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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.

Tuesday 31 December 2013

The Naming of Things: Owning Free Speech

Criticism is important; without it, poor ideas go unchecked and new opportunities are missed.  If people like Galileo and Newton had never bothered to question accepted wisdom; if inquisitive minds like Sigmund Freud or Alfred Kinsey had not thought to explore taboo topics, we'd all be lesser for it.

There is a huge chasm, however, between criticism and opposition for opposition's sake.

One seeks to move the conversation and with it, understanding forward; the other simply seeks to stop conversation dead in its tracks.  It's why in Politics, the goal of Opposition Parties is to grind government to a halt; it's why violence is the weapon of choice for those who've run out of ideas.

Goldenberg makes some excellent points; online anonymity is a refuge for cowards, though not the last one - merely the latest.  This can be a good thing and a bad thing; whistleblowers fearing for their careers and, in some cases, their life may want to do the right thing but not be prepared for martyrdom.  

At the same time, there are the trolls; these are the people who will say online under pseudonyms what they would never say in person.  These are also the folk who will break a window in a riot because they feel they won't get caught, or will join in a lynching when there's already a crowd with noose in hand.

But these people aren't an isolated demographic, one group that can be singled out - they are people, just as we are.  Therein lies the great irony and the deepest lesson.

We dehumanize people when we take away their names - by calling someone an  infidel, a Jew, a faggot, a bleeding-heart, red-neck, latte-sipping urban elitist, monster or any number of variations, we are removing their individuality to better fit a simple, emotionally satisfying narrative.

It's why, over time, we've feared and loathed the Inscrutable Oriental, the Arab menace, the 1% or the unwashed masses.  It's why the bad guys we dreaded most, be they the zombie apocalypse, the hive-minded aliens, partisans or The Other can always be understood as one homogeneous collective.

When trolls hide behind anonymity, they are equally stripping away their own individuality.  Perhaps the unaccountable attack makes them feel powerful, as does being part of a mob, but the very act of slipping into a pseudonym turns a person into a caricature, interchangeable with any other troll.   When we can and do act without consequence or attack without consideration, we dehumanize ourselves as well.  We trip away the thin veneer of civilization and revert to nothing more than animals.

It's beyond tragic that those who will raise their voices the loudest in defence of individual liberty and free speech as often as not are seeking freedom from everything that makes humanity special.

It's never been freedom and anonymity that has made us distinct, nor isolation or stagnancy; it's ownership, individuality and the ability to become more than what we are.  The flip side of I may disagree with what you say but will defend your right to say it is think before you speak.  

Thinking is not innate.

Which is why this is where I part ways with Adam Goldenberg.  After much study, thought and conversation, I've come to the conclusion that we are all-too often hung up on romantic notions of the superhuman ancestor, the idea that in simpler times we were better people.  I don't see much support for this in history.

As such I don't feel that, with the Internet, our collective decency is at risk.  I don't think there has ever been a collective decency.  In fact, I'd argue that stigma is an evolutionary development that was intended to keep small kinship groups safe from predators, competitors and illness.

The idea of collective decency isn't something we're straying from, but moving towards.  

It's a slow, tedious, painful process with almost as many steps backwards as there are forwards, but such is always the nature of progress.  

We began with the naming of things - ascribing unto them labels and identity born of our own perception.  This is language.

Where we're moving to is understanding the names others give themselves.  By understanding how others view themselves and us, we better understand who we are, as individuals.  Call it an introspective property inspection as well as an exploration of society's holdings.  It's also known as mindfulness or consciousness.

Conscience may make cowards of us all, but consciousness is all about ownership.  And light.

Monday 30 December 2013

NotifEYE For Missing Persons

Problem solving is a curse.  It doesn't turn off.
So, while there are those to turn to hope, or hate, or combatting hate in the light of Christopher Peloso's disappearance, I'm automatically thinking about who can help locate him now and what can be done to provide more rapid, less public assistance for everyone down the road.
Here's where I'm at now.
The Crime Prevention Association of Toronto (CPAT) has partnered with Guardly, a smart start-up with a Security App that's first in class globally (they're based here in the city, I might ad).  Guardly's basic App helps people in situations of distress (being chased, for instance) to send their geolocation to a set list of friends and security providers, up to but not necessarily including 911.  It's a lot easier to hit a button discrectely then to have to place a dead-giveaway call.
CPAT's contribution ups the game significantly.  One of the additions in their NotifEYE App is a push function; say you're a senior in Toronto Public Housing, have health issues but no family or friends who will come and check on you.  Instead of falling, breaking a leg and being found dead a week later because someone complains about the smell, let's say you miss hitting a pop-up you get daily on your phone asking if you're okay.  This sends a warning to a service provider who will place a call and, if there's no answer, ensure someone physically goes to check on you.  Your life could be saved.
Could this sort of application be used for people at greater risk of going missing?
There are all kinds of privacy and freedom issues that will surely be raised at this point, but read on. 
Some seniors have dementia issues.  Some people with depression issues, or schizophrenia or other conditions are more likely to feel the need to extricate themselves from a normal environments.  You could include some youth in this list, too.
If the person at risk and their family/caregivers/friends were to discuss such a NotifEYE system at a point where the at-risk individual was in a good headspace, parameters could be set with the goal of creating a clearly understood system, a safety valve that works for everyone.  In the case of pre-established period of time without contact, family/friends/caregivers could send out a simple message that says "are you okay" or something equally innocuous just to know the at-risk individual is okay.  The content and features of the push could be discussed and tailored by everyone concerned; the number of pushes allowed in a day or month could be established in advance.
The goal of such a tool wouldn't be supervision, but emergency.  Like any emergency preparedness tool, it ideally would never be used, but you'd be ready when and if the need arises.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Laying Foundation for 2014


Now's the time of year where political pundits spill their tea leaves into their coffee cups and see what's in store.  They tend to start with some low-hanging fruit - almost-certain eventualities they can comment on now so as to claim wins later.  From there, they look at the key personalities - leaders, their inner circles, big names on the stage that can sway headlines.  

Pundits will look at the map in terms of electoral districts - the West vs the East, Quebec, the 905, so on and so forth.  By breaking the population up into sub-groups, the theory goes, it's easier to predict what ripples starting where will shape the shore tomorrow.

In this way, they operate in much the same way as Political Parties do; they look for and nurture coalitions, star candidates and the keenest, known-commodity operatives.  From this perspective, it's a clear picture of Power, Party and People, lined up in just that way - if you can own or dangle the promise of power through a Party the better your chances of driving action, dollars and votes - and controlling behaviour - of the people.

But there are other forces at play that the seers at the top tend not to foretell.  As technology and social media connect people from coast to coast and around the world, we have a dynamic that reaches beyond political barriers.  People see the idealized  version of how others are living; they're also seeing that the sufferings they face are shared by many.

Governments of many stripes across the world are caught in an increasingly dissonant drive for #OpenGov, while at the same time the NSA is making headlines for questionable breaches of privacy and Canadian citizens are being turned away at the US border for private health-related matters.  People are paying attention, and they're not impressed.  This is particularly true as, no matter what or when, they are relentlessly bombarded with political messaging that makes to effort to provide answers, vision or even a bit of human connectivity.

People like symbols, protagonists and simple narratives.  It's why we like to tell ourselves individuals shape history for better or worse.  This largely isn't true; leaders are most often products of the mood of the people rather than the Machiavellian manipulators they claim to be.

The truth is, pundits and the people they ponder live in a world apart.  They look at the world through a lens of self-interest that blinds them to many of the deepest realities of the times.  Everyday folk aren't interested in electing one Party or another; they are worried about their future.  

It's not about politics for them - not leaders, not Parties, not occupiers of capitalized residences.  It's about the world they face when they walk out their door and the world their children will inherit.  Far too many parents these days carry the quiet anguish of the subtle realization the world they leave behind won't be as kind to their kids as it was to them, and that's troubling.

These people don't feel there's leadership at the top, so instead are looking laterally.  Social media is increasingly becoming a tool of communication rather than messaging.  Despite the cynicism, service providers including those in uniform are looking to work with each other and the people they interact with; they're recognizing that cooperation is the only sustainable way forward.  

If the people at the top refuse to play along, well, the game gets played without them.  

For this reason I don't think the greatest adventures of 2014 will be tied to Political Parties - in fact, I imagine Parties are going to have to adapt to them.  It'll be the people themselves, online and in person in both proactive and reactive fashion that will be the ones to watch.

Just something to keep in mind - after all, a healthy society is one with the capacity to adapt. This sometimes involves shedding old skins to allow for growth.


Saturday 28 December 2013

Stephen Maher, Vacuous Celebrities and a Hobbit's Tale

It's not hard to look at the headlines and headline-makers today and despair.  

There are so many narcissistic, vacuous celebrities out there who gain and maintain fame more through notoriety than through talent.  Making history has apparently become about shock value, not something resembling actual contributions of value.

Meanwhile, there is war, destruction and soul-sucking poverty; all avoidable, if people were willing to work together and plan ahead.

There are the preludes to war, leaders ragging the puck and offloading responsibility in ways that inevitably spark fires of social disruption.  We know what to expect, because we've seen it all again and again; it's Groundhog Day, only the loop runs just long enough for new generations to forget or ignore the lessons learned by their ancestors.

If you fear for the future of humanity, you've got just cause to do so.  

By all appearances, we're a petty, vengeful self-absorbed lot more prone to negative reaction that pro-social altruism.  How can we but end up in darkness?

And yet, there's nothing new to this picture - as Warren Kinsella points out, we've been enjoying bloodsports, ignoring the well-being of our neighbours and feeling better about ourselves through putting down others since before the written word.

Thug leaders with neither vision nor foresight like Rob Ford aren't uncommon - in fact, history is full of them.  I've said to many that Ford is like a toned-down version of Saddam Hussein and that, if not for the laws, expectations and culture of Canada, things in Toronto would be a lot worse.  

This can be taken as an insult against Ford, who is but a genetic and experiential product; it can also be taken as a compliment for the rest of us.

There are self-obsessed celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Rob Ford, but there are also good ones, people like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie who are equally famous, opt not to take themselves seriously and feel a responsibility to use their fame to further the goal of an equitable society.

More importantly, though, there are those people whose names the world will never know, but that you perhaps might; your neighbour, a teacher who cared, a boss who treated you as an apprentice rather than a resource.  There are also the innovators, the pioneers, the people who have changed the world as much as Johannes Guttenberg but without having their names recorded.  

History is replete with people like this.  In fact, history is a bit like an archaeological record; we will celebrate the names and events that are passed on through tradition, but much of what has shaped the world we live in was never written down; it simply was.

It's easy to look behind and feel frightened for what's to come, but what we see is not the entirety of what is.  The greatest people, the ones who bring promise of brighter days are not on the periphery, nor are they waiting just beyond the horizon.  

They're here, right now, doing what they do best which is not selling brands or making headlines, but doing the little deeds, developing small ideas that will lead to an avalanche of social change for which someone else will gain credit.

Don't feel bad for them, nor bitter - fewer people claim fame than we might think when we focus on those who do.  That, too, is how it has always been.  Our journey may seem like a slow decent into darkness; it isn't.  

We sometimes just need visionaries to remind us of this.

Monday 23 December 2013

That Which Doesn't Kill Us...

... brings us together. 

In the meantime, Toronto Hydro has asked those who have electricity service to "share the power" and consider inviting neighbours inside.

The Storm is bad, compared to what we're used to.  It's clearly no typhoon, though.

Throughout the hit zone, people are taking pictures, sharing news, sharing tips on how to stay safe or keep warm and are sharing their resources.

The worst is over, though some branches will still come down and there are still many without power  Of course, there are those who go without heat and shelter every day.

Be thankful for what you have, look to your neighbour and plan for the worst. 

Saturday 21 December 2013

Treatment For Holocaust Movie

This is a story I would love to see told on the big screen.  It's one that, unfortunately, is of incredible relevance as we slip back into the moral nihilism and selfish hatred that catalyzed World War II and the Holocaust.

My grandfather's story of survival began in a plane over Normandy, wound through the fields of Occupied Europe and into the street of Paris before taking an unexpected segue into Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  It's not a tale for the faint of heart, but then survival is never a pretty business.

Below is just the opening teaser; I have the entire treatment plus plenty of notes, contacts, references, so on and so forth.  What I need is someone with the courage and resources to bring this story to life.

Over a black screen:


“I pretended not to have seen, I pretended not to have heard, because I didn’t want to be responsible.”

-          Adalbert Lallier, Former SS Officer and retired Concordia Economics professor

June 8th, 1944, 01:30 in the morning.  With the invasion of Normandy two days ago, the Allied Forces have at last gained a toe-hold in Europe.  Bombers are being sent over France to smash Nazi depots and train stations, disrupting their supply lines to the front.  
One of these, a Halifax bomber with a Canadian crew, has been deployed to take out a rail yard near Paris.  Compared to many of their previous targets, this is a light assignment – the crew doesn’t expect any surprises. 
They are wrong.
The Halifax’s four engines rumble in the pre-dawn darkness.  A voice whispers, “approaching target – get ready.”  The hum of the engines changes pitch as the plane descends, and is joined by the explosive thuds of anti-aircraft fire from the ground.  The muffled noises are swallowed by a near-to-ear eruption; the plane is hit.
The darkness is broken by the blink of the pilot’s eyes.  The pilot is a young man, twenties – he turns his head left, craning to see the impact site.  His eyes widen as he sees the entire port wing is on fire, and spewing black smoke.  He curses.  Within the tight quarters of the plane – chaos.  Airmen scream over the noise.  Shouting to be heard over the ruckus, the pilot gives the order to bail out even as he tries to put out the fires that have sparked up.  
Barely 21 years old, wireless operator Ed Carter-Edwards from Smithville, Ontario throws on his parachute pack and lines up at the hatch.  The man in front of him jumps – Ed freezes, stares blindly.  The moment, the commotion around him – for precious seconds, Ed is removed from everything, lost in his own mental space, as if something is trying to hold him back.  Behind him, his fellow airman, Tom, shouts – something.  When Ed doesn’t respond, Tom kicks Ed out of the hatch.  The sudden drop brings Ed back to his senses; he shakes off the shock and looks around as the others pull their ripcords.  The blazing Halifax lights up the sky as it drops, a smoke trail extending behind it.  Nazi fire bursts around the former occupants of the downed bomber.  Young Ed pulls open his own chute, which he has not tightened as well as he should – the force as he’s pulled upward nearly splits him in half.  Ed watches wide-eyed as, from the darkness, the plane that brought his down – a Focke-Wulf 190 – flies past like a shark circling its prey.   Looking down, the Canadian sees the outline of the River Seine, and nearby, the lights of a small village.   The Halifax crashes into the ground, sending up a fireball as the fuel and bombs ignite.
The young airman touches down hard in a pitch-black field, cracking his chin with his knees.  He has not been trained on how to land.  In the distance, the wreckage of his plane burns, a black plume of smoke reaching up towards the starless sky.   He’s deep in the French countryside, far behind enemy lines.  Completely alone, he realizes the Nazis must already be on the look-out for survivors.  Ed separates himself from his parachute, wraps it up to stow away, all the while scanning the horizon, trying to guess where his fellow airmen might have landed.  Ed double-checks that he has his emergency kit, then takes off at a run for the nearby forest.  He stops – running parallel to him but 20 metres off, silhouetted by the firelight from the plane, is another figure.
For a second, Ed stands, quietly.  Hopefully, the gunner figures it must be one of the boys, and shouts out, “Who is it?  It’s Ed!”  A relieved voice calls back, “It’s Tom!”  The tension is immediately cut in half – even one friendly face makes a difference.   They run to each other, slap each other on the shoulders – “Ed, what happened to you up there?”  “I dunno – I just.. froze.  Hey, we can talk later – let’s get out of here”. 
They make for the woods.  Under the cover of trees, they stow their chutes in the bushes.  The young men run through the woods in the direction of the village they saw from above.  They hear voices, freeze.  When the voices have passed on, the men decided to spread out – that way, if one gets caught, they can warn the other.  Tom runs first; Ed counts to ten, then takes off after him.  To the right, a light comes on, blasting the woods in a white-blue glow; it’s followed by loud voices.  Ed stumbles, drops.  Waits as long as he dares, then, running flat out, he rushes after his friend.  In the darkness, Ed comes to a fork in the road.
He looks to the left.  Looks to the right.  Back.  In as loud as a voice as he dares, Ed calls out Tom’s name.  No answer.  Again – silence.  Cursing under his breath, the lights and noise still behind him, Ed takes the right-handed path.   It’s a choice he will live to regret.

Friday 20 December 2013

Quilotoa: Keep On Climbing

This picture was taken 15 years ago today, at the mid-point of a brutal hike out of Quilotoa volcano in Ecuador.  That trek is far the most excruciating thing I have ever done.

A friend of mine and I, on holidays from a year-abroad program in the country, backpacked around the famous Quilotoa loop; for something different, we decided to camp out in the crater rather than around the rim with all the other tourists.

Quilotoa rests at 3,914m - right where the earth bulges at the equator, thinning the atmosphere down to a wisp.  For an asthmatic, merely breathing under those conditions was a Herculean effort.  

It was a fairly quick hike down the rock path and a sandy embankment, leading through some surreal landscape and even a field of flowers down to the edge.  My trust backpack, as pictured above, weighed me down a bit further - every step I took into the crater, I knew, would be an added torture on the climb out.

You don't dwell on such things when you're 20.

The Dark came fast within the depths of Quilotoa.  My friend and I had barely set up our tent when a lid of clouds settled at the crater's rim, sealing us in for the night.  

We explored, gingerly, afraid to stray too far from our tent.  We were both struggling for breath and energy and worried, senselessly, that someone might steal the tent while we were away.  A silly worry - on that night, we were very much alone.

It began to rain.  Great teardrops dripped from the cloud above, quickly blotting out the sky and the landscape between us and our tent.  Spent, we none-the-less mustered every ounce of speed we could and rushed down the embankment and across the impossible field of flowers that separated us and the promontory where rested our shelter.  It looked so small and fragile in the immensity of the crater; fragile, and increasingly vulnerable.

We dove in to the tent, bring both my friend's small pack and my larger one, which carried the supplies, in with us.  And then the Dark settled in, the howl of the rain blocked out all other sound and we settled in for a long night of pitch black and creeping cold.

The rain didn't stop all night - it kept pounding the walls of the crater and our little tent, creeping up through the floor and dampening our sleeping bags and clothes, chattering our bones.  Sometime past the witching hour, a new sound joined the thunderous rain; distant rumbles that grew louder, moved faster and ended with heavy splashes.  


So heavy was the rain that it was ripping loose the walls of the volcano, sending tumbling waves of rock down into the carter lake metres below us.  We'd picked our campsite well - the promontory jutted out into the water.  But was it far enough?  The night crept on as we silently waited for the rumble to grow closer and swallow us whole.

Dawn came; we were still alive.  With stiff, frozen joints my friend and I roused, opened the tent and began to prepare for the hike out.  After a quick breakfast of market-bough goods we laid our sleeping bags and clothes out to dry.  Our breath pushed heavy against the frozen air, but we knew it wouldn't be long until the sun rose above the lip of the crater and the heat poured on intensely.

Above us, we could see the sunlight glinting off the cameras of tourists up above.  Where they were, it was warm already.  We watched, holding our arms close and stomping our feet as the sun slowly spilled into the crater and crept down to our level.  The shift in temperature was astonishing - from freezing and wet to hot and sweaty within the space of minutes.  

We waited, steeling ourselves for the climb out as our gear dried and the muddy embankments returned to their sandy state.  Packing took on the airs of ritual, an attempt to connect with divine forces to give us the strength for that which was to come.

And then we climbed.

My knees ached, by back bowed under the wait of my pack made only more burdensome by the hot sun that beat down on us both.  The ground gave way with each footfall, turning every step out into a half step, or sometimes a retreat.  And all this before we reached the sandy embankment.  That we climbed on all fours, grasping at the sifting surface before us, looking for anything to cling to, to keep us from falling behind.  With the constant sliding, we must have climbed that bit at least three times over.

The world stripped away from us - we were laid bare, naked under the sun in our drive to get out of the cavernous crater that had become our world.

My lungs simply ceased to function; oxygen-starved muscles strained, whipped on by willpower alone, but it was not enough.  Finally my friend had the compassionate wisdom to suggest we switch packs for a while - mine, after all, carried the tent and gear.  I took his, barely conscious enough to show gratitude.  The hike became slightly more bearable from there.

I couldn't tell you how long it took us to ply our way out of the cave and back to the surface.  It felt like forever - or perhaps, it felt like an experience that took place beyond time, in a world that nestled below the surface of the world we accept as home.  

Close to emergence, my friend and I began to regain our youthful cockiness, even if it was just in the airs we put on for each other.  

Then a local indigenous man walked by with a massive bundle of branches on his shoulders.  It must have been twice his size, that load of branches; like an ant, he'd scurried down in to the crater with the sunrise, collected, tied and picked up his load and was now casually walking out.  It was a humbling moment.

We determined we would beat this man out, just because we felt the need for some kind of victory, some sort of validation to cap off our experience.  The man himself didn't care - this was his daily routine, he saw lots of tourists come and go.  The cycle carried on, and would long after we'd gone.

Finally, my friend and I were on the path that led to the crater's rim and then, out into the tourist encampment that greeted all visitors.  Backpackers were playing cards, taking pictures, eating local treats bought from a restaurant tent off to one side.  We paused for a picture to prove we had done this thing, then stumbled to the tent and bought a couple of Cokes.  We needed the caffeine and carbonation.

For a moment we just sat, existing, recuperating, being.  We'd earned that much.  My friend turned to me and smiled.

"Keep on climbing, eh?"  We still said "eh" in those days.

I smiled back and nodded.  Keep on climbing.  

Since then I've climbed many a peak and dipped down into many a valley.  The valleys are always dark, shadowed; while in them, you feel below the world.  The peaks can be tortuous, but after Quilotoa, always surmountable.  I did the Machu Picchu trail a bit more than a year later - it was equally hard, but never once did I doubt my ability to complete it.  Quilotoa gave me that.

You can never know what lies beyond when you're deep in a valley, nor know the depths of the valleys to come when you sit atop a mountain high.  But they are both there - they are always there.  

I'm often asked what my secret is, keeping my head high even when I'm in a valley.  

The trick is easy; just keep on climbing.  The simple experience makes it all worthwhile.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Taking it Backwards: Tackling Prostitution In Canada

Many will say I'm bass-ackwards about this, but are we not trying to solve the wrong problem?  Isn't cracking down on prostitution a bit like forcing women to wear more clothes so as not to tempt men, or penalizing drug users instead of the drug production chain?

If we're really concerned about women (and girls) being sexually exploited by men, it's more than just a prostitution thing - it happens in rape, in work-place harassment, in the home and all kinds of non-sex trade related contexts.  A focus on prostitution does nothing to address any of this; in fact, the sorts of suggestions Perrin brings forward will do nothing but drive existing practices underground, increasing the risk (and excitement, and profit margin) for johns and pimps, making the situation worse.

Why don't we spend more time teaching boys and men not to objectify women?  A little social-emotional learning here, a bit of self-regulation there, maybe some communication strategies.  Hell, if you want to be cheeky, teach proper courting techniques so boys can compete with each other for the affections of ladies through demonstrations of chivalry.  When you view women as products to be bought/earned through gift-giving, you're gonna be inclined to treat them as service providers instead of people.  That's easily addressed through education.

We've got this social cognitive dissonance where we want to believe it's wrong to influence behaviour, that "boys will be boys" but then end up spending far more on back-end justice measures when it would be far more effective to get in on the front end.

Instead of abolishing prostitution, why don't we instead focus on abolishing stigma, discrimination and misogyny?  Is that not a sexy enough goal to strive for?

2014's Heart-Shaped Economy

   - Stephen Harper

Harper-brand conservatism considers itself to be pragmatic.  They know what works, what has always worked - carrot-and-stick motivation, trickle-down economics (though they'll never call it that) and as little government involvement in anything as possible.  Regulation-free competition in the free market is the best way to get the best of everything - it's economic natural selection.

But here's the thing - what do you do when the Free Market starts to support an emerging trend of sociology-committing?  

Because that's exactly what's starting to happen.  We'll get back to this in a minute.

As I've written about at length here and elsewhere, market conditions have outgrown the training, employment and motivation model that has sustained Canada's (mostly) natural resources and basic manufacturing-based economy forever.  What Harper and co consider to be "pragmatic" and "the natural order" is now outdated and insufficient for the complex, completely unnatural configuration that is the modern society.

At the turn of the 19th Century, education wasn't really that necessary for most people to get by - there was the family farm and perhaps a trade to learn.  Civic engagement meant community engagement, not concerning oneself with the broader economic realities of multiple domestic jurisdictions and countless foreign ones.  Competition was limited.

When we entered the 20th Century, things were different.  Social infrastructure (and the demands placed on it) were more complex and nuanced - more people had more opportunities to get ahead, life expectancies and such increased and we began to add more value beyond hewing wood and hauling water.  There was a cost to this, though, which most notably took its form in increased demand from the citizenry.

It's the 21st Century now and, sure enough, things are changing.  The people in charge may try to recreate an industrial economy policy environment, but the leaders in our midst believe that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, but are waiting to be achieved tomorrow.

These leaders are digging deep (into themselves, not the earth) and reaching out further (not only to new markets, but to explore existing ones in more pervasive ways).  They are thinking critically and encouraging their teams to do so.  They're even encouraging their end-users to be part of the process, co-designing both products/services and the producer/seller/client relationship.

Critical thinking based on a broad knowledge base is becoming increasingly popular in the education sector.  Instead of dumbing-down language for youth kids or a strict reliance on a stern-father rote-learning model ("here's everything you need to know from the person who does know - now get out there and sell it!"), kids are being encouraged to draw from varied sources, be part of solution-generating and to take ownership of themselves and their relationships from as early an age as possible.

That punk new graduate who's suggesting they'd like to see more employee engagement in the office aren't being cheeky and disrespectful - they're applying behavioural economics to work design and trying to facilitate growth in your company.  Chew on that!

Of course, cutting-edge employers and HR supports are changing the way they do employee recruitment, engagement and motivation as well.  Whereas far too many leaders today will carry airs of superiority while simultaneously down-loading service/product development, sales and implementation to their teams, fostering competition between their staff to try and generate more everything, smart employers are placing themselves as directors on a stage, bringing in the right mix of talent to create a fully-engaging experience for everyone.  It works better.

This concept of lateral, relationship-based engagement is popping up everywhere; between different levels of government (at the staff level, at least), between public and private entities and between individuals.  The silo-based models of old have cracked, and hands are reaching out to meaningfully connect with each other.

The theme for 2014, I predict, will be friction between these two realities - the failing top-down model embodied by the old elite and the emerging new one where engagement, transparency and shared solutions aren't just buzzwords, they're the ticket to success.

Like a snake shedding it's skin, it'll take a great deal of social spasms before the new model is free to grow and flourish.  There will be plenty of tensions along the way; the old world won't give up it's hold on the present so easily.

There will be old-school battles between unions and governments, big business and new employees, organizations that support people vs. those who aim to grow financially.  Some of the big cracks in our social infrastructure will grow, and sadly more people will fall into them.  Count on some protests under big banners, like we've seen recently with Idle No More and Occupy, only more organized and less passive.

The combative people are still here and will continue to do what they know best - to fight for what they believe they are entitled to instead of proactively seeking shared solutions. 

Which is why it's a fun thing that tomorrow's leaders are all about sociology - not pandering to have-nots or criminals, but understanding behaviour and context so as to shape outcomes in positive ways. Folk like Harper have just as much opportunity as anyone to master the social tools of engagement, but to do so would involve becoming everything he stands against.  

There's nothing surprising in any of this - after all, it's the behavioural economy, smarty-pants.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Don't Put Brand Before Health

God, this makes me sad.

First off - Ministers of Finance don't create jobs.  The only way they'd do that is by directly hiring themselves, which, given the Conservative government's disdain for the public sector, isn't likely.

But it's the rest of the statement that's absolutely tragic.  What does Flaherty's past record have to do with his current health?  It's great that Flaherty's abilities have the confidence of the Prime Minister - so, what's the PM doing to help his number one minister on the health front so he can do his job, or create the right accommodations for him?

Look, I get it - politics is all about finding and exploiting weak links.  Parties have to circle the wagons, deny anything is ever wrong (until they can't, at which point someone goes under the bus) and only ever point to successes.  To do otherwise is to let down your firewall and risk contagion or assault.

Harper's got good reason to position himself this way; if the roles were reversed, he would probably relish pointing out how an opposite member was not up to the job.  It's pretty clear that some of the existing opposition forces are looking for how best to exploit Flaherty's condition as well.

But if Flaherty's not allowed a misstep, if his Party is going to put brand before the man's health, what happens to him?

I've argued before that a good deal of the Rob Ford fiascoes that consume City Hall are related to partisan positioning, an antiquated view on wellness and poor support and training for politicians and their staff.  

Anyone that's been involved with politics has known a politicians who hid illnesses - and in some cases, had their addictions covered up by Parties - so as not to appear weak in the public/media's eye. Politics is a bloodsport, after all - if you can't cut it for any reason, you're not meant to be there.  

But politicians are human - they do a difficult, under-appreciated, poorly supported job, often far away from home.  It's noble work, but so's working in a hospice or serving with the police - but those professions take conditions like emotional fatigue syndrome seriously.  They also, in fits and spurts, do a better job of recognizing and accommodating physical illness.  

After all, it's not about the appearance of doing a good job or being able to point to a history of performance - it's about sustainability.  How do we help people continue to do a good job now and in the future?  How do we support transitions, institutional memory transfer, so on and so forth?  

Perhaps most importantly, because the whole point of work and politics is to support the social construct, thereby supporting individual well-being - how are we ensuring that individual wellness is at the centre of everything we do?

The truth is that we aren't.  We put "the economy" before the workers and "the Party" before the Members.  

It's not a crime that Flaherty is sick.  No one should be using illness as a stick to beat him with.  In fact, if he's on drugs that impact his mood, then colleagues on both sides of the House who respect him as a person and want to see him do his job to the best of his ability should be taking this reality into account during conversations (or confrontations).

I don't know Flaherty and I'm not particularly fond of his approach to politics or policy.  But I respect the fact that he is a human being, a husband and a father and, like the rest of us, mortal.

There's a lesson to be learned in this, if anyone's looking - one that ties into a much bigger, emerging picture about social stability and renewing labour in a changing economy.  We can understand the human reality and the social matrix and do both better; strong individuals can and should be the foundation of a strong society.  

But that would be a bit too much like committing sociology.

Interstellar: As Above, So Below

I'd disagree with Nolan on a quibble - we have not always defined ourselves by our own ability to be greater than we are, to do the impossible.  Most of the time, we define ourselves by what we are not, or by who we stand against.

The Cold War was a great example of this.  People who inhabited this same small planet, breathed the same air and equally cherished their children's futures were willing to throw everything away over manufactured differences.

It was in this time of global tension that one man stood up before the world and dared to demand the impossible - putting a man on the moon.  We did that, and the world changed.  

Not every problem was solved, not every grievance was settled and equitable justice for all remains an elusive goal, but the people were given a mission of historic proportions to rally behind, rather than rally against.  

Of course, Nolan gets this.  He's not trying to tell us how it is - he's trying to inspire us with a vision of what we can be.  You see, leaders don't put themselves above the people - leaders point us in the right direction.

You don't find if you don't look.  

Community of Engagement


We live in interesting times.

A whole series of political/infrastructure issues that have received band-aid solutions for years and years are getting to the point where invasive surgery is needed.  Urban transit is in dire need of a structural fix that goes beyond one-off subway lines, requires buy-in from a host of different players and likely will involve a complete cultural revisitation of commutes and work.  For folk in rural Ontario, the appearance of urban bias is distinctly troubling - they want a focus on issues more relevant to them, ranging from service access to broadband and increased economic opportunities.

Healthcare costs continue to balloon; we want to pay less, but we also don't want a reduction in care. As the silver surge begins to crest, this is going to get even worse.  Our economy is stalled - there's enough evidence as to why this would be the case (we have a risk-adverse, weather-the-storm business culture that is refusing to invest in innovation, new ventures and new talent).

On top of all this, mistrust of politicians is at an all-time high (or low).  It seems every new leader comes in promising to be transparent, accountable and honest, then become an even worse caricature than the leader's they were elected to replace.  This is particularly true among youth, who are the future - they don't trust that politicians, or their elders have their interests at heart.  They don't have much hope for the future and are planning accordingly.

Then, there's the silo-based institutional challenge.  Government was designed for simpler times; like files stuffed in a drawer, new additions of service, administration and accounting have been piled beneath what was there before, creating a series of teetering towers of Ministries and Agencies that have insufficient structural supports/information flow between them.  Oh - and no metrics.

And of course, we have political culture operating much as political culture always does; whoever is in charge tries to control the narrative so as to bolster their chances for future electoral success while opposition parties look only to point out flaws, blow them up into scandals and pin absolutely everything on the government of the day.

The problem is, people in general increasingly know how the game and know what to look for. Impossibly puffed-up brands are quickly deflated.  Underselling and over-delivering always works well, but the over-delivering part has become uncommon, as the narrative keeps coming back to the big bad structural issues that are messy to fix, hard to sell and uncomfortable for everyone involved.  There are no big-thinking giants on the stage anymore - the problems we face have outgrown the usual suspects.  

If you're in politics, it's hard to see any way out.  It's easy to avoid the need for a way out - incrementalism has, after all, worked well in the past.  If you're comfortably ensconced in the clay layer at the middle of the bureaucracy - the folk that don't get cut, don't much rise above, but control the implementation of everything - your imperative for change is minimal, too.

At the front lines, though, people are increasingly agitating for change.  They don't know what it looks like, but they know it's long overdue.  Something has to give, they feel, and it ain't them - they've given enough.  Unions are girding for battle.  Community groups are hardening their hearts and sharpening their swords.  Political operators are picking their fights and driving their wedges.  The Private Sector is staying out of it, or strategically fighting only where their interests are at stake.  Winter has arrived.

But this isn't a war any one group can win - because the opponent isn't a nation that can be disarmed, a government that can be supplanted or a community that can be oppressed.  When the dust clears, we're still all going to be here with a system that increasingly serves none of us well.

You can't fight evolution.  You can't cut out overburdened infrastructure.  We, collectively, need to solve this the hard way.  It won't be tough Boss-leaders that lead this charge.  It may not even be political leaders that provide the vision and direction.  In a flat communications landscape, you never know where leaders will emerge from.

Which brings us back to consultations.  There are always lots of consultations going on, but they're not always what they sell themselves as - there's a wealth of difference between discuss, decide, do and decide, message and defend.  The latter has always been good enough; it isn't any more.

A couple of key consultations happening right now that involve the City and the Province on issues of structural importance and, thankfully, they're being done well.  Recruited teams have broken the third wall of the echo chamber and are engaging in meaningful, demonstrable ways with regular people.  It's not easy, this, building trust where none has cause to exist, bridging communication gaps and sifting through opinion to find actionable policy - but it's necessary.  Besides, for problem solvers, easy is boring.  They relish the challenge of building something new.

And that's the key difference right there.  You don't hear about it, but there is a nascent community of problem solvers with voices at all different levels that are putting shared solutions first.  These are senior bureaucrats, the odd political staffer and lots of first-tier civil servants, but there are also lots of community activists, professionals from various fields and social catalysts of all kinds.

This community doesn't have a name, but it is slowly piecing together the foundation of a more integrated and engaged society.  You'll be hearing more about this emerging group as they become better coordinated and as the need for them to step up grows more dire.

Think Nobody Will Notice?

The insane part is thinking, I bet no one will notice.

Well, think again.  People don't like being lied to, they don't like being condescended to and they don't like being played for chumps.  The order varies.

Whether people mind any of these things enough to react to them depends on an irrational, sub-conscious (read: limbic) cost/benefit/irrelevance analysis. 

We are less likely to care about being called pedophiles by people half-way around the world than we are to get angry if the same is said about us by someone in our social circles.  We're more likely to turn a blind eye (or even justify) the unconscionable if it's done in a manner we see as beneficial to our interests.

This works as much for dissemination as it is for reception.  That LaBeouf thought he could get away with plagiarism and didn't feel any sort of responsibility to his audience to create original material says something about his internal appreciation for those audiences. 

The same holds true for Rob Ford and his enablers.  In fact, the same holds true for much of politics.

Much, but not all.  Smart players are recognizing that, thanks to mass-exposure through social media, a social murmuration effect is being created.  People aren't just noticing, they are feeling both compelled and empowered to reactive collectively.

It's not a good time to be inauthentic, which means it's a good time for everyone.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Doing Nothing Is Not A Strategy

  - Mel Brooks

The Conservative ideology is based on this basic premise - people are rational actors and, left to their own devises, will make the choices that are in their best financial interest.  It's when you have things like social programs, regulation and unequal tax breaks that people and businesses get all squirrely.

Therefore, he has no interest in expanding the Canadian Pension Plan.  He isn't a fan of welfare programs.  Like his family friend, Rob Ford, Flaherty thinks that a job is a job - people should just get one.  If the opportunity is driving taxis, like he did, then do that.  If it's moving to Alberta to work in the oil sector, do that.  

The pressure is on individuals to make themselves worthy of hire by companies, who should be taking a laissez-faire approach to hiring, and innovation, and corporate social responsibility.  After all, they have to spend their money wisely - investing in something that's not a sure thing isn't wise.  

Except, he also thinks it's the responsibility of the Private Sector to stimulate the economy.  Canada's already done it's party, he said: "We've done a lot through the tax system to encourage Canadian executives, business people, to start utilizing some of the capital they have on their balance sheets."

Yeah, and?  Just as Flaherty is telling Canadians its their job to plan for their individual economic futures, Canadian businesses are planning for their future.  More money in the bank and less expenditures means better individual long-term sustainability.  Winter has come and Canada is in economic hibernation.  They intend to carry on carrying on, looking for cost savings in cuts and hiring more people on contract so as not to have to invest in their individual well-being through pension and health plans.

So, you have individuals who are either stuck in positions that don't provide benefits/don't make enough to save or don't have work at all.  The unemployed would love to get work, but the fact is they aren't trained for existing positions or worse, are over-trained; employees aren't going to invest in people they don't think will stick around, even though they'd only put them on contract anyway.

What happens when you have a risk-adverse government that's not interested in investing, a business culture that is anti-risk and anti-investment and individuals who are struggling to keep roofs over their head today and therefore unable to plan for their long-term sustainability?

When nobody is investing in long-term sustainability, you end up with long-term societal rot.  This takes the form of broken infrastructure, poverty, crime and more self-interested thinking that reduces charitable giving and leads to frayed nerves and antagonistic behaviours - not something you want in densely populated communities.

As federal administration and planning fails, provinces are looking to seize political wins and also invest in solutions; as they're closer to ground-level, they will wear the brunt of the feds failures more than the feds themselves will.  This is exactly what Team Harper want, of course - a breakdown of social systems and an increasingly feudal approach to problem solving.  For all their fiscal focus, the CPC seems not to understand economies of scale.

So Ontario is jumping in with plans to do its own pension plan, which is s starfish solution if ever there was one.  But then again, they haven't been left much choice.  Someone has to lead and when the feds ignore national problems, someone has to step up.

There's no way Ontario can afford to do this properly and besides, they've got other issues on their burner.  The Opposition Parties are going to focus on every fault and scandal they can tie to the governing Liberals and for their own interests, are stirring up resentment and hostility between their core constituencies.  Whoever wins, there will be a lot of unhappy people agitating for change.  Like Flaherty, they're looking for their own wins and aren't going to be interested in spending their own money to invest in someone else's benefit - be it unions, welfare programs or tax dollars that seem to fund corporation-friendly policies over social justice.

Fortunately, there's a small foundation of forward-thinking people and institutions starting to emerge on the social/political landscape.  Police are looking into social media and creating community relationships.  Social entrepreneurs are structural solution development ahead of personal fortune. Even some private-sector organizations are recognizing that the world is changing and are working to adapt.  Open Government is trendy, though its implementation is far from certain.

Some people are looking ahead and realizing that the road we're on leads to a dead end, so they're branching out, changing direction, looking for bridges.

But not Flaherty.  He's got his one last chance to build a positive legacy for all time, to validate all the losses of his career - if he can balance the budget by 2015, then his time in office will have meaning.  

In his defence, Flaherty is in need of something positive to cling to right now.  He's tired, his health isn't great and he has various political albatrosses, some of which are named Ford, constantly circling him. Like anyone under stress, he is becoming functionally fixed on what he's defined as a win and is less and less prepared to spare a thought on anything that doesn't get him there.

Which means he's making a choice not to look at the big picture, not to take a look at emerging trends and pointedly ignoring the consequences of his inaction.

Doing nothing theoretically creates opportunities for everyone to step up, but it doesn't guarantee it happens - nor does it guarantee coordinated efforts.  Ragging the puck doesn't get you further ahead, it simply eats up the time you have available for action.  Inaction is not a strategy and playing "wait and see" is not leadership.  We sorely need leadership right now.

We might think if funny if Flaherty falls into a career sewer because he refused to look ahead - it won't be so funny if he brings Canada's economy and our own fortunes with him.