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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 21 September 2012

Rick Mercer Meets Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke:

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Rick Mercer:

I didn’t come out of the womb ranting but chances are I heard a few good ones while I was in there.
Indeed, if my instinct to rant comes from anywhere it’s my mother.
One of my earliest life-defining memories as a kid was being dragged against my will to the bank because Mom had a meeting.
I can remember sitting in a chair next to my mother while she had an excruciatingly dull conversation with a banker. I remember wondering what I had done to be forced to sit through this and if it were actually possible to die from boredom. And then everything changed. I will never forget the moment. The banker leaned forward and said, “Now Mrs. Mercer, do you have your husband’s permission to do this? Perhaps we should give him a call.”

From my point of view the day just got a whole lot better; for the man behind the desk the opposite was true. He had no idea what he had done. He had unleashed a hell storm that he had absolutely no chance of surviving. The poor, hapless man.
To say the oxygen was immediately sucked out of the room would be an exaggeration. To say that the blistering rant my mother delivered to the dumb creature made his ears bleed would not be.
Needless to say very soon we were no longer in a cubicle but in a much nicer office upstairs, with a different banker who was doing everything he could to stop my mother from closing every account and going across the street. The dude who suggested Mom get her husband’s permission to open a chequing account was sent to “get the lad a fudge stick.”
Go Mom!
Everyone should rant. Ranting not only makes you feel better but occasionally, as my mother proved to me many times, you might get results—justice, satisfaction or a fudge stick.
Canadians don’t rant enough. We are busy people and I get that. We don’t necessarily have the time or the inclination to come across like mad people who are constantly barking about waste, corruption and lack of transparency in three different levels of government. You may not want to be that guy who is constantly ranting about those people who drive their car into an intersection on a yellow light knowing they will get stuck in the middle and block traffic for everyone else and they don’t care. And I don’t blame you. I am that guy, I’ve been ranting about those people for decades, and they are still allowed to walk the earth and drive a car.
But the danger in not ranting is dire. If we as a nation don’t rant then the powers that be will use that complacency against us. Take for example the last federal budget. The omnibus budget. When I ranted about that budget to my Tory friends in Ottawa, when I said, “Why in hell does Jim Flaherty’s budget contain a provision that allows the FBI to operate on Canadian soil?” they said what they always say, “People don’t care.” Turns out they were right. When I asked them why are there hundreds of environmental regulations being changed without any discussion whatsoever, they said again, “People don’t care”—and it turns out they were right again. In fact, the government is so convinced that we don’t care they loaded the budget with so many items that had nothing to do with a budget that even MPs had no idea what was in there or what passing it could mean.
Now occasionally Canadians do suddenly care about the nation’s business and it always catches the government off guard.
Remember the Speech from the Throne when, out of the blue, it was announced that Stephen Harper’s government would be rewriting the lyrics to O Canada? You just know the Prime Minister was convinced we wouldn’t care, that he could do what he liked; but, we did. The country exploded with people ranting about our national anthem and oh, what a beautiful sound. Turns out nobody, left or right, liked the idea of the Prime Minister sitting around with paper and pencil trying to figure out a way to rhyme the nation’s name with his.
As a result of these occasional examples of the country standing up and saying, “Wait a minute,” the government has a strategy to deal with anyone who doesn’t play the part of the complacent Canadian. They like to play whack-a-mole with the heads and reputations of anyone who has an opinion or a question.
If you in your capacity as a Canadian citizen, taxpayer or Grade 10 student doing a social studies project ask any questions about any pipelines anywhere in Canada, you will be branded by the government as a dangerous radical or a vicious cruel monster in the same league as Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, or David Suzuki.
This is a pretty effective strategy but I doubt it will last for long. Hopefully it will dawn on Canadians that the one thing we shouldn’t care about is what the government thinks of us or what names they call us. Prime ministers, premiers and cabinet ministers aren’t our friends; they are just people in bad suits who work for us.
We are the boss. And if they want to work for us they have to listen to us, answer our questions and occasionally, like all employees, listen to the boss rant.

Invention Is the Mother Of Necessity

It's funny how innovation works.  Everyone cribs from everyone else - it's the innovators who add their own spin.

My 11-year-old twin sons just told me what they learned today in school. ''Daddy, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and that was one of the greatest inventions in history.'' I learned that, too, when I was a child. I suspect that the same view is taught in most other American and European schools. What we are told about printing is partly true, or at least defensible. Personally, I would rate it as the best single ''invention'' of this millennium. Just think of its enormous consequences for modern societies. Without printing, millions of people wouldn't have read quickly, with no transmission errors, Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto or other world-changing texts. Without printing, we wouldn't have modern science. Without printing, Europeans might not have spread over the globe since 1492, because consolidation of initial European conquests required the emigration of thousands of would-be conquistadors motivated by written accounts of Pizarro's capture of the Incan emperor Atahualpa.
So I agree with half of what my kids were taught -- the part about the importance of printing. But things get more complicated when you credit this invention specifically to Gutenberg, or even when you credit him with just the printing press itself. Gutenberg did much more than invent the printing press -- and much less than invent printing. A more accurate rendering of his achievements would be something like the following legalistic sentence: ''Gutenberg played a major practical and symbolic role in independently reinventing, in a greatly improved form and within a more receptive society, a printing technique previously developed in Minoan Crete around 1700 B.C., if not long before that.''
Why did Gutenbergian printing take off while Minoan printing didn't? Therein lies a fascinating story that punctures our usual image of the lonely and heroic inventor: Gutenberg, James Watt, Thomas Edison. Through his contribution to the millennium's best invention, Gutenberg gave us the millennium's best window into how inventions actually unfold. Even American and European schoolchildren reared on Gutenberg hagiography soon learn that China had printing long before Gutenberg. Chinese printing is known to go back to around the second century A.D., when Buddhist texts on marble pillars began to be transferred to the new Chinese invention of paper via smeared ink. By the year 868, China was printing books. But most Chinese printers carved or otherwise wrote out a text on a wooden block instead of assembling it letter by letter as Gutenberg did (and as almost all subsequent printers using alphabetic scripts have also done). Hence the credit for what Gutenberg invented is also corrected from ''printing'' to ''printing with movable type'': that is, printing with individual letters that can be composed into texts, printed, disassembled and reused.
Have we now got the story right? No, Gutenberg still doesn't deserve credit even for that. By about 1041, the Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng had devised movable type made of a baked-clay-and-glue amalgam. Among the subsequent inventors who improved on Pi Sheng's idea were Korea's King Htai Tjong (cast-bronze type, around 1403) and the Dutch printer Laurens Janszoon (wooden type with hand-carved letters, around 1430). From all those inventors, it's convenient (and, I think, appropriate) to single out Gutenberg for special credit because of his advances -- the use of a press, a technique for mass-producing durable metal letters, a new metal alloy for the type and an oil-based printing ink. We also find it convenient to focus on Gutenberg as a symbol because he can be considered to have launched book production in the West with his beautiful Bible of 1455.
But a form of printing with movable type was invented far earlier by an unnamed printer of ancient Crete in the Minoan age. The proof of Minoan printing can be found in a single baked-clay disk, six inches in diameter. Found buried deep in the ruins of a 1700 B.C. palace at Phaistos on Crete, the disk is covered on both sides with remarkable spiraling arrays of 241 symbols constituting 45 different ''letters'' (actually, syllabic signs), which were not deciphered until a couple of years ago. A recent decipherment identifies the signs' language as an ancient form of Greek that predates even Homer.
Astonishingly, the symbols of the Phaistos disk weren't scratched into the clay by hand, as was true of most ancient writing on clay, but were instead printed by a set of punches, one for each of the 45 signs. Evidently, some ancient Cretan predecessor of Pi Sheng beat him to the idea by 2,741 years. Why did Minoan printing die out? Why was Renaissance Europe ready to make use of the millennium's best invention while Minoan Crete was not?
Technologically, the Minoans' hand-held punches were clumsy. The early Minoan writing system itself, a syllabary rather than an alphabet, was so ambiguous that it could be read by few people and used for only very particular kinds of texts, perhaps only tax lists and royal propaganda. Chinese printing's usefulness was similarly limited by China's own nonalphabetic writing system. To make Minoan printing efficient would have required technological advances that did not occur until much later, like the creation of paper, an alphabet, improved inks, metals and presses.
I mentioned that Gutenberg is part not only of the millennium's best invention but also of its best insight into how our usual view of inventions often misses the point. Coming up with an invention itself may be the easy part; the real obstacle to progress may instead be a particular society's capacity to utilize the invention. Other famously premature inventions include wheels in pre-Columbian Mexico (relegated to play toys because Mexican Indians had no draft animals) and Cro-Magnon pottery from 25,000 B.C. (What nomadic hunter-gatherer really wants to carry pots?)
The technological breakthroughs leading to great inventions usually come from totally unrelated areas. For instance, if a queen of ancient Crete had launched a Minoan Manhattan Project to achieve mass literacy through improved printing, she would never have thought to emphasize research into cheese, wine and olive presses -- but those presses furnished prototypes for Gutenberg's most original contribution to printing technology. Similarly, American military planners trying to build powerful bombs in the 1930's would have laughed at suggestions that they finance research into anything so arcane as transuranic elements.
We picture inventors as heroes with the genius to recognize and solve a society's problems. In reality, the greatest inventors have been tinkerers who loved tinkering for its own sake and who then had to figure out what, if anything, their devices might be good for. The prime example is Thomas Edison, whose phonograph is widely considered to be his most brilliant invention. When he built his first one, in 1877, it was not in response to a national clamor for hearing Beethoven at home. Having built it, he wasn't sure what to do with it, so he drew up a list of 10 uses, like recording the last words of dying people, announcing the time and teaching spelling. When entrepreneurs used his invention to play music, Edison thought it was a debasement of his idea.
Our widespread misunderstanding of inventors as setting out to solve society's problems causes us to say that necessity is the mother of invention. Actually, invention is the mother of necessity, by creating needs that we never felt before. (Be honest: did you really feel a need for your Walkman CD player long before it existed?) Far from welcoming solutions to our supposed needs, society's entrenched interests commonly resist inventions. In Gutenberg's time, no one was pleading for a new way to churn out book copies: there were hordes of copyists whose desire not to be put out of business led to local bans on printing.
The first internal-combustion engine was built in 1867, but no motor vehicles came along for decades, because the public was content with horses and railroads. Transistors were invented in the United States, but the country's electronics industry ignored them to protect its investment in vacuum-tube products; it was left to Sony in bombed-out postwar Japan to adapt transistors to consumer-electronics products. Manufacturers of typing keyboards continue to prefer our inefficient qwerty layout to a rationally designed one.
All these misunderstandings about invention pervade our science and technology policies. Every year, officials decry some areas of basic research as a waste of tax dollars and urge that we instead concentrate on ''solving problems'': that is, applied research. Of course, much applied research is necessary to translate basic discoveries into workable products -- a prime example being the Manhattan Project, which spent three years and $2 billion to turn Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman's discovery of nuclear fission into an atomic bomb. All too often, however, the world fails to realize that neither the solutions to most difficult problems of technology nor the potential uses of most basic research discoveries have been predictable in advance. Instead, penicillin, X-rays and many other modern wonders were discovered accidentally -- by tinkerers driven by curiosity.
So forget those stories about genius inventors who perceived a need of society, solved it single-handedly and transformed the world. There has never been such a genius; there have only been processions of replaceable creative minds who made serendipitous or incremental contributions. If Gutenberg himself hadn't devised the better alloys and inks used in early printing, some other tinkerer with metals and oils would have done so. For the best invention of the millennium, do give Gutenberg some of the credit -- but not too much.
Jared Diamond is professor of physiology at U.C.L.A. Medical School and author of ''Guns, Germs, and Steel,'' which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1998.

Mental Illness in the Public Sector: Tony Clement Had An Option


Pardon my English, but bullshit, Mr. Clement.  You're the Minister responsible for the mismanagement of the Slash-And-Burn Public Staff File - if not you, who? 
It's enough to drive you nuts - or at least, exacerbate depression and anxiety.  I really find it hard to fathom how, after a multi-faceted campaign to achieve majority government, Team Harper can be so silo-based in its thinking to not see how harmful their policy regimen is to Canada,  particularly given the commitment of folks like Stephen Harper himself and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to addressing Canada's mental health crisis.
But we know what they're thinking - too many people are suckling at the government teat.  Broad ranging government services and regulations impede success.  It's a cut-throat world out there, survival of the fittest, etc.  People have to get tougher, take more responsibility and become more competitive to get ahead. 
Here's the thing - survival of the fittest isn't about everyone becoming tougher.  It's about the less competitive literally dying off.
That, really, is what suicide is.  Most people with suicidal ideation go through a horrendous, tortured internal process that chips away at their sense of self-worth.  They feel they have no value - in fact, all they do is place a burden on others.  Every minute is merely another eternity of enduring psychological agony and shame.  In essence, they don't feel like they're fit enough to be in society to such a strong degree that they feel the most responsible course of action is  to take themselves out of it.
What are some of the external factors that lead to suicidal ideation?
So, picture you've worked hard to get your law degree and secure a job but still feel as though you aren't doing enough to earn your keep.  In fact, you're even willing to cancel your vacation because you feel you'll be letting others down/not getting enoughdone if you take a break.  You already doubt yourself - then you have that doubt validated by your employer with an "affected" letter.
“We have stressed on a number of occasions (the cuts) will affect the lives of people, it will impact on not only them but the people around them as well as their individual circumstances. We are not talking about widgets. The people are real and they need to be treated with respect and dignity.”

How many of those receiving affected letters have families and mortgages?  How easy will it be for them to compete with younger folk on the job market that don't have responsibilities so can work longer hours and probably for lower wages?  Will these people worry about how to support their family, feel as though they have failed their duties?  What does this do to one's sense of self-worth?
The whole "keep home and work separate" meme is crap.  There is only one person; we can't switch work/life brains the way Mister Roger changes his shoes.  Just as the stresses a person faces at home will impact their performance at work, what happens at work impacts family life, too.  What happens to the individual at the centre of all this accumulated stress?  Their health, performance and relationships begin to suffer. 
As if it wasn't bad enough that the Harper Government is abdicating any sense of responsibility for mental health in its public sector employees, they are completely dropping the ball on mental health in the military.  How can we be thinking of war with Iran when we haven't dealt with the mental health of our troops
But back to Tony Clement.  We can already see the narrative he hopes to use emerging; people shouldn't bring their work home, this guy had problems unrelated to his work, so on and so forth.  Whatever mental health issues emerge in the public sector, it's got nothing to do with him.  In avoiding questions about whether he has read any reports about stress and anxiety levels among the public service since he started his cuts, Clement is trying to evade any personal responsibility for the consequence of his actions.  Of course, we knew this was coming - Team Harper has been strategically dismantling data since day one for the express purpose of unencumbering their policy decisions from the burden of fact.
Unless Clement has been living in a complete bubble, though, there's no way he could have avoided the countless studies out there tying workplace anxiety to mental health.  A fellow he might know by the name of Michael Kirby has dedicated a lot of time to the issue.  Besides, isn't one of his duties as President of the Treasury Board to table, in Parliament, reports, papers and operational documents?
If Clement has been pulling a Rob Ford and ignoring the content of his materials, there is still the fact that he committed, publicly, to a supportive and orderly staff transition.  Hell, I even sent him a template he could have built a plan on:
Craig Carter-Edwards@TonyclementCPC; if you're seriously looking into an exiting-staff transition strategy, feel free to crib from this (1)
You, sir, had an option that could have done a hell of a lot to prevent this uptick in anxiety and all its consequences.  Including this poor man's suicide.
Instead of leaving employees in the lurch and peeling the staff reduction bandaid off over a period of months, Clement could have created an orderly transition first and put more effort into making the reduction as quick as possible, allowing for people to move on and helping them to do so effectively.
That sounds a bit too much like enabling, though doesn't it?  Team Harper's whole mandate is about downloading responsibility and beating, not supporting, the other guy.  Their politics bleeds directly into their governance style, to Canada's detriment.  Folks, if you really feel that strongly against responsibility, don't run for office.  The job of leaders is to lead, not to abdicate. 
They still have a chance.  If he moves quickly, Clement can still put together a true staff transition plan and help stop this cognitive crisis in the public sector.  Likewise, Team Harper can still do as they've been advised and set up a comprehensive, national mental health strategy.  All the evidence points to the benefit both of these actions would have for the public.
Here's the challenge, though - implementing a proactive, national mental health strategy and providing supports for their workers goes against everything the Harper folk believe; survival of the fittest, centrally coordinated services are bad, government is the problem, not the solution, etc.  They can ignore the facts for only so long before more people start to suffer from their approach - something Clement has seen happen before.
They can either pursue their ideology or they can help prevent more mental health related tragedies, but they can't do both.
It must make them crazy to think about.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Carly Rose Soneclar Feelin' Good

I love stories like this.

Everyone has a voice - it might not be singing, it might not be an art at all, but each and every person has a little bit of magic to share with the rest of us.  Self-confidence can unlock these gifts but above all, it matters to know there's someone who believes in you.

Support This Bill

We don't tell asthmatics to "get over" their conditions, nor do we tell people who are visually or hearing impaired to just suck it up and move on.  We do, however, completely undermine the significance of mental illnesses and cognitive development.  We stigmatize people as "dumb" or "crazy" and just assume they are doomed to a life on the periphery of society.
Mental illness and addictions cost the Ontario economy $39 billion annually.  By 2020, mental illness will be the number one cost driver of disability claims.  These claims, plus drug costs and employee assistance programs set the private sector back at least $2.1 billion annually.  Our reactive at best, laissez faire at worst approach just isn't working.
Christine Elliot is the real deal - she understands and cares about mental health.  She's not the only MPP who's passionate about this issue.  We need to support them in making this Bill a reality and ensuring it's intent translates into meaningful action.
Really, we can't afford not to.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

(CFN) Why Ontario MPP Jim McDonell Must Unequivocally Apologize

Let’s get this out of the way – Jim McDonell is a Conservative; I’m a Liberal. If you believe that all’s fair in war and politics, you now have sufficient justification to dismiss this piece as a partisan attack. Based on that assumption, you might also believe that McDonell did nothing wrong in invoking Godwin’s law in the Legislature. You could even go so far as to tell yourself I’m being unfair by bringing this up after the matter was settled; maybe I’m the one that should be reprimanded for being so callous.
My goal here is to prove why this really is a serious, non-partisan issue and make clear why it is so important McDonell offer a real apology for his comments.
Let’s start with the exact words McDonell used and have caused such a firestorm:
There are two ways you can interpret the SDSG MPP’s comments as offensive – one, he’s insulting our democracy by comparing our Premier to Hitler. Do you think it would be appropriate to compare, say, Stephen Harper to Osama bin Laden? Both ordered planes onto perceived enemy territory, right? No, that wouldn’t be appropriate – in fact, it would be irresponsible. It is likewise asinine to compare Harper to Hitler; I have taken a few people to task for doing just that. Hitler ordered the murder of millions of civilians and sparked a war that marks a low point in human history. Any analogy that invokes Hitler is like comparing an apple to an atom bomb.
But it’s the second level of offensiveness that is most egregious. In making a flippant comparison between Nazi Germany and Ontario – and doing so in the official record of the Ontario Legislature – McDonell is undermining the memory of the Holocaust. Worse, he’s doing so at a time when we really need to be reflecting on the lessons of World War II.

Canada On Top

How many US Presidents have referred to countries other than Canada as their "closest ally?"
Our neighbour to the south is a bit like Krusty the Clown - always focused on the next Danish.  This, in spite of our having their back repeatedly, both abroad and right here at home.  Except for 1812 - 1814, that is. 
Some people get all spiteful about this, but I actually don't mind.  It doesn't matter to me if they notice our subtle Canadian influence, 'cause we all know it's there.
Canadians are power brokers in Hollywood
Washington runs on Canadian products.
Whether they recognize us or not, Canadians help pick the President.
Not only are we more open on the topic of sex than Americans - we have more of it
So, yeah, the US is welcome to make all the noise they want; it doesn't change the fact that we're always on top.

Five Surprises From Billionaire Paul Allen's Mind Map (Matthew Herper, Forbes)

What do we know?  That there's a lot we don't know.  It'll take a detailed map to sort it all out.

Today the cover of Nature, the prestigious scientific journal, is dedicated to a paper that outlines the first findings of the map of the human brain being created by the Allen Institute For Brain Science, the neuroscience Manhattan project being funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
The new publication comes out of the Allen Institute’s effort to create a map of which genes are turned on and off in the human brain, a feat the Institute accomplished a half decade ago in the mouse. Already, the mouse map has become a standard tool for neuroscientists, and the hope is that the human brain atlas will be as well. (For more on the institute’s overall effort, see: Inside Paul Allen’s Quest To Reverse Engineer The Brain, from the current issue of Forbes magazine.)
An animal’s genes are contained in its DNA, locked in the center of its cells; to access the genetic code, the DNA must be transcribed into a related chemical called RNA, which can take messages to the parts of the cell that make the chemicals that comprise most of the body. The Allen Institute’s atlases are measures of what RNA transcripts are in the cell – this is a bit like monitoring what information is being read off the body’s hard disk.
The Nature paper unveils data from the first two human brains completely analyzed by the Allen Institute, with a bit of analysis from a third. There are several surprises – and it’s not clear what they all mean. “At the moment we’re making descriptions,” says Ed Lein, a neuroscientist who is one of the paper’s co-authors. “A key role for the neuroscience community is to understand how these differences relate to the unique properties of the human brain. ”
  1. Cells in the “thinking” part of the brain look a lot more similar than scientists had expected. The thinking we do, including the experience we have of being us, is generated in the cortex, the most well-developed part of the brain. You might expect, then, that the cortex would be accessing the DNA code in all sorts of different ways. But the Allen Institute researchers found remarkably little difference between one neuron in the cortex and the next. In terms of how they use their genetic hard drives, these cells are very much the same.
  2. Your left brain and right brain are using your DNA in the same way. Another surprising difference: the left and right sides of the brain tend to have different functions. But on the level of gene expression that the atlas measures, these are again hard to detect. The two hemispheres of the brain look very much alike.
  3. The differences that do exist are important. There’s not a lot of genetic variation in the landscape of the brain, but what there is is apparently important. The Allen Institute researchers found that they could accurately predict where a neuron would be in the cortex by what genes it was expressing. So these tiny differences apparently matter. One interesting distinction: the neurons involved in getting sensory impressions, like sight, sound, and touch, are similar to one another and different from the rest of the brain.
  4. The differences are not where you’d expect. When we think of a brain cell (if we think about brain cells at all), we think of neurons, the spindly nerve cells that transmit signals to each other and make up the circuits of our brains and bodies. But there’s another type of cell in the brain, called a glial cell, that creates the sheaths that protect neurons and the matrices in which they sit. And there is more variation in what genes are expressed in the glia than in the regular neurons. That could mean they are more important than we thought, accounting for the differences between people – or it could mean that variation in glial cells doesn’t matter much, so there’s a lot of it.
  5. We are not mice, or monkeys. One of the most important uses of the Allen Atlas will be to figure out how the human brain is different from the brains of the experimental animals scientists can test in their labs. Big drug companies such as Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, and Pfizer have been struggling to create new medicines for diseases like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, largely without success, and the difference between lab mice and people may be one key reason. In one tantalizing clue, the Allen Institute researchers point to differences in a gene called CALB1, which is used to move around calcium ions, which are key chemical messengers for the nervous system. In rhesus macaques and mice, this gene is expressed throughout the hippocampus, the brain region that plays a key role in the creation of memories. But in humans, CALB1 is expressed only in the dentate gyrus, pointing to a potential difference between the brains of these other mammals and ours. It’s not known what this difference means.
One important result of the lack of variation between cells and between different brains is that the Allen Atlas will be completed with just six brains, not the 10 researchers thought they would need when the project started in 2008. The institute is moving on, with a new $300 million investment from Allen, to try to do new experiments to create circuit diagrams of the mouse visual cortex and to understand all the cell types that exist in the human brain.
Allen himself, when I met him this summer at the Allen Institute in Seattle, is prepared for this to be a long, hard slog. He told me that the brain is “hideously complex” and that it’s going to take “decades and decades” of more research to understand. “We are talking about dozens and dozens of Nobel Prizes,” he said, “that have yet to be won to understand how the brain works.” (For more, see Inside Paul Allen’s Quest To Reverse Engineer The Brain.

Consumer Based Health

I've always been fascinated by the way we view our relationships with service providers. In my blissfully ignorant youth, when people referred to "their" real estate agent or "their" trainer, I assumed they had to be exceptionally wealthy to afford a retinue of specialized retainers like that.  Of course, we don't actually own our consultants and contractors.  Implying we do is simply a way of denoting status, the modern equivalent of long fingernails; we don't have to do the work, we have people for that.    It's not a notion that has ever sat comfortably with me.  Now that I'm actively out there consuming specialized services, I make a point of not propertizing (a neologism for you) those providers. I use a real estate agent; he's not mine. I see a physiotherapist - I don't own her.

It's this last that got me thinking about how we view health care.  I was in for physiotherapy today and got to talking with the kinesiologist treating me  about how the brain adapts to pain.  A funny little thing, this: we pattern things like posture and physical response to the programming our noggins have created to adapt to injury, even after the original source of pain is gone. If you spend long periods hunching over a computer terminal and find yourself hunching the rest of the time, too, it's that behavioural patterning at play.  Left unabated, it can change the curvature of your spine and cause all sorts of spin-off problems.

The kinesiologist and I also talked about the sorts of exercises and activities people can do to reset these posture programs over time - a key part of the injury recovery process. The challenge is, one visit a week to "your" physiotherapist isn't going to do that. Significant changes in behaviour come from regular, consistent practice - something you can only pay someone to do to you regularly enough to have long-term impact if you are rich as thieves.  For the rest of us, we have to internalize our own care through exercise regimens, etc.

A big challenge this kinesiologist faces is getting this message through to her clients.  If they don't make the time to do their exercises at home, they will not get better.  She can give an initial push and serve as a stop-gap, but a full return to health involves active patient participation.  The problem is, everyone is too busy with work, kids or the commute and far too stressed out to worry about their own health. Besides, they can pay someone to do that (like their physiotherapist) or pay for a product like ibuprofen to fill the gap.  That's how we solve problems in our society - by buying the solutions.

How often do we view our family doctor as just another service provider, like our accountant or our real estate agent?  Have we hired them to make sure we stay in good working order, like a car mechanic?  The capitalist theory suggests that if there's sufficient demand, supply will emerge to match; we are specializing our skills to an increasing degree to be competitive and besides, we define success as having the ability to pay others to do the stuff we don't want to.   When was the last time you made your own furniture?  Do you grow your own produce?  Heck, do you even know where those things come from?  The further up the food chain we are, the more stuff we can have and the less general work we need to do.

This, naturally, got me thinking about Mitt Romney. We've all seen or read the quote:

"All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."

Romney is a pro-free market capitalist who is a big fan of consumer culture. In his mind, everyone should have the responsibility to work hard and by hook or crook, find profitability. When they do, they'll be able to pay for more stuff and expand the economy.  They'll also be able to afford not to do things, like serve in the military.

Whatever the Romneys of the world try to tell themselves, we are working hard.  At the lower end of the economic spectrum there are countless folk holding down two or more jobs, trying to make ends meet and save up for their kids' education. In the middle you have folk busting their butts to garner recognition and earn the next raise or promotion. Even at the top you have executives putting in 12 hours a day to keep their operations afloat. Heck, I even see homeless beggars in position starting at the crack of dawn.  It's a very scant percentage of people who can afford not to work at all.

We work hard at what we do - we expect others to work hard at what they do. But what happens when those interests collide? What about when the service we are paying for is the maintenance of our own personal health?

Healthcare is a huge industry. Everything from pills to acupuncture and even health promotion services like spin or yoga classes generate a lot of revenue. Public health services are also a multi-billion dollar industry. In fact, public health care cost the Ontario taxpayer $49 billion in 2011.  But are we getting better?  Whether we thinks we're victims or players, how healthy is our reliance on outsourcing health - and, like bad posture, is this pattern-forming behaviour?

We live in a consumer/producer based society. Every aspect of our life, even parenting, has been affixed with a dollar value and is offered on the market by someone as a for-profit service.  Maybe you think this is a good thing.  Me, I make a point of getting in my exercises so I can heal myself.  for me, independence isn't about holding ownership over the labour of others; it's about gaining the ability to be master of my own fate.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Will This Be Jason Kenney's MS St. Louis?

I really, really hope I'm wrong about this.  I hope that somewhere, ten years down the road, somebody will poke me in the ribs and say "remember when you were fretting about ethnic persecution in Hungary turning into a repeat of genocide?  Boy, did you screw that up!"
The evidence, however, suggests otherwise.  Democracy in Hungary isn't what it once was.  The EU has made some critical noise, but there aren't any teeth behind the criticism.  As Hungarians grapple with the same economic same challenges being faced across Europe, there's an increased focus on placing the blame on minority groups like Jews and Sinti-Roma.  It all sounds familiar.  At Why Should I Care last night, Barbara Falk (a professor at DND) talked about how the Raoul Wallenberg monument had been desicrated with pig's blood.  During a recent trip to Budapest, she wondered if that was what Berlin felt like in 1933.  She's not the only one thinking that.

Here's another repeat of history; using all kinds of excuses about cutting costs and focusing on legitimate refugee claims, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is finding ways to send Sinti-Roma in Canada back to Hungary.  His messaging on this file sounds eerily familiar to that of a predecessor of his, Frederick Charles Blair.  Blair is remembered by history not for filtering out fake refugees or for saving Canada money, but for shutting out Jews trying to flee the Holocaust. 
It's all well and good for Kenney to make positive noise about funding and support and doing what's best for Canada, now, but history will judge him on the consequences of his actions.  How is this program being communicated to all, but especially to Hungarian refugee claimants?  Are we living up to our end of the bargain?  What is Canada doing to closely monitor what's happening in politics and on the ground in Hungary?  Have we learned anything from past mistakes?
Again - I really hope I'm wrong.  I fear that I'm not.  It would be better for everyone if Jason Kenney comes to his senses and we never have to find out.

God IS Great

The story of how a group of Libyans rushed Ambassador Christopher Stevens to hospital isn't one that will get told as widely as it should.  Already, there are those looking to poke holes in this act of humanity, because, well, it humanizes those more easily viewed as Other. 
That's sad, because within this story of empathy and altruism lies the true heart of Islam and a principle common to every major religion:
Put it another way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
People are people, no matter where we come from.  Individually, we are all capable of the same deeds.  Together, we can move mountains.  It's a lesson we're going to keep being taught until finally, we internalize it.  That's the moment we will truly know greatness.

Monday 17 September 2012

Spielberg Politics: Risk Doesn't Sell, But Vision Does

Cloud Atlas is just a movie - a sprawling, narratively complex film that tries to get us, the potential audience, thinking about the bigger, broader themes that connect us as human beings.  It tries to make us break outside the bonds of our usual perspectives.  That kind of storytelling doesn't come cheap.  Make no mistake - new ideas do cost money, because they break entirely new ground. 
The Fountain, a film that challenged us to rethink what we prioritize in life and how we view death, tanked.  On the other hand Avatar, which changed the way we view film and immersed us in the breathtakingly complex world of Pandora, wrapped a ground-breaking vision around a familiar story we've seen in everything from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai.  In so doing, it struck the right chords of visually new yet narratively familiar; with a solid marketing campaign, these details helped propel James Cameron's alien epic to the position of highest grossing film ever.
Films don't come cheap and the people who fund them do so with one goal in mind - profit.  So, Avatar gets a sequel.
In that way, film making is a lot like politics.  Politics is also about coming out on top.  Doing politics is not a cheap affair and in a survival-of-the-fittest game of escalation, the cost just keeps going up.  Advertising, polling, producing materials, holding conventions, recording phone calls, oppositions research and now, finding ways to bring the conversation to the online places where the people congregate costs millions of bucks.  These activities are the political equivalents to putting out trailers, going on the talk shows and putting billboards on street corners.  The end goal in both cases is the same; get the potential end-user off the couch and out to the theatre/polling station.  If all goes well, you can keep mining the well with sequel after sequel.
Call it the capitalist model of democracy; sellers must tailor products they know consumers will want and then work hard to convince end-users the product isn't a want, it's a need.  Movie marketers will tell us their latest product is "the must-see movie of the year" or "if you see just one movie this year, make it this one;" political operators replicate this leitmotif  by telling us that a vote for the other guys will lead to "a thousand years of darkness" or that only a vote for them is a vote for a secure tomorrow.
In short - traditional marketing tries to paint a picture of the risk lying in not buying into their product.

 In general, people don't like risk - they like stability.  Even when they stand upon a burning platform, they will wait until the ground gives way beneath them before taking a leap of faith into untested waters.  Unless, that is, someone charismatic enough with a vision that transcends stability and embraces something bolder steps into the light.

Steven Spielberg is one of the most bankable directors in the history of film.  His movies consistently bring us fun stories, likable characters and all the action, scares and humour we could ask for.  As a filmmaker, Spielberg has also made some incredible contributions to the medium of cinema - Jurassic Park broke ground with its use of computer animation.  The film that really kick-started his career, Jaws, became the world's first blockbuster.  Yet, Spielberg almost gave up on Jaws because he felt it was just too big of a risk.  It was his belief not necessarily in himself, but in his vision that kept him going.  Perhaps that anecdote hints at his greatest contribution - a sense of wonder, but also a belief that no matter how bad things seem, there's always a chance they'll turn out better. 

One of the most iconic moments in cinematic history is an image of a boy and an alien riding a bicycle through the sky, silhouetted by the moon.  It's pure magic.  But consider; we're looking at a child, at height, wholly caught in the clutches of an extra-terrestrial force.  In its essence, ET is any parent's nightmare; in the hands of another director, ET could have been a story more akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Same holds true for Jurassic Park; the novel on which the movie was based is a visceral experience.  James Cameron, that other highly bankable director, has recently discussed how close he came to getting the rights for the book and how his take would have been decidedly darker.

Spielberg himself has discussed what he considers to be his master image; the heavily back-lit door of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It's a beautifully juxtaposed scene; whereas traditional popcorn fare like Independence Day or Mars Attacks relies on the idea of the unknown (as represented by aliens in big ships) as something dark, sinister and malevolent, Spielberg infuses The Undiscovered Country with light, embedding the unknown with hope.  That's his big trick, the secret ingredient to the Spielberg success.  Spielberg movies unquestionably cost a pretty penny, but they always turn a profit; more than that, they generally inspire us to think that just maybe, tomorrow won't turn out so bad after all.  He is consistently ranked as one of the most successful film makers in the history of movies.
The Bearded One's next movie is, appropriately enough for the times, a political one - a biopic of the 16th President of the United States.  I don't think it's a coincidence that Spielberg's Lincoln focuses on a man successfully leading his country through constitutional, military and moral crises.  That was a dark time in history, the future of the United States looked pretty grim.  None could have predicted then what America would have become today.  Certainly, there were those who felt being part of a Union presented too much of a threat to their traditional way of life and stood fast against such a risk.
Lincoln never wavered from his steely determination and steadfast belief in a risky idea - that a strong society must be a just society and that a united whole was more than the sum of its parts.  A polarizing figure in his time (and the first US President to be assassinated), Lincoln is now ranked consistently as one of the best Presidents the United States ever had.  It's hard to imagine what would have become of America if the risk averse had won the day.
On both sides of the border there are, once again, conversations about Constitutions, the military and what has become of our moral fabric.  Financial times are tight and nobody wants to bet on risky ventures.  In fact, the most common political theme today is that stability can only be maintained if we shut our doors to external risks or by fighting against those who might challenge our status quo.  There are always those willing to die to stop change, for they view change as death itself.  If there is to be a brave new world, it's these folk that will have the hardest time living in it.
An uncertain future is rapidly drawing nearer; the stability one generation previous took for granted isn't waiting for those teenagers huddled on today's couches, nor for the unborn millions to come.   We have plenty of leaders casting themselves as the least risky guides through the shadows of tomorrow.  Perhaps what we really need is a vision of the future our youth can aspire to be part of.  Whoever can inspire us with their ability to light the way forward might just be the kind of leader we'd be willing to take a risk on.