02/6/13

Half Time News


Half Time News coverThis month, Collingwood residents got a newsletter in their Collus- PowerStream utility bill: The Half Time News. Recognizing this is the season of the Super Bowl, our  brochure provides residents a fun yet non-political update on the events and activities around council’s first two years in office: at the end of 2012 we are at the half-way point in our term. And what a term it’s been so far!

While media attention is often focused on a handful of issues, council has been involved in numerous initiatives and activities since we took office in December, 2010. These are all important to the community. Because we always get asked by residents about what is happening at council or in Town Hall, this flyer was produced.

This is the second in our new initiative to communicate better with our residents and keep people more fully informed about what their municipal government is doing for them.

Here’s the list of accomplishments from our first half, as listed in the flyer:

First Year Highlights:

Patios: Resolved the downtown patio issue satisfactorily;
Railroad: Closed the railroad, saving taxpayers $400,000 a year in operating costs. Started negotiations with the County of Simcoe and Metrolinx for future railroad development;
Taxes: Kept property taxes and user fees low. Kept water and sewer rates low;
Debt: Lowered the town’s outstanding debt from $41 million. Topped up our financial reserves;
Development: Gave the Admiral Collingwood development the green light to go ahead and build. Started the reconstruction of Raglan Street;
Costs: Reduced municipal spending. Significantly reduced legal costs;
Safety: Approved a new fire station;
Finances: Sold unneeded municipal properties;
Services: Improved local roads and servicing;
Transit: Implemented a new bus transit link with Wasaga Beach;
Recreation: Improved signage on local trails. Created a steering committee to research new rec facility options;
Growth: Approved new developments including Creekside, and Mountaincroft. Welcomed new businesses into town including the Hyundai dealership. Encouraged new growth and business at the Collingwood Airport;
Planning: Initiated a natural heritage study;
Community: Approved a community garden project. Improved relations between council, staff and the community;
Downtown: Implemented free downtown parking on evenings and weekends. Implemented a courtesy/warning ticket system for downtown parking during paid times.

Second Year Highlights:

Growth: Welcomed a proposal to build new Sidelaunch brewery in town. Approved new developments including Balmoral Village. Created a new partnership between Collus and PowerStream for future energy growth and efficiencies;
Taxes: Kept taxes and user fees low again;
Debt: Lowered the debt to $37 million by year-end. Topped up reserves;
Municipal: Purchased new Works and Parks & Recreation Dept. property and building at much less than the appraised value;
Recreation: Purchased Fisher Field to improve soccer and other recreational activities. Resurfaced and upgraded our public tennis courts. Developed a tax-neutral solution to build much-needed, new recreational facilities through use of Sprung technologies;
Services: Extended water services to Long Point Road residents. Approved new traffic lights at Mountain Road & Tenth Line;
Development: Reconstructed Hurontario Street at Cameron to improve traffic flow. Purchased and demolished the former Mountain View hotel to finish the First Street widening project;
Management: Completed council’s strategic planning and priority-setting exercise. Implemented a team-based executive management model for municipal services. Initiated a comprehensive operational review of municipal services and functions;
Planning: Initiated an active transportation plan planning process;
Transit: Purchased two new buses to improve our transit system;
Downtown: Developed a new, energetic partnership with our BIA board and Downtown Revitalization committee;
Tourism: Developed a new partnership with the Georgian Triangle Tourism Association;
Safety: Started construction on the new fire station.

And here’s some of what we plan for the remainder of the term:

Second Half Game Plan:

Half Time News coverEconomy: Engage a director of marketing. Focus on employment and economic growth;
Taxes: Continue to keep taxes and municipal costs low;
Debt: Reduce the outstanding debt even more;
Operational Review: Implement identified efficiencies and communications within town hall;
Harbour and waterfront: Develop a new strategic plan with input from all stakeholders;
Recreation: Complete and open the new rec facilities;
Hume Street Corridor: Complete plans for the redevelopment;
Hurontario-First Street intersection: Complete the planned design upgrades;
Communications: Engage a communications co-ordinator to improve social media engagement;
OPP: Renovate and upgrade the current police building for improved service and efficiency;
Admiral Collingwood & The Shipyards: Encourage the developers to finish the projects this term.
And more!

We have some exciting, progressive ideas  about growth, communications, economic development and transportation that we’re working on and hope to be able to present to the public soon. Keeping taxes low is another goal that we are always working towards. The past two years we have managed a 0% increase in property taxes. It’s unlikely we can continue that low, but we are trying our best to minimize increases and reduce the impact on residents while still maintaining service levels and our wonderful quality of life.

Reducing our debt by almost 10% in two years without raising taxes has been a challenge, but we have done it.

Contact information for all members of council is included on the back. This is a non-partisan production, and all members of council can take pride in what we have accomplished in the first half of our term. If you didn’t get a copy, or would like another, please contact town hall or drop in at 97 Hurontario Street. You can download a PDF version here.

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.

10/30/12

Pondering the US election from a Canadian perspective


US editorial cartoonCanadians often find US politics mystifying, no more so than during presidential elections. It’s not just their byzantine electoral college system (which truly baffles us – even when explained concisely as in the video below).

It’s not just the differences between America’s republican governance system and our parliamentary system (although they do contribute mightily to the confusion since they are so dissimilar). These are process issues that can be sorted out through reading and study.




What baffles us – or at least me – is the increasingly vituperative language of the candidates, their advertising, and even of the post-debate analysts (not the whinging idiots like Ann Coulter and her foul-mouthed Fox media co-conspirators, but rather the real political pundits).
Political cartoon
Canadians watch the debates, we read, and we listen to your candidates with perhaps as much excitement as Americans. After all, this is high drama. But we don’t understand why the far right labels the less-than-far-right as “left” or even “socialist” – as if that was a bad thing.

From our perspective, the Democrats are only a hair left of the Republicans, not enough to make a difference. They’re both right-wing. It’s a bit like the difference between our “red” and “blue” Tories – two shades of the same party. Both major US parties are right wing – both support big military spending over education and medical care, both support wacky gun laws and NRA extremism, both parties have propped up a variety of international dictators when in power, both maintain an ideological position on the Middle East as opposed to a rational one, both have failed to actively intervene when fundamentalist dunces get superstition and myth inserted into state school curricula in place of science and reason. And both have helped ruin the environment and kill the space program. Those are right-wing policies.

We have real left parties in Canada and we’re rather fond of them (the NDP, a mid-left socialist party, is our Official Opposition and stands a fair chance of winning a government sometime soon; the Bloc Quebecois was the opposition from 1993-97, and is very left as well as being separatist). We know what the word “socialist” actually means – and it has nothing to do with the Democrats.*

Many Canadians are proud to be called socialist – it’s a compliment, not an insult. To call a Democrat a socialist is, from our perspective, like calling a fish a bicycle: nonsensical.

The US has both Communist and socialist parties that run candidates in at least some elections. Although they are almost unknown to Americans outside their own circle, they actually stand for the left-leaning things Communists and Socialists stand for, not what the Democrats stand for (sorry, Ann Coulter, for all your rabid hectoring, you are again wrong about the Democrats, but that’s hardly news).

We do, too (we have five major political parties and oodles of fringe parties including Communists and Trotskyists – as well as some uber-right fundamentalist parties). Many run candidates in federal elections. They usually only get a couple of hundred votes, not enough to be more than a minor note in the electoral process. Mostly they provide comic relief at election time.

But if you want to talk leftist, talk the REAL left, not the Democrats. Talk to me about Marxism, Communism, Leninism, Maoism. Talk to me about state-run economies and state-run industries, central planning and single-party systems. Don’t try to spin medicare as a leftist policy.

US elections are more about money than Canadian elections. I was astounded to hear the report on the BILLIONS of dollars raised to fuel the US election. That’s for advertising, media relations, campaigning and, of course, spin. Billions for EACH party. It’s like watching a battle between two giant, hostile corporations, rather than two people or even two parties. Six billion – $2.5 of that on the presidential race alone – will be spent in 2012 alone, as explained in this infographic on Creditseason.com.
Tea party cartoon
We do have one thing in common, however. The ideological change that has transformed the Republicans into the Tea Party has also transformed our own Conservative party into its Canadian equivalent. Both parties have polarized their federal politics and demonized any and everything that opposes them. The age of mature, civil debate ended under their attack-style politics. It’s very sad because they have destroyed any viable space for moderate conservatives. If you’re not a radical rightist, a bigot, xenophobe and fundamentalist, you must be the enemy. Facts give way to ideology. Reminds me a lot of the 1930s… (disinformation overriding facts even happened here, on the local level recently, but that was about rec facilities, not party politics).

From my Canadian perspective, the US election is about three things: race, gender and entitlement. One side has lined up a pro-white, keep-em-in-the-kitchen-no-abortion-even-if-raped, give-rich-people-a-break, my-god-is-a-jealous-god platform. The other is more inclusive of races, support’s women’s rights, fair taxation, religious tolerance and a minimal (NOT socialist) health care system that is merely 100 or so years behind European and Canadian models. But neither are in any way, shape or form, socialist. One is just somewhat more democratic and a little more equitable about taxes and medical care.

To me, the choice is pretty self-evident, but I’m not an American, so I don’t see things as Americans do. Maybe my perception of the lesser of two evils isn’t matched by yours.

Here are some links to information about the differences between Canadian and American elections:
CITY TV
Canada.com (2008 piece)
Helium.com (2009 piece)
Cracked.com (comedic piece)
Phys.org
e-How.com

And here are some interesting comparisons of Canadian and American demographics: unitednorthamerica.org. Note that this is the site of a group, “dedicated to the democratic unification of Canada and the United States of America into one nation, under the protections, freedoms and privileges of the United States Constitution.” I don’t support that sentiment, but would consider bring the US states in as provinces under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Then we could really teach Americans about socialism.
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* There is no one definition of socialism that fits all ideologies and the term is used for everything from Marxism to medicare. But in fairness, Canadians misunderstand the term less than Americans are we are less prone to use it to describe anything we don’t agree with or comprehend. Americans often call those they don’t like “liberals,” as if that was also an insult (the harridan Ann Coulter infamously wrote, “Liberals hate America, they hate flag-wavers, they hate abortion opponents, they hate all religions except Islam, post 9/11. Even Islamic terrorists don’t hate America like liberals do. They don’t have the energy. If they had that much energy, they’d have indoor plumbing by now.”). Outside the USA, or at least outside of Coulter’s delusional tea-party-pea-brained politics, being a “liberal” means being a centrist, not a left-winger.

10/6/12

Why does anyone need PR?


Flavius AetiusFlavius Aetius. Only a handful of scholars know who he was. You can look him up on Google, but 1,500-plus years later, not many people will find him memorable, nor will they care.

On the other hand, I’ll bet everyone reading this post knows who Attila the Hun was. Or at least you recognize the name, even if you aren’t really familiar with his history. It’s either an insult or praise to be called “right of Attila the Hun” these days, although Attila would not have understood the reference.

Attila’s reputation as a warlord still resonates, 1,500 years later. But his contemporary, Aetius, is mostly forgotten. Yet both men were very similar. In fact, they knew each other in their youth and were likely friends for a while.

Both were born on the “wrong” side of the Danube – barbarians in Roman eyes. While his father was a Roman solider “of Scythian extraction,” Aetius spent many formative years in the court of the Visigoths and then the Huns, a ‘hostage’ under Attila’s uncle, King Rugila. In exchange, the twelve-year-old Attila was sent as a child hostage to the Roman court of the western Roman emperor, Honorius.

Aetius learned firsthand how the Huns lived and fought. After he was released, he even led a large army of Huns during one of the numerous battles of succession between competitors for the position of emperor (in 425 CE). He became the military commander in Gaul and conducted many successful campaigns as general, trying to keep the empire intact, including one in 436 CE when he used an army of Huns to subdue the Burgundians. He was elected consul three times.

Meanwhile, Attila had risen to become the sole ruler of the disparate tribes of Huns, uniting them for the first time under one ruler, and was winning his reputation as the “scourge of God” through a series of violent campaigns against the eastern Roman empire, mostly in the poorly-defended Balkans. Although he terrorized a lot of inhabitants and razed many minor cities along the borders, Attila’s military actions were not as serious or as damaging to the eastern empire as he would have liked. He failed to take Constantinople, twice, although he did force the city to grant him tribute.

Attila’s successes were in great part due to the Western empire stripping the armies from the east to fight the Vandals, who had conquered the Roman colonies in Africa, taken Carthage, and were eyeing an attack through Sicily into the Italian peninsula. Without armies to oppose him, Attila was able to ravage the Balkans with little to stop his rampages. The Vandals, by the way, were not stopped for long, and sacked Rome in 455 CE (under their leader, Genseric, another name that has mostly fallen through the cracks of history into the obscurity below).

Both Aetius and Attila were accomplished rulers and military leaders with a string of successes during their lifetimes. And when they met on the battlefield, in 451 CE, it must have seemed to many as a clash of titans. In fact, the battle of the Catalaunian Plains is considered one the the pivotal battles in the late Roman Empire:

This is considered as one of the most important battles in the history of Europe and Christianity, since if Attila conquered Europe, he could destroy the Roman cultures and potentially annihilate Christianity…

In 450 CE, Attila decided to attack the Western Empire, taking a path through northeastern Gaul with his Huns and a motley collection of some less-than-enthusiastic vassals – Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Scirians, Heruls, Thuringians, Alans, and Burgundians. He was initially successful, and even more terrifying to the inhabitants than he had been in the east.

Aetius, meanwhile, was busy cobbling together an army from a variety of allies, including Franks, the Burgundians, Celts and Visigoths. They moved in front of the Huns at Orléans, and rather than fight, the Huns turned away. Aetius gave chase and caught Attila near Catalaunum (modern Châlons-en-Champagne).

So here we have the battle of the century. If Attila won, there would be nothing to stop him and his army from rampaging through the last bastions of the empire, right to the Atlantic Ocean, and into the heart of the peninsula to sack Rome itself. If he lost, Attila’s reputation as the feared and powerful leader of the unstoppable barbarian horde would be forever damaged; he would be forced to retreat in disgrace.

And guess who won? Aetius. The Huns were driven back across the Danube, and, with his reputation as “invincible” in tatters, Attila’s alliance broke apart (the Ostrogoths even went over to Rome). Attila returned, and raided northern Italy for a year or so, razing some towns, causing damage but not having any real strategic success. The eastern Roman emperor meanwhile decided enough was enough, and had sent his armies into the field to defeat the Huns Attila had left behind.

Attila retired from Italy in 452, intending to turn against Constantinople one more time. But he died in 453 CE. After his death, the Hunnish empire fell apart at the hands of squabbling successors. They disappear from history shortly after Attila’s death.

Aetius, meanwhile, was criticized for allowing the Huns to escape, although he probably wanted to preserve his army to fight the bigger threat of the Vandals. His remaining army wasn’t large enough to crush Attila’s Huns in Northern Italy, and simply kept them from getting too far south. The “last of the Romans” was murdered by his emperor, Valentinian III, in 454 CE.

Aetius, say some scholars, saved the Roman world. Yet I’d bet dollars to doughnuts not even one in ten people know who he is today. Attila’s “brand” remains strong, and his mythology is still great. Why?

Leadership Skills of Attila the HunPublic relations. That’s why Attila’s name still survives. Attila has had better media coverage than Aetius. PR is all about maintaining and fortifying reputation.

And that’s the value of PR. There are books about Attila (including The Leadership Skills of Attila the Hun, which, according to at least this review,has some serious mistakes about Attila’s actual history: “He led his Huns to bring German and Slavic nations under control, defeat Rome and Constantinople, triumph over the lands of Asia, and then conquer Africa. Taking over the world is the ultimate challenge for just about any leader or manager, and barbaric Attila seems to have accomplished it with poise and grace.” Perhaps that just points to how well Attila’s brand was grown and expanded into mythology since he died.*)

Poor old Aetius. The man who defeated Attila and saved the empire – at least for a few more years – is a minor character in the annals of history, mostly forgotten and ignored. His name was never used to frighten children, nor is it ever used today in some political analogy. No one seems to have written books using his leadership skills as a model for modern management.

That’s what happens when you don’t have good PR to save your reputation.

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* That muddled history seems to be the reviewer’s, not the book author’s.

09/11/12

Should you run for municipal council?


ContenderThere’s a poll online asking if a resident should run for council next election. I believe I understand the intent, but decision-making by poll is not effective leadership. Internet polls, in particular, are weak, inaccurate, easily manipulated, and ignore necessary demographic constraints – they are unacceptable as the foundation for any serious decision.

Sure, you want public input for major issues, and you are legislated to get it on some planning matters. Council tries very hard to be as open and transparent as possible. But in the end, you get elected to make decisions. You can’t keep deferring while you ask for polls, surveys, reports and hold public meetings. You have to make the decision. The buck, as they say, stops with you.

Council, working with staff, is privy to a different, often deeper and broader, picture that includes information about all departments, projects, staffing matters, costs, demographics, service delivery, facility use and most important of all: budget and taxes. We learn quickly what every decision will cost taxpayers, and how expensive some dreams really are when you need to borrow the money to achieve them (a $35 million loan, for example, translates to more than $49 million over a 20 year debenture and means a 10.12% increase on the average tax bill).

From the outside, it’s easy to second-guess council’s decision because most people only weigh their own interests in the matter, not all of the other things and all the different user groups and residents council has to consider.

I’ve been there: I was in the media covering local politics for a dozen years here. Before I ran for office, I thought I knew just about everything I needed to know about how the town ran. I knew the procedures, I knew the staff, I knew the politicians. I sat through hundreds of meetings, I conducted hundreds of interviews. I pontificated weekly on council’s decisions in the media because I thought I knew at least as much as they did, and often knew better.

I was deeply humbled in my first term to realize that I had not fully understood or appreciated how complicated, how demanding, how stressful and how difficult the role often is. I didn’t appreciate how much council has to consider when making a decision, how the interplay between staff and council affects decisions, how information and data can be interpreted or mis-interpreted. I didn’t realize that some decisions were often tough compromises. Later, I apologized to several former politicians for some comments I made in the media during their term.

Anyone who is a resident and meets the requirements of the provincial election act can run for municipal office. Usually about 20 people run for council here. Seven get elected, plus mayor and deputy mayor. These are nine local people – business owners, employees, teachers, retired people, real estate agents, parents, grandparents – they are your neighbours, your relatives, your family; people you will see in the grocery stores, in the bowling alleys, on the golf courses, walking their dogs on local sidewalks, people who went to local schools, or go local churches, have families, shop at the mall, exercise at the Y, donate to local charities. Sometimes people get angry at council and forget that councillors are ordinary, local people, just like they are.

Democracy is best served by a wide range of ideas, experiences, skills, opinions and attitudes. Debate is crucial, so is dissent. That can be emotional and trying. Few people are raised in a work or home environment where debate, argument and intellectual challenge are common. We tend to avoid confrontation. But council is often embroiled in it and it can be acrimonious. For many people, caustic debate is a stressful and anxiety-laden time. That’s why people often choose committee and board work where cooperation is more common than controversy. That’s also why an angry or loud voice can dominate the council table, even bully other council members, because most people don’t want to fight.

Every person on council, even those I disagreed with, or whom I personally disliked, I respect for running for office and accepting the burden that places on us. Every one of them cared passionately and deeply for the community and their causes. I didn’t have to like or agree with them to respect the challenges and stresses we shared. We all ran for office because we cared enough to accept the responsibilities that go with it.

If you want to run for council, as long as you meet the requirements, do so. Here are my caveats and considerations:

Penguin confrontationBe prepared to have your integrity questioned, your honesty assaulted, your best efforts at being fair and open ridiculed, your wisdom and experience deprecated, your credibility and reputation eroded.

Be prepared for you and your decisions to be publicly insulted, ridiculed, dismissed and your sanity questioned. Be prepared to be misunderstood, to have simple mistakes or innocent comments turned into public humiliations, to have off-the-cuff remarks hung around you like an albatross. Be prepared for misinformation and disinformation to be used against you, sometimes deliberately, sometimes maliciously.

And you will make mistakes, trust me. Humans naturally do, but when you are in politics, those mistakes will stay with you. Unlike in your personal life, you won’t be able to take your mistakes back or beg forgiveness. If you wake up the next day and realize you cast the wrong vote, too bad. Live with it. Few people will accept your apologies. The media will dredge out old comments, old quotes, old votes and remind people of your foolishness long after you had forgotten it.

Be prepared to be frustrated by process and procedural rules, to be disappointed that everyone else doesn’t share your enthusiasm for your ideas or initiatives, to be slowed by budgetary realities, and see even simple goals take years to achieve.

Be prepared to trim some of your election promises and your fondest, most fervently-held dreams in order to achieve more modest and more realistic compromises.

Be prepared to have your preconceptions publicly  refuted, your ideas and beliefs overturned, and your core values challenged – and then reported in the media for everyone to see or hear.

Be prepared to swallow your pride and vote for something you don’t like, something you don’t want or agree with, because it’s simply the only viable choice. You will be vilified if you change your stance, and vilified if you don’t.

Be prepared to be lobbied by both individual residents and groups, sometimes relentlessly. People will call you at home, at work, in the middle of the night to talk about issues, argue, denounce and confront you. And a few will also congratulate you.

Sometimes you get so many emails or calls on an issue that just can’t respond to all of them.

You will have to work at the job – reading, learning, asking questions, digging through books, files, records, agendas and minutes. You will have to learn the byzantine rules of procedure, codes of conduct, and read dense laws and bylaws governing your every action.

You will have to learn to be cool, calm and restrain your anger, even when you feel yourself under attack. And you have to learn to let your failures go.

Everything you say or do will become public. Casual jokes, off-hand remarks, personal habits, your dress and appearance, even simply not hearing a comment properly or losing your place in the agenda will be repeated in the media and the coffee shops.

No matter what decision you make, someone will disagree. Someone will be angry at you for it. Someone will think you a fool. Or worse. You will be accused of being underhanded, dishonest, disingenuous, secretive and manipulative. Even if you made the best decision you could, in the most open and transparent manner, even if you believed that your decision was the absolute best for the community and its residents, it will be questioned and attacked by those you failed to please.

Even more frustrating, things you ran on, things you were elected for, things you believed in when you made your decisions, will be challenged, discredited and ridiculed by both the public who elected you and the media when that decision does not meet their post-election expectations.

It will affect your work, your family, your friendships, your recreation time. You will lose friends and customers. You may gain others, but that won’t make the loss hurt any less.

If you have a thick enough skin for that, if you think you can still rise above the tribulations and give it your best effort every meeting, then by all means, run for office. If you win, and it doesn’t grind you down first, you may learn to become patiently philosophical about politics.

06/19/12

The Decline of Information Quality


Huff Post 01I’ve been troubled the last year or so by the increasing amount of trivial crap that is being presented on media sites as news, rather than what it really is: shallow gossip, pseudoscience, trivia, anecdote, voyeurism and personal experience.

As titillating as some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction might be, it is not front page news. In fact, it isn’t worthy of the description news even when relegated to a more appropriate location, buried deep inside the site. Gossip belongs with the horoscope, cartoons and word-search puzzles.

Nor is a cute animal in some anthropomorphic posture news. Kitten and bunny wrestling? Why is there a front page link to such inane pap? But there is was on the HuffPost.

Who a “reality” TV star marries, what she ate, the condition of her dress or how much cleavage she shows is not only not news, it is not important in any sense of the word. It is an insult to the readers’ intelligence to put it on the front page.

Huff Post 02It is, in the dietary sense, empty intellectual calories. It seems to fill a space, but it is empty, void of content, just wasting bandwidth. Like doughnuts, soda pop and candy bars, it fills without fulfilling. It provides no cerebral nutrition. In short, it is material for the hard of thinking.

I never thought I’d say this, but there are actually TV shows with more intelligence than this crap. Not, of course, many; some BBC, TVO, PBS and CBC shows – not the American Picker, Swamp People or Jersey Shores nonsense, mind you. Both History and Discovery channels have become broadcasters of excremental trivia, dropping documentary for mediocrity.

There is, of course, a place for gossip about the haberdashery and sex lives of the glitterati. Supermarkets have racks of such irrelevant tabloids for those who thrive in the shallows of the intellectual pond. But it does not belong on the front page of an allegedly national or international media publication (like the Huffington Post).

National PostNot that the HuffPost is alone in dumbing down its content for a less discriminatory, less intellectual audience, although it is arguably the worst, with more pure crap on its front page than any other news site I visited.

The National Post has a section called “arts” in which it places front page trivial pap about Lindsay Lohan in a car accident, a legal dispute between two actors and an “open letter from Elvis Presley.” Gossip and minor events in the lives of actors is not news and it isn’t anything to do with the arts. Car accidents may be entertainment for some twisted souls, but the majority does not see them as having any cultural or artistic merit.

Canoe 02Canoe, the Quebecor home site, opens with some minor news pieces, but uses a media player to move you quickly to trivia categories like showbiz, movies (why this is not in showbiz is a mystery), swimsuits (an entire category of stories!) and “tearjerkers” where dumbing down is elevated to a new standard. The front page has stories about garage sales and movie trivia. The main news story today is “Man killed in B.C. goft cart crash.” Yes, it says “goft” cart, not golf cart. You have to actually hunt for real news like the latest massacre in Syria.

None of this reduces my impression of Quebecor as the bottom of the intellectual barrel in the Canadian media industry, of course. Just reinforces it. My overall attitude is that QMI is the only news agency that makes the trashy Fox network look moderate, and the old News of The World look relevant.

Toronto Sun 02The Sun newspaper is, well, just what I expected from a newspaper that has more about sports, gossip and sex than it has news or anything important. I’ve never had a high opinion of the Sun ever since it started, mostly because of its uber-right editorial stand. But unlike most traditional media, it hasn’t gone downhill in its content. Of course, it hasn’t improved, either. The Toronto Sun’s website features several irrelevant front page “celebrity gossip” pieces, and more sports than news. Sports may be important to some, but it isn’t news and should not push out real stories.

Huffpost is, unlike the NatPost or the Sun, mainly a news aggregator, so it pulls stories from other sources, and doesn’t create much of its own (blogs are opinions, not news). In that, it can’t be blamed for the quality of the items, but simply for the choice. Similar aggregator sites like National Newswatch and Bourque exist, with varying amounts of crap pretending to be news. Midway down the National Newswatch page is a story in the “E-zone” (for e-diot?) is a fluff piece with the headline, “Stop everything: Selena Gomez is talking about Justin Bieber while wearing a bra,” followed by links to other, similar pap. To be fair, though, the site has a greater news-to-crap ratio than the HuffPost. Bourque sticks to the headlines and pushes the fluff way down to the bottom.

I’ve heard the argument that the media only provides what people want. That’s nonsense and one of the bulwarks the increasingly right wing, ideologically-fixed media depends on to continue its war on intellectuals and non-right thinkers. Media provides either what it THINKs the public wants, or what it thinks the public SHOULD want.

No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to get more stupid. Media corporations provide this trivia not to meet demand, but to create it. Ideologues don’t want informed, intelligent consumers. Informed people make better choices than uninformed ones and are not as likely to follow the script. The right’s entire argument about Medicare in the US has been phrased in terms that make it a hate crime to reason, to think critically and to question the “authority” of the right’s pundits who decry providing public medical services instead of holding people hostage for basic medical care.

Information diabetes. That’s what the right-leaning media has, and wants us all to contract through an obesity of irrelevancy. To be fair, there are well-informed people on the right, but not as many as there are on the left. That’s because of the basic difference in how each political stripe sees information. The left sees it as something to share and exchange. The right sees it as proprietary, private and secret.

A recent Gallup poll highlighted the effect of dumbing down media with tripe: only 15% of Americans believe in the evolution, but 46% believe in some form of creationism. That would not happen with a better-informed public. People are not usually intentionally so stupid, but there are those in power who intentionally try to make people stupid. Rather pointedly, the vast majority of creationists also side with the right, while those on the side of science and fact are mostly on the left.

Dumbing down is done through the media by replacing content with fluff, by pushing pseudoscience and superstition, gossip and salaciousness to the front page instead of science and research, or instead of hard news and empirical data.

Who will pay attention to climate change, the oil sands, or the civil war in Syria when the front page has voyeuristic shots of some almost-dressed starlet showing cleavage, or something salacious about a TV wannabe with a childish name like Snookie? Who will turn to images of civilians being shot or streams awash in toxic oil spills, when you can look at a star in a bathing suit? Thinking people, of course will, but the point of this dumbing down is to hide the real content under a torrent of irrelevant pap, deep enough that the average person – with an attention span conditioned by TV watching to be shorter than a gnat’s – won’t bother looking that deep.

As Johnson writes in The Information Diet, there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s more like an imbalance of information quality. The good data is in shorter supply than the dreck. In the same manner, obese people get that way not necessarily because of the quantity of food they consume; rather it’s the result of the quality of the food-like substances they eat.

Newspapers aren’t alone, of course; it started with TV. Channels like Discover and History promised content only to quickly become broadcasters of unbelievably stupid and anti-intellectual content. Just a look at the crap that TV dishes out daily can give anyone with an IQ over 80 a headache: Natural Born Dealers, Canada’s Worst Driver, Cash Cab, Believe It or Not, Storage Wars, Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Pawn Stars, Canadian Pickers, Jersey Shore… just a few of literally hundreds of TV shows meant to dumb down the audience and keep people in an uninformed stupor. There are so many truly inexorably bad TV shows like these that I can’t even begin to list them all, let alone comment on how bad TV has become. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

But is there a cure for information obesity? Yes: focus, stop wasting time on crap, turn off the TV, exercise your mind and go back to reading books.