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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.

Friday 15 August 2014

The Free Market in Practice

Boo-hoo Cisco.  Need a tissue?  If you can't compete, maybe you don't belong.

Hey, that's what they say when it's an individual suggesting hiring practices or promotions or sales tricks aren't fair, are stacked towards the unscrupulous or the well-heeled.  Survival of the fittest, right?

There's this illusory notion that in a fully free market, people will compete fairly, like in a running race - no steroids, no tripping up the opponent, just best product and consumer demand.

And the free-market purists call socialists dreamers.

In the real world, competition isn't about quality of product, nor is it about consumer demand.  It's about beating the other guy and pushing people to part with their money for what you have.  How much money goes into garbage on Wall Street because of tough-talking traders?


How can you be against Big Government but in favour of conditions that lead to Big Corporate?  

They don't call it the Fair Market for a reason.  Until people start treating their neighours in a way they themselves would consider fair in return, we need regulation and rule of law, in markets as anywhere else.

Mental Health Maintenance: The Lead in the Pipe

The suicide of Robin Williams has led to a renewal of the ongoing discussion about the legitimacy of depression and anxiety.  

On the one hand are those who think suicide is cowardly and conditions like depression and anxiety are made-up, excuses for people not to try harder.

On the other is a vast amount of medical and experiential knowledge that suggests depression and anxiety are physical conditions, not fabricated excuses that, therefore, can and do have physical solutions.

Do those who choose not to believe in mental illness (instead preferring the catch-all of "crazy", that stigmatic term that redefines the mentally ill as non-human Others) think that heart attacks and strokes are excuses? That no medical intervention is necessary, a person with a heart attack just has to will themselves to get over it?

Of course not.  A heart attack is like a broken bone - it's physical, you can see it.  Diabetes is equally physical, though you don't see it - only its manifestations.  You can disagree with allergies as a valid condition, but when someone goes into anaphylaxis, it's kind of hard to deny something's going wrong with that person.

What of carpal tunnel syndrome, or back pain?  Do we believe those are real things?  A person who types constantly with no break can develop (accrue) carpal tunnel syndrome - we get that.  We get that craning your neck to cradle a phone can hurt the neck, too.  In fact, we get that all kinds of physical illnesses can be accrued throughout life, and at the workplace.

We insure against them.  We legislate against them.  We even design around them.  These are givens.

Yet mental health remains something taboo, fantastical, unbelievable.  If you're too stressed out to do a job, you are clearly the problem, not the job - no one else has trouble with it, right?  If you're too sad because of whatever, you just have to shake it off and keep on keeping on, like other people do.

We accept diet as something which impacts health, exercise as part of health, strain as part of health - but mental health remains taboo.

Is the brain not part of the body?  Why should it alone be immune to the impacts of external factors?

The truth is, it isn't - and many physically manifested illnesses, like heart attacks, can trace their origin back at least in part to mental stress factors.

Yet at the same time, we all talk about mental health self-treatment all the time.  Need a vacation?  Why's that?  Need a drink after work, or an advil?  Is that any different for mental strain than it is for physical strain?

It isn't.  We don't like to believe this, because the implications about how we view ourselves and how we go about our lives, work and relationships is enormous.

It remains true nevertheless.

So long as we deny mentalhealth and it's importance to overall health, we're going to keep treating lead poisoning instead of fixing the problem by changing the pipe.

And that's a bloody shame, considering how much time, energy and life we're wasting by trying to solve the wrong problem - not to mention lost opportunity.

Cognitive labour reform, conscious revolution.  The Knowledge Economy and Open Government are two things that will never happen without it.

It's Not What You Say, but What You Do

Let's not single the Harper Tories out here, though - there are a lot of folk whose actions don't meet their rhetoric.  All political parties have issues about their words and deeds not lining up, whether it be on the openness of their candidate selections or their integrity on spending rules.

There's the cops in Ferguson, too.  Oh, and North Korea.

It's not really that surprising - everyone has a general sense of what ethical standards are, but come on - when it's about winning, you gotta cut rules to get ahead, right?  Victor makes the rules, etc.  Like attack ads, people may not like what's needed to win, but so long as they can't see the sausage making progress, they're willing to look the other way.  


We hear this sort of justification from people caught with their fingers in the cookie jar, when we hear justification at all.  More common is to point the finger at someone else, or ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

This sort of behaviour is always, always accompanied by attempts to reduce transparency so as to reduce the odds of getting caught again.  This is why the cops in Ferguson have been targetting media with fly-zone restrictions and tear gas.  It's why North Korea is a hermit state.  It's also why so much of what happens in our House of Commons is going in camera, watchdogs are being silenced and partisan operations are leaving fewer paper trails.

When you're not being watched, though, it becomes even easier to cut corners and behave badly.  It's an old story - dop the candles so you can do what you feel you need to do in the shadows.

Problem is, you simple can't stop the signal any longer.  Social media makes everyone a journalist and, increasingly, means there's no tribal wall tall enough for individual partisans to hide behind.  

Spend all the money on slick ads promoting your branded ethics you want; attempt to bully or silence your people and your critics.  The truth is that it's getting harder and harder to be hypocritical in our increasingly socialized world.

The best way to show the world your ethics, then, is to actually live them.

Just imagine how things would change if everyone were open to practicing what they preach.  We're already seeing what happens when they don't.

Robin Williams vs. Ezra Levant: Hope and Inspiration vs Fear and Anger

Although Kinsella opens his article suggesting his pick for "biggest name in broadcasting" will shock, shock his audience, there really wasn't much surprise.

First, the reference to shock value is a gimmick, a thing to hook reader interest - essentially, the closest you can get to literary shouting without turning to the CAPS key.

Second, Kinsella is a die-hard loyalist to his tribe, whatever his tribe may be.  It's an admirable quality in an age where loyalty tends to be to oneself first, though there are all kinds of obvious problems with my-country-right-or-wrong partisanship.

Kinsella works for the Sun; Levant works for the Sun.

You know who Kinsella's going to pick from the moment he broaches the subject.

All that aside, though, Kinsella raises good points about the medium of television - it's visual, it's emotive and now more than ever, when we're watching TV while tweeting on our smartphones, it needs to be volume-heavy to tap into what remaining attention we have left.

TV takes this to extremes, but every medium is the same.  We don't listen to monotone speakers, any more than we enjoy lengthy monologues.  How many of us have read War and Peace?  How many read full news articles?

People have short attention spans (which isn't the same as short memories) and, as we are more hard-wired to be emotionally reactive than consciously active, we go for what moves us over what informs us, nine times out of ten.

This is why partisan politics leans increasingly towards street theatre - it has to compete for public attention and that seems to be the only way to shine a light in the public's face.

Which is why attack ads and emotionally negative material - defend, attack, troubles at shores, scandal, etc. are terms partisans lob back and forth at each other.  You have to stir the people to get them active and nothing engages quite like a threat.

This is part of Levant's shtick.  He's bitter, partisan, combative, belligerent, bellicose, bullying, resentful, so on and so forth.  You watch Levant and you get mad - either with him or at him.  Either way, more people are apt to pay attention to Levant than a more thoughtful, lower-key broadcaster (not news presenter).

As people are drawn to the negative, the assumption communicators, political, media, etc, tend to make is that fear and anger draw in viewers.  The positive message stuff isn't visceral; hope is cotton candy when what the people crave is a roller coaster.

Hence, the preponderance of negativity on live TV.

Are they right, though?  Does negativity win?  Is volume and emotion strictly a negative thing?

Recently, Robin Williams died.  The circumstances are well-known, as is the tragic context.  While there are those who are taking a Levant-like tone and criticizing Williams as weak, a poor role-model, selfish, etc, the vast majority of comments that have emerged are ones of gratitude for what he gave to people as a performer.

How many people can recount magical tales about that one time they met him, and for that brief moment he made them feel like the centre of his universe? How many stories have we heard about a spontaneous concert in a crowd, that performance or performances that enriched a life or helped form a world view?

Williams was not a mad ranter; his message was never bitter, never focused on blame, resentment or anger in general.  Williams was a Roman Candle, bringing light to the world - he was loud, energetic, frenetic, but in the opposite way that Levant was.  

Robin Williams lit a fire within the people.  Levant seems to want us to burn the world down.

How many stories will people share about Ezra Levant when he is gone?

For how long will Robin Williams' legacy of touching people with positive energy last?

There are no people like Robin Williams' in Canadian broadcasting; we tend not to be an exuberant people, unless, in increasing measure, it's in a negative sense.

If you were to put Robin Williams up against Ezra Levant in a debate or a contest, though, who do you think would win?

Thursday 14 August 2014

Social Murmurations in Ferguson

The Civil Rights Act is 50 years old. These two pictures were taken 50 years apart. Behold our progress.

Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.

Except something significant has changed.

It’s Now Guns Vs. Cameras in Ferguson

No conflict is an inside matter, unless you're in North Korea.  There are no iron curtains that can keep out social media.  Government can no longer assume that In Camera doesn't mean what it sounds like to most people.

That's the reality.  How we adapt to it - from top to bottom - that's what we're seeing right now.

PS, Alpha's focused on snuffing out the light of engagement - evolution doesn't favour the strong.

The Left-Handed Path - Genius, Mental Illness and Social Exculsion

adjective: sinister
late Middle English (in the sense ‘malicious, underhanded’): from Old French sinistre or Latin sinister ‘left.’
We tend to think of genius as superior; bigger brain is synonymous with better person.  It's an unfortunate misconception, because really, being "smart" is more like being tall, or obese in that it's exclusionary.
Tall people have a hard time on transit, buying clothes, etc.  They face additional health risks, too.  At the same time, there's a great deal of invisible social exclusion that happens for giants, be they tall, or obese, or genius.  We get annoyed at fat people spilling into two seats on the subway; we get equally annoyed at lateral thinkers for jumping gears in conversation.
Creativity and intelligence aren't "gifts" handed to a select few by the gods; they are a product of biology and environment.  In all cases, they can be stifled or promoted, much as poor diet can impact one's growth both in terms of height and in weight, though it's not so easy for a tall person to exercise off those extra inches.
Yet we insist upon the gift label for genius, partially, subconsciously, because it absolves us of the need to compete on par with geniuses.  They were given something, they have an unfair advantage, we needn't feel inferior for that reason.
As a result, the genius is seen as something in addition to the person, like something superimposed; a genius can be expected to be different, but should have no problem acting like a normal person around normal people.  When they don't, we start to lean on another label - mental illness.
After all, if they're different and not in a way that's conducive to social interaction, their must be something wrong with them, right?
Now place yourself in the head of a lateral thinker, being themselves, communicating the world as they experience it only to be rebuffed, or laughed at (like Robin Williams) or simply not understood.  The equivalency is being a foreigner in one's own country, speaking a language others can't understand but, equally, not quite connecting with what other people are saying as well. 
Or better yet, picture being a lefty in a right-handed world, given extraordinary expectations, expected to succeed with standard tools and being disparaged for failing.
For someone like this, genius, if we brand it as such, isn't a gift - it's a curse.  What do you do when you can't communicate directly with others?
Maybe you write.  Maybe you perform - give people the extremes they enjoy, but without the burden of having to be part of the conversation.  Success can be found this way, even fulfilment, but if the basic one-on-one communication escapes you, it's like living life without intimacy.  Something is missed, something everyone around you seems to partake in.
That's exclusion, same as is felt by minorities, disabled people or, yup, the mentally ill.
There is a definite connection between mental illness and genius.  That's a frame most people are comfortable with.  The connection between geniuses killing themselves and their interactions with everyone else, though - that's a bit harder to digest.
It's easier to see them as other, either touched by gods or by the devil, than it is to accept them as different and in need of differing supports and accommodations.
Ultimately, though, that's what we will realize is the case.  There's nothing magic about prophets, artist or witches - and nothing sinister, either.

Rob Ford, the Poor Man's Segregationist

Does spatiality include transit?
- Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
Rob Ford, as always, is good intentioned - but woefully ignorant and elitist.  It's like that time he tried to get Oxycontin for some random guy.  Or those days when he framed himself as the only hope for football players to avoid a life of drugs and crime, much like the one he was simultaneously living.
It's beneficial to explore Ford's position to understand where he's coming from.  What does he mean by suggesting people without jobs don't need transit?
Remember - this is the pro-car guy, the pro individual-freedoms guy.  When he says transit, he's not talking about broader infrastructure like roads, street signs, lights, etc. - he strictly means public transit.
Ford is also the anti-social assistance guy; he feels people need to stand on their own two feet and that social assistance is burdening the masses with carrying for the lazy.  This perspective doesn't imply that Ford doesn't recognize that some people simply can't work; like Tim Hudak, he's all roses and empathy for the really sick, though in his mind it's largely up to their families to take care of them.
This frame isn't a Conservative thing so much as it is an economic thing - if there were an Economic Party, it would have as it's slogan "it's the economy, stupid."
Under this frame, the only system that matters is the economic system.  The flow of money and the capacity to generate revenue/spending power is what matters.  Money is the fuel that keeps the economic beast churning.  That which generates revenue is good and should be rewarded; that which does not is a burden.  You want more of the former than the latter.
The only interaction between people that matters, from an economic perspective, is one that generates wealth and keeps money flowing.  People are the cogs in this economic machine; their job is to work. 
We're slowly getting to transit.
For folk like Ford, there are two kinds of people - those who can work and those who can't.  It's simple, which is what communication is supposed to be in their view, and it's also all about the economy.  The work and the revenue it generates matters most; people matter only in as much as they contribute to the economy.
For those who can make revenue, there are more categories; the more you make, the greater your status and privilege should be.  The Alpha Earners have less restrictions, because their capacity to earn validates them; whether they text and drive, drink on the job or whatnot doesn't matter, because they're still generating revenue. 
Those who earn less have less entitlements, because their economic value is less.  You don't get the corner office just for showing up, after all - ya gotta earn it, and earning is determined by ability to earn money.  So, while the wealthiest are entitled to break the odd rule, have homes in cottage country and dictate to lesser people what they should be doing, middle-income earners get away with less and have a more constrained level of spatiality (the ability to move) and space (property).
This brings us back to transit.  Cars are freedom - you can go anywhere, it's property you yourself own; public transit is shared, limited in where it can take you and worst of all, it gets in the way of cars. 
Of course, in Ford's mind, we all want cars - cars are status, freedom, tools and symbols of economic activity, which is all that matters.  Public transit, or simply transit in his world, is for people of lesser means.  For him, bicycles aren't transit - their leisure tools, like a crochet set or a badminton racket.  You ride a bike for fun, not for transit; it can't take you as far as a car, nor is it big property and it's not public transit in that you can't squish more people of lesser means on them.
To Rob Ford, the idea of bikes on roads is a non sequiter; they don't belong, because they don't contribute.  Roads are the veins of the economy; public transit blocks the flow of bigger earners in their cars; bikes are clots, clogging the system.
Put all this another way - if the economy is the system, than movement is about economic activity.  That which does not produce economic activity shouldn't be moving.  The more you earn, the more status and freedom you have to keep earning more - hence cars, or more plan traffic on the island airport.  The less you earn, the less need you have to go anywhere, because your movement does not serve a purpose.
Back to the people who work and the people who can't categories.
Those who can work, must work.  They're burdening the system if they don't.  Work is tied with movement - to and from work, to and from other economic activity, like the purchase or sale of goods including food, clothing, entertainment, etc.  These aren't activities that are about individuals and social living - they're about the economy.  Duh.
So what of those who can't work?  Well, if they can't work, then something must be really wrong with them.  Like, they're in a wheelchair or braindead or something, i.e. mobility isn't something that's available to them.  If they could move, after all, they would be capable of working in some form or other.
The ability to move equates with the ability to work.  The more work you do - or rather, the more economic activity you're able to generate - the more movement and space you're entitled to, for the good of the economic system.
If you're poor, well, you simply need to work harder, earn that car, gain the freedom wealthier people have by contributing more to the economy.  Public transit is a courtesy, really, one that should be buried away where it doesn't muck up the flow of car people.
If you can work, you should.  If you can't, it clearly means you're unable to go anywhere and therefore don't need transit, period.  Why would you?  Your movement doesn't contribute to the economy; allowing you movement will interfere with those who can.
This is how I see Rob Ford's frame on society, jobs and transit. 
Again, he means well - he's only thinking about the economy.  He wants more jobs for people so they can contribute to the economy and maybe get to a point where they're as entitled to do what they want as he is.  Transit must be all about supporting economic activity, otherwise what's the point?
From a very narrow frame, this makes sense in the same way John Tory's insistence that women need to be more demanding for raises and promotions does; might makes right, the ability to sell (oneself) has primacy, because the economy is all about pushing sales.
It's a common frame, an historically common frame, but also a dangerous one.
When the ability to work and generate revenue comes first, those who can generate money gain special status.  They get to bend rules.  Those who can't generate money, however, lose status - they become seen as impediments to the system that need to be pushed to work, isolated from the majority, etc.
What happens when an employer decides an employee isn't worth their salt?  They get terminated - removed from the system so as not to be a burden to those who are generating revenue.
At the start of the Industrial Economy, lower income earners like factory workers were housed close to where they worked and lived only to shuffle back and forth between work and home.  Illness was seen as an excuse, a deterrent to economic activity.  Kids ate, so they had to earn their keep, too - that's still the case in far too many places all over the world.
What of those who weren't able to work, either physically or mentally?  They were segregated so as not to impede the functioning of the economic system.  Burden that they were, as few resources as necessary were expended on them.  In extreme cases, these undesirables (for their inability to contribute) were terminated, too.  That, too, still happens.
Where those with power and money are entitled and those without have less access and less mobility, you don't tend to find a lot of democracy.  In fact, democracy is a system designed to balance out the economy with a dose of engagement, i.e. sociology.
Do jobs matter?  Yes they do.  Is the economy important?  Of course it is, but in a supportive role.
Rob Ford is wrong to downplay the importance of transit and access, but it's very telling that he does. 
Be thankful we don't have a Strong Mayor system in Toronto.  Worry that we have an increasingly unaccountable PMO.  And the next time you here someone say "it's the economy, stupid", be wary.