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

Saturday 26 October 2013

Political Blindness

Actually, it's quite comprehensible; in fact, it has ample precedent.
We've crossed this ground before, on this blog rather recently, from multiple angles.
The pressing question remains; who has the foresight to inoculate themselves against political blindness progressively?  Who has the capacity to lead us forward?

The Political Wheel Turns


Everyone and their dog talks about openness and transparency; both were major themes that Harper came to power advocating for.  Political people know those are words that resonate with people, which is why they use them; it's kind of like a child saying "fuck" because they know it creates a strong response, without really knowing what it means.

But when was the last time we had a Political Leader that thought far enough ahead to consider precedents - the consequences of their actions?


Friday 25 October 2013

Mr. Trudeau Goes to Washington

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada seen buttoning his jacket while walking through Lafayette Square across from the White House after a television interview during on his first trip to Washington DC. He was in DC attending a policy conference held by The Center for American Progress where he sat on a panel titled "Global Perspectives" with former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. (Louie Palu for The Globe and mail)
Trudeau as been criticized for his name; to his opponents, it's a way to portray him as elitist, as riding on his father's coattails.  It's a relatively simple task to turn a foe's perceived weaknesses to your advantage - it's a tougher act to turn your own perceived disadvantages into a strength.
Which is what Trudeau managed to do in this already oft-quoted line. 
Trudeau is more than just a name - it's a set of values, a reflection on a core set of beliefs that revolve around respect.  It makes me think of this:
Not only has Trudeau taken the high road - he even refers to Harper as his Prime Minister.  This sets him on a different track from the hyper partisan focus of the Harper Tories that view the leadership of Canada as synonymous with their Party and imply that other Parties are un-Canadian.  It also associates his name with Canada as much as it does with the Liberal Party.
Trudeau the younger clearly has some of his father in him, but I don't think it's fair to weigh Justin Trudeau against the legacy of his father.  Doing so just underestimates what he might accomplish in his own right.


Thursday 24 October 2013

Behavioural Economics: Punishment for Texting Drivers

That last bit is the most important one.  Busy, reactive people don't proactively care about getting caught; they're much more likely to complain after the fact or cast blame elsewhere then do anything to avoid getting caught in the first place.

It's a limbic thing.  They'll take the fine or fight it, but there's really not enough motivation at the front-end for them to change their beahviour.  That's why you get repeat offenders, a situation that will continue even if they move on to demerit points; I guarantee the problem will continue and more to the point, distracted driving accidents will continue.

The reason people text and drive is because they aren't mindful of others around them; it takes effort to be considerate (and even aware) of others around you.  When you see your time as exclusively valuable and your priorities as paramount, where's the motivation to commit sociology?

This is where behavioural economics comes in.  Instead of offering a slap on the wrist or a punch in the face as punishment, make it worse - for drivers caught in the act to do something much more irritating, invasive and consuming of their time.

Do the fines and demerit points, but added to that, make in mandatory for those charged with such offences to take evening courses, sufficiently lengthy in nature, about safe driving practices, social/emotional empathy, the value of hands-free support systems in cars, etc.  And make it compulsory that they leave their smart phones at the door.  

Car manufacturers will love this, but the drivers will go batty at the concept of losing out in a prolonged fashion.  This will create an unhealthy level of anxiety and annoyance in drivers, depriving them of their telcom fixes and also eating into their precious personal time.

If you want to change behaviour, first understand why it exists as is in the first place.  

Political Staff: A Diet of Worms

Political staff are meant to be neither seen nor heard, serving as mandarins for their employers.  Having said that, they seem to be making a lot of headlines these days.

Rob Ford's staff have regularly featured in Toronto news for using City property for football-related activities, for bad behaviour at GO stations and of course, for allegedly being involved in illegal activity.

There's also that Queen's Park staffer who was replaced by an unpaid intern, or the Toronto Councillor who advertized for an intern to do paid-staff level work.

Not to mention the scrutiny over staff email trails, which under Open Government will be much more easily accessed than political staff are used to.

And all this is barely scratching the surface.

Political staff are often on call 24 hours a day; in addition to needing to be mind readers, babysitters for their Members on behalf of Party Whips and somehow do their day-to-day tasks without having job descriptions or training, they also find themselves serving as personal assistants to the busy and sometimes discombobulated people that are their bosses.  They often end up neglecting personal relationships in the process; there's a reason most of them are either single or involved only with other political people.

Political staff can find themselves scheduling vacations, delivering laundry, watering plants, even babysitting the boss's kids.  These are all duties that go far and beyond what should reasonably be expected by an employee often making far less money than they deserve.  The best textbook for Political Staff (as there is no formal training material) is probably The Hollywood Assistant's Handbook.

Of course, the best political staff don't mind working the extra bit because A) they know that's the cost of working in politics or B) they believe in their Member and are willing to go the extra mile so that the boss has the free time to do the same thing in an outward-facing capacity.

There's no training for Political Staff, nor is there HR support, but the same holds true for Members of Parliament.  They are supposed to be representatives of the people, whatever that means, but also shills for the Party, fundraisers for the association, small business owners (their offices) and whatever other added committee or Parliamentary Secretary positions they may have.

As I have stated before to variously receptive audiences, there's a reason why there's such a flux between good Members as employers and bad ones, or value-add political staff vs. dead weight.  It's not so much about the people as it is about deficiencies in the system.

Cowan said he has not spoken to Brisson, the former aide, and that it is not his duty to seek her out.

She's just staff - what value are they, other than as tools of the elected/appointed people who actually represent partsian interests?  Despite the huge role staff play in shaping policy and influencing public opinion of the process, they are seen as peripheral; their support is equally given minimalist consideration by Parties and, often enough, by Members.  Which has lead to all these headlines in the first place.

I've said it before - I'll say it once again.  As backroom people increasingly come under the glare of public scrutiny, it's time for politics to start doing training and HR support right.  They can start doing so now, proactively, while attention is just beginning, or they can do it reactively, after the can of worms has already been opened.

The choice has already been put before them - it's up to the Political Parties themselves to follow through.  Whatever choice they make, the people are watching.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Why the Political Right Should Fear Open Data

I look forward to the chance to engage.

A strict focus on winning the next election is the political equivalent of making a movie without planting seeds for a sequel; nobody aims that small any more.  The goal is franchise, a political legacy that doesn't just shape policy, it converts audiences.  Political Parties want empires, not democracies.

Enter Stephen Harper, stage right - according to many, including Paul Wells, Harper has at least in degrees achieved his infamous hidden agenda, a Phantom Menace-like Machiavellian plot to reshape Canada in conservative ways, ensuring no future Prime Minister will ever be able to rub out his watermark.

Here's the long and short of the tricks those wily Conservatives have tried to pull on a generally somnambulent Canadian public.  By focusing on emotional trigger issues like crime, punishment, fear of The Other, someone else getting more than you and simultaneously withdrawing or undermining public data, the Harper Conservatives have attempted to starve public curiosity and appetite for innovation and instead get them relying strictly on their reactive, selfish, emotional selves.  Keep calm and carry on, the message goes, without a look beyond.  Leave the big uninteresting stuff to daddy.

Pats on the back for Team Harper - you've truly done a great job of getting Canadians upset with the status quo in politics.

In one form or another, the rest of Canada's political right is trying to pull the same trick - stir up emotional reactions of anger, fear and everyone's favourite, resentment.  Bitter people are inwards-focused and interested in punishment, not comprehension; they are theoretically content to live minimalist existences within their castle walls, so long as everyone else is kept out.  Ontario's Tim Hudak is so good at this shtick, he comes across as an angry, resentful and reactive guy pretty much all the time.  

As an example; one of the things Hudak is railing against now is Premier Wynne's predilection for consultation, open data and holding conversations.  Leaders know when to make choices, he says - they don't waste time on endless consultations, they act first and react to those who oppose them later.  He figures that, by undermining Wynne in the way politicians traditionally undermine each other (with the big hand motions and exaggerated reactions fit for the stage, not the screen) he can undermine public confidence in her, as an individual, making them more likely to react against her by voting for someone else.

There's an argument to made for this approach, of course - Team Harper has been making that argument for 10 years.  Put down government and put down the other Opposition Parties, then form government on the backs of the ensuing protest.  Once in power, start railing against everyone else that thinks differently than you do, always focusing on turning people against - never for.  

In slow, easy, incremental steps (more than anything because Harper fears public backlash like his own shadow) the CPC has been boiling the Canadian frog, trying to change the structure of what is Canada is.  Get them mad, keep them distracted, starve them of data and come across as supremely confident at all costs.  We know there this approach has gotten them.

The New Canadian Harper Government can (and does) boast loudly about safety, economic fundamentals and natural resources, but where Canadians are increasingly fretting is about the decline of our democracy, opportunities for sustained personal growth that carries on into meaningful careers and lefty issues like the environment and aboriginal rights.  For their part, bureaucracies across Canada are talking about structural change in the hopes of realigning our public institutions into some form of sustainable.

Which is where initiatives like Open Government, Open Data and Open Dialogue come in.  The Opposition in Ontario are painting this move as a lack of decisiveness, a reactive bait-and-switch move to change the channel away from scandal.  It's a mistake on their part; at this juncture in history, focusing on government failings only makes the people hungrier for a more direct stake in the game - exactly what Team Harper has been discouraging.

Here's what they're missing.  A focus on open data, innovative information platforms with visual flair that are accessed using the latest cool toys, an emphasis on the value of diverse opinions and the like causes people to think with the proactive, prosocial part of their brains.  It asks the question and invites an answer, then combines those answers, empowering an increasing amount of folk to get engaged, connect dots and feel the positive neurological wins that result.

In short, the "B" Arc for Open Government is to shift public consciousness into a more liberal gear.

Justin Trudeau is all about affability, open dialogue, listening and the appearance of listening. Successful politicians like Naheed Nenshi embrace the public and embrace social media (though it helps that they have a natural comfort level with people and communication, which is not the same thing as messaging).

Creative ideas are insidious, infectious things - like the Call Me Maybe meme, once you get 'em in your head they're hard to shake loose, especially when everyone around you is being seen to participate in the process.  Instead of being afraid of what might be taken away from you, you start feeling like you want to board the train before it leaves the station.

The Political Right is right to be critical and suspicious of open information and an emphasis on shared solutions; structural innovations are the exact opposite of what they've been trying to achieve.  The problem is, if they don't up the innovative ante, they are liable to get left behind.

It's happened before, after all.

I worry none at all over the notion that Harper has fundamentally changed Canada in irreparable ways.  
The Tokugawas and the Ottomans did the same thing, yet the world's carried on since.

That's the thing about progress - it's inescapable.  You simply can't stop the signal; the best you can hope for is to carry on with it.

Angels Make Great Hosts

Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels.

So what's an angel?  What exactly is it that all these people believe in?

Typical dictionary definitions describe angels as spiritual beings that serve as messengers from God, here to guide or guard human beings.

Me, I'm all about metaphors, so I think there actually is something to this notion.

Harper's Judgment: Fall Comes to Canada

 Nonsense!  The CPC will tell us, if they tell us anything.  Then they'll yell fire and cast aspersions on someone else.  Clearly, they may tell us, there's no way on earth Duffy's allegations could be true.  Listen to teacher and only to teacher; that's the only narrative that matters.
The Harper Conservatives have a simplistic, push-button narrative, and they'd like you to follow it.  Without deviation.  Put your blinders on, Canada, and listen to father.
That narrative goes something like this - Liberals and Lefties are evil incarnate and must be kept from the levers of power.  Lord knows what shenanigans they'd get up to should they form government. 
Government, by the way, should be smaller - like, wholly concentrated in one office kind of small.  That's what's best for democracy.
Oh, and that office?  It's occupant, one Stephen Harper, can do no wrong.  He's a saint with impeccable political judgment.
Throw in some troubling seas, tough-on-crime rhetoric and much chatter about economic fundamentals and that's pretty much it.
Clearly, the CPC can do no wrong.  And when it does, well, the wrong-doers were never real Conservatives in the first place.  Under the bus they go - the strong-judgement leader remains blameless.
Of course, if you deviate at all from that narrative, you can see rather spectacularly what a sham that narrative is.
Smaller government has really translated into increased concentration of power in the hands of a few - a few, worth noting, that are chosen by the PM and his impeccable judgment.  The promised increase in transparency has turned out to be the exact opposite.  Government hasn't gotten smaller, nor has it become more effective - in fact, if anything, it just seems like less is getting done.
As the inconsistencies and questions start to mount, it's only common sense to look beyond the narrative path to see what Team Harper isn't including in their soundbites.
So, back to Duffy - he says the PMO (and the PM himself) gave him permission to abuse his taxpayer-funded expense account, but then told him to repay it when the going got tough - and then summarily threw him under the bus when the road became even bumpier.
Why on earth would Team Harper do such a thing?  What rationale could there possibly be to act in such a blatantly self-serving and short-sighted manner that shows nothing but poor judgment?  Is there any precedent that could shed some light on this?
Funny you should ask.  When you look at Team Harper's modus operandi, there's really no surprise at all.
Harper has made it clear from day one that his objective is to win, at pretty much any cost.  The nature of that cost has simply escalated over his tenure.
Parliament has become Partisan-ment under Harper moreso than any previous government (and all have played at this game).  His Members are instructed to use their speaking time strictly to give props to the government or to bash the Opposition, with nary a consideration to the people who actually voted for them.  Disruption manuals were distributed to gum up the works of Committees.  FOI requests are stalled, the military is speaking in "political truths" and the media is stonewalled. 
These aren't behaviours designed to make government work better - they're designed to make the New Conservative Government's job easier.  That job?  To keep winning, of course.
Then there's the external stuff.  Misleading calls to Irwin Cotler's constituents are justified as fair game in politics.  Robocalls are frequently employed by the CPC, often questionably.  Partisan messaging has crept into official documents and fake-cheque props.  Every single opportunity to squeeze the Tory base for dollars (to fuel their massive, continuously-running War Room) is taken.
A scandal within the Conservative Government's health department?  Blame someone and ask for money!  A tiff with the Free Press over exclusionary behaviour by the PMO?  Send out a fundraising letter!
It's pretty much a given that Mike Duffy and Pamela Walin were recruited to the Senate (doing what Harper pledged never to do) so that they could serve as fundraisers.  They have done just that.  Being Conservatives and all, they are surely rational actors that aren't going to do extra work without appropriate compensation - what form would that take?
Duffy's story is believable because there's a track-record for it and for that, Team Harper has no one to blame but themselves.  But they all take marching orders from just one person, don't they?  The ma with the impeccable judgement, the self-professed strategic wizard who is shocked, shocked to find out gambling with the people's money has been going on under his watch.
Be shocked, PMSH - nobody else is.  Thanks to the past ten years, we already know to question your judgment.
When it becomes about winning, not achieving, you're done for - it's just a question of when the leaf drops. 

Is PDFC On Crack?

Where to begin?
The Partnership for a Drug Free Canada (PDFC) is all about helping parents talk sense to their kids about the use and abuse of drugs.  When has rank condescension ever worked as a means for positively influencing teenage behaviour?  We live in an age where teens are as disenfranchised about the system and the competence of their leaders as those in the 60s were.  You know, the baby boomer generation - the ones now in charge that are doing a bang-up job managing the long-term sustainability of our democratic society.
But that's not the part that's truly embarrassing for the PDFC. 
Look at that ad.  "Hey, parents, you gotta keep your prescription meds away from those irresponsible teens, who might take them the way you do."
When we have politicians being pulled over for DUIs and a mayor who stands reasonably accused of abusing several drugs, including crack cocaine; when we have Oxycodone addictions and anti-depressants/stress meds being popped like vitamins, where do these folk get off stigmatizing youth as irresponsible?  What example is being set?
Of course, I'm sure this misses the whole point of the PDFC; adults are rational actors, unless they're lefties, eco-nuts or crazy people, in which case they don't count anyway, right?  I would suggest the brains behind PDFC's content look up "cognitive dissonance." 
Funny enough, Canada has a mental health crisis brimming with accumulated illnesses like anxiety and depression.  Parents and kids alike are using drugs as emotional band-aids, deliberately altering their feelings to block out environmentally-impacted discomfort.
Yes, you can say that generations of yore didn't rely on drugs to get through their day - they also didn't ride on subways or work in cubicles.  They lived shorter lives.  We have to get past the myth of the superhuman ancestor - recycling old tales only serves to perpetuate the generational divide.
The PDFC did get one thing right, though - teens, like all people, respond well to being talked with about concerns.  Note I wrote talked with, not talked to.  This isn't about parents ordering their kids about like they were employees, minions existing for the sole purpose of taking orders from the boss.  It's about building two-way relationships built on trust, respect and understanding.
I do believe there's a trend in this direction out there these days.  So to is a growing realization that maybe the system is having a deleterious effect on people and therefore, might be due for an upgrade.
Not that I expect the PDFC to take note - that'd be too much like committing sociology.  They're more likely to find new people and positions to rail against than they are to engage in a bit of introspection. 
But then, you'd have to be on crack to deny the obvious like that, wouldn't you?

Monday 21 October 2013

The Rose

The Sufi poet Rumi used "the rose" as a metaphor for "the beloved."  He's not the only one.

It's funny how good ideas pop up in different guises.

From more than a year ago:

A Shared Services Network Ontario (SSNO) would:

Use existing technology and digital tools and expand on existing information infrastructure to integrate Ontario’s public services into one seamless digital network

Include “tiered access” to ensure safety of personal information
Patients and their medical professionals would have access to their health records, but no one else’s
Individuals could digitally report public activity/perceived concerns (someone sleeping on the street in sub-zero temperatures with no blanket) without becoming directly engaged

Facilitate planning and resource allocation by combining resource use, demographic need and systematic duplication/gaps/overlaps analysis in one place

Reduce system abuse and misuse by making it easier for all Parties to connect directly with the specific services they need

Empower all Ontarians to be more actively engaged in their individual and social well-being

UPDATE:  I wrote that yesterday morning.  Yesterday evening, leaving Toronto City Hall, I saw the following:

"The rose is without why, it blooms because it blooms, it cares not for itself, asks not if it is seen."

Life's a funny thing.

Sea of Troubles Vs. Blue Ocean: A Strategic Choice

That sounds a bit like the shrinking waterhole of our current political landscape, isn't it?  Parties are more or less on side in the broad strokes; where the Conservatives North or South of the border differ from liberal Parties, it tend to be in the vein of throwing chums into the water, sacrificing a bit of red meat to appease the sharks.

If the landscape is not to your advantage, you change venues.  Why die atop a hill when you can turn around and fight down a valley?  This is the politics of value add - creating new things and building a track-record that establishes trust in your ability to keep bringing the people the something new they crave.

Threatening your populace by hanging "there be monsters beyond" signage on your firewalls implies the world is finite; it makes people hunker down, store their goods and dig out their pitchforks.  It's not a good strategy for long-term sustainability, social or economic.

When you throw down the walls, establish some common ground as a starting point and highlight the blue skies beyond, all it does is take a bit of encouragement and a lot of example setting to encourage the people to fly.

When you're in love, my how they fly

Wealth, Faith, Isms and the Pursuit of Happiness

What is happiness?

Not religion, thought both Marx and Rand.  Religious institutions have oft been decried as systems of oppression.  They can exclude women, undermine opposing perspectives as sinful and cast "The Other" as infidels deprived of human rights.  Of course, Religious institutions are also insatiable beasts requiring vast wealth to keep The Word of God in tangible form, or at least to open to door for access and indulgences.

Friends on the political left will tell me that religions are designed to create haves and have nots and therefore are naught but systems crafted by the elite to enforce compliance and extraction from everyone else.  Religions have certainly been used for such exploits in the past (and present), but that's the institution and the people within the institution - not the religion itself.

It is worth noting that most of the founders of the world's great religions lived lives of poverty.

Ecstatic practitioners of all faiths equally eschew the trappings of wealth and live simply, close to the earth.  As implied by the term - ecstatic - these mystics also live lives dipped in rapture.  Is there joy illusory?

What defines happiness, if happiness is the goal?  Marx tells us religion is an opiate, an externally applied substance that creates the illusion of contentment.  If the wealthy are tricking the poor with cheap bobbles to keep real happiness to themselves, is the implication here that wealth is contentment?  
One would think, then, that the wealthy are deliriously happy and without a care in the world.  But if they feel an urge to trick the people so as to hold on to their own vast fortunes, the implication isn't happiness, it's fear of loss by competition.

Capitalism is theoretically all about competition; work hard, work smart and you too can be wealthy.  God isn't a network, so go forth and create your own, kind of thing.  If it's the ability to compete that drives people to succeed, gain wealth and buy happiness, you'd think we have a population that is hard-nosed driven to build their own success and, as a consequence, buy happiness.  But happiness through goods isn't all that different from the supposed opiate of God - it's an external substance consumed to create an artificial sense of contentment.

External substances.  Manufactured highs.  It's known that certain drugs, including narcotics like opiates, can be highly addictive; the highs one reach under the influence cannot be matched in normal life, meaning the drug becomes an escape from one's existing circumstances - it's the escape more than the substance that is addictive, which is now being demonstrated through scientific study.  Are luxury cars, expensive meals or trips to exotic locations any different?  Are mansions and vast lawns with high walls any different?  

All are variants on the same theme; escaping a heartless world.  One would think Marx would have concluded that both the rich and the poor worship false idols in pursuit of happiness, seeking a Final Solution to remove the source of their misery from the world to create a better one.

But why are the poor mystics so damned happy then?  Why would folk like, say, the Dalai Lama continuously dive back into worlds of hardship and emerge even more content, almost childlike as a result?

Let's go back to happiness.  What is it?

If you believe happiness is a feeling - light on your feet, a sense of optimism, an opposite to sadness, then what you are describing is a nothing more than a neurochemical state.  Hormones like serotoin, endorphin and oxytocin create states that can be described as happy ones.  Neurochemicals like dopamine are stimulated by the consumption of narcotics, which is why they are addictive.

So, if true happiness is the stimulation of happy hormones within the body without external stimulation, either in the form of religion, goods or drugs, how can it be achieved in a heartless world?

A world without a heart is a body without a circulatory system, like a jellyfish or a flatworm.  Our world is infinitely more complex than that, as is our civilization.  The heart is a selfless muscle, constantly beating, feeding the rest of the body, keeping the system flowing.

We humans couldn't live without it; in fact, we never have.  There's been some form of heart throughout our evolutionary process, slowly growing more complex as our own internal systems have grown more complex.  It's not often we think about our heart and its simple but essential role, until it or our body comes under duress.

Which brings us back to those happy ecstatics like the Dalai Lama, trying to keep dialogue between conflicting systems, trying to breathe life and hope into the abysmally poor and somehow, finding sustenance for their souls through the process.  

There's a funny connection between states of religious ecstasy and mania - which, in turn, is a neurochemical state that has a lot in common with a narcotic high, only produced without the need of external stimulation.  

Marx had it wrong.

The world isn't heartless.  Despite it's role as a tool for circulation, a full heart is a concept synonymous with happiness; there's a reason for this.  

Folk like the Dalai Lama are happy because they have beaten us to the punch, so to speak, and have realized something the rest of us haven't; religion isn't the sigh of an oppressed creature so much as it is a pulse, keeping the system pumping as it evolves, ever slowly, towards something more complex that requires not just a complex circulatory system, but a nervous system as well.

As they say - The Kingdom of Heaven is a Kingdom of Consciousness.

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.  If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich.