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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 15 March 2014

Behavioural Economics of Politics; Design Thinking of Open Government

I've been constantly interrupted while trying to write this, meaning it's ballooned, veered and turned into a messy confluence of issues and ideas.  But having put it down, I can always make it tighter in the future, can't I?

First, yeah, I'm gonna say it - I liked behavioural economics before it was cool.

That out of the way, there's an interesting contradiction here.  The truth is, political operators don't think that voters are rational actors.
At least, they haven't in all the years I've been involved in politics.

I've heard operators from all Parties use that cringe-worthy term "sheeple", say "we are smart, they are dumb" and chat everything from stacking independent commissions with their people to what messages to feed the politicians they advise to favourably frame issues while sitting in public spaces

Yup, you read that right - a high proportion of sneaky backroom political stuff actually gets discussed out in the open by operators who assume no one is paying attention.  If you really want to know what's going on in Parliament or at any Legislature, put some people in the nice restaurants and coffee shops thereabouts.  I guarantee there are other folk out there doing this already.

Does that make a lot of sense?  Is that rational?  Not overly.  But if you're confident in your superiority and certain that non-political people "just don't get it", then it almost feels like you're speaking a foreign language others won't understand.

This is a useful frame to consider, because political people often do feel like they are a species apart.

Many political positioners will break the world down into four distinct categories:

Us and Them: These people have their frames and their horses in the race.  The best you can hope for is to encourage your people to come out on E-Day and everyone else's to stay home

The Mushy Middle: These folk are malleable - if you can suss out their driving issues or bugaboos, you can woo them (or make them afraid of the other guys).

Who Cares?: Don't vote.  Perhaps they don't have the capacity to vote or, traditionally, tend not to vote - if you can't either connect to real voters through them/use them as wedge issue pieces to woo the mushy middle/turn on your core voters/turn off they other guy's core voters, then you don't care about these folk, period.  

Are these reasonable boxes to use when trying to simply frame people for the purposes of campaign planning? 


Are they representative of the complex, multi-faceted and interlocking lives, communities, motivations, etc. that shape our perspectives and interactions?

Of course not.  That's kinda like saying that everyone fits into neat partisan boxes, or "them vs us" categories.  

It's simplistic, easy to understand and allows you to shrink your frame down into primary colours, but the world ain't black and white, nor two-dimensional.  To think otherwise, frankly, would be delusional.  

By the same token, the brands that partisans apply to themselves and their peers are malleable, too.  We can talk about the political left, centre and right or refer to progressives and conservatives, but you could just as easily frame the picture as "backroomers", politicians and non-political people.  

Municipally, dyed-in-the-wool Liberals will support candidates that are declared conservatives, or well known NDP, just as traditional conservatives can back mayoralty candidates who have been their foes in previous political incarnations.  Friends from one campaign can be bitter enemies on the next.

It's fascinating to prod these individuals a little bit and determine how they rationalize their own shifts around the policy/partisan landscape.  They may mention that a given Party or candidate has strayed from where they were or suggest that a politicians of a different stripe that they support shares core values from which they themselves have never wavered.

It's never about needing to have a dog in the race to feel relevant, or personally needing a foe to fight against - that would be illogical.

And that's the point.  People aren't rational - and whatever they tell themselves, partisans are people too.  Like an alcoholic who figures everyone else must have a problem, Kool-Aid drinkers don't see that they themselves are as much a part of the zombie hoard as anyone.

Enter the fun field of behavioural economics - or Design Thinking, positive psychology, neuromarketing, micro-targeting or any other variation thereof.  You could even call it psychohistory if you wanted to.  In essence, each are taking a deep dive on the biological why behind individual and collective behaviour and how, as is the case with other big data explorations, looking at the math behind getting individuals and groups to buy what you're selling.

Behaviour, of course, is tied up with cognitive function, which is being poked at in a couple other different ways right now - mental health and employee motivation among them.

What's really interesting about all this elephant-touching stuff is that at the same time as the markets of the world (including Political Parties) are harnessing Big Data and psycho-social metrics to force you to love/need and buy their product, there are emergent processes looking to do the exact opposite thing - deconstruct individual biases, perceptual limitations and socio-cultural stigmas, allowing for conversations to solve the big, vexing challenges of our time.

These aren't one-world governmenty folk or "can't we all just get along" dreamers - these are experienced professionals from government, the private and not-for-profit sectors and all kinds of grassroots communities. 

None of these human categories matter, though - they're simply useful terms for framing the conversation in a way that makes sense taxonomically.  You could just as easily frame it as problem owners, data curators and problem solvers.  It's just semantics.

What's key about the people playing in this space is that they're coming to recognize that they aren't all that rational, either - after all, they/we are only mortal.  They're learning to go into communications/policy processes with the assumption that they don't individually have the answer or even really know what the problem is, no matter how successful or learned they are.  It's a bit like being the Connecticut Yankee and King Arthur's Court at the same time.

There are different names and different variations, with different approaches ranging from Design Thinking to Discuss, Decide, Do but the ultimate process can be conveyed in the neat little parable of Plato's Cave via the Matrix:

The people attracted to the concept of Open Data and a Responsible Society recognize that much of the stuff we have come to take for granted - money is the key driver for success, some people are just bad seeds, top-driven organizational structures are the most effective, etc. - isn't all that accurate.  In fact, the more data we have, the clearer it becomes our whole society of wrapped in an Emperor's cloak of inaccurate assumptions and outmoded conventions.

How has this come to pass?  Why is it the people most likely to succeed in the system as-is are the least likely to recognize and be prepared to adapt to structural changes?

Traditionally (and this goes back not years, but millennium and deep into our genetic hard-wiring) our societies (and other primate societies) have dominant figures who serve as "head men" - where they go, the people follow.  These leaders get the lion's share of the resources, but in turn are expected to fight any actual lion that shows up.  The ability to dominate was/is therefore intertwined with the notion of leadership.

We, as a society, tend to reward confidence.  Part of us wants to know that we are protected by a strong, overarching figure that keeps the bad guy at bay.  Part of us feels we should go where they go.  No surprise here - it's genetic hardwiring.  We see manifestations of this follow-the-saviour complex in everything from religion to political messaging that suggests only candidate X can stop the bad guy.

The Open Data/Design Thinking/Question Everything crowd is disrupting this process, disrupting even their own instincts in the process.

Last week I attended #DT4i (Design Thinking for Impact), a Design Thinking primer course hosted by Exhibit Change.  The course made a point of disrupting process, introducing new process, then blowing that up as well.  It invoked, then removed a set direction; parameters changed, group dynamics changed, we changed.

It was a bit like boot camp - the intent was to disrupt how participants looked at each other and at problems, developing, through interations, the ability to recognize when an assumption might be obscuring the real world and sense when feelings or personal biases were steering us one way or another.  

Instead of going with our gut, snapping at those who disagree with us and closing loops as quickly as possible, we began looking for synergies, focusing on complimentary ideas and skills and constantly tested assumptions and potential solutions to ensure we were creating something designed to last.

So what happens when you have political people at the top who are unwilling or unable to question their own superiority employing neuromarketing and micro-targeting tools to score bigger wins rubbing up against growing masses who want everyone to know how the sausage is made so as to promote healthier choices for all?

Intelligent Design

Friday 14 March 2014

Political Staff, Feudal Partisans and the Peaceable Revolution

Warren Kinsella has posted a hilarious, cheeky political cartoon that speaks to the Toronto insiders crowd.  He also suggests that, to voters, they don't care about back-and-forth sniping between campaign team members.  By and large, he's right.

People focused on getting through their day, making it through their year and maybe having some sustainability down the road want their politicians focused on real problems and real solutions.  It's a bitter pill that our system has moved so far away from these priorities.

Don't get me wrong - issues are discussed, but never without some sniping thrown in.  You can guarantee that any time an issue or a controversy blows up, high-profile political operators will blog/pundicate about it and your inbox will fill up with asks for donations.

Only Column A can stop Column B, after all.  Column B will bring upon the Apocalypse while Column A will save the middle class.

It's an increasingly specialized field, politics, requiring expensive talent and all the expensive toys and peacock feathers they demand for themselves and campaigns.  What political operatives get up to often isn't very nice - so it's no wonder they don't want us to pay attention.

Or do they?  With blogs, TV commentary, news articles, Twitter, the sausage-makers are out in front every day.  The reality of our increasingly probing communications tools is that there's a continual thinning of the political fourth wall - whether we care about the shenanigens of political staff or not, we are increasingly exposed to them.  

With Senate scandals, robocalls, email trails, impersonations, personal attacks and the rest of it, the picture emerging of the backrooms of politics looks less like democracy in action and more like Game of Thrones.

We don't want to care about what goes into our political sausage, but now that the process is coming to light we're understanding where the sour taste in our mouths is coming from.

Politics is a feudal business.  Ridings are often treated like fiefdoms by inside power brokers while Political Parties serve as the King's Court, trying to keep the realm in good order for the King.

The people see what's happening, see how the system is letting us down and are increasingly demanding more.  It's kinda like Magna Carta all over again.

Magna Carta (and the English Civil War that stemmed from it) led to the model of Responsible Government we have today.  Only we've lost that thread - partisan politics has tied it up into a Gordian Knot.

Which is why we're cycling back to something similar with Open Government.  It's a new Peaceable Revolution that will, given time, lead to another power shift and ultimately, more sustainable governance supported by a more Responsible Society.

History's funny that way.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Moving Forward Together

I am one of those - one of the many, inside and outside the political system - who feels that our politics has become too toxic, too oppositional and too focused on party wins instead of public policy to get the job done.  What started as a system of aggregating like-minded individuals to better support agendas has morphed into tribal warfare.  

Take a look at how much money Canadian political parties take in every year.  Then take a look at all the under-funded charities that could, if they received even a fraction of that money, proactively change lives for the better and save a lot of reactive costs related to poverty, healthcare and justice.

This is not to say there aren't good people in politics, even some great ones.  I can rhyme off countless names of elected officials, paid staff, party organizers and passionate volunteers who have the right intent and some amazing abilities.  But these aren't the ones running the show, are they?

Samara has done some important work bringing to light just how excluded even MPs feel.  The same holds true for the local associations that have, in practice, become little more than fundraising arms for the central party.  Are Canadians frustrated with, disengaged from and mistrustful of our system?  Of course they are - we have leaders across the board who are winning by positioning themselves as outsiders against the system.  

We have elected officials who get applauded for publicly declaring their intent to circumnavigate the system.  We even have legislation designed to curtail the system.  Why?  Because, quite frankly, the system is too messy, too inconvenient in ensuring big, sustainable partisan majorities.

How often are we told that this leader or that candidate is the only one who can stop an incumbent, or the only one who can squeeze out a mortally dangerous opponent?

It's as true internally as it is externally.  Parties fight tooth-and-nail against each other for strict control of Parliament and to support this are increasingly centralizing and controlling all their operations.  We hear all the time about the need to stop infighting, but the solution always seems to lean in the direction of greater top-down compliance.

This isn't how our system was designed to work.  Our model of government pre-dates the idea of The Commons and Parliamentary functioning wasn't designed with aggressive partisanship in mind.

It's great that everyone from Justin Trudeau to Michael Chong recognize that political convention has derailed our democracy, but do they honestly know why?  Are any of the proposed solutions going to make a whit of difference?

We all know the expression about when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  It applies to politics in as meta a way as you can imagine.  

The people trying to change the system have come of age within that system.  The tricks, tools, approaches, communication methods and even what and who they choose to ignore has been learned from the folks whose practices are being questioned.

It doesn't matter that they've gotten better at social media, or learned how to more effectively employ behavioural economic marketing tricks to squeeze more dollars out of citizens.  What matters is that on the fundamental practices of how parties operates, the trend has only exacerbated.  Backroom operators are cutting off Hatfield and McCoy competitions by imposing stricter control.  

Really, what else can they do but what they know, especially as pressures and costs and partisan sniping intensify?

But that's exactly what's happening here.

I see volunteers increasingly being treated with the laissez-faire neglect that is crippling our bureaucracy.  I see policy pieces being designed for narrow strategic value rather than broad-reaching, sustainable public good.  And I see people at the top growing increasingly frustrated with what they feel must be dumb, disengaged and sheep-like citizens and partisans alike who simply don't get that they are the only way forward.

What does this look like?  It looks like bullyish operators and shut-you-down organizers.  It looks like blind-siding those who question the party line or worse, throwing them under buses.  Mostly, it looks like a massive series of shortcuts that, Zeno-like, mean that the destination is never reached and the vision, ultimately, is lost.

But all of this is the short-term problem.  In the long term, what it looks like is a failed democracy.

When I got into politics, I was inspired by a simple message - move forward together.  To me that has always, always meant that nobody gets left behind.  If we're rushing to the next election or culling/ignoring so-called dead weight, if we're fighting tooth and nail with fellow political people, that's not together.

Partisan politics is about sending messages.  Messages go one way.

Democracy is about communication - a messy, time-consuming business, but the only one that results in sustainable solutions.

My heart breaks when I see such gifted, passionate people focusing all their talent, resources and connections on solving the wrong problem.  It's such a needless waste at a time when we can't afford it.

Fortunately, another expression applies here - when a door shuts, a window opens.

Our window is Open Government/Open Data, a truly revolutionary concept that runs entirely contrary to the increasingly closed trajectory of our politics.

Open Government isn't about politics or messaging; it's about communication and engagement.  It relies on the latest technological tools, but employs some of the most ancient of democratic concepts - put people from the top and bottom of the spectrum in a room, as equals, and start with understanding.

It's not about barring challengers to stop infighting - it's about changing the culture and the conversation so that the focus isn't wins, but sustainability.

I remain hopeful that those in the backrooms will see the light on this, but whether they do or not, change is already happening.  Some great, unlikely people are coming together and creating something that will benefit everyone, because everyone will be involved in its construction. 

But then that's what social evolution is all about, isn't it?  Breaking down barriers.  Creating stronger networks.  Developing internal capacity for temporal adaptiveness.

Because moving forward together has always been more than a slogan.  

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Blood to the Head: Responsible Political Parties

Not the way the current Conservative Government is headed, is it?  Their take is that by cutting public funding, making it harder for groups less likely to vote their way and in other ways gerrymandering the system, they're making it easier for themselves to win in perpetuity.

It's the latest step in a direction laid out far in the past, with money becoming more essential to the process than engagement or even policy - you can spin anything, after all, if you have enough cash to sell the message.

More money means more donations, meaning every piece of the political system is being turned into a trough:

- Members have to fundraise for the Party if they want to get ahead
- riding associations are expected to deliver certain sums annually
- people with money (or at least likely to donate it to a party instead of a hospital) are courted - those without, aren't
- everyone who may possibly have a couple bucks to spare is blasted with emails 

What happens in this process is stiff competition for dollars, sure, but that competition doesn't result in better policy and debate - in fact, the opposite happens.  More and more energy gets expended on the wrong things, fuelling public cynicism and again, bad choices.

It's sad how the worst offenders are those who blame unions for squeezing their members at the expense of the flexibility of the system, which is exactly what they do.

Canada Post hasn't done much to adapt - how are they faring?  RIM didn't adapt, either - how are they doing?  In any industry there are competitive tough guys who made a lot of money and left their fields in ashes, but is that sustainable?  Is sustainability what we're after?

Or do we prefer new growth out of the ashes of creative destruction?

The choice lies before the partisans but, ultimately, we're the ones who shape the system.

What Asiana 214 Boeing 777 Can Teach Us About Human Interface

What happened to this plane remains a mystery, but what happened before (the four quarterly losses previous lessons unlearned) and after (the confusion around the follow-up and what has and hasn't been done to map out, test and calibrate for those 9 out of 10 human-caused crashes) is telling.

I spend a lot of time delving in to human interactions, human behaviour and the social, psychological and neurological underpinnings of why we do the things we do, think the things we think and feel the things we feel.

Here's my most consistent finding; we think we're rational actors because we feel that's what sets us apart, but very little about what we do supports that assumption.  

Which is all it really is - an assumption.

We work so hard to self-identify, a process that is as exclusionary as it is defining - part of how we understand ourselves is by elimination of what we are not.

It's very Socratic, this - broad assumptions that separate the world into as few categories as possible, with the simplest being them vs us vs resource.  

Like the trade triangle.

Or the Cold War's First, Second and Third World.

The current discussion around the Arctic applies, too.

The more simplistic our world-view is, the more likely we are to make mistakes, like infants with poor motor control.  We overreact, under-react, or react in ways that make no logical sense, but make an awful lot of cognitive hard-wiring sense.

Like a child, it's experiential learning, trial and error and the testing of assumptions that allows for growth, adaptation, understanding and ultimately, more consciously sound choices.

That's what education is all about.  That's what technology is all about.  New tools and methods of interaction - heck, more interactions, period aren't bad or somehow undermining the purity of what we are.  What we are is recycled matter, which is all we will ever be.  

Social evolution - technology, complex human systems, specialization and yes, a removal from a reptilian-like complete and isolated dependency - are simply adaptations.

And if we're getting it wrong 9 times out of 10, I'd say we've still got a lot of work to do.

At the same time, when you think of what we've been able to accomplish in our child-like fumblings, it makes you wonder what we could do if we truly came together.

Open Data and Canada's Partly-Closing Window

These kinds of things, by the way, is aggregate, process and monetize our data.  This isn't a bad thing, because what they are making money doing is making it easier for us to schedule doctor's appointments, navigate transit and connect with potential business opportunities ourselves.

Open Data is revolutionizing our world and smart players are making a ton of money by essentially enhancing (or adding value) to the basic functions that government is best suited and designed to provide.

How many Canadian companies are making money in the Open Data market?  Not many.  Not nearly as many as could be doing so.  Despite the easy ways to turn the public against foreign data firms (do you really want Huawei consolidating and analyzing our data?) and positioning themselves as a solution, our business community isn't much doing that.


You gotta commit a bit of sociology to find the answer, but it does exist.  It boils down to tradition - Canada has traditionally been a resource-based economy, with some traditional manufacturing thrown in.  Even as we struggle to retain auto companies on our soil, we still have the extraction business, right?  

The federal government is encouraging Canadians looking for work to move to Alberta, where there's a thriving oil industry.  There's need there already, people - why on earth try to create something new?

Yet even Middle Eastern oil-rich countries are looking to diversify their economies.  We are becoming laggards and it doesn't suit our long-term interests.

There are people pushing this field - open data, open opportunity, a culture of collaboration that allows for data to flow - but they aren't who you'd think they are.  A lot of the time, they are bureaucrats, social entrepreneurs, activists and hacktivists.  You know, the kinds of people who are supposed to be bad for business-as-usual.

But the business-as-usual of yore isn't the reality any more.  The usual suspects of solution providers don't have the answers to our changing world - not in GR, not in PR and certainly not in CSR.  

The solutions we need exist right now and are slowly coming together, all on their own, even as government creates solutions for problems we don't have.

There's a big shift coming and it's going to be interesting to be part of.  But as they say, it's that which adapts, not that which is tough, that survives.

The Abandoned Baby

I awoke this morning with a feeling of distant sadness.

In my sleep, I'd dreamed of an abandoned baby.  I was walking along a sidewalk in downtown Toronto - it was winter, cold, I pulled in my shoulders to brace against the chill wind.  

As I walked I heard a baby crying; the cry grew louder as I walked and came upon a cardboard box on the sidewalk.  Inside the box was a baby, almost newborn, wrapped in a light cotton blanket and shivering from the cold that penetrated the box, blanket and fragile baby skin.  

My first thought was why was this baby abandoned?  Images of young parents, or maybe one overwhelmed mother came to mind.  I reached in to the box, intending to pick up the baby, take it and the blanket up, open my jacket and share my body heat until I could get it inside and call 911.

Then I noticed that next to the cheap cardboard box was a full stock of baby supplies - Pampers brand diapers, more blankets, clothes, bottles, a box of powered formula.  It occurred to me that the parent or parents who'd left this baby behind, in their mind, hadn't abandoned their child but given it all the resources it needed to survive.

But what good is a stack of diapers or a box of formula to an infant in the absence of a care giver?

As the meaning of my dream hit home like the sudden loss I looked around and saw other people intentionally not looking at what was transpiring, or looking to me with an expectant eye as they opted not to deviate from their own trajectory.

That was when I woke.  On the radio, an add for Turbo Tax was telling me to get the most out of my charitable donations.  This was followed by a newscaster informing us that winter was back with a chill, blowing wind.

Awake, the sadness is no longer distant.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Forced Perspective

A while back I got into a conversation with my eldest about forced perspective (he's 5, but seems a lot older).  We got to talking about making a movie ourselves and the sorts of tricks we could use visually and locations we could use for a medieval-esque landscape.

Before any of that, I told him, we needed a story, a protagonist, a journey.  We played with ideas and themes from tales he knew and things he was watching and worked on a Part 1.

First treatment draft, here it is:

Alexander and the Giant

Alexander is a young boy who lives with his mother and baby brother in quiet cottage at the edge of the small town of Ibelin.  Ibelin is a typical, medieval town with simple people leading simple lives in small homes. 

But Ibelin has a problem, one the grownups won’t talk about.  There are whispers, anxious looks across the field to the woods that lie beyond town.   “Don’t go into the woods,” mothers will tell their children; “it’s not safe.”  “Don’t leave home after dark,” fathers will say to their sons and daughters; “there are things that pass through the night you wouldn’t want to run into.”

But Alexander’s father doesn’t warn him of such things.  In fact, his father has been missing for as long as he can remember.  The people in town will tell Alexander his father is long gone and dead, but his mother insists he is out there, somewhere.  Mamma, as he calls her, will point to Alexander’s dadda’s short, wooden sword that sits on a stand in his room.

“Your father had two swords that he always took with him on quests,” she will say; “a long sword that’s with him now, and this short sword.  The swords are meant to be together, and that’s now I know your father will come home one day.”  Often when she says this, Alexander’s mamma’s eyes will well up with tears and she’ll touch his face.  “You look so much like your father,” she’ll tell him.

Alexander spends lots of time looking at the short sword in the stand, thinking about his dadda, wondering what he was like.  He can’t remember his face at all, or how he looked, or the things he would say.  All he has of his father’s is the sword and a small crest that is the symbol of his family, passed on to his father by his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before that.

One day, Alexander is woken from his sleep by loud crashing noises out in the dark.  Suddenly,  Alexander’s mamma rushes into the room with his baby brother; “out of your bed Alex!” she whispers urgently; “get away from the window!”  Scared, Alexander rushes out of his bed to his mamma.  As a sound like heavy breathing and powerful footsteps shake the walls of their house,  Alexander and his mamma rush into the common room, away from the windows, curling up into a corner of the room.  Beyond their walls, loud footsteps fall on their yard.

Suddenly, Alexander shouts “sword!” and rushes back to his room.  Terrified, his mamma shouts “Alexander!” after him, but is too afraid to move.  Alexander dives into his room and grabs for the short wooden sword, but suddenly freezes; against the curtain covering his window he can see the shadow of a giant body.

For a second, Alexander is frozen in fear.  He can hear the deep, slow breathes of whatever is standing outside his window.  Then his discipline returns; he sets his jaw and focuses his gaze on the short sword.  He needs to get it so he can protect his mother and baby brother.  Silent as he can, Alexander tip-toes towards the sword on its stand beside his bed.

Suddenly, the curtain blows inward, as if by an unfelt wind.  With a shock Alexander realizes there is no wind – the curtain is being pushed open by a giant hand.  Inches away from the sword but too afraid to move, lest he make a sound, Alexander is rooted to the spot in horror as the hand reaches in to touch his bed, feeling for the person who should be sleeping there.  A deep, terrible voice echoes through the window:

“I know you’re there.  I know your smell.”

The hand moves around the bed, still searching.  Breathless, Alexander watches, horrified by the situation but now shocked by the voice’s words.  What could it mean?

There’s a sudden shout from outside, followed by others; the noise of people moving is heard.  The giant hand suddenly pulls back from the window; with a deep grunt, the massive creature outside the window starts to move away, the shadow falling away from the curtain.

Alexander comes back to life, grabs his sword and rushes back to his mamma.  Terrified, he jumps into her arms as she squeezes both him and his brother close to him.

“Mamma, what was that?” he asks.  Too afraid, she can’t answer, but instead rocks her boys and says, “oh, Alex, why do you have to be so much like your father?  So brave!” and then she cries.

The morning after, the town sheriff is looking at the ground outside Alexander’s cottage.  Big prints can be seen, as if of a giant.

“There’s no denying it,” the sheriff tells Alexander’s mamma.  “He’s back.”

“Who’s back?  What happened last night?” asks Alexander, now wearing his dadda’s short sword; it makes him feel safer.

“You musn’t ask,” Alexander’s mamma says, pulling Alexander to her.  “It’s too terrible.”
“No,” says the sheriff; “the boy has a right to know.”  The sheriff leans down and puts his hand on Alexander’s shoulder.

“You deserve to know.  The hand you saw last night belongs to a giant, evil and cruel, that lives across the field, down the path, through the woods, over the bridge and in wild heart of the forest.  Every so often, this giant comes to our town, looking for food.  He likes little boys and girls, which is why we adults always tell you to stay out of the woods and to not wander after dark.  We never know when he will come next.”

Alexander’s eyes are opened wide, stunned at the revelation.  A giant?  The hand in his window last night was trying to take him away for food!  Then, another thought comes in to Alexander’s mind.
“Sheriff – last night, when he was… trying to find me, the giant said “I know your smell.  What does that mean?”

The sheriff’s face goes pale and for a moment, he’s lost in a horrible memory.  Then, he looks at Alexander grimly.  “They’ve got powerful noses, those giants do.  He probably did recognize your smell.  I imagine it’s because of your father.”  With this last, the sheriff casts a look at Alexander’s mother, who stands, hand out, as though she wishes she could grab the very words out of the air and clutch them to her heart.

“I don’t understand,” a perplexed Alex replies.  “What do you mean?”

The Sheriff pauses, choosing his words carefully.  “I mean to say, the giant probably knows your smell because you smell like your father.  You certainly look like him.”

“The last time the giant struck our village was three years ago, before your mother even knew you were expecting a brother.  The giant took too children, a boy and a girl, from their windows and carried them off to his house for supper.”

“The last sheriff decided it was time to do something about this menace and rushed out of his home and into the woods.  So fast did he fly that he stopped only to grab one of his swords, the long one, leaving this one behind.”

The sheriff was pointing to the sword Alexander carried.  It takes Alexander a moment to process what he’s hearing, but then, suddenly, his eyes open wide with realization.”

“That’s right,” the sheriff continues.  “Your father was the last sheriff.  He went into the woods with just the one sword, seeking to slay the giant and return the children to their parents.  It was the last time anyone saw him.”

By now, Alexander’s mamma is in tears.  Alexander turns to look at her as she drops to her knees and takes both his hands in hers.

“I’m so sorry, Alexander,” she cries.  “I never told you – it hurts too much.  You’re so like your father, so brave and stubborn, I was afraid you would rush off after him.  I don’t want to… to…”

“She’s afraid to lose you too,” the sheriff finishes her thought as he stands up.

“No!” Alexander’s mamma cries out. “He’s not lost, he’s still out there, I know it!  He will come home, I know it!”

The sheriff looks at her with pity, and shakes his head.  “I’m sorry, ma’am; after all this time, that can’t be.  Your husband was as responsible a man as any I know.  If he were alive, he would be here now.  No, there’s nothing for it; he’s gone.”

Then the sheriff sighs a deep, weary sigh.  “And now it’s my turn.  I’ve got to go in there and finish what he started.  I’m not as quick as he is, nor as clever, but I am the sheriff.  There’s nothing for it.”
With obvious reluctance, the sheriff prepares to return to his home.  He nods good-bye to Alexander and his mamma, then turns to leave.

“Wait!” cries Alexander.  “I’ll come with you!”
“No!” Shouts the boy’s mamma.
“But I have to!” says Alexander back.
“No, Alexander, your mother is right,” says the sheriff.  “It’s too dangerous.  This is something I must do alone.”

“But my father went alone, and he didn’t come back!” cries Alexander.  “You’ll need my help!”

The sheriff bends down to Alexander; his words are gruff, but the boy sees fear in the man’s eye.
“You have to stay here,” says the sheriff.  “Look after your mother and brother while I’m gone.  They need you here.”

He gets up and turns, quickly covering the ground back to his own house.  Alexander’s mother, still in tears, kneels down and wraps her arms around her son; Alexander hugs her back, but keeps his eyes on the sheriff, receding into the distance.

The next day, the sheriff has his bag packed; some food, a jacket, his sleeping roll and an old sword.  He nods to Alexander and his mamma, who have come to watch him leave.  The sheriff tousles the boys hair, smiles, then turns and walks off towards the path and beyond, the tall, dark woods.

Alexander’s mamma chokes back tears, touches her son on the shoulder and then turns to walk back to the cottage.  For a second, Alexander looks after the sheriff; something seems wrong, but he can’t think what it could be.  Alexander touches his small, wooden sword – his dadda’s sword, as though somehow that action can provide his answer.

“Alexander!  Come, we must get home!”  His mother shouts after him.  Reluctantly, he turns and follows, the missing something gnawing at him all the while.

That evening, after the sun has set, Alexander is at the family table, finishing his dinner.  Resting on the table beside his plate is the wooden sword, which he keeps one hand on.  He can’t stop thinking about the sheriff and how something is terribly wrong.

Alexander’s mamma comes into the room.  “Finally, he’s asleep,” she says.  “No doubt hard to rest after what happened two nights ago.”  She walks over to the table and sits down, looks at her son with eyes full of love.

“You are so much like your father,” she says.  “You know, he used to do the same thing – sit at the table with his long sword up beside him.  I used to chide him, say that swords had no place at the table, but…”

“That’s it!” shouts Alexander, startling his mother in the process!  “Oh no, mamma.  Don’t you see?  The sheriff left with only his old sword – his one old sword!  He can’t beat the giant, he’s not prepared!  I… I have to go after him!”

“What?  Alexander, no!  You can’t!” cries his mother, grabbing his hand.  “It’s too dangerous!  What if… if the giant gets you too?”

“But mamma, we can’t leave the sheriff to face the giant with only one sword!  He won’t make it!”
“Please, Alexander, don’t do this!  You can’t!  I lost your dadda already, I can’t lose you, too!”  

Suddenly the mamma collapses in tears; it’s the first time she has said out loud what she has feared and been told by so many – that her husband is gone.”  “I can’t lose you too,” she says again.

With empathetic eyes, Alexander gets down from the table, walks over to his mamma and gives her a hug.  She nestles her head against his chest and sobs further.  When she has calmed down, Alexander speaks to her softly:

“Mamma – two nights ago, the giant nearly got me.  I could have been gone – I could still be.  Or my brother could be.  So long as the giant is out there, none of us are safe.  This needs to be done; I need to do it.”
His mamma shakes her head, trying to clear the horrific visions that are drowning her thoughts in terror.  Alexander takes her head in both hands and kisses her on the forehead.

“I won’t be alone.  I’m going to catch up to the sheriff and we can face the giant together.  And I will come home, mamma.  I promise.”

The next day, it’s Alexander’s turn; his bag his packed and his sword is slung over his shoulder.  His mamma watches fearfully, holding his baby brother like he’s all she has left.  Alexander turns, looks at his mother, and smiles.

“I’ll be home soon, mamma,” he says.  “Then we can all sleep safely again.”

Lost and Found

     - Izzy, The Fountain
As part of a course I'm taking on Design Thinking ( for you Twitterbugs) classmates and I have been out on the streets of Toronto, exploring the things that connect individuals with something more - nostalgic memories of a happy childhood or enduring ties to a community of faith, geography, ethnicity, ideas.
Through the process, we've come across a lot of people with no ties - no fond memories of the past, no faith in the concept of community, or perhaps saddest of all, personal connections to a community that, when probed, are smoke and mirrors.
Those with no sense of belonging tended to be jaded, withdrawn, contained, like a closed vessel.  Those wanting to belong were like an open hand, grasping, taking any strands as a touchpoint no matter how loosely they were grounded.
There was also a teacher who turned the ideas of nostalgia and belonging on their heads.  For the teacher, creating memories of experience for their students was what mattered; creating a space their children could belong in was their focus.  They were investing, creating community and finding themselves through the process.
Recently I've met the most remarkable person, a true empath with an almost uncomfortable ability to understand the emotional framework of individuals, structures that people often aren't aware they are shaped (or constrained) by.  This woman self-describes as a giver, which is apt; how she replenishes, lord knows, but the ability makes her a magnet for people.
But when in darkness, we all move towards the light, don't we?
Community is a fragile thing, made up of fragile people.  But that fragility isn't weakness - it's openness.  Is that by design?

Monday 10 March 2014

Everything is the Road to Awesome

    - Everything is Awesome, The Lego Movie

    - Row, Row, Row Your Boat

What's in a word?  In modern usage, "awesome" means the same thing as "cool" - something that is fun, trendy or in some way entertaining.

That's not what the word used to mean.  It used to be a term applied to things so magnificent in scope that they defied compartmentalization - a sunset glistening against the ocean, the grand canyon, the subtle dimensionality of the cosmos, a storm, or an idea.

Everything is Awesome may be a generic, pop song solely intended to be cool (flat and infectiously catchy) but given the textural complexity of The Lego Movie, I doubt it.

If you haven't seen The Lego Movie, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Like Lego itself, the film is simple in its tools but as unlimited as imagination, with a little something more - it's chock-full of Easter Eggs, some of which are pop-culture nods and others which go a little bit deeper.

Batman, in letting go of a love interest say that he isn't the hero she deserves.

That love interest's true name (Lucy) means light.

Who does she ultimately find herself loving?  Emmett - literally, truth.

The Man Upstairs - well, you have to experience that one for yourself.

As the movie is so nuanced, it's easy to believe that the song was designed to work the same way.  Even on surface inspection you can see how much love and attention to detail went into its construction, with lyrics referencing everything from The Sound of Music (these are a few of my favourite things) to Pete the Cat (I love my brown shoes, I love my brown shoes).

So, if this is truly the case - if this generic, bubble-gum was designed to convey a lesson on deeper inspection - what is it?

On the surface, the lyrics and music reflect the subversive, anti-establishment (yet pro-consumerist) theme of The Lego Movie:

- everything is awesome -  If it's all awesome, doesn't that mean generic?
- we're the same, I'm like you, you're like me reinforces this bland rigidity embodied by Lord/President Business and his evil Kaggle

But look closer - pull back and look at the piece as the entire sum of its bricks.

Everything is awesome.  Everything, together, all at once?  That's a lot of detail - unfathomable, incomprehensible, it's the world outside Plato's cave.  That is awesome, in the sense of inspiring awe.

Everything is better when we stick together.  Side by side, you and I gonna win forever - if you've seen The Fountain, this has a different meaning than that of being the same, cookie-cutter style; it's literally about being together, like spokes in a wheel.

Everything is awesome, when we're living our dream.

What is consciousness?  What is awareness?  If life - our lives, our individual beginnings and endings - are the glasses we're half-full or half-empty within, then the dream is the ocean of our ideas.  When you shatter the glass and spill over the shards of your old vessel, you become a drop in the ocean - or, the ocean in a drop.

One must recognize one is lost before one can be found. 
Everything, in aggregate, is awesome.  What's cool is that we are part of everything, too.  It's not about becoming the same - it's about emerging as something greater.

A lesson Emmet shares with The Man Upstairs.  It's a children will lead kind of thing.
But to close on that song - it is pretty infectious, isn't it?