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Announcement: Build Your OmniFocus Workflow

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Build Your OmniFocus Workflow Cover Today I'm very excited to announce a book: Build Your OmniFocus Workflow. I've been hard at work on this for the last 3 months - but not alone. My fabulous co-author, Ryan Dotson, has been hard at work right along side me (admittedly with a timezone difference) - and we have 150 pages ready for you!

This book is designed, as the name implies, to help you build a workflow which works for you with OmniFocus - whether you've never used the app before, or if you've used it for years and just want to improve your setup. It is comprised of five sections:

  • First Steps: Getting OmnIFocus set up with a basic setup.
  • Fundamentals: Walking you through the default perspectives, and expanding on your current setup - plus diving into settings.
  • Advancing: Diving much deeper, including custom perspectives, creative uses for tags, review and onwards.
  • Final Horizons: Honing your workflow to get the most out of your system.
  • Our Workflows: Ryan and I get personal and tell you about how our setups work.

Throughout the book there are tips, notes, personal comments, and most important of all: activities for you to complete in order for you to create a set up which allows you to be productive and which willl hopefully also allow you to feel like you're fully in control of your life.

OmniFocus is a remarkably flexible app and can adapt to practically any workflow. As such, everyone must go through the process of building their own workflow with it, whether from scratch or based upon someone else’s. Build Your OmniFocus Workflow, written with the insight of two long-time OmniFocus users, offers practical advice on top of solid technical information. Ryan and Rose guide you through the basic concepts and perspectives of OmniFocus and into the more complex world of custom perspectives and automation. All throughout they give their own interpretations of how they use features in their workflows and finish the book with more details about how their systems work for them.

Build Your OmniFocus Workflow is available for a short time at launch for $25. The price will increase in the new year to $30.

This book is not static, we intend to update it when new features are added to any of the OmniFocus platforms. That is not to say the book is incomplete, we have about 40,000 words and are very happy to release it today!

Now, to the nerdier side of things. You may be thinking "I've never heard of Ryan" - and until I started beta testing OmniFocus 3 for iOS I hadn't either! In fact, Ryan and I have never actually met in person - the internet put us together (with some help from The Omni Group), and we ended up writing a book. If that's not a testament to how wonderful the world can be I don't know what is! I'm going to go through a little of how we wrote the book, just to give you a taste.

We started by mapping ideas out in iThoughts. We thought we'd write Markdown files and check them into a private GitHub repo - but for a variety of reasons realised this wasn't going to work how we had originally envisioned so quickly moved over to Scrivener where the project has been ever since. Scrivener has excellent Dropbox sync support so we worked through that, back and forth - with differing timezones coming in handy as you can only have one copy of a Scrivener file open at once. Once we had a large chunk of the book written then came the hard part: formatting.

I have a confession, I had very little input on the formatting. By which I mean the styling formatting rather than the organisation of the book. Ryan had a hidden talent for this from which I have learnt a great deal! If you think the book looks pretty that's down to him. From the font choices, to the indentation, and the whimsy of the hands for the notes and tips, Ryan did all the hard work. Just don't ask him about list formatting, he's still recovering from that.

The cover design was done by the extremely talented Josh Hughes. Josh has also designed a series of icons for OmniFocus custom perspectives.

Get the book here! If you're not sure (understandable), then you can also get a free sample.

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5 days ago
Toronto, ON
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Organizing the suburbs

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This article appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Briarpatch. Subscribe Now or Make A Donation.

Chinese activists stage a counter protest against an anti-refugee rally in Markham, Ontario, on July 28, 2018. Photo courtesy of the authors. Faces have been blurred to protect activists’ privacy.

During the 2018 Ontario elections, a campaign pamphlet for Progressive Conservative (PC) candidate Raymond Cho was distributed with the words “為人民服務” – “Serve the People” – in bold. The phrase is one of the most iconic Maoist slogans – but in this case, it was used as a crude translation of Doug Ford’s slogan, “For the People.”

While the NDP won the majority of downtown Toronto ridings, they were locked out of the suburbs, where the PC Party rode to a decisive victory across the commuter belt of Mississauga, Markham, Etobicoke, and – to a lesser extent – Scarborough.

For some this was unexpected: suburban working-class and immigrant communities might have been expected to side with the Liberals or NDP, more so than the generally whiter and wealthier downtown communities. After all, left-leaning parties are supposed to be the champions of the poor and racialized. For others, election results confirmed a growing belief that Canada’s new wave of immigrants is both socially and fiscally conservative, innately.

We reject these two presumptions. Instead, we draw on the case of Chinese suburbanites in Scarborough and York Region to argue that the electoral success of the right is the result of decades of disengagement by the left and sophisticated politicking by right-wing politicians.

Declawing the left

From the 1970s until fairly recently, it’s been assumed that most older racialized immigrant communities across the country would vote Liberal. One of the key ways in which the Liberals were able to build support, historically, was through the formal and informal connections between social service agencies and party organs.

In Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World, Anthony B. Chan explains that a large number of activists within the Chinese community in Canada in the 1970s were social workers who had arrived from Hong Kong and began “champion[ing] the rights of new Asian immigrants, mostly garment workers.” Many of these activists had been politicized through participation in anti-colonial struggles in Hong Kong and inspired by the Cultural Revolution.

One of the key ways in which the Liberals were able to build support, historically, was through the formal and informal connections between social service agencies and party organs.

It was this group of activists who spearheaded a campaign in response to television network CTV’s racist depiction of Chinese students in a 1979 W5 episode, which argued that Chinese students were stealing university spots from white Canadians. These activists criticized the representation of Chinese people as inherently foreign, and successfully challenged CTV by organizing protests across the country.

However, in 1981, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government, fearing the disruptive potential of a grassroots Chinese-Canadian political movement, sought to stifle it by providing an operating grant to the Chinese Canadian National Council for Equality (CCNCE), the organization born from that grassroots movement. This funding smothered “the possibility that the CCNCE might direct political dissent toward the government,” writes Chan. The “final symbol of co-optation” happened in 1981, when the CCNCE dropped “For Equality” from its name.

This is consistent with analysis produced by INCITE!, a network of radical feminists of colour, who argue that the non-profit sector’s emergence across North America declawed mass social movements of the 1960s and 1970s by folding them into the structure of the state.

In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), organizations like the Hong Fook Mental Health Association and Chinese Family Services of Ontario serve the Chinese community. They provide health services, migrant support services, shelters, and more – but they operate under laws that would strip them of charitable status or funding if they don’t limit their political and partisan activities. While aspects of the non-profit social service sector were very much the product of political struggle, its rise also meant that energy and funds were diverted from radical leftist grassroots activism to the state-sanctioned non-profit industry.

The “final symbol of co-optation” happened in 1981, when the CCNCE dropped “For Equality” from its name.

The model of “service without organizing” – of providing support without talking about how issues like homelessness, poverty, and domestic violence are structurally reproduced – is ultimately a recipe for disaster. It perpetuates the power of middle-class brokers, and fails to politicize new migrants. As a result, beginning in the 1980s, there was a political vacuum in the Chinese community where the grassroots left used to be, which the right has been only too happy to fill.

The reactionary trinity: churches, media, and the PC Party

In February of 2015, the minister of education, Liz Sandals, introduced an updated sex education curriculum to be taught in Ontario grade schools – one that included discussions of LGBTQ identities, sexting, cyberbullying, and consent. Immediately, a populist movement opposing the changes reared its head. The movement successfully linked white social conservatives with religious fundamentalists in various racialized communities, including Chinese communities.

Chinese Christian churches, Chinese-language media, and the ways each are intertwined with the PC Party have played a major role in this movement. Immigrant churches are places where trust and mutual understanding are established through sharing cultural practices and language, as well as common hardships, job insecurity, language learning, and feeling uprooted. The material and social supports that churches offer draw Chinese newcomers in, but few of their experiences of economic marginalization find meaningful solutions there.

Those who take up leadership positions within these churches are often middle-class professionals and business owners. Instead of discussions of economic justice, which would appeal to working-class churchgoers and newcomers, issues that take the forefront reflect the desire of the church to maintain certain social and moral norms. From decrying Islam to panicking about the evils of sexual liberalization (regarding homosexuality, sexual education, and abortion, among other matters), many Chinese Christian churches have come to align themselves with values of the right.

The material and social supports that churches offer draw Chinese newcomers in, but few of their experiences of economic marginalization find meaningful solutions there.

At Scarborough Chinese Alliance Church, for example, the church’s social networks and volunteer base have become recruiting grounds for campaigns against “moral devolution.” Volunteers recruited within the church staff information booths in the church lobby, and distribute informational leaflets and petitions to reverse the sex ed update. In 2018, the election of a number of prominent Chinese PC Party members to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario – such as Billy Pang, a pastor, and Daisy Wai, a senior church leader and business lobbyist – show how Chinese churches, the PC Party, and class power are intertwined.

Right-wing operatives also leveraged traditional media (print, radio, and television) and social media to spread their claims. In terms of traditional media, Fairchild is the dominant Chinese-language broadcaster in Canada, and is uncontested by left-wing alternatives. Fairchild’s monopolization of the Chinese-language market can be traced to its purchase of a competing Chinese-language media outlet, Chinavision, in 1993. Before that, in 1987, Chinavision had bought its competitor, Cathay International Television. In radio, Fairchild Media Group owns and operates Fairchild Radio (CHKT), but also produces content for CHIN and CIRV. Television and radio shows on these networks, as well as print media, have often provided a platform for opponents of the sex ed curriculum. It was through this platform that right-wing activists were able to spread ideas that the curriculum promoted anal sex, alongside transphobic and homophobic critiques about the inclusion of gender and sexual diversity topics in the curriculum.

As for social media, a number of groups formed on Facebook and WeChat (the major social media platform used by Chinese speakers), including the Parents’ Alliance of Ontario, Parents as First Educators, and the Coalition of Concerned Parents. Here, Chinese right-wing activists found their voice, reaching and galvanizing thousands. This online support translated into real-life rallies and protests, including an incident where protesters disrupted an information session on the curriculum changes held by MPPs in Scarborough. The election of Doug Ford was an indisputable victory for the anti-sex ed campaign. Within a month of taking office Ford scrapped the curriculum changes.

Hijab-cutting incident

The networks formed within the Chinese communities through the anti-sex education campaign soon found political opportunity in attacking Muslim communities. On January 28, 2018 – the eve of the first anniversary of the Quebec mosque massacre – a few prominent organizers of the anti-sex ed campaign coordinated countrywide protests in relation to an incident where an 11-year-old girl had accused an East Asian man of cutting her hijab on her way to school. This accusation later turned out to be false, but only after political leaders like Justin Trudeau and Kathleen Wynne spoke out against the alleged incident. It became a lightning rod for nationwide backlash that culminated in a rally on Parliament Hill, attended by white supremacist groups like La Meute.

The appeal of Islamophobia – particularly the portrayal of Islam as a threat to “Western civilization” and Chinese communities alike – is amplified by the fact that it is often couched in language that speaks to genuine concerns about anti-Chinese racism and marginalization. Examples of this language include slogans like “All Canadians are Equal.” Jenny Wong, a participant in the protests, told People’s Daily Online that “it is definitely a humiliation to [the] Asian community, which has always been picked on. Even an 11-year-old knows that we are easy targets.” By conflating this incident with day-to-day experiences of anti-Chinese racism, right-wing activists portrayed this campaign as a fight to restore dignity for a community targeted by Muslims and the state. But this backlash can also be tied to the PC Party’s opportunistic desire to discredit Liberals, with little concern for the resultant fractures between ethnic communities. The role of political opportunism is particularly obvious when looking at the number of signs brought to these events that explicitly targeted Trudeau and the Liberal Party.

It became a lightning rod for nationwide backlash that culminated in a rally on Parliament Hill, attended by white supremacist groups like La Meute.

Right-wing and PC operatives had effectively tapped into the racism that Chinese immigrants face, and weaponized it against Muslims and the Liberal government. An attendee at a so-called “Hijab Hoax” rally tells us, “Do you know how much racism I face at work from customers and the police? Of course, when Chinese people finally stand up for our rights, I am going to go out there.” Protesters were drawn to what they understood as a challenge to anti-Chinese racism – a challenge rarely mobilized and articulated – that resonated with their own experiences of racism. And with the lack of leftist engagement in these communities, political actions like the “Hijab Hoax” campaign become an attractive outlet for Chinese frustration with racism. Despite the campaign’s failure to address the systemic roots of anti-Chinese racism or to account for the compounded prejudices that Muslims face, it is now the right wing that is seen as the main defender of Chinese communities against racism.

Anti-refugee protests in Markham

In late July 2018, a rally was organized in opposition to a proposal by Frank Scarpitti, the mayor of Markham, to house asylum seekers in the city. A rally call-out and petition distributed through social media even fabricated a claim that Scarpitti had planned to resettle 5,000 asylum seekers in Markham. The initial call-out and petition also referenced the fact that 70 per cent of asylum seekers who arrived through irregular border crossings were Nigerian – making it obvious that the mobilization was fuelled by anti-Black racism, in addition to Islamophobic and anti-refugee sentiments.

At the rally, organizers again relied on fake news, with speeches blaming refugees for the recent mass shooting on the Danforth that killed three people and injured 13 more. A mother claimed that she feared for the safety of her children, in light of asylum seekers potentially living in the neighbourhood. Others complained about having their taxes spent on supporting “freeloading” foreigners.


Further investigation revealed that many of the organizers had ties to the PC Party or were political hopefuls with an eye on the upcoming municipal elections. For example, Shan Hua Lu, a Markham mayoral candidate at the time, and Charles Jiang, a former Progressive Conservative nominee hopeful and Markham city councillor candidate, helped organize the rally and were responsible for delivering the petition to city hall in the days following. A source within the PC Party also told us that the rally was an attempt to sully Scarpitti’s name, as established PC candidates feared that Scarpitti would run in the upcoming federal elections. Instead of drawing parallels between shared struggles of migration, state supports for asylum seekers – themselves falsely portrayed as uniformly Black or Brown – were portrayed as another example of the government’s failure to address experiences of marginalization faced by Chinese migrants.

Fighting the right, building the left

The latest obsession with wealthy Chinese immigrants buying vast swathes of expensive real estate in Canada represents the racialization of growing income inequality. In actuality, a review of the community reveals a much more complex class landscape.

The Chinese diaspora is itself tremendously fragmented along class lines and marked by significant disparities in income. Between 2011 and 2016 the number of Chinese migrants admitted to Canada through business programs (entrepreneurs, investors, and those who are self-employed) was less than a fifth of the total number of Chinese migrants admitted. Family migrants and non-investor migrants (including refugees), who are typically far less wealthy than investor migrants, often labour in blue-collar jobs without the protections that unionized work may have for many blue-collar workers in white communities.

These populations provide a natural base for political campaigns based on left-wing agendas, but they remain unmobilized. Another sizable segment is skilled workers who experience immediate deskilling and downward mobility upon entering Canadian labour markets. The racist deskilling they face should be addressed and harnessed by the left as an opportune moment to politicize new migrants.

State supports for asylum seekers – themselves falsely portrayed as uniformly Black or Brown – were portrayed as another example of the government’s failure to address experiences of marginalization faced by Chinese migrants.

By being barred from white and English-speaking labour markets, deskilled workers, undocumented workers, and migrants who don’t speak English are often forced into industries and sectors where regulations are weak and worker protections are low. Take, for example, the issue of wage theft: in a 2016 survey of 184 Chinese restaurant workers in the GTA, 43 per cent reported being paid below minimum wage. In one widely publicized incident, it was found that Regal Restaurants had stolen wages totalling more than $650,000 from over 60 Chinese restaurant workers in the GTA.

It is precisely the working-class and deskilled immigrant experiences that the right wing operatives have tapped into, asking loaded questions like, “Is it fair that you worked so hard through all those poor jobs, just to pay taxes to support these ‘fake’ and morally questionable refugees?” These ideologies, when unopposed, move working-class people away from developing class consciousness and identifying their true oppressors.

Sadly, the left has often been uninvested in the struggles of Chinese and other racialized working-class immigrants. Some NDP campaigners told us they were instructed to avoid canvassing in Chinese communities in the lead-up to the recent elections, as it was assumed that Chinese Canadians would not be interested in left-wing demands. Based on these racialized assumptions, one NDP canvasser told us they expected “people to slam their doors in my face.” Instead, the canvasser discovered that when they actually spoke to residents in their language, “most [residents] found the NDP’s policies agreeable.” It was the lack of sustained political education, organizational power, and leftist Chinese media long before the 2018 election that ultimately meant many of these neighbourhoods voted for Progressive Conservatives.

The issues that many Chinese community members face – like xenophobic racism, poor working conditions, and growing economic precarity – could be used by the left to galvanize the community into standing in solidarity with other marginalized communities and demanding a more just society for all. Building institutional power and movements across communities to do this (like the Fight for $15 and Fairness) will be essential to these efforts. In their absence, the right has managed to take over all the important sites of community power: churches, non-profits, and media. In short, it is precisely the left’s inability to mobilize upon class issues most relevant and related to racialized suburban communities that has given the right and the Conservative Party free rein in those communities.

The electoral success of the Progressive Conservatives and the rise of far-right elements in the community should serve as a wake-up call for additional work on the political landscape across not only Chinese suburban communities but throughout immigrant suburban communities more generally. More importantly, it should serve to galvanize renewed community organizing work that builds solidarity within and across racialized communities, and addresses the very real economic and social concerns held by members of these communities. For communities that face economic precarity and social marginalization, solidarity is the key to changing the landscape of power in Ontario.

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18 days ago
This is a very good explainer of why Doug Ford, Ontario's PC Party, and the federal Conservative Party are popular with suburban Chinese communities.
Toronto, ON
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Increasing Number of People Pay Virtual Dating Assistants to Get a Date

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Vida logo 2018GQ MAGAZINE - Nov 14 - For people too busy to swipe themselves, there's a new generation of cyber-cupids to help them hook up, break up and everything in between - from polishing profiles, to messaging potential dates. With a budget of £15K, Scott Valdez used Craigslist to hire two freelance writers and a PR manager, then founded Virtual Dating Assistants (styled Vida) in 2009. Since then, the business has grown exponentially. Vida has hundreds of clients. In the last year alone, it has seen a 50% increase in sign-ups and almost a third of its customers are women. The team has grown from a staff of three to 80, with matchmakers, profile writers, photo analysts and app swipers joining the ghostwriters. With pay-as-you-go monthly packages ranging from £400 (20 hours of dating assistance and an expected two-to-four dates per month) to £2k (100 hours, and eight to 20 dates per month), Vida already has a seven-figure revenue stream, and it's just getting started. Vida says that 99.6% of clients get dates, 63% of which turn into serious relationships, usually after 12 dates within three and a half months. After Vida obtains a phone number from a potential date, the client is sent an email with the full transcript of the conversation to read over and memorise (they are then expected to takeover via SMS).

by Eleanor Halls
See full article at GQ Magazine

See all posts on Virtual Dating Assistants

Summarized by the IDEA team

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21 days ago
Minimum $700 monthly fee. Wow.
Toronto, ON
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BIXI Montréal

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Well it took four months, but I’m finally getting around to my first bike share review.

I’m starting with BIXI Montréal, which is not the first bike share I used (that honour goes to Melbourne Bike Share), but is a pioneer in modern bike share – BIXI celebrated its tenth season this year. It was preceded in the technology-enabled bike share era by Vélib’, but was the first such bike share to operate on a large scale in North America. I think that makes it a pretty good baseline bike share for comparing other systems.

I’ve been using BIXI since around 2012, and it’s basically my main way of getting around Montréal on my annual or semi-annual visits. Over the years I’ve had casual, monthly, tri-monthly, and annual subscriptions depending on how much time I spent in the city, and I used the system most recently in September 2018.

The system is owned by the City of Montréal, which initially developed the technology itself (along with 8D Technologies, now owned by Motivate, formerly Alta Bike Share) – most of the intellectual property and service company were eventually spun off into what is now PBSC Urban Solutions, which still provides hardware, software, and implementation in many other cities around the world. The design has become so iconic that there’s even a BIXI in the Musée des beaux-arts.

BIXI’s pricing model is typical of bike shares of its generation: annual, 90-day, or monthly passes will get you an unlimited number of 45-minute trips, and you can also purchase a one day or casual pass which gives you unlimited 30-minute trips for 24 hours. They’ve recently added a “one way” option where you pay $2.95 for a single 30 minute trip, though I’ve never found that to be a particularly useful option. Special discounts are available for 3-day holiday weekends and for one-way trips tied to an Opus card. In all cases, it’s an extra $1.80 for the balance of the first hour if you go over the allotted time, and $3 for every 15 minutes beyond that. As with all such systems, you can always “time out” by ending your trip at a station and then taking out the same bike again two minutes later.

Cycling in Montréal is generally a pleasure and frequently the most efficient way to get anywhere. There are plenty of protected bikeways, and especially in the summer the volume of cyclists is such that most drivers are aware of sharing the road. That said, the general rule in Montréal is that all road users are predictably aggressive – you have to be assertive to get anywhere, and you can assume people walking or cycling will run red lights. The other general rule is that there will always be construction. Montréal does not have a mandatory helmet law, though in the past Westmount did and it was generally not enforced.

The BIXI network is huge. My rough estimate puts it over 125 km², with 6,200 bikes spread across 540 stations in Montréal, Longueuil, and Westmount. Needless to say, the network covers most places tourists would go, but also covers most places that are a reasonable biking distance from the city centre for commuters. Stations are well placed and well spaced, with higher density in the city centre and larger gaps between stations further out. The network is denser in the city centre, Vieux-Montréal, Mile-End, and Le Village Gai, and sprawls out mostly along corridors beyond that. The biggest downside is that the system shuts down entirely over the winter.

The technology is definitely getting old, but has (after a few bumps several years ago) been kept up to date where possible. The app shows you clearly where all the bikes are, including whether or not there is an electric bike at the station. The app functions well in every respect, though I’ve always preferred Spotcycle (also developed by 8D), personally.

Registering is relatively straightforward, though I did it so long ago that I don’t remember the details. If you want a membership you can sign up online and have a key sent to you, but if you want a casual use / day pass you can sign up directly at the station using your credit card. I found these charts showing the split between casual and member use on BIXI’s website which I thought were super interesting.

The unlock process for membership holders is simple – insert your key in the dock, the light turns green, and the bike comes out. There is no opportunity to reserve bikes like there is with some other systems. This is especially problematic since, as with all station-based systems, it is not uncommon to find full or empty stations.

If you don’t have a membership, before each trip you need to go to the machine at the station and follow several steps to provide your credit card and generate an unlock code. You then tap the number into a dock with a bike in it and the bike will be unlocked.

Ending the trip is easy for all users – simply insert the bike into an empty dock at any station, and wait for the light to turn green. It’s fast and efficient. 

The bikes themselves are generally well-maintained, though I regularly find ones with flat tires which at least is detectable by sight. The bikes fit me well and the handlebars are an appropriate height for sit-up cycling, though are a little more comfortable with a slight forward lean. BIXIs are solid and practically nothing could damage them, which is especially useful in pothole-heavy Montréal.

The seat posts are generously long except that the first generation of bikes (which are still found widely in the system) all have a slightly shorter seat post that is just a touch too short for me. Older seats are a little more padded, but newer seats have holes built into the middle which allows rain to run off them better.

The vast majority of BIXIs have three gears using a simple shifter built into the handlebars. The latest generation have seven gears using a similar shifter. Montréal, despite its name, is mostly pretty flat so the three speed bikes are generally sufficient but the seven speed ones are definitely easier to use when encountering the few hills that do exist.

The brakes are generally in good shape and I’ve never really had a BIXI with bad ones. The bells are usually disappointing – if they work at all, they are usually twisted around under the handlebars and difficult to switch back up to the top. Users often put them below to keep the rain out, but on average a BIXI bell is useless. The baskets are basically just straps with a shield at the front, so I advise against putting anything in them unless you’re certain it can be secured well.

And lastly, one bonus – BIXI recently introduced e-bikes! There were 20 of these placed into the network late in 2018 and I had the chance to ride one (after spending literally all day hunting for it) on my last visit. The e-bikes are heavier than the regular bikes of course, but they glide so smoothly and zoom along so satisfyingly. The bikes do not have user-changeable gears which makes it a different experience than with a regular bike, but they adjust well to pedalling. I hope they will add more to the network next year, though the strange rule where helmets are mandatory only for e-bikes will likely impede its success.

Overall, I would put BIXI at a 8.7/10 for having really good bikes, a great network, and good pricing, with the only negatives being poor bells and baskets, the limited season, and the perpetual full station / empty station problem.

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21 days ago
Toronto, ON
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Mechanization, Automation, Animation: Enchanting the Human-Built World

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If you’re paying any attention at all to news coming out of the tech sector, it’s hard to go a day without coming across a story about a new robot, app, or tool that promises (or threatens) to do what we previously did for ourselves. Some of these tasks involve physical labor, but increasingly they involve cognitive, emotional, and even ethical labor. Thinking carefully about the implications of this trend is, in my view, one of the most important tasks before us.

Taking a comment from Adam Thierer on a recent post about “smart-homes” as my point of departure, I propose that we think about the trend described above as a three-step process aimed at the enchantment of the human-built world.

In Adam’s view, as I read his comment, the “smartness” of the “smart home” is simply an extension of the many ways that we have already automated household tasks over the course of the last 100 years or so. Moreover, to my claim that a “smart home” is “an active technological system that requires maintenance and regulation,” Adam commented, “Even in the days of mud huts and log cabins that was somewhat true.”¹

In my initial response to Adam, I suggested that while it is true that more primitive homes, huts and cabins if you will, involved technology and might even be considered technological systems if we press the semantic range of that phrase a bit, there were important discontinuities as well. To clarify that claim, I began by making some distinctions using home heating as an example.

For most of human history, if I wanted warmth in my home I would need to build and sustain a fire of some sort. I could, for example, build a fire in a fireplace or I could light one in a coal burning stove. This would require a good deal of effort and caution. In short, it required a significant amount of engagement on my part, physical and mental.

Then along came the furnace and central heating. I no longer needed to build and sustain a fire. I could simply flip a switch and a machine would generate the heat and disperse it throughout my home. But I would hesitate to call this an instance of automation. Instead, let’s call it mechanization. Central heating, machine heating if you will, mechanizes the work of providing heat. And, of course, with that mechanization comes far less engagement on my part. In fact, this initial step is probably the most obvious and striking point of discontinuity in the evolution of home heating.

Add a thermostat and I no longer need to actively monitor the temperature in order to keep my home comfortably warm. I can set the thermostat at a toasty 73 degrees and trust the system to do the work for me. Ease of use continues to advance as my degree of engagement diminishes. Now, I think, we can talk about automation. Of course, thermostats of varying degrees of sophistication are available. The simplest models allow you to set just one temperature and require you to manually change that setting if you want the temperature to adjust over the course of the day. More elaborate, digital thermostats allow you to program a series of temperature changes throughout the course of the day and for different days of the week. All of these, however, allow me to automate the functioning of the machine. But, we should note, altering these settings still required direct action on my part.

It seems that the next step in this progression is something like Nest, a thermostat that “learns” your preferences and takes over management of the temperature for you. Nest is illustrative of the “smart” trend that promises something more than simple automation. Tools like Nest take automation further along the path toward autonomous functionality by “learning” to regulate themselves. Nest can also be controlled with a smart phone. In other words, it can be networked; it can “talk” to other devices. It is, then, a potential component of the assemblage of technologies that together constitute the so-called Internet of Things, one manifestation of which is the “smart home.” At this point, I am thoroughly disengaged from the process of providing heat for my home. I don’t need to cut wood or start a fire. I don’t need to flip a switch. I don’t need to adjust controls. Without labor, attention, or decisions on my part, my home is comfortably heated.

I remain uncertain about what to call this last step. Mechanization, automation, and … what?

In my previous post, I couldn’t quite resist an allusion to the famous scene in Boris Karloff’s Frankensteinwhere Dr. Frankenstein shouts,“It’s alive. It’s alive!” The allusion suggested “animation” a name for the third step after mechanization and automation. That strikes me as a provocative and vivid word choice, but it also threatens to mystify more than it clarifies. I mean the term in a figurative sense, but it may be too easy to suppose that something more literal is intended. Nonetheless, throwing caution to the wind, I’m going to go with animation, at least for the time being. Blogging is nothing, if not provisional, right?

So then, we have three discernible stages–mechanization, automation, animation–in the technological enchantment of the human-built world. The technological enchantment of the human-built world is the unforeseen consequence of the disenchantment of the natural world described by sociologists of modernity, Max Weber being the most notable. These sociologists claimed that modernity entailed the rationalization of the world and the purging of mystery, but they were only partly right. It might be better to say that the world was not so much disenchanted as it was differently enchanted. This displacement and redistribution of enchantment may be just as important a factor in shaping modernity as the putative disenchantment of nature.

In an offhand, stream-of-consciousness aside, I ventured that the allure of the smart-home, and similar technologies, arose from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. I’m doubling-down on that hypothesis. Here’s the working thesis: the ongoing technological enchantment of the human-built world is a corollary of the disenchantment of the natural world. The first movement yields the second, and the two are interwoven. To call this process of technological animation an enchantment of the human-built world is not merely a figurative post-hoc gloss on what has actually happened. Rather, the work of enchantment has been woven into the process all along.

In support of this claim we might consider, first, the entanglement of technology and magic just as the process of disenchantment is taking off in the early-modern period as well as the pervasive and, secondly, the persistent presence of the religion of technologywithin the western technological project.

I’m going to leave it at that for now. In a subsequent post, I’ll bring Hannah Arendt’s discussion of labor, work, and action into the discussion to help us think about the trade-offs involved in this enchantment of the human-built world.


¹ There is a methodological question lying beneath the surface of this exchange: how do we wisely weigh the relevant degrees of continuity and discontinuity with older technology as we think about new technology? This can be tricky. There can be a tendency to exaggerate either the continuity or the discontinuity. In both cases, there would be nothing at all to learn because either nothing has changed and thus nothing needsto be learned, or else everything has changed and nothing of use canbe learned. In the most unhelpful cases, both exaggerations are simultaneously affirmed. To generate hype, proponents of a new technology breathlessly proclaim its revolutionary character while at the same disingenuously allaying criticism by insisting the new revolutionary technology is really just like any number of other technologies that preceded it.

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27 days ago
Toronto, ON
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Ask MeFi: Fantasy Disguised as General Fiction

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Looking for fantasy books hiding out in the non-genre section of the bookstore.

This question about science fiction in the general fiction section basically sums up my book preferences. But it focuses on science fiction, whereas I lean more toward fantasy. Lately it seems like there's been a surge of fantasy fiction hiding in other sections—The Tiger's Wife, The Snow Child, The Golem and the Jinni, and no doubt plenty of others.

So, what other fantasy books (or authors) aren't shelved in Fantasy?

(Already on the list: Isabel Allende, Aimee Bender, Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, T.C. Boyle, Mikhail Bulgakov, A.S. Byatt, Italo Calvino, Jonathan Carroll, Dan Chaon, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, Etgar Keret, Ben Okri, Helen Oyeyemi, Salman Rushdie, Karen Russell, José Saramago, George Saunders, Bruno Schulz, and Jeanette Winterson.)
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27 days ago
Toronto, ON
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