Empathy and The Dog Allusion

Coming to empathyEmpathy, writes Martin Rowson, is one of the things that make us human, make us civilized, allows us to interact without tearing one another’s throats out. Without it, we’d have no civilization; we’d be like the beasts of the fields. And we’d have no dogs or gods, either. Empathy is what makes us own pets and be religious.

That’s one of the thought-provoking ideas Rowson tosses around in his book, The Dog Allusion (Vintage Books, London, 2008). The title, as I’m sure you are aware, is a pun on Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

Rowson has a lot to say about religion – and not much of it flattering, but generally he’s not as acerbic as Dawkins or Hitchens. Religion, however central to his arguments, is not the book’s sole focus. It isn’t a comprehensive screed against religion or even a paen to atheism; rather it’s a series of essays on various topics into which religion often is cast. The book hasn’t received a lot of attention or garnered many reviews from what I can find, but that may be because most of his readers are likely already on his side of the philosophical fence. It may also be that he meanders. A lot. Still, he offers up a good set of arguments worth pondering, even for the converted.

I am not here to wade into his comments on religion quite yet, however, but rather to comment on his notions about empathy – about which I agree, at least somewhat. I have often felt that the single most important attribute in a politician is empathy. Without it, the political road leads to all sorts of tyrannies and egocentric self-entitlement. Without empathy, politicians raise taxes, utility rates, user fees without consideration of their actual impact. Just like they do here in Collingwood.

Having dealt with numerous politicians in my day (and been among their ranks, municipally, for more than a decade), I sometimes think having intelligence would be a better place to start listing desirable attributes. After all, the first thing every politician should have is the wit to understand the consequences of their actions. Yet so many don’t have it. SO many act as if they were the centre of the universe and their actions have no impact on others. But let’s not talk about The Block right now. That’s just depressing. Let’s talk in general terms, first.

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The EPCOR sales pitches

Big Brother
I’m told the interim CAO is distressed – apoplectic, really – that I am aware of his sales pitch information sessions in which he touts the wonders of EPCOR to town staff. Two sessions that I know of. At the most recent one he brought along EPCOR representatives to schmooze the staff.

Apparently he is not winning them over.

It might be because, as I have been led to believe, Mr. Brown has few fans. I’m told he is generally disliked by many staff. As he is, I’ve also been told, by our municipal partners, our neighbouring municipalities, the hospital board, some local developers and a few others. Thus he may be unable to sway anyone with his blandishments.

Bringing along EPCOR doesn’t help. That’s like bringing foxes to a meeting about managing the hen house after it gets sold to the foxes. It’s made doubly worse because it’s all happening without any public input or consultation.

At these meetings Mr. Brown warns staff not to get their information from unnamed “bloggers” – me, of course – and warns that such information is false. Ooh, scary. Like I’m some local Kellyanne Conjob. Well, I’m flattered he bothers to read my posts because he has said in the past that he doesn’t. Always nice to recognize another reader.

But I’m just doing what you could – and the media should – do: go online and research the company, read the news, drill down through the archives. Read what others say about privatization, about the selling of public assets, about the loss of control, about the gobsmacking rate hikes and customer dissatisfaction that follow. I don’t need to make this stuff up, like Kellyanne does.*

True, I add a bit of editorial comment, some of my own opinion and analysis here and there, but the source material is linked for you to read for yourself and make up your own minds. I hope my own years as a reporter and editor give my posts at least a patina of credibility. If our local media did any real reporting, any investigative journalism, I wouldn’t have to do it for them.

Be that as it may, nothing Mr. Brown says can disguise the fact that this process stinks, and has done so since day one. To my eye – my vision coloured by a dozen years in local media and three terms on council – it has been unethical, immoral and illegal.

The secrecy, the back room conniving, the lack of public consultation, the lack of openness and transparency – these are the hallmarks of The Block’s abysmal behaviour since they took office. But the buck stops at the interim CAO’s office because he is in charge; he oversees the process. And since he has told staff and council that all inquiries have to go through him – he controls the process and the dissemination of information, too.

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EPCOR’s rate hikes create unrest

Corporate takeoverIt seems EPCOR isn’t the most beloved utility service out there, despite the glowing comments the interim CAO made to staff recently. I was given a recording of his hour-long talk (aka sales pitch) for EPCOR and I can only say I hope no one listening fell for it (I’ll review his talk in another post).

Despite his stumbling blandishments, EPCOR’s management style isn’t all that popular. And if you do some searching for unflattering news stories about the corporation, you can find the following online:

Global News had this one on Feb. 2, 2017: Tabor took back their water from EPCOR after a 68% increase in water rates:

Taber Town Council has decided to end its 20-year utilities contract with EPCOR just nine years into the agreement.
EPCOR was under contract to provide Taber with its water and sewage services.
The move to end the working relationship comes after the company proposed to increase utility rates by 68 per cent. All 10 EPCOR employees will now work for the Town of Taber to ease the transition.

Sixty eight per cent increase in water rates in one year! There’s a customer-friendly business model for you. I have no doubt we can expect that sort of increase here once The Block privatizes our water to EPCOR. And yes, it will be privatization, not simply management and a disaster for the town.

Closer to home, Adjala-Tosorontio is also considering outside management for its water and wastewater services. According to a story on Simcoe.Com, dated Feb. 3, 2017,

Two companies, EPCOR and Clearford Water Systems, have submitted bids through a request for proposals (RFP) process to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the system.
In one scenario, where no developer’s contributions are assumed, the wastewater user rate would cost about $2,800 a year if the project was financed by Clearford, or $3,350 a year if it were financed by EPCOR. The figures in the financial analysis were presented in 2019 dollars, which is assumed to be Year 1 of operation for the system. Council said the current rate is a flat charge of $1,313.

A little calculation reveals that under EPCOR’s management, residents’ water rates would go up annually by $2,037! That’s a 155% increase in a single year!

These are just two recent Canadian scenarios, but imagine how YOU, dear reader, will react when The Block sells our water services to EPCOR and YOUR bill jumps by 68% Or worse, 155%! Or more!

And you don’t think it will happen here? Well, read on…

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Reading Moby Dick

Moby Dick big readRecently, coincidental to while I was reading Herman Melville’s classic novel, I read a story that some folks in Vancouver took offence to the name of a restaurant: Moby Dick’s Fish & Chips.

Apparently the property overseers mistook the “Dick” in the name for a euphemism for penis, rather than reading the name of the famous novel in the whole title. A wholly puerile response, I’m sure you can agree. Perhaps many people in Vancouver haven’t even heard of the book, let alone read it, otherwise why would anyone protest? Which is a much sadder statement that the one about political correctness gone wild that the news story makes. It exposes the threadbare fabric of the protesters’ cultural upbringing and education.

But despite these philistines, I finished the book. It took a long time because it’s a long book (more than 206,000 words) and not the easiest to read for several reasons. Not least is my absolute loathing of the whaling industry and the killing of sentient cetaceans. And frankly, my aversion to the whaling aspect had stymied my several previous attempts to finish the novel. But this time I persisted, and was rewarded for the effort.

It’s also difficult because of the way Melville wrote it (first published in 1851) – dense, florid, perambulating stuff. It’s not so much a novel as an extended meditation on sailing, the ocean, whales, whaling, ship technology, weather, natives of the South Seas, the commerce of Nantucket, American values, religion, life and fate. Among other things. He digresses often and at great length. But those digressions add such riches to the narrative that you can’t really bypass them.

Moby Dick is one of those many “must read before I die” books that I have on my bookshelves that I know are great milestones in literature, but have either not caught my prior interest or simply defeated my attempts in the past (I tend to read mostly non-fiction and a lot of it). Many of these titles I know somewhat of through synopses or abridgments, through other media like movies, or through my childhood favourite: Classic Comics. Moby Dick is one of those: I’ve seen the movie, read the comic, read it analyzed and dissected in other books.

A few years back I wrote a post on Melville’s poetry, inspired by reading his powerful poem, The Shark, which got me to thinking about him. Last year, I stood in the Melville Hotel, in Mazatlan, built in the 1870s, and named after the author who had stayed in the town in 1844. That also got me thinking about Melville again.

And finally, I was watching an episode of CSI on DVD, one day in 2016, and the character Gil Grissom, when asked what would he do if he had more time to live, replied he would read Moby Dick again. That stuck with me. It seemed incongruous, and I wondered what impelled the script writers to add that line; why that book. My curiosity was aroused, which encouraged me to finally pick up Moby Dick and not give it up.

Easier said than done (I read around a dozen books at a time, and flit from one to the other every day). But I had help. I came across Moby Dick: Big Read, a project to bring the novel back to prominence through art, and through a reading of its entirety.

All 135 chapters plus the epilogue are read by different people. Normally I don’t like my audiobooks read by such a diverse group, and prefer just one reader, but this worked marvellously well.

I read, I listened, I read some more. I sometimes read a chapter then listened to it. Sometimes I listened to one, but unable to complete it on my walks, returned to finish it through reading. Sometimes I listened then went back to read the words again simply to see if the rhythms were the same as when spoken.
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Monetizing our public assets

ConsequencesIn the town’s disingenuous press release (really just a sales pitch for EPOCR) about its obsessive drive to privatize our utility services, it has this paragraph:

The Town’s RFP process solicited proposals from a wide range of potentially interested parties that could maximize the value of the Town’s remaining investment in Collingwood PowerStream Utility Services Corp. Given the terms of the existing Shareholder’s Agreement with PowerStream entered into by the previous Council, the Town has very limited options regarding how it may monetize its remaining 50% investment in the local electricity distribution company.

Monetize a public asset? Since when was that the policy? It wasn’t even raised during the election; it’s something The Block cooked up in one of their secret meetings. The very notion of “monetizing” a public asset is some American Ayn-Rand-libertarian wet dream, a wacky laissez-faire approach to enrich corporate interests that has nothing to do with standard business or professional practices of any Canadian municipality I know of.

Privatization of public assets was big in the USA, with poorly-run and inefficient municipalities thinking they could buy their way out of debt by selling everything they could. The result has not solved anything, but instead created an Orwellian nightmare where the residents are in thrall to profiteering private corporations that control their services, utilities, recreation and police while being told they are freed from the responsibility to run them.

(Let’s see… what poorly run, inefficient Canadian municipality with a myopic council comes to mind? Ah, I see…)

But what does monetize really mean? It sounds like something that makes a profit, an investment that gives us increasing dividends – but that isn’t true. It simply means selling what we own. You can’t hide that behind another word. We will be selling our water and wastewater services. And not even to the highest bidder: it will be sold to the already-anointed one. And once sold, it’s gone for good. And if we wanted dividends, The Block would have stayed with PowerStream rather than engage in its two-year witch hunt that killed the annual dividend from the utility.

(Just think of the public outcry that arose over privatizing Hydro One).

And yes, the town had “very limited options” because it’s a partnership. Clearly the author of that dreck doesn’t understand what a partnership means. You know: working together towards common goals, that sort of thing.

Fifty percent of the utility was sold to PowerStream. The goal of that sale was stated in public: to enhance customer service, create better efficiencies in billing and service but to maintain control over the service and rates. Selling more would meaning losing that control. No one who was interested in partnering submitted a bit for less than 50%. So of course you have “limited options.” That isn’t a bad thing: it’s GOOD because selling those controls is incredibly selfish, shortsighted and stupid.

But that’s The Block for you.
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Committee system still broken, still in use

The real purpose of The Block...
“A committee,” wrote Sir Barnett Cocks, former Clerk of the UK’s House of Commons, “is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.”
How very appropriate those words strike us as we gaze at Collingwood’s ineffective, severely broken standing committee system. The brainchild of the interim CAO, and the very model of his business style, it has been fervently embraced by The Block. Yet to outsiders, the committee system has been a bureaucratic quagmire of redundancy and ineptness since its inception.

It was a mistake to continue it after the first meeting, when most observers realized it didn’t work. But despite its flaws – evident to everyone but The Block – the committee system is still in use, stumbling along two years later like some cranky steampunk wagon with mismatched wheels.

Look, for example, at the “Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee” (SISC) agenda for January 23. Notice all of the motions for action are in reality just procrastination:

RECOMMENDING THAT the Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee support and refer the following Staff Report to the next regular meeting of Council…
RECOMMENDING THAT the Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee support and refer the following Staff Report to the next regular meeting of Council…
RECOMMENDING THAT the Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee support and refer the following Staff Report to the next regular meeting of Council…
RECOMMENDING THAT the Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee support and refer the following Staff Report to the next regular meeting of Council…

Every single report, every single presentation, every public delegation has to return to the full meeting of council to repeat and reiterate everything it said to the SISC. And yet EVERY MEMBER of council sits on the SISC but are powerless to act. So they have to repeat it to THEMSELVES!

Yes, that’s right: they have to recommend that they pass the report on to THEMSELVES to deal with at a different meeting! A perfect model of bureaucratic confusion evidently derived from Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine.
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