Championing Inclusion

Photograph by Mark Blinch

Originally published in The Globe and Mail. Content from Research and Innovation.

Ryerson professor Deborah Fels’ innovations have helped a diverse range of users – from kids who were missing school because they were often in hospital to creative artists who are blind or have low vision, deaf or hard of hearing.

From the Internet and cloud computing to robotics and artificial intelligence, technology over the last two decades has evolved and transformed into increasingly sophisticated innovations.

For Deborah Fels, director of the Inclusive Media and Design Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto, one thing has stayed constant through the years: her belief in using technology to break barriers for people whose disabilities often keep them from engaging more fully in their communities.

“I’m an engineer who believes in the power of innovative technology to serve people with disabilities,” says Dr. Fels, a professor at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management. “That’s the point of inclusive design.”

Dr. Fels’ work has helped a diverse range of users – from kids who were missing school because they were often in hospital to creative artists who are blind or have low vision, deaf or hard of hearing. For example, her PEBBLES robot – which helped more than 30 Canadian kids go to school via videoconference from their hospital beds – was later commercialized and evolved into the “WebChair” and used by more than 400 students in Europe.

PEBBLES also evolved into the Emoti-chair – a “vibrotactile” technology that uses low-intensity vibrations to convey sounds to people who are hard of hearing. The Emoti-chair features eight channels of 16 speakers that run alongside the user’s spine.

“We were asked by the deaf community to provide better access to sound than what captioning provides, which basically tries to describe or name sounds,” explains Dr. Fels. “We found that low-intensity vibration added a lot to the missing soundtrack.”

The Emoti-chair led to the development of WebMoti, which connects children with autism spectrum disorder to their classroom.

“People with autism have overloaded senses, which is why a lot of them have so much trouble in classrooms and noisy environments,” says Dr. Fels. “What WebMoti does is allow students to study outside the classroom while maintaining a remote presence in class. Students can control what stimulation they’re getting by turning off video but maintaining audio or by adding low-intensity vibration.”

We found that low-intensity vibration added a lot to the missing soundtrack.
– Dr. Deborah Fels Director of the Inclusive Media and Design Centre at Ryerson University

This innovation has opened the door to a new, vibrotactile art form, which now has its own creation space, the VibraFusion Lab in London, Ont. Together with hard-of-hearing new media artist David Bobier, Dr. Fels co-founded the VibraFusion Lab four years ago as a development lab, educational centre and presentation space for vibrotactile expression.

Close to 40 Canadian and international artists have performed and led workshops at the lab, whose model has been replicated in Toronto, the Dominican Republic and London, U.K.

With the pervasiveness of the Internet as a mode for sharing information, Dr. Fels identified a need to create sign language websites without using written text. The resulting innovation is SignLinkStudio, created specifically for designers of websites for the deaf community.

“Deaf people have a visual culture – they sign to communicate, while written language is all about sounds and not much to do with visuals,” she says.

Instead of content and links in text, SignLinkStudio uses videos to communicate information. Like most of Dr. Fels’ work, this innovation led to another: a kiosk where people can make short videos of their experiences in activities such as shopping or dining – much like Yelp or Google reviews but with video.

“So now we have something that’s more accessible to a deaf audience,” says Dr. Fels, noting that this innovation subsequently led to a technology that allows patients to share their stories with health-care providers through short videos.

More than two decades after she took the reins at the Inclusive Media and Design Centre, Dr. Fels continues to find new ways to use technology to ensure everyone is engaged in this age of information. She recently started a program called Lab Elders, where retired scientists, engineers and other technology experts work with Ryerson students and give them guidance on their projects.

“It’s a great way for retired older adults to get involved and use their expertise to contribute to the next wave of innovation,” she says.

Ryerson rethinks the think tank—with an Indigenous focus

The Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson applies an Indigenous perspective to public policy

The original article by Emily Baron-Cadloff on Maclean’s can be found here

Hayden King with the members of the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson (Alia Youssef)

It’s been a busy few months for the Yellowhead Institute. Ryerson University’s new think tank is doing what a think tank does: analyzing government policies, recruiting academics and conducting research on community projects. But Yellowhead is doing something that’s never been done before at this level. The institution focuses on Indigenous people and filters all that work through an Indigenous perspective.

The centre was formally opened in June, but it has been suggested by Indigenous leaders and thinkers for years. The name comes from William Yellowhead, the first chief of the Rama First Nation in Ontario. “We were sort of modelling it on the think tanks that currently exist in Canada and North America, and we saw the organizations like the Laurier Institute,” says Hayden King, the director of the institute. “What would it look like to have an Indigenous institute named after someone we could aspire to?”

READ MORE: A new network aims to connect and support Indigenous scholars

King has taught Indigenous politics and policy for more than a decade at multiple universities and is an adviser to the dean of arts on Indigenous education at Ryerson. He is also Indigenous, as are all the research fellows and the majority of the board members. Together, they crafted five key objectives: support First Nations in their self-determination, hold all levels of government accountable, invest in public education, support Indigenous students, and build solidarity with non-Indigenous students and researchers. “We want to try to change the way research is done in communities, and provide a model for how to do that for other individuals and other organizations,” King says.

For King, looking at public policy from an Indigenous perspective is novel, because not many organizations or First Nations have the resources to do a deep dive into those issues. “For many generations, First Nations have dealt with this chronic underfunding at the community level,” King says. “Leadership have often been forced to make difficult decisions about where they allocate funding. Is it to clean water, or is it to transportation or infrastructure?”

RELATED: How Indigenous scholarship winners are busting myths and stereotypes

One of the first issues King and his staff are looking at is the Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework, an effort by the federal government to take a sweeping look at changing the relationship between Indigenous people and government systems; it could encompass any number of policies before its implementation in October 2019. But it’s complicated and removed from the daily life of many people. That’s where Yellowhead comes in. “There is a really glaring gap in the landscape for any organization like this to offer critical perspectives to those communities on government policy and legislation, and then support for cultivating and building their own,” King says.

While there are First Nation research chairs and university departments around the country, Yellowhead is the first institute of its scope and size in Canada. Fifteen research fellows from across Canada have signed on to work with the group, publishing near-weekly briefs dissecting various subjects.

It’s been an ambitious first year, but one that has been a long time in the making. King and his staff have spent years working out how to launch Yellowhead, and how they want to support First Nation communities. For them, it’s about supporting students and building those relationships, but also “changing the discourse in the country, which ultimately supports communities, and making the research relationship more just. It is ambitious, but we’re committed.”

Study hard and you might lower your chances of dementia

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A new study funded by the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation will investigate the use of learning technologies such as streaming media for people with dementia and those at risk.

David Chandross, Ryerson University

Every year hundreds of elderly students gather in Toronto for convocation, in-person and online, anxiously awaiting their diplomas. Some are in their nineties; some have dementia.

One graduate, who completed 15 courses taught by Ryerson University faculty, was a former entertainment manager for Madonna. She argued in class that Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant’s view of art was better than that of David Hume, the Scottish philosopher. Kant said art was based on intention, Hume said it was skill.

During the class, this student could well maintain her rational argument. What she remembered the next week was little. But in the moment, which is where dementia patients find themselves, as we all do, existentially, she was present.

And the benefits go beyond presence. Participation in higher learning can also temper the loss of cognitive function associated with aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

Gill Livingston and his team who lead the Lancet Commission on Dementia have shown that resilience can help slow the progression of dementia or delay its onset. The idea underlying resilience is a concept called cognitive reserve. Lifestyle factors such as diet and fitness — and also learning — increase cognitive reserve. Higher cognitive reserve means fighting against loss of memory.

From philosophy to neuropsychology

Over the past four years, Ryerson University, in partnership with Baycrest Health Sciences, has been offering up to 20 courses a year to seniors. Some have dementia, some don’t — they sit side by side in the classroom.

The courses are thick, eight-week intensive, two-hour sessions. Titles include: The Philosophy of Socrates, Astronomy, Neuropsychology, Romanticism and the Great Artists, Classical Music, The Great Directors, French Literature and Archeology.

Harvard-trained archeologist, David Lipovitch, conducts courses on Middle Eastern dig sites he is working on. Top writers for the Globe and Mail and experts in Broadway history present to classes of up to 30 students.

Research shows that education improves seniors’ well-being.

The key is engagement — optimizing learning to reduce social isolation and increase self-esteem. These offerings are not “edutainment,” but rival the content of real university undergraduate offerings.

What is different is that the students do not complete assignments. They are recognized for making the effort to attend. One student with advanced dementia, but still coherent, said “I have trouble remembering things and this is the highlight of my week, so don’t YOU forget to bring me here next week!”

This kind of comment is frequent. And the very idea that organized learning led this patient to perform a “metacognitive act” — knowing she had dementia and needing to compensate — is impressive in itself.

Social connectedness and mental stimulation

The Lancet Commission report also explored the role of early childhood education in the development of dementia. The data suggests that lack of education leads to higher incidence of dementia due to decreased cognitive reserve.

This points to the value of educating seniors over long periods of time — not only for those with dementia, but for those who are healthy and at risk for dementia.

George Rebok’s 2014 landmark study on the effect of education for seniors tracked participants for a 10-year period, exploring many aspects of cognitive function. Small effects were seen in increased ability to think and more impressive effects with respect to personal hygiene, self-efficacy and other measures of well-being.

Learning seems to provide both social connectedness and mental stimulation, possibly leading to resilience through increasing cognitive reserve. Reasoning and speed of thinking improved in Rebok’s outcomes, but not memory.

It is projected that at least half of the human population will be over the age of 50 by 2050.
(Baycrest Health Sciences), Author provided

We still do not understand whether focused mental rehearsal through learning can prevent or improve dementia. Studies by Julia Spaniol at Ryerson University show that increasing engagement and motivation in seniors helps unlock memory. But until recently there had been no focused research on the role of deeper learning, such as these intensive university-led courses, in dementia outcomes or quality of life.

‘Eudamonia’ for an aging society

However, this is about to change. This summer, the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation (CABHI) awarded a grant to our team — to investigate the use of learning technologies such as streaming media compared to face-to-face sessions in people with dementia and those at risk of developing it.

The goal of the program is to create greater access to lifelong learning opportunities for older adults irrespective of their place of residence — be it long-term care or in the community. The clinical studies begin in September 2018 and we will report on our data in the late spring of 2019.

Life expectancy is increasing and it is projected that at least half of the human population will be over the age of 50 by the year 2050. We will need to keep our minds alive and our senses keen to really enjoy those treasured elder years.

Socrates spoke of an idea called “eudaimonia,” which means “flourishing in life.” Too much pleasure and we wilt. Too much purpose and we stress out. But when pleasure and purpose are both high, we achieve this “eudaimonia” state, according to Deborah Fels, one of Canada’s leading experts in aging and accessibility.

Learning is clearly what humans do best. We lack the agility of tigers or the longevity of sequoia trees, but we learn unceasingly and that makes us distinct. Learning about ourselves and the world might be the key to happiness and health into our golden years.

David Chandross, Program coordinator; researcher, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Capitalism needs a reboot so that no industry is too big to fail

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No industry should be considered too big to fail, including the auto industry.

Deborah de Lange, Ryerson University

The financial crisis of 2008 has not led us to take sufficient steps to avoid the next economic disaster. The dips in stock markets last February and just recently, together with dire predictions for early 2019, are setting off alarm bells.

If you have a defined contribution type of pension plan or your RRSP funds are tied up in stocks or mutual funds, you may also be concerned about reforming our stock market system.

But stock market fluctuations reflect a more fundamental problem than most realize.

Trader James Lamb watches his screens on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 10, 2018. The next big stock market correction could be coming.
(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Large firms need to be able to focus on the substance of their operations, not be distracted by stock markets.

The next big stock market correction could be coming. Although many foresee macro-economic changes driven by a technological transformation as the world switches to clean energy and transportation and away from fossil fuels, not all are equally prepared. In Canada, we had strong banks to mitigate against the last crisis, but we still bailed out the auto companies because they were “too big to fail” — meaning their failure would have resulted in an economic catastrophe for Canada.

Canada’s reliance on the fossil fuel industry and reluctance to diversify quickly enough may make the nation more economically vulnerable than the last time — especially when Canadian banks and the domestic auto industry are still linked to the fate of oil and gas. The oil-and-gas industry is resisting change.

No pressure from Canadian lawmakers

The global auto industry, however, is trying to save itself by offering electric cars now with autonomous features and car-as-a-service coming soon. Car-as-a-service means that rather than purchase a car, we will use an app to call a car to pick us up, drive us autonomously to a desired destination, and drop us off.

This simpler car-sharing approach saves time and resources. But automotive plants in Canada have not retooled for these new technologies. And Canadian political leaders have not pressured automakers building cars in Canada to adapt.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with auto workers at an assembly plant in Windsor, Ont., on Oct. 5, 2018.

But how can the government engage this way when Big Auto can threaten to move jobs out of the country? The government only has leverage when the auto industry is on the brink of extinction because these firms are not just too big to fail, they’re also too big to budge.

At the same time, Forbes’ 2018 list of largest publicly traded companies reports many oil-and-gas companies as some of the biggest firms in the world, with Shell at No. 11 and ExxonMobil at No. 13, to name just a couple of companies populating the list.

Canada’s the home of some big oil-and-gas players like Suncor, Enbridge, Imperial Oil, Canadian Natural Resources and TransCanada Corp. Overall, everywhere, the oil-and-gas sector, like the auto industry, is both too big to budge and too big to fail, a very tenuous situation.

Independent oversight long overdue

Book outlines how to ensure no company or sector is too big to fail.
Palgrave MacMillan

In my book Cliques and Capitalism: A Modern Networked Theory of the Firm, I make suggestions on how we can avoid the too-big-to-fail problem. New corporate structures and matching incentive systems with independent oversight are crucial. Structural changes can make capitalism work better for us.

This can happen by changing the way firms are run. My book makes a holistic set of interlinked recommendations that need to be interpreted as a whole, but a few characteristics are outlined below.

The aim is to develop a sustainable model for corporations so that they do not become too big to fail, and their failures don’t spell disaster for a country or several nations.

1) By eliminating hierarchy, firms are less top-heavy while more democratic and egalitarian. By placing an emphasis on core work rather than administration, companies become more adaptable.

The firm is more directly and regularly subject to market forces because it is treated like a “bundle of projects” that can be added or removed as consumer market forces dictate. For example, in strategy consulting, we would staff client projects as needed and consultants would switch to a new project after finishing the last one, and there would be multi-tasking across several projects.

Continuous learning is an imperative. The firm adapts on an ongoing basis through its changing set of projects so it doesn’t experience sudden shocks that are impossible to recover from.

2) Through team governance, the tension between labour unions and management — a result of hierarchy and concentrated power — is eliminated.

Employees become a more integral part of decision-making. Monitoring is achieved by a combination of employee social networks and market forces together with an independent audit function. Employees will not tolerate other low performers if their own survival is at stake.

3) Oversight has to become more integrated, independent and transparent, but it can also be more cost-effective for firms.

Boards of directors are not needed, and no controlling shareholders are allowed in the new paradigm. Without hierarchy, ineffective “top-down” influences are removed. Instead, each large firm has an internal Independent Audit Council (IAC) that is truly independent and motivated through a carefully designed incentive system, explained in the book.

The IAC coordinates with a single external stakeholder-run Government Business Regulator (GBR). The GBR sets out common triple-bottom line reporting standards for all large firms, and works with the IACs of each firm to make objective decisions regarding breaking up companies due to anti-competitive monopolistic or oligopolistic industry developments. Companies use a triple-bottom line approach when they report transparently on their activities as related to environmental quality, social justice, and profitability.

Picking up the slack

Maintaining transparency and market competition ensures that if one firm fails, several others in the same industry can pick up the slack. Governments never have to bail out firms this way.

At the same time, the suggested systems and structures help firms prevent failures. They are more adaptive, and internal structural problems related to hierarchy are removed.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of operations becomes the focus, while the short-term whims of shareholders and stock markets have decreased influence.

Deborah de Lange, Associate Professor, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In the end, it was Khashoggi’s ‘friends’ who silenced him

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People, including the activist group Code Pink, hold signs at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia during a protest about the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Oct. 10, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Shenaz Kermalli, Ryerson University

I was first in touch with Jamal Khashoggi — the Saudi journalist who disappeared on Oct. 2 — while setting up an interview with Osama bin Laden’s former close friend and brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, for the CBC back in 2003.

It was two years after Sept. 11, 2001, when 2,977 victims were killed by four co-ordinated attacks against the United States by the al-Qaida terrorist group, and the world was still searching for reasons behind the tide of anti-Americanism across the Arab world.

Khalifa was a murky character at the time (he has since died in a mysterious killing in Madagascar in 2007). After Sept. 11, 2001, he always maintained publicly that he had fallen out with bin Laden’s decision to form al-Qaida in 1988. He was accused of being a major financier for the al-Qaida-aligned Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and reportedly also played a controversial role in the arrest of the group that attempted to blow up the World Trade Centre in 1993.

Khashoggi, then the deputy editor-in-chief of Arab News, a Gulf English language daily, was one of dozens of Saudi-based journalists and political observers I reached out to in an effort to track down Khalifa. For several months, all my calls and emails went unanswered. And then Khashoggi responded.

Yes, I know Khalifa, he told me via email. And yes, he could help facilitate an in-person interview with him.

From a news perspective, it was a great scoop: a rare opportunity to speak to someone who had once been close to bin Laden. Khashoggi not only followed through with the interview, but he also sought out several other English-speaking political analysts to take part in another separate television segment — a panel discussing Saudi affairs.

A wide source-list: Saudi royals and terrorists

I know I am not alone among foreign journalists who have had similarly positive experiences working with Khashoggi. Any reporter or policy researcher who has covered the Gulf countries can attest to how difficult it is to find helpful, credible and thoughtful voices who are willing to share their insight on life inside the elusive kingdom.

In this respect, Khashoggi was a breath of fresh air. He always seemed to be fine with appearing on camera and being identified in news reports.

But Khashoggi was also noticeably cautious. This caution likely prompted any reporter who used him as a source to assess him with a healthy degree of scrutiny. How many journalists after all — no matter how high they are — can honestly say they have sources to both international terrorists and elusive members of the Saudi royal family?

It’s no secret Khashoggi had parallel careers as both a reporter and a government adviser. From 2003 to 2006 he was the right-hand man of the powerful Saudi prince, Faisal bin Turki, a former spy chief and ambassador to the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Clearly, he was no ordinary journalist.

Polite requests for new freedoms

But he was also no ordinary political adviser. Under his editorial direction at Arab News, for instance, he bravely published editorials that called for more personal freedoms and greater employment for Saudi youth, and allowed coverage of public demands by migrant workers and Shia minority communities in Bahrain. These are virtual no-go areas in Gulf news outlets.

It would be misleading, however, to portray him in the way some leading journalists have since his disappearance last week in Turkey. Khashoggi wasn’t “a fierce critic” of the Saudi regime.

Before he decided to start using The Washington Post last year as a platform to effect change (after being constantly suspended from writing in various Saudi media), his criticism of the leadership could probably best be described as subtle with polite reservations of the kingdom’s policies.

“Khashoggi was a smooth, articulate and polite defender of the realm,” says Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics in a column for U.K. publication Middle East Eye. “His reservations on Saudi policies have always been subtle and tolerated.”

They were especially tolerated — and no doubt appreciated by the ruling elite — when he publicly supported the Saudi position on the disastrous war in Yemen (although his recent editorials in the Washington Post take on a decidedly different tone), the execution of leading Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in 2016 and the 2011 Saudi-led military crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired activists in Bahrain.

Khashoggi’s disappearance

In the days after Khashoggi’s disappearance, it’s worth noticing that many of the experts, journalists and political officials he regularly debated with on air also expressed sorrow — and respect for what he stood for. “Jamal Khashoggi and I disagreed on many issues, but unlike many of his Saudi and UAE colleagues he was always civil and polite to me and other Iranians,” tweeted Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English literature and orientalism at the University of Tehran.

Another journalist in Bahrain who has been imprisoned numerous times for covering the violent Saudi crackdown on unarmed activists, vehemently disagreed with Khashoggi’s perception of Iranian encroachment in the region, but told me he still credits Khashoggi for trying to bring reform. “You don’t survive in Saudi if you don’t have friends. I can tell you from experience he was focused on getting the real story with all views out.”

In the end, it was Khashoggi’s own “friends” that silenced him. And if the latest accounts of his death by Turkish media and authorities are true — that there was an assault and a struggle inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was last seen walking into — then he follows a long line of other critics who have paid tragically to speak truth to power.

It’s a vital reminder not only of Riyadh’s crazed obsession with stifling dissent, but of the need to genuinely respect and value intellectuals with diverse perspectives.

Shenaz Kermalli, Journalism Instructor, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The end of scientific, rational thinking: Donald Trump, Doug Ford and Jordan Peterson

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Participants in the March for Science, marching on Constitution Ave. in Washington, D.C. in April 2017 after listening to speakers at Washington Monument on a rainy Saturday Earth Day.

David Chandross, Ryerson University

This has been a terrible year for science and evidence-based decision making, which are the newest casualties of the growing wave of populism in North America where “postmodern thought … is being used to undermine scientific truths.”

In the United States, President Donald Trump has repeatedly made false claims such as those that led to the repeal of environmental protections.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford, whose election win symbolized an overthrow of a left-leaning government, has already cancelled the “cap and trade” program for emissions control, moving Canada further away from Kyoto emissions targets accepted by the federal government.

Adding to this is bestselling author and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson who accuses the liberal left in universities as well as liberal politicians of postmodern thinking. This unrelenting attack on postmodern thinking is the core argument that propelled Peterson to fame.

emerged with views that Western morality and universal truths — as outlined in the modern period of Enlightenment — should be deconstructed. This created a form of skepticism in which Western morality and later science came into question.

One of the erroneous impacts of this new skepticism is the erosion of public confidence in the conclusions of scientific studies.

The science wars

Peterson’s well established critique of postmodernism misses how this arena of postmodernism has become dangerous through the deconstruction of science and outright denial of scientific facts.

Marcel Kuntz argues that this version of postmodernism has led us toward an increasing dissolution of the notion of objective reality. Social critic Noam Chomsky argues that a “turn away from postmodernism” is necessary. He says although “there are institutional factors determining how science proceeds that reflect power structures,” that does not mean we should “abuse scientific concepts”.

‘Make America Think Again’ among many placards in the March for Science in Washington, D.C. on Earth Day 2017.

What we see with Peterson, Trump and Ford is a new set of values in which science is just another factor in determining reality. Science has lost its primacy.

Scientific relativism

The political right has embraced scientific relativism. Scientific relativism is based on the idea that scientific observation and analysis are framed within unique cultural biases.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper adopted a cautionary stance against science and muzzled his own federal researchers on climate change. But even this was not the catastrophic rejection of science that has currently evolved.

Peterson refers to all forms of relativism as a form of cancer. But Peterson fails to criticize Trump’s litany of relativistic transgressions when it comes to science.

Even Peterson’s mentor, Bernard Schiff, has now said that Peterson might be more dangerous than those he attacks.

It is paradoxical that both Trump and Ford are embracing postmodernism much more than the left, which they accuse of the same sin. But the left demand factual evidence for decisions. Cap and trade was selected because the only other alternative is a regulation that denies corporations financial incentives to participate.

Peterson should challenge science relativism

One leaves a Peterson lecture with the sense that there is no coherency between ideas; the ground itself has been taken away. He mercilessly opposes unscientific thinking in his discussion of sexual and gender identity. But he then jumps to unscientific ideas like Carl Jung’s transpersonal psychology and his mystical collective unconscious in the next breath.

Is he a Jungian mystic or the embryology guy who asserts that science confirms there are only two sexes? Peterson has many followers and they participate in this sustained polemic attack on the left, claiming that moral relativism has left the world in disarray.

Peterson places all blame squarely in the hands of those who fight for social justice and who embrace progressive ideology. Resistance to change is associated with the political right and he says this is where postmodernism truly dwells.

By focusing on the moral relativism of postmodern thinking and ignoring scientific relativism, Peterson further erodes our ability to think critically. Peterson says that his aim is to build critical thinking in his readers, but his method of analysis is combative and takes no note of the virtues of depolarizing facts.

Protesters hold signs during Earth Day’s March for Science, April 22, 2017 in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Which Ford will we get today, the one who accepts climate change or the one who denies that regulating emissions is an antidote worthy of analysis? And which Trump will we get today, the one who sees Canada as a partner, or the one who demonizes our trade pacts?

Depolarizing facts are not what make Ford, Trump or Peterson fans tick. They argue for political effect, not to test their own hypothesis of the world.

One leaves both Peterson’s lectures or a Trump rally with a frightening sense of unreality, there is no place that is safe. Your own rationality is called into question. These voices remove safety and then quickly replace it with a new set of basic truths that now stabilize a weakened framework of the world.

Science rejection

There is new evidence that science can neutralize polarizations. This depolarization through independent science may be the antidote for a political sphere that seems about to shatter any form of debate. Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian says that although false narratives are nothing new, citing the dogmatic acceptance of religion as an example, he cautions us to use science as a final arbiter.

Stripped of basic rational coordinates we have no shelter, no starting point for making sense of the world. Similarly, leaving a Ford press conference or a Trump rally (they are interchangeable), one has the same disquieting sense that there is nothing left, all maps have been burned. There is only Ford’s truth, Trump’s declaration or Peterson’s harsh admonitions. They deny us any factual compass.

Instead we have a series of memes and parables, not the pressure gauges and coordinates by which to navigate the challenges that life provides. What has happened to belief in inquiry, and to refutation of that which has no evidence? It has, like a photograph long exposed to light, lost its hues.

Rationality is on the executioner’s block, and the results are predictable if Maoist China is any example. This is the ferment of totalitarianism and by vilifying the left, and ignoring the emotional ramblings of the right, there is little one can do in this intellectual vacuum that remains, but to suffocate. And like a kill on the savannas, suffocation is the pretext to being consumed by a predator.

David Chandross, Program coordinator; researcher, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tech’s next great opportunity is mid-career workers

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Mid-career workers have solid business skills valuable to the tech industry.
(Unsplash), CC BY

Arvind Gupta, University of Toronto and AJ Tibando, Ryerson University

In the movie The Intern, a 70-year-old Robert De Niro decides to make a career change and lands an internship at an online fashion startup overflowing with young millennials and free food. The running joke in this film is that DeNiro is too “old” to create space for himself in a startup, a world for the “young.”

While De Niro’s character is fictional, the lessons in this film about talent and ageism in the tech sector are quite real.

In displaying the golden goose of characteristics that many of Canada’s tech giants are after — a desire to constantly learn and grow — the analogy of the “aged intern” highlights tech’s next greatest talent pool: the middle-aged or “mid-career” worker.

We’ve spent several decades studying and operating in the skills training and workforce development space. While job transitions have always been an area of challenge for mid-career workers, our research with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship has highlighted the looming impacts of automation in exacerbating that challenge, as well as the inherent opportunity for these workers to be absorbed into the digital economy, an area of high growth desperate for talent.

Shattering the myth

For many years, the idea has persisted among tech companies that in order to be innovative, they must be built by and for young people. Mark Zuckerberg infamously declared that tech companies should think twice before hiring anyone over 30. Now in his mid-30s, he has presumably moved that bar.

However, many tech companies are still made up predominantly of younger workers. Young founders often hire young peers, recent graduates are often paid less, and there are a deeply entrenched ageism and assumptions in the tech world that “older” workers (those over 30) won’t fit into a company’s culture or contribute the same value.

To put it bluntly, this view is short-sighted.

As Canada’s digital economy grows and scrappy startups become larger multinational corporations, they will require many of the same solid business skills that any other company does. Positions in sales, marketing, project and people management all require transferable skills that are often in the greatest demand for larger firms, tech or otherwise. Beyond that, understanding solid business processes that foster scaling are critical and come from years of experience.

This is where we need a new pool of talent for fast-growing Canadian tech companies that is highly experienced, skilled and understands the systems that make a business succeed.

Who are mid-career workers?

Mid-career workers are individuals who have been in the workforce for 10 or more years and who are sitting at the halfway mark in building their careers. This describes the vast majority of the workforce in Canada. They generally have strong business acumen in fostering firm growth and bring a level of maturity and professionalism that comes through hard-earned experience.

As tech companies rapidly grow, they need to hire people who have real-world experience, have worked on and led teams, can build relationships and know how to move products and processes forward. Many such companies regularly say they struggle to find tech workers with these skills.

The true obstacle here, however, may be that tech companies are largely unwilling to accept the suggestion that their best possible hires may neither be young nor from within the tech sector at all.

Many workers will likely soon be looking for their next career move due to rapid advances in automation. Unlike a recession or the shocks to the economy that we are familiar with, automation has the potential to have drastic and permanent impacts on entire sectors.

For mid-career workers in vulnerable sectors, losing a job at one company may well eliminate the option of finding work at another similar firm because automation would have affected jobs there as well.

The likely result will be a growing demographic of top talent looking to break into new industries, including tech. Seizing this opportunity, however, will require Canadian tech firms to adopt some new thinking and a new approach when it comes to retraining and reskilling.

Converting potential into talent

The challenge is to convert the foundation of knowledge and experience of highly skilled mid-career workers into new streams of talent for fast-growing sectors, such as tech, without overlooking the specificities of what it takes to succeed in these sectors.

For example, a senior retail sales manager understands the sales process: how to listen to potential clients, build a sales channel, nurture prospects and close a deal. In the tech space, the product or service will be different and the tools almost certainly state-of-the-art. Although the core skills gained from years of experience will be key to making the transition into a tech firm, doing so will likely require more training.

Read more:
Is Canada’s skills shortage real, or are businesses to blame?

Now consider the life of a mid-career worker who, with a mortgage and growing family obligations, needs to make this shift as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Less interested in “credentials,” these people will need the digital literacy and technical skills that allow their new employers take them seriously.

Training that is mid-career focused and cross-sectoral does not currently exist at scale. We envision a training approach that is entirely industry-led, designed to operate on the fastest timeline possible and leverages job placements and work-integrated learning opportunities so that these workers are not just skilled, but provided with on-ramps to new careers.

What is needed to accomplish this is a mechanism that rapidly confers new skills to mid-career workers, shifting their talents and potential from high-risk sectors to high-demand sectors.

Our new Canadian initiative, Palette Inc., is attempting to do exactly this. Palette is pioneering a new approach to mid-career retraining by connecting industry, workers and educators to develop new pathways for workers to move from declining industries to growing ones. As automation’s impacts become more present, this mechanism will match employers up with workers that possess the right skills.

For companies willing to look past the obvious yet minor gaps in skills to see potential and talent, great rewards await.

Arvind Gupta, Professor of computer science at the University of Toronto and the former CEO & founder of MITACS, University of Toronto and AJ Tibando, Project Lead + Founder of Palette Skills Inc., Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No matter what method is used to teach math, make it fun

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The Ontario government “back to basics” approach to the curriculum will not best serve children who need a mixture of traditional and discovery learning methods.

Anthony Bonato, Ryerson University

There’s a change coming to Ontario’s elementary school math curriculum. The new provincial government says it is responding to a decline of standardized test scores and plans to recommend a return to “back-to-basics” teaching methods for mathematics teachers.

Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Education Lisa Thompson have told educators that directives for changes will be coming within a matter of weeks. Teachers, whose lesson plans for the fall are already drawn, are possibly now scrambling to implement new curriculum guidelines.

Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) scores for students in Grade 6 and Grade 3 in Ontario are both down one percentage point from last year. Previous efforts, including a $60-million initiative by the former Liberal government to improve the EQAO scores, have not worked.

What are ‘back-to-basics’ methods?

What exactly are “back-to-basics” teaching methods for mathematics? These traditional methods of mathematics education include an emphasis on drills, formulas and memorization. If you are old enough, then this was how you were taught mathematics in grade school. In contrast, discovery-based methods spend less time on rules and puts more emphasis on problem solving and applications.

The two methods have somewhat opposing approaches. In traditional methods, rules are taught first and then drilled into students via memorization and solving problems. In discovery methods, problems and examples come first and are abstracted to rules and formulas.

Doug Ford’s ‘back-to-basics’ approach to mathematics is a traditional method where math is drilled into students via memorization.


For example, in a traditional math lesson, children are told the rule that the order of multiplication of two numbers doesn’t matter, and then they would work on problems related to that topic. In discovery math, children would work out examples such as 2 times 3 and 3 times 2, and then abstract this to the general case. Both approaches teach the same thing, but in different ways.

No one should be surprised by these changes after the Progressive Conservatives won a majority in the Ontario election in June. During the election campaign, Ford tweeted, “…We are going to scrap discovery math, and replace it with proven methods of teaching:”

A similar change was announced regarding Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum and elementary school teachers are now required to teach a curriculum essentially dating back to 1998.

Which option is better?

There are pros and cons to both traditional and discovery methods.

My issue with the debate about the “correct” way to teach mathematics to children is the way it is phrased as a binary, either-or approach. The choices we are given are:

1) Drill students on topics such as fractions and timetables.

2) Have children discover math rules and formulas from scratch.

Neither approach in isolation does justice to math education or reflects how people learn mathematics.

Learning rules and formulas in mathematics is an essential skill, as you need a foundation from which to build. Children need to know what the product of 6 and 8 is without having to rediscover it every time.

Children gain critical skills through discovery.


At the same time, children gain critical problem-solving skills via discovery. They get to think more deeply about the subject. No one would teach language skills by only teaching grammar. You teach children the rudiments of grammar to get them speaking, reading and writing.

In my university teaching, I employ a mixture of traditional and discovery approaches. For example, in a first-year Calculus course, I introduce a formula or rule at the beginning of a lecture but spend most of the class working out examples interactively with the class so they may figure out how things work. In a more advanced, upper-year mathematics course, I state a theorem or problem, but then break up the class into smaller groups and have the students discover the proof with hints from me along the way.

A third path: Math specialists

When I was in elementary school, our classes had the occasional visit from specialist teachers who focused solely on art or music. These teachers didn’t perform the regular, daily instruction in classes but instead floated between classes enriching the curriculum. It was always a treat when these specialist teachers came and it also was a break from the routine of everyday instruction.

Let’s imagine something like this with mathematics education. Math specialists could be teachers with a mathematics background in their university education, or even math professors or university students with the proper training to engage with elementary school classes. I can think of plenty of fun and engaging lessons in my research area of networks for a Grade 6 class, for example. Math specialists would float between classes with the sole goal of enriching math education for kids.

Lisa Thompson, Ontario’s Minister of Education scrums with reporters following Question Period, at the Queens Park Legislature, in Toronto on Thursday, August 9, 2018.


Math specialists may assist with the teaching of core material, but more importantly, they would help coach teachers and provide lesson plans that complement the material. Their goals would be to engage students and cultivate their interest in learning mathematics.

While mathematics educators like myself might point to the positive impact of math specialists, research on their effectiveness is still emerging. A study funded by a National Science Foundation at Virginia Commonwealth University found that math specialists have a significant, positive impact on student achievement. Similar results were reported by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Beyond test scores

While test scores are important, there is much more to mathematics education. Despite the declining EQAO scores, our kids aren’t exactly flunking out of math in droves. The EQAO standards require a 70 per cent or better to qualify as meeting the standard, not the typical passing grade of 50 per cent.

Our children must be exposed to a rich, engaging mathematics curriculum, even if they don’t become mathematicians or have anything to do with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) directly in their adult lives. Numeracy, like literacy, is an essential skill in our modern world.

A generation with weak math skills will not be competitive to tackle the next set of challenges in our knowledge-based economy. And a dislike of math tends to pass on from one generation to the next. No child should think it makes them cool to boast that they hate math.

While we are rethinking math education in Ontario, let’s use the best of both traditional and discovery methods and add in math specialists. Done correctly, this should not only increase test scores, but also bolster student engagement.

Let’s also take the time and effort to make math fun. Imagine if children were excited to learn mathematics? Isn’t that what we all want?

Anthony Bonato, Professor of Mathematics, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Building housing on flood plains another sign of growing inequality

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A woman gets back into her flooded car on the Toronto Indy course on Lakeshore Boulevard in Toronto on July 8, 2013. Housing developers are building housing on known flood plains in cities around the world.

Deborah de Lange, Ryerson University

Many cities around the world face a lack of affordable housing in and around expensive central business districts. Employers want cheaper labourers, who need more affordable housing in accordance with their lower salaries, to live nearby. So developers are invited to build on flood plains, without consequences. And often there is no public involvement in the decision.

Flood plains are easy to build on because they are flat and, in cities, they tend to be close to amenities. Yet all parties involved in housing know that cities are facing more rainfall and flooding due to climate change. Cities are now starting to prepare for catastrophic floods. and research has estimated flooding losses in the United States to be increasing dramatically.

Irresponsible and autocratic choices made by elites, at Waterfront Toronto for example, leave unsuspecting, lower-paid professionals in dangerous circumstances with rising insurance costs and potentially bad investments. That’s because, in the future, flood insurance may become prohibitively expensive or insurers may decide not to cover such high-risk properties, making them difficult to sell.

Flood risks worldwide

Difficult housing choices are reflective of a broader loss of worker power and associated income inequality. Research shows that densely populated areas are more vulnerable to disasters — the same disaster affects more people in dense environments. And where there is income inequality, there are more victims of natural catastrophes.

Read more:
Storms hit poorer people harder, from Superstorm Sandy to Hurricane Maria

Cities dominated by appointed, un-elected officials, such as the board members of Waterfront Toronto, are helping to generate this inequality.

In this August 2006 photo, two New Orleans women grieve for a relative who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In the U.K., where there’s an ongoing housing crisis, government has approved building on flood plains as long as the new homeowners are made aware of the risks in advance. At least the British are having an honest conversation about it. In Toronto, we are not.

New Orleans has long relegated its poorer populations to lower elevations by the Mississippi River, where floods and subsequent disease have devastated the city. The terrible treatment of Hurricane Katrina’s victims in New Orleans is a continuation of an enduring history of racism.

Research also describes how in the flood plains of Bangladesh, income inequality is related to a higher risk of flooding and lower preparedness to deal with floods.

In South China, increasing rainfall has left millions of the poor living in such dangerous low-lying areas that China’s president has called in the army.

Public space can be climate-adaptive

Today, most North American coastal cities are in danger of climate-related sea level elevations and storm surges. Hurricane Sandy caught New York’s elite off guard because they became victims too. It didn’t matter whether you were in the Upper East Side or in Harlem.

In wealthy south Florida, saltwater rises not only directly from the sea, but also up through porous limestone, so Miami cannot use the same climate adaptation approaches as in some other cities, like adding green space. Miami is working to add pumps and other infrastructure instead.

Toronto could turn its remaining waterfront space into parkland, instead of housing developments, as a protective barrier.

Read more:
Toronto needs more beauty in its waterfront designs

New York City is going to build a wall around the lower part of Manhattan, and add a park. The Dutch are using public space to absorb floodwater. New Orleans is building parks to double as reservoirs for floodwaters, on the advice of the Dutch.

Toronto’s recent floods a wakeup call

Toronto has had a few waterfront floods over the years, including this year and last, damaging the Toronto Islands in 2017. The city faced several storms in 2018 with violent winds and flooding downtown. Some wealthy Torontonians leave the city for private lakefront properties in cottage country, but others live within limited space affected by the aftermath of catastrophes.
The Toronto Islands recovery, for example, is still ongoing and has not yet been fully paid for.

Toronto’s east-end beaches flooded badly in 2017 amid a rainy spring. Housing developers are nonetheless building housing on known flood plains, in Toronto and around the world.

Meanwhile, new Toronto lakefront condominium developments are proceeding in the Quayside and Portlands neighbourhoods, near the Islands, on flood plains historically contaminated by heavy metals, oil and coal. “Workforce housing” is a required part of the plan.

Will Flessig, former Waterfront Toronto CEO, says that middle-income professionals are expected to settle in the waterfront condominiums so that they can be closer to where they work.

But no one in Toronto is talking about the flood plains, since elected officials apparently consider the issue resolved. Based on a plan developed in 2007, the federal and provincial governments are investing $1.185 billion to reconstruct the mouth of the Don River so that the water safely flows into Lake Ontario.

However, the waterfront area still remains a flood plain, and is still affected by storm surges associated with climate change.

Klever Freire, left, and Gabriel Otrin pose for a photograph in the building where they were trapped in a rapidly flooding elevator during a heavy rainstorm in Toronto in August 2018.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Building on flood plains has serious consequences, including future uninsurable buildings as insurance companies anticipate they won’t be able to afford the payouts. A single major flood causes a great deal of damage and requires insurance companies to pay all at once. With a higher frequency of catastrophic floods and the corresponding required payouts, the pool of insurance premiums collected to cover the losses dries up, and insurance companies face bankruptcy.

Before that happens and buildings are left derelict, people and property are endangered. We recently saw life-threatening flooding of buildings in Toronto, and there are limited rescue personnel to address all of the issues at the same time when mass floods happen.

Simultaneously, damage to personal property can be overwhelming — for example, to cars and contents within condominium lockers in underground parking garages. In Toronto, we have also seen streetcars submerged in water recently with people trapped inside.

Flooding stops a streetcar on King St. W. in Toronto on Aug. 7, 2018.

Fixing the damage therefore adds costs to public transit. Water quality and disease concerns are also heightened as storm sewage systems cannot handle increasing rainfall volumes. Over the longer term, repeated flooding also weakens building foundations.

Hard to manage water levels

On a broader scale in the Great Lakes region, the ability to adapt to changing conditions is reduced. That’s because the ability of water officials to manage water levels is much more difficult when condominiums and other housing is built on flood plains.

For example, water flows are somewhat controlled in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River watersheds through an international agreement called Plan 2014. If buildings are in the path of water flow, this complicates and limits the range of adjustment options.

We know now what we’re confronting. Let’s learn from past mistakes. In the best interests of homeowners, the public and climate adaptation, what’s left of Toronto’s waterfront should be public parks, not condominiums billed as “workforce housing.”

Deborah de Lange, Associate professor, Ryerson University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — a movie and a movement

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Crazy Rich Asians depicts cosmopolitan rich Asians with complex humanities.
Warner Bros.

Yunxiang Gao, Ryerson University

On the heels of the Afro-centric Black Panther (2018) comes Crazy Rich Asians, a sure summer hit. Based on Kevin Kwan’s entertaining novel, Crazy Rich Asians boasts an Asian director, screenwriter and a cosmopolitan, super-talented Asian cast.

The film marries familiar western tropes such as Cinderella meets the parents, or, in Chinese culture, The Dream of the Red Chamber, the renowned classic fiction of a sophisticated romantic love story set within noble families of 18th-century China — a Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet.

In Crazy Rich Asians, NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, star of Fresh Off The Boat) accepts her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) seemingly innocuous invitation to attend his best friend’s wedding in Singapore, and at the same time meet his parents. It’s only on the plane, when the couple is suddenly escorted to first class, that Rachel senses Nick is wealthy.

Upon arrival in glamorous Singapore, Rachel meets the engaged couple, Araminta Lee and Colin Khoo (Sonoya Mizuno and Chris Pang), and then reunites with her pal, Peik Lin Goh (rap star Awkwafina). Goh’s nouveau-riche family breathlessly tells her that Nick is the most eligible bachelor in Asia and from one of Singapore’s oldest, wealthiest families.

Goh exclaims: “They are crazy rich!” That an economics professor would not have known this elementary fact about her boyfriend, especially in this age of instant communication, is a small flaw in the plot.

Rachel finds out her boyfriend is wealthy on the way to meet his parents.

Everyone in Singapore knows about Rachel and Nick, however, thanks to Celine Lim (Constance Lau), also known as Radio One Asia, who spots the couple canoodling in New York City and sends a photo that travels instantly among a global network of young, agog Asians. Many of them, including Amanda Ling (Jing Lusi), are disappointed rivals for Nick’s affections and have their knives sharpened for the naïve young professor.

More sympathetic is Nick’s fabulous cousin Astrid Leong Teo (Gemma Chan), a fashionista with marital problems. Fierce opposition comes from Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who finds the commoner unacceptable potential daughter-in-law material.

An intergenerational battle is a main theme in Crazy Rich Asians.
Warner Bros.


Yeoh’s effortless performance as the tradition-bound matriarch (her husband is perennially on a business trip) highlights old Singapore’s snobby rejection of the young American striver. The women’s intergenerational battle consumes most of the plot. I will not spoil the ending, though it is an American romantic-comedy, so be assured that all ends well.

The long struggle for Asian representation

In June 1945, Pearl S. Buck, the first female American Nobel laureate for literature and foremost interpreter of China, wrote to H. H. Kung, former financial minister of Republican China (and brother-in-law of the legendary Madam Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of China) to seek funds for her living Chinese Theatre.

Pearl S. Buck expressed her distaste for the way white actors depicted Asians.








Featuring actress Wang Yung, acclaimed “queen of modern Chinese drama,” Buck’s troupe, the author contended, “may mean the opening up of Hollywood to Chinese actors and actresses in Chinese plays, a project which I have long wanted to see accomplished.”

Buck had in mind her distaste for the “yellow faces” seen in Hollywood — casting white actors as Asians as seen in the 1937 award-winning screen adaption of her famous novel, The Good Earth, the first Hollywood feature film set in contemporary China. The casting director famously rejected Anna May Wong, America’s top actor of Chinese descent, citing Wong was “not Chinese enough.”

Buck longed for Hollywood’s acceptance of Wang and other talented Chinese actors. In my book manuscript, Arise, Africa! Roar, China!: Sino-African-American Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century, I trace the dream of Buck and Wang for Hollywood and Broadway’s acceptance of talented Chinese actors presenting “authentic” modern China without Orientalist prejudices.

Buck and actors of Asian descent had to wait decades for substantial Asian presence in Hollywood productions.

Portrait of Anna May Wong. Hollywood relegated her to playing the ‘exotic other.‘
British Film Institute

Nancy Kwan starred in two films: The World of Suzie Wong (MGM, 1960), a lovely exploration of mixed-race love, and Flower Drum Song (1961), made by Universal Films with a terrific, largely Asian cast. Suzie Wong, despite a fine evocation of Hong Kong, sadly continued an earlier stereotype of the Asian woman as a prostitute.

Flower Drum Song portrayed Chinese immigrants as lowly beggars, including Kam Tong as Dr. Li, a Beijing University graduate, now a street musician. Despite highly favourable reviews and good box office returns, the pair of films stood alone for 30 years.

Move forward to 1993, as Hollywood Pictures presented the Joy Luck Club, a sensitive, brilliant portrayal of four Asian-American women and their convoluted relationships with traditional culture. Directed by Wayne Wang and derived from an Amy Tan novel, the film did well critically and at the box office.

The Joy Luck Club had an all-Asian cast and did well at the box office.
Hollywood Pictures

After that, another lengthy hiatus occurred, interrupted only by the success of Asian productions, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), neither produced in Hollywood. There have been promising signs, including the emergence of significant female stars like Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh, popular television shows like Fresh off the Boat, great comedy (the Harold and Kumar series 2004-2011) and occasional genre-busting independent films like Saving Face, (2004), demonstrating the wealth of top and repertory Asian theatrical talent.

First all-Asian cast in 25 years

It’s now 2018, and Crazy Rich Asians seems poised to be a critical and box office smash hit. Beyond the allure of the all-Asian cast, who seem on screen, even in dark moments, to joyfully exult in their achievement, the dynamic city-state of Singapore, and by extension, young, rich Asia, the film stuns the audience with its opulence. Despite the back-stabbing schemers and occasional oafish parvenu men, Singapore Chinese are portrayed as vibrant, wealthy and young. Women are gorgeous, male leads are genial hunks.

America, the dream world of past films, is perceived as an unacceptable, impoverished exile. The children in Goh’s family are sternly instructed to eat their chicken nuggets gratefully because “there are children starving in America.” Music ameliorates culture-crossing; the soundtrack consists of Canto pop, 1930s “yellow music” (Chinese adaption of Jazz) in Shanghai, and great Asian interpretations of Madonna and Elvis songs.

Director Jon M. Chu, cinematographer Vanja Cernjul and screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim use foundation shots to display Singapore as a glittery playground for the rich, who cavort on rooftop pools, plunge into the city’s extraordinary food markets or helicopter off to private beaches.

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ showcases Singapore as a playground for the rich.
Warner Bros.

Their mansions, invariably shown at night in spectacular colour, are dream worlds. Fashion is the most constant desire. Everyone dresses expensively, from the tacky Goh family to the uptight family of Charlie Wu (Harry Shum, Jr.) and the cosmopolitan Astrid, the preferred customer for Parisian and Asian designers.

Astrid collects clothes and jewelry to assuage the pain of her failed marriage; she hides her million-dollar purchases from her husband. The jewelry is genuine; Chan had a bodyguard to protect against theft while wearing the baubles.

The film is unashamed of its excess. Indeed, that may be the point. Cosmopolitan rich Asians with complex humanities invoke China’s wealth during Marco Polo’s time, as suggested by the book.

It relives the power, material culture (extravagant clothing and cuisines), and traditional structures of the dominant noble families during late imperial China depicted in The Dream of Red Chamber. The detail of the heroine almost mistakenly drinking tea meant for hand washing in the film comes directly from that classical fiction.

Asian filmmakers have confidently created pure Hollywood escapism with a magnificent production and cast. That may not be what Pearl Buck envisioned in 1945, but it tells the world that Asia and Asian-Americans have arrived, and can produce magnificent films.

Yunxiang Gao, Associate Professor, Department of History, Ryerson University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.