12/15/13

Canada Post writes its own obituary


National PostHeadline news this week: Canada Post moves to end home delivery.

End home delivery? For me, both as  a writer, a lay historian, and growing up in an era where letters were important for communication, business, family and for art, that’s just crazy. I mean really, seriously, way-more-insane-than-the-OLG crazy. But, in an age of declining letter writing – where the tyranny of the Twitterverse is reducing our literary skills to hashtags and cryptic abbreviations- it may be inevitable.*

Charlie Gillis wrote in MacLean’s wrote about the accelerating slide to digital communication back in  March, outlining both the challenges the postal service faces and some options for its future:

Robert Campbell, the author of a 2002 book on fixing postal services, led the review panel that recommended against the privatization of Canada Post. He says he suggested the reprieve, not as a permanent state of affairs, but as a temporary measure allowing the postal service to restructure to a new world of competition. “You’ve got what is basically a smokestack industry here that’s trying to modernize,” says Campbell, currently the president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. “It has huge legacy costs.”

Chief among its burdens: a $4-billion pension liability owed to current and retired employees that could hobble it in the face of leaner, private-sector competitors. Ottawa owes Canada Post the time—and possibly the financial assistance—to deal with that overhead before opening the field to its rivals, Campbell argues.

Well, Canada Post has shaken the tree of its own accord, sans the intervention of Ottawa (which, given the current government and its inability to deal with the scandals in the Senate or the PMO, might be just as well).

And on top of that seismic shift, CP will dramatically increase the cost of postage. So were they thinking, we’re  already losing money: let’s find another way to discourage users!

UK mail man, 1885(Okay, to be fair, CP should have raised the price quite some time ago. This history of annual one-two cent increases was never a good business model given Canada’s large distances and small populations. And given the value of the penny even when it was in circulation, a jump of five cents would hardly have mattered. But until 2011, CP was making money, so maybe it never occurred to them to squirrel away a little extra for the lean years.)

But what is happening to letter writing?

When I browse my book shelves I see collections of letters to and from some of the greats of history: Darwin, Einstein, Dickens, Wilde. I don’t imagine there will be many future books of great emails, great Facebook posts, or great tweets. Writing a letter takes thought, takes care, is an emotional and personal investment. Writing on social media is generally instant, immediate, thoughtless; a reflex, a reaction, not a considered act.

Blogs, of course, may sometimes be considered the exception – although counter-argument might be made that many blogs are just lengthier versions of the tweet, and others are simply a platform for a more vituperative – but similarly reactive – anger than a FB post. But even a blog does not involve the same sort of contemplative act that handwriting entails, simply because the technology allows us to revise and rewrite in a way that the handwritten word does not.

(Handwriting’s demise is really another topic, which I started on about months ago and now have to resuscitate that draft post to include this week’s news. On a personal note: although I blog and enjoy digital media, I also keep handwritten notebooks. Sadly, I too share the guilt in the decline of letter writing.)

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11/26/13

Six Rules for Politicians Using Social Media



This is an updated version of the talk I presented at the the eighth annual Municipal Communication Conference in Toronto, November 2013.

 

I use social media regularly and frequently. As a politician, that makes me either very brave or very stupid. But I’ve been doing this for the last 30 years, long before I ever got elected. Social media isn’t new to me.*

It may be slicker than it was in 1983, but it’s essentially the same text-based, monologue, just with chrome added. In fact, the tone of the conversation seems to have gone downhill since the 80s.

Back then it was mostly computer geeks like, so we were more of a community. Geek-to- geek wasn’t so adversarial, unless of course, you were arguing the relative merits of the Z80 versus the 6502 processor.

Today people debate about such important issues as Kim Kardashian’s cat, the name of a royal baby, or the recent favourite, Millie Cyrus’s backside.**

Today’s great technological advancement seems to be the consummate ease by which you can attach pictures of kittens or puppies to your posts.

Technology has improved our ability to share those photos with thousands, even millions of people. But it hasn’t made us better communicators.

Some technology actually rewards illiteracy. Twitter. For example, encourages us to cram our language into abbreviations and codes. It turns language into hieroglyphics.

Sure it can help social change. But how much is debated. Everyone points to how the Arab Spring was abetted by Twitter and Facebook. But I suspect a lot of the Arab Spring tweets went like this: “We’re overthrowing the government today. What are you wearing?”

Anthony WeinerSo when anyone in politics or municipal government asks me how to approach social media, I tell them two words:

Anthony Weiner.

I tell them there are six lessons you can learn from Anthony Weiner about social media.

Everyone knows who he is, of course. Weiner single handedly turned sexting from a minor act done by over-heated teens, to front page headline activity.The media were full of the stories about how this US congressman tweeted pictures of his underwear-clad crotch to young women around the country.

It was monumentally stupid and puerile. Weiner had to resign from Congress over the scandal. It hurt his career. And maybe his marriage. But on the grand scheme of things, it was harmless. He wasn’t Edward Snowden or Juilan Assange after all.

It really wasn’t anything more than a lack of good judgment or common sense. We’re all guilty of that. We all screw up now and then. That’s just human nature.

But Weiner was a politician. And politicians get held to a higher standard than, say, your neighbour or your cousin. If they did it, you’d probably just shrug it off. But when a politician or a civil servant is involved, the sky is falling.

At least that’s what the media tells us.

When I was in newspapers, media were the sole gatekeepers of information. We controlled how the public received it. Everyone looked to us. We had standards about what we published, and we were respected for them.

Today, there are tens of thousands of accessible sources online. Traditional media scrambles for your attention. In order to compete with Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, they sensationalize just about everything.

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11/1/13

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men



Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Humpty DumptyThat children’s nursery rhyme says a lot about the situation Toronto Mayor Rob Ford finds himself in, following the release of police reports, yesterday. The mayor is in, to put it politely, a pickle. Rather than reiterate all the brouhaha and the details of what the police reported, I direct you to read the CBC, Toronto Star, National Post, Globe and Mail and even the notoriously pro-Ford Toronto Sun newspapers and websites. They all say much the same, differing only in how much gleeful I-told-you-so they can insert into the stories.

Whether Ford is guilty – and remember, nothing has been proven – the story has been titillatingly sensationalized in the media so that pretty much everyone but Rob Fords thinks he’s guilty. Of what? Well, something. We’re not sure but he’s gotta be guilty of something. That’s what media sensationalism does.

Until he is charged with some crime, much of it is, of course, merely allegation and innuendo. The police haven’t charged him with anything. And if they do, his guilt is a matter for the courts to decide, not the media or the public. The public will have its say on Rob Ford on election day, in 2014.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no affection for the man, or his style. I think he has handled the story wrongly from the very beginning. He’s a boor, a loudmouth and a redneck with the media relation skills of a bull rhino. But I can empathize with him about how sensationalism in the media can align with allegation, rumour and gossip to damage your reputation and your ability to do the job you were elected to do. And there’s damn little you can do when you get on that roller coaster.

What matters right now is governance. And the relevant question is: does Ford’s situation hurt the effective governance and operation of the city?

The likely answer is yes. Ford’s ability to manage the role is seriously compromised, regardless of the truth of any accusation. If nothing more, the job is too often interrupted by non-sequitor media questions. Too much attention on the allegations, not enough gets given to the business of running Canada’s largest city.

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10/31/13

Random Acts of Kindness


Random Acts of KindnessIt goes by almost unrecognized, but for some, it is a special day that reflects the way we should all behave, to everyone, every day. It’s called Random Acts of Kindness Day, and it will be celebrated in Collingwood, on Friday, November 1. Council has contributed by making downtown parking free all day, as we have the previous two years.

You’re welcome. I wish we could do more. I hope the community participates enthusiastically. Even small gestures can mean a lot.

It’s an odd day, that, while celebrated in many countries, isn’t always observed on the same day everywhere or with the same level of organization. Wikipedia tell us RAK day began in New Zealand, in 2005:

RAK day began in New Zealand, at a national level, in 2005, organized by by Josh de Jong, Marshall Gray, Megan Singleton and Reuben Gwyn. It is still celebrated nationally in New Zealand, on September 1:

Sunday September 1st is New Zealand’s Random Acts of Kindness Day. And to celebrate our 9 years (yes, 9 whole years where NZ has been the only country in the world to celebrate a national RAK Day!) we are launching this fancy new website.

On here you’ll find tons of ideas to get you started, a bit about why on earth we started this day in NZ, and some downloadable resources to print out little ‘You’ve been RAK’d’ cards and give them out with your own random act.

Some communities get very involved with the day and promote it widely. In Kitchener Waterloo, for example, it’s a big event that began with a volunteer effort back in 2008:

Step back to early 2008. At a strategic planning meeting for board and staff, a board member suggested that The Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation (KWCF) help create empathy in our community. This suggestion contributed to the overall vision and strategy for The KWCF in its planning for upcoming years.

A few short months later, a volunteer of The KWCF brought the idea of Random Act of Kindness Day® forward to Rosemary Smith, CEO. The volunteer experienced an epiphany when, out of the blue one day, she had rushed to a meeting in downtown Kitchener. As she got out of her car to pay for parking, she was approached by a stranger. This stranger offered her a full day parking pass. Apparently his meeting had been cancelled and he didn’t think the parking pass should go to waste. The KWCF volunteer took the parking pass thankfully. Later, when her meeting was over, the volunteer vowed that she would return the ‘random act of kindness’ to someone else.

Reflecting on the incident, the volunteer felt good about what she had done. However, it wasn’t until a week or two later when she watched the movie ‘Pay it Forward’ that the volunteer had her ‘aha’ moment. She thought about how she had ‘paid it forward’ with the parking pass and how good she felt afterwards. She wondered if she could help others feel the same way by creating a celebration of kindness in her community.

In England, a group calling itself “The Kindness Offensive” organizes,

…large scale random acts of kindness for unsuspecting members of the public. The stated purpose of The Kindness Offensive is to ‘Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty’

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10/25/13

How to Break Your Election Promises



Taxman: I was thinking of this Beatles’ song, recently, after council received the pre-budget report from the treasurer at last Monday’s council meeting. It’s dated, the song that is, but still eerily appropriate (I will have to learn to play it on my ukulele).

Last election, all of us who got elected ran on a platform of keeping costs and taxes low. Okay, that’s a fairly blithe promise; few candidates run on a platform of raising taxes and expenses, and fewer actually ever win a seat in any level of government.

It doesn’t matter if everyone knows taxes will go up after the election, or if there are seriously pressing needs to raise taxes. You don’t run on that platform.  Unless, of course, it’s to tax the rich – that seems a rather popular theme these days. Except, of course, among the rich. The 99% of us kind of like the idea… but I digress

This council has consistently attempted to cut costs, rein in spending and keep taxes low. That’s never easy, and often it’s very challenging, but we’ve managed to do so fairly well. In fact, the most recent auditor’s report (an independent audit) showed we have done it very well, in the past three budgets. The deputy mayor has cracked the whip and staff have pulled the oars. So far, the local ship of state has rowed in unison, avoiding the shoals of debt and taxation.

But it’s difficult to maintain a flat tax line. The world doesn’t work that way. Economies are always on the move.

Prices go up, costs go up, fee go up, old things need maintenance or replacement, new things need to be bought, collective agreements have built-in increases. Keeping a zero-percent increase is like the Red Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland: you run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place:

Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

We don’t have the money or the tax base to run twice as fast. But at some point, we have to have some increases if nothing more than to play catch-up with out expenses.

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09/17/13

$35 Million Costs Confirmed in Report


GossipI was told recently that the $35 million projected capital costs  for the Central Park redevelopment had been called a “red herring.” That’s verifiably untrue.

The actual total amount shown in the final report is $35,251,965.11.

This isn’t a made up number, an inflated number or an imaginary number. It isn’t a council number, either. In fact the two council PRC representatives did not even attend those steering committee meetings that came up with that figure.

Thirty-five million dollars is what the steering committee calculated and approved themselves, working in conjunction with several consultants, planners, architects and engineers over more than a year – and at a cost to taxpayers of more than $42,000 in fees to those professionals – to come up with that total.*

The Central Park Redevelopment final report, presented to Council by the steering committee in March, 2012, shows the full projected costs on page 37.

That page is reproduced here:

Page 37

You can see that the proposed cost in the steering committee’s final report was more than $35 million plus HST. That’s fact. Read it above. You can download a PDF of the page here.

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