11/28/12

Mayors Under Siege: Why Laws Must Change


Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is planning to appeal the recent judicial decision that ousted him from office for failing to obey one of the basic rules of municipal governance. In fact, during the hearing, he admitted never having read the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, one of the key pieces of legislation that govern municipal politicians, even once during his decade on council.

Superior Court Justice Charles Hackland wrote a 24-page decision that called Ford’s  “wilful blindness” inexcusable, and said:

“It is difficult to accept an error-in-judgment defence based essentially on a stubborn sense of entitlement (concerning his football foundation) and a dismissive and confrontational attitude to the integrity commissioner and the ‘code of conduct’.”

Ford, of course, blames the “lefties” for his own failings. Coming out of court, Ford said:

“This comes down to left-wing politics. The left wing wants me out of here, and they’ll do anything in their power to (do that).”

Ford’s charge is merely a tawdry attempt to dissociate himself from his own responsibilities (and failings), and to attack his political opponents on the basis of party platforms. Partisan politics easily obscure truth and reality through such tactics. Party followers are more willing to believe the platform than the facts (as in the recent US presidential election where the Democrat candidate was labelled a “socialist” by the Republicans).

Ford’s churlish comment also became a much-repeated joke in the Twitter-verse, but on CBC radio, I also heard people interviewed on the street repeating the same inanity, as if the judicial system was hostage to left-wing politics because they found Ford guilty.

Ford timeline

Ford also commented,

“I’m going to fight for the taxpayers of this city like I always have. The calls are coming in fast and furious, telling me to fight it, telling me to run. I’ll never give up fighting for the taxpayers.”

No: Ford is fighting for his reputation and his political career. That is not a fight for the taxpayers (ask yourself which taxes are at risk by Ford’s absence). It is disingenuous to try to associate a personal battle with something for the greater good. The electorate is not fooled by it.

London Mayor Joe Fontana has been charged by the RCMP with fraud, breach of trust by a public officer, and uttering forged documents. He has refused to step down while the charges are investigated, despite attempts by London council to ask him to do so. A non-confidence vote – more symbolic than effectual – was passed by a committee and comes to the council table soon.

Fontana is innocent until proven guilty, of course. Unlike Ford, he didn’t try to blame others for his problems, and declared his innocence. And we should not automatically assume any guilt while the investigation continues. He did, however, refuse to step down until the legal process is completed:

“I’ve been given a mandate by the people of London. People call me every day saying they like the work I’m doing as mayor.”

The mandate given by an electorate is to serve the people, not serve personal or even party agendas. Every mayor has to live up to a higher standard than the electorate, and treat the office with respect and honour. The job comes with some serious responsibilities to act in a manner that reflects those expectations and upholds those standards. The mandate is not simply about taxes or promises: it is about leadership.

When the public feels that the mayor sullies the office, the mayor is seen as rejecting that mandate. Ford and Fontana are treating it like it is their right to stay on and continue, not a privilege granted by the electorate. They are separating themselves from those they are expected to lead and guide.

Ford was removed from the mayor’s chair by a judge because there is no mechanism in the Municipal Act for either a council, integrity commissioner, or the public to remove an elected politician from office outside the courts. Fontana cannot be removed, regardless of council’s vote (and council is only asking him to step aside (with pay) during the investigation, not resign) and the motion is simply symbolic. Fontana can legally ignore it.

These tales of mayoral woe pale in comparison with the ongoing revelations of kickbacks and corruption in Quebec that caused  Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay and Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt to resign in the face of public outrage and police investigation. And today I heard that Winnipeg’s mayor, Sam Katz, faces his own conflict of interest challenge. Mayors are always in the spotlight and cannot hid from the media’s attention.

All of these are examples of poor judgment, arrogance, ignorance and often a misplaced sense of entitlement, these mayors act as if they were both above the law and above public expectations. What they fail to acknowledge by denying wrongdoing and blustering their own defence is that, although mayors only have one vote at the council table, they fill a role that is far more important than a simple councillor.

Mayors have symbolic power as the figurehead at the head of the table; they speak for the municipality. It’s not simply a ceremonial role; they are perceived in the public eye as being both the spokesperson and the role model for the entire community. And a mayor who loses the respect of the community can also polarize the community against the entire political and bureaucratic structure (as we discovered here, last term). The electorate loses confidence in the very process of governance when it loses confidence in its mayor.

What the Municipal Act lacks is any mechanism to either unseat or recall a municipal politician. Not even an integrity commissioner can do that – as in Ford’s case. Nor is there any method for a council to express non-confidence in a mayor or hold a mayor accountable for his or her acts. Voters cannot recall a municipal politician and only have the election to make a statement of displeasure. That’s a problem that can only be resolved by the provincial government putting some enforceable accountability into the act.

11/24/12

Another popular myth debunked: moon doesn’t make crazies


Craxy lunar ideas“Myth Debunked: Full Moon Does Not Increase Incidence of Psychological Problems,” says the headline on a story on Science Daily. I was amused by the notion that, in 2012, anyone would seriously believe that the moon affected human psychology – especially supposed educated people.

In this case, it was very serious and resulted in a paper with the lengthy and ponderous title, “Impact of seasonal and lunar cycles on psychological symptoms in the ED: an empirical investigation of widely spread beliefs.” The abstract says:

This study evaluates the impacts of seasonal and lunar cycles on anxiety and mood disorders, panic and suicidal ideation in patients consulting the emergency department (ED) with a complaint of unexplained chest pain (UCP)… Patients with UCP were recruited from two EDs. Psychiatric diagnoses were evaluated with the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule for DSM-IV… Significant seasonal effects were observed on panic and anxiety disorders, with panic more frequently encountered during spring [odds ratio (OR)=1.378, 95% confidence interval (CI)=1.002–1.896] and anxiety disorders during summer (OR=1.586, 95% CI=1.037–2.425). Except for one significant finding, no significant effects of lunar cycles were observed. These findings encourage ED professionals and physicians to abandon their beliefs about the influence of lunar cycles on the mental health of their patients. Such unfounded beliefs are likely to be maintained by self-fulfilling prophecies.

Whew. Although the full text of the report isn’t available to non-subscribers, the article on Science Daily explains:

…researchers … focused specifically on 771 individuals who showed up at the emergency room with chest pains for which no medical cause could be determined. Psychological evaluations revealed that a sizeable number of these patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.
Using lunar calendars, the researchers determined the moon phase in which each of these visits occurred. The results of their analyses revealed no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases.

That struck me as the study’s face-palm moment, the time when the Simpsons’ “Doh!” should have been shouted by the researchers as they smashed their palm into their heads.

“Geez,” one of them must have said as the data came in, “I’ll bet if we explore this further, we’ll also find out Friday the 13th is no more unluckier than any other day. What next? Black cats aren’t bad luck? We can safely walk under ladders? We don’t need to toss salt over our left shoulder when we spill it? Saying “gesundheit” when you sneeze doesn’t keep demons away? When will it end?”

That so-called “link” between behaviour and lunar cycles is merely a hangover from the discredited pseudoscience of astrology; it oozes from our ancient past when superstitious cave people believed the planets and stars were gods and demons and could affect our lives. Believing lunar phases can affect psychology today is akin to believing magnets or crystals can make you healthier. Pure and simple balderdash. It’s not a great leap from believing astrology to believing in creationism and Scientology, or that vaccines are a government conspiracy to enslave you.

The researchers also found that “anxiety disorders were 32% less frequent during the last lunar quarter.” Their analysis of this statistical oddity?

“This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account,” suggested Geneviève Belleville. “But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems.”

Coincidental? You think? What’s the other choice? That the moon made people less anxious one week every month? Come on… what next? Lycanthropy?

But what’s scary is that, according to the study, the majority of medical professionals BELIEVE that the moon affects personality and mental health. These are the people into whose hands we entrust our well-being! We expect them to be scientific, observant, and logical – even skeptical and suspicious (skepticism is what drives intelligent inquiry). Not medieval, not superstitious, not silly. If I want that, I can find it in copious amounts on the Net. When doctors start believing in astrology, I expect them to trot out the “healing crystals” for my bad humors, or kill a chicken to cure my possession.

This study’s conclusions run contrary to what many believe, including 80% of nurses and 64% of doctors who are convinced that the lunar cycle affects patients’ mental health. “We hope our results will encourage health professionals to put that idea to rest,” said Dr. Belleville. “Otherwise, this misperception could, on the one hand, color their judgment during the full moon phase; or, on the other hand, make them less attentive to psychological problems that surface during the remainder of the month.”

“Color their judgment”? Break out the ouija board then next time you go to your doctor, because if he or she believes the moon is influencing your state of mind, you better contact the spirits for answers. Or better yet, run for the exit.

Oh wait. There are no spirits. No ghosts, no goblins, no orcs, no Easter Bunnies, no demonic possession, no vampires, no werewolves, no angels, no psychics, magic crystals don’t cure disease and magnets don’t make you healthier. Astrology is bunk. Palmistry is bunk. Phrenology is bunk. Sorry to have to break the news.

Wait a second. This isn’t the first study to debunk this particular silliness. It’s the umpteenth. According to the Skeptics’ Dictionary:

Ivan Kelly, James Rotton and Roger Culver (1996) examined over 100 studies on lunar effects and concluded that the studies have failed to show a reliable and significant correlation (i.e., one not likely due to chance) between the full moon, or any other phase of the moon, and each of the following:
-the homicide rate
-traffic accidents
-crisis calls to police or fire stations
-domestic violence
-births of babies
-suicide
-major disasters
-casino payout rates
-assassinations
-kidnappings
-aggression by professional hockey players
-violence in prisons
-psychiatric admissions [one study found admissions were lowest during a full moon]
-agitated behavior by nursing home residents
-assaults
-gunshot wounds
-stabbings
-emergency room admissions [but see]
-behavioral outbursts of psychologically challenged rural adults
-lycanthropy
-vampirism
-alcoholism
-sleep walking
-epilepsy

Gosh. the moon doesn’t affect ANYTHING*. Must be bad research. Let’s try again… maybe justify our research grants… when do we stop repeating this stuff?

Okay, folks, let’s agree that this issue is finally settled with this, the umpteenth-and-one study. Don’t waste any more time chasing shadows, not on my tax dollars. It’s been debunked many, many times. Let it rest and focus your attention on real science. Please don’t follow this up with a study on black cats or Friday thew 13th.

~~~~~

* Also from the Skeptics’ Dictionary:

Many believe in lunar myths because they have heard them repeated many times by members of the mass media, by police officers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and other people with influence. Once many people believe something and enjoy a significant amount of communal reinforcement, they get veryselective about the type of data they pay attention to in the future. If one believes that during a full moon there is an increase in accidents, one will notice when accidents occur during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when accidents occur at other times. If something strange happens and there is a full moon at the time, a causal connection will be assumed. If something strange happens and there is no full moon, no connection is made, but the event is not seen as counter evidence to the belief in full moon causality. Memories get selective, and perhaps even distorted, to favor a full moon hypothesis. A tendency to do this over time strengthens one’s belief in the relationship between the full moon and a host of unrelated effects.

11/22/12

Do We Need a CAO to Run Town Hall?


Peter Principle cartoon
One of the comments in a rather lengthy letter presented to council recently was about hiring a CAO. The author demanded a “panel of qualified citizens appointed by an independent body* to oversee the recruitment, participate in interviews and the transparent selection process to fill the vacant position of Chief Administrative Officer for the Town of Collingwood.”

Aside from being wildly out of context in a letter ostensibly about local recreation facilities, that non-sequitur underscores a common misunderstanding about the nature of municipal governance and bureaucracy.

Many municipalities have CAOs or someone in that position – sometimes called a City Manager. However, there is no requirement in any provincial legislation for the town to have a CAO or any top-level administrative manager. We are legislated to have a clerk and a treasurer, period. It is entirely at the discretion of council whether to hire anyone else.

The old, but traditional, pyramid-shaped hierarchical management model has widening steps of management and staff descending from a single leader at the top. It may seem logical to have one person at the apex, but that’s more likely out of custom than out of necessity. Other models of management work as well, if not better (see below) in the public sector.

Reading far too often of the malfeasance and greed of corporate CEOs during the recent economic recession and downturn, especially in the financial sector, has considerably eroded any remnants of respect for the top dog position in the private sector. After working in several large private organizations based on that model, and having known and interacted with five town CAOs in the past 20 years, I am not convinced it is the most effective model for bureaucratic governance.

Having a single person at the apex of the municipal management pyramid means that person is the sole fulcrum for the interaction between council and staff. All of the planning, strategizing, communication, policy making and implementation roles are gathered in one person. Council’s direction and wishes are focused through the interpretation of that one person, too.The CAO is boss, yet also subservient at the same time.

Personalities can easily affect the relationship (both between CAO and council and CAO and staff). It requires someone who can put personalities aside, rise above the political milieu, and take on the often uncomfortable role as an objective conduit between council and staff, while trying to meet the needs and expectations of both the town and the transient politicians (a group which changes every few years).

It’s a difficult balancing act, one fraught with stress and potential conflict. It needs wisdom, patience, a Buddha-like calm, a good sense of humour, and a thick skin. Not everyone is suited for the political pushmi-pullyu role of municipal CAO.

Moving upwards in an organization is like being a juggler: you try to keep more balls in the air with every level change, until you finally reach the point at which there are either no more balls to add, or you can’t keep up everything you have in play, so you can’t move forward any more.

The Peter PrincipleIn every organization (including many municipalities), some top managers rise to their position because the promotion escalator is an automatic mechanism that gives people the opportunity to rise within the ranks based almost entirely on seniority. Basically, if you can sit there long enough in these companies, you’ll get promoted: sitzkrieg to reach the top salary slots.

As a result, some people rise to levels outside their particular skill set, experience or comfort level and fail in their new role. This is known as the “Peter Principle“:

…in an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, that organization’s members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” In more formal parlance, the effect could be stated as: employees tend to be given more authority until they cannot continue to work competently. It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise, which also introduced the “salutary science of hierarchiology.”

Dilbert cartoon
This is complemented by the rather more cynical and caustic “Dilbert Principle“:

 …companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management (generally middle management), in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing. In the Dilbert strip of February 5, 1995 Dogbert says that “leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow.” Adams himself explained, “I wrote The Dilbert Principle around the concept that in many cases the least competent, least smart people are promoted, simply because they’re the ones you don’t want doing actual work. You want them ordering the doughnuts and yelling at people for not doing their assignments—you know, the easy work. Your heart surgeons and your computer programmers—your smart people—aren’t in management.”

Sometimes people are promoted just to get them out of the way. Dr. Peter also described this in his book, calling it “percussive sublimation”:

…the act of kicking a person upstairs (i.e. promoting him to management) to get him out of the way of productive employees.

He also described the “lateral arabesque” in which an

…incompetent worker is moved laterally or to another location with possibly a longer title.

So where does someone with ambition go after he or she reaches the top rung of the particular job ladder in a municipal organization? Usually to another organization or municipality where there are either more opportunities to move upwards, or where the pay and benefits are better (usually, but not always, associated with increased responsibilities). A lot of top municipal executives have a short (3-5 year) work span in any municipality as they work their way upwards.

Others may stay in place once they reach their topmost rung because they like the community and want to stay; others stay because they have been promoted outside their level of competence and have nowhere left to go. There they act as an anchor on the entire organization, making change, growth and innovation more difficult.

It’s difficult to decide who will best fill such an important role as CAO. Sometimes the apparent best choice in an interview turns out to be unsuited for their new position only after they have settled in; fulfilling the Peter Principle.

In the Forbes Magazine article, Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives, author Eric Jackson identifies:

Leaders who are invariably crisp and decisive tend to settle issues so quickly they have no opportunity to grasp the ramifications. Worse, because these leaders need to feel they have all the answers, they aren’t open to learning new ones.

Apparent decisiveness, he suggests, can mask a myopic, self-centred viewpoint. 

Jackson also lambastes, those who “ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t completely behind them”:

…CEOs who think their job is to instill belief in their vision also think that it is their job to get everyone to buy into it. Anyone who doesn’t rally to the cause is undermining the vision. Hesitant managers have a choice: Get with the plan or leave.

The problem with this approach is that it’s both unnecessary and destructive. CEOs don’t need to have everyone unanimously endorse their vision to have it carried out successfully. In fact, by eliminating all dissenting and contrasting viewpoints, destructive CEOs cut themselves off from their best chance of seeing and correcting problems as they arise.

I';m sure you’ve known the “my way or the highway” types in your own past. I certainly have, and can list several companies that have ceased to exist because of this monolithic attitude.

For entrepreneurs and the Mitt Romney-CEOs, for the dog-eat-dog capitalism of corporate warfare, for those whose whose egos demand they be in control all by themselves and damn the underlings, this hierarchy seems the logical path to take because it can lead to ultimate, sole-sourced power.

A truly competent person may rise to the top in this environment, but there’s an equal chance that an incompetent person does – as Jackson’s article details.

This escalator-style corporate management model may not be the most appropriate for a municipality which should really be a cooperative, rather than competitive, environment. Municipalities have very different dynamics than private sector business.

 Ideally, every CAO or top-level manager should have a wide range of skills (as per enotes.com):

Regardless of organizational level, all managers must have five critical skills: technical skill, interpersonal skill, conceptual skill, diagnostic skill, and political skill.

However, it’s unlikely any single person has all of these in sufficient supply. Not to belittle anyone who has held that role, but these skills are big shoes to fill. While a good manager will delegate some responsibilities to those who have the complementary skills, it’s not easy to release the reins of power once you’ve been given them.

That’s where team management comes to the fore. A team can supplement each other’s weaknesses by providing a mix of skills, talents, and personalities to strengthen the group: a gestalt, where the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.  As also noted on enotes.com:

A team is a group of individuals with complementary skills who work together to achieve a common goal. That is, each team member has different capabilities, yet they collaborate to perform tasks. Many organizations are now using teams more frequently to accomplish work because they may be capable of performing at a level higher than that of individual employees. Additionally, teams tend to be more successful when tasks require speed, innovation, integration of functions, and a complex and rapidly changing environment.

Another type of managerial position in an organization that uses teams is the team leader, who is sometimes called a project manager, a program manager, or task force leader. This person manages the team by acting as a facilitator and catalyst. He or she may also engage in work to help accomplish the team’s goals. Some teams do not have leaders, but instead are self-managed. Members of self-managed teams hold each other accountable for the team’s goals and manage one another without the presence of a specific leader.

This is like the model Collingwood has taken and, in the months since we implemented it, it has proven far more successful than anyone imagined. To be clear: the position of CAO is technically not vacant: Council appointed Mr. Ed Houghton in April as Acting CAO (he currently does so without any additional remuneration, by the way). However, he serves as the team leader, the catalyst, rather than the overlord.

Others on the executive team include the town’s treasurer (Ms. Leonard), our clerk (Ms. Almas), and the Collus Director of Operations (Mr. Irwin). These four people pool a considerable wealth of experience, talent and perspectives.

Teams are essentially mutually-supportive, multi-tasking units, whose members have the ability to deal with multiple issues and activities simultaneously, yet work on collective goals. The group approach parallels current social trends being played out online, in social media. As Luc Galoppin writes:

Successful organizations are those who are aware of that shift and tap into the new literacy of collaboration that social media has brought us. The result is a new balance between hierarchy and community that is called social architecture… We still need hierarchy and control to get things done. The only difference with the old days is that control will only get you half-way. The Industrial Revolution is over. Today, getting things done requires an extra layer on top of hierarchy. We need to re-wire our organizations and tap into the potential of communities, tribes, movements, problems and solutions. Each of these communities wants to be hosted. And you need those communities to get results in today’s economy.

Netage.comGaloppin makes some salient points about the shift from the traditional hierarchy to a more community- or tribe-based based management, one in which influence and collaboration replace the old “command-and-control” structures. In that sense, Collingwood is ahead of the curve because we have already moved beyond the traditional, but often fragile, hierarchical models.

What we have done is de-layer the old hierarchy and empower the middle-level management. In doing so, it seems a traditional CAO position is proving to be a redundant level of management and unnecessary bureaucracy we can afford to eschew. We have one less level in the decision-making process, but more decision makers. And yet our expenses are lower.
Department of Redundancy Department
In a study of delayering management practices, P. Kettley wrote,

Central to the new model of organisation in the 1990s is a flatter structure, achieved by a reduction in the number of layers in the management hierarchy. Such a structure is becoming synonymous in popular management theory with bureaucracy busting, faster decision making, shorter communication paths, stimulating local innovation and a high involvement style of management…

For some, the achievement of such savings is the primary objective of their restructuring initiative. For others, a flatter structure is the route to freedom from bureaucracy, speedier communication and the development of a customer focused culture in which team working and high involvement working practices will thrive.

A flatter organisation is achieved in several ways. First, by the elimination or automation of management activities and the subsequent redundancy of those posts performing them. Second, as the result of unnecessary and costly overlaps of accountability being identified and reallocated.

Whether or not this will continue to be the model for town management, I can’t say. I can only observe that it has proven itself in the short time we have operated with it and I would be hesitant to vote to return to the older, less collaborative and certainly more expensive model with a CAO alone at the top of the pyramid.

Council has also expressed its collective support for this inclusive, team-management, collaborative approach. Town hall is functioning better and more smoothly than I’ve ever seen it in 20 years. Staff morale is high and the relationship between Mr. Houghton’s team and council is excellent. There is no need to go to the expense or effort to fill the role with an outsider.

~~~~~

* As for the group’s unrealistic demand that outsiders determine staff requirements, the right to appoint or dismiss senior staff rests solely with the elected council. Under the requirements of the Municipal Act, personnel issues cannot even be discussed with those who are not authorized by the legislation. The Municipal Act does not allow a group of unelected citizens to control the actions of elected representatives or staff with regard to hiring personnel or to determine staffing levels.

11/19/12

Ten Lessons Learned From the Petraeus Affair


Sex scandal cartoonAfter watching the recent, exaggerated – and sordid – upheaval over the story about an extramarital affair that the (now former) head of the CIA had with his biographer, I have come to several conclusions about America, sex, American media and publicity:

1. Americans, who bought millions of copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey“, a poorly-written, highly derivative, pornographic book, and then turned it into a national industry that includes home parties where BDSM equipment is sold to housewives, and dozens of spin-off blogs based on the book, are easily offended by “racy” emails between consenting adults.

2. Americans, who consume a vast quantity of online pornography, and who turned the porn industry from a back-alley business into a multi-billion-dollar business, are offended when real, consenting adults outside of the sex trade, have ordinary sex. And, of course, get caught.

3. Americans, who elevate mediocre and untalented stars, starlets (like Pam Anderson) and wannabes (“socialites” like Paris Hilton) to exalted popular status when they make an explicit video recording of themselves having sex and then ensure it gets broadcast all over the Internet for millions to view, are offended when consenting adults have sex and don’t make a sex tape for the public to watch.

4. Americans, who revel in graphic sex scenes and nudity in their TV shows (i.e. True Blood) and  have made entire TV series based on sex and adultery (i.e. Sex in the City), condemn extramarital sex between consenting adults as a “scandal” in their TV news and in other media. (When exactly is a news story a scandal? See here.)

5. A sexual liaison between consenting adults can become headline news for weeks, even though it has no proven effect on national security, has no proven effect on the business of the state, is not a criminal matter – but is simply a private matter between the parties involved. Meanwhile, Americans avoid real news stories and have no idea what’s happening in the world. Few American media outlets seem either willing or able to rise above the tabloid-style headline. As Saskboy writes:

The American media is very primitive, which is why it avoids complex and important issues, and instead resorts to tabloid topics like sex scandals. While their country is embroiled in an unprovoked war in Iraq, occupies Afghanistan (along with Canada), and itches to bomb Iran for oil, they’re worried more about where the wiener Petraeus has been.

6. Sex is still a potent weapon for partisan battles in politics. Republicans will try to use anything they can to hurt the Democrats and especially president Obama, by blaming them for the scandal or worse – trying to impeach him.

Republicans have quickly shifted from licking their election defeat wounds to trying to tie the David Petraeus’ affair to Benghazi in order to impeach President Obama…

After losing elections, paranoid conspiracy theories are Republican comfort food used to soothe the fractured psyche of those who got a taste of what ‘Real America’ actually thinks of them. If anyone thought the GOP rank and file would learn any lessons from their latest defeat, think again.

7. Americans love sex scandal, and revel in making it into public entertainment. They will glorify the ‘scandal’ by turning a rather mediocre affair into a glitzy Hollywood drama to elevate the titillation level.

The hormone-charged hijinks have now spread to include military groupie and Tampa socialite, Jill Kelley, who blew the whistle on the marriage-breaking manoeuvres and the current warlord of the Afghan campaign, Gen. John Allen.

But who to cast in the leading roles? Here are our picks: Denzel Washington as President Barack Obama; William H. Macy as Petraeus; Demi Moore as Broadwell; Teri Hatcher as Kelley; Jack Nicholson as Gen. Allen; Vin Diesel as FBI Agent Frederick Humphries, and the Sopranos Steve Schirripa as Kelley’s cuckolded hubby, Scott Kelley.

8. The American government and media have screamed loudly about the exposure of their government documents to public scrutiny on Wikileaks, and demanded that the site’s owner, Julian Assange, be tried for treason. Yet the same media and government officials revel in exposing the sexual peccadilloes and personal lives of consenting adults caught in an affair.

9. Americans have always loved sexual scandal. As the Constitution Daily reports, this sort of event have captivated American audiences ever since the nation was first formed:

The current sex scandal involving the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the military, and possibly several private citizens isn’t the first in Washington, but it has some things in common with the huge scandal that hit Alexander Hamilton more than 200 years ago. The Maria Reynolds affair was the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-John Allen triangle of its day in the 1790s, with its admission of adultery, scandalous mail exchanges, and a high-profile resignation.

Political cartoon10. Nothing is ever secret online, no matter how you try to hide it. A nation that voluntarily and eagerly gives up its privacy online, and will post revealing details and even photos about its private life and body parts, is apparently shocked when private details of an affair between consenting adults are made public. Obviously had Petraeus posted the details and videos online, he would have become a media star.

It’s amusing that in late 2010, one political site was wondering aloud if sex scandal was dead as a political weapon or would hold media attention:

Perhaps in America the road to forgiveness is simply becoming shorter. Maybe, people are seeing what many in other countries have seen for years –the political sex scandal may change the conversation, but doesn’t by any means change the game.

However, as The Onion wrote satirically, this silliness may have opened some Americans’ eyes to some of the real news they’ve been avoiding while googling the salacious news about Petraeus:

WASHINGTON—As they scoured the Internet for more juicy details about former CIA director David Petraeus’ affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, Americans were reportedly horrified today upon learning that a protracted, bloody war involving U.S. forces is currently raging in the nation of Afghanistan. “Oh my God, this is terrible,” Allie Lipscomb, 29, said after accidentally stumbling on an article about the war while she tried to ascertain details about what specific sexual acts Petraeus and Broadwell might have engaged in. “According to this, 2,000 American troops have died, 18,000 have been wounded, and more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. Jesus Christ. And it’s been happening for, like, 11 years.” Sources confirmed that after reading a few paragraphs about the brutal war, the nation quickly became distracted by a headline about Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash’s alleged sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy.

The long run? America’s attention span for real news – Gaza, Syria, the Fiscal Cliff, pollution, GMO foods, the environment, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, and on and on -.is that of a gnat’s. But a sex scandal appeals to American’s mixed-message attitudes about sex – part smut, part puritan, all agog – and will capture American audiences for weeks and weeks, at least until another scandal takes over the headlines.

PS. Here’s a fun infographic on adultery from the National Post.

11/17/12

Post-US Election Thoughts: The Blame Game


GOP soul searchingIt didn’t take long for the blame, the vitriol, the accusations and the excuses to start spewing forth from the Republicans, after Obama won a second presidential term. You would think that the party would be chastened, introspective and look to where they failed to engage the electorate. Do some serious soul-searching: what failed? Policies? Platforms? Ground work? Attack ads? Flip flops?

Instead they seem to have their collective heads stuck in the sand and instead to looking inwardly, they are blaming others for their failure. And throwing in an unhealthy dollop of vituperation, as expected.

Mitt Romney, the billionaire whose wobbly platform shifting, and his wildly inappropriate choice of a Tea Party running mate, isn’t blaming himself, his party or his candidate for VP for his failure. He’s blaming Obama for giving gifts to select voter groups:

“The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift,” Romney said in a call to donors Wednesday. “He made a big effort on small things.”

Romney said his campaign, in contrast, had been about “big issues for the whole country.” He said he faced problems as a candidate because he was “getting beat up” by the Obama campaign and that the debates allowed him to come back.

In other words: it wasn’t his fault. It was the other guy who bought votes. Nothing to do with the misogynist comments from a handful of Tea Party candidates running for office under the Republican banner. Or his own comments about the “47%” of Americans who live off the government.

Paul Ryan, too, is blaming others, rather than his own ideologies. As Thinkprogress noted:

After the election, Rep. Paul Ryan blamed “urban voters” for costing him the vice presidency…

So, Paul, you would now restrict urban voters from participating in the democratic process? Not surprising: Republicans tried very hard to to (and did, in some cases) put into effect restrictive voter ID laws that would have seriously limited the right of many to vote – especially the poor and non-white populations.

Personally, I’d put a good weight of the blame on the choice of Ryan for the loss because he scared anyone with an education higher than third grade or with an income less than $250,000 a year. Aside from getting that harridan Ann Coulter into heat, his choice even alienated the moderate side of his own party. Others agree:

But Romney’s worst choice of the campaign—besides being honest about his belief that Detroit should go bankrupt to really punish the unions—was the man he picked as his running mate: Paul Ryan.

People wondered what Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney had in common besides being born into rich families and a profound belief that poor people are lazy. Now we know: they both lost their home states. Heck, they both lost their hometowns.

LOL.

The main reason Ryan still has his seat in the House is the only reason the GOP still has control of the House—gerrymandering.

Secessionist cartoonThis blame game is happening on the oddest fronts, too. A wacky secessionist movement has developed among the fringies and tin-foil-hat crowd. In the southern USA, Derrik Belcher, wants to withdraw from the USA because of Obama taking the USA into a socialist state (proof that Americans don’t understand what the word actually means). Belcher himself is quoted as saying in what is surely one of the quotes that best sums up the Tea Party’s systemic stupidity:

“I don’t want to live in Russia. I don’t believe in socialism. America is supposed to be free.”

He was the focus of a good interview on The Current yesterday. Belcher’s story would be funny if it wasn’t gaining ground swell among the Tea Party fundamentalists: he’s mad at Obama because his state (actually, his own city, and not the federal government) closed down his topless car wash in 2001 for obscenity (when Bush was president, not Obama). Even though he comes across as an angry crackpot in interviews, he has garnered about 30,000 signatures on his online petition. Birds of a feather.

Belcher is just one of many. As Rawstory reported,

Disaffected Americans have created hundreds of “We the People” petitions on the White House website following President Barack Obama’ re-election earlier this month. There have been petitions from each of the 50 states requesting permission to secede.

Secede? Because you don’t like how the democratic process works? Or maybe don’t understand it? Boggles the mind. Well, not really – 46% of Americans believe in creationism, so I would expect to have the same percentage does not understand the basic tenets of democracy or how elections work. I suspect what these Tea Party followers think of as a good government, most of us would think of as the Christian Taliban – a scary, repressive theocracy.

It’s a bit ironic that the last times states sought to secede, in 1860, it was because a Republican president had been elected.

My solution: give the secessionists Alaska: see how they fare after one winter and how many are begging to come home. And then tell them no. They can have Sara Palin, their dim-witted poster girl, as their new leader.

It’s also ironic is that Republican Senator, Ron Johnson, blames Obama’s win on “an ignorant electorate”:

“If you aren’t properly informed, if you don’t understand the problems facing this nation, you are that much more prone to falling prey to demagoguing solutions. And the problem with demagoguing solutions is they don’t work,” Johnson said. “I am concerned about people who don’t fully understand the very ugly math we are facing in this country.”

To me, these angry secessionists are examples of an “ignorant electorate” and they all seem to be Republicans! So is he blaming his own supporters? After all, that “:ignorant electorate” elected him…

Some Goppers are blaming Romney rather than Obama, for their failure, merely a different flavour of the blame game: blame the guy, not the party that has been hijacked by the uber-right minority. Few seem to blame Paul Ryan, probably because his anti-working/anti-middle class ideologies are close to the fringies’ hearts. Plus they’re too busy trying to secede to focus their myopic sight on one of their own.

To be fair, not all Republicans are playing the blame game, or screaming secession. Several high-level Goppers have decried Romney’s comments and suggested a need for the political equivalent of a deep colon cleansing for their party. They’re calling for some collective navel-gazing, instead of finger-pointing.

My own take: the Republicans will split into two parties: the radical right and the moderates going their own ways. Or possibly a third national party will emerge that appeals to one of these groups and they will jump the GOP ship for it. Either way, the Republicans cannot continue as a party divided by such opposing ideologies before it implodes. Or the fringies take over completely. Either way, their ship is on the rocks and the Tea Party is still at the helm.

11/13/12

The Useless Web


Useless web sitesWe all know Wikipedia is not always accurate, and sometimes biased. We all know that most internet quotations are wrong attributed or misquoted. We all know that the Web is full of useless, trivial pap like “psychic” hot lines, astrology, creationism and Ann Coulter. Plus it’s replete with the shallow: salacious gossip, celebrity skin, innuendo, pornography, political extremism, angels, UFOs, crop circles, anti-vaccine advocates, religious fundamentalists – the intellectual-nourishment equivalent of a  box of greasy fries and a sugar-laden soft drink.

But they are content-rich, compared to the truly useless material collected on The Useless Web. Well, maybe not Ann Coulter. She’s still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured. Even the colour of Kim Kardashian’s latest shoes are more relevant to the real world than anything Coulter has to say.

If you really want to waste a whole lot of time exploring the pointless edge of the internet, beyond Ann Coulter that is, go to the link in the previous paragraph and click away. Be prepared: you will be sucked in. It’s hard not to see just one more…

But it’s not alone. true to the meme-like nature of the internet, others join in pointing out the pointless. For example, Pointless Sites and Pointless Web Pages (don’t bypass the older site list either). Some, like I-Am-Bored.com seem to pile on user-submitted links of varying levels of worthlessness into their pages.Others, like House of Geekery and Makeuseof.com, compile lists of uselessness, with some pointless commentary to muddy the waters. Useless added to useless equals…? Right.

Ann Coulter is still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured.

Other aggregators of non-utilitarianism include 15.com, Squidoo.com, Ambitweb.com, About.com, the Daily What, Splitsider, PCWorld, Digital Trends (and check the video for the Japanese World Cup, linked below the list!) and many more.

Useless doesn’t mean they are not artistic, however. Some are outright brilliant (check out www.xkcd.com/1110/ for an example of weirdly wonderful useless).

Okay, so it’s a waste of time. But it’s an entertaining waste of time, so not entirely without merit. Some people apparently have taken to studying these sites with all seriousness. Know Your Meme has a short history of them, deferring intellectually to them as “single serving” sites (a long list of such sites is here). Codehesive tracks the story of a single, single-serving site.

Jason Kottke wrote about this phenomena back in 2008, and coined the term. Since then it has entered the language age even made its way to Wikipedia.There’s even a single-serving site webpage generator.

But don’t get stuck in the intellectualizing. When you have ten minutes to waste, just go back to the top of the post and find the first link. Click and enjoy. Don’t think too hard about any of it. Just celebrate the useless.

11/13/12

Work and time slip by unnoticed


Red Queen's RaceYou’d think being semi-retired (or as I call it, creatively unemployed) would give me more time to do the things I like to do, more time to be creative.

Nah. Things seem to intervene to prevent a focused approach on creativity these days. Not to mention that my Rogers internet crashed for a couple of days because their servers couldn’t keep my IP constant, so I was cast adrift from my virtual life and back into the depths of the printed work – poking through the mini-library upstairs.

Most of yesterday was spent cleaning and reloading files after my blueagaveforum.com site got hacked. Two hours wasted on the phone trying to get some advice from Norton tech service, which ended up with one of their techies resetting my browser setup, which required another 30-45 minutes of tinkering to get it working as I had before. Meanwhile I was searching through hundreds of PHP files for the source of the malicious code. At the end of the day I was back to where I had been last week.

The Red Queen’s Race: you run as fast as you can in order to stay in the same place.

On the plus side, I get to listen to a lot more CBC Radio during the day. That’s good and bad. Bad because I get distracted by some of CBC’s superb content and turn my attention to the radio and away from my writing. Some days I just have to shut it off to get anything done, although I try to hear at least the hourly news. Good because CBC always expands my horizons and often challenges my intellect (one day I’ll have to blog on how CBC is the acausal connecting principle that binds Canada, a bit like Jung’s synchronicity).

I should – or could, if I focused – be doing serious things like posting on my blog. Work on my next book for Municipal World. Working on my novel. Updating my websites. Researching, reading, walking the dog. Exercising. Practicing the ukulele. Working on my photography. Grooming the dog. Practicing the bass. Okay, painting the hallway, too.

Instead, time seems to get fragmented and I end up doing a bit of this, a bit of that, rather than doing any one thing. I sometimes start blog pieces or articles based on good ideas, but they slide away unfinished when I turn my attention to something else.

Yes, I managed to write three books this past year (and get two published, the third still waiting), and have a fourth started, as well as 30,000 words into a novel. But I’ve slowed down quite a bit since

Wasting timeAt least I haven’t fallen into the trap of TV watching. I don’t play many computer games these days, either, and usually only in a desultory manner (computer games don’t seem to engage me like they did a while back, although I play a few rather lackluster games of Go and chess on the iPad now and then). Nor have I sunk to doodling, filling in crossword and sudoku puzzles or taking afternoon naps. Yet.

Maybe I need to schedule my time better. Set aside blocks to exercise, to write, to read… But then I get distracted by writing something pointless like this… *sigh*… back to work…