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Downtown Prince George needs a viewing platform → 

August 9 2017 |

Last year I was interviewed by a really cool project called The Tale of A Town which consists of a small group of people dropping into a Canadian community, talking to a ton of people and then putting together a story about that community through a short-run interactive show (which I really wish could be replicated on a permanent basis) and a series of short audio clips on their website.

My clip has gone live, and they chose me talking about something I still feel is true: downtown Prince George needs a publicy-accessible building that gives people fifth-storey-or-higher views of the city, something that I realized when I visited someone’s office on the fifth floor of the Royal Bank building. As I said:

“You look out and you see this beautiful view of the Nechako River and the cutbanks, you see the downtown, you see the Crescents, you see how the city fits together… and that’s the first time in my life that I ever saw that view from downtown Prince George.

“And the thing that I realized is unless you are staying in one of these hotels, or happen to work beyond the second floor in one of these buildings, that is a view of the city you don’t have access to. So the vast majority of the people who live in Prince George don’t have this perspective.”

In just about any major city you visit, taking a trip up some sort of tower or another is on the list of quintessential tourist experiences. It gives us perspective on where we are and lets us see the character of the place in a way that you can’t quite capture on the ground.

I really do believe it would help alter people’s views on Prince George.

 




Canada

July 1 2017 |

This is the Canada I grew up in:

Across the street from my house there was a forest that I could (although wasn’t supposed to) walk through to get to my school, where I had kind teachers who looked out for my well being.

I had friends of different backgrounds and origins and we bonded over shared interests and video games.

I was taught police were a source of safety and in my few personal interactions with them, have never had reason to believe otherwise.

I was taught everyone is equal and deserves to be treated with respect.

I was loved.

* * *

Over the past decade or so, I’ve learned that my Canada is not everyone’s Canada.

Or worse, that my Canada is at the expense of other people’s Canada.

That the park where I go to celebrate Canada Day was home to the Lheidli T’enneh, whose homes were burned to make way for the railway that led to the creation of the city I call home, the city where I’ve been able to lead such a blessed life. A city where, looking back, my diverse group of friends didn’t include a single Indigenous person despite having a higher-than-average proportion living here.

A city where it wasn’t until university that I learned anything more than a cursory knowledge of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people and until after that that I learned the original name of the land I grew up on.

* * *

I feel no guilt for this, but I don’t take pride in it, either. If I don’t deserve blame for residential schools or forced relocations why should I take credit for Suez or the 1972 Summit Series? I had nothing to do with any of it.

What I do have are my values and the ability to choose how I move forward with the knowledge I gain from my every day on earth. I am grateful I was born here, but I’ve come to realize that the mere act of being born here does not afford you all the blessings I’ve been given.

A great many other factors beyond my nationality have shaped who I am and what I’ve been given. And some of the factors that produce good outcomes for me create bad outcomes for others no less deserving.

“Canada” is not some magical entity that is automatically virtuous and good; indeed, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Like any country, the extent to which Canada deserves praise rests at the feet of individuals who fought and struggled for something better than what was already in existence, often with the consequence of being accused of being ungrateful for what they already have.

* * *

The other day I had a group of elementary school kids visit my workplace. On my wall I have a poster with the image of the park I go to celebrate Canada Day and the words “Lheidli T’enneh” on it. The kids recognized the words and what they meant– something I had no knowledge of when I was their age.

That knowledge was achieved by people asking for the original name to be restored, asking the rest of us to confront some truths about this city’s past. For their efforts, they endured racism, accusations of asking for handouts, accusations of being stuck in the past, accusations of not being grateful for what they have.

It wasn’t comfortable.

Now these kids are growing up in a different version of Canada than I did. Unfortunately, we already know their version is not universal, either. Across the country there are still stark gaps in the way the Canadian story plays out depending on where you’re born and who you’re born to.

 

* * *

I wish the Canada I grew up in were the same Canada everyone grew up in. It’s tough to imagine a better life and I am extremely grateful to have it. But I won’t mistake my good fortune for the good fortune of everyone. I won’t let my own personal happiness cause me to demand everyone else shut up and be happy, too.

If you believe something is perfect or even good enough, you have no incentive to make it better. Being dissatisfied with the status quo is a necessary component for improvement.

The challenge is whether we can live up to the ideals we set ourselves up for. The real challenge is whether we have the strength to admit when we aren’t, and are ready to take the steps to change that even- or especially- when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

* * *

Today, I plan to canoe down a river to the park where we go to celebrate Canada Day. I’m going to eat some food prepared by the multiculturalism society and get some bannock and then watch a band that combines bhangra, hip-hop and Celtic music. I’m going to be grateful for the Canada I have, and to the people who struggle to make some version of my childhood and my life something accessible to everyone. I’ll reflect on what part I play in that struggle, as a help or hindrance, on my values and whether I live up to them, and what I can do better – even if it’s uncomfortable.

* * *

I know this isn’t especially revolutionary or original thinking but it’s where I’m at in my understanding of the country. As I’ve gotten older I’ve treated birthdays as times for reflection as much as for celebration and I feel Canada Day can be the same. Canada doesn’t have feelings. Canada doesn’t care if you celebrate it or not. Canada is another trick of the human imagination, conceived of and sustained by stories- “this is who we are, this is what we stand for.” It’s about a community of people coming together and saying they belong to something bigger. So let’s think about how we can live together better.

Have a good day.

Filed under: Canada





The urban/rural divide and a more inclusive Canada → 

June 11 2017 |

I think about the urban-rural divide in Canada a lot. I think there are big implications to the fact that, as pointed out in the Globe and Mail:

“There are more people in Greater Vancouver than in the rest of British Columbia. Half of Quebec’s population lives in Greater Montreal; more than half of Albertans live in Edmonton or Calgary. The Greater Toronto Area has as many people as the three Prairies provinces combined.”

For all the talk of Canada as a northern country it is actually a country primarily of people in large cities, the rest of us are outliers. And we are declining. From Sean Speer and Jamil Jivani in Policy Options:

Their piece also points out that this divide is actually more pointed than the United States, whose population is more evenly distributed and whose recent electoral politics have very much centred around urban-rural divides.

The real question, I suspect, is whether or not Canadians outside urban areas wind up feeling resentful of cities in a way that translates to the way they vote– and if that even matters, given the electoral clout urban areas have over the rest of the country.

 




Why aren’t scientists verified on Twitter?

June 10 2017 |

A few weeks ago, I noticed a hashtag floating across my Twitter feed: #BillMeetScienceTwitter. Here’s what it looked like:

Hi @BillNye I'm Sarah and I studied the ecology of the tick-borne Lyme disease emergence in Canada. :) #BillMeetScienceTwitter

— Sarah Leo (@sstleo_87) May 19, 2017

Hi @BillNye I watched u as a kid & now I'm getting a PhD studying crows. Specifically how/why they respond to 💀crows #BillMeetScienceTwitter pic.twitter.com/7uSOeXYK32

— Kaeli Swift (@corvidresearch) May 19, 2017

Hi @BillNye , I'm Carl, and I study how binary black holes form and create gravitational waves in star clusters #BillMeetScienceTwitter pic.twitter.com/rY40a9UKhL

— Carl Rodriguez (@aCarlRodriguez) May 19, 2017

Hi @BillNye! I'm Robyn, a historic archaeologist in NFLD! Using stats & arch, I'm looking for lost 1600s graves #BillMeetScienceTwitter pic.twitter.com/YdK3us4BsK

— Robyn Lacy (@robyn_la) May 19, 2017

Super cool, right!?

I followed about a dozen people doing research I thought looked interesting and it has been great seeing their work in changing how we understand the world pop up in my feed alongside the latest political news and hot takes.

I also noticed something almost all of these accounts have in common: none are verified.

It's interesting that people like me get blue checkmarks but working scientists and researchers do not#BIllMeetScienceTwitter

— Andrew Kurjata (@akurjata) May 20, 2017

If you don’t live on Twitter you may not know what I mean. If you look at my profile, you’ll see a blue checkmark beside my name. This is something Twitter gives certain users to verify they are real.

Here’s what Twitter has to say about who gets verified:

“The blue verified badge on Twitter lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.”

“An account may be verified if it is determined to be an account of public interest. Typically this includes accounts maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.”

Notice who isn’t on there?

Scientists and, more broadly, academics.

I find this curious. Surely if fashion, acting, music and l’il ol’ me are considered “an account of public interest” people researching climate change and the nature of time and space are, as well?

Twitter backs away from the idea that “authenticity” = “authority” but it definitely drives audience. In the weeks after I received my checkmark, I received dozens of new followers. And I do think it’s fair to say that checkmark does signal some level of “this is an account worth following.”

I think it’s a message about Twitter’s priorities- and ours as a society, more generally- that someone who got famous off of trafficking in conspiracy theories gets a blue checkmark while people who specialize in constitutional law or Arctic ice shelf research do not.

I’m verified because I was on a batch-list of people working for an established media organization. Surely Twitter could offer the same to academic institutions or peer-reviewed journals?

Twitter: meet science twitter.

Filed under: social media





Dear fellow journalists, please stop sharing that ‘scientific study’ about us having low-functioning brains and drinking too much

May 22 2017 |

Over the last few days, I have seen a lot of journalists sharing stories reporting on a study purporting to have found that journalist’s drink too much, are bad at managing emotions, and have lower-than-average brain function:

Mostly it’s self-deprecating, with people adding little comments like “explains a lot” or “I didn’t know they were studying me!” But just because it rings true and makes you laugh, doesn’t mean it should be reported on as science. And that’s exactly what’s happening when a bunch of journalists with blue checkmarks start sharing the study uncritically and adding words like “science” and “can’t argue with facts!”

The study is published on a personal website

So let’s take a look at where this study came from. Is it a peer-reviewed journal? A well-respected academic institution?

No, it’s a joint release from the London Press Club and “Tara Stewart: Neuroscience. Leadership.” The actual study is in on her personal website.

It is based on a tiny sample size, virtually no control group and old wive’s tales

When you get into the study, you find it was originally going to be on 90 members of the press club. But:

“Ultimately, failure to complete all the elements in the required time limit meant that a total of 21 participants completed every element, and a further 10 completed some elements of the study.”

I’m no neuroscientist, but 21 self-selected individuals does not seem like a great sample size to be drawing wide-ranging conclusion on journalists around the world who have different work environments, cultural norms and backgrounds that can also affect your resiliency, sleeping patterns and “CEO part of the brain” (a phrase that comes up in this study a few times).

A little further on, we learn journalists are dehydrated because in this self-reporting study, most didn’t drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. Never mind that there have been numerous scientific studies indicating that benchmark is an old wive’s tale.

As for the control group placing journalists “below average”? Turns out it’s bankers, telecom groups and sales teams that the author has run as part of the paid services she offers to corporate groups hoping to “to achieve a competitive edge by understanding and improving the physical condition of their brains.”.

There is no indication of the study’s weaknesses- standard for actual science publications

I looked for the section indicating the weaknesses in the methodology, areas for further review and comments about how we shouldn’t take this as gospel– standard fare for any actual scientific piece. There was none. No warnings, no cautions, just a nicely packaged piece ready for distribution to media.

What’s being sold?

A standard question I’ve been taught to ask whenever presented with a study, survey or research is who stands to gain from this? So let’s ask a few questions about this one.

The study came from the personal website of it’s author. What’s on offer there?

And what does the press release about the study say about her?

If I were to be cynical, I’d point out that by putting out a study on the minds of journalists, Swart has managed to get her name in numerous media organizations with a story that is being shared onto the personal Facebook and Twitter pages of countless journalists around the world.

Why does this matter?

Again, haha, I get it, we drink too much coffee and alcohol and are stressed out! And now science proves it!

Except it doesn’t.

Journalism is the primary way most scientific information gets disseminated to the general population, be it through quick news articles recounting study highlights or more in-depth areas like Popular Science or Quirks and Quarks.

Even when it’s for something ~fun~ and ~silly~ we should turn on our skeptical minds and try to educate both ourselves and the general public about how to tell the difference between good and bad science and studies, their shortcomings, and ways to properly evaluate information. That includes asking questions about where information is coming from, whether it was peer-reviewed, sample size and whether something is being sold.

As journalists, we need to avoid confirmation bias- even if it’s about ourselves.

 

Filed under: journalism





representation and free labour

May 19 2017 |

For a while now, but especially over this past week, I’ve been thinking about the free labour I and others in the media ask of people in what can broadly but inelegantly be defined as “diverse communities”: Indigenous, LGBTQ+, Muslim — basically members of traditionally underrepresented and/or marginalized populations.

Here’s what happens: something affecting or involving that community occurs and journalists across the country start flipping through our memory banks of smart people with an informed perspective to talk about it. Often this isn’t to promote a passion project. This is to defend their own humanity.

In arenas of politics or business or the arts there are often people who are paid to think about these things and occasionally talk to media on behalf of articulating their perspectives.

Broadly speaking, that’s not the case when it comes to groups like those I mentioned above, and that’s the result of a whole host of systemic issues that stretches beyond just the media, but definitely includes the media. And so the people who are representing those groups in the media might pop up again and again, but still have to have another job to actually put food on the table.

When I or anyone else reaches out to them to talk, we’re asking for free time and free labour. This is, of course, what I do for anyone I want to interview, but when it’s someone that gets turned to again and again and again simply because they are willing to speak on behalf of who they are — as opposed to the company they represent or the political party they are trying to get elected — it feels like more of an imposition.

Of course, the tradeoff is if we *don’t* call, those sorts of voices don’t get heard when they should because, factually speaking, they are underrepresented in traditional positions of power and visibility.

So there’s some thoughts I’m having. If you are a person in media or one who is frequently contacted by media, I’d be interested in hearing yours.

Filed under: journalism, personal





‘For those who don’t know…’

May 1 2017 |

In some writing spaces, there’s an actual physical list of clichéd words and terms on a wall- phrases that have been overused to the point of being meaningless. It’s a good practice to remove crutches and help sharpen writing.

One of my personal crutches that I’ve been thinking about lately, which is “for those who don’t know.” I use it when we have an expert guest on and I want the host to prompt them to give a basic explainer on the topic at hand. For example:

“For those who don’t know, what is the first-past-the-post voting system?”

“For those who don’t know, why does the U.S. think Canada is unfairly subsidizing softwood lumber?”

“For those who don’t know, what is geoengineering?”

It’s a way of making the topic accessible while demonstrating that we, the journalists, already know all this stuff. This is for the benefit of the listener, not us.

I’m wondering if that’s necessary. If a host were to start a conversation with “What is first-past-the-post voting?” would listeners at home throw their hands in the air in frustration at their ignorance?

Or would it be pretty clear that this is being done for the benefit of establishing the basics before moving on to the more nuanced portions of the conversation?

Interested in your thoughts.

Filed under: radio, writing





The second Facebook profile experiment

April 29 2017 |

TL;DR: I’ve made a new Facebook profile designed from the ground-up to be an effective tool for me to use as a journalist. 

There are two reasons you might want to connect with it:

  1. You use your own Facebook to do things you would like I, as a journalist, to know about (ie you are a community organizer, business owner, musician, politician in northern British Columbia). 
  2. You use Facebook to follow news and get information about Prince George/northern British Columbia.

My current Facebook is useless, personally or professionally

I’ve had an ambivalent relationship to Facebook for a long time now but over the past six months or so it really feels like things have come to a head.

The problem is this: I joined the network back when you need an @university email address to do so, and there were no such things as groups, pages and all the other bells and whistles that currently exist there. The friends you connected with were actual friends and the entire social graph was pretty much limited to people roughly the same demographic as me.

Since then, of course, it’s grown up to be the most dominant media company int he world and I have moved through several jobs to my current iteration as a journalist.

As a journalist, Facebook is a great tool. I can join community and interest groups pertaining to my beat, follow pages and politicians and use it to connect with strangers who have interesting ideas and information.

As a personal network, Facebook is also a great tool. I can see pictures of new family members, keep up with old friends and organize activities.

Trying to use Facebook as a personal and professional network is completely useless.

This became obvious to me on a recent vacation. I turned off my work email, put an “out of office” message on my phone and then… tried to figure out what to do with Facebook.

I still wanted the personal part of the app. I wanted to post some photos. I also still wanted to see what was going on in the life of my family member’s. But for a little while, at least, I didn’t really want to keep up with all the community boards and groups that I was following for work. There was no clean break.

I’ve tried various ‘notification’ settings to adjust what I see in my newsfeed, but it just doesn’t work. The problem is, I need at least two distinct newsfeeds: one for work hours, and one for personal. I don’t want to never see posts from community groups, I just don’t want to see them when I’m not working. I’ve tried lists, and they don’t work that well, either, especially since you can’t put groups in them.

Similarly, people connect with me for at least two distinct reasons. Some are because we have a shared past or we currently see each other socially. Others are because we’ve connected on a professional level- me using them as a source, or them following my reporting on a story they’re interested in. Those groups are not necessarily interested in seeing the same sort of posts and as a result I don’t really want to post anything.

Further, I’m increasingly using Facebook as a way to reach out to contacts I want to speak to professionally. I always identify myself as a journalist in those instances, but sometimes it still feels a bit weird, like using an @hotmail address to reach out for an interview request. I think I’d feel better making these approaches using an account that is clearly demarcated as a professional, journalistic account. Incidentally, this is also why I’m not just making a “Andrew Kurjata: journalist” page- I want to be able to chat with people from the account, and that is not a current feature pages have (unless someone messages them, first).

So that’s why I’m starting a new Facebook profile, one designed from the ground-up to work as a professional, public networking tool. I’ll still post some personalish stuff there- like photos from around town and that sort of thing. I imagine it will be something like my Twitter account, although slightly less frequent.

Meanwhile, I’m going to try paring down my initial account, starting by leaving groups and unfollowing pages. I don’t have any real plans for how I will use it because I think step one is seeing what it looks like once I’ve turned it back into a personal network.

As for the new account, feel free to friend or follow, I do plan on keeping it pretty open to see how it works operating fully publicly although I will continue to enforce my rules for commenting. However, you are under no obligation to connect with me here, or anywhere- no hard feelings, at all, I am doing this because I don’t want people to see things they aren’t interested in.

 

Filed under: journalism, social media | Discuss





“I’m a citizen of a place that was laid right on top of another.” → 

March 26 2017 |

I first read this piece by Denise Balkisoon on what it means to be Canadian when it came out over a month ago, and I’ve come back to it multiple times.

There are many, many great parts of this, starting with a rumination on how countries are places, not just ideas:

“The closest I got to considering the physicality of countries was thinking about borders, which are ideas about how imaginary lines should be imposed onto a real space, followed by vigorous attempts to police them. It’s weird that invisible borders breed cultures, but they do, and one thing that I’ve always known is that Canada is not the only way a country can be.”

And this, on ‘Canada the good’:

“My Canada has always been a place where the idea of white Anglophone superiority is driven home with consistent ferocity. Though I have a Canadian passport accepted around the world, that doesn’t mean I am accepted as Canadian. I used to internalize that rejection, fuelling my travel with a desperate longing for a new home. That phase is over now. I know that I belong to this place, and I’ve become used to asserting that.

“Between my global views and my local wounds, I consider my citizenship a lucky penny with a tarnished side. Canada was, without a doubt, a good place to be born. I have had a safe and comfortable life here. But I refuse to be endlessly grateful to anyone other than my parents. The comfort I live in is no more than I deserve, since housing, health care and education are basic human rights, and hardly guaranteed to every person born in this country.”

And on the division between ‘mainstream’ Canada and the lived experience of many Indigenous people:

“A bit out from the road, in the middle of some tall grass, I noticed a sign featuring what I saw as “Indigenous art” and advertising a helpline for native women coping with violence. I had driven by at least five times before, but this was the first time I registered that sign. And I felt, physically, the intense individuality of my lived experience of space, and how the same small bit of Earth could be utterly different for different people. In the language of The City and The City, I had experienced a breach. And, as in Besźel and UI Qoma, unseeing is almost impossible. It’s not an idea, but a truth: I’m a citizen of a place that was laid right on top of another.”

Highly recommended.




The Manitoba Sound → 

March 26 2017 |

Melissa Martin investigates the Manitoban accent and its roots in Indigenous languages and waves of settlers:

“Manitobans don’t think about this much. Our accents aren’t famous or a point of civic pride. Unlike English speakers in New Yawk or Bawwston, we don’t often see our ways of speaking presented in pop culture media.

“So we don’t usually conceptualize ourselves as speaking like Manitobans — until someone else points it out.

“Yet language is tied to place, as surely as mountains and rivers. The words we use, the colours of our vowels, the way consonants find their way through our teeth: those belong to here, too — and they are changing.”

I love learning about these hidden, subtle things that create community and identity in almost imperceptible ways.




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