This Amazing New App might ruin reading forever

If you haven’t heard of Spritz yet, you clearly haven’t spent too much time on the Internet lately and I congratulate you. It’s a reading app that finds the Optimal Recognition Point in every word and balances the word on your screen depending on that point, in order to let you read faster. Which is great, if you want to read faster.

Fun, right?

But reading isn’t about reading as quickly as possible. Reading shouldn’t be a chore; when was the last time you heard someone lament that she couldn’t get through her latest novel quickly enough? Just because we can do something, in other words, doesn’t mean that we should. A 2007  study found that most Americans spent about two hours a day watching television, and seven minutes reading for pleasure. Does that sound like we really need to cut that reading time in half?

After trying the app for a few minutes, I have two conclusions: first, that it works. I got up to about twice the maximum normal reading speed with no problem at all. Second, I don’t want to live in a world where it’s the primary way that reading is done.

The sensation of reading Spritzed text is akin to shotgunning a beer. It gets a large volume of beer inside of you, quickly. It rushes in, and all you taste is cold and carbonation. Take that as opposed to the experience of sipping a pint: you miss out on the flavour, the complexity, and the enjoyment of consuming it. But yes, you do get drunk quickly.

An author, writing words on a page (or an e-reader or a computer screen), has great control over the pace at which the reader will read those words. He can write infuriatingly long sentences with no punctuation that just seem to go on and on but because you’re a good reader you just keep on going and eventually you reach the end of a paragraph and realize you’ve been holding your breath for thirty seconds. He can stop. You in the middle of a sentence; or gracefully transition to the next. Spritz doesn’t allow for that; it force-feeds the words at an optimal pace for consumption and comprehension, but not for enjoyment.

I don’t need to do more things more quickly. That is not a problem I have right now – I’m not limited by the amount of words I can cram into my head. I am limited by the amount of time I take away from my devices to enjoy something slower. Sip on a pint, as it were.

Reading books, even the electronic kind, is one of the last things that I do where I am not trying to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. That’s not a problem I want to solve.

Who is Gary Goodyear – and why should we fire him?

Gary Goodyear is a chiropractor, family man, and a Christian. He doesn’t believe in evolution. He is not a scientist, and has never published a scientific article. He does have some strong opinions on science, however: this week, his approach to science (as laid out in his statement last week) was elucidated when his colleague*, National Research Council president John R. McDougall said that “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

This is not a rare opinion to hold; lots of people don’t understand the basic premises of scientific research, insofar as some of its most important discoveries, commercial and otherwise, are discovered by accident over the course of “noncommercial” research. And more importantly, some important scientific fields, like conservation biology or deep-space physics, just don’t have a commercial application. So why should we care what some chiropractor thinks about science?

Because Gary Goodyear is in charge of Canadian science – and he was appointed not by other scientists or even by the public. He is an MP, who was appointed by Stephen Harper as the Minister of State (Science and Technology.) This puts him at the head of science for Industry Canada; as you might have guessed, Industry Canada is responsible for our biggest science funding agency, NSERC. And as you might have also guessed, scientific funding in Canada is in big, big trouble.

This week’s comments are just the latest attack on science from this government. In fact, they essentially sum up what many people have been saying all along, which is that this government doesn’t know what science is, or what it does. It’s just annoying witchcraft that keeps buzzing around Harper’s head saying things like “bad idea,” and “environmental destruction,” and “responsible resource development,” and otherwise getting in the way of getting the oil out, now, for cheap. Right now.

Gary Goodyear is only now the most prominent example of why Canada needs to reform how we assign cabinet posts. Why should a chiropractor be able to drop basic science research in favour of what the Toronto Star has called, fittingly, a $900-million subsidy to business? Why should a journalist be in charge of the environment, an accident and injury lawyer in charge of finance, and career politicians be in charge of both national defence and international relations?

Aren’t these jobs better suited to people who know what the consequences of their transparent, politically-driven, shortsighted, and downright stupid actions are?

*Correction: the statement was made by John McDougall, the NRC president, not by Gary Goodyear. McDougall was, however, reiterating what Goodyear said last week, albeit in a much more quotable form. 

Letter to the editor of the Nanaimo Daily News

This letter was written by students (myself included) at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism in Vancouver, in response to the publication of a racist letter in a Postmedia outlet, the Nanaimo Daily News.

Dear Sir,

As students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, we are embarrassed for you at what you consider fit for print.

The letter from Don Olsen entitled “Educate First Nations to be modern citizens,” published March 27, is one of the most racist, ignorant things we have read in any context, much less in a well-read newspaper. And it is only the most recent example of Olsen’s racism in your publication.

Olsen can’t even get his facts straight, suggesting that Aboriginal people contributed nothing to modern society. Among contributions by North American Indians are potatoes, corn, and important elements of the U.S. Constitution, namely the concept of personal freedom. He points out, correctly, that they never developed the wheel, which makes it all the more impressive that their trade networks spanned the entire continent.

As young journalists in Canada’s only Reporting in Indigenous Communities class, some of us have been trying to learn to tell their stories in a way that respects their history and culture. Others among us have been learning about the human rights violations that occurred within our country in living memory. One thing we have learned is that the bigoted misconceptions in Olsen’s letters have real consequences for these people and communities.

We find it incredibly disheartening that any newspaper would consider this to be an acceptable way to draw readers. It is incomprehensible to us that you would provide a venue for material that could just as easily be coming from the headmaster of a 19th century residential school.

There is no excuse for the Nanaimo Daily News to have repeatedly given Olsen a soapbox from which to hurl his racism to a wider audience.


Jimmy Thomson

Katelyn Verstraten

Rachel Bergen

Stephanie Kelly

Britney Dennison

Zoe Tennant

Hayley Dunning

Julia Kalinina (former student)

Sachi Wickramasinghe

Carlos Tello

Garrett Hinchey

Matthew Parsons

Blake Murphy

Meghan Mast

Sebastian Salamanca

Tiffany Kwong

Matt Meuse

Reyhana Heatherington

Emma Smith

Kirsty Matthews

Irony, and why Our Contempt for Hipsters is Ruining Africa for Everyone

In 1996, writer David Foster Wallace published an essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in Review of Contemporary Fiction. In the essay, Wallace explained his reasoning as to why television had been so successful in maintaining its position in the centre of popular culture for half a century, despite ever-present complaints regarding its lowest-common-denominator content (catering to the “vulgar, prurient and dumb[1]” common tastes of the common man). He argues that if the viewer knows, consciously or unconsciously, that television watching is dependent on voluntary complicity in the “lowness” of the medium, then television must have developed a sophisticated means of keeping the viewer interested – enter irony.

Irony is television’s way of preventing the viewing public from giving in to its (rational) conscientious qualms with an average television dosage of six hours per day. In order to prevent the public from turning the channel or finding new amusements, television has begun to consume itself, making jokes at its own expense in a self-aware scheme that rewards the viewer for being “in” on the joke.

In Western culture, through a sort of cultural osmosis due to massive overexposure, irony has thus become a vital means through which young people interact with the world; nowhere is this more obvious than in hipster culture.

Hipsters, by definition, identify negatively with current popular culture. Something “cool” to the general public is to the Hipster profoundly uncool, and vice versa – by associating ironically and insincerely with things that have fallen out of fashion, the Hipster asserts his or her disattachment to and aloofness from the public’s tastes. This creates a quick-rolling cycle of adoption and abandonment of fashion and music products, because once a fashion item is associated with Hipsterdom the elite must move on: only the subculture’s lowest echelons identify themselves as Hipsters.

Take for example possibly the first ubiquitous symbol of the hipster (besides, arguably, the Polaroid camera): the fixed-speed bicycle. Technological improvement (in gear-shifters that allow uphill cycling, brakes that really work, and non-banana seats) had rendered the fixed-gear bicycle obsolete by the mid 1980s. However, it was readopted by the Hipster as an extension of thrift-store fashion shopping, proving how committed the Hipster was to the uncool, impractical, etc. Upon widespread adoption of the fixed-gear bicycle, however, the cycle has turned on itself and hipsters themselves sneer at the lesser echelons still sweating on their banana seats.

Hipsterdom and its ironic approach to the world is fairly benign as long as it remains confined to the racks of Value Village, hunting for sweaters with elk on them. However, as Rob Horning lamented in “The Death of the Hipster”, nothing is more than a “signifier of personal identity” to the Hipster, because “they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how ‘cool’ it is perceived to be.”

This is where irony, insincerity, and their current manifestation, the Hipster, become a real problem for young people. When every statement, belief, or cause is scrutinized for its “coolness” rather than its real merit or individual appeal, it becomes painfully hard to honestly commit oneself to something without fear of scorn.

Worse still is the association of absolutely anything creative, courageous, innovative, social, or born of any aesthetic but that of the shopping mall or FX Television, with Hipsterdom and the accompanying scorn. Producing a photo project? Hipster. Ordering a fair trade coffee? Hipster. Wearing a hat your girlfriend knitted for you? Hipster. Learning to play an instrument, learning a new language, baking your own bread, ordering a microbrew, going to a locally-produced documentary screening? What are you, some kind of Hipster?

A real-world application of this regretfully, and allegedly accidentally, appeared in my school newspaper, of which I was an editor when the article appeared. The article in question – run directly opposite an article congratulating students returning from volunteering in Africa – dealt with the altogether cynical and unproductive thesis that Africa had become a “fashionable” place for young people to volunteer, and that it was chosen for its sentimental caché rather than any specific real or perceived need.

The problem I had with the article is that it makes no difference why young volunteers choose to participate in programs, only that they participate and grow through helping others. Everyone benefits from these programs when they are properly administered, regardless of the reasons for which the participants have chosen one place over another. To look down upon this experience is as cynical as it is damaging to the well-being not only of the principal benefactors, but also of the potential participants who might be turned away – or the former participants who no longer feel proud of what they’ve done but instead simply uncool.

David Foster Wallace concluded his 1996 essay with a prediction. He suggested that as a reaction to the hipsters’ sneers, a new form of rebel would emerge, characterized by a heartfelt sincerity and an equal indifference to scorn. This would be an anti-rebel, really, with an inward-facing strength rather than an outward-striking insecurity. Thus far however, the Hipster still rules, and the rest of the world’s hatred of his fetishization of the cool continues to cost more than just a flea-market cardigan and a pair of Ray-Bans.

[1] DFW, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again, 1996. Wallace explains that although television caters to a “low” set of tastes, that does not mean that they are meant to appeal to “vulgar, prurient and dumb” people; rather that people’s “low” tastes have more in common than their sophisticated tastes.

Norway, the Heritage Fund, and Ralph Bucks

Why, in Edmonton, the heart of Canadian resource wealth, is the University of Alberta $40-million in the hole? Why is the president of the University of British Columbia – in a province bragging that its natural gas wealth will make it the next Alberta – saying it will have to shut down programs because of budget cuts?

I hate to bring up the old Norway analogy, but Norway should be the energy-rich economy our energy-richest provinces should want to compare themselves to. General social welfare aside (because that wouldn’t even be fair), Norwegian students are actually paid generous grants to study at any of its universities, rather than graduating with crippling debt.
We say Norway is expensive, because it’s expensive to eat out, get drunk, and buy things we don’t need. But in Canada, students can’t even afford to get an education.

Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was praised last week in the National Post for his work in reducing the province’s deficit. What wasn’t mentioned is that in the process, he raided the province’s rainy-day piggy bank, the Heritage Fund. This fund was established in 1976 with the understanding that oil wealth doesn’t last forever. Then, as Klein led Alberta through the 2000s, with talk of the province as an “energy superpower” never far from his lips, the fund flatlined. Today, it stands at $16.4-billion, just a year’s worth of royalties higher than in 1987, according to an industry promotional website.

And back to Norway – its fossil fuel royalties go straight into its own fund. The value of that fund should enrage every Albertan who has been told again and again that oil wealth is providing for the next generation and not just buying trucks and iPads for the province’s young men and women who could afford to pay for their engineering degrees. Norway’s $710-billion fund (43 times that of “superpower” Alberta) is one of the world’s largest investors. It’s a safety blanket for the entire Norwegian economy, whose GDP is just $485-billion. That’s a year and a half of the country’s entire economic output in one giant bank account.

My point is this: if Alberta is an energy superpower, why can’t it afford to educate the next generation of engineers to exploit its resource wealth? Across the fence, we British Columbians should ask ourselves the same thing before we buy into the LNG boom.

What do pipelines and condos have in common?

What do pipelines and condos have in common?

Ivan Drury, a well-known social activist in the Downtown Eastside, says it’s all about displacement.

“Environmental destruction is one of the forces that brings indigenous people to the Downtown Eastside,” said Drury, standing outside the Carnegie Centre where a protest march was about to begin. “They make a place for themselves here, then they get pushed out by gentrification.”

Ivan Drury holds a banner on the steps of the Carnegie Centre before the march begins.
Ivan Drury holds a banner on the steps of the Carnegie Centre before the march begins.

It’s a new angle on the Northern Gateway pipeline, one that in a year and a half of following that controversy I hadn’t heard before. It could be, however, that as the #idlenomore movement is starting to coax multiple threads of discontent into one greater protest against neocolonialism, Northern Gateway and gentrification really don’t need to be considered as separate issues anymore.

“Pipelines and gentrification are two points in a system,” says Drury.

I spoke briefly with an aboriginal woman named Levi. When asked for her last name, she replied mater-of-factly, “I don’t have a last name. I’m homeless.” She went on to point out the irony of being homeless on her own land.

This sentiment of injustice and exclusion is the unifying factor that has allowed #idlenomore to gather previously independent causes under one umbrella. As the march began at the corner of Hastings and Main, about two dozen people joined in. Probably fewer than half of the marchers were aboriginal, but the chants were nevertheless heavy on the land rights language.

Approaching the corner of Carrall St. and East Hastings St., the protesters were chanting “No pipelines on stolen native land,” as passers-by slowly swelled the ranks to around 40. A policeman got out of his car to walk casually behind the marchers. Sounding slightly defensive, he admitted that he hadn’t known the march would take place, but that he was just there to keep people safe.

The modest march finally arrived at its destination, a much larger protest gathering steam at Victory Square. Here, more messaging indicated an even broader pool of support for the demonstration. People hoisted signs warning of natural gas fracking, chanted slogans about Stephen Harper, and held banners deriding the tar sands. Everyone knew that this was a Northern Gateway demonstration, but it’s clear that the grievances run much deeper than one project. As #idlenomore has shown, the tent is big and there’s always room for more.

A challenge for fashion

I saw a kid getting off the bus the other day. Dangling from his Dakine backpack, probably a few weeks old, was the tag. Still shining on the beak of his hat was the sticker. The latter is nothing new, but the former made me realize something important is happening: fashion is not about having things anymore. It’s about buying.

How’s it really made?

The episode of “How it’s made,” the upbeat language-portable Discovery Channel show that always bothered me most was the one about hot dogs. Not because it shows me that delicious hot dogs are actually homogenized ears and feet, but because it doesn’t; the first shot of actual meat is a completely unrecognizable mash of bits left over from the slaughtering process.

The disturbing thing about this, for me, isn’t necessarily moral but editorial: the boxes of “meat” dumped into those grinders are not a raw ingredient but the end of a supply chain. The cows, pigs, rats, octopuses, whatever, that go into hot dogs are raised in the real world. Just like the spices and fillers, the meat comes off of actual land. A kilogram of beef, for example, takes 13 kilograms of grain and 30 kilos of forage. It takes land. It takes water (tons of it). It takes fossil fuels on the order of 40 units of energy input to 1 unit of energy output. These inputs are really “how it’s made” – not mixing some grey-looking beef entrails with salt and pepper.

Why the digression into hot dogs and beef? Thought we were talking about fashion? I’m getting there.

What “How it’s made” misses is the fact that the things we buy don’t come from factories. The idea of the show is to bring us a step back from the retail outlet and look at what goes into what we buy. But it doesn’t take it far enough back to remind us that these raw ingredients – rubber, meat, rubbermeat, iron, sugar, come from the earth. And for the most part, those ingredients or the things that were used up along the way, such as clean water or fossil fuels, aren’t coming back.

The trouble with fashion

To quickly shift gears into the cliché: we have more than a few problems bearing down on us in the not-too-distant future. Most of them are directly related to an economy based on infinite exponential growth and its marketplace cousin, consumerism.

And that’s why glorifying “buying” is so inherently scary. When a kid feels like leaving the tag on his backpack is necessary to make it seem like he bought it recently, what happens when the bag gets old – not worn, but just old? What happens if the tag falls off? Does he buy another bag? When he doesn’t connect what hangs on the wall of the store to anything more problematic than its price tag, why shouldn’t he?

I’d like to issue a challenge to my fashion-industry friends. Your industry is, while certainly not the most damaging, unarguably one of the most shameless promoters of consumerism. Nobody needs a new pair of jeans every three months, sixteen pairs of shoes, or a dress for that one special occasion. And diamonds are stupid.

How are you going to design and influence fashion that is about wearing, creating, influencing, or seeing, and not just about buying?

Blink (or fall into a coma) and you’ll miss it

Yesterday’s announcement by PM Harper in Vancouver – that science, not politics will determine whether Northern Gateway will be approved – was taken disturbingly to heart by the media today. This is coming from a PM who just a few months ago gave himself and his cabinet (ie, himself) the power to overrule the already-compromised Joint Review Panel, and who has already expressed his full support for the project. There is no way he can be taken seriously at this point when he says things like this, so why has he been taken at his word?

The Calgary Herald gave Harper a free pass, not even mentioning the earlier moves, and even saying he “responded” to the BC-Alberta dispute over royalties, when his actual words were “I’m not going to get into an argument or a discussion about how we divide hypothetical revenues.” That’s not responding, that’s avoiding completely.

Most newspapers, including the National Post and the Toronto Star, did manage to point out the disconnect between yesterday’s comments and the past seven months of ham-fisted pounding of the political and legal opposition to the pipeline, or at least the irony of these comments in light of having made the scientific approach utterly redundant. The Globe and Mail completely neglected to hold Harper to account for this latest hypocrisy, however, only addressing his comments on the BC-Alberta dispute (which were nonexistent).

Some stories suggested that this could be a sign that he is backing away from the project in light of popular opposition to it, preparing to jump ship at a later date or at least allowing some wiggle room for its potential failure. Maybe so, but I personally don’t buy it. This is not a PM who cares about the feelings of a few “radicals”; plus, he just last week imposed a time limit on the review process. I think it’s much more likely that Harper is buying some time and trying to distance himself from the BC-Alberta debate, pawning off the negative impacts of the project on Alberta while he gets to play the impartial judge. If the “scientific review” comes back against the project (highly unlikely given the National Energy Board’s track record on large projects) he still has the power to overturn the decision, so for now, it may as well be somebody else’s fight.