Yellow Journalism

Yellow journalismHere’s an interesting approach to developing good relations with your print media advertisers: take their money, publish their full-colour advertisement, then challenge their content, their integrity and their claims in a story that doesn’t present all the facts.

Then wonder why your other advertisers may be nervous about this tactic… and wonder why print media is in trouble.

That’s just what the Collingwood Connection did recently. They accepted and ran an ad last week from Collus/Powerstream – an innocuous, non-political, full-colour ad that modestly promoted the utility and its partnership with the town – then challenged it in an piece this week (the original, online piece was later updated, as I understand it, after complaints were made to the writer).

Not surprising if the folks at the utility are seriously pissed off at the Connection and feel betrayed, either. (update: I’ve been informed that the ad ran twice and wasn’t cancelled and ran twice… but I didn’t see it in the paper where the story ran…)

As Wikipedia tells us, yellow journalism is…

…a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

Is it ethical or professional not to ask the basic questions reporters are taught to ask: who, what, where, when and why? Or to rely on unnamed sources? Those practices certainly look like yellow journalism to me.

Now, anyone who has followed local politics is aware of this council’s unrelenting attacks on our utility services and their staff. And you’re probably aware that the utility’s side of the story has never been covered in any local media, even though pretty much everyone in town is talking about it.

Local media seem content to look the other way and pretend it’s not happening. Investigative journalism? Not welcome here…

You also know how council broke the water service away from the electrical, and what a miserable dog’s breakfast that situation is now. The 150-year old mutual service relationship was torn asunder, and in almost two years the town has failed to craft a new one, although it should have taken an hour at most… but this council never intended to renew the agreement.

The experienced, respected professionals on the water utility commission were tossed overboard and replaced by a group of ideologically-motivated, inexperienced and inept councillors and pet staff. After, of course, deciding to so so without public input at a meeting behind closed doors.

And yes, they refer to themselves as “Our Group.” I, personally, prefer the term “Politburo” since it better captures that Stalinesque odour about them, but let’s use their own appellation for this post.

Since then, staff morale in water has plummeted. I’m told the utility is in chaos, the unions are squabbling, everyone is complaining, resumes have been sent out by the dozen, and no one is happy. Except for “Our Group,” of course. Another story whitewashed in the media.

Having basically destroyed one utility, “Our Group” has actively and aggressively pursued doing similar destruction to our electrical utility.

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Dear Amazon…

Amazon shipping
Dear Amazon:

Hello, it’s me, Ian. Yes, that’s right, the crazy guy who orders all those books. Yeah, the history books, the science books, the philosophy books, the ones on leadership and politics… you know, the guy who spends at least $100 a month buying books from you.

Plus don’t forget the pasta maker, the PC games, the laptop battery, the kitchenware, the ukulele tuners, the gaming mice, drawing tablet, Kindle and other stuff, I’ve bought from you… 26 orders from you in the last six months alone. Yeah, that Ian.

Well, I’m at it again. I just can’t get enough. After all, can you ever have too many books? Of course not! But I’m concerned.

Six days ago I placed an order for three more books. All of them were all marked “in stock” at the time. But every time I check my order, it tells me you’re “preparing to ship” them. And trust me, I’ve checked several times.

I don’t know where you and your staff shop, but six days to “prepare” something that’s supposedly already in stock seems like a very long time to wait. Would you eat in a restaurant where the waiter took your order and told you to come back next week?

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The 50% Solution

Wings'n beerImagine you want to go out for dinner with a friend. Get some wings and beer. You like mild dry rub wings, and a nice, crisp lager. Your friend likes sticky and spicy, with a dark stout. The restaurant will bring out the food and drinks split according to your wishes. And your bill.

That means whoever pays for the meal gets to decide what you both get on the table.

You can’t afford to pay for the whole meal yourself, and you don’t want your friend to pay for it because you don’t want to share a basket of hot and sticky wings and a jug of Guinness. You want your own meal: you want half the food and half the beer, the kind you like. So you know you can’t pay less than 50%, otherwise you’ll give up control of the meal.

And if you pay more, you’ll end up with more than you need and your friend will feel unsatisfied. So you ask your friend what percentage of the bill they want pay before you order.

Your friend feels the same way. Your friend wants a fair share, a full meal, and doesn’t want anything less, and certainly doesn’t want to pay for your food, either. So your friend offers to pay half the costs. Fifty percent. Split right down the middle. That way you both get the wings and beer you want, no fighting. Both walk away from the table happy.

That’s the logic Collingwood used when it decided to sell half of its power utility, Collus, to Powerstream. Sure, the process was a little more complicated than that, but it still boils down to the same thing.

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The gems of Salomé

SaloméI was perhaps 11 or 12 when I first encountered Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé. Some of it, at least.

At the time, I knew nothing of Wilde, his writing, or even much about theatre in general. After all, I was in grade seven or eight. It would be a few years before I encountered (and developed a passion for) Shakespeare and other playwrights. But Wilde I actually discovered first.

Faced with the dramatic challenges of their own – my mother was either still in hospital or had only recently been released and was struggling with the paralyzing results of her stroke – my parents allowed me to make the trip downtown to spend a day at the museum on my own. I would do that many, many times in those years. A solitary visit, a day spent in wonder and imagination.

Allowed may be a kind word. They were struggling with serious life issues, and I was, admittedly, a bit of a handful with a wayward sense of independence.

I figured out how to get to the museum, alone and by public transport, from our home in distant, suburban Scarborough to the downtown, and went off on my own, paying my way with money earned through my paper route. My parents accepted my excursions after the fact as a fait accompli, although not without stern warnings. It was not the destination, perhaps, that concerned them, but the hour-long trip by myself, negotiating buses, transfers and finally the subway.

Still, I returned every night intact, unmolested, and richer for the experience. A day in the museum was for me like a day in Oz or some other magical kingdom. The dinosaurs, the mummies, the urns, the totem poles, the stuffed animals frozen behind glass.

The words from Wilde were written in raised letters on a wall in the entrance to the mineralogy hall of the Royal Ontario Museum. It was always the second place I always visited after the invertebrate paleontology hall. I believe they are still there, today.

I copied them down into the notebook I always carried then, long since lost, but the words remained scribbled in my heart. They moved me in unexpected ways for a pre-teen, and still move me today. And I still carry notebooks to record such things, although they tend to be used for more prosaic purposes, since moments of wonder seem fewer and farther between these days.

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The Leadership Crisis

The Leadership CrisisIn his latest book, The Leadership Crisis, Gord Hume defines seven characteristics – the Seven Cs – of great political leadership*. See how many you can recognize as attributes within our own council:

  1. Competencies, including people, organizational, business and strategic.
  2. Character, and its traits, values and virtues; integrity.
  3. Commitment, including aspiration, engagement, perseverance and sacrifice.
  4. Charisma, that unquantifiable attribute that political leaders either have or don’t.
  5. Communication, through effective messaging that inspires, informs and influences.
  6. Context, an understanding of what’s going on around them.
  7. Culture, and how to develop, create, change and advance that culture

I think you can see for yourself that these traits are notable by their absence in most of our council. Just take any one of the seven – say, communications. How can a council that conducts so much of its business behind closed doors communicate well, if at all? And how does it communicate? Only through poorly-designed, improperly formatted ads in a newspaper no one reads and via a dull “newsletter” riddled with mistakes but no news.

Culture? There’s more culture in a cup of yogurt than in all of council. Competencies? How can a group that refuses to learn from its peers and hand over control of policy making to staff be competent?

One can, of course, learn and grow on the job, assuming one breaks out of the ideological shell that cocoons them. Which, in 18 months in office, still hasn’t happened. But, like winning the lottery or being struck by a meteorite, there’s still a chance for it to happen. A very slim chance, but we must be optimistic, despite the odds.

There are many books on leadership on the shelves these days. What makes Hume’s book different is the context of leadership within Canadian municipal politics.** You can read an excerpt of the book here. As Hume writes on his website:

Ego, ambition, fear, doubt, passion. Politicians may have a fervent belief in the rightness of their position or a visceral dislike for another person, party or platform, but these should always be tempered by the need to inspire collective action to move any agenda forward.

Hume’s books are among the most thought-provoking, engaging books I’ve ever read on municipal/local politics. It’s sad to note that perhaps only one or two (at most) on our own council will read this book. It is another important publication on municipal governance they will actively ignore. This council already stopped subscribing to the Municipal World magazine because they already know everything – despite most of them being new to the position – and doesn’t want their preconceived views polluted by advice from peers or experts. So exhorting them to read it will fall on mostly deaf ears (I have hope for two of the nine…).

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The Purple Thread

EpictetusRoman men wore togas for formal occasions. The basic toga – toga alba or toga pura – was a simple garment of plain white wool. It was undyed and unadorned. White was the colour required by Roman sumptuary law for citizens’ togas. This basic toga was also the garment draped on a boy when he went through his ceremony to manhood – called the toga virilis during that ceremony.

A dark brown or grey toga pulla or toga sordida was reserved for periods of mourning. A fancier, bleached toga was worn by candidates for political office – the toga candida. Candida means pure white and is the etymological source of our word, candidate. The pure white was symbolic of the candidate’s purity and honesty. I can hear you chuckle at that notion, especially after the last local municipal election.

In order to stand out in this sea of dull white, officials such as magistrates, aediles, consuls, senators and priests could wear the toga praetexta: a white toga with a purple border, usually 2-3 inches wide (5-7.5cm); the width reflected the wearer’s position. That purple band marked the wearers as important; made them visible in the teeming crowd of Roman citizens.

Over the years of the empire, the rules and types of togas changed, and what was once the defining garment of the Roman citizen – by law only Roman citizens were allowed to wear them – became a showpiece.

Likewise the Roman tunic – the garment for day-to-day wear – was usually undyed white, but for officials, it carried a stripe of purple to indicate their rank. The wider the stripe, the more important the wearer. Senators had the wide laticlavus, roughly two inches (5cm) wide; equestrians (equites) had two narrow red-purple angusticlavia on their shoulders.

Tunics might also be dyed, but dyes were expensive, so the average Roman didn’t use them. And only white tunics had the stripes, otherwise they might not be noticed.

It is that little purple band that stands out, that defines the wearer; not the rest of the garment.

Purple was the colour of position and royalty in the ancient world. The purple Tyrian dye came from murex snails found in the eastern Mediterranean and was very costly. Ten thousand snails were required to dye just one toga! Pure purple – the toga purpura – was generally reserved for the gods, but the emperor could wear the toga trabea: purple with a bit of white. Emperors were, after all, divine. The bit of white, I suppose, showed his human part. A little humility among all that divinity.

There was also the toga picta – an embroidered, purple toga (often with elaborate gold trim and embroidery) worn by emperors and by victorious generals in their triumph. There were other types, too – the toga trabea, toga palmata, and other, but let’s not digress.

The purpose of this post is not to discourse on the nature of Roman sartorial splendor. I merely set the stage for a comment in the next part: on the words of Epictetus, whom I have been reading of late.
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The Myth of Persecution

Myth of PersecutionI just finished reading The Myth of Persecution by theology professor Candida Moss (Harper One, New York, 2013). I picked it up because of my general interest in theology, but also my more specific interest in early church history. I didn’t realize when I started to read it that this book was at the centre of a huge kerfuffle in the Christian community over its message and its accuracy.

In short, Ms. Moss argues that while the early Christians in the first four centuries were often the victims of violence, and even some persecution, they were not the targets of systematic persecution by the Romans for the duration. In fact, the periods of legislated persecution were short and intermittent. She tries to distinguish between persecution and prosecution, and identifies situations where Christians were among the groups, but not singled out, targeted for oppression by various Roman emperors and their edicts.

Further, she argues that the majority of stories of martyrs from this time are fictional, not historic records, created to serve a political or social purpose. She deconstructs some of them, looking at historical records, literary records and internal logic.

And, she concludes, the modern cult of persecution – such as the faux ‘War on Christianity’ promoted by several right wing commentators recently – is based on both a flawed view of history and a dangerous perspective on world events that prevents dialogue and compromise between people. That perspective, Moss writes, is based on the defensive and dangerous notion of persecution and martyrdom. In a film review posted on The Daily Beast, Moss called modern Christian belief in its own persecution a “paranoid fantasy.”

With which I pretty much agree. While not by any means a scholar, what I have read over the years about the creation of the early church, the battles between sects and cults to frame orthodoxy, the arbitrary way the canon was cobbled together, the exclusion of the Gnostics, and the whole business of pseudepigrapha and fake documents supports her contention that the early stories of martyrs were part of this process.

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The CAO’s expenses

Expense accountsEarlier this year, I filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request to see the expense records of Collingwood’s Interim CAO for 2015 and 2016 to the end of March. You can read these records by clicking on the links above.

Let me start by saying a few things: first, the interim CAO is paid $225,000 a year – roughly $50,000-$75,000 more than his peers in similar and local municipalities – PLUS, as I understand it, he gets a car allowance paid by taxpayers. This council has twice extended his contract, after secretive backroom discussion among themselves.

Second, the town pays mileage of $0.55/km based on the cost of operating a vehicle: its wear and tear, not simply fuel costs. So when someone claims the full $0.55/km for travel using a vehicle already paid for by the taxpayers through a car allowance, is that double-dipping?

I question both the reason for some of these claims, and the ethics of others. I also question why our council refuses to assume its legislated responsibility to act in an oversight role.*

Unfortunately, most of the entries in these documents are only dry monetary facts, no explanations as to why the interim CAO – who rarely leaves his corner office when in town – has to drive to Hamilton, Toronto, Waterloo or Burlington for something that might have been more efficiently and economically handled by a phone call or email. They were not trips for conferences or workshops. So what were they for?

Who or what is in Burlington that needs the top town official to visit personally and spend a day away from the office? In Hamilton? Toronto? Waterloo? Did any of our councillors go with him (It has been suggested that at least on one occasion, one did… but if so, why? And why was it not made public?)

Effective delegation is a skill top leaders have and must have to be effective in their role. Top leaders don’t spend days driving themselves to meetings a long way out of town instead of dealing with the day-to-day activities they were hired to manage. Is this the best use of time for the top executive? What happens to the rest of staff or to town business on days when he is driving to Burlington or Waterloo?

Why are these meetings more important than attending to   the business of the municipality in. town hall?  Why can’t he delegate these tasks? What issue could not have been equally handled by a subordinate? Or is there no trust in the staff’s abilities or professional ethics?

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Stoic or Epicurean?

Epicurus
Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old. For no one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul. He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it has passed. Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus

I’ve been listening to the History of Rome podcasts of late and was pondering on some of the comments about the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was, before listening, one of my top three choices for best ruler of the empire. What better role model than the philosopher-king? Now, I’m not so sure that he managed both the empire and his own position as well as I had assumed. But that’s neither here nor there. What caught my attention was the narrator’s comments on the philosophical life of his times.

Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the unwitting author of the now-famous, inspirational work Meditations, a collection of aphorisms based on his own Stoic view of life I’m sure most of you have read (and if not, scurry over to your local bookstore and get a copy now).

I say unwitting because, as Wikipedia reminds us, he wrote the book (or rather books, because there are 12 separate parts which are now labelled chapters) for his own edification and guidance, not as a manual for others.  It was never intended for publication. It is fortuitous that after his death, the work was copied and shared and eventually handed down to us, despite the emperor’s misgivings.

Aurelius’ work was, as far as I can recall, my first significant introduction to ancient philosophy (Greek, Roman and earlier). Since then, I’ve dabbled in others, but didn’t start reading them in any comprehensive way until recently. Which is a shame, really, since they have so much to offer. For years, I knew more about Eastern philosophy than Western. Now I’m trying to redress that situation.

To fill in the gaps in my mostly autodidactic education, I have been reading a lot of ancient Western philosophy these past couple of years, mostly Plato, Aristotle and a smattering of later Romans. I just added a few titles to the reading list only this past month: Epictetus and Diogenes the Cynic, with Epicurus on the way. I suppose once I’ve finished with Rome, it’ll be time to turn to philosophy podcasts. I certainly need help interpreting what I’ve been reading.

What has always fascinated me is that many people in the days of the Roman empire followed and embraced philosophy actively, as deeply as many people follow religion today. True, it was mostly the upper class and elites who had both the education and the leisure time to study something so abstract. But philosophy wasn’t merely an academic pursuit: it had deep roots in their daily lives. It was practical.

Perhaps it’s in large part because Egyptian, Greek, then later Roman, pagan religions offered little in the way of moral guidance, and even less in answering those Great Questions that have haunted humankind since we first started to write. You know, the why-are-we-here, what’s-the-meaning-of-life, why-is-there-evil, what-happens-when-we-die sort of question. The questions that keep you awake at night, and wake you up at 3 a.m. to run around in your brain like little, frantic mice.

Or at least they keep me awake… maybe you already have them figured out.

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Marketing Wow

Canadian TireAdvertising and marketing, design and public relations, influence and persuasion – they all fascinate me. I love to listen to Terry O’Reilly’s show on CBC (both Age of Persuasion and Under the Influence). I’m actually reading one of his books, The Age of Persuasion, right now. I’m also reading a book on the science of shopping: Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy.

I like to read about the effect, styles, creators, the history, sociology, the science and craft behind them and their craft. I consume books on advertising design that illustrate the power of art, photography and word that can engage and galvanize consumers (as opposed to the dreary Collingwood town ads in the Enterprise-Bulletin, which merely bore and deter them…).

And, unlike most of you, I actually pay attention to the framework of the ads – the typography, the photography, the design, the colours and contrast. I look at advertising and marketing with a far more critical eye than many. While I lack the skills of a designer, I have at least an appreciation of the art and skills required (and, as some readers know, am periodically, mildly obsessed with typography).

In the Internet Age, how does on stand out amidst the clutter and the noise. How does one position a business, a store, a product in a veritable ocean of competition, all screaming for attention?

Estimates of how many advertisements, brands or product placements the average person encounters in a single day range from about 600 to more than 10,000. It’s tough to stand out in that crowd. Ad clutter tends to turn off the audience, rather than engage it. Bad layout and puerile typography drive them away.

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Two conferences and a show

Windsor: Ontario Water Conference

I had the honour and the enjoyment of attending two municipal conferences last week. While no longer directly involved in politics, I am able to keep my finger in some of the political pies through my current work for an NGO. Plus, I like to remain informed and up-to-date about politics and governance, and am always looking for opportunities to increase my knowledge and understanding of pretty much any topic.

The first event was the Ontario Water Conference, in Windsor. While predominantly a technical and operations event for facility managers and operators, it also has a good political component where utility board members and politicians can learn about initiatives, developments and government updates.

I sat in on presentations over two days, learning about levels of service and risk models; improvement actions from frozen services; eco-fiscal challenges to building resilient communities; business case for a one-water approach; updates from the IESO, the MOE, MOECC, Drinking Water Advisory Council and Safe Drinking Water Branch of the MOECC. From climate change to electricity prices to algal blooms and utility board governance… I learned a lot.

The great majority of workshops were, however, technical, and well out of my depth of knowledge. It also has a large trade show where attendees can see the latest updates in water-related technologies and discuss their implementation with the vendors.

As the website tells it:

The Conference continues to be the premier drinking water event in Ontario, consistently attracting over 900 delegates from all areas of our industry: operators and owners, manufacturers and suppliers, consultants, academics and regulators. The Trade Show has more than 100 exhibitors representing the manufacturers and suppliers of products and services to the water industry. This is a great opportunity to network, and keep informed about technical, regulatory, and equipment development which affect the industry.

I would have assumed that any politician who sits on a water utility board or any public member of such board, who is dedicated to their role and cares about water would have at least made the effort to attend these sessions. After all, they are personally liable for the quality of our water and can be sued for not maintaining it.

I guess if you don’t read the Clean Water Act, this might not concern you. (Hint: it’s crucial reading for members of water utility boards like ours…)

However, there were not many politicians in sight, although I did encounter a few. While I recognized several water utility employees from Collingwood, none of its water utility board (which consists of five inexperienced, neophyte politicians) was present. You would think someone who knew nothing about the subject would be eager to learn about what they have the responsibility over, but perhaps I expect too much from them. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

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Banning Phosphorus

Algal bloom
In 2014, Toledo experienced a water crisis that caused the city to issue a “do not use” warning for more than 500,000 residents. They had to rely on bottled water; boiling wasn’t safe because it further released toxins into the water.

That crisis was caused by unsafe levels of the toxin Microcystin in the city’s treated water. The toxin came from the unprecedented algal bloom in Lake Erie; a huge swath of the west end of the lake blossomed with the algae.

The algae were growing rapidly because of the increasingly high nutrient load in lakes and streams. In particular: phosphorus. The bloom wasn’t as large as the 2011 giant that covered 5,000 sq. kilometers of the lake, but it was more deadly.

Not all algae  – or, more properly, cyanobacteria – produce toxins. Many are benign and all play important roles in the environment. But those produced can cause illness and even be fatal, at least to animals. There are some 50 types of Microcystin, of which Microcystin-LR is the most common. And most dangerous: it causes severe and sometimes fatal liver damage.

In the past few months, oceanic algal blooms known as red tides have killed tens of thousands of fish off the coasts of Florida, Chile, ChinaCambodia, and Vietnam. A 500-km bloom polluted one of Australia’s major rivers this spring.

Economies are suffering from algal blooms and their impact on fishing, tourism, shipping and recreation. In Chile alone, the devastation from algal blooms cost their salmon industry $800 million this year.

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