How did I become a full-time freelance writer and theatre artist? Here's an abridged version:
My journalistic journey began when I was 18, earning my first byline when I pitched a story idea to The Toronto Star about the lack of faith within Jewish youth. That published story likely got me into Ryerson's journalism school (my GPA wasn't too impressive) and I loved the four years at Ryerson learning about reporting, feature writing, media ethics, newspaper layout and so much more.
I remember when I was working on the Ryersonian, the flagship newspaper for the j-school, and an instructor said I had a real knack for coming up with story ideas. I knew then that working for a daily would be something that suited my skillset, since I had always been whirring with stories I think deserved to be published.
Fast forward to a couple years after graduation, circa 2004, and I'm hired by fledgling news network Digital Journal to lead their magazine and online news network, the latter focusing on citizen journalism and giving voice to the many voiceless reporters around the world.
Once again, I was in a position to come up with pitches that our team would agree to report on for the magazine and news site, and I was in love with this approach of my ideas turning into insightful articles that were being read beyond Canada. That was just a gratifying feeling, so much so I never stopped pitching.
While at Digital Journal, I wrote sparingly for other publications, especially when I became editor-in-chief and also quarterbacked sister publications such as B2B News Network. But when I left Digital Journal to become a full-time freelance writer, I found my calling. I think I always wanted to be my own boss, and write on stories that may not fit with just one publication's mandate, and instead find a home for articles that deserve their 15 minutes of fame.
Monday is not like Tuesday. That's what I remember from my first day at Ryerson when the professor noted how our lives as a journalist would hardly be routine. No matter our beat, we'd tackle a different interview every day, or have to pour our time into researching an entirely new subject matter from one day to the next. And I loved that variety; I wasn't, and still am not, the kind of person who wants to work to earn a paycheque, happy to pull the same levers day in day out. No, I'm curious about how the world works, the human condition in the face of it all, and I knew journalism would give me that kind of access.
As a freelance journalist, I've written for some of the most respected publications around, such as The Washington Post, The Globe & Mail, BBC News, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Business Insider, etc. I never get bored coming up with ideas to pitch editors, and as a news junkie I'm constantly brimming with ways to share someone's story with the world.
As a theatre artist...That origin story is a lot quicker because this is somewhat new territory for me. I've long been a poet and spoken word performer, so getting on stage has been comfortable and inviting, and often thrilling. But to write an hour-long solo show that I have to memorize, it was frightening, despite it having a solid position on my artistic bucket list.
Three years ago, I began to work on Jewnique, my first solo show, thanks to funding from the Ontario Arts Council, and I wrote about my complicated relationship with Judaism, while also profiling various trailblazers within the Jewish Ontario community. It was exhilarating to finally bring Jewnique to audiences in 2018, debuting it in Toronto and then touring the show to Ottawa, Calgary and Blue Mountain Resort. I was hooked.
You know when somethings just feels...right? It's like the comfort of home has invaded your nervous system and your anxieties and self-doubt fade to black. That's how I felt performing Jewnique. I was proud to accomplish what I set out to do: develop my first theatre show, with the goal of bringing more solo shows to audiences.
And so my origin story brings me to today, where I'm now researching and about to write my next show, this time focusing on mental health. I'll reveal more in the coming months, and will also likely track my progress on my IG feed.
Writing this outlook on where I've come from has been cathartic for me, I realize. I can sometimes self-inflict imposter syndrome as if I really shouldn't take the stage because who wants to really hear what I have to say? That kind of thinking can be damaging to artists, especially for those of us who may be known for other accomplishments (like my work with Toronto Poetry Slam) than my artistic projects. But I'm loving how this post has taught me to lean into confidence topped with the cherry of pride because, hells yeah I've done a lot and come a long way, and I'm smiling wide right now when I think about what I've brought to audiences across Canada...and what I'll continue to do as a theatre artist, journalist and lover of words.
If you want to get to know me, hold off on scouring my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Get to know my late 90s playlist and you'll get a deeper look into who I am.
“Doin Time” by Sublime
To this day, I call it Summertime, thanks to the Gershwin chorus that made Sublime’s 1996 breezy tune Doin Time such a jam. It shuttles me into August humidity chilling in Mike Bannet’s backyard rolling joints and bobbin our head silently, until we all came in on the “take a tip take a tip take a t-t-tip from me” and it was the kind of song you never wanted to see fade into its final note, like how we were allergic to watching August ease into the same-old of September.
We didn’t just rock to Doin’ Time but everything off Sublime’s self-titled album, sing-rapping with Bradley about LBC and the Watts riots like we weren’t Canadians painfully confused about the gritty Americana in the verses. Well, beyond the on-the-noseness of Caress Me Down.
“Are You That Somebody?” by Aaliyah
I can only think of a handful of R&B tracks from ’98 I still rock out today like I’m wearing my dopest threads and frosting my tips at a club whose name is also a punctuation mark, brimming with shots of Jack and bad decisions involving Jager and a friend with a way higher alcohol tolerance than me. One of those bangers is “Are You That Somebody” by Aaliyah, whose beat has the dual effect of pumping me the fuck up and lulling me into a swaying state of bliss.
Did you also sign up to Masterclass to learn how Timbaland concocts beats out of baby wails and adult groans? No, just me? It was the best $200 I ever spent, and I’m not even going to talk about what David Sedaris taught me about making fun of your family. When Timabland led an entire 12-minute video on the production map behind “Are you That Somebody”, I stopped forking the tub of salted caramel ice cream I didn’t buy premeditated, I swear, and listened with all my earhole strength to absorb the recipe he was sharing with normals like me.
Since that Masterclass two months ago, Aaliyah has been on heavy rotation through all my lacklustre pandemic workout mixes, even cracking the top 5 songs I play in my shower with my waterproof speaker. It’s well earned.
“Home for a Rest” by Spirit of the West
I started university at 18, which meant I was a year away from legal drinking and hangovers that felt illegally destructive. I had a shitty fake ID but it didn’t work twice, so I wasn’t too fond of my middling batting average with this smudgy fascmile of a charmingly chunky dude who didn’t even have the same coloured eyes as my brown sultries. It was truly a heart-stopping moment that first time I entered a Ryerson pub at 19, delighted by this gilded palace of watery kegs and lemon drop shots and soggy fries and fist pumps for no reason.
Well, there was one main reason we all raised our fists and glasses while swilling pints of Rickard's Red at the pub a block around the main journalism school campus: When the DJ put on “Home for a Rest” by Spirit of the West, a two-hit wonder alt-rock Canadian band, every freshman, sophomore and dudes visiting Toronto who accidentally wandered into a college bar, took the floor into a wiggling awkward-dancing frenzy. We channeled our drunken energy into screaming the lyrics to this East Coast boozing song soaked with fiddle solos and attacking guitar chords. It didn’t matter if you hated alt or country or Halifax kitchen parties or even all-caps MUSIC; this was college camaraderie at its zenith, as if whatever sexual tension or biting rivalries or who-the-hell-are-you’s faded double-quick when those first guitar strings plucked the intro.
I have no doubt, though, this song contributed to both the bottom line of every bar it played at, and the bottom lining of every garbage can waiting beside our beds the morning after we air-fiddled our joy deep into the loud night.
“All Over You” by Live
“All Over You” by Live has the unique distinction of being remembered by absolutely no one I know who lived, grew up during or remembered the 90s. Sure, “Lightning Crashes” was the big hit from the terribly named band known for warbling vocals and catchy choruses, but “All Over You” was the killer tune on that Throwing Copper album I listened to front and back like I was running out of time. Perhaps what made this disc stand out to me too was that it was the first actual CD I bought, since I had long been a holdout for this newfangled fancy format looking to supplant my thick cassette collection.
“Soul to Squeeze” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
I have an intimate relationship with an under-the-radar Red Hot Chili Peppers song best known for slipping onto the soundtrack of the SNL film Coneheads. As an overzealous RHCP nerd—I may or may not frequently comment on its sub-reddit every week—I’m big into all their albums pre-2002, especially anything prior to Californication.
There was something about “Soul to Squeeze” that instantly spoke to me, not in a godlike “this is your path, David!” way but so much so it became my new fave slow-and-chill RHCP song, supplanting “Under the Bridge” and “You Could Have Lied” from that hallowed space. The lyrics, the bass line, the guitar solo near the end…it gave me the good fuzzies all over. I began to fold this song into a tradition I began in the 90s: As a writer, when I finished a short story or novel (yep, I was writing books back then, and never since), I put on “Soul to Squeeze” to celebrate this fulfilling achievement, lying on my bed, eyes closed, letting Kiedis’s soulful singing wash over me like some kind of musical balm. I still play the tune whenever I need a little reminder of all that I’ve accomplished, as if those five minutes of RHCP recount all the writing trophies I’ve given myself over the years. It’s weird but it works.
“Crash Into Me” by Dave Mathews Band
Dave Mathews Band is the shit. That statement can get me tossed out of some parties, but I’m sticking by it, chest out, head held high. I will FIGHT YOU if you label DMB alt-rock schmaltz only good for Starbucks muzack. It just takes listening to an entire album instead of casting judgement on what a bored AM station is cranking out at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.
“Crash Into Me” is one of the sweetest most delicate songs I’ve ever heard, while also careening me into memories of the many DMB concerts I hit up with my friends in the 90s. God, those were fun times.
Those concerts were more of a social event than an appreciation of quality music, even though the latter holds true as well. I also noticed my mainly Jewish crew of friends at the time were deep into DMB, as opposed to some non-Jewish friends I had who poked fun at the softness of this “rock band”. Was there something Jewy about fanning hard for DMB? Was it the violin-friendly bits that reminded us of our Fiddler on the Roof roots? Nah. I doubt it. DMB didn’t have a klezmer crumb in its musical architecture, but instead was one heckuva jam band in its live shows that had all of us singing the verses to “Crash Into Me” and holding up lighters and passing the J back and forth.
Fun fact: I’m still impressed my buddy Raph taught himself how to play “Satellite” backwards.
“Basket Case” by Green Day
Doesn’t this song scream IT’S THE 90s AND I’M ONE OF THOSE MELODRAMATIC FOOLS! For me, this song double-screams CRUISING YONGE AND STEELES WITH MUNROE IN HIS BLACK DODGE 400 CONVERTIBLE BETWEEN PERIODS, LIVIN THE LIFE! Confused by the latter sentence? Understandable, since you likely didn’t attend Newtonbrook S.S. between 1996 and 1998, but if you did, you might’ve heard Green Day’s “Basket Case” blasting from Dave Munroe’s Dodge 400, where I likely rode shotgun as we hung out during a spare between periods, since we both shared an English class that preceded an hour of free time so we just hopped in his car and hit up Taco Bell or his house to play Goldeneye and eat grilled cheese sandwiches. It was a simpler time then.
Green Day has long been Munroe’s favourite band, like my never-ending craze over RHCP. I actually never heard much of Green Day beyond their MuchMusic videos until Munroe showed me the deeper cuts on their albums, but it was Basket Case that boasted a nice dose of bravado, and a no-holds-barred attitude coming from the riffs and lyrics.
In fact, that whole Dookie album is a big high-five of nostalgia, particularly focused on a good buddy I still see frequently today, when school and homework were behind us like engine exhaust, and we rode along Steeles West without even needing to say a lot between the Dookie tunes. We’d save that for in class when we got bored.
“California Love” by 2Pac, Dr Dre
Do I really need to say anything else than just BANGER ALL DAY? Any day, any era, hell, this’ll fire up a dance floor in 2080 when the VR DJ puts on the “retro-classics” and everyone’s bio-chipped booty can’t resist shaking to the thumping beat that bows down to no man, from Oakland to Sactown, the Bay area and back down, and the party can’t stop rockin to one of the West Coastest joints this hot augmented-reality after-hours club ever did see.
“Ready or Not” by The Fugees
Ever been to a restaurant where every single course is delectable and exquisite in how the flavours make sweet love to your mouth? That’s what I’ve always thought of The Score, the perfect Fugees album whose only weak spots are some corny skits that didn’t really land. “Ready or Not” is a whole mood to me, crafted with ingredients from other moods: chill, funky, confident, not giving a fuck, smooth, shadowy, sly, jazzy. The finest of the fine on one heckuva fine album, “Ready or Not” gave Lauryn, Pras and Wyclef the platform to introduce themselves to us, and we all fell in love by the second minute of the track, and I, for one, looked up every collab or rare track Lauryn ever released, even before I went through The Score front to back.
It started with “Ready or Not”, but by the early 2000s I gobbled up Lauryn’s Unplugged album, so much so I actually entered a friggin ticket-giveaway content (which I never do, because who has time for that when you’re trying to figure out how to pay tuition and lose your freshman 15) and lo! the lottery gods were kind to me on a 2004 afternoon and bestowed upon me two tickets to see Lauryn at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, second flippin row! I’ve never told anyone this before but I think Lauryn smiled at me in the middle of one of her songs, and my heart fluttered a little, like she flicked it with her guitar pick. OK, I’ve said too much, on to track 10…
“Zoot Suit Riot” by Cherry Poppin Daddies
Speaking of live concerts, and not speaking of weird music phases I went through, no Dave-sanctioned playlist of the late 90s would be complete without a nod to my swing fondness, particularly the zooted up Cherry Poppin Daddies.
As a ska fan who couldn’t get enough Reel Big Fish, Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Goldfinger, the Daddies wasn’t a far lean for me. Swing felt like a more PG ska--
Less punky, less moshy, heavier on the suit-and-tie and dance lessons. I actually told myself I was going to take swing lessons sometime, or at least check out one of those free drop-ins normally full of 70-year-olds who want to dance to “real music” instead of the schlock they endure at their grandkids’ weddings.
And is it just me or do tunes like Zoot just put you in a good mood, even if only for the minutes of that one song? Or at least a few trumpet blasts got you boppin. Nothing a few brass instruments can’t fix as you find yourself tapping toes non-nervously for the first time in weeks.
“Save Tonight” By Eagle Eye Cherry
You wouldn’t know it looking at my uncalloused fingertips today, but I used to dabble on the acoustic gee-tar, knowing my A chord from my D chord, memorizing the tabs to my fave songs. One of the earliest songs I played was “Save Tonight”, which was incredibly simple as far as chord progressions go and didn’t have any tricky bridges my stubby fingers couldn’t always get right quickly. Plus, let’s be honest, this song oozes camp, doesn’t it? In that hearty marshmallows-over-a-fire kind of way. I never really got into sleepover camp, but if I did, I’m picturing this song and a whole lotta Dave Mathews piping good from portable CD players at Camp Wanahawin or Camp ForestHillKidsOnlyHere, something like that.
“Sex and Candy” by Macy Playground
I’m not dropping any fresh hot takes by declaring that songs can have a clear relationship to someone in your life. This oh-so-90s Macy Playground one-hit wonderful song reminds me of Monica, a friend I grew apart from after high school. I miss her. I miss this song. That is all.
“Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai
I’m a George Clinton stan of the deepest reverence, so much so I recently commissioned a A-class artist to paint the Funkadelic frontman with his band in full colourful glory, where it now stands above my mantle like a live concert snapshot frozen in time on my wall. I could go on and on about the redeeming qualities of Bop Gun and Flashlight and Give Up The Funk but this is late 90s playlist and if there were ever a 90s band that reminded me of the grooves Clinton brought on stage so smoothly it was Jamiroquai.
And it was “Virtual Insanity” that had me jigging with it like I did with any of Clinton’s jams. I still can’t stop dancing to every inch of this song when it’s on, no matter where I’m at (In Shoppers, it’s painfully embarrassing). And wasn’t this a staple at every late 90s wedding and Bar Mitzvah or am I just wishing that on the world’s past?
“Who Needs Sleep” by The Barenaked Ladies
It was tough to choose just one song off Stunt, my top BNL album, I don’t care what you say about Gordon, OK, Maroon is close, I’d make it 1b. I’ve always been a fan of playful bands that don’t take them too seriously (ask my buddy Jonny O about my short-lived fandom of Corky n the Juice Pigs) and BNL were always super talented and melodic or whatever musical terms relates to writing really tight songs. “Who Needs Sleep” has a silly premise (“Sleep is important and it sucks to have insomnia!”) but I adore the way it’s constructed, and the chorus is infectious, and the lil effects they bring to the vocals and fills are nice touches.
This album was also my soundtrack on my way to Ryerson University on the subway running from Finch Station to Dundas Station, giving me tons of solo time pre-smartphone/scared of transit cuz of COVID. So Stunt kept me smiling like a silly first-year fool in ’98, and in a way placing me in a really warm positive space as I stepped outside my comfort zone (eek! Downtown! New people!) for the first time in a long time.
“The Ghosts That Haunt Me” by Crash Test Dummies
This is where I lose you, for two reasons, right? First, this is a 1991 track and my playlist is focused on the late 90s, the sticklers assert. True, but I only got into CTD in ’97 and besides, the last few tracks can flex on the arbitrarily rigid timeline I put on this collection of me-songs.
Secondly, I lost you to whatever notification you haven’t checked on your phone yet because you just read the words CRASH TEST DUMMIES and can only think of that long-haired dude who sings about Superman or who has an entire song titled as one letter repeated ad nauseum (looking at you, “Mmmmm mmmmm”). You’re not incorrect, once again you are spot-on with your Can-rock MuchMusic video scene cutaways, but CTD is more than just their two chart-topping singles.
I’ll go on record as saying that the album The Ghosts That Haunt Me is an excellent album for what it aims to do (be a light snack among competitors aiming to be heavy meals) and its title song is justifiably one of the most under-rated B-sides in the entire pantheon of Winnipeg’s musical darlings. The violin strains, the picturesque verses, Brad Roberts’ bass baritone voice with impressive range…something is just so essentially Canadian about this song, about CTD, it’s hard to put it in words. Oh wait, I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do as a writer. But give that song a listen and come back to me with your best impression of what Canuck feelings it evoked and you’ll also recognize how that quality is hard to mouth with tongue and throat, with fingers and keyboards. It’s a banjo strum, brush sticks keeping time on high hats, a fiddle pluck.
“The Crossroads” by Bone Thungs N Harmony
I was a MuchMusic fiend, from RapCity to The Wedge to Electric Circus (see how I slipped that in there?) to the Top Ten Countdown. Videos opened new musical doors for me, because I rarely listened to the radio or bought cassettes. When an imaginative WTF-inducing video came across my eyeballs, I was hooked. It’s the main reason I got into Tool for six months.
But it was The Crossroads that was the first real narrative story in a hiphop music video that I can remember, complete with a backstory (that I didn’t really understand at the time) and special effects that resembled those Terminator movies I was feeling.
Sidebar: You’re probably wondering how “Thriller” wasn’t mentioned here, but no foolin I was a late bloomer to MJ.
I didn’t know then that Bone Thugs N Harmony were basing the song on their relationship with the late Eazy-E; I just knew these guys lost someone close to them, and this tribute song was unique in its show of compassion, an emotion I didn’t see in a lot of rap videos or releases. And even though the context of their grief came to me later as an adult, watching this video as an 18-year-old high schooler told me it was OK to talk about heavy shit in your art and that, rr, I should get away from these fantasy novels I’m writing, I began to think, and maybe I should access some really personal memories and beliefs with my writing. You know. Real life.
I don’t want to make you LOL by hearing me claim Bone Thugs N Harmony transformed me into the writer I am today. Rather, it was a slow drip from a bunch of different faucets, from this track to getting bored with Tolkien to loving every John Irving character I could get my hands on to hankering to get published in respected magazines. Still, “The Crossroads” played its part, much like every song on this playlist is a piece of a charmingly chunky puzzle you might know as lil ol me, who ain’t so little anymore, and whose oldness is directly related to the warm nostalgic glow blanketing me now as I remember the songs from some of the best days of my life.
I used to be a pitcher for an afterschool rec league when I was 17, a position that always spoke to me. I could dictate the next at-bat, based on what I threw. Maybe I could throw off the batter with a change-up or curveball, or maybe I'd rely heavily on a fastball to get those strikes. I always saw pitching as a battle for rhythm because I wanted to get in a good groove with my pitches, and I tried to disrupt the rhythm of the batter who tried to predict what I was going to throw.
In freelance writing, I have to ensure my pitches to editors are fastballs. They hit the strike zone fast, or they come in so hot they're hard to ignore. Curveballs have their place, sure, but in freelance journalism, you don't want to pitch to be confusing to your editor to throw them off the rhythm of what you're trying to convey.
Great pitches are all about clarity, from showing a clear theme to the story you want to write to being upfront about who you'll interview and why. That's a fastball: no messing around, nothing frilly or fancy. I've come across pitches, when I edited Digital Journal and B2B News Network, that told me the writer didn't understand our goal as an outlet. Either they rarely read the news network or just copied-and-pasted this pitch from one editor to the next. That's lazy and embarrassing.
Run your fingers over the seams and give us a big kick (aka the intro) and pitch an editor your strongest fastball pitch, complete with thorough research and engaging quotes and relevant portfolio clips. If you explain why this idea is important to the outlet's readers, and convey that urgency with a pithy but powerful page-long pitch, you just might get that much-needed strike (aka acceptance email) that will have you inspired to take the mound again and again and again.
[In Movie Trailer Man voice] "Picture a world where a TV show descends on our lives in such a monumental way because it never talks down to its audience, encourages fat-positive storylines, sparkles with snappy writing, deals with straight and queer relationships with unflinching honesty, and stars one of the most under-rated SNL comedians of the past decade."
This world is right now, friends, thanks to Shrill, a Hulu original based on the book of the same name by Seattle writer Lindy West, who rose to public attention when she wrote about being a fat woman in a society demanding body conformity, which is a surfacing theme in this fantastic show.
Why am I stanning so hard for Shrill? Aidy Bryant slays, firs of all. She was always a standout comedian IMO, especially when she showed her range on SNL. She can face-act with the best of them, and there's something about the realness of Bryant's personality that comes through in everything she does, especially in Shrill.
To go as spoiler-free as I can, Bryant stars as Annie Easton (Lindy West=Annie Easton...Get it?) a journalist for an alt-weekly paper called The Thorn, and also dipping her toes into a relationship with dopy Ryan (Luka Jones). Thing is, she's not really happy with either situation, the dating game made even worse when Ryan mumbles to Annie how he wants to keep it casual, just sex and nothing more committed than that.
Season 1 focuses on those dynamics, and flushes out Annie's passion to tunnel deeper into essay writing. She wants to discuss what it's like to be a fat woman in media and online, so much so there's this standout episode where a troll goes too far with Annie and she-
I'll stop myself there, for fear of your damn-you-for-spoiling-Shrill! hate mail. Let me just say, the writing is so sharp and realistic and crackling, it makes every episode a pure joy to watch. The recent second season flew by to me because each episode's pace never relented and the characters became even more compelling to follow.
One of my fave surprises in this show was discovering British actress Lolly Adefope, playing Annie's best friend Fran. Her queer relationships shift us into another perspective on what it means to be alone as a couple, to be single for the sake of avoiding pain, and navigating the awkwardness of being openly queer with conservative parents.
I don't remember seeing an entire TV series (as opposed to a scene or half an ep) that dealt with fat-shaming as confidently as Shrill has, and it's refreshing to hear Bryant's and West's perspectives on the struggles they faced growing up in a skinny-obsessed world. But what makes this show so nuanced is how it shines a light on the camaraderie these women feel with each other, made particularly clear in an episode starring a plus-sized pool party delighting Annie to no end.
For some reason, no one is talking about Shrill. I haven't talked to friends recommending it or seen Facebook posts from less-than-friends praising its binge-worthy glory. But I will. Gladly. It's a must-watch show no matter where your experience lies with dating, body image issues, struggling to make it as a writer. What matters is that Shrill is the definition of #realtalk, and gives a voice to marginalized groups of people who deserve to share their stories now more than ever.
When Joy Buolamwini, a PhD student at MIT, was conducting facial recognition experiments using artificial intelligence, she ran into one key setback: the technology couldn't accurately process her face. Investigating further, she found out that these programs struggle to register women more than men, and have a very difficult time identifying black or brown faces.
When Buolamwini places a white mask over her face and again used the facial recognition software, the AI immediately identified what was in front of the camera as a face.
She realized the AI has a race problem: Because machine learning is only as robust as the dataset fed into its system, allowing it to recognize objects or people based on the photos already in its "brain," if the information it's given is of only white faces, it won't recognize black faces. And because AI tech is predominantly created by white male scientists and engineers, very few diverse photos are used to develop the foundation of AI datasets.
Buolamwini's story is the main current running through the new documentary Coded Bias, debuting in Canada at the online Hot Docs Film Festival. Directed by Shalini Kantayya, who previously quarterbacked a doc on clean energy, Coded Bias uncovers the dirty secret behind AI, and not just what Buolamwini discovered about facial recognition's bias.
A slew of other algorithm-based technologies push out diverse populations: trained automated risk profiling systems disproportionately identify Latinx people as illegal immigrants; credit scoring algorithms disproportionately select black people as risks and prevent them from buying homes, getting loans, or finding jobs.
Boulamwini told Frontline in 2019 (a quote which isn't part of the doc): "When these systems fail, they fail most the people who are already marginalized, the people who are already vulnerable. And so when we think about algorithmic bias, we really have to be thinking about algorithmic harm. That’s not to say we don’t also have the risk of mass surveillance, which impacts everybody. We also have to think about who’s going to be encountering the criminal justice system more often because of racial policing practices and injustices."
That's why she and other like-minded AI analysts formed the Algorithmic Justice League in order to publicize the racial and gender bias embedded within AI systems. This is the kind of civic action that can be encouraging to those who think certain technologies will always hide in the shadows, their inner workings shrouded in mystery, only to spit out results that the public accepts without question.
The film also goes across the pond in London to profile Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, an organization that monitors the use of facial recognition A.I by British law enforcement. Carlo explains how civilian civil liberties are violated with this technology, and points out the growing number of citizens being misidentified. For example, Big Brother Watch found that the use of photo biometrics produced 2% identification accuracy for the Metropolitan police force, while South Wales police is only 8% accurate.
Coded Bias does a fantastic job in warning us about the sly racism found in technologies that will only become more popular in the coming decade. After all, we have AI tech embedded in Siri/Alex, camera phones, chatbots, Google Images, etc, and if we want to level the playing field and ensure racism doesn't creep further into this sector, we can't just stand still.
What I would have liked to see more of in this film, though, is the perspective of those white male scientists creating AI tech for major firms such as Amazon and Google. Are they going to bring more diversity to their datasets? How do they respond to Boulamwini's discovery? If there is going to be change in this field, the major companies have to own up to their own biases, but we never get to hear them on camera explain their position.
This doc is inspiring for those us who have long been interested in AI and its future. But it's also frightening to recognize how biased this innovation can be, and how the determination of researchers such as Boulamwini and her Algorithmic Justice League could tip the scales to favour racialized voices who have long been discriminated against offline and now online within AI systems, too.
You can still catch Coded Bias on the Hot Docs website by purchasing tickets to stream the film here.
This is tough. Perhaps tougher than you thought it would be. It definitely has been a learning experience for me, as I recognize both the power and loneliness of stillness, of having more time for self-reflection, and also how much I miss social experiences and simply seeing another neighbourhood than my own. I've thankfully gone through some ground-breaking moments, such as coming up with some intriguing ideas for future creative projects, but I've also lulled myself into boredom when the work day has come to a close.
Netflix and reading have often become my nighttime habits, along with watching Raptors highlights on YouTube, but I also found a few ways to entertain and educate myself during this pandemic. What's the point of wallowing in self-pity and doing the same old when you can see a few silver linings among all the grey clouds?
When I first began writing as a journalist, I was worried. I had spent years believing I would grow up to become a fiction novelist or creative writer of some importance, and here I was delving into media law and CP style and wondering if my passion for writing fiction would wane in light of my new workload at Ryerson University's School of Journalism.
I shouldn't have been so anxious. What training as a journalist gave me was discipline, a trait I took for granted when I wrote almost daily in high school. I loved writing as novelist with zero stakes pressuring me to do so, but when I had to write for a deadline, that challenge instilled in me the will to make that date, no late hand-in's allowed.
When I later worked full-time as a journalist, both as a freelancer and a writer for Digital Journal, I began to see more clearly the value of deadlines as a creative writer. I knew I didn't have any "hard" date that I needed to finish a poem by, say, but I began to place that on myself so I wouldn't get lazy or wait for the Muse (whoever that is) to grace me with her divine inspiration.
It almost feels like a game, now that I think about it: make an arbitrary date to finish a haiku or short story, put my ass in a chair because that's where it belongs when you're a writer, and work on the piece like I'm writing an article that requires that same kind of steadfast focus. It likely wasn't a sparking first draft, but, as Anne Lamott says, "Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend."
You might think that deadline add unnecessary stress to a relaxing hobby such as writing. But it's still a craft fuelled by a regiment dependent on not just God-given talent but also the hunger to get better. And you don't get to be a strong writer by writing whenever an idea strikes, but also when you don't want to write.
I'll likely write another post or two on what else journalism has taught me about creative writing beyond the discipline of it all, but for now, I want to share with you some advice: If you're a poet or novelist or playwright and you're looking for a stable (somewhat, especially now) career that also harnesses your skills, try journalism. As a creative writer, you're a storyteller, no matter what your project is, and the same holds true when you work as a news reporter.
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Like a streetcar doing the motions, waving hi and bye at the party.
Like a shy street, all coy and dimples, knees touching in awkward glee, never stepping into the sunlight like this before.
Like a cough executioned with a dagger glance. Watch what comes out of your mouth in more ways than one.
Like a baby in a stroller just suddenly making you ferklempt, choking up a cauliflower in your throat, could it be that you hate seeing someone so innocent and clueless be living in the same era of an invisible enemy wiping out broad strokes of people, and scaring everyone else?
Like Facebook posts begging for Netflix recommends, like an IG story loaded with so many dashes because what the fuck else is there to do?
Like 20 minutes watching Pheonix Suns guard Devin Booker play Fortnite because right now you'll take any dust mite of competition, something to just powder your palate, even though you really don’t get Fortnite. And let's be honest, you don't really like Devin Booker either.
Like also not getting how to fund your social wallet with enough currency to keep you afloat. And you don’t need much. A drunken high-five, a chill poetry cypher outside the Drake, a smattering of tennis with Andrew.
Like scrolling on Twitter for five minutes and realizing you now have five minutes worth of new tweets that could reveal vital information nuggets about how upside-down today is about to get. Again. It won’t make you feel better. Just overwhelmed, like you ordered too much at the BBQ place on Gerrard East and now you’re just stuck with brisket breath and chicken-wing sweats.
Like more masks and less small talk at farmers markets. Oh wait, there are no more farmer markets.
Like sunsets the colour of a fresh baseball glove.
Like a skateboarder smiling as gracefully as his curving ride along the middle of a deserted street.
Like two strangers walking towards each other on the street, now stepping into a new odd dance, of oh, excuse me, let me go wider around you, oh, you're widening? ok, I'll just walk straight, don't make eye contact, cool cool cool.
Like a run for coffee feels so risky you actually swell with dumb pride when you bound out of Timmys, clutching your trophy until your skin screams.
Like unearthing recipes gathering more dust than your Metropass.
Like a raccoon's scream actually being welcomed under the cemetery of midnight. You'll take any sound right now.
Few books have me dog-earing pages and scrambling to a new Word doc to type several sentences that strike me right away. But when an engaging non-fiction book pulls me by the eyeballs into its compendium of factoids, I can't resist, and that's how I felt reading Bill Bryson's new book The Body: A Guide for Occupants.
I've always enjoyed Bryson's work, especially Mother Tongue which broke down the history and nuances of the English language. He has an attractive technique of simplifying complex topics so much so you crave this kind of teacher could multiply himself into every classroom around the world.
I've always been fascinated by biology and I regret never taking science beyond grade 10 but I like to think I can compensate for those poor decisions by dedicating some of my reading time to non-fiction as educational as it is compelling. So below are 10 facts (among many more) I learned about the human body that may also open your eyes to what's swirling madly under our skin:
I tried to tally the total amount of shows I've hosted since I began taking the stage in this capacity around 20 years ago, when I first brought Suburban Spoken Word to North York. It has to be in the 200s, garnished by my MC duties at weddings, workshops, tech conference panel discussions at the Future of Media, etc.
Due to my retirement from Toronto Poetry Slam this month, I wanted to take a moment to offer advice to anyone who wants to try this whole hosting thing, or wants to polish their on-stage skills if they're already on the mic (and not just at poetry slams but comedy shows, conferences, benefits, etc.).
Below are some tips I'd recommend following, and if you have any questions about any of the advice below, contact me anytime.
Getting on stage as a performer is one thing; taking the mic as a host is another platform altogether, one that many in the audience take for granted. It might seem simple to host an event, but in reality you need to recognize the many ways you can make a show sparkle with your personality and banter chops.
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Culture. Poetry. Being a better creative. Toronto stories. Technology. Sports. Why X-Files rocks.