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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 11 September 2015

If Jon Snow ran for Public Office

Resting Parrot - e's not resting... he's dead! Lovely plumage though...

Jon Snow is dead.  No, really - no pining for the fjords from this Westerosi Blue.

See, we've been told again and again that John Snow is dead - by the show runners and by the actor himself.

Never mind the lack of a hair cut.

Never mind the popping up in all the locations where Game of Thrones is filming.

It's one of the worst kept secrets in television history (like, ever!!  Or at least this season), yet the show-runners still try to keep up appearances.  


Easy enough - it's a path they've already started on - keep the audience out of the know, keep 'em focused on the story that's being told, etc.  It'd be kinda embarrassing to change tune midstream, wouldn't it?

The producers have a particular story they want to tell - one that, before social media, smart phones and the like, they could have stuck to with only the most modest bits of trickery.  When The Fugitive series was filming, the lead actors weren't allowed to dine together at restaurants so as to preserve the tension of their on-screen story. These days, that wouldn't matter - barbecue pictures and vines of them paling around the set would have emerged, ruining the illusion.

Speaking of ruined illusions - how about that #elxn42 campaign?

Never mind that the Liberals are controlling open nominations or the Tories are fumbling their economic fundamentals; it's the Facebook and Twitter gaffes, the bozo eruptions et al that are ruining the carefully-scripted narratives of the campaigns.

No matter how hard the Party comms teams try to stick to their strategies and suffer no deviations, reality and its virtual airing keep getting in the way.

We have the Price of War Rooms telling candidates that even if they never have a fresh unscripted moment ever again, whatever they did at any point in their online lives (which for anyone under the age of 20 is pretty much their whole lives) is available to be used against them.

It's getting harder and harder to keep secrets.  It is therefore getting harder and harder to tell stories without acknowledging the public's ability and clear desire to be part of the story-writing process.

You can think it good, bad, or some mix of each, but the fact remains - Jon Snow would have a helluva time running for office.

Thursday 10 September 2015

The Digital War Room: Political Memory and Glass Houses

  - Warren Kinsella

He's right, too - you can't stop the signal.

It's not just politics, either - online presence creeping is the new police check, except it's much more pervasive and much more judgemental, too.

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I wrote the following:

When you aren't weighing the pros and cons of doing something you know is wrong, or of not thinking an action through, you're spending more time doing what you know to be right and making sure you've thought through the consequences. 

I didn't know as much about how the brain and behaviour works then as I do now, and while I still believe that consciousness leads to mindfulness leads to more responsible individuals and a more mature society, I'm less certain about how easy it'll be to get there.

The theory is that youth is a time for development, exploration, acculturation; you're going to do things in your younger years that, down the road, will be seen as questionable.  It's true for all of us. At the same time, there are things we do in our personal lives we wouldn't dream of doing in our professional lives (eg - almost every teacher I know is a potty-mouth when they get together outside of school).

At the end of the day, it isn't always clear what's right - and what's right can shift over time.  Should John A be vilified for what he got wrong, or commended for what he got right?  

How much of this should we be judged on in the present?  What bearing should youthful indiscretions or lessons learned have on our individual present?  How about when something or someone we have publicly supported (say, Mike Duffy or Jian Gomeshi) turns out to be a fraud or have unacceptable demons in their closet?  Should our ignorance in the past forever define who we are and how our judgement is judged?

As digital natives grow up, the entirety of their lives will be available for scrutiny in real time.  Those who are inclined to believe they have the right/need/entitlement/whatever to represent others will continue to be the kind of people who live large and have skeletons in their closet.  

What impact does this have on how we view potential representatives, and who is willing to put their name forward for public office?  Should some sort of regulation on War Room activity be enacted? Shoud individuals be more cautious over the entirety of their lives - is that even possible?  Should voters be less judgemental of skeletons in closets - and to what degree?

It's a conversation we need to start having now.

Backpacker Mentality and The Next Big Thing

The best learning experience of my life was time spent as a backpacker.  Over a period of several years I spent time touring around South America, Europe, a bit of North Africa and Korea.  I visited some 30 countries, had countless adventures, met a ton of new people and new situations and environments that tested me as a person.

- bullfighting is not a good idea

- imagine arriving in Bolivia with only basic Spanish, a raging fever and no voice - how do you navigate?  How do you get the basic necessities when you can't even speak?

- that time I got swept up in an anti-Fujimori protest in Lima, Peru that quickly got ugly as tens of thousands of protesters met tanks, police and tear gas.

- word to the wise - it's great to be a champion of justice and all, but when you take on a team of pickpockets on the Milan subway system, make sure you have backup.

- when you get pulled off a bus at gunpoint crossing the border between Croatia and Bosnia, remember to stay calm and put on your best Canadian manners.  

- I was honoured to provide shelter to an abused colleague from a school I taught at in Korea, but there were consequences for that in a society that places face and the appearance of normalcy higher than personal well being.  But I realized that was a price I was willing to pay.

At some point during a break in my travels, but before I'd settled down into my current existence, I was interviewed by Kathleen Hay, then of the Cornwall Standard Freeholder, about my travels.  

"What was the most important thing to bring with you?" she asked.

By that point I had become a pretty efficient traveller - knew just the right clothes and supplies to bring, had mastered the art of layering, and knew how find the resources I didn't have to adapt to the environments I was in.  I realized, though, that the stuff wasn't the most important thing in my bag of tricks.
"Good humour," answered.  "A flexible mindset, a smile and a willingness to make the post of whatever situation you're in."

Backpacking forced me to learn how to be prepared - how to have the right basic gear to handle extremes of weather and to be tucked up on a bus station bench one night while wearing a shirt and tie at a formal function the next. 

 More than that, it taught me to be mindful, diplomatic with a bit of hustle and above all, ready to adapt to changing circumstances.

Fast-forward to the Ontario Liberal Leadership campaign, 2013.  I was part of Team GK, working to get Gerard Kennedy's ideas for structural reform out to the people.  I kept harping on the idea of "maximizing personal potential" for empowered societies as key to any structural change.  The line ended up being included in some of Kennedy's speaking points.  I was thrilled to hear eventual winner Kathleen Wynne utter those words during her victory speech.  It matters not to me whether it was a borrowed phrase or a matter of a good idea finding it's time - I was just glad it was there.

Over the course of the campaign, as is the case with many of the initiatives I do, I became known as the guy to go to when you can't find a pen, when you need a turn of phrase or idea, or simply someone quickly able to tackle an emergent concern.

The team liked to tease me about always having pens tucked behind my ear - but they knew they could always count on me when they needed one.  As ongoing needs were identified through the months of the campaign, my pack ended up carrying bandaids, advil, pens and highlighters, note pads, flash drives, kleenex - everything and anything that might be needed on the fly.

I rarely worry about getting caught flat-footed without the tools I need; experience has taught me what basics you should always have with you, with the rest being about the right attitude to adapt to the time and environment - and know how to adapt that environment to your needs.

Naturally I wasn't alone in this campaign endeavour - I was part of team that worked closely together over crazy hours under the kind of conditions most HR folk can only dream about when saying "fast-paced environment" or "stressful conditions."  Pressure is addictive, though, and campaigns come with their own variant of Stockholm Syndrome which leaves people feeling a sense of loss when they're over.

Our team was fantastic, with some truly inspirational folk on the ground.  It doesn't surprise me at all that some of these folk (Tamer Abdalla especially) have found themselves recruited into Team Trudeau's efforts.  While we all had our assignments and areas of speciality, we were all challenged to collaboratively think through challenges and opportunities to come up with best possible scenarios.

One of the things I liked to think I contributed to the overall effort was structure.  Where there was no database, I would make one; where a template could be improved, I did it.  On occasion I was told "that's great, but a bit more than we need" - but pretty much every time it became clear down the road that the need was emerging and that I was simply getting in front of it.

This isn't meant as a self-serving pat on the back, but recognition of the value my previous experience in terms of being prepared for what may be coming down the road.

At the end of the day, our team didn't win, but we all won because some of our ideas were carried forward and the person who did win - Kathleen Wynne - was a leader we could all get behind.  We were all part of the same community and all had the same vision - that, above all else, above our individual candidate and pet-projects - that was what mattered.

There were some significant changes to the way the Liberal Party functioned after Wynne won, as happens after any leadership campaign.  I'm much reminded, in hindsight, of how Disney has managed the Star Wars franchise as I consider those changes; there were disgruntled folk who found themselves outside the inner circle and there are still communities that feel disengaged (with good reason) but, overall, the door was left open for rivals and stalwarts to be part of the team and the core purpose of what brings people to the red tent has not changed.

Under Dalton McGuinty, David Caplan was tasked, as Minister for Infrastructure Renewal, with "playing the long game" - look at Ontario's infrastructure, look at emerging needs and make sure that long-term we have what we need when we need it.  It's a process that's still ongoing, certainly, but having the idea of looking and planning ahead was critical.

I like to think that the Wynne-added component to this mandate is about ensuring the institutions of government itself are adapted for the times.  A big part of this is Open Gov and Open Data, which both come with a need to engage, inform and empower regular Ontarians to be active parts of the policy and implementation process.  
Consciously or not, what Wynne and the province of Ontario are doing is expanding the cognitive capacity of government to gain insight from a wider array of voices and experiences.  It's a sticky process that many are resistant to, but it's coming at the right time (rather than too late).

Open Data is critical.  It's a valuable tool in our collective backpack that helps us understand what's going on around us, but also provides the building blocks for solutions - some of which can be monetized by private individuals or companies.  Open Data is the first public resource that actually expands as it is used.

Demographics are changing.  The weather is changing.  Infrastructure is ageing, as are people, and we are frankly not prepared to handle the scope of what's changing.  Then, there's the mechanization of labour, the way social media continues to change public conversations in ways the #elxn42 campaign clearly show people and parties aren't yet prepared for.

Yet unprecedented opportunities are emerging as well.  If you've been to Regent Park recently, you'll see a community once written off gaining new life, purpose and the ability to offer value to the rest of society.  For all its pitfalls, social media has opened up new channels of engagement, helped every day folk connect with their politicians and allowed for the spread of ideas in ways never before possible.

It's a lot harder to spin Canadians these days, simply because the nature of the spin is determined, dissected and ridiculed in real-time.  There are pitfalls to this rapidity, though - we have an easier time (and are more inclined to) stick to arguments that resonate with us already out of the endless barrage of chatter.  We can act quickly, ADHD-style in response to situations like the Nepal earthquakes or Syrian refugees, but our attention span is reduced and our contributions increasingly short-term.

Think about that for a second.

Our infrastructure is not up to emergent demands.  The recession adds to years of economic instability which has left more and more Canadians barely holding on, if they're holding on. Governments and businesses and even Not For Profits have been relentlessly focused on Low Hanging Fruit to justify funding/provide validation, which means the long game, though discussed, is not really being planned for.

Our current federal government is all about individual strength and resiliency and economic dependence, which is fine if you're looking for a survival-of-the-fittest model of society.  Problem is, we live in a hyper-integrated, densely-populated society where every individual, no matter how wealthy they are or successful they are can be directly impacted by what happens to everyone else.

Let's say, for instance, that the recession leads into a depression.  We have Bay Street lawyers doing swan dives in the style of their 1929 predecessors.  Masses of people become unemployed, unable to pay their bills, unable to sustain their homes or feed their children.  Where do they go?  They can't go anywhere, because they don't have the means.
In a city like Toronto, it is all kinds of dangerous to have an impoverished majority existing in the same space as a well-to-do minority.  Security risks increase, the potential for civic violence increases.  Crime grows, as does the need of the wealthy (and the state) to focus on protection and containment.  Apart from crime, there's the risk of disease.

Let's say there are severe weather events even worse than our recent floods and ice storms.  Hospitals have no power for weeks on end, public services are scarce and hard to reach/deliver.  Who do you call when even the army isn't enough?

Displaying Toronto-20140206-01724.jpgThe pyramid is only as strong as its base - and the base of our social pyramid is eroding. The powers that be aren't all trying to adapt, nor are the people on the ground.  It's not our culture to be dynamic, to self-empower or to empower others to reach their maximum personal potential.  But it needs to be.

And it needs to be that soon.

Me, I'm not too flustered about the frightening potential realities that are emerging.  I've got my Armageddon Poncho and kit ready, and have made preparations for my family as well.  We've all been through some hardships and have confidence in our ability to weather storms together, and to adapt.  Heck, we've got plenty of experience helping others to do the same, too.

What makes the difference is mindset.  One can be a victim of circumstance without necessarily becoming a victim themselves.  To be a victim is to have no power.  In our society, power is largely determined by ability to purchase and the confidence to talk tough; if you don't have those things, it's pretty easy to feel un-impowered.  We have a lot of that today.

It's not enough to get mad at those who feel (and often truly are) marginalized by society to "grow up" or what not - it's like telling the scrawny kid on the playground to get back up and fight when every time he does, the massive bully who's victimizing him keeps smacking him back down.  #HowMightWe empower people to have the skills, tools and resources they need to succeed?  How might we create a cultural mindset that recognizes the value individual experiences bring and helps people develop personal confidence in what they have to offer?

How do we adapt a culture that is refuses to accept that structural change from everything to our economic foundation (cough cough, manufacturing) to the way government works is going through tectonic change?

The answer is as easy as it is difficult to implement.

The future - the near future, not some distant epoch of time - is an Undiscovered Country, a brave new world none of us have discovered.  The institutions and services and structures we are used to may not be able to serve us in this new landscape.  When a storm hits, we may not be able to wait for someone to come - we might just have to organize, to figure things out on our own.

Displaying Toronto-20140208-01760.jpg
On our own, mind you, is still pretty impressive.  There are locals who know their communities inside and out and could tell you where to find a gas stove in a power outage.  Corporate partners looking to give more to their community can share best practices in organizing, in emergengy response.  People with money to spend and social impact on their mind can invest in emergency preparedness training and resource provision for all communities, starting with the ones who need it the most.

Can energy-efficient and energy-producing Smart Buildings play a role in empowering community housing residents, plus give them an extra bulwark against climate change?  I think so.  CISCO seems to agree.

Do people engaged in the policy-making process feel more empowered, less frightened of change and develop the flexibility to adapt to new realities, be it changing demographics or changing work opportunities or changing education curriculum?

They do indeed.

Can we, collectively, be prepared for the Next Big Thing - a storm, a stock-market crash, a wave or refugees - and turn change into an opportunity to thrive?

That's how we've gotten this far as a species.  There's no reason to stop now.

There's no limit, really, to what we can prepare for, how we can adapt ourselves and our circumstances in changing environments.  We can even solve structural problems that have been with us for ages.  It's the gift our humanity provides us with.

It is within our power to understand our changing landscape and to build up the collective resiliency necessary to go boldly into the Undiscovered Country that is unfolding before us.

And it all starts with a point of view.

It doesn't matter who plants the seed - what matters is how and what we can grow together.

Kent Aitken and the Post Turtle

Reminds me of a joke I read (can't remember the source, but I'm leaning towards the Sun) about Rob Ford.

A Toronto-based scientist is visiting his uncle, a farmer who lives up around Orangeville sometime during Rob Ford's turn as Mayor.  Over a beer on the front porch, conversation turns to the embattled mayor.  The scientist speaks to the problems Ford's simplistic policy is causing the city, the relationship between government and agencies, the reputation damage Toronto is taking around the world.  He throws up his hands in frustration.  

"But he was elected" the nephew says.

"He's a bit like a post toad," the uncle says.

"A post toad?  What's that?" the scientist asks.

"Picture this," uncle says, setting his can down and leaning in towards his nephew.  "You're driving along the road here, and you see a turtle balanced on top of a post.  You don't know what he's doing up there.  The turtle doesn't know what he's doing up there.  What you do know is that he sure didn't get up there by himself..  That's your Rob Ford - a post turtle."

The scientist smiles; he can always count on his uncle to tell it plain.


What makes this a great joke to tell on a campaign trail?

The scientist represent reason, logic, evidence-based decision making.  He's the kind of expert voice you're supposed to trust to get the facts right and understand the technicalities of any given situation.

The uncle is Good Old Common Sense - non-urban, educated in the school of hard-knocks, speaking in truisms and parables.  You trust him because he's a man of the earth, and you understand him because he tells it plain.

When you have a scientist and a farmer agreeing, you've got your X colleague and Y scientist covered.

Thing is, this is a formula, and formulas can be manipulated.  We see this happening all the time in political ads - the "common man" and the Bay Street Interviewer both agree Trudeau is "not ready," So you should feel the same way, right?  That's all the focus group you need to feel comfortable with the message.

Which goes back to this - and for supporting evidence of which you can take a look at this.

We're all a bit like the post turtle - including those who thing they have it all figured out.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Forget Snow - Here's the REAL Azor Ahai:

That looks like a flaming sword to me!

The Big Shift

Let's get this out of the way quickly, so we can focus on the reality at hand.  No one political party is at fault for this underground communications network.  Equally, there are wilfully complicit public servants, just as there are public servants comfortable with their little internal fiefdoms who want nothing to do with open everything.

Pointing fingers of blame leads to a complex quagmire of egos, strategems, alliances, etc.  We're still trying to wrap our heads around the Middle East - let's not go down that road here.  

Besides, what's happening on the ground is so much more interesting.

For all its access to data, ability to take over venues at a moment's notice and generally insert itself into any community at any time, the political realm is drifting further and further away from the general public.  The way in which people interact is subtly changing the behavioural patterns, too - scandals make greater impressions than they would otherwise, manipulative communications strategies are increasingly exposed and parodied in real time.

Then there's the resistance movement of Virtuous Schemers within our public institutions who take public service very seriously and are even willing to put themselves at professional risk for the public good.

Meanwhile, there's demand for more and more open - and more and more engagement.  People don't want to be messaged, they want skin in the game.  They're finding communities that support that kind of approach beyond partisan politics - at places like CSI.

It's particularly true for a growing number of both millennials and folk generally squeezed out of the current economy who feel like they're in a "period of transition" and are trying to find where they belong, what value they have to offer.

Add to this everything from the decline of traditional economic engines (manufacturing, anyone?), significant demographic changes, climate change/severe weather events, global conflicts and their impact at home.

It is a period of civic turmoil.  But at least it isn't dull...

Dear PM Harper: No Man is an Island

Harper to caucus meeting on Nigel: When a drowning man is sinking..."helping him only drowns you". Must explain position on tragic refugees.

Then, there's the whole firewall thing.

Stephen Harper has spent his life building firewalls - around himself, around his team, his efforts to firewall Alberta are legendary.

All this fits within his free-market, libertarian mindset.  He doesn't believe in community.  He's not a big fan of social supports.  He loves his country, sure, but the Canada we live in isn't necessarily the one he's got in mind.  

Canada is more than a country, and certainly is no island - it is a symbol, an incubation space, a community.  Communities are dynamic entities.  

Stephen Harper is anything but dynamic.  He doesn't believe in change; he wants to keep the world at bay.  He throws anyone who rocks his boat - even at his own direction - overboard.  Harper doesn't believe in throwing lifelines, because he's afraid he isn't strong enough to help keep them afloat as well.

Poor Stephen Harper almost seems stunned when the bodies he's thrown overboard - bodies like Tom Flanagan, Patrick Brazeau, Dean del Mastro, Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy - wash up on his shore.  He gets very frustrated when his firewalls prove to be porous.

He should have spent less time trying to be The Prince and more time trying to be a leader.  

The role of leader isn't to rise above and use your oars to knock stragglers off your boat; it's to raise all ships.

It's a lesson I don't believe he's capable of understanding, which is unfortunate; because he dug his feet into the sand, it's always just been a matter of time until he is swept away.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

The Prison of War

Those tanks were coming up my street, past my home, and yet, I have no memories of seeing it in person. 

I've felt lost ever since. 

I crossed the Croatian/Bosnian border early in 2001.  I have clear memories of the slow ride up, the dark, snow-swept plain pock-marked by bomb craters.  At that time, the wreckage of vehicles still rested at the sides of the highway, the detrius of a recently-ended war.  I remember how scared I was to be pulled off the bus by a soldier with a firm grip on his rifle, though it ended innocuously enough.  The ride down to Sarajevo was equally tense - convoys of tanks and the feel of war was everywhere. Sarajevo itself was a shattered city; UN troops on the streets told me to avoid going near sewer grates and the like, in case there were still mines.

A week later, I was sitting in a cafe in Zagreb, talking about the impact of war on civilians with a couple of local English teachers.  They had been high school students during The War.  

"You must understand, we weren't 'war people"" they told me.  "We did our homework, we talked about boys, we led normal lives.  The war was over there, on the other side of the country.  Then it was in the next neighbourhood.  Then, the other street.  One day we were doing homework, and the fighting came to our street.  The window blew up and we hid under the table, crying; we couldn't pretend the war was somewhere else any longer."

As you might know, my grandfather is a World War II survivor.  He was Canadian airman, yet ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  For him, The War was something he fought, but also something he experienced from the other side.

I've only skirted the edge of war.  I have known and cared for people whose lives have been scarred by war; I've even been in places of conflict, both past and present.  Even with that minimal contact, I still have that odd feeling that living a normal life is a bit like inhabiting a movie, like it's somehow artificial.

Part of me wonders if this is a bit like how seasoned political operatives feel in the off-campaign season; something is missing, something is not quite right.  I don't know a single political operative who has spent time in real war, either as a soldier or a civilian.  The use of military terminology is almost a game to them - they love The War Room; one wonders how they would feel to truly live in a war zone.

Real war is not a game; it is a prison from which a part of those who survive it will never escape.  There's the survivor's guilt; there are the emotional wounds that ever thrive just beneath the surface, needing only the slightest trigger to surface.

It's easy to say "get over it" or "live in the now", if you have never lived through war.  

I've never lived through war - I can understand this in only the vaguest terms, but I see it in the eyes of every person I know how has lived through conflict.

This doesn't mean that you can never escape the experience of war - I think it's a bit like a disease that can be kept in remission.  A strong constitution and willpower help, but these things do not suffice on their own.  I've spoken with plenty of soldiers about emotional resilience and even with the finest training, there is still no definitive answer on how to cure PTSD or overcome survivor's guilt.

The treatment for war, from what I can tell, is the simple things - family, friendship, the little acts of love and comradeship that weave the fabric of community between us.  Even still, there will always be moments of relapse where all loved ones can do is be there, supportively, and bare witness.

This is what I think about as I consider the Syrian refugees who have made Canada home, and the many more to come.

The prison of war is something they will carry with them, like a chain to a horrific past.  The best thing we as their new country can offer them is community, and a place to belong.

A place where the lost may find home.