Making journalism greener

By Ryan Job

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Ryan Job – This I Believe

By Ryan Job

I believe in making stories.

Once, I went to karaoke with some new friends from my hostel in Hiroshima. Google led us to the nearest place. We headed there and opened the door to find a small bar, dimly lit with no windows. It reeked of smoke. The three of us sat down, already filling half of the seats at the counter. After settling in, we saw the tiny, chain-smoking Japanese grandma that ran the place. She greeted us with a smile.

She didn’t speak a word of English, so I used the Japanese I knew to interpret for my friends — a bubbly Dutch-Indian girl and a friendly Spanish guy whose English was also a bit broken.

We didn’t order any food or drinks, but Japanese grandma did give us some strange snacks that we took courtesy bites of. I don’t remember what they were, but they were a bit bland. With every little plate she passed us, I grew more worried she would charge for them. She assured me they were free.

We sang only five songs. I smiled as my Spanish friend sang in his heavily accented English, and we had a good time.

Once we were done, Japanese grandma charged us 5000 Yen for the karaoke, or about $50, and we left. Japanese grandma ripped us off — but I gained a story that night.

Here’s the thing.

When my MacBook dies, or my house burns down, or my career ends — when everything else is gone — all I will have left is myself, my loved ones, and stories to share with them. Seeking out stories pushes me forward to new experiences — and to actually live my life.

I can get other people’s stories from TV, movies, and books. But I don’t want to tell those stories when I walk with a cane and have wrinkles around my eyes. I won’t tell those stories around a bonfire, or to my children, or when I’m dying. They don’t make me smile like my own stories do.

So I seek out new stories.

Travel is a goldmine — I could do more of that. Once, an elderly salaryman in Shinjuku, Tokyo’s business district, just pretended I wasn’t there as I asked for directions. He stared past me in silence as I repeated my question. Fortunately, the next girl I asked smiled and told me exactly where to go.

Another time, I got a 360-degree view of Tokyo from the helipad of a skyscraper with friends I met online more than a year before.

 Another time, I walked the darkening streets of Taito alone for an hour and a half, looking for a place to eat that would serve me something I could recognize.

But travel isn’t the only way to gather stories.

I can try new things and be spontaneous here at home. That’s scary. It will make me uncomfortable. I usually hope that some magic will visit me deep inside my comfort zone. It won’t. I need to get my blood pumping, my heart beating, my feet sore. That’s story-making.

And I still kind of suck at it – these stories are from a trip to Japan last year. I’m usually not as adventurous as I was there.

But I believe that my life is itself a decades-long, drawn-out story that I can only make interesting by going places and doing things and making stories.

That’s how I want to live.

Review: Too Dumb for Democracy?

By Ryan Job

David Moscrop’s Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones has a tempting title for political junkies. A blurb on the back cover reads, “Brexit. Trump. Ford Nation. What’s going on?”

Moscrop wants to explain this mess and provide some solutions. He holds a PhD in political science and writes for publications including Maclean’s, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail and the National Post—pretty big hitters in the media landscape.

But alas, all is not well in Moscropland. All is not terrible, but all is certainly not well.

The author splits his book up into three parts: Part one deals with “the citizen decision-maker;” part two with why we make bad political decisions; and part three looks at how we can make better ones.

Part one is very thorough. The discussion is a mix of psychology, the history of democracy, and how good political decisions are all about process. He gives his definitions of “rational” and “autonomous” decisions: A rational person can give reasons for their decisions. An autonomous one knows their motivations.

In part two, the author explains how our evolution and environment make good political decisions hard. For example: Our brains have developed for a much slower world than ours—one of hunter-gatherers—and there is just too much information coming at us too fast.

Some topics here will already be familiar to readers: We tend to reject information that goes against our personal experience, and partisan media confirms our biases.

Others might be less well-known. Moscrop cites a study on how we form our political identities and make decisions. According to the study, we start with a decision already made and work backwards to justify it—so the process isn’t as logical as some like to think.

Now we get to part three: How do we do better?

Readers may be disappointed to learn likely the most crucial part of the book—how we can make better political decisions—takes up just 43 pages of 228. For a book that dedicates half of its tagline to the subject, that’s not a lot.

Of course, if you think really hard on your own, you could probably think of some solutions.

But the reality is most people—like the author himself says—aren’t in a position to think that deeply about politics. People are busy and overwhelmed with daily life, and these are complex issues.

Including more solutions and cutting down on other sections could have made this book more useful.

Still, Moscrop is a smart guy—one can tell that much from this read. He knows what he’s talking about. But there’s a pretty persistent writing problem here: too many words.

For example:

“But our failures are not caused by the ideal of self-determination; they are caused by our failure to organize and decide in a way that commits us to linking self-determination to a process of decision-making designed to produce rational, ethical, inclusive, trust-building, and legitimate outcomes, and by our failure to then commit to building individual and institutional capacity to support that endeavour.”

This is about the worst it gets, and it takes a while to understand even in context. It’s the passage where the PhD comes out the most—you could have plucked this right out of a doctoral thesis. Even throughout the rest of his book, Moscrop is nearly always a little too wordy to be impactful.

At best, that’s the only problem with this language: It’s ineffective. At worst, it’s another betrayal of the same point mentioned just a few paragraphs ago—people are busy and overwhelmed, and politics is complex.

But it doesn’t always have to be this complicated. Politics will always be complex, but insisting on discussing everything in this verbose way only makes politics less accessible.

It’s not that Moscrop can’t write more concisely. One look at the author’s Twitter reveals much snappier writing. Of course it does—Twitter limits posts to 280 characters. He should have applied those same skills to his book.

A related problem: The book is really, really theoretical.

Anyone who reads the back cover and expects a book filled with practical insight into newsworthy bad decisions like Trump and Brexit will be disappointed. Moscrop only touches on these briefly.

Most of the time, the most concrete and grounded it gets are dinner table analogies, where each fictional guest represents a model of thinking: Norman is a “motivated reasoner,” Sarah and Paul are the “elaboration likelihood models,” Stella is a “social intuitionist,” and so on

These are fine, but they’re dry. It would be much more engaging to learn through real-world examples and case studies.

Too Dumb for Democracy? is still an interesting book. Readers will find insights here. But it’s hard to recommend it to anyone but dedicated political theorists. The dense writing, focus on problems instead of solutions, and lack of concrete examples hold this book back. It could have been so much better.

Flexibility “incredibly important” for disabled riders: ILRC

By Ryan Job

Peter Tonge, 56, rolls down the ramp of a large white bus onto Market Avenue, pushed by a Winnipeg Transit Plus driver in a high-visibility vest. The spokes of his wheelchair pop with bright pink, green and orange reflective tape.

He’s here for Nuit Blanche, an all-night art event in the Exchange District, with his basketball team. They’ll be hanging out in one of Market Avenue’s Impark lots, where organizers have set up a court with black lights.

Getting here was smooth—today. Both pick-up and drop-off were on time.

It helped that Tonge knew he wanted to come to the event long beforehand.

That’s because Transit Plus—and most services like it in North America—requires customers to book rides at least a day in advance. In Transit Plus’s case, you have until 11 a.m. the morning before your ride to call and book.

Riders answer nine questions over the phone, from the purpose of their trip to whether they’ll have a companion to providing a registration number.

Tonge is used to the process—he has alerts on his phone that remind him to book a ride two to three days before each event he wants to get to.

But he does say this about how it affects his lifestyle:

“If you’re solely reliant on Winnipeg Transit Plus, there is no spontaneity[…]If you’re going out on Saturday, you book it on Thursday,” he says. “You don’t have an alternative to then go back and change it.”

Tonge uses Sunshine Limo, whose vehicles are wheelchair-accessible, when he needs. This costs him about $20 a ride.

“My wife and I are lucky. We also have some resources,” he says. Tonge is a retired criminal defence lawyer, and his wife is a university professor.

But for people on low incomes, this isn’t always an option, he says.

Peter Tonge, 56, says he’s been using Winnipeg Transit Plus for around 16 years. RYAN JOB

It’s no secret the recently rebranded Transit Plus—formerly Handi-Transit—has been the subject of a slew of complaints. Tonge’s is just one of them.

“If you’re solely reliant on Winnipeg Transit Plus, there is no spontaneity.”

Peter Tonge

A February 2016 complaint to the Manitoba Ombudsman by the Independent Living Resource Centre also alleged drivers were inadequately trained, vehicles were unsafe and service was unreliable.

That complaint led to the Ombudsman’s January 2019 report detailing 19 recommendations for change. The city accepted all of them, but a Sept. 12 report by city council’s public works committee said only five recommendations had been implemented.

Among the remaining items: establishing a complaint response system and abolishing the policy that limits service to within 500 metres of regular bus lines.

Services like Transit Plus are called paratransit, and most major Canadian cities have some version. In the U.S., federal law mandates it for all transit systems.

In Boston, complaints about The RIDE—run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority—had more than doubled from 2010 to 2014. They included issues with long waits and unreliable service.

So the agency tried something new—it innovated.

In fall of 2016, the MBTA partnered with ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft on a new pilot project subsidizing Uber and Lyft fares for RIDE clients.

 Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker billed it as a cost-effective, efficient and convenient way of delivering service.

The biggest touted benefit: on-demand service.

Whereas clients can still use the original RIDE service—booking trips by at least 5 p.m. the previous day—pilot participants only need to tap their smartphone screens a few times to request a car immediately with no 24-hour buffer.

Lyft also has a call centre for those without smartphones.

Customers pay the first $2 and the MBTA covers everything after that up to $42. Since total per-trip costs range from $17-$45, most customers pay $2 for each trip, says James Paci, the MBTA’s deputy director of innovation and analysis. That compares to $3.35 or $5.60 per trip for the RIDE system.  

The MBTA saves money per trip, too—they only have to pay the subsidy. But the program has been so popular that there haven’t been many net savings, Paci says.

“It’s pretty much a wash,” he says. But, he adds, it’s a good thing the program is providing so many trips. The pilot does about 21,000 per month, according to the MBTA’s data.

The pilot was initially scheduled to last six months and was available to about 200 participants. Since then it’s been extended to March 31, 2020 and expanded to include all RIDE clients.

But for many, the game-changer isn’t just the cheaper fares. It’s the freedom.

“One of those stereotypes that exists with the disability community is that people with disabilities are only going to doctor’s appointments,” says Patrick Stewart, an independent living consultant at the Independent Living Resource Centre.

“[Flexibility] is incredibly important.”

Stewart says there’s already been interest from Winnipeg councillors on an MBTA-like model, but the centre is concerned this would ignore what Stewart says is one of Transit Plus’s systemic issues: outsourced service.

The city contracts service out to private companies. Many of them impose tough working conditions for drivers, affecting service quality, Stewart says.

“We really believe that that has come with a significant cost for the users,” he says. “Our concerns with a model like that [are] that it just further outsources service.”

The city started contracting out some of Transit Plus in 1988 before handing all trips over to contractors in 1997.

Winnipeg Transit Plus has contracted out all of its service to private companies since 1997. RYAN JOB

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister’s government passed a law paving the way for ride-sharing in the province in 2017. The Winnipeg ride-sharing market now has at least six players: TappCar, ReRyde, InstaRyde, Cowboy Taxi, MY CAB app and Hire PTP. Uber and Lyft don’t operate in the city.

TappCar was one of the first companies to operate in Winnipeg. The company has no wheelchair-accessible vehicles in their Winnipeg fleet and doesn’t plan to get any, says the company’s general manager Cam MacKay.         

ReRyde also has no wheelchair-accessible vehicles in Winnipeg, but it hopes to have some by early next year, says Jamil Chaudhry, the company’s director of operations.

Because ride-sharing companies don’t typically own their own vehicles, the company will have to hire drivers who already own accessible vehicles, he says. The company is open to partnering with the city on an MBTA-like program once they have accessible vehicles on the road.

Uber and Lyft have also faced criticism and lawsuits across the U.S. over a lack of accessibility, including accessible vehicles.

InstaRyde, Cowboy Taxi, MY CAB app and Hire PTP did not respond to requests for comment.

A reporter tried multiple times and methods to reach Coun. Matt Allard, chair of council’s public works committee, for his view. He did not respond.