From the archives: Studentpolitik

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Endorse me, my sweet endorsable you

Wednesday, 8 March 2006 — 11:38pm | Studentpolitik

Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine.

Look, if you care, you’ve probably already voted. As such, and given that most of you won’t get around to reading this before the polls close, this isn’t really an endorsitorial. As I was starting to write something along those lines on Monday night just before I got wind of Chelli’s unfortunate disqualification, I came to the realization that this year didn’t offer me a whole lot to endorse. There were several races to the bottom, and at the time I hadn’t quite decided how well None of the Above would fare on my ballot. Besides, I figure that if you’re smart enough to read this blog, you’re smart enough to not vote for Greg German.

So here’s how I ranked the candidates (as far as I can remember), with minimal disclosure of supporting rationale:

President: None of the Above, Samantha Power, Greg German. I would have voted for Michelle Kelly were she still in the race. Though Sam came off as the most knowledgeable, professional and prepared candidate, I have too many fundamental disagreements with her on principle and too little admiration of her accomplishments to date to justify a clear first. In a two-horse race a #1 for NOTA works out to a vote for her anyway, and my rankings are both a protest and a Stop German. Sam would serve as both the better President and the better placeholder.

Also, Stephen Kirkham should have gone ahead with the Bear Scat joke campaign. This year, it was fully winnable. Potential to be the greatest joke candidate since Space Moose? Absolutely. What a shame.

VP Academic: Amanda Henry has earned my rubber stamp.

VP External: None of the Above, Dave Cournoyer, Blythe Morrow, Damini Mohan. It was a race to the bottom. Dave lost me with the fetish for political policies. Blythe lost me with her seething (and moreover, undirected) anger at the Myer forum. Damini lost me twice the moment I saw “ATA” and “CFS” converge on her handbills. Lesson learned: when in doubt, even the Liberal with the crappy blog may end up on top.

VP Operations/Finance: Chris Cunningham, None of the Above, Theresa Chapman, Cameron Lewis. Cunningham doesn’t have a clue about the SU, but the more I heard him exude his businessman’s idealism, the more I liked him. Here’s a man who would invest in zeppelins in the wake of a Hindenburg out of patriotic ambition. He really doesn’t have any idea what he’s in for, but I’m dying to see what he’d manage to do with the position. (However, if he wins, I’ll have to apologize to him personally.)

As for the other two, I don’t for a moment doubt Theresa Chapman’s enthusiasm and commitment, or that she works hard and pays her taxes. I do doubt her understanding of the position, her naïveté about everything, and her ability to write coherently (see the Webboard for details). As for Cam, who somehow ran a fluffed-up paper-credential-driven campaign with less presence than Samuel’s run for BOG…

“I will. Take care of your money. We’re not making this up.”

(Tired? Uninspiring? So was his campaign.)

VP Student Life: Sarah Kalil, Omer Yusuf, None of the Above, Amanda-Leigh Hanson. Figures – the only race of conventional strength, and it has to be the bogus seat on the Executive. Sarah’s the best: she knows the limitations of the SL position, both necessary and crippling, and she also recognizes that students are best served through decentralized programming and Student Groups in particular, which I will say without reservation is the SU service with the most direct and relevant effect on students short of Bear Scat.

Omer would be an acceptable victor, but he doesn’t quite fit the portfolio as a character quite the way Sarah does, and I think he would be more useful elsewhere. Hanson didn’t race to the bottom like some of the candidates in other races, but she struck me as somebody impractical in all the ways that are best holed up in APIRG.

Board of Governors: Of course I approved Chris Samuel. To me, the question isn’t whether or not running a $0 campaign should speak ill of him – it’s about how far up he’ll go. I want to see him break 80% for fun and sport.

Physical Activity Complex: No. This plebiscite asked a stupider question than half of the Jones referenda.

Campus-Wide Tobacco Ban: Yes, and it’s in spite of Shereen Kangarloo’s every effort to lose my vote. Chris Samuel is the first argument for running a zero-dollar campaign. This is the second. We’re talking about a hot-button debate as topical as the prohibition of tobacco, and that’s the best she can do? Her money would have been better spent as a drop in the bucket to fight lung cancer.

As for my vote: I do not make any money from campus tobacco sales. I do not have any intention of making money off campus tobacco sales. I have no interest in there being smoking, or smoke, on campus. I do have an interest in cutting through shortest paths in the Main Quad without having to trace a curveball trajectory around a cloud of stink. The personal benefits outweigh the costs.

And there goes ten or twenty minutes I’d rather have spent writing about Crash.

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Thursday, 26 January 2006 — 12:24am | Studentpolitik

The Students’ Union Webboard has returned. This is a public service announcement and not in any way an unrelenting squeal of joy. In the months leading up to its disappearance back in early 2005 the Webboard’s utility and entertainment value were already in decline, but the new registration policy (requiring members to provide a unique university-affiliated e-mail address) is a sound one that will hopefully keep a lid on the overabundance of anonymous sockpuppetry that plagued the establishment prior to its subsequent implosion.

I’m glad to see that existing user records and the posts of the old regime have been preserved in full… or not. One notices that my triple-crossing Diplomacy victory as Italy is conspicuously missing. I demand answers.

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Heliotropology, conspiratorial schemata and throwing eggs at Shy Guys

Wednesday, 16 March 2005 — 10:34pm | Literature, Studentpolitik, Video games

Not much in the way of positive, uplifting news this week in the world of people who play chess a lot better than all of us combined ever will. First Kasparaov retires – though mind you, there really is no better guy to spearhead the effort to cut Putin down to size, and devoting more of his energy to it isn’t a bad thing – and now Japan has ruled that Bobby Fischer will be deported back to America. While I’ll admit that Fischer has become a bit of a loon in recent years, this is doing nothing to help, and the grounds for his criminality – that his 1992 rematch with Spassky was an economic activity that violated sanctions on Yugoslavia – remain absolutely preposterous. I suppose this is the kind of thing that happens when you mess with a bona fide genius, no pun intended.

In other news, yesterday’s Gateway had a terrific crop of letters, one of which said exactly what I’ve been trying to say for days, but better and in fewer words. Megan Grieve wrote:

I myself voted for Mustafa. He seemed to have an intelligent and serious platform but, most importantly, he seemed to want the position for the right reasons. Lettner’s platform, that repeatedly mentioned the Powerplant, seemed more suited to someone running for VP (Student Life).

Lettner seemed to take the whole election as a joke, and the only time I heard him speak was at the candidate forum in which his entire speech consisted of an unamusing frozen (as in tuition) metaphor. If I wanted a joke candidate, I would have voted for Spanky. Yet it was met with a resounding cheer from the audience and now he’s our new president – I don’t understand.

I could not agree more, though for my part, I found Lettner’s speech amusing – as a speech alone, that is, and not in context of the Myer forum where it was delivered, and where I was hoping to hear some real ideas. Be that as it may, Lettner still has a year ahead of him to do something useful with the organization, and in spite of some massive turnover we may have some decent Councilors to keep him in check. The best part of the letter is that nobody has any idea who the writer is. Informed normal students exist! Now, if only we could apply the same principles to ferret out the extraterrestrials.

And while on the subject of extraterrestrials, I want to digress for a moment and make some brief observations on various works of literature I have delved into of late.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is an interesting fellow, in that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where he stands when it comes to imperialism and the White Man’s Burden in all its assorted flavours. On one hand, the worldview he exhibits is clearly one that divides the world into people who are savage brutes and people who aren’t. In A Princess of Mars, the difference between the two is that the former has a capacity for love and compassion. It opens with John Carter fleeing a band of Indians, who are naturally a posse of uncivilized cowboy-hunters. Where it gets interesting, though, is when he ends up on Mars and falls in with the Green Men of Thark, a brutish tribe of warriors for whom killing is acceptable so long as you triumph over your foe and seize his rank and possessions, laughter is a mark of delight in the suffering of others, and the bonds of family extend only to dumping your kids in a public incubator for five years until they hatch. In a telling scene, our protagonistic Gentleman of Virginia tames their ravenous beasts of war with a display of his teeming love and empathy. The message here is less than subtle.

Naturally, they are an ugly people with green skin and eyes in weird places. In contrast, the peaceful, scientific red-skinned people of the Kingdom of Helium are a more human sort, and even perform the courtesy of providing the requisite beautiful princess to be rescued. Put all of this together, and it seems like a matter of black and white: Helium is civilized, Thark is not. Bad Thark!

At least, that’s how it seems, until a number of other considerations come into play. Thark is not an undeveloped society; in fact, it evolved into a Spartan warrior state, and one that acts as a colonizer, not the colonized. Moreover, John Carter ultimately fights not the Tharks, but the Zodangans, a society that one could judge to be “civilized” along the same axis, because the Zodangan prince was betrothed to the titular princess, Dejah Thoris. The Tharks, as a loveless society, have no familial construct, yet it is precisely by the presence of kinship laws that Zodanga falls. And as we all know, chivalric romance reduces to nuptial law in the last instance.

The other joke, though whether we are laughing with Burroughs or at him is indeterminate, is that the Tharks are an exact representation of everything that Nietzsche says human beings are: animals that thrive on bloodlust and take pleasure in the suffering of others. Thark is humanity in its uncensored form. Its people differ from all others in that they see no need to justify revenge by calling it retributive justice, or validate bonds of economic gain with artificial constructions of love and marriage. As a society without guilt, it needs no social structures or deities for the sake of absolution. But over in Zodanga, the pillars of civilization – nuptial law in particular – becomes that civilization’s undoing. So who, or what, is the enemy? Maybe the very act of colonizing is to remake the enemy as a friend.

This is, after all, the same author who presented the inversion of having apes civilize a Greystoke of noble birth and raise him as one of their own. I would say more, but I have never read Tarzan of the Apes and have no idea how it ends.

I also wish to say a few words about Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, as it begs – indeed, it grovels on its trembling knees – for a comparative study alongside The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (which, now that I think about it, should have borne the far catchier and more grammatically sensible moniker The Code Da Vinci).

The two cover a lot of similar ground in trying to play connect-the-dots with occult history’s greatest hits and presenting it as a Rembrandt of a grand conspiracy, but aside from the prominence of Templars, Merovingians, and Rosicrucians (oh my!) they reside on opposite poles of the literary globe. They share a core, but they never see nor talk to each other, and probably shouldn’t lest there be the outbreak of nuclear war. It would be unfair to evaluate them by relative merit, since they lie on mutually isolated spectral planes, and it may give one the false impression that Foucault’s Pendulum is itself the life-changing masterpiece that Da Vinci wanted to be. It’s not; while it is full of fascinating ideas and delightfully obscure allusions (including some to Casablanca), the story itself isn’t a whole lot of fun. Unlike Da Vinci, which is admittedly a lot of fun in a guilty way until you step back and realize how stupid it is sometimes, there are no murderous albino henchvillains in sight.

What really shows upon juxtaposition, though, is that Eco is a card-carrying professor of semiotics while Brown doesn’t understand the first thing about signs and interpretation, yet somehow miraculously landed a job teaching kids English. It has allowed me to identify another major irritation about The Da Vinci Code beyond just its abuse of the language, and put this irritation in words. To be succinct, what I mean to say is this: Robert Langdon has no business being a professor of symbology, and even by high school teacher standards, Brown doesn’t have a clue about what it means to read symbolism.

The Da Vinci Code is an exercise in interpreting symbols and mistaking that interpretation for truth. In doing so, it reduces signs and images to correspondent representations that somehow map quite neatly to the things they signify, as if you could look them up in a dime-store book on the twelve uses of dragon’s blood like that taxi-driving kid in Constantine. Eco knows better: his story is one that explicitly makes fun of people who confuse interpretation with the revelation of an absolute reality. In it, Casaubon and Belbo create a reality out of a grand interpretation, which is what signs actually do, only the joke’s on them when it actually works. Symbols don’t just sit around and symbolize things. If Robert Langdon were really a credible symbologist, he would be aware of this. Then again, this is the same book where a professional cryptologist fumbles her way through something as elementary as the Fibonacci sequence, which schoolchildren could probably spot even if they don’t know its name.

And this is why it is so amusing when people mistake The Da Vinci Code as some grand revelation (and sometimes even write books to debunk it lest people be led astray), or when readers on my side of the fence claim the reason they don’t like The Da Vinci Code is because so much of it is made up. Last time I checked, you were allowed to make things up in a work of fiction. The problem with Dan Brown is not that he doesn’t know what truth is, but that he doesn’t even know how to get to truth. In this respect, Foucault’s Pendulum made fun of Dan Brown a decade and a half in advance, only nobody noticed. I venture that most people who pick up Eco’s tome either drown in the stormy sea of allusions or put it down after seeing that it hardly goes anywhere in the first three hundred pages, which is right before it starts its engines and becomes a really good read.

It all comes down to the conception of what conspiracy theories are and how they work. I would say that as is the case in Eco, conspiracies are not the discrete data points, but the connections themselves; moreover, the connections don’t become true by way of logical validity alone. They become true when they are accepted as truth, which, as Fox Mulder says, is out there.

Let’s save V For Vendetta and my completion of the Lemony Snicket series for a future posts. They deserve a space of their own.

On a final tangent, I want to say a few words of praise for a little game for the Nintendo DS called Yoshi’s Touch & Go. It’s phenomenal, and I think Nintendo has stumbled upon the core mechanic for the “stylus platformer” out of all the concepts they first displayed in the mini-games bundled with Super Mario 64 DS. Touch & Go is not the Super Mario Bros. of the touchscreen and certainly no Yoshi’s Island, but that is because instead of real levels, it presents tests of precision, speed and endurance over a randomly iterated course that you play for high scores.

One can only hope that Kirby’s Magic Paintbrush builds on this mechanic and adds to it the element of adventure that comes from meticulous level design. But for now, it’s games like this one that really justify the investment that is the DS and show off what it is capable of, not from a technical perspective, but from an interactive perspective. I also find it encouraging that in spite of how it can pull off N64-quality graphics, the DS still manages to foster traditional 2D design. Viewtiful Joe aside, 2D design has been unfairly neglected by the technically-oriented home console arena.

I also realize I promised in my last post that I would be getting to gushing over the Episode III trailer right away. I’ll get to that.

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The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away

Thursday, 10 March 2005 — 10:38pm | Studentpolitik

To answer the question that James Crossman posed in this poll: style beat substance by 92 votes on the sixth ballot. The results are here. If I had any opinion on American politics, I believe the appropriate line would be, “Now I know how the Democrats feel.”

Mustafa Hirji led in the initial rounds of balloting, and it was not until there were three remaining candidates that Lettner surpassed him by a mere three votes, with Abboud dropped as a distant third. While Mustafa’s performance out of the gates surprised everybody present, the trend that ensued as the runoff votes were tabulated was ultimately foreseeable. Steve Smith said it best:

Your assumption seems to be that Mustafa could pick up latter-ballot support. I think that, of all the candidates, he may have the least potential for this. I mean, there are two types of voters: those who know what they’re talking about and those who don’t. The first category is voting Mustafa, probably at a rate of at least 80%. Those in the first category who are not voting Mustafa are most likely failing to do so because they hate democracy, so they’re not going to vote for him on later ballots either.

The voters who don’t know what they’re talking about are generally not voting Mustafa. Those who don’t vote for him on the first ballot are unlikely to do so on later ballots, because their objections to him (“He’s so frowny!” “He isn’t charismatic enough to be President!” “His posters sucked!”) are likely to continue to apply on later ballots. Uninformed voters are much more likely to break for those candidates with nice posters, good sound bytes, and the impression of experience (think Abboud and, to a lesser extent, Lettner and Poon).

The “voters who don’t know what they’re talking about” caught up, and the rest is history.

I will, however, extend a courteous congratulations to our new Students’ Union President, Graham Lettner. This is because I am a good sport when it comes to matters that do not involve Dan Brown, Star Wars franchise novels, fullscreen DVDs or genocide. Lettner’s ascendency is not the beginning of a new dark age for the Students’ Union, but a rejection of the opportunity to escape an existing one. Aside from that, his team ran a strong campaign.

Perhaps there is no need to dwell on the ifs, buts and other miscellaneous conditionals. We could blame Ross Prusakowski for the undue influence of that hopelessly misinformed Gateway piece of his that made the race look close, when frankly, the choice for President was obvious. We could harp on how Mustafa could have gotten half of the superstar volunteers working on other campaigns had his candidacy been announced well in advance, or the irony of how he was instrumental in introducing preferential balloting in the first place. But at this stage, that would accomplish nothing. I think the relative silence at the Power Plant upon the announcement of the winning ballot, Lettner’s campaign team aside, was a sufficient testament to what we saw happen tonight.

On the upside, the Health Plan referendum was defeated. You win some, you lose some.

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Vote Hirji, vote often

Monday, 7 March 2005 — 6:06pm | Studentpolitik

Preferential balloting is a godsend, though it really is a pity that when it was first being implemented over a year ago, Students’ Council didn’t have the basic mathematical common sense to realize that None Of The Above should not be eliminated as if it were any other candidate. However, the dreaded NOTA still has its more symbolic uses, and I see myself putting it ahead of a lot of contenders in this year’s Students’ Union election.

Without further ado, let us proceed to whom I will be selecting to lead next year’s SU and, if we are lucky, fall prey to the occasional nefarious prank.

President: It should be obvious from the title of this post that I endorse Mustafa Hirji. Out of all the candidates, he had the most credibility going into the campaign and the most raw matter coming out of it. He has the ambition to overhaul the SU in such a way that it can vie for long-term results. His breadth of knowledge concerning how the system works is unparalleled amongst his opponents. He has a plan, and he has a clue.

Coming second, third and fourth on my ballot in a permutation I have yet to decide are None Of The Above, Spanky the Wonder Elf and Alex Abboud. None Of The Above has run a strong and convincing campaign for President this year, especially given what most of the contenders ended up offering. Spanky, which only a few days ago I dubbed a joke campaign with an almost inimitable lameness, vindicated himself with a strong Myer Horowitz performance that reminded me of the Myer-only campaign for George W. Bushwhacker two years ago. (The lamest joke campaign this year is actually that of one Graham Lettner, but I’ll get to that.)

As for the rest of the non-Hirji candidates, most of whom have real initiatives but none of whom pose any meaningful change to the system itself, Alex Abboud is clearly the most credible. If we imagined for a moment that Mustafa were not running and I had to choose a status quo President with short-term ideas, Abboud would be the man. It does not surprise me that Wayne Poon’s campaign is all about outreach, student services, computers, and more computers; the frightening similarity to how Orientation tends to depict the SU’s focus cannot be accidental. A valiant effort, but limited in scope; on the other hand, that didn’t stop Mat Brechtel. Then there’s Danny Bennett, who doesn’t seem to know what the Students’ Union even does.

And then there’s Lettner, who has run an incredible campaign full of theatrics… and nothing else. Whether it be videos where he thinks he’s Rick Mercer, or crowd-pleasing wisecracks about Steve Smith Gateway letters at the Myer forum, Lettner has established an indisputable talent for talking a lot and saying absolutely nothing. If the Myer Horowitz were a public speech competition at a CUSID debate tournament, his performance would place. Clearly, he has an awesome campaign manager, and clearly, that campaign manager is working for the wrong guy. But if this is all Lettner has to offer, I have no qualms about putting him last, especially given that Bennett’s going to be out after the first ballot anyhow.

Dear reader – and I say this with the knowledge that this plea of mine is ultimately futile given that my regular audience originates primarily from the already decided hack circle – if you are considering voting Lettner in this election, I implore you to rethink. I implore you to remember that style without substance only goes as far as to get a lot of attention whilst achieving absolutely nothing tangible. Somewhere in a closet there’s a chicken suit that can attest to this.

VP Academic: I endorse None Of The Above, even though it is virtually impossible for Mathieu Johnson to lose an acclamation race given that you can expect uninformed voters to rubber-stamp him through. This was a tough decision. On one hand, Johnson is not incompetent in such a way that electing him will hurt students; on the other, bad posters and an incomprehensible one-point platform concerning Faculty Associations just don’t cut it. I think we can do better.

VP External: I would endorse Sara Katz, but she pulled out before campaigning started. It should send a message that I would endorse her without having even seen a platform. This is because the choice before me is either a rank incompetent who knows almost as little about his portfolio as Danny Bennett, or a woman full of knowledge, experience and ideas with whom I disagree about almost everything on a basic philosophical level and has a history of pushing the overly adversarial activism that the SU would do well to perform in moderation at most. In either case, I hope for a strong President to guide the VPX in the right direction next year, and that President is Mustafa Hirji. I am putting None Of The Above first, but given how it will likely be eliminated on the first ballot, I will err on the side of competence and begrudgingly endorse Samantha Power as my second pick. I cannot justify giving Tim Smith the dignity of anything higher than third.

VP Operations/Finance: Never mind that Jason Tobias is running uncontested – he’s proven himself to be a worthy candidate for this position, opposed or not. I wholeheartedly support him for this position with little further deliberation.

VP Student Life: Because Wayne Poon is running for President instead of here where he belongs, I am voting for Justin Kehoe without hesitation. He has the background, vision and enthusiasm to bring some life into what is rightly generally considered the odd man out of the five Executive positions. Carolyn Nowry can try again when she has those same traits at her disposal; unlike Smith and Bennett, she is a credible candidate who has done her homework, but she has the misfortune of running against a much better one.

Board of Governors Representative: Roman Kotovych is a hard double-act to follow, and neither of the candidates do the trick. However, both of them are competent and knowledgeable in their own ways, and this is not a race worth weeping about should I not get my way. That said, my vote is going to Shawna Pandya. As much as I admire Adam Cook’s record and what he brings to the Board, so much that I endorsed him for President last year, it worries me that the best reason he can come up with to vote for him over Shawna is that he’s better at “schmoozing”. While his performance as a coherent orator in this year’s campaign is a tremendous improvement on his implosion back in his Presidential run, this just isn’t good enough.

Health Plan Referendum: I will be voting No, thanks to the overwhelming evidence that the Health Plan basically amounts to paying a lot of money for nothing, and potentially paying more than that with each successive year. I’m frankly amazed that such a bad idea made it this far, but the blame for that lies squarely on an ineffective Students’ Council that lacked the sense to defeat it from the start.

The best moment of the Myer Horowitz forum, for those keeping score, was Chris Jones’ question to the Yes side of the referendum, which was something along the lines of: “Do you not agree that the alternative of catastrophic insurance coverage is better than your unsustainable, unaffordable, and unnecessary health plan?” Naturally, it was dodged.

Overall, I must agree with the prevalent sentiments that this year’s campaigns turned out to be terribly mediocre and didn’t live up to the expectations of the original candidates’ announcement – which, given fiascos like Johnson’s late entry in the VPA race, was already not that high a bar. But on Wednesday and Thursday, you still have a chance to draw something good from the experience and, metaphorically speaking, save Christmas. How? Vote Hirji.

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