BrianAlkerton.com

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.

Knock Knock - Posted January 25, 2015

It took 20 years, but Keanu Reeves has finally topped this speech.

There's a moment near the end of Eli Roth's latest film where Keanu Reeves, pleading for his life, compares the idea of two women showing up at his house for some no-strings-attached sex to free pizza, and for a moment, the craziness of the film is exceeded only by Reeves' commitment to selling the moment. In fleeting moments like that, Knock Knock is a pretty damn entertaining film. Unfortunately, after doing an admirable job of building tension in the film's first half, the story descends into a confusing mess that feels like Roth was more focused on new things he wanted to try as a director than coming up with any credible explanation for why those things should happen in the movie.

Reeves plays Evan Webber, architect, devoted father and husband, staying home in the suburbs for the weekend to recover from a shoulder injury while the wife and kids go to the beach. That night during a raging thunderstorm, he receives a knock on the door from Bel and Genesis, two very attractive young women caught in the pouring rain and can't they please come in to use Evan's phone and call a cab? Of course, Evan suggests an Uber, and while it may date the film years from now, the movie is littered with references to all the technology that permeates life in 2015. A soaked cell phone is put in rice. Facetime comes up as a plot device on a few occasions. The first act of the film feels unusually natural. Reeves is convincing as a father who knows he's not as cool as he once was, who knows he's got a good thing going and who has no interest in throwing that away for a one-off threesome with a couple flight attendants. Of course, the women have other plans, and they don't take no for an answer. Literally. When we're talking about consent, that's pretty messed up, and when we're talking about the act that justifies the hell Bel and Genesis plan to unleash on Evan, it's such a flimsy justification that everything that follows doesn't feel earned.

Eli Roth deserves credit for trying new things in this film. Having made movies that travel the world and feature tons of gore, the entirety of the action in Knock Knock takes place in and around one house, is an almost entirely bloodless affair, and still delivers thrills as Bel and Genesis make Evan's life hell for the weekend as punishment for being an adulterer. Unfortunately, the script never establishes any kind of motivation for the women to destroy Evan's life. A little mystery around motivations in the early going of a film is fine, but the benefit of the doubt never materializes into anything coherent, and without that, we're essentially left with two women destroying a decent man's life for fun because bitches be crazy. 

The film is a loose adaptation the 70s exploitation flick Death Game, but that's no excuse for the premise and the technical craft being updated while the characters are stuck in a past society's moving on from. Roth's passion for film comes through in interviews and I'm a fan of his ability to make films that subvert audiences' expectations, but even that can't overcome a weak script.

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.

A Couple Thoughts On Jian Ghomeshi - Posted October 29, 2014

Update: After hearing this interview, it's very difficult to believe Jian Ghomeshi's version of events that he posted on Facebook. This post was released before that interview came out, and I'm keeping it here, unedited, for posterity. I still think it's worth reading and considering, though I'll admit I feel a lot less ambiguity on what happened than I did when I first wrote this. I don't always do this, but given that it's an extremely sensitive subject, I asked a few people to review this before posting - not a PR Crisis Management team, just some trusted friends and mentors. Thanks to you all.

I don't think we have enough verified information to determine whose version of the truth is closest to reality. However, I think what's come out so far, and to be more precise, the responses of people to what's come out so far, tells us a lot about what's still to come. We don't need to know what actually happened in the past in order to talk about the meaning of what people are saying about that ambiguous past.

You don't come clean in a Facebook post like that if you know you're going to jail. If Ghomeshi's charged and convicted for sexually violent acts, a fake mea culpa where you name-drop the Giller Prize and pass violent crimes off as kink, because you think you can make that the story... makes you look infinitely worse. He's media-savvy enough to know this, just like he knows mentioning that he was always a good soldier carries extra resonance this week. That we've seen a post like the one that came out Sunday suggests he's confident that whatever consequences he faces for his behaviour, a criminal conviction won't be one of them.

That wouldn't mean he hasn't done horrible things, just that if he has done them, and if he is charged, he's confident there isn't enough evidence for a slam-dunk conviction. With the right legal team, his accusers can be sufficiently discredited to establish reasonable doubt. Given how few cases of reported sexual assault go to trial, and how few of the cases that go to trial result in the accused being convicted, it's entirely possible to a) know that you've violated people and b) feel confident you won't be convicted for having violated people. Those don't strike me as fundamentally incompatible ideas.

Further to that, if you never face charges, or if you do but you're not convicted, you give cover to all your fans to say "Jian wasn't convicted, therefore he's 100% innocent and there was zero basis to the allegations against him." If all you want is more Q (or whatever his inevitable project for satellite radio ends up being called), why not accept such a viewpoint at face value? Especially when the alternative means a) going against someone whose creative output you enjoy, and b) acknowledging that maybe our society and our justice system don't do a perfect job at supporting victims of sexual violence or ensuring their attackers face justice.

And while we don't know exactly what happened between Jian Ghomeshi and the women accusing him of abuse, we do know, unquestionably, that he was a massive asset to the CBC - you can count the more valuable people on one hand. Never mind the $55M lawsuit, which seems likely to be tossed out, as Jian's unionized and this would likely fall under his collective agreement. As much as Q is the product of a team, losing Ghomeshi will almost certainly cost the CBC listeners and syndication dollars. After the fiasco with Sook-Yin Lee a few years ago, it's really hard to reconcile the CBC's actions with Ghomeshi's account of events.

To learn that the person responsible for something you really enjoy also assaults women is never going to be a pleasant experience. I understand the urge to cling to a narrative that protects you from having to confront that possibility, and Ghomeshi is clearly confident that he's going to be able to give his fans that plausible deniability. People are eating it up by the tens of thousands to look at the stats on that Facebook post. But I can't be the only one who thinks it's a little weird for fans of a show that typically skews pretty smart to accept something so uncritically.

Of course, Woody Allen's movies skew pretty smart too.

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. 

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