Saturday, February 28, 2015

February's Book: Looking Backward

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
Science Fiction (1887 - 217 pp.)

Looking Backward: 2000-1887, commonly cited as one of the most influential books of its day, presents a novel concept. A man falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in 2000, fully intact, healthy as ever, ready to see the new world. It fits neatly into late Victorian science fiction by being wholly unrealistic enough to ever happen yet more contemplative and didactic than escapist. In a way, it is like H.G. Wells's The Time Machine meets Samuel Johnson's Rasselas.

The most striking aspect of Looking Backward is how presciently Bellamy predicts so much of the future. Everything from credit cards (57) to alarm clocks (90) to the United Nations (91) to possibly even World War I (201) is a simple fact of Bellamy's 2000... rather like our own. Although Bellamy's credit cards function more like prepaid cards, they are otherwise like our credit cards, and Looking Backward's lack of money negates the need for interest rates.

The freedom of choice inherent in the new economy appears a little too market-oriented for socialist-minded Bellamy at times. That people choose to buy some goods over others, that the government adjusts prices based on demand, that people are incentivized toward less desirable jobs through more favourable work hours... really seems very much like the system Bellamy rails against. The more structural issue I take with Looking Backward, that perhaps was unforeseeable to Bellamy, is that the adult work schedule of general labour from 21-24 and then school until 30 maximum probably would not work too well with modern graduate education. A possible solution would be to exempt future professors from general labour much like students have been exempt from military service in the past, which fits well with Bellamy's "industrial army".

Looking Backward's didactic style and lack of plot unfortunately do not lead to well-developed characters. The most glaring example is how Julian West never seems surprised enough by his surroundings; a simple couple sentences telling, not showing, his surprise and then a segue into political debate is apparently enough. This is the book's one drawback. In a twist Bellamy could not have anticipated, baby name popularity fluctuated considerably since the 1850s, making a character named Edith in the year 2000 highly unlikely. Then again, if the reader has already suspended disbelief for a man rocketing 113 years into the future, why can the reader not also accept that a woman born in the 1970s have a name that was more common a century earlier?

For a book without much of a plot and with poor characters, Looking Backward is a page-turner. Now that is a compliment.

Ease of Reading: 5
Educational Content: 8

Monday, February 9, 2015

Otter Chaos

It's really impressive how quickly these little guys can scale a snowy hill. Good mini-feature by National Geographic here.

Brings back memories of a childhood friend's $50 snowboard...

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Putting Canada on the Map

In 2013, Canadian magazine MacLean's released a series of maps detailing various aspects of Canadian culture, most stereotypical, some more serious than others. Naturally, it got started by asking which of hockey or church is more popular on Twitter - as someone who has spent most of my time in Canada in either Toronto or Edmonton, the stats indicate I've been exposed to both. Edmonton is the hockey city, if you were wondering.

Other particularly fun takeaways:

-Latitude in North America has always been... I can't really say a curiosity of mine, but I've always found the stats interesting. For all the reputation Canada has as the Great White North, a significant portion of its population lives well below the hallowed 49th parallel that separates Canada and the United States in the West. Even a city like Sault Ste. Marie, ostensibly in Northern Ontario, is technically south of Seattle. It gets even stranger when making European comparisons; living in Edmonton has been an experience in finally being north of Berlin (Saskatoon). Whether Edmonton is north of Rostock, I won't bother checking.

-The word map of clich├ęs is amusing, especially when the same words appear multiple times in a province or territory. I'll admit I'd never heard of Albertans being pinkos, though, or Manitoba being "where Bay Street executives come from".

-My home province (Ontario) received the award for "most thunderstorms". Enough summers spent in Toronto confirms this hypothesis, at least anecdotally. Summer 2008, for one, felt like a thunderstorm almost every day. As a child, I loved thunderstorms, and even had an attraction to power outages, which invited peaceful reading by candlelight or a bath in complete darkness. Now, I'm too glued to electronics to really appreciate everything being switched off.

-Whenever I meet a Canadian born in 2013, I can apparently call that person Liam or Ethan (if a boy) or Emma (if a girl), and there appears to be a decent chance I'll be right. Could this be an updated version of the carnival Guess Your Weight games?

-Could inviting a few PEI residents to move to Saskatchewan even out Canada's population density lopsidedness? Well, probably not. The provincial population density map verges on useless when making within-group comparisons like the difference in population density between Toronto and the approximately ten thousand mile radius around Kenora, which is vast.

-The one male centenarian in the Northwest Territories really should have attempted to become a celebrity by now. Additionally wacky about the NWT's centenarians is that they all live so far apart. There couldn't have been two in Yellowknife? As this map is a year and a half old, it's quite possible some then-99-year olds or even then-98-year olds could be added to the list.

-The "What if all of Canada lived in one city?" map curiously omits Montreal, likely due to the necessity of it being engulfed by Ottawa in such a scenario. Socking all of Canada into Whitehorse feels oddly efficient and pretty until you consider the impact it would have on agriculture, secondary industries and border security.

Nothing like old news for a cold February day... right?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Globe and Mail: Millennials More Upbeat than Boomers about Affording Ideal Retirement

This survey, released on January 28, says so. A good point it makes is that Millennials have considerably more time to save for retirement than Boomers, so Millennials' added optimism makes sense that way.

A couple issues:
-Optimism was measured according to "ideal retirement". I suspect that looks very different for Boomers as it does for Millennials.
-Millennials are "ages 18-34". As someone who considers Millennials to have been born from 1980-1997 or so, I wholeheartedly approve of this age bracketing.
-Approximately $400,000 for retirement doesn't seem like much, although retirement is such a fuzzy concept because it could last anywhere from 45 years to a few days. Someone hoping to retire early and then subsequently become a centenarian likely needs to save considerably more than someone retiring in the shadow of a terminal illness, for example.
-Apparently, 29% of Millennials and 19% of Boomers are worried they'll be bored in retirement. As someone who hasn't been bored in years aside from perhaps a few times waiting 10-20 minutes for a train, I can't identify here. There's too much to be done in this world.
-The sample sizes of 803 non-retirees and 500 retirees aren't bad. I can live with them.