largest urban areas. Viewed as essential to a knowledge-based economy, PhDs represent the engine of innovation. Interestingly, Kitchener-Waterloo--which trumpets itself as the country's Palo Alto--ranks 10th in this report. Clearly, Kingston needs to build on this strength and create (with its industrial and educational partners) a research and innovation park/campus that can truly incubate some thought-leaders.

May 29, 2007

Imagined World(s)

I have gotten a few raised eyebrows when I have mentioned that the new "Battlestar Galactica" is among the very best shows out there. This reimagining of the campy 70s series debuted in 2003 as a miniseries, and was of such high quality that a series was inevitable. Let me state for the record that this program is shockingly good, raising the bar on how well written and acted a science fiction show can be. But don't just take my word--the New York Times, the New Yorker, and even the National Review have all given "Galactica" glowing reviews.

Anchored by the excellent Edward James Olmos (yes, he from TV's Miami Vice) and Mary McDonnell (two-time Academy Award nominee), the cast is simply outstanding. The series explores the relationship between a government and its military, and human values under the most adverse conditions, all amidst the clash between human and non-human sentient beings after our species is forced to flee from Earth after a massive attack.

If science fiction allows us to think about the here and now, albeit within a fantastical or imagined context, "Battlestar Galactica" provides a stunning canvas to examine our society's present and it's very precarious future. Hopefully, we have the magic within us to imagine a better vision.

May 15, 2007

Bearing Arms v.s. Baring Arms

As we head into the frenzy of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, it would well-serve politicians and citizens on both sides of the border to read Michael Adams' Fire and Ice. Adams is the co-founder and president of polling company Environics, and his interests have evolved from subject-by-subject polling to macro-level social values polling. This book examined the U.S. and Canada along 100 social values points, and the results contradict commonly held assumptions about these two neighbours.

I was in the last year of high school when the warning bells were struck over the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement (which later morphed into NAFTA), and how it would precipitate the decline of Canadian culture and values. The rhetoric spun on both sides of the debate here in Canada, from Mulroney's handlers to the Council of Canadians was particularly divisive.

It appears the worry was not warranted. The differences among Canadian and American citizenry are rather striking. As Adams writes, "[the research] show that Canadians' values are significantly different from (and more postmodern than) Americans, it also reveals that the two countries' values are actually becoming more disparate".

Among the findings: Canadians have evolved from being much more religious than their American counterparts to being considerably less so; twice the percentage of Americans than Canadians think violence is a normal part of life; Americans are much more prepared to take greater risks to get what they want than Canadians; almost double the percentage of Americans than Canadians think the use of violence is an acceptable way to get what you want; whereas 8 in 10 Canadians are skeptical of the claims of advertisers, 4 in 10 Americans believe a widely advertised product is a good one; 77% of Canadians said that immigrants have a good influence on their country, whereas 49% of Americans felt the same way.

I am convinced that the fact that Americans kill themselves and each other with the use of firearms at ten times the rate that Canadian do is one of the most powerful influencers of the data above and on the two countries' overall political landscapes. Indeed, whereas 49% of American households have at least one firearm, only 19% of Canadian households do. What is further striking is that censorship of broadcast media on sexuality, nudity, and certain forms of violence is particularly high in the U.S., often from the very same proponents of the right to bear arms. And surely the fact that Canada abolished slavery 70 years prior to the United States represents an early defining point in Canada's social values.

In terms of the family, 49% of Americans agree with the statement that "The father of the family must be master in his own home", while only 18% of Canadians agree. Not surprisingly, 38% of Americans stated that men are naturally superior to women, compared to 24% of Canadians. Is it any surprise how the two countries differ in the recognition of equal rights for same-sex couples?

One of Adams' most astute observations is that "the two regions in North America that define the extremes of social values north of the Rio Grande--the U.S. South...and Quebec...are also the regions that have come to have disproportionate political clout in their respective countries". Both regions are clearly values incubators and each has come to define and influence their respective country's overall direction over the past 50 years.

For any potential leader, be they cultural, political, or business, understanding the social values of our two countries is a very necessary undertaking. I present these findings not as a normative exercise but as a descriptive one. It has been argued by many that Canadians solely define themselves in opposition to their American neighbours. Adams points out that through our founding ideas, our institutions, and our building of our country, Canadians have created a distinctive and enduring nation.

May 3, 2007

Kingston #6 best place to live in Canada

A new ranking just released by MoneySense ranks Kingston #6 overall for best place to live in Canada. While I am sure that the folks at KEDCO and DBIA will all clap themselves on the back, I worry that such a ranking will breed a dangerous complacency amongst the spin doctors and politicians.

Kingston has some very real social justice problems, a worrisome unemployment rate, poor physical infrastructure, and an inadequate industrial tax base. I imagine this ranking reflects only those who fall around or above the reported average annual family income of $67,000, which is surely not a fair snapshot of the city's socio-economic reality.

It would have been much more accurate to report the overall median Kingston household income, which the 2001 Canadian Census reveals was $58,413. That's a significant variance from the average! However, single-parent households (which the Census reports were 15% of Kingston's population in 2001) fared worse, with a median income of $29,872. Surely these latter households do not have 24% discretionary income as reported in the ranking.

The city has an unusually high concentration of public service institutions (Corrections, CFB, Queen's, RMC...) whose employees stack the income data on the high end. My understanding is that we have a very high proportion of citizens on social assistance, many of whom are the families of those incarcerated in the region's plentiful correctional (i.e. prison) facilities.

So I have mixed feelings on this ranking. In many ways I am proud, as this is my chosen hometown. I have made this my home for some 16 years, and I have certainly come to agree that my quality of life is higher than my friends and peers in other cities. But we fail all of our citizens if we sweep the realities of our disadvantaged off the street with another glossy ranking.

May 1, 2007

Brave New World?

In her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood presents a dystopian world extrapolated from our current one. Transglobal biotech companies assume the dominant role of providing privileged humans with food and shelter in protected compounds. The disaffected are left to fend for themselves. There are rampant bioengineering projects, where humans are spliced with pigs and other animals are spliced together to create new species. In this environment, a scientist inadvertently creates a genetic pandemic that kills off the original human race (save for the novel's protagonist "Snowman") leaving only the genetically engineered "Crakers", an innocent, humanesque race without any knowledge of the prior reality.

Atwood terms the novel as being "speculative fiction" rather than pure science fiction, as the possibilities are merely an extension of what she views as the logical progression of our current state of affairs. In this regard, Atwood is highly unromantic in her assessment of humanity, and I can see why Oryx and Crake never made it to Oprah's must-read list; which is unfortunate, as her viewers would be well-served to wake up from the dreams of a life made better by Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

This novel is as prescient and relevant to a better self-understanding as the novel 1984 or the film "Code 64". Instead of being an imagined possibility, the world of this novel is more of a possible imagination. As a result it is a terrifying read, made even more likely by the spectre of the impending post-oil societal collapse predicted by the canaries at Peak Oil.