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Universal mail services are interesting to consider, both in terms of the relationship between universal social needs and the government provision of services and because of how they illustrate connections between public policy and technology.

It’s important to define what I mean, because it’s distinct from the broader category of delivery services, which are provided by everyone from pizza places to courier companies. In some cases, these delivery services are included in the price of a product, like a desk chair delivered from a shop or home food delivery. In other cases, it’s for a point-to-point transfer of objects provided by the customer to a specific destination, generally with a specific price charged for every pair of start and end locations. The method of delivery also distinguishes universal mail services, since their delivery systems are prepared to deliver an item to every address in the area covered every time they circulate with mail, whereas couriers and house moving companies go from point to point.

My understanding is that the London Penny Post was the earliest universal mail service, naming itself after the innovation of charging a single price for delivery of an envelope between any two points covered by the system. This cuts down a lot on necessary infrastructure, since the envelopes can be deposited in unstaffed depots (mail boxes) and customers can calculate and affix their own postage.

A contemporary system like Canada Post almost certainly could raise more revenue by charging differential rates for delivery across different distances. Even if you think the net benefit is very much worth it for society, you have to admit that shipping anything from Miramichi, New Brunswick to Dawson’s Landing, British Columbia costs the shipper more than delivering from downtown Vancouver to a suburb, or even between two major urban centres. We choose to keep the price the same perhaps partly for simplicity and customer satisfaction, but also as a social policy choice: deciding to emphasize the connectedness of some places, specifically all mail delivery addresses in Canada.

With the decline of lettermail the part of the postal system that is under threat is this routine door-to-door delivery to all addresses several times a week. Canada Post already runs point-to-point package services which compete with Fedex and UPS, with the same feature of a variable rate depending on source and destination. Routine delivery to every address costs the postal service a great deal and is currently the main basis of their whole logistical system, down to trucks circling the streets and mail carriers delivering to doors and mailboxes.

The decline in lettermail is pretty convincingly attributable to the rise of electronic forms of correspondence, particularly for things like utility bills. The volume of letters is falling, but the system still largely costs the same amount to operate. The choice to end routine delivery and switch to a courier service model would probably mean significantly reducing the staff. If maintaining this kind of mail delivery is a public priority, Canadians can doubtless insist that it happen. Canada Post is a Crown corporation, so while its operation has elements of a commercial firm, it’s ultimately state-owned and government controlled.

There are elements of universal mail that are definitely appealing to me, both in terms of the simplicity of being able to buy single units of postage in advance to ship envelopes at your discretion and in terms of the assertion of national community it represents, as an implicit subsidy from those whose shipping addresses can be cheaply reached to those whose addresses are remote, like smaller communities and communities in Canada’s north.

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Canada’s continued enthusiasm for new fossil fuel production not only helps undermine the world’s chances of dealing with climate change, but it also threatens Canada’s future economic prosperity as one of the dirtiest and highest-cost producers of a commodity that may see sharply declining demand.

A recent special report in The Economist said:

Yet the transition has plenty of potential to cause geopolitical friction, too. The most obvious example is the challenge it will pose to economies that depend on petroleum. A new book, “The Geopolitics of Renewables”, edited by Daniel Scholten of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, argues that the clearest losers will be those blessed with ample fossil-fuel reserves and those who bet on oil for too long without reforming their economies.

Reforming the economy means doing several politically difficult things, including progressively shutting down the politically powerful bitumen sands, getting consumers to accept higher prices for fossil fuel energy, and working with enthusiasm and determination to curtail fossil fuel energy demand. There is little sign at present that Canada’s politicians are up to any of these tasks, or that the minority of voters who really understand the need to decarbonize will be able to bring them around, especially in time to live up to commitments like the Paris Agreement.

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Vermut

2018-07-02

in Photo of the day

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I cannot uncritically say “Happy Canada Day”. In part, that’s because of Canada’s genocidal and otherwise unjust history, but there is also my broader skepticism about nationalism itself.

It seems a bit akin to following professional sports. It may not appeal to me personally, but I have no reasonable objection to people who support a local baseball or hockey team. By all means, follow their games, wear their clothes, and memorize their player stats. Just don’t become fanatical to the point that you dehumanize others because of their different allegiances. And, especially, don’t use your loyalty as justification for violence.

That’s where nationalism really diverges from other forms of partisan enthusiasm: the fundamental connection between the state and violence. At its most benign form, that’s what empowers the courts and police to imprison people involuntarily and even do them harm in circumstances we consider justified. It has also justified a lot of senseless slaughter, however, even in democracies. In an interview in 1914 George Bernard Shaw said of the first world war:

In both armies, the soldiers should shoot their officers and go home, the agriculturalist to his land and the townsman to his painting and glazing… we always learn from war that we never learn from war.

I wish that had been closer to the lesson that we took from WWI, not the nonsense about a war to end all wars of making the world safe for democracy. Similarly not the nonsense about Canada becoming a nation because of Vimy Ridge, or generally because of our participation in that slaughter. Canada fought by default on behalf of one empire against another empire: neither noble nor necessary.

Critically in the rest of this century humanity desperately needs to counter its twin tendencies to sort people into boxes and say that the people in other boxes don’t matter. There’s no sensible Canadian response to climate change or nuclear proliferation or pandemic illness or global poverty absent a concomitant effort from other countries. For a few people perhaps nationalism supports international humanitarianism and cosmopolitan ethics, because they have defined the substantive content of what it means to hold their nationality to include those values. I would rather see people embracing a cosmopolitan ethic wholeheartedly, recognizing that the government that represents them is especially morally and practically important, but that their national identification simultaneously means a lot less than being human, being part of the biosphere, being part of the species that will need to change so much if we’re going to endure beyond the lifetime of today’s children and live in a world that any of us would recognize or welcome.

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The suspension of disbelief has a particular peculiar character within the science fiction genre. While there is certainly sci-fi that rejects all standards of realism rooted in actual science, and which might thus be better seen as a kind of fantasy with technology, most sci-fi seeks to imagine things that could be possible in the real universe, at least if the requisite technologies and aliens show up.

When experiencing science fiction, I find myself always cataloguing two kinds of consistency and places where each breaks down. First there is consistency within the world established by the narrative. If the robots in chapter one can be easily fooled by colour photocopies of people’s faces it shouldn’t change for no reason in chapter two. In a broader sense the internal rules of the universe should be consistent. If multi-year travel times between settlements are a major part of a fictional universe, the economic and political life of the settlements should be compatible with that. The second kind of consistency is with the known rules the real universe follows. This is routinely violated by sci-fi with comic book or action hero physics, where the capabilities of technology depend on the emotional stakes and the needs of the plot, rather than serving as a template for what the characters are free to do.

I have watched the first two seasons of Westworld with both kinds of consistency in mind and have been much more frustrated by internal inconsistency than by straight-up scientific impossibility. Perhaps with the big exception of “what powers the hosts?” the show doesn’t pose many straight-up problems of practicality. Rich and determined enough people could do most of what has been depicted so far (ignoring the question of whether copying and creating conscious beings is possible as depicted). Since a lot of the show is shoot-em-up gore, perhaps the most frustrating internal inconsistency regards what it takes to actually kill the robots (called “hosts”) and specifically why damage to their physical bodies can in any circumstance damage the small protected orbs which are supposedly their brains.

It makes sense in the emotional and Western contexts that one well-placed bullet brings down anybody, but it doesn’t make sense anymore when the constraints that are supposed to make the durable, re-usable robots into suitable targets are no longer being applied, and especially when some robots just shrug off bullets now because they have been reprogrammed. We’re two seasons in and everybody is still being killed because their tougher-than-humans replaceable bodies get damaged in ways that would make a person bleed to death or otherwise no longer be able to keep vital organs functioning.

Probably the writers have an answer or will roll one out subsequently, while most fans will put it down to the rule of cool on the basis of wanting to see more human-style gunfights between the robots. To me it comes across as unsatisfying, however, and a failing or unwillingness to think through the implications of the premises which the writers have already established. They’re taking a lot of the Ghost in the Shell universe where “bodies are a dime a dozen”, but sticking with gunshot wounds as a mechanism to sometimes-permanently sometimes-temporarily kill robots. The inconsistent treatment of guns is unsatisfying in other ways too, like how apparently there was some system built into the park to keep real guns from injuring human guests (suggesting some omnipotent operating system controls everything in the park) but which one person then shuts down in only that very limited way. The way they control explosives doesn’t make sense either, with the control room approving one explosion specifically for an important guest, but robots apparently playing with real nitroglycerin in several of the park’s programmed narratives. If guests are interacting with real wagonloads of nitroglycerin, how do they not get routinely blasted to pieces? And if the park can control how badly humans versus robots are hurt by nitroglycerin explosions, why don’t we see the evidence of that kind of control in other places?

It’s basically standard in fiction that characters important to the plot are impossibly competent with their weapons, while anyone attacking them is impossibly incompetent (like the much-mocked stormtroopers in Star Wars), but this is taken to an implausible degree when a single person with an antique pistol kills whole squads of mercenaries with submachine guns before any of the mercs can notice what is happening and use a weapon.

Science fiction is meant by many authors as a means of exploring philosophical ideas, as well as the implications of technology, and allowing inconsistencies and implausibilities may be intended to serve that purpose. That’s fine as far as it goes, and it’s not for me to tell authors what plot contents are or are not appropriate in their creations. Still, to some degree the task of creative worldbuilding depends on the contents holding together with each other and when that common basis is eroded by inconsistent treatment it diminishes the plausibility and immersiveness of the entire world.

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