Hi, I'm Brian Alkerton. I work at a pretty cool startup called Shopify. This site is a collection of my thoughts on a range of subjects: politics, culture, and anything else that catches my eye.

Tomorrowland - Posted May 24, 2015

"Where the great would not be constrained by the small!" - Andrew Ryan

I'm not the first to draw parallels between Andrew Ryan, villain of the video game Bioshock, and Walt Disney. The resemblance was intentional, but I don't think it's ever been so clear to me as it was after I saw Tomorrowland this weekend. Spoilers ahead.

It seems awesome at first glance. An alternate dimension where the creative and brilliant among us can go and not be restrained by the system, where anything we imagine can be built! Sure, the world we leave behind might go to hell, but Tomorrowland? Tomorrowland is going to continue being amazing!

And it is amazing. There's a long take when one of the characters first sees Tomorrowland that made my jaw hit the floor. It's beautiful, exciting, fun, a place I'd love to visit. Who wouldn't? There's jetpacks and crazy hover-swimming pools! It's never explained, however, why all these amazing advancements couldn't be brought back to the world we know. Is that sloppy storytelling, or a future-world inhabited entirely by people who feel they have no obligation to give back to the society that got them to where they are? A Planet of the Eduardo Saverins, if you will.

One of Tomorrowland's discoveries is a machine that can predict the future, which it turns out is pretty bleak for us on Earth. In their profound benevolence, Tomorrowland broadcasts our horrible future back to us in the hope of scaring us straight, only to find that we take to it and embrace a future that guarantees our destruction, but which at least asks nothing of us. This is where the film starts taking shots at all the dystopian fiction out there at the moment, and I agree with the central idea that we need to focus on hope and finding solutions to our problems, but the solution proposed by Tomorrowland is for all the smart and creative people to bail out and run away to another dimension. Poverty, bureaucracy, and all the other boring challenges of the Unexotic Underclass are to be ignored in favour of hovercars and rocketships. That's not a solution, it's a setup for dystopia on earth, the one thing the movie rails hardest against. I remember joking as I walked out that Tomorrowland was a prequel for Mad Max, because if all the brilliant, creative, and talented people got Raptured (whether religiously or otherwise), they'd be fine but the world would be in trouble. 

To see a movie with such massive ambition and technical mastery on display fail at making an important point because of well-intended but half-baked ideas... well, it's a disappointment. I can usually forgive plot holes, but thematic holes this big can't be overlooked.

Noise - Posted November 18, 2014

People ask me why I don't write more often, particularly about movies. I love movies, and I love writing about them, but there's hundreds of movie critics out there and once a movie's already come out, it's very unlikely that my voice is going to add anything to the conversation, that I'm going to say anything that hasn't been said before or provide some particularly valuable insight. Of course, this doesn't apply to situations where I'm seeing something early, but I don't see as many advance screenings as I used to. If that changes, you'll see more reviews, you can be sure of it.

I try to hold off saying much unless I feel like no one else is saying the things on my mind, and to be realistic, with so many platforms and opportunities for people to publicly speak their minds these days, I'm not too proud to admit that I don't have that many original thoughts. I'm not someone people look to for guidance on how to feel about things, so it's not like I feel a real sense of obligation to get my stuff out there.

With that said, I'm confused by the idea that recent allegations of sexual assault, followed by the victims opting not to file a formal complaint, makes things difficult for Justin Trudeau. When confronted with the allegations, he suspended the accused MPs pending the result of an investigation. While the investigation is unlikely to find much without the participation of the victims, there's no reason it can't still take place. Someone who's been kidnapped or assaulted be a huge help to investigations into the criminals responsible for doing bad things to them, but that doesn't mean an investigation can't take place without their help. And for all we know, there's enough evidence out there against these two MPs that an investigation will make it clear they did some pretty awful things.

But there's no reason that an investigation can't still be carried out with as much diligence as possible under the circumstances, and I hope that it is, because leaving these MPs hanging in the wind looks terrible on Trudeau, as would reinstating them without doing anything to look into their conduct. The only way out of the predicament he created when he suspended these MPs is to commit all necessary resources to an investigation that is in no way obstructed or made less thorough by the actions of Liberals. If they're in the clear after that, you can let them back in with a clean conscience.

I haven't really see anyone saying this, so I thought I should.

Pretty Much Everything You Need To Know About Uber In Ottawa - Posted October 02, 2014

Uber is now in Ottawa... which is for the most part a good thing. There's a number of things they do way better than the current taxi system:

  • They're reviewed, and they're accountable to the outcome of those reviews. I once was ejected from a cab from having the temerity to ask my driver not to text while driving at full speed down Slater St. one evening. I was told he was disciplined, and Bylaw charged him, but he fought it in court and won since there was no conclusive evidence that he was texting while driving. Which really makes you wonder about the in-car cameras the taxi companies keep pointing to as the reason why they're better than other options.
  • You know who your driver is. I don't mean their life story, just that I get their name, picture, make of car and license plate when they confirm the pickup. I've called a cab in the past, been told to wait 15-20 minutes, then seen a vacant cab drive by 5 minutes later. Should I have flagged that one? I'd feel terrible if someone drove out of their way to get me only to have me already gone in another car. You can book a cab with an app and see it on GPS, but what if my cab sees a fare on their way to pick me up and takes them, meaning they're now going in a complete other direction? Where's the accountability to show up on time? It's too much ambiguity, and it sucks for both cabbies and passengers.
  • You can actually get a ride. Some people hate surge pricing, and I completely understand that complaint. But when it's 2:15am, -30 degrees, and every cab is full (or worse, turning down fares that aren't going far enough), I really don't mind paying a multiple if it means I get a ride ASAP. What if there's another transit strike in the middle of winter?
  • Being able to pay with a credit card without the driver giving you hell, where said payment happens securely behind the scenes without the risk of your data being stolen, and you get a receipt emailed to you... is pretty nice.

All of these are things the existing taxi companies could implement pretty easily, but they haven't. It would cost money, and without any competition since all the dispatch goes through one company, there's no alternative to lose business to, so there's really no incentive to improve. 

It doesn't hurt that Uber's significantly cheaper, too. So I'm glad to see them coming to Ottawa. But to hear some of the rhetoric about whether or not they should be operating here you'd think they were liberating Holland or... well, occupying Holland. So let's take a look at some of the complaints:

  • Safety: Uber claims their background checks are more robust than Ottawa cabs, and that their insurance coverage is significantly higher. This really needs to be verified by the city as a precondition to them operating, not least because there's more than a few examples of those background checks not actually being that thorough, and their insurance leaving drivers high and dry. However, there's no reason to believe an Uber driver is any more likely to hurt a passenger than a current Ottawa cab driver. I think it's possible to hold drivers to a higher standard than they're currently held to, and when you look at the stories about some of the horrible things drivers (both cab and Uber) have done to passengers, it's clear that we should make that a priority. But the evidence is clear that this is an issue faced both by rideshare drivers and conventional cabbies.
  • Uber will slash driver pay in a heartbeat if it means undercutting their competition. However they don't (or at least shouldn't) operate in a vacuum. If a driver can make more renting a taxi plate and charging the city-regulated fares, they should be able to do so. If other rideshare companies like Lyft or Sidecar come to Ottawa, competition for drivers would be fierce, and the likely winner would be whoever offers the best balance of caring for drivers and providing value to passengers. 
  • Uber drivers aren't licensed, so they don't have to prove they know their way around the city. GPS built into the app means they don't have to. In fact, since smartphones pull live traffic data, they can consistently dodge slowdowns better than a cab driver who doesn't have that knowledge and is just driving the most direct route.
  • Uber works great if you have a credit card and a smartphone with a data plan, but without those things in your possession, it may as well not exist. And I get it - those restrictions dramatically reduce overhead and make it easy for the business to scale. But there's significant obstacles to accessing Uber for a lot of people. They don't, for example, offer accessible cars for people with disabilities (though they've said they'd like to in the future). So when I see things in my feed like "Blueline can burn" or "I can’t wait to see Blue Line destroyed" I'm not sure if you're serious in thinking that Uber can completely replace cabs, but if that is your sincerely held belief you're a sociopath.

We've got a new service, the pluses are undeniable, the negatives are largely overstated, and yet Uber finds itself the potential target of fines, while candidates for the upcoming municipal election are being told things like "You get my vote if you let Uber stay in Ottawa, restriction free." which is frankly, kinda scary. We should require background checks for people who want to drive the public around. We should ensure that they have adequate insurance in the event that something goes wrong.

What option does the city have but to enforce the current bylaws? We have a company that was told they could operate in the city only if they met certain conditions. Those conditions tilt the playing field so far in the favour of incumbents that it's more of a playing wall, and are completely ridiculous, but rather than find a compromise, Uber's plan is to just ignore the rules. If you let that slide, you open the door to other companies ignoring regulations they don't like, including ones that are a lot more vital than our current taxi regs. I may make an incredibly good Thai Chicken, but all the customer demand in the world shouldn't exempt me from a health inspection. City council should extend a provisional license for Uber to operate while the process of reforming taxi regulations is carried out, but in the absence of that they really have no choice but to enforce the laws on the books.

The most fascinating aspect of this, at least to me, is the certainty bylaw officers have that they'll be able to successfully sting Uber drivers at any kind of scale. It's one thing to call a gypsy cab from a pay phone and bust them when they pick you up (and is bylaw even doing that? Because while it's much less in your face, it's a way bigger safety risk to the general public than Uber drivers are). To request an Uber, you're sending them information on your smartphone, your phone number, your credit card, your name/address, and probably a bunch of other data points (certainly if you sign up using Facebook). There's an easily accessible directory of everyone who works for the city online that would probably be pretty easy to cross-reference. If your hail results in a driver getting fined, everything associated with your account is getting instabanned - are they going to have the resources to generate enough new identities/accounts to make it worthwhile and still handle all the other work they have to do on a day-to-day basis?

In any case, the municipal election that was supposed to be a cakewalk for Jim Watson, and let's face it, is still going to be a cakewalk for him, just got quite a bit more interesting.

Los Angeles - Posted September 27, 2014

Los Angeles is physically impressive. It’s impressive that a place so big and sprawling and interconnected exists, amidst some truly beautiful scenery. There are freeway interchanges that are pieces of art in the way they conduct traffic.

Traffic which, yeah, sucks. But compared to Toronto, at least it moves, however slowly.

I haven’t encountered a single incident where anyone was less than polite and pleasant with me. I’d rather not think about how much of that is due to being a straight white male who isn’t poor. “I’d rather not think about that” seems to be a pretty common state of mind out here.

In a lot of ways this city is broken. That’s not terribly unique among cities. What is unique is that no one I met, at any point gives a shit about fixing it.

That’s not entirely accurate. I did meet one guy who was genuinely passionate about civic issues, but the level of apathy here is amazing, not just compared to the Rob Ford circus, but even compared to the David Miller years in Toronto, or any Ottawa mayor.

No one cares about anything other than the stuff they’re here to do. My impression of people who live here is that they regard this city as an obstacle to obtaining whatever it is they’re looking for: fame, beauty, money, or most likely, all three. And you can get all three here in a way that isn’t quite possible in any other city I’ve seen.

Getting famous, or at least looking like you’re famous… one of the best jokes I heard this week was that the cost of living in Los Angeles isn’t that bad, but the cost of pretending is nuts, and I get that. I’ve never seen so many nice cars, and I wonder where the money to pay for them all comes from.

There’s an absolutely absurd amount of money flowing around this place. I’ve never seen so many billboards for TV shows that no one’s going to watch. And yet, every single person on every single of those shows is getting paid - the writers, directors, producers, lighting people, the people selling the billboard space and putting up the billboards and it’s just… who’s watching this shit? I don’t even have time to keep up with the small tier of elite television shows: Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men. Who has time for this stuff, who’s getting anything out of it that could possibly justify the massive expense that goes into it?

I don’t get it, but everyone seems to be chasing it, even if they can’t explain why it exists, so everyone’s superficially nice because you’d never want to lose a gig because someone thought you were a dick that one time you were a dick.

Maybe the new thing is going to be hyper-targeted content or crowdfunding. I don’t know, but it feels like the existing way of doing things is going to come crashing down, which isn’t a huge revelation, but being here makes you realize just how big that shakeup’s going to be, and just how many people are going to be affected. 

I don’t hate this city. I find it fascinating and, at least for me, generally pretty comfortable, which is not to say it’s comfortable for everyone - it’s pretty clearly not comfortable for a ton of people who don’t have the resources to relocate. I could live here… but I’d never want that to come across as an endorsement, because it’s kind of a shitty place.

But god damn, it’s beautiful. The inner peace you can obtain just by walking down the beach for 20 minutes is incredible. 

The Ontario Liberals Are The Lesser Of Two Evils - Posted June 09, 2014

It's weird to see a campaign run almost completely on negative emotions. The PCs biggest message is anger at Wynne, and the Liberals' is fear of Hudak. And weirdly enough, I think both are entirely valid emotional responses to each party. A couple months ago, I would've said a moderate PC platform was the right choice. Since 2011 I've been saying that I wish the PCs would express the same willingness to work with the Liberals to accomplish their policy goals that the NDP used to win increased social spending and taxes on the well-off.

I've never met a businessperson who, upon receiving some extra money from a tax cut, decided to hire people for the hell of it. Is the concern that we can't attract foreign investment? We already have among the lowest tax rates in North America, and more to the point, if the best thing we can offer as a place to do business is that we're cheap, we're entering into a race to the bottom that we probably aren't going to win against developing economies. Would we even want to, with the cuts we'd need to make to win that competition? 

But let's take the PCs at their word that their policies will work as intended, they'll add roughly 500,000 "years of employment" over 8 years, as the other half of the Million Jobs Plan's target will be achieved by normal growth assuming no changes. By using job-years rather than jobs to make up the other half million, a single job that lasts 8 years is counted as 8 jobs. Meaning that rather than creating half a million jobs, the actual number is closer to 65,000 jobs created. And that's if everything goes according to plan. That's if, given more money in their pockets, corporations decide to hire people on a whim. I'm not saying this outcome is impossible, or even unlikely. What I am saying is that it's uncertain.

And there's no uncertainty or ambiguity about the PCs' intent to fire 100,000 public servants. To his credit, Tim Hudak has been exceedingly clear that if he's Premier, a lot of families are going to face the economic hardship of a job loss. And if it was a necessity to get to a balanced budget, I don't think there would be as much concern.  But if it's done to finance tax cuts, the utility of which is debatable, when Ontario already spends less per-capita than any other province? You can talk about a bitter pill, but this isn't Buckley's, it's Theodoric of York.

The Liberals have plenty of scandals to their name. They've wasted billions. If re-elected, they'll probably waste a billion or two more. They should be held accountable for that - not only would they ideally lose government, anyone found guilty of deleting emails to cover up Liberal scandals would go to jail. Unfortunately that won't be the only impact of a PC government being elected on Thursday. If it was, I'd be endorsing Hudak right now.

If your desire for retribution exceeds your concern for income inequality, for education, for social programs to help those in need, for transit funding that addresses the gridlock choking our cities... then the PCs will give you what you want and you should vote for them.

Telling 100,000 people that they're going to lose their jobs because there's one person that I think ought to go... is unacceptable to me from a moral standpoint. I'm frustrated that I have to choose between a couple billion dollars in likely waste or the pain and stress those cuts are going to inflict with a disproportionate impact on those least equipped to handle it. That's the choice I've been given to make, though, and I never want to be the kind of person who would choose the latter.

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