The Postmortal

Grim reaperMortality. We all get it. It’s the one one incurable ailment all humans succumb to without a chance of succor. Mortality is always 100% fatal. No medicine, no therapy, no diet cure or magic pill. But as you read this, scientists are researching, seeking clues to unlock the mystery and, potentially, cure us of aging,of death by mortality. And they might achieve it.

Having officially reached the two-thirds mark in my life this past weekend (based on my family history, my health and my lifestyle…), mortality is more often in my own thoughts these days. Not morbidly so, but certainly more common than when I was half my age. So when I picked up Drew Magary’s novel, The Postmortal (Penguin Books, London, 2011), I was intrigued by the subject: immortality.

What if a simple, easily administered genetic treatment could stop you from aging from this day forward? Would you take it? I suspect the answer for most folk would be an immediate yes, especially if you’re under 50.

It wouldn’t reverse anything, wouldn’t protect you from disease, cancer, liver damage or falling down the stairs. It wouldn’t protect you from the increasing number of gun nuts who can easily get automatic weapons and spray night clubs, movie theatres, hospitals, clinics, schools and churches with bullets (well, in the USA, they do it, if not always in other nations where the NRA doesn’t own the politicians…). But, barring those things, it would freeze you in time at your ‘cure age.’ You would be 39, 35, 42… or 60, 75 and even 89 for the rest of time.

Assuming that civilization doesn’t fall apart and eat itself alive as a result of this new treatment. Which, Magary suggests, it’s likely to do. Very likely. But he makes the journey to that end a compelling, entertaining and very thought-provoking read. It’s not so much a fall, but a slow stumble into the dark.

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Amateur layout and bad ads. Again.

Stinky!I see the Town of Collingwood is still letting the EB layout its full page of ads in the paper.  Tragic. Embarrassing. Cringe-worthy.

The latest back page mashup has as its first ad the worst of the worst sort of ad layout, the sort only amateurs would create. It’s too wide for any human being to comfortably and efficiently read. Then there’s the second page with its fat partner in layout crime.

It’s embarrassing for a municipality to be thus represented. The only saving grace is that no one reads the EB any more, so not very many people see how bad it is. But those who do see it, wince.

Why, oh why, does the town continue to permit amateurs to design its advertising? Doesn’t anyone realize these represent the town? They affect our reputation?

These wide ads – and several of the smaller ads – break pretty much every rule in every design and typographic book. High school students could craft more elegant, readable, exciting ads. Maybe elementary school kids could, too.

I’ve written about these embarrassing, amateur efforts in the past and how they hurt the town’s image. Even a bungling non-designer like me can see they are ill-suited for presenting a professional, polished image. I suspect these are designed by the janitor, or maybe someone who delivers the paper. Certainly not by a graphic designer.

Anyone can read the basic books on layout and design to learn enough to see these are awful. Truly awful. Why can’t anyone in town hall see it?

But, you ask, why would the town give the job to someone trained and experienced in that art? That would break this term’s trend.

Council took the management of the water utility from experienced professionals on the board and gave it to inept councillors. Council kicked the experienced, professional, provincially-recognized winner of several awards and honours, the CEO of Collus, off the board and put the interim CAO in his place. The precedent for replacing people who know what they’re doing with those who don’t was set early in this term.

Council cancelled its individual subscriptions to the monthly Municipal World magazine, the best Canadian journal for municipal governance and politics, read by dedicated municipal politicians across the country. Why? Because council felt it knows everything already and doesn’t need peer advice. Besides, reading is hard work.

Council has turned to obscure one-and-two-person consulting firms few if any of us have ever heard of for recommendations on big, important, strategic issues that affect the town’s well-being, rather than listen to respected, worldwide firms like KPMG.

The arrogance of amateurism is this council’s legacy. The inmates are running the asylum. These ads are regular, graphic reminders of that.

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Muddle-headed editorial palaver

There’s a muddle-headed editorial in this weekend’s Collingwood Connection titled “Citizens, not rich developers should drive political ship” (sic*) that shows (again) how little the chain’s editorial writers understand municipal politics and the laws that govern it. It opens:

Money talks and, in the case of municipal elections, one could argue that all of those cheques, banknotes and e-transfers going toward funding the war chests of various candidates have the potential to speak very loudly.

The writer clearly has never read the Ontario Municipal Elections Act which says in Section 71:

A contributor shall not make contributions exceeding a total of $750 to any one candidate in an election.

No one, whether they are the oh-so-scary “rich developer,” corporation, union or simply your retired neighbour, can contribute more than $750. That’s LESS than the cost of an iPhone. It’s less than the cost of winter tires. It’s much less than the cost of a good ukulele. And it’s a lot less than even the slimiest candidate would sell his or her soul for.

And in my experience through five campaigns, most of the donations are under that limit, be they from private citizens or developers.

Put it another way: to send a campaign flyer through unaddressed ad mail to every household in Collingwood costs about $3,500. Add in the cost to print 10,000+ colour flyers and you easily double that. Then add in taxes. A single $750 contribution covers about one tenth the cost of that single effort.

Sure money talks, but $750 just mumbles a bit under its breath.

Not that candidates don’t appreciate the support, but the law already doesn’t allow anyone to contribute a significant amount to a municipal campaign. Developers have no advantage over anyone else.

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Spotting incompetence

Eight signsFurther to my earlier post, I wanted to provide some tips on how to spot incompetence in an employee or, especially, in managers and executives. I understand that incompetence may be a subjective view. What some view as incompetence others may see as cautionary, conservative or even adequate. But here’s what others have identified as incompetent or dysfunctional behaviour or personality traits in managers and leaders.

Incompetence is not black-and-white. It comes in many shades. And incompetence doesn’t (always) mean stupid: intelligent people may get promoted above their competence level, according to the Peter Principle, discussed in my previous post. They may be inexperienced, or weak, but only initially.

To be incompetent, a manager need not have all the characteristics in any list: even one may hamper his or her ability to perform effectively. A combination may freeze the operation into total stasis or may send it off in wrong directions. Or it may limp along. It depends on the situation.

Don’t assign a trait or character to someone for simple human failings, mistakes or one-off situations. People make mistakes and even managers can learn from their mistakes. At least the best do. Only when they repeat the problem should you consider it as incompetence or sign of dysfunction.

So look through these qualities and see if they fit anyone you know, anyone you work with. It’s a bit like birdwatching. Make a checklist of these warning signs and check them off as you see them in practice.

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Some of the Dharma

Some of the DharmaI first started reading Jack Kerouac in 1968, a battered paperback copy of On the Road, reprinted a decade after its original publication and kept in a pocket of a pack sack for easy reference as I hitchhiked around the country one summer.

The book enjoyed a small resurgence of interest as the early hippies imagined themselves as the spiritual descendants of the beats and enjoyed a similar flowering of art, music and literature.

For a brief while, many of the beat writers and musicians and their contemporaries basked in that renewed interest. I listened to Charlie Mingus, The Fugs, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and others almost as much as I listened to The Beatles, the Jefferson Airplane and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. I remember reading Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, William S. Burroughs and others around that time.

And, of course, Kerouac. On the Road was just the most popular of his publications (although not his first novel: that was The Town and the City, published in 1950). I quickly read The Dharma Bums then Desolation Angels (still my favourite of his 11 novels) afterwards (somewhere in my library I still have at least those two).

Around the same time, I was discovering Buddhism. I started reading D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Paul Reps and Dwight Goddard. The two influences – Buddhism and Kerouac – melded well for me then. They seemed a natural fit, and have continued to be factors in my own life.

Kerouac’s novels are still read, and likely every one of you has at least finished On the Road: it’s a seminal work of American fiction and not to be overlooked. It was released in an enlarged, annotated ebook edition with maps, images and more, by Penguin in 2011 (Kerouac is one of several Beat generation writers whose works have recently been of renewed interest to the reading public).

I haven’t read it myself in more than four decades, but it’s on my list to re-read this year (I know, I know: that list is already many titles long and it’s only March…).

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The Wolf and the Dogs

Wolf in sheep's clothingOnce upon a time, there was a pack of good-hearted dogs who were known for their good deeds, and indeed their good natures. They travelled around the town unmolested, loved by everyone they met, helping with the chores, keeping the town safe from wild animals and intruders.

The humans fed and pampered them, the other animals in the town bowed to them. Their leader, a kindly, gentle dog, was loved by all.

But there were animals in the forest who grew envious of the dogs. They hated their popularity, their good deeds, their companionship with people. They wanted what the dogs had. Most of all they wanted the chickens the humans kept, the tasty chickens the animals could not get to because they were guarded by the dogs.

The wolf gathered his companions around him. The fox came, so did the rat, the snake and the weasel.

“These dogs are not acting like animals are supposed to act,” the wolf told his followers. “They are keeping us from the chickens that are rightfully ours because we are the superior animals. We must make the humans hate these dogs. We must take from them the love and respect they receive and have them banished, if we ever want to get those chickens. I have a plan. You, fox, will be the first to lead us.”

And the fox nodded eagerly and listened to the wolf’s plan.

A few days later, when they were walking around the town, a group of dogs came across the fox whose foot appeared to be in a trap. The fox was thrashing about.

“Oh help me please,” cried the fox. “I have been caught in this terrible trap. If you don’t free me, the humans will catch and kill me because I stole one of their chickens. Please help me. I don’t want to die. I am not so different from you. I will be eternally grateful and stop stealing chickens from now on if you just get me out of this trap.”

So the dogs worked hard to free the fox from the trap. After much effort, they made it open and release the fox, who ran away without a word of thanks. But the dogs didn’t mind. They were happy just to do a good deed, and they continued on.

They never realized the fox had put its own foot in the trap to fool them. They never realized that, as soon as it was freed, the fox ran immediately to a hen house where it stole some chickens.

The wolf, meanwhile, dressed up as a dog ran to the humans and accused the dog pack of releasing the fox. It said the fox had been trapped by humans because it was stealing chickens. But, the wolf said, the dogs had let it go because the fox promised to give them free chickens from its catches, if they would free it.

“I have witnesses,” said the wolf, producing the snake and the rat, both dressed as dogs, who both said what the wolf said was true. They swore the dogs had released the fox and taken chickens from it in payment.

The humans, not suspecting any treachery from those they thought were dogs, believed the wolf and the others. Dogs, they believed, who were protecting them from the renegades in the pack. They didn’t see the disguises. And because there were chickens missing, they took the word of the wolf, the snake and the rat.

They accused the real dogs of releasing the fox to harm their chickens, and also of taking their chickens as payment. You took bribes, they said to the dogs.

“But we were trying to help it,” cried the dogs. “We did no wrong. We never touched the chickens!”

The humans didn’t care, nor believe their innocence. They turned against the dogs and stopped patting them. Stopped giving them extra food. They stopped letting them wander the town as before. They kept them away from their henhouses.

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The ‘Sharing Economy’ is a Hoax

Time MagazineStop calling it the sharing economy. It’s an oxymoron, like ‘creation science’ or ‘sustainable capitalism.’ It’s not collaborative: it’s the new indentured servant economy. If you believe these corporations are all about sharing and collaboration, then you’re mightily gullible. You’ve been had.

These are big, multi-billion dollar corporations whose executives are millionaires. They are more akin to drug cartels than to cooperative economics. The economic similarities are evident: both use others – the users or subscribers – to break the law for them, to generate their wealth for them, to do their dirty work, then leave those users to face legal, moral and social ramifications – and costs – on their own.

What, you think the CEOs of Uber rent their own BMW’s or Audi’s seats out to strangers and drive them around when they’re not in the office? That the CEOs of Airbnb rent their spare rooms – and they have a lot in their mansions – to strangers for weekend stays? No: you do it for them so they don’t have to take the risks. They’re laughing at you all the way to the bank.

And to icing the cake: these firms get their service providers to put their own property and even their lives at risk – and the lives and safety of their customers – without having to compensate them for it! It’s a capitalist wet dream! A gold mine of cash flowing one way into the corporate coffers. Open another bottle of that bubbly, James, we’re expanding.

As Dean Baker wrote in the Guardian in 2014:

…this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law… If these services are still viable when operating on a level playing field they will be providing real value to the economy. As it stands, they are hugely rewarding a small number of people for finding a creative way to cheat the system.

You’re not getting to “share” your home or your vehicle: you’re working for a company to help buy someone a new yacht. Someone who doesn’t give a shit about your welfare, safety or income. You’re contributing to the 1%. Shame on you.

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Sloppy Reporting and Secret Agendas

Bad journalismOne really doesn’t actually expect sterling journalism, good, investigative reporting or excellent editing from a community newspaper, but we do expect factual accuracy. And we expect reporters and editors to do at least the basics of their jobs.

Some parallel stories in the local papers show just how inaccurate – and sloppy – local reporting and editing can be. And how this is letting council get away with its secret agendas unreported.

The first story, in the Connection, is headlined, Collingwood calling on Collus Powerstream to divulge salaries of executives, employees. It opens:

Salaries paid to executives and employees of Collus Powerstream may soon be divulged, after Collingwood council passed a motion, Wednesday, asking for the information.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so – Collus is a private corporation and it may require costly legal action to divulge more than just salary ranges. But, as you’ll read below, they won’t be “divulged” to the public, just to council. And you’re okay spending tax dollars on an essentially pointless quest that will (allegedly) be kept secret?

But why should employees earning under $100K be forced to divulge their salaries? The province’s ‘sunshine’ law doesn’t require it (only municipal salary ranges below that are ever released). Why do some people think they are above provincial law?

Collingwood Council passed a shareholders’ directive on Wednesday, requesting a host of information from Collus Powerstream as part of the development of a new shared services agreement.

Okay, first it’s a shareholder’s directive, singular, since the town has only one share and it belongs to the community as a whole, not to multiple shareholders. It’s only plural when both shareholders pass it.

Why didn’t the reporter ask the simple question: what have salaries to do with shared services? In fact, they are irrelevant to the shared service agreement. It’s supposed to be about services, after all. But don’t let facts get in the way.

Why didn’t the reporter ask why none of this was ever raised in public before, or what public interest was being protected by all this secrecy? Why didn’t the reporter ask if it’s proper procedure to demand such information outside a formal shareholders’ meeting (yes, plural because there are two)? Or ask whether it’s wise to engage in a pissing match with your partner through the media?

(Does such a ‘directive’ requires both parties to agree, if so, the reporter might have asked, what happens if the other refuses?)

Why didn’t an editor send the reporter back out to finish the job? Asking why is a key part of any story. There are five Ws that must be answered to complete every good story: who, what, where, when and why. Just because council said so, or the CAO demanded it, isn’t the answer to why. Good reporters dig deeper. Good editors make sure they do.

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Where Have the Ratepayers’ Groups Gone?

Angry mobWhy don’t Collingwood’s ratepayer groups and associations last? In the 25-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen several come and go. Every one has dissolved, evaporated or imploded within a year or two. Seldom do they last longer than a single term of council.

Is this a normal part of the life cycle of such organizations, or is Collingwood at the unfortunate end of the Bell curve with these brief groups?

Perhaps the answer for their short lifespans is twofold: first, they do not represent the general public, but rather a small and usually elitist group; and second, because they are one-trick ponies that have no replay value once that issue has been addressed or gone away.

Plus, most of these groups seem angry. Nor surprising: they are led by angry, bitter people. That’s not a good basis for creating long-term, cooperative, thoughtful and engaging dialogue. But it goes well with whining, complaining, spreading rumours, frothing about alleged wrongs, and protesters with signs wanting to “inpeach” council (really: that’s how he spelled it!).

Some are localized NIMBY organizations whose sole purpose seems to be keeping intact a status quo situation in their neighbourhood. They are suspicious of, and opposed to, anything that even smells of change. Want to put a new sidewalk in a public park they believe is their private property? These groups will stand shoulder to shoulder to oppose it, even when the rest of the community clamours for it, staff recommend it, and safety requires it.

The first ratepayers’ group I recall was CARR: Collingwood & Area Residents & Ratepayers, if I recall the acronym properly. It raised several thoughtful issues such as the town’s financial sustainability and good governance, but, again as I recall, the main focus was on the proposed CSL waterfront development. Once that development stalled (later taken up by Fram), CARR seems to have withered.

I don’t actually remember any official notice of it being dissolved, but it was gone by the time the next group emerged: VOTE.

VOTE allegedly stood for “Voice of the Electorate” but it really represented an elitist group whose main focus was on getting their own members elected to council, while criticizing a former mayor and his supporters. In which effort it succeeded modestly well – getting a mayor and several of his minions on council.

Locals, however, soon called it “Voice of the Elite.” Which was appropriate.

However, it was so acerbic and cranky in its very vocal efforts to get its own way, that it became widely known as Voters Opposed to Everything: a verbal target for wits and the media. And much more appropriate.

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The birth and death of privacy

Dilbert
I was in a local grocery store recently and it was my misfortune to enter, and walk most of the same aisles at the same time as a voluble woman shopper. She spent her entire time there on her cell phone. From before she entered, through the time she collected her groceries, went through the cash register, and exited, she did not once stop talking. Loudly.

And it was a very personal, intimate conversation, as I and those in her near vicinity heard. Not intimate as in sexual, but she talked about private and personal issues, about other people, her feelings, her job, and so on. Did I mention she was loud? Loud enough to hear her clearly at the far end of the aisle.

The whole store was her audience. I saw other shoppers looking at her, some staring angrily, but she was oblivious. And that made me wonder if we have, thanks to the swell of new technologies, entirely abandoned the notion of privacy that we have slowly crafted over the past three millennia.

No we haven’t, says Neil M. Richards, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, In 2014, he published a paper on “Four Privacy Myths.” In it, he wrote:

…if we think about privacy as outdated or impossible, our digital revolution may have no rules at all, a result that will disempower all but the most powerful among us… we can no longer think about privacy as merely how much of our lives are completely secret, or about privacy as hiding bad truths from society. How we shape the technologies and data flows will have far-reaching effects for the social structures of the digital societies of the future.

It is possible, I suppose, that the woman on her phone was just an unusually rude and inconsiderate person. But I’ve seen too many similar incidents with other people to believe she is a rare example. It’s not just her lack of cell-phone manners: it was her attitude towards her personal information that caught my attention and made me research the intersection of privacy and technology.

Actually, most of our modern, Western notions of privacy are quite new, many culturally instilled only in the last 150 years. Personal privacy, as we now consider it, was not the norm before the 19th century.  (Aside from sexual privacy, which historically was preserved, but is being eroded by the vast tsunami of online pornography, including celebrity sex tapes and images…). The camera, in the late 19th century, was really the spark that lit the conversation about privacy.

Greg Ferenstein has put together a fascinating history of privacy in 46 images that shows how we developed our idea of having a private space over the ages. It’s quite enlightening.

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Slow Down and Keep Quiet

I’m tired. I’m tired of a-holes treating my town streets like their personal raceways. I’m tired of immature jerks racing along streets well over the speed limit, squealing tires, ignoring stop signs. I’m tired of drivers who think they’re above the law; that the laws don’t apply to them. That what matters is that they can do what they want and screw the rest of us.

Look, we get it. You’ve never matured beyond the show-and-tell stage. You’re releasing your inner six-year-old. You want to have a tantrum in the restaurant or the mall or some other public space like the other children, but your parents won’t go there with you any more, so you drive like a fool down side streets instead and endanger everyone else. Just to be noticed.

Just to be seen acting up in public. Show and tell all over again.

We get it. You need attention. You need to leave skid marks on the street because you think people will be awed by them.

We’re not. We just think you’re an immature a-hole.

You’re not an outlaw. You’re not a rebel. You’re not breaking free of the chains of society. You’re just a puerile a-hole with a car. You’re just being a six-year-old .

It’s time to grow up.

That’s right: grow up. When you get a driver’s licence, it’s time to act your age. It’s time to show responsibility. It’s time to be an adult. Time to put on your big-kid’s pants and act like you’re worth our attention. Without the tantrums, without the shouting. And you won’t get it by racing around the streets. What you will get is a call to the police complaining about your behaviour.

You are putting the lives of others at risk. And yes, that matters to the rest of us even if you’re not old enough to understand that. Children and pets, especially. Growing up means understanding that you don’t own the world: you have to share it with others. And you have to take their needs and wants into consideration, too. Adults understand that.

Adults understand that laws aren’t meant to be broken. That laws are not written as a test to see how much you can break them. That laws aren’t meant to cramp your precious selfish expressions or dampen your show-and-tell style. They’re meant to keep us all safe and secure.

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Fortuna: Why Plans Fail

Niccolo Machiavelli used two words in his book, The Prince, to describe the factors that influenced events. In English these are virtue or character (virtu), fortune or chance (fortuna). Only virtue is internal – our nature – and although it manifests as voluntary action, it can only be somewhat, but not entirely controlled.*

The other – chance or fortune – can make the best-laid plans of mice and men go aft agley, as Robert Browning wrote, regardless of our efforts to the contrary.

In Chapter 25 of The Prince (What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs And How To Withstand Her), Machiavelli tried to explain why a leader with free will, with all the means, the desire and resources at his disposal would not always succeed in his endeavours. Virtue alone cannot always win. Luck – chance, fortune, randomness – often simply threw a monkey wrench into the gears.

Machiavelli describes fortune in two metaphors. First as a river that can overflow its banks, treacherously destroying the countryside. That river can be carefully managed by planning for the inevitable flood. Today we would call them worst-case scenarios:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Machiavelli is saying rather simply: plan for disaster. Prepare for the downturn, the recession, the changing politics, the loss of funding, the changing market. Have alternatives and contingencies ready. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – for example, don’t base your budget or economic forecasts on the price of oil alone.

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