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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.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Socially Conscious and the Power of Mentorship

We love the notion of the solitary innovator, the heroic, Horatio Alger myth of individual success against the odds.  We hold up as examples those strong individuals who have risen not matter what obstacles they've faced and tell ourselves, "if they can do it, anyone can do it."
It's a particularly appealing notion because placing all the burden of success on the shoulders of the individual and abdicates everyone else from responsibility.  Homeless people just need to get their moxie together and find homes and work; the unemployed just need to work harder at finding work; kids who fall in to gangs just need to exercise more moral judgment.  Under this logic unions, social services and government are impediments to individual success - take away the burdens of social infrastructure and people will get on just fine, thank you very much.
There are a few problems with this logic.
First one's easy; the history of history is a move away from individual survival of the fittest and towards social collaboration.  If you look at the embodiment of the political vision of a Rob Ford, Tim Hudak or Stephen Harper - well-armed individuals as masters of their own domain, paying less taxes, unencumbered by the state and focusing on punitive responses to misdeeds over proactive consensus building, you get Northern Afghanistan. 
You also get the Taliban, which is essentially a gang - which, in themselves, are an early form of government not much different in their retaliatory approaches than tribal warfare.  Eye for an eye, etc.  Canada's impoverished communities, oddly enough, face problems with gangs and crime; when mainstream society sticks to its "throw 'em in the deep end and then they'll learn to swim" mentality, someone else will step in and provide a home, a community and a chance for success to youth disenfranchised with the obstacles they face.
It's all well and good for the political right to say these kids, they just need to strengthen their moral fibre and say "no" to crime and corruption, but isn't that a bit like telling politicians attack ads aren't good for democracy?  Crime pays and as we clearly see across the board, there are always political folk feel that any ends justify the means and that the right way to handle scandal is to invest in the cover-up, not structural solutions.
Next - we have painfully obvious communication gaps in our society.  I can't attend one meeting without witnessing the phone-game effect, with confident silos leaving yawning gaps into which people, whole communities fall.  "I didn't know" or "that's not my job" comes as poor comfort when there are so many heart- and wallet-breaking incidents of duplication, gaps and overlaps.
This means that services don't work half as well as they could; it also exemplifies the problems faced by people at the bottom of the economic spectrum.  If kids from poor neighbourhoods grow up dealing with police officers but are never exposed to positive mentors like, say, a Rhiannon Traill, they will inevitably view the system as hostile.  If nobody ever teaches them the modern equivalent of fishing - how to get a driver's license, how to sell oneself in an interview, financial literacy, etc - are these invididuals somehow supposed to intuit on their own a world to which they have no exposure?  Isn't that a bit like saying it's up to Mitt Romney to spend a few nights living homeless to understand the challenges faced by people without addresses?
There are all kinds of cognitive reasons why we resist outreach, mentorship and informed, empathetic communication, but I'll put it to you this way - if we, the "top" portion of the economic spectrum aren't willing to engage and experience the challenges faced by the marginalized, how fair is it for us to expect the reverse?
Fortunately, there's a way forward.  History is the story of walls coming down and bridges being build, creating access and opportunity for growing numbers of people, whatever their personal backgrounds and stories.  Mentorship, two-way communication, cross-sectoral partnerships and a bit of systems theory are all part of that equation.
Dismantling thousands of years of social evolution and expecting individuals to stand strong individually won't work; empowering individuals to contribute to a collaborative society will.
We don't need politicians who preach, pontificate or defer - we need leaders to lead by example.

Monday 10 June 2013

The Rise Of Social Entrepreneurship: A Possible Future For Global Capitalism

If you read this blog at all, you'll know why I liked this article so much.

Live consciously, see clearly.  It's really as simple as that.

Note: Richard McGill Murphy is the managing editor of Voices on Society, a print and online publication from McKinsey & Company. Denielle Sachs is director of social impact for McKinsey & Company.
As the first Internet stock bubble neared its popping point in 1999, IBM chief executive Lou Gerstner famously dismissed the dot-com start-ups of his day as “fireflies before the storm—all stirred up, throwing off sparks.” The Internet would truly achieve its disruptive potential, Gerstner argued, when thousands of big institutions around the world started using the new communication and technology platform to transform themselves. He was right. Although many of the dot-com players did not survive the 2000 market crash in technology stocks, they were indeed harbingers of a coming business revolution.
Nearly 15 years later, we see a new set of fireflies before a different storm. This time, an explosion of creativity in social entrepreneurship has unfolded against the backdrop of a crisis in global capitalism. Barely half of Americans polled in 2010 by GlobeScan said they believed in the free-market system, down from 80 percent in 2002. A large majority had lost trust in government. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in business has been below 50 percent for 8 of the past 12 years. Throughout Europe, only small minorities said they believed in free-market capitalism.
Meanwhile, social entrepreneurs are developing innovative business models that blend traditional capitalism with solutions that address the long-term needs of our planet. They are tackling chronic social problems, ranging from healthcare delivery in sub-Saharan Africa to agricultural transformation in East Asia and public-school funding in the United States. Social entrepreneurs are working in close collaboration with local communities, incubating groundbreaking (and often lifesaving) innovations; modeling synergistic partnerships with governments, companies, and traditional charities; and building business models that deploy technology and enable networking to create wins for investors and clients alike. “Social entrepreneurs are mad scientists in the lab,” says Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University. “They’re harbingers of new ways of doing business.”
We believe this collaborative approach offers intriguing hints about how enterprises of all sizes can deliver value for themselves and society. Below we suggest four ways in which social entrepreneurs are showing the way forward.
Many of today’s leading social entrepreneurs have created organizations that are neither businesses nor charities, but rather hybrid entities that generate revenue in pursuit of social goals. While not entirely new (the Girl Scouts have been selling cookies for many years), this desire to blend purpose with profit has more recently been formalized in structures such as the US “benefit corporation” (B Corp), a corporate entity legally required to create benefit for society as well as its shareholders.
While B Corps are still rare, many nonprofit organizations generate revenue to advance the parent organization’s social goals. VisionSpring, for example, is a social venture that provides eye tests and glasses to lower-income customers in more than 20 countries, including Bangladesh, El Salvador, India, and South Africa. Initially, VisionSpring distributed its eyeglasses through a dedicated sales force of microentrepreneurs. Like many business owners before him, founder Jordan Kassalow soon learned that pushing a limited range of products through a single sales channel was a tough way to make a living. “There wasn’t enough money coming in to support our operations,” he says. “We realized we could either be a really nice, perpetually subsidized nongovernmental organization, or—better yet—change our business model so we wouldn’t need subsidies.”
Today VisionSpring operates vision stores that generate income via programs in which higher profit margins on more expensive glasses subsidize basic eyewear for the poorest customers. Kassalow also distributes eyeglasses and vision testing through large organizations like BRAC, a philanthropy in Bangladesh with a huge existing network for distributing healthcare services. VisionSpring calculates that one pair of its glasses increases the average recipient’s labor productivity by 35 percent, which works out to $216 in additional income over two years—a 20 percent rise. Kassalow plans to continue operating on a nonprofit basis while working toward profitability in every country where VisionSpring operates. (All profits are poured back into the organization.) His El Salvador unit is already profitable, and he expects VisionSpring’s India operations to achieve profitability by 2015.
Kassalow’s blended approach to value creation is increasingly common. Living Goods, for example, is a US-based nonprofit that sells essential products such as fortified foods, pharmaceuticals, and high-efficiency cookstoves through an Avon-like network of microfranchisees in Uganda. According to founder Chuck Slaughter, this model provides a modest income to the franchisees while helping to fund his operating costs. “Avon has five million agents,” he says. “My thought was if you can make that kind of money selling discretionary stuff, imagine what you can do selling absolutely essential, life-changing goods.”
Similarly, Riders for Health is a UK-based organization that sells logistical services to health ministries in seven African countries. It runs a fleet of some 1,500 vehicles that deliver medical services to between 11 million and 12 million rural Africans. The organization funds its operating expenses in part by charging local health ministries a cost per kilometer that covers fuel, maintenance, replacement parts, and logistical costs. Originally founded to service health-ministry motorcycles in Lesotho, Riders for Health now operates in several African countries and has added a slew of logistical services to its product mix. The organization maintains ambulances and hospital generators, transports medical samples from rural clinics to labs for analysis, and manages compliance programs for patients taking medication. “We don’t charge profit of any kind,” says cofounder Andrea Coleman. “But from the beginning, our mission has been to earn as much money as possible from different income streams.”
Successful social ventures leverage their small scale and intense customer focus to create products and distribution models that precisely match the needs and desires of the communities they serve. In this sense they are modeling a much broader economic trend. In a 2010 McKinsey Quarterly article, Shoshana Zuboff argued that the capitalist mode of production was going through a historic transition from mass consumption to the wants of individuals, a phenomenon that she called “distributed capitalism.” Obvious examples include various personalized shopping experiences enabled by interactive technology, also known as mass customization.
While we often associate distributed capitalism with digitized consumer transactions, the concept has broader application in the world of social entrepreneurship. Caerus Associates, for example, is a small consultancy that uses a combination of big-data analytics and local community knowledge to assess development trends, often in societies suffering from violent conflict. In an article that appeared last year in McKinsey’s special volume on social innovation, Caerus founder David Kilcullen explained how his social venture advises governments, corporations, and local communities on what he calls “designing for development.” The main idea here is that development programs must be designed with input from local actors because they call the shots on the ground.
Education delivery is another area where we can see the principles of distributed capitalism at work. In Bangladesh, a social entrepreneur named Mohammed Rezwan operates a fleet of solar-powered floating schools that provide mobile education to rural schoolchildren who are often isolated during the monsoon floods. Rather than building a school and asking children to show up, Rezwan brings school to the children, when and where they need it. Similarly, Pakistan’s Pehli Kiran School System is a network of schools for the children of impoverished migrant workers living in illegal settlements, or katchi abadis. Local authorities frequently raid and dismantle these settlements, forcing the families to move. Pehli Kiran schools move right along with them, with the goal of ensuring that students can continue their education no matter what happens to their homes.
Or consider how two social entrepreneurs have managed to customize the delivery of agricultural-development services in rural Myanmar. Jim Taylor and his partner Debbie Aung Din operate Proximity Designs, a social venture that develops innovative, low-cost products designed to raise agricultural productivity. Proximity Designs employs ethnographers and product designers who work closely with subsistence farmers in the countryside to develop products like solar-lighting systems and foot-operated irrigation pumps.
Proximity Designs funds its operations in part by selling the products through a network of for-profit agricultural supply dealers in small towns in Myanmar. To ensure that farmers can afford to buy its goods, Proximity Designs also developed a financing program that advances small loans at modest rates. “We look through the lens of what impact we can have,” says Taylor. “One farmer I met had piglets that were like children—they wouldn’t sleep at night unless the lights were on. He used to stay up all night with a lit candle because he was worried about burning the house down. Now that the farmer has our solar lights; the pigs are happy and he gets to sleep.”
It would be difficult to gather such granular insight from a product design lab in, say, California. By virtue of their small size and engagement with the communities they serve, social ventures like Proximity Designs are well positioned to deliver products that meet both the needs and the wants of their clients.
In a 2008 article, communications scholar Daren C. Brabham defined crowdsourcing as “an online, distributed problem-solving and production model.” Today we see crowdsourcing applications in many different realms, from open-source software development to financial-prediction markets and funding for creative projects through Kickstarter and similar sites. Crowdsourcing has been a particular boon to social entrepreneurs, who can use it to create disproportionate impact with modest resources.
Charles Best is the founder and CEO of, a Web-based platform that raises money to fund class projects in American public schools. Individual donors contribute an average of $50 apiece to projects that typically cost about $500. vets every project, pays all project costs directly, and makes sure that the teachers write thank-you letters to every donor. Best covers his operating costs by charging each donor an optional 15 percent administrative fee. “We’re one of the few charities that doesn’t go hat in hand seeking donations,” he says.
Best crowdsources quality control as well as fund-raising. He used to hire college students to vet all the projects, which he says was costly and often ineffective. Today he uses a network of trusted teachers who have already received DonorsChoose grants and volunteer their time to make sure that all new projects deserve funding. This year, DonorsChoose expects to receive at least 150,000 project submissions from public schools all over the United States, and it plans to disburse about $50 million in grants, 85 percent of them to teachers working in high-poverty schools. Best’s organization has been entirely self-sustaining since 2010. Since inception, a total of 145,000 teachers at nearly half the public schools in America have received grants through the site.
In recent years, we’ve also seen a boom in prize competitions that crowdsource solutions to difficult social problems. Information technology and social media now enable cheap and easy collaboration. For social ventures, this dramatically expands the pool of potential problem solvers and lowers the cost of developing solutions. Ashoka’s Changemakers initiative, for instance, is an idea factory that encourages social entrepreneurs to develop concepts that transcend the competition itself, essentially building a marketplace for innovation in an issue area in just a few months. Changemakers judges are also potential investors. By requiring participants to post their ideas and selecting a relatively large pool of finalists, Changemakers and similar competitions can help match competitors to new funding.
One important test of any social venture is whether it can create sustainable impact beyond its own projects. Some of today’s most farsighted social entrepreneurs have created business models that allow them to effectively work themselves out of a job by creating sustainable, lasting change in the communities that they serve.
I-DEV International, for example, is a New York–based impact investment firm that’s in the business of what it calls “market-based sustainable development.” In Peru, I-DEV helped impoverished farmers build an international business out of tara, a native tree species whose fruit had historically been consumed locally for medicinal purposes. However, plant researchers had developed new applications for tara in the global food, pharmaceutical, leather, and pet-food industries. I-DEV helped some 200 Peruvian farmers to organize a farming co-op that today is the largest and most successful supplier of unprocessed tara in Peru.
The co-op generates nearly $4 million a year in revenue for its members. I-DEV is currently gathering investors to help the farmers build a tara processing plant. Managing director Jason Spindler says the deal will be structured as a joint venture in which the farmers take the majority stake while I-DEV and equity participants are minority shareholders. “Nothing we do is for charity,” he says.
Other social ventures scale innovation by partnering with local governments. Ned Breslin is the CEO of Water For People, an international nonprofit that works with local communities to install water pipes, latrines, and other sanitation infrastructure in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. His goal is to ensure that nobody in a district where Water for People works will ever need sanitation assistance from another international development organization.
To do that, Water for People mobilizes local authorities from the community level all the way up to the national government. It insists that all levels of government invest their own money alongside Water for People. The local communities are also asked to participate as investors, and their contributions must take the form of cash rather than sweat equity. Breslin maintains a low public profile for his organization, with the goal of ensuring that communities and local governments get the credit for improving sanitation and therefore feel ownership in the programs. “What we’re really challenging is the endless project-by-project approach of philanthropy,” he says. “The point of our investment is not to do another project. It’s to get the water flowing at scale so they never need another project.”
Social Entrepreneurs and Capitalism
Despite their early successes, social ventures in this new generation are still entrepreneurial start-ups. Some may survive and grow into major organizations. Others may disappear. Regardless of their individual fates, we believe these organizations demonstrate a way forward for the capitalist mode of production, one in which economic and social value creation are no longer seen as antithetical.
Social entrepreneurs are part of a broader conversation about the relationship between business and society that has been gathering steam since the Great Recession. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, McKinsey global managing director Dominic Barton argued that global capitalism was at a turning point. “We can reform capitalism, or we can let capitalism be reformed for us, through political measures and the pressures of an angry public,” he writes. Barton suggests that capitalism should return to the values of its founding philosopher Adam Smith, who believed that business and society were profoundly interdependent.
Similarly, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter argues that capitalism has betrayed its promise by focusing on the narrow equation of value with short-term economic returns. Porter urges companies to think in terms of “shared value,” which involves generating economic value while at the same time creating value for society by addressing its needs and challenges.
Meanwhile, the author and consultant Dov Seidman makes a business case for ethical capitalism. Globalization, he argues, has made it increasingly difficult for companies to offer unique value propositions based on their products and services alone. At the same time, the ubiquity of electronic communication and the rise of social media have created a transparent business world in which bad behavior is more difficult to hide than ever before. As a result, ethical behavior has become a point of competitive differentiation. Companies that “outbehave” their competitors will eventually outperform them as well.
We can cite many examples of large organizations that are already putting these principles into practice. Elsewhere in this volume, leaders from The Coca-Cola Company, Hindustan Unilever, and Royal DSM explain how their companies blend profit and social purpose by deploying advanced supply-chain technologies that deliver lifesaving goods and services to some of the world’s poorest people. Meanwhile, the social ventures that we have profiled in this essay are testing many ideas about the proper relationship between business and society, some of which may eventually scale up and become standard practice for organizations of all sizes. While the solutions are diverse, most are based on the working assumption that profit and purpose need not conflict.
Social ventures that create new value chains while generating profit in pursuit of social goals are a direct challenge to Milton Friedman’s dictum that the social purpose of a business is to generate profit for its shareholders. With public cynicism about business at record levels, we may well see more organizations following their lead.
* * *
This article is part of “The Art and Science of Delivery,” an anthology of essays published by McKinsey & Company in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Skoll World Forum. It is the most recent installment of McKinsey’s ongoing series, Voices on Society, which convenes leading thinkers on social topics. (Copyright (c) 2013 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission)

Why Rob Ford is the Amy Winehouse of Canadian politics (Andrew Potter)

Why Rob Ford is the Amy Winehouse of Canadian politics

By Andrew Potter, Ottawa Citizen
They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’ — singer Amy Winehouse, before dying of alcohol poisoning.
 “Everything’s going fine.” Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to the media, after most of his staffers resigned.
By now it is pretty clear that whatever else he may be, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is a very sick man who suffers from any number of pathological cravings, obsessions and addictions. And like all addicts, he has more than his share of enablers — people who gleefully propel his way down the road to self-destruction even as they pretend to be acting in his best interests.
For the better part of the past three years, pundits, reporters and fly-by-night political commentators have been proclaiming that Ford’s vices are actually virtues, that his addictions are features of his personality, not bugs, and that the brand identity that Ford Nation has been sold on is that he’s “authentic.”
They couldn’t be more dangerously, even criminally, wrong.
Like a lot of bad ideas, the cult of authenticity seems to have entered our political vernacular from the United States, where over the past decade there has been a growing conviction that the biggest problem with politics these days is that our leaders are not authentic enough.
The argument goes something like this: modern politics has become dominated by large political parties and their camera-friendly prefab leaders who are more image than substance, who speak only in sound bites and talking points, who govern with both eyes on the overnight tracking poll and who lament the rise of negative politics while chumming the waters with the bloodiest of attack ads.
In short, the electorate is completely alienated from this mass-marketed phoniness, and what it desires instead is authenticity.
The American writer Joe Klein signposted the search for the authentic in his 2006 book Politics Lost, an essay about the decline of straight-shooting in presidential politics. Klein took his inspiration from Harry Truman’s “Turnip Day” speech at the Democratic convention in 1948 that confirmed his nomination for president.
Coming on stage after midnight, speaking simply and without notes, Truman challenged the “do-nothing Congress” to act upon the views they claimed to endorse, and get back to work.
Klein thinks we need more Turnip Day moments, more politicians like Truman. He argued politicians need to “figure out new ways to engage and inspire us — or maybe just some simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible.”
It’s a good anecdote, but it spurred every authenticity-mongering pundit to invent their own Turnip Day homily. The most famous variation is the New York Times columnist David Brooks’ throwaway line about how Americans always vote for the presidential candidate they would most like to have a beer with.
A year and a half ago, Canadian pundit Allan Gregg delivered a lecture to the Public Policy Forum — called “On Authenticity: How the Truth can Restore Faith in Politics and Government” — in which he described his own Turnip Day moment: the night he went to see a band in a club in Manhattan when the guitar player’s electric pickup broke. Instead of stopping the show to fix the guitar, the band unplugged their instruments, moved closer to one another, and performed an intimate number that had the crowd hooting and hollering in delight.
Gregg saw a lesson in this for our politicians. He claimed that the most systematic failure of our leaders is that “they have not picked up on the electorate’s craving for authenticity nor adjusted their behaviour to conform to this new reality.”
The avatar of this movement, according to Gregg, is Ford, whom he describes as “a leather-lunged, no-necked, know-nothing.” And in case you think that’s an insult, Gregg goes on: “In Rob Ford’s instance, his very crudeness and unrefined nature made him seem ‘real’ and signalled he was not trying to hide anything from voters.” That is to say, Ford won the race for mayor of Toronto because he’s authentic.
Gregg is far from the only person to have made this argument. The “Rob Ford is popular because he’s authentic” line started during the 2010 election and continues even as he fights to keep his job over allegations surrounding a video that purports to show him smoking crack. In a recent Toronto Star column about some “fascinating artifacts of authenticity” in our politics, Judith Timson wrote, “When Rob Ford was first elected, I stood in a public square listening to him speak, thinking, uh oh, this man is trouble for all who oppose him. Why? Because the mayor says what he means, and he doesn’t give a flying fig what opponents think of him.”
Writing in the Citizen last fall, Adam Goldenberg wrote that “Ford, who won by running as an unrefined, yet garishly authentic, outsider, is an outsider once more. His war against the downtown establishment — they of bike lanes and gravy trains — can now continue with renewed relish, and perhaps even success; if Ford runs again, he may well win.”
Finally, Postmedia’s own Christie Blatchford has written a number of columns lauding Ford for his “authenticity.” As she put it in a column last November, “Mr. Ford is surely deeply flawed. Well, so are most of us, me anyway. But, to use a modern term, he is also authentic.”
How can we get any critical traction on Ford when we are told, by highly intelligent and critical-minded people, that what looks to all the world like a serious problem with his character is actually his greatest asset?
The reason so many are driven to this conclusion is because they have fallen for the authenticity hoax — the idea that “being yourself” is a virtue, and that someone is most like themselves when they are letting their basest and most animal urges run rampant.
But this version of “authenticity,” of which Ford is supposedly emblematic, is something that is extremely dangerous for the electorate and for the man who cloaks himself in its embrace.
Authenticity, at its core, describes someone who is self-contained but transparent to the world, innocent without being naive, and sincere without being cloying. Such a person, if he or she ever existed, would make an atrocious politician.
But Ford is not authentic in this way. Instead, he’s just another populist. In America, populists thump bibles and warn against commies and talk about huntin’ and the heartland and the family farm. In Canada, populists write books about hockey and hold press conferences at Tim Hortons and warn against crime and talk about stopping the gravy train.
But populism is not authenticity. Populism in politics is a pose, a marketing position, a brand that is just as phoney as any other political stance out there. Sometimes it works spectacularly, as it did for Bill Clinton. And sometimes it flames out spectacularly, as it did for that moose huntin’ maverick mom, Sarah Palin.
But it isn’t clear that Ford is even much of a populist. About the only truly populist kite he’s ever flown is the whole stop-the-gravy-train thing, which some people thought meant he was committed to lowering taxes. As it turned out, he actually thought there was a literal gravy train at City Hall and that stopping it would fix Toronto’s finances. He’s also a bigot and pretty obviously hates the gays, but it isn’t clear how many populists are keen to strike up the band on that wagon.
No, there’s something more basic to Ford’s personality, and there’s nothing that appealing about it: the man has zero self-control. From reading while driving himself to work, drinking to excess at official functions, going to KFC while on a much-publicized diet or allegedly smoking crack and hanging out with drug dealers, it is clear that Ford is simply incapable of resisting temptation or delaying gratification.
And — it is crazy that this needs pointing out — there is nothing politically or morally praiseworthy about this. From Plato to Freud and everyone in between and since, self-mastery of the passions by our capacity for reason has been recognized as the key to being a proper-functioning adult and to the proper functioning of the city. No one has seriously made the case that rule by the passions, the id, the animal instincts, is a viable way to run a polity of any size. More to the point, no one has credibly argued that this is any way for a grown-up to behave.
Except, that is, Ford’s enablers, whose greatest fear is that he will go to rehab and expose their ongoing support for what it really is: a dangerous and foolish egging-on of a very sick man. Which is what makes Ford less of a buffoon and more of a tragic figure. He is the Amy Winehouse of Canadian politics.
Winehouse’s signature song was Rehab, with its casual defiance, the stick-it-to-the-man refusal to go along with square society’s medicalization of boozing. It was a massive hit that struck at the core of our cultural ambivalence toward art and self-destruction. Why should Winehouse go to rehab? After all, weren’t her problems — her drinking, the drugs, the depression and the self-harming — the very font of her creativity and her soul? Rehab became a rallying cry for barflies everywhere. It also showed that, despite decades of public education on this issue, we still don’t take seriously the proposition that alcoholism, drug abuse, and even depression, are real illnesses.
Imagine if, instead of being an alcoholic, Winehouse had cancer. And imagine she wrote a song called Chemo with the lyrics “they tried to make me go to chemo, I said ‘no, no, no’.” Or if she had an infection, and she sang “they tried to give me antibiotics, and I said ‘no, no, no’.” It would be a joke. But deep down, most of us don’t quite accept that alcoholism or drug addiction are diseases like any other. It’s self-destructive, sure, but there’s also something romantic about it.
When Winehouse recorded Rehab, she was telling the world that she didn’t buy into the notion that her drinking was an illness that needed treatment. When we bought the record by the millions and gave her a Grammy for it, we told her we agreed.
Did this popular support play a role in her subsequent death? When she sang about not going to rehab and we cheered and called her authentic, did she internalize the value system we were pushing on her? That is, is it possible that Winehouse, like others before her and since, bought into her self-image as a messed-up singer of the blues, which made it that much harder for her to get clean?
All identities are social constructs that get their strength from the extent to which they are recognized by others. As a result, there is a feedback loop in our identity construction, where we internalize the norms that govern our chosen (or assigned) identities — wife, parent, warrior, rebel, scholar, criminal. When the norms of a given identity contain a built-in mechanism for both radicalization and self-destruction (as they do for an identity like “messed-up singer of the blues”), it is not hard to see how it could become literally inescapable.
So then imagine you one day find yourself the mayor of one of the biggest cities in North America. You aren’t without your charms, and the people around you aren’t without political savvy. But you also have serious personal problems, which play havoc with your health, your personal life and threaten your ability to do even the most minimal parts of your job. Yet the worse things get, the more you spiral down, the more your so-called supporters cheer you on and tell you that is exactly how you are supposed to behave.
What would you do? Who would you turn to for advice? In such circumstances, you would hope you could rely on someone who has known you all your life, who loves you for who you are but who knows that who you are involves habits and appetites that, unchecked, might get you killed. That is, you would hope there was someone close to you who loved you like a brother.
Does Rob Ford have such a person near him? We can only hope he does. His life — and perhaps that of others as well — depends on it.
Andrew Potter is the Citizen’s managing editor. He is also the author of The Authenticity Hoax: How we get lost finding ourselves. Follow him at

Sunday 9 June 2013

Forget Mind Mapping - What About Brain Mapping?

Ever notice how a mind map, a brainstorming session, energy usage maps (reflecting social clustering, i.e. civilization) and brain maps all look the same?
Interesting, is all.

Scientists Reveal New Model of Brain: Thought Processes Mapped

The brain can look like a chaotic place if you don't know what you're seeing. Individual neurons apparently fire off at random, not corresponding to a simple stimulus or response linkage. Now, though, researchers have created a new model--or map--of the brain that explains this apparently chaotic activity.
In order to actually create this model, scientists looked at the brains of rhesus monkeys. These apes are closely related to humans, which makes them a perfect example to use when studying the brain. The researchers focused their attention on the activity patterns of 237 neurons that had been recorded using electrodes implanted into the frontal lobes of the apes.
Yet the researchers wanted to examine brain activity, which meant that something had to spark it. The apes were taught to recognize images of different objects on a screen. When they were shown these images, about one third of the neurons demonstrated mixed selective activity.
A mixed selective neuron is one that does not always respond to the same stimulus. For example, the neuron didn't respond the same way to the picture of a sailing boat or a flower. Instead, its response differed as it took account of the activity of other neurons. The cell adapted its response according to what else was going on in the ape's brain.
So what does this mean exactly? Just as individual computers are networked to create concentrated processing and storage capacity in the field of Cloud Computing, so too are the neurons of the brain. The links in the complex cognitive processes that take place in the prefrontal cortex play a key role. In addition, the researchers found that the greater the density of the network in the brain, in other words the greater the proportion of mixed selectivity in the activity patterns of the neurons, the better the apes were able to recall the images on the screen. Mixed selective neurons are important in rhesus monkeys, and so are also probably important in our own brains
"When you zoom out from looking at individual cells and observe a large number of neurons instead, their global activity is very informative," said Mattia Rigotti, a scientist at Columbia University, in a news release.
The findings reveal that brain research shouldn't just be satisfied with simple activity patterns. Instead, it should take the chaotic patterns into account, as well. Together, they can reveal a larger picture that puts the chaos into context.
The findings are published in the journal Nature.

Game Of Memes


So, fair warning - if you watch Game of Thrones and aren't up to speed, don't click these links.

But if you have, enjoy!

Grandpa reads a fairy tale to his sick grandson.

"He's taking it well - remember when they canceled Firefly?"

Of course, it's no wonder why humour works so well, particularly when applied to things so horrendous. 

That's the whole point.