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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.

Saturday 8 December 2012

The Lincoln of Political Metaphor

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Stress Response and Emotional Inoculation

This is a tragic story about an unnecessary loss of life.  It's also a fascinating look at how people react.  The man who took this picture has responded to questions about why he took a picture by instead focusing on how upsetting he found the behaviour of people closer to Mr. Han than he was.  Why did he feel this necessary?  Probably because he's got some internal cognitive dissonance between what he knows would have been "moral" behaviour (help Han up) vs. what he actually did.
Hindsight is a funny thing; it forces us to offer logical rationalization for reactive behaviour that is more gut instinct than logical reasoning.  Reactive behaviour relies on pre-programming, which happens much more quickly than abstract thought.  It shouldn't really be a surprise that a photographer would respond to an uncomfortable situation by turning to comfortable, established behaviour - like taking pictures.
Police, soldiers, fire fighters, even CPR students all go through test-case scenarios that help build familiarity with the sorts of stressful scenarios they could encounter in their jobs; consider it a kind of emotional inoculation.  While some people are more naturally inclined to react well under pressure, everyone can learn to handle prescribed situations better.  This principle underlies everything from cognitive behaivoural therapy to improv class.
There will be a lot of focus on what didn't happen in this situation; it's an instinctual approach to take.  A more useful one, though, might be to think about what could be learned to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Politics, Reporting, Producing: The Details Matter

Which, of course, is why value-add is so important. 

Polling and journalism: the future is in the details

Published on Saturday December 01, 2012
Polling and journalism, particularly political journalism, have a lot in common.
Both enjoyed huge surges in prestige, as well as income, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the trades began to be viewed as professions.
And both, thanks largely to leaps in technology, have been facing many serious and similar challenges in recent years.
Just as the Internet has given us do-it-yourself journalism, for instance, it has also given us do-it-yourself polling.
Media outlets that used to pay thousands of dollars for comprehensive public-opinion polls can now throw up an online questionnaire and call it an instant survey of the political landscape.
Seasoned pollsters complain there’s no science or rigour to these methods — “that’s not a poll, it’s a suggestion box,” Darrel Bricker, chief executive officer of Ipsos, is fond of saying.
Reporters make similar laments when bloggers claim they are practicing journalism. In the age of I-made-it-myself columns or opinion surveys, success is measured more by the buzz created and less by the methods used.
Given the similar threats to their businesses, then, you’d expect pollsters and journalists to be hanging together.
But in Canada,the polling-journalism relationship has hit a bumpy patch, particularly in the form of way-off election predictions at the federal and provincial level.
What’s gone wrong? Here’s one explanation: we journalists have been paying attention to the wrong polls.
Surveys and data are just as important as they were in the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, but it’s not the big horse-race numbers we should be watching — it’s the small micro-data now forming the backbone of winning campaign strategies.
Few people know this better than U.S. journalist Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, a best-selling book on how American political campaigns are mining mountains of data to build support.
Issenberg, recently named by Politico as one of the top 10 journalists who broke away from the pack in the recent presidential campaign, was in Toronto this past week to share some of the things he has learned by keeping his eye on the micro-campaign.
The Samara organization, dedicated to improving public-policy debate in Canada, hosted two speaking events for Issenberg. Judging by the 400-plus crowd that filled the Isabel Bader Theatre on Tuesday night, many of them seasoned political pros, there’s clearly an appetite in this country to learn about this much-overlooked aspect of modern electioneering.
When I got my chance to ask a question on Tuesday (I was lucky enough to be drafted as moderator), I asked Issenberg about an important piece he wrote for the New York Times this fall.
Headlined: “Why Campaign Reporters are Behind the Curve,” Issenberg warned: “Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. … It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either ‘grilled’ or ‘broiled.’ ”
So, I wondered, if we are behind the curve in political reporting, how do we get out ahead of it? How do we tell our readers or our audiences about campaigns that are created out of thousands, even millions, of “data points” guiding the political professionals?
Issenberg replied that a little humility was in order. Political journalists don’t have to stop covering the horse-race numbers or the big opinion trends — they’re still important, he said. But they have to stop pretending that the big picture is the only picture, that the campaign is being decided on the basis of what people see on television or on the artificial stage sets crafted by the politicians.
“Fundamentally, good political coverage needs to acknowledge that we cannot write with (any) sort of confidence about the entirety of the enterprise,” he said. “We need to be respectful enough of our readers to acknowledge how much of this is out of our reach and find a new knowledge of campaigns to engage that doubt.”
So there’s the challenge. If we want to repair the rift between polling and journalism, first we have to tell our audiences what we don’t know — what those horse-race numbers aren’t telling us. A five-point rise or fall in the polls may be far less important, in other words, than the data informing us what is motivating (or turning off) voters at the individual level.
Next we should start trying to find a way to know and report more on this micro-data.
We have nearly three years to go before the next federal election in Canada. That’s enough time, you’d think, to put journalism back in touch with the polling numbers that really count.
Susan Delacourt is a member of the Star’s Ottawa bureau.

Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

Monday 3 December 2012

Changing the Incentives

"Unless we change the incentives, we're not going to move forward."


If I could summarize everything I have written about on my blog - about capitalism, integrity, motivation, faith, consciousness and collaboration - that pretty much sums it up.

Neuron God

By David Flood.  It's feel-good New-Agey religious stuff to open with, but quickly lays out the psychology of faith, pro-social behaviour, etc.  We're seeing these worlds collide increasingly, to good reason; they're one and the same.

Neuroscience and the Mind of Christ

Posted: 12/03/2012 8:50 am

I believe in radical grace. I believe in the power of forgiveness and enemy love. But not because I am a naturally peaceful person. I believe it because I have seen the power it has to heal broken lives-- including mine!
But peace and forgiveness are not my natural inclination. When I feel wronged it's like a dark cloud comes over me and all my compassion vanishes. In the middle of that, all I can see is my perspective, all I can think about is defending my rights.
The way of enemy love is not intuitive. The very idea of loving the person you would normally hate is an intentionally provocative idea. But I've seen the profound healing that can come from enemy love, and so I want to follow in that way. I want, as Gandhi said, to "experiment with truth" and put the way of Jesus into practice in my life.
So I start out with baby steps. Practicing forgiveness with little things -- a fight with my wife for example, where we've both, in our anger and frustration, said things that hurt the other. If we're supposed to love our enemies, if Jesus forgave his executioners, can't I at least get over some petty slight? After all, my wife is hardly my "enemy," she's my best friend! So what's going on? Why is it so hard to forgive?
The Apostle Paul speaks of that same struggle. He laments that although he knows the good he should do, he finds that he still does not do it,
"We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature ... For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me." (Romans 7:14-23)

The Greek word sarx which is translated above as "sinful nature" in the NIV is more literally rendered as "the flesh." Paul contrast the "flesh" or "carnal nature" (which is characterized by lust, anger, etc.) with "the way of the Spirit" which, in contrast, is characterized by love,
"So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other ... The acts of the flesh are obvious... But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Galatians 5:16-23)

So if I desire to walk by the Spirit, why is it that when I'm in the middle of conflict I so quickly revert to that self-focused carnal mind? Questions like these have lead many Christians into a pit of self-doubt and condemnation. What's going on?
I'd like to suggest that new research in neuroscience can give us some really important insights into these questions.
When we are triggered in an argument, feeling flooded and emotionally threatened, this activates the amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved in the processing of raw emotions such as anger and fear. The amygdala is essentially the brain's watchtower, and when it is fired up in alarm mode, it sends out neurochemicals which effectively shut down the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with things like relational connection, empathy, impulse control, self-reflection, moral judgement and conscience -- in short, the part of your brain in charge of what we might call the social-self.
The brain's "shut-down" function has a practical survival function: It means that when we are in danger our brain kicks into alarm mode which can save our life. But it also means that when we get triggered in a argument with a loved one, the smart and compassionate part of our brain is temporarily turned off, which can make us do thoughtless and hurtful things.
So there's a very real reason neurologically that we become so self-focused in a fight. It's not a reflection of our character, so much as it is a kind of brain reflex based on a perceived threat. When we are unaware of this, we can get swept up in those feelings. But once we recognize what is happening, we can address what's going on in our bodies. This involves a two-step process:
The first step is to recognize what is going on in us. The part of our brain in charge of making good judgments has been temporarily shut down by our amygdala. So when Paul writes, "It is no longer I myself who do it" we can now answer: That's exactly right, it's your amygdala. Where we can perhaps nuance Paul's perspective a bit is recognizing that this is not something "evil," rather it's a protective reflex of the brain. This can be life-saving when we are in actual danger, but becomes dysfunctional when emotional reactivity makes us see an "enemy" in a loved one. It's a good thing that is out of balance.
This brings us to the second step: We need to have the maturity and humility to recognize that because we are emotionally triggered, we need time. We might compare this to having the maturity to recognize when you've had too much to drink, and handing over your keys. Similarly, when we're "under the influence" of the amygdala, we need to recognize that the smart and social part of our brain is impaired, and consequently have the maturity so let it wait, to cool down first. After all, as Paul says, forbearance and self-control are part of the fruits of the spirit too!
There's a temptation here to simplify the above equation, focusing on only one of the above two points: Some may want to stress the fact that the "flesh" of emotional reactivity is an involuntary bodily reaction which is not our conscious choice, and therefore argue that it is "not our fault." Others will stress the opposite point, arguing that we need to take charge of our ingrained behavioral patterns and feelings. The reality is that both are true at the same time. We therefore need to have a complex and integrated understanding of how these two seemingly opposed factors work in tandem.
On the one hand, understanding what is going on in our brains means we do not need to beat ourselves up about it. This is our body's unconscious involuntary reaction to feeling emotionally threatened, separated, insecure. Understanding what is going on in us can be comforting and normalizing. These are not bad choices we are making. In fact, they are not choices at all; they are involuntary reactions to a perceived threat. The thinking and social part of our brain has been shut down by our brain's panic center.
We can't help how we feel, but we can learn to mange what we do with those feelings, so we are not driven by emotional reactivity. Simply recognizing that our thinking and social-self is impaired is not enough however. Instead, we need to learn to recognize when we are flooded with reactive emotion, and exercise the maturity, humility and responsibility to wait until we can cool off and think socially again.
Paul tells us that as we walk in this way of the Spirit, that we will be "transformed by the renewing of our minds." Neuroscience confirms that again Paul was on to something big: It's a concept known as neuroplasticity, which refers the brain's ability to change itself based on our experiences. Amazingly, our brain actually structurally changes, based on the input it receives, creating new synaptic linkages and even growing new neurons. This means that, as we learn to engage our thinking and social prefrontal cortex in times of stress, our brain re-wires itself over time to be more naturally compassionate and social, and less driven by our "carnal" reactive emotions.
It's exciting to see new research on the brain verifying what the Apostle Paul saw so long ago. Of course It's never easy to change old patterns, and involves hard work. But hopefully, understanding how our minds work can help us get a little closer to having the "mind of Christ" as we learn to follow in that way.
Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross. Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod.

Sunday 2 December 2012

The Best Innovations Start Free


Texting started off free, and turned out to be quite profitable.  But, again, it started off free.  If the strict profit model had been applied here, we'd never have had texting - it needed to exist first for its value to be proven.  Someone had to take the risk by going pro-social with the service, first. The evolution of Facebook has followed a similar pattern - what starts off as fun, innovative and free becomes commercialized over time as the money people start to smell opportunity, then start to fear loss.

When it becomes solely about profit and related status, personal risk ceases to be desirable; consequences get downloaded to those with less to gain and more to lose, reducing the opportunity for innovation.  Instead, sure things are what get bet on.  In changing times, there's little that's 100% certain - even the buckets one tends to think of as immutable, like natural resources, aren't the cornucopia we often take them for.

Innovation is essential for growth, but it's dependent on vision first, capital second.  Something to think about.