Gambling: money and statistics

gambling cartoonNo, I’m not going to write about the morality of gambling.* I’ll save that for another post. This is about money. And numbers.

I attended the OLG four-community presentation in Wasaga Beach, Tuesday, and it got me thinking about what gambling means to the economy, what it means to the government, what effect it might have on things like growth and recession. It also made me wonder how governments became addicted to gambling revenue, but that, too, is for another post.

I also found some of the statistics presented interesting enough to do some extrapolation, which I’ll get to at the end.

What does gambling contribute to our economy? Well, the OLG and the province always like to tout the benefits: the OLG paid more than $2 billion profits into provincial coffers, in 2011. They’ve given more than $34 billion since 1975. That’s an average contribution of $149 per person in the province per year. OLG’s plans are to build that payment to the province up to $3.3 billion by introducing more and newer forms of gambling.

On a very basic level, that looks good. After all, at least some of that money would have had to come from taxes instead, so it can be seen as a user-pay system, or a self-tax system. Of that $2 billion last year, $120 million went to the Trillium Foundation, $10 million for Ontario Amateur Sport, and $41 towards problem gambling programs.

That’s an interesting ratio: four times the amount given to develop sports is given to treating the problems created by gambling. A point not missed by the audience.

The OLG made that profit from revenue of $6.685 billion. That’s a far more intriguing number. It’s just over one percent of Ontario’s GDP in 2011. As a former business owner, seeing a 33% profit margin is impressive. Extrapolating, it suggests OLG plans to increase net gambling revenues to almost $10 billion if the ratio remains the same. It will do this by expanding gaming sites, adding internet gambling, allowing bingo halls to run more games – making more gambling available to more people more often.

That doesn’t sit too well with me. The same people who won’t let grocery and convenience stores sell wine and beer because it might corrupt someone, will make gambling so ubiquitous it will be hard to avoid tripping over a slot machine (real or virtual). Online gambling will offer easy access, 24/7 from your home. Play in your jammies until the early hours. All you need is a credit card. Makes me wonder if the goal is to make gambling mandatory some day in the future, like taxes…

What happened to the rest of the money the OLG took in?

Online gamblingAccording to the OLG’s annual report, operating expenses were $4.975 billion. Of that, $1.835 billion went to payouts to lottery and bingo winners. Commissions ($648 million – this, I assume, was paid to operators ), marketing ($300 million – the amount paid for advertising is 7.5 times the amount paid to help problem gamblers), interest ($32 million), payments to the federal government ($228 million) and amortization ($226 million) gobbled up another 1.43 billion. Paying for the OLG and its 18,000 employees is one of those expenses. Six thousand of those employees got bonuses, too – $11.6 million worth. Not a large slice of $4.7 billion. Horse racing got $345 million; host municipalities got $92 million and First Nations got $117 million.

It almost looks like the OLG is on a drunken giveaway spree, handing out the bucks to everyone except, of course, the gamblers. Nice of them to give us back some of our money, though.

Who doesn’t want to get free money? That’s the attractiveness of hosting a casino: all you need to do is nod your head, zone some land, then sit back and watch the money roll in. Suddenly flush with cash, the town’s taxes plummet, everything gets rebuilt, new sports facilities sprout, downtown gets renewed, sidewalks rebuilt, streets paved with gold and the local politicians get halos.

Well, maybe not.

As an aside, based on media stories, all three seem worried that their slot machines will be removed from the tracks when the agreement ends, sometime in the next year.

The OLG presented the audience with examples from Hanover, Central Huron and Chatham-Kent: all three communities have an OLG money machine in a racetrack. Hanover has 130 slots; Clinton (Central Huron) has 123, and Hanover (Chatham-Kent) 130. All three are currently questioning whether the slots will remain in their raceways with the OLG’s new strategic plan. In 2011, Hanover received about $800,000; Central Huron $641,000 and Chatham-Kent about $700,000. Exuberant endorsements from their mayors, we were told.

Assume we could get, say, $1 million per year as a host community. That translates to just over 2% of our annual municipal budget. Minus, of course, what we would pay to our neighbours as per the memorandum of agreement we signed. We might end up with 1% of our budget as “free” cash. Does this mean your taxes won’t go up? Nope. The extra money would likely end up going to infrastructure improvements and maintenance required by the extra traffic, maybe to extra policing costs too.

Gambling and drinking cartoon
Even if we kept it all for ourselves (as one councillor has suggested), and damn the rest of the region, is that money enough to make us want a casino? If I’m going to sell our municipal soul, I think I want a bigger slice of that pie for the town. As Faustian agreements go, we’re not getting much from our side of the bargain.

Besides, we might think we’re agreeing for “just” 300 slots, but the OLG said it could expand the site’s licence to other games anytime in the future. The demographics change when you have other types of gambling, but I didn’t hear anything to suggest the town will have a say in that expansion.

If the cash doesn’t move me, the opportunity to create 80 to 90 jobs in the area is more attractive. Any job creation is welcome, but I get an uneasy feeling these aren’t the “quality” jobs some folks are expecting.

From what I understand, many of these jobs would be similar to what the hospitality industry already offers – janitorial, serving, cooking,security, valet parking, landscaping, counting cash. Whether these (non-union?) jobs would pay better than the hospitality sector or offer any benefits would be up to the private operator. They aren’t government jobs: the OLG won’t be running these new casinos.

Will a private operator pay more than $10-$12 an hour for someone to sweep the floor and polish the slot buttons? I wouldn’t expect so. Any new jobs are better than no jobs, but my passion to create more McJobs is somewhat less. Would you like fries with those casino tokens?

Back to the money. According to the OLG, the net revenue from adults to the gaming industry in Ontario is $459 per year. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s money that doesn’t go directly into the economy – it doesn’t create jobs outside the gambling sector. It doesn’t buy anything from local merchants or restaurants. It goes directly to the government. Well, okay, two thirds goes to the OLG and its minions, and the remaining third gets into public coffers.

Most economists measure consumer spending as a yardstick to whether we are in or out of a recession – it’s called the consumer confidence index. See here for the Canadian index. It’s a simple measure of consumption – consumers who are confident in the state of the economy buy more stuff. Recessions happen when that confidence falls to a point where we stop buying and start hoarding (okay, it’s one reason; there are others, but it’s a big part of it).

A strong consumer confidence report, especially at a time when the economy is lagging behind prevailing estimates, can move the currency markets quickly. The idea behind consumer confidence is that a happy consumer – one who feels that his or her standard of living is increasing – is more likely to spend more and make bigger purchases, like a new car or home, leading to a stronger domestic economy and consequently a stronger currency.
Source: www.investopedia.com/walkthrough/forex/advanced/level8/consumer-confidence-index.aspx#axzz29kZLXgcV

Gambling cartoonIs gambling measured as consumption? Does the money pushed into slots contribute to the level of confidence? Is gambling measured in the index? I can’t find anything online to suggest that it is. So rather than spending that $459 on, say, a new TV, a shelf of books, a library of DVDs, new skates, skis or a bicycle, a purebred puppy, teeth whitening or any other goods and services – this money is spent on gambling. It bypasses the usual consumer channels. Gambling doesn’t add to the consumer confidence, even though the money is still flowing out of consumers’ pockets.

Yes, there is trickle down and spin-off – some of the money goes to suppliers, some to wages – and thus some gets back into the general economy. But how much? How much just ends up fattening the bank accounts of the operators? I don’t know, but clearly it’s not as beneficial as if it were all spent in a retail store.

Would $6.7 billion have a positive effect if it was spent in retail instead of gambling? Of course, but overall not as much as you might imagine. It’s about 4% of Ontario’s total retail sales (2011 figures). So it would help, but wouldn’t change the world. A few hundred people spending an extra $459 each every year in a local business could make a real difference to the local economy.

As a personal choice, I’d rather buy that shelf of books from local bookstores than pump quarters into a noisy metal machine and walk away with nothing. At the end of the day, I will have something to show for my money, not to mention many more months, even years, of enjoyment from the books.

It strikes me that putting the money directly into the economy helps buoy consumer confidence (thus the economy) better than spending it on gambling, and it might help keep us on the farther side of a recession. The OLG’s own statistics show that Ontario’s gambling revenue didn’t seem significantly affected by the last recession, so gamblers apparently don’t seem to feel the need to hoard as much as consumers when the economy tanks.**

Let me wind up with some thought on statistics. According to the OLG’s own estimates. 3.4% of Ontario residents have a “severe or moderate” gambling problem. In Problem Gambling in Canada (see footnote), the authors quote a 2005 study of Ontario residents by Wibe, Mun and Kauffman, that has a higher number: 5.8% are “at risk of gambling problems,” 2.6% have “moderate problems” and 0.8% have “severe problems” (the latter two combine to make the 3.4% OLG mentions).

We have around 21,000 people in Collingwood. At 3.4%, we expect to have more than 700 people here with “severe or moderate” gambling problems. Another 1,218 (5.8%) are “at risk”. That’s about 2,000 local adults for whom gambling is or may be a problem. These are your friends, relatives, neighbours. That concerns me. These are the people most likely to be found in a casino that’s in our back yard – especially during the week when there are fewer visitors.

We have about 16,000 adults 18 and older here. That means about one in every eight adults who may have or who have a problem with gambling. If the government was to allocate funds to problem gambler programs by that percentage, they would have to spend more than $250,000,000!

Add in about the same number of people from Wasaga Beach, and more from Clearview, Springwater and Town of the Blue Mountains, and we have more than 5,000 people in our immediate vicinity who either have or are at risk from gambling problems. That’s a lot of people in our region who may find a casino an irresistible place to spend their money.

I just don’t see 5,000 people lining up at the problem gambling office to voluntarily disbar themselves from the irresistible urge to push quarters into that hungry metal mouth, while others shove past them to get at the seats they vacated. I guess they’ll still be able to enjoy the province’s online gambling sites, when they are launched. The government may not want you in the casino with your bad habits, but it still wants your money, and won’t even mind if you play in your jammies.

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As you might gather from the above, I am less than enthusiastic about having a casino here. I’m still open to debate and to having my mind changed, but it has to be a lot more compelling an argument than what I’ve heard to date.

Worth reading: Public Affairs 101 on gambling
The Walrus: story on Alberta’s gambling
Stats Canada report on gambling, 2011
The Social Effects of Gambling

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* In the book, Problem Gambling in Canada (Tepperman and Wanner, Oxford University Press, 2012), gambling is identified as a learned behaviour; like smoking, like watching TV, playing sports or reading. Adults often become gamblers because of how it is portrayed in family or social situations. Because gambling is legal, it gets advertised in mass media, making it appear on the same level as consumer goods and entertainment, banks, and music concerts. From buying lottery tickets to trips to Las Vegas, how gambling is perceived in the home affects how children will develop as adult gamblers; just as children brought up by smoking parents are very likely to become smokers themselves.
** While this was also noted in the UK, in the USA, the pattern seems different. Overall the US gaming industry lost about 5.5% revenue during the recession, with New Jersey reporting a 13% drop from casino revenue. How much of that was caused by an increase in online gaming or in the general increase in gambling opportunities as more and more states legalize it, is unknown. Also, the US was hurt more by the recession than was Canada.

Does product placement run the viewing experience?

Product placement in 24I was watching recent episodes of the BBC series, “Sherlock and Strike Back, this week, and towards the end of last night’s show, I wondered, again, why it was British TV shows were generally so much better than American TV.

Why did do most British dramas seem more realistic, the characters more believable, the sets less artificial? Yes, having a longer tradition of acting, script writing and production plays into it. A robust public broadcasting system that doesn’t have to cater to corporate tastes or duck sticky political issues is another reason. So does not catering to pop fashion trends and using actors and actresses who look like real people (a trend slow to come to fashion- and celebrity-obsessed American culture).

Perhaps, I thought, it’s also because every scene is not liberally peppered with product placement. British shows look more natural and less like set-piece advertising. Viewers are not as often distracted by what are often clumsy and obvious product positionings.

To be fair, in the past decade, American TV has improved remarkably thanks to well-written and well-acted series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The Borgias, West Wing, The Newsroom, and 24. I’ve been impressed by many new series – I even liked the uneven, meandering and ultimately unsatisfying Lost (despite some intriguing threads, it failed to fulfill the promise of its first season).

Before The Sopranos, it was pretty much a given that British TV was light years ahead of similar American efforts. Acting, sets, and writing were generally far superior in the British shows. But that has changed and American TV programming – at least from producers like Showcase and HBO – has shown welcome improvement.

At the same time, the quality of American popular TV has fallen into the lightless abyss of self-described “reality” shows replete with thuggish, greedy garbage pickers, unwashed swamp dwellers with bad dentistry, barely literate truck drivers and bottom feeding, irrelevant Jersey-ites. That these have replaced such classic series as M*A*S*H and All in the Family merely underlines the paucity of creativity in American pop TV. And anything that was once launched as a documentary channel (Discovery, National Geographic, History) has descended into trivial silliness with trite, shallow lifestyle pap instead of meaningful content.*

American film, too, has continued its downward trend, riding the wave from grand spectaculars like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia towards the trough of cookie-cutter CGI-driven action films, teen coming of age, predictably violent and ugly slasher flicks, and flaccid, tired comedy films. Yes, there are still good films being made – Avatar was brilliant, Michael Clayton was thoughtful and well-written. The Jane Austen Book Club was a thoughtful romantic comedy. But they are the exceptions, not the rule.

But I digress. I was writing about whether product placement has a role in how viewers appreciate a TV program or movie.

Before February, 2011, product placement was actually banned on British TV. That changed last year, although not without challenges:

The Church of England and doctors’ leaders have opposed the move, saying it could damage trust in broadcasters and promote unhealthy lifestyles.

Even so, there are significant, stringent restrictions on product placement:

Under Ofcom regulations, broadcasters must inform viewers by displaying the letter ‘P’ for three seconds at the start and end of a programme that contains product placement.
The telecoms regulator has said any placement must be editorially justified and not unduly prominent.
It will not be allowed in news, current affairs or children’s programmes – or for alcoholic drinks and foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
And it will continue to be banned for BBC shows.

Get that last one? Even when allowed on commercial channels, England’s public broadcaster will not be allowed to have such placements. Interesting.

Audi on Strike BackOn Strike Back (a Sky production), I noticed the make of the car in one scene – an Audi. And I noticed that the Mercedes Benz logo on a truck had been rather obviously and clumsily (to me) removed (leaving a circular hole in the rusty grill). The shot of the Audi from the front prominently displaying the logo on the grill was pretty blatant. Was this product placement or simply the use of an actual vehicle? The angle of the shots suggests to me the former. However, this page shows numerous, recognizable brands and logos on other vehicles used in the show, so it’s open to debate which were placements and which were simply used for realism.

But in Sherlock (a BBC production), I did not notice any particularly obvious product placements. I tried to see what sort of computer and phone Sherlock was using, but it wasn’t evident. Products appear as they would in real life – logos and brands might be seen, but are not a focal point of any shot. It takes some work to identify anything. But looking at the database of vehicles used in TV and film, I see several brands that are easily recognized. Sherlock should be free of paid product pacement, however, since it’s a BBC production, so one assumes they were used for realism, not profit.

I can’t say I can recall any product placement in my favourite British shows – Doc Martin, Darling Buds of May, Coupling, Downton Abby, Inspector Morse, All Creatures Great and Small, As Time Goes By, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers… so many I can’t recall all of the British shows I’ve watched. None ever struck me as commercial, however. In fact, many British shows actually provide the full 60 minutes per hour of programming – not the 40-odd minutes we get here – because they aren’t interrupted by advertising.

(Sidebar: On average, Canadians watch more than 25,000 TV commercials annually… and there are no limits on the amount of time a broadcaster in Canada can use for ads vs content.)

But does seeing a brand or model you know make a show more or less realistic? Is it realistic to show generic, unbranded products like computers or cars? Or does it contribute to a sense of distance from reality, a detachment from the story?

Product placement on American TVDoes it make the product more or less attractive to be seen on TV? I watched all eight seasons of 24 without once purchasing a Dell laptop. And despite the numerous placements of Apple computers in TV and film, I never bought one of their laptops. In fact, when I bought a new laptop last year, I didn’t look at either manufacturer – I chose one based on price, features and some online reviews. And the fact that the local seller had it on sale.

Although I don’t watch TV shows like the amateur hour contests shown in the image above**, the clumsy product placement of Coke cups doesn’t impress me. In fact, it makes me wonder if their votes are also for sale. Judges should be impartial and product placement in front of them is clearly a signal that impartiality is open to question. Seeing this would definitely affect my viewing experience negatively.

Does product placement spoil or interrupt the viewing experience for others? While I say yes it does if it’s blatant enough to be noticed, according to one poll on YouGov most viewers don’t notice:

Product Placement Doesn’t Spoil Viewing, Claims the Public
Of those surveyed by YouGov in July 2011, 59% said they did not have a negative experience of product placement and claimed that it made no difference to their viewing experience. 33% of those polled disagreed that product placement advertising negatively impacts the integrity of a TV programme.
The poll also showed that young audiences, aged 18 to 34, were the most likely to form a positive impression of product placement, with 25% of those aged 18 to 24 stating their brand perception would become more positive if seen in a UK TV Programme.
So despite it being early days for product placement on UK TV, these positive reactions show it could prove very lucrative for brand advertisers.

But people are aware of product placement, says another poll:

A YouGov poll, taken at the end of February 2011 shortly after the decision was made, found that over one third of respondents had no idea what product placement was. However another poll, taken in July 2011, found that nearly three quarters of respondents (72%) knew what product placement was, with nearly half (46%) stating that real brands placed in TV programmes can make them seem more realistic.
Since February 2011, there have been less than 20 examples of product placement advertising in UK TV programmes. However, despite a slow start, the product placement market in the UK is estimated to be worth up to £120m in the next five years. Adele Gritten, head of media consulting at YouGov, said: “There appears to be a gradual acceptance taking place as people see product placement more and more. We’re all consumers of brands, and as long as placements aren’t too overt, it’s very realistic for us to experience the same household brands in the programmes we watch.”

Ofcom's product placement logoOf course the actual number of people surveyed in either poll isn’t mentioned in these news pieces, so one can’t give a lot of credence to the reports until those numbers are produced. After all, 59% of six people is irrelevant.

The other question this issue raises is about how blase consumers have become to advertising: have we been numbed by so many ads that product placement is invisible to the average viewer? In which case, those megabucks being spent on product placement are being wasted and advertisers need a new venue. Maybe even a new paradigm.

So does product placement make a difference? I don’t know. I do know that my own perspectives and prejudices will affect how I see a product or brand in any context. Just like if I see someone smoking on TV or in a film, it causes me to disassociate from the story and make a mental judgment of the character. If I see someone sipping a soda, I do the same (both negatively affect my viewing experience). But seeing a blender brand? Or a washer brand? It doesn’t affect me. I probably don’t notice it unless the placement is clumsy and too obvious. See a guitar brand? A ukulele brand? A tequila brand or anything else I might have some interest in? I might pay more attention, but it doesn’t sway my consumer soul one way or the other. At least consciously.

Product placement may be good business for marketing companies and good revenue for film and TV producers (look up the value of product placement in the ad-dense James Bond flicks). But I question whether they have significant impact on consumers today, aside from distracting us from the storyline.My advice: look for ways to engage the viewers, not simply try to seduce them.

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* Looking at today’s listings (your local lineup may be different), I see the following depressingly craptastic shows scheduled for Saturday evening viewing (this partial list doesn’t include the paid programming and infomercials like “Hair Loss News: More Hair in as Little as 4 to 6 Weeks: running on Fox): Storage Wars, Showbiz Moms & Dads, The Real Housewives of New York City, Pick a Puppy, The Great Food Truck Race, Pawnathon Canada, Canadian Pickers, Pawn Stars, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Paranormal Witness, Parking Wars, Love It or List It, Dumbest Stuff on Wheels, Keasha’s Perfect Dress, Impractical Jokers, 1 girl 5 gays, SugarStars, Billy the Exterminator, 30 Seconds to Fame, Cheaters, Punk’d, Buy Herself, World’s Worst Tenants, Cash Cab, Tabatha Takes Over, Celebrity Style Story, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag, Rescue Mediums, Party Mamas, Caught on Camera, Baby First Club, Marriage Under Construction, Swamp Wars, Styleography, Style by Jury, Oh So Cosmo, Fashion Hunters, The Hunks, Playboy’s Coeds and others – more than 800 TV channels and half this drek is repeated over and over, not only on channels, but back to back in time slots.
Thank the gods for CBC, TVO and PBS, which still continue to give us content. Unfortunately, we cannot get BBC America on Canadian networks – we are instead forced to get the generally unwatchable and crass BBC Canada which mostly replays Mike Holmes and HGTV shows, surrounded by dreary “reality” restaurant shows: Jamie’s Meals in Minutes, Restaurant Makeover, Jamie’s Food Escapes, Food Inspectors, Kitchen Nightmares, and so on. BBC Canada is an embarrassment.
** My ability to withstand TV commercials grows less every year. By the second ad, I’ve started to fidget, check the Blackberry for email. By the third I’m surfing to other channels looking for content. At the fourth, I’ve muted the TV and am playing the ukulele parked beside the sofa. More than that, and I’ve lost interest in the program entirely, and have either changed channels, or picked up a book.
We don’t watch a lot of commercial TV for the simple reason of the increasingly longer ad clusters. I will buy a season of a recommended show on DVD, and watch it without ads, however. I would consider a PVR to record shows only if it could edit out the ads and save the result to a DVD or USB drive. As I understand it, the PVRs available from Rogers do not have these necessary features.

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.

Conducting a survey about a casino

Last night, Collingwood Council debated a motion about a possible casino in Collingwood, made by Counc. Joe Gardhouse that read,

WHEREAS the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (“OLG”) has requested individual Municipalities to respond to their RFP not later than November 16, 2012;
AND WHEREAS Collingwood has been identified as a potential host site for their Gaming facilities expansion within the C-7 zone;
AND WHEREAS the potential monetary and ancillary benefits to the taxpayers and businesses of Collingwood are significant;
AND WHEREAS this opportunity deserves and requires Municipal due diligence and public input as required by the OLG RFP;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council of the Town of Collingwood instruct Staff to identify suitable locations and/or zones for the potential gaming site not later than October 15, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT Council schedule a Council/Public Information Meeting regarding the potential economic and social impact to the community not later than October 30, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT an opinion survey/poll or other public forum be conducted to include a cross-section of citizens and businesses for their feedback on the gaming facility expansion to be completed not later than November 12, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT Council shall notify the OLG of the Town’s position by not later than the November 16, 2012 deadline.

This was broken up into four motions – one about locations (defeated),the survey (passed five-four; I was one of those against this step), the public meeting (unanimous) and the notice to OLG (unanimous).

(The Whereas preamble statements were not voted on. I would have taken exception to the statement there there are significant “monetary and ancillary benefits to the taxpayers and businesses of Collingwood” had that discussion happened. What about the detrimental effects? What will they cost us?)

To put this in context, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission (OLG) has identified this general area as one of the preferred locations for a new casino (basically a warehouse with 300 slot machines – Georgian Downs has 1,000, Rama has 2,500). Collingwood is one of four regional municipalities that signed a memorandum of agreement (MOU) this summer to collectively support a casino in Wasaga Beach, if the Beach wanted one. The Beach would share the revenue with its neighbours in return for our support.

Statistics cartoonThis motion essentially suggests Collingwood would ignore the MOU and apply on its own for a casino without the regional sharing or cooperation. If Collingwood was to get the casino, I would argue we should still share the profits with the other consignees, because to do otherwise would not be honourable.

Let’s look at what’s involved with the survey Council approved last night.

We want to get 400 qualified answers (a qualified sample for a population of 20,000 with 0.95 confidence level is 378. See www.berrie.dds.nl/calcss.htm. Our population with part-time residents is closer to 25,000 according to our staff estimates, and we get many visitors, so I’m rounding up a bit to simplify the math below.

An unqualified response is worthless. And a smaller sample is equally worthless because it reduces the validity of the results. We need a good level of confidence in the results to determine if they actually reflect the community’s wishes.

But what part of the community is bring asked? The respondents need to mirror our own local demographics. What if 75% of respondents are between 18 and 25, and the majority of that group wants a casino… is that more significant that if the remaining 25% unanimously reject it? How do you weight the results?

We also need to know in advance what’s the bar for acceptance or rejection? 51%? 60%? 66%? 75%?

What if it’s a 50-50 split? What is the criteria for saying yes or no? Is a simple majority enough (50% plus one) to decide either way?

We didn’t get into that, last night, but it is a significant topic for heated debate. And we can’t proceed to a decision without having established the criteria.

Someone with experience and education will have to design the survey – establish the methodology, then create the many questions necessary to qualify and quantify the results. You need a professional pollster to do this, probably someone with a university degree in statistics or public relations. It can’t be handed off to someone without at least some experience in poll and survey design and in data analysis.

Demographics cartoonStaff and council will have to be interviewed first to determine the appropriate methodology, the nature of the questions, the sort of result expected, the community profile, etc. And then the designer will need to get final approval for the proposed questions. So say at least a week for the design and interview phase.

Someone will also have to design a template for recording the answers. This is probably the easiest part: we could either buy pre-packaged survey software. We could have a staff or contract person code a rather complex, large Excel sheet, too, or an Access database template.

Based on my experience with Excel and database programming, that shouldn’t take more than four or five days once the questions have been compiled and approved. It’s quicker to purchase something and just enter the questions, and let the software crunch the numbers as they get tabulated. That might reduce the time for the template preparation to a day or two.

Let’s also assume the time per person to identify a potential candidate from a tax list or phone book, call them, ask them the qualifying questions to be sure they are in the target audience (not children, not employed by the municipality or a spouse of such an employee, or are employed by the OLG, are residents not visitors, own or rent property in the town, etc.), ask the necessary demographic questions (age, gender, income bracket, marital status, employment status, etc.), and then ask the actual survey questions is 10 minutes per person.

That’s not very long – about half of what professional pollsters usually allocate per call.

Add another five minutes per person for the caller to fill in the forms on the computer, check the person off the list, record the data in the paper record and so on.

That’s a mere 15 minutes per person now. That may be reasonable time for a survey of this sort, but it leaves no margin for error or contingencies.

There’s no leeway for wrong calls, for answering callers’ questions, for explaining the nature of the survey when asked, hangups, busy signals, no responses, pens running out of ink, computers crashing, invalid respondents, etc.

StatisticsThat’s 6,000 minutes to get 400 qualified answers: 100 hours. At the average 7.5 hours per day, that’s 13.33 days non-stop. Let’s give the caller and extra 1.7 days over that period as contingency for unanswered calls, bathroom breaks, talking to staff and supervisors, making photocopies, getting pens, making backups, getting a coffee… say 15 days minimum for one person, non-stop, to get a reliable sample with any statistical accuracy and validity.*

Four working weeks total time so far. Assuming, that is, there are no delays, and nothing goes wrong, that the washrooms aren’t busy, pens don’t run dry, and there’s no lineup at Tim’s. Plus a week to prepare the survey.

Obviously we want it sooner than that, so let’s triple the number of workers to get it in one week: three people working non-stop for five days, calling residents, asking questions. Again, no contingency or leeway has been allocated – we expect 100% efficiency.

Then, once we have our 400 qualified respondents, we need someone to collate the responses and produce a report on the answers, breaking down the responses by the demographic criteria (are you a full or part time resident, are you currently employed, age, gender, family income bracket, etc.). And get it printed for council and staff, and make a public presentation to council. We may be able to get the report in a week after the survey has been completed, if we push hard.

That report and analysis will require someone experienced in statistics and demographics to analyse and break it down; maybe we can use the same person we used to design the survey.

So we’re at a minimum three weeks from the design stage to the final report, and no time or effort wasted in between. We need at least three full time staff and one professional pollster/statistician/report writer to do it in three weeks.

Who will we use to do the calling and which professional statistician will we get to write the report?

If we use staff for the calls, who trains them and how long will it take to train them? Which three people on staff have at least one week of uninterrupted time they can dedicate to this? (If we do have staff with that much free time, I want to raise this at budget time!)

Let’s say we also want to ask a qualitative, not quantitative question like, “Why do you think a casino would be good (or bad) for the town”? Something that requires more than a simple yes or no answer. That would add another several minutes per caller to take and record the answer. My time estimates above are very, very conservative, by the way. As it says on www.dobney.com/Research/MR_basics.htm:

In terms of cost, most market research is charged on a time basis plus a management/design fee. If you took a general face-to-face population study of 1000 people. You might allow 15 minutes for the interview, 20 minutes finding/contact time, 10 minutes for processing each questionnaire – so 45 minutes per interview or 750 hours of time (100 days), on top of which would be added time for questionnaire design, production and dispatch, interviewer briefing and management, creation of tables, analysis and presentation. Typically on a straightforward survey these elements should add about 15-20 days, although at a higher daily rate.

Can we use internet polls or Facebook instead, as Counc. West suggested? Sure – if you want the results to be entirely meaningless, and statistically and demographically worthless – simply a pointless “feel-good” exercise that gets trashed and humiliated in every media. It would be just as accurate to check the Magic-8 Ball for an answer as to conduct a typical online poll.

(You can read my personal comments on the validity of internet polls here: www.ianchadwick.com/blog/are-internet-polls-valid/ )

T shirtWe could hire programmers to write a secure website that has login and authentication controls on voters, and some data collection and analysis programs. We would still need to have qualifying questions and poll questions written by a professional to be sure people’s responses were valid, and someone equally qualified to write up the report later. It would add time to the exercise and what’s to guarantee that we will get the necessary number of qualified responses within the time frame before the deadline? None.

Or we could simply buy the services of one of the many online survey companies to collect and collate the data for us. We still need the professional to design the questions and create the final report. The disadvantage here is that to get a qualified response in an adequate sample may take months, because there is no incentive for users to complete the survey. Plus we’d have to advertise and promote the survey site to try and get residents to visit it. Radio ads, print ads… the costs keep mounting.

Whatever we chose, it will cost us in both time and money to achieve anything meaningful. To get those results before we have to make a report to the OLG (Nov 16) is unlikely.**

So I ask what I asked last night: does anyone have the slightest inkling of how much will this survey cost the municipality and how much staff time will be put into it? What if it cost taxpayers $50,000? $60,000? Or more? Will it be worth the money?
~~~~~
* Say one in two people who answer the phone proves to be unqualified (i.e. a child or non-resident) and it takes five minutes to determine that and do the paperwork to record that call. That would add another 2,000 minutes to the total time to get 400 qualified respondents. Or 33.33 hours (another 4.4 working days). If only one in four is unqualified, but one in four is a no answer or busy signal (1 minute to record this), then it would add 22.8 hours or just over three days of work.
** I have already expressed my opposition to the process – I believe we should follow through with the MOU and support Wasaga Beach’s bid to be the host community.

Should we sell naming rights to public property?

Selling namesI was recently forwarded a link to a blog post about selling naming rights for public buildings to corporations. The author writes,

Last week, I wrote about “the halo effect” on events, buildings, and properties that have had multiple names, all of which have been commercial. The other area we often advise on is the sponsorship naming rights of iconic buildings “owned” by the community or named after community leaders. Often a building may be named after a past politician or community leader. Brands interested in naming such properties must take into account these situations and be prepared to invest accordingly.

As a municipal politician, I am always interested in how public property is named because these names are, for the most part, permanent, and say something about how our community presents itself and its heritage. Public property is not merely the bricks and mortar: it can also be a public event or activity. In a previous post, the author commented positively on the selling of naming rights to a public event in Vancouver:

A few weeks back, I wrote about my experience at the Honda Canada Celebration of Lights (COL) event in Vancouver. It was awesome! This is a fantastic property that has had more naming rights than China has tea. But when Score Marketing Inc. was able to bring Honda into the naming title for the COL this year, it was great. It is an old event that has been around a long time. It has had its ups and downs. But as the property rejuvenated itself, making it more applicable to the audience and worked with corporate sponsors such as Honda and The Keg, it was fantastic. Mature properties can be refreshed. The COL truly did this and it worked for the audience, the sponsors, and the property itself. To those involved—well done!

I am not convinced. The author writes (in part II):

So yes, you can place a corporate name on a community property and benefit from it. Both the selling property and the brand can reap rewards, as can the users of the properties. When there is an activation plan in place and a PR plan, it works well. When due diligence is not undertaken, it can be a catastrophe!

To me, the benefit seems limited solely to money, at the expense of community pride, heritage and the recognition of our own citizens. And I don’t mean just former politicians. We have many people who have contributed to the greater good of our community – volunteers, teachers, librarians, editors, museum curators, historians, writers, business people, philanthropists… why shouldn’t they get the recognition, rather than some international corporation?

The image, above, is from an Ottawa Sun piece on the selling of Ottawa. It’s a satirical piece, but it makes a point.

Question: “Would you only try to sell corporate names?”
Answer: “Not at all. You could also market products — the way a beer company features a particular brand or a car maker a specific model. Small villages would be ideal for this. What about Manotickle Me Elmo? ”
Question: “The city says it wants to sell naming rights not only to its facilities, but to its programs and events as well. Do you see opportunities there?”
Answer: “Absolutely. It’s a stroke of genius. I don’t think we pay these people enough. ”
“City department’s with marketing budgets could keep it in the family by promoting themselves on other city of Ottawa properties. That way their budget would just be turned back into city coffers, making the accounting real easy.

The CBC news story about the discussion noted that,

…the single largest potential generator is exclusive naming rights for city buildings. Officials have identified 16 recreation facilities for possible re-branding, including the Nepean Sportsplex, Kanata Leisure Centre and the St-Laurent Complex.

“What we want to make sure is that folks don’t get the sense that we’ve, you know, kind of sold out and all we’re doing is letting big business and advertising take over the city,” Taylor said.

How could anyone NOT feel like Ottawa Council was selling out? The evidence suggests clearly that, by turning our national capital into an advertising space for corporations, it has.

I feel it’s a bit like selling your soul, if it’s just about the money. Had that corporation contributed something significant to the wellbeing of the municipality, and we wanted to recognize their generosity, I might support it. I could support a street named after a historical business that was once located nearby. But not simply sold to a company without a business and social presence here.

Even naming after an existing business is tricky. I’m reminded of the Molson Centre in Barrie. Molson closed its 200,000 sq. ft Barrie brewery in 2000, putting 300 local people out of work. Today, Barrie residents still have a sports arena named after the long-departed brewery, a daily, and embarrassing reminder of that closure. The adjacent Molson’s Park, a park and concert venue, was quickly renamed to Park Place, probably to try to help erase the memory of the company’s departure. It was closed a a public space and re-opened as a commercial business park a few years ago.

Rather amusingly, the abandoned brewery was used as a rather large grow-op until it was discovered in 2004, prompting many jokes at the expense of both Molson and the City of Barrie.

Obviously the name Molson is not highly respected in Barrie these days, even though they contributed to the community in the past. The name still lives on in the arena. Had the arena been named after a historical figure, its name would still have the same respect as it had when built.

Where do you decide to draw the line? Should we sell naming rights to all public buildings and property for some ready cash? What about the library? The curling club? Town hall? The terminals? The new ice rink? Should we sell naming rights to streams, to streets, to parks? What about events and activities? The farmers’ market? The harbour? You could potentially sell naming rights to anything municipally owned.

Collingwood would then seem less like a town than a sprawling advertisement. Local colour and flavour would be diluted by the brand names. Hume Street might be renamed Hyundai Street. The water tower could become the Google Tower. Sunset Point Park could become Microsoft Park. We could host the Apple farmer’s market and the Sony Elvis Festival. Why not sell the name of the town, too? After all, most kids today probably know more about Coke, Nike and Samsung than Cuthbert Collingwood.

Toronto recently approved a naming policy like this:

Rob Ford’s executive committee approved a city naming rights policy Tuesday that critics fear will turn Toronto’s public space into an advertising free-for-all.

The city already has the ability to auction off naming rights to city property and events, but the new policy standardizes the process and will see the municipal government take an active role in soliciting cash from outside parties in exchange for the right to rebrand public assets.

Personally, I think our identity has been homogenized enough through all the cookie-cutter franchise businesses and restaurants that pervade Canadian cities. I would not want to further erode our own local identity through selling naming rights for public property to outside corporations and businesses. The money just isn’t worth the long-time cost to our heritage.

Are internet polls valid?

Internet pollHow valid are internet polls? Are they credible for making serious or significant decisions, or merely as general – even vague – indicators of intent? Are they equivalent to paper (and phone) surveys?

No. At least that’s what many experts say. Yes, they can be cost-effective, and good tools to engage the community. But like online petitions, they seldom have sufficient controls that restrict access to the relevant respondents. Anyone with a basic knowledge of how the internet works can easily bypass the limited security and vote numerous times. Often all it takes to get another vote is deleting cookies in your browser tools. More sophisticated users can create voting bots that automate the process.

Time poll hackedYou can read many articles on how to easily hack polls and cheat them. Some poll hacking is actually quite entertaining and imaginative, like the hack of the 2009 Time poll on the most influential people. The point is that polls are vulnerable to a variety of techniques. As one programmer noted about the Time poll:

“I took a look at the process of voting with a very basic set of tools on Firefox: Firebug and LiveHTTPHeaders. What I found is that when you submit the rating, it calls another page and passes a key, the rating, and the poll information through the URL to the page, like so:
http://www.timepolls.com/contentpolls/Vote.do?key=eba3a55e955bc93ade4fc820649cde04&rating=9&id=1857552&pollName=poy2008
Theoretically, then, you could hit this page as many times as you wanted with any rating you wanted, and drive up a candidates’ score. Though one would expect that Time would have figured that anyone could game the system, it’s easy for a programmer to forget that what they don’t intend for public viewing may still be visible, and that they always need to check to ensure that the data they expect is the data they are getting.”

Generic online polls are easy to create and many are free – this makes them attractive to businesses, media and political groups that don’t have the resources to do phone or door-to-door surveys. How many of these instant polls are actually mining participant data can’t be determined, but you have to expect the companies to get some return for a “free” service. Some media clearly use polls not as a count of anything specific, but rather as a measure about how engaged people are on an issue – and how much attention they are paying to that particular media’s coverage of it.

As one Australian study concluded,

“…online polls cannot be considered as an alternative to using paper based surveys. The independent sample t-tests results obtained for the questions administered using a paper based survey and those through an online poll showed that in the majority of cases that there was significant difference between the means. The implication is that online polls cannot be used to survey a cohort of people replacing the more costly paper based survey.

Online polls and surveys are generally open to anyone with an internet connection. Similar to clicking the Facebook “like” button, most online polls simply count clicks, but don’t qualify them by demographic – gender, region, sex, age, income or anything else that might matter. While some may believe 12 and 13-year-olds should be able to vote for any issue, they are not really old enough to appreciate the many facets of any political or social issue. But how do you tell if a vote was cast by a child or an adult?

Unless you have qualifying questions that ask personal information to identify the participant as belonging to the target demographic you need, you can’t distinguish between valid and invalid votes. That makes them all invalid.

Everyone on Facebook knows that the count of “likes” is irrelevant because Facebook lacks a corresponding “dislike” button to provide balance. Without that, the number of likes or followers has to be measured against Facebook’s almost one billion subscribers. Having 1,000, even 100,000 “likes” is a small percentage of the total possible. But even with millions, you have no way of qualifying those “likes” by any meaningful categorization. Yes, Facebook can do it, but they’re not giving the important data to users free. Besides, when it comes down to it, “likes” may make the user feel better and more popular, but they don’t add up to much else than self-importance.

It used to be the count of page hits that people boasted about. That quickly ended when website owners started putting “counters” on pages that faked the numbers, or started with high numbers. To get a real picture of website use today you need sophisticated tools like Google Analytics that identify time spent per page, whether the page was visited by a search bot or a human, whether the user went to other linked pages within that site, the search terms used to land on that page, etc. Online surveys without that sort of statistical analysis are much like the old page count numbers of the 1990s.

Some online petitions and polls even allow the same person to digitally “sign” or vote more than once. Some petitions allow participants to be “anonymous” to others (which clearly defeats the purpose of a petition as a tool of democracy). Again, that opens questions about validity and credibility. Anonymous online comments or petition signatures have no credibility in the democratic process.

Because these petitions invite comments, it’s not uncommon for people to use them as sounding boards for comment and griping, rather than for their intended purpose of gathering support for a particular position. Bitching about the state of government may be stress-relieving, but it is not relevant to the petition and dilutes the intended message.

Any online petition has to be carefully combed for duplication and repetition of names. Even once these are winnowed out, how can anyone determine the age or location of the signatory unless that information is required when signing and provided as part of the presentation? How do the presenters insure the remaining names are valid in respect to the subject of the petition? This is one reason why paper petitions still have considerably more validity than online ones.

Crazy pollsI have voted in online polls and surveys about American politics and presidential races. I’m a Canadian so my vote, my choices should be meaningless, yet there were no qualifying questions posed to restrict access to Americans of voting age. What if the Chinese government took a serious interest in the American presidential race and used US online polls to sway the results towards Chinese goals? Why not? If a poll by one of the two parties asked whether the US Army should be disbanded, wouldn’t it be in the national interests of, say, Iran, China, North Korea, Russia or Syria to push the poll numbers up towards yes and get that onto the candidate’s platform?

Could US policy be shaped by such polls? Not yet. At present there’s a good level of skepticism about online polls among politicians and their strategists. Making a claim that “70 percent of Americans want to disband the army” based on an internet poll would be not only incorrect, but stupid.

Similarly, if we run a poll asking if school should be two hours shorter and we get 12,000 yes votes, and 3,000 no, should school boards seriously consider reducing school hours? What if you found out 11,000 of those yes votes were cast by students under the age of 18? Would that affect how the poll was perceived by educators and administrators? Of course. Qualifying data is always necessary to validate the results.

Have an opinion on something? Anything? There are

On Sodahead, a popular opinion site, here’s the latest series of polls you can vote on, taken from the front page:

Do Father-Daughter Dances Promote Gender Discrimination?
Arnold Schwarzenegger Releases Book Trailer: Are You Interested in Reading His Memoir?
Will J.K. Rowling Find Success Beyond ‘Harry Potter’?
New Studies Cite Stronger Link Between Soda and Obesity: Do You Drink Soda?
KFC Closes Restaurants in Pakistan Amid Protests: Should U.S. Retailers Get Out of the Middle East?
Is Vogue Featuring Domestic Violence On Its Cover?
Which Show Are You Rooting for to Win the Emmy for Best Comedy Series?
Are Celebrity Video Games Awesome or Annoying?
Which News Anchor is Least Likely to Lie to Viewers
What were you most excited to leave behind after high school?
Do You Multitask at the Movie Theater?
Does Kanye West Have a Sex Tape?
Are These GPS Shoes Wonderful or Weird?

Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I visit this site, I keep asking myself “Who cares?” Were these questions created by bored 15-year-olds? Any number of irrelevant, pointless, puerile polls are available online to people who want to express an opinion, but face it: the results aren’t going anywhere because NO ONE CARES about the results. They’re just there to make you feel engaged, let off steam, and think you’ve contributed to something.

For any opinion poll to be valid, it needs to meet certain crucial scientific criteria, including sample size. Most online polls don’t meet any serious selection criteria at all, which means they’re simply for entertainment, like horoscopes.

What is a valid sample size that gives a result meaning? One percent? Ten? Twenty five? What is the effective sample size for, say, Collingwood, with a population of 20,000?

Let me quote at length from an answer on how polls have to be conducted and what sort of sample size is relevant:

You have a two part question – but you didn’t realize it. The question, which you asked, is: “What should my sample size be for this test?”

If you go to the Sample Size Calculator website (www.berrie.dds.nl/calcss.htm), you can find this:

The parameters you are setting are:
1) Population – the number of people in the world who will be seeing your website. Let’s assume that your population is “everyone in the world.” So, if we use a very large number, say, 1,000,000, we will calculate the maximum sample size needed.
2) Confidence – this is how sure you are going to be that the results of your sample reflect the true population. The higher the number, the larger the sample size. This is the “certainty” of the results. Customarily for most marketing work, 95% confidence is ample. The default in the website is set at 0.95.
3) Margin – This is how much error you are willing to allow. If you allow 5% error, that means that in a sample size of 100, if the results are 50 clicks, the true number of clicks could be between 45 and 55 clicks. This is the “precision” of your test. The small this number, the larger the sample size.
4) Probability – this is the value of the result you expect to get. For instance, if you expect to get 50 clicks out of 100 views, this value is set at 0.5. Of course, most of us don’t know this value. But the good news is that setting it at 0.5 yields the largest sample size. If the number of clicks is 20 or 80, the confidence increases for the same margin or the margin decreases for the same confidence. And this is a good thing.

Sample size, of course, determines cost of the test. In your case, this is time. If we use the parameters of a population of 1,000,000 with 95% confidence for 5% margin of error with a probability of 50%, then the sample size is 385. For a 1% margin, it’s 9517. You are at about 1.45% now. That means that you are within 65 of the true population result. Additionally, assuming the number of views are pretty close, this means that if the results of your test can tell the difference between the two websites as long at the results are different by more than 65.

The second part of the question – that you didn’t ask – is how do I determine if the two results are really different. For this, you do another test – a Chi-squared test. You have a hypothesis that the two results are the same versus the alternative that they are different. For the test, we look at the observed values versus “expected values.” Expected values are what we’d get is we added the total clicks for both tests and divided by total views and then multiplied by the views for each:

3760/9060 = 0.415
Expected values
4550 * .415 = 1888
4510 * .415 = 1872

Divide the difference of the expected values squared by the expected value and add the two values:

(2010 – 1888)^2/1888) = 7.883
(1750 – 1872)^2/1872) = 7.951

Sum is 15.834. Using a Chi-square table like at: http://www.richland.edu/james/lecture/m170/tbl-chi.html

If we set our confidence at 95%, we use 1 – .095 = 0.05. Our degrees of freedom are calculated by subtracting 1 from the number of proportions in our test: 2-1=1. So, for 95% confidence, we test the value of 15.834 against 3.841. Since 15.834 is larger, we reject our hypothesis that the two results are the same and accept the alternative hypothesis that they are different – with a much greater than 95% confidence.

So, as Nelson (nelsonm) stated in about 20% of the space, you’re done. Looks like version A is the best with a greater than 95% confidence.

Using the sample size calculator mentioned above, here’s what I calculate for a reasonably accurate survey for Collingwood. Based on a population of 20,000, a confidence level of .95, margin of .05, and probability of .50, the minimum sample would be 378 to get a reasonably accurate assessment.

That’s a fairly small number. But how can one determine the numbers to be punched into the various parts of the equation? What’s the confidence level, margin of error? Change the margin of error to 0.01 – a mere 1% error of margin – then you need a sample size of 6,491. Which number do you change to account for duplicates, outside (irrelevant) votes or votes made by children?

And let’s not be fooled: online polls can be and have been the target of special interest groups who want to express their own agenda. Election polls are particularly vulnerable to this sort of nefarious activity.

Journalists have to be particularly suspicious of online polls. The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) provides 20 questions a journalist should ask about poll results. Among these is:

How were those people chosen?
The key reason that some polls reflect public opinion accurately and other polls are unscientific junk is how people were chosen to be interviewed. In scientific polls, the pollster uses a specific statistical method for picking respondents. In unscientific polls, the person picks himself to participate.

In other words, self-participation is unscientific. A bit further down the page, it notes,

But many Internet polls are simply the latest variation on the pseudo-polls that have existed for many years. Whether the effort is a click-on Web survey, a dial-in poll or a mail-in survey, the results should be ignored and not reported. All these pseudo-polls suffer from the same problem: the respondents are self-selected. The individuals choose themselves to take part in the poll – there is no pollster choosing the respondents to be interviewed.

Governments cannot govern by poll. That’s not leadership. But attempting to govern by internet poll is not merely foolish but potentially dangerous. There is little if any way to determine the source of the votes. You might as well govern by magic ball or coin toss.

So when I read a statement like, “A community poll has shown that 7 out of 10 residents support the one community centre concept” I have to ask, who did the poll, where, when and how was it conducted? That statement turns out to be based on the results of an Enterprise-Bulletin online poll, which had approximately 200 results – 200 unqualified, unscientific results. As pointed out in the quote above, a sample size for Collingwood to get a reasonable assessment of public opinion would be at least 378 QUALIFIED votes. Qualified means a resident or taxpayer, of majority age, who understands the question being posed.

Ipsos-Mori research
Who conducts the poll and who provides the results is also important. Voters on the left don’t trust polls produced by voters on the right and vice versa. Some media are trusted to be objective, others – Fox and Sun News, for example – will always be suspected of having a bias towards their particular political slant. And the majority doesn’t trust the government to accurately and objectively present figures.

My final point has to do with the questions themselves. Asking “Do you like ice cream?” is asking for a general personal opinion and really doesn’t need more choices than “Yes, No, Sometimes.” A more specific question would be, “Do you like butterscotch ice cream?” Ice cream manufacturers are not going to change their business plans based on these rather vague questions, however. They might pay more attention to a question asking participants to select from a list of flavours not currently made, but one which they would like to see available.

Asking “Should we build a new town hall?” is an iceberg question: it hides a larger mass of questions below it: “What will it cost?”, “Will it raise my taxes?”, “Who will benefit?”, “Why do we need one?”, “Can the old town hall be refurbished?”, “when will it be built?,” “where will it be built?”and so on. Participants need answers to all those hidden questions before they can properly answer the seemingly simple question posed about building a new town hall. Otherwise, the answers on that poll are essentially meaningless.

A more reliable question might be, “Should we build a new town hall on the western side of town away from other municipal services, if it will take five years, disrupt some municipal services during construction, cause intermittent road closures, raise your taxes by 10% a year, have it located at the edge of town, result in hiring more staff, and incur greater operating costs when it opens, despite staff recommendations that we just refurbish the old one?”

Even that doesn’t include all of the factors necessary in the decision making process: what to do with the old town hall, should local contractors get preference in the tendering process, will there be local jobs created, can we get support funding from other governments, is the building “green” or LEEDS certified, do we have to buy or expropriate property, is the site currently zoned for it?

Most of all it doesn’t answer the biggest question: why do we need one now?

Perhaps, if you can vouchsafe that the participants in your poll have all paid close attention to the debate about building a new town hall, that they have attended council meetings to watch the debates, have read all the staff reports, have listened to the treasurer expound on the financial implications, have read and watched the local media to gain insight and understand the differences of opinion – they might be able to answer “Should we build a new town hall?” without further refinement. Good luck finding enough people in that category to fit the necessary sample size to validate the results.

Even if you could find such a group, the results can’t simply be reported in terms of yes and no votes. Demographic breakdown of the results is important, too. Politicians should be told the geographic location of the participants (how many west-end participants voted no compared to the east-end, for example), their age groups (are working parents more in favour than retirees?), gender, whether they live in town full-time or part-time, whether they own a vehicle or use public transit to get around town – all become parts of the decision-making milieu.

Most internet polls are merely for entertainment purposes. They harmlessly allow us to believe we are being engaged and are participating in the process, and they make pollsters happy to receive the attention. They are, however, not appropriate tools for making political or social decisions unless they are backed by rigid, scientific and statistical constraints.

Taking words out of context

Out of contextCouncil, along with the media, the auditor general, the CBC, our MP and MPP,and a few others, were recently sent a letter complaining about council’s decision to build new, year-round recreational facilities without raising taxes.

Fair enough. Everyone has the right to write letters. We’re open to public criticism, even after the issue has been decided, contracts signed, and council (and most of the town) has moved on. You can read the letter on the EEU.

The letter contains two quotes – both by dead Americans – to open and close the letter.

Because I am a bit of a quote-authenticity fanatic (see my other blog posts about quotations and mis-attributions, here and in the archives), I immediately did some online sleuthing to see if they were actual quotes, not the usual internet/Facebook misquote. I also wanted to learn under what context they were written. I naturally assumed the letter writer chose them for some relevance to the issues raised in the body of the letter.

Here’s the first one:

“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” Thomas Jefferson

Yes, indeed, to the writer’s credit, that was written by Thomas Jefferson. However, it is significantly out of its original context here. It comes from Query VII of Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781, revised 1782).

Thomas Jefferson wrote his book in response to several questions about Virgina posed by a “Foreigner of Distinction.” Query VII is a response to the question, “The different religions received into that state?”

Here’s a fuller quote – not all of his response by any means – from Jefferson’s reply to that question. The line that was taken out of context is highlighted. You can see that Jefferson’s comments were made in relation to how science (reason) was treated by religious authorities in historical times:

“Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith.

“Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion.”

To me, the telling points come later in this excerpt: Jefferson’s comment about the coercion of public opinion by fallible men (referring to the fallibility of government or church to determine a question outside its demesne), and the undesirability of uniformity of opinion (referring to the church’s insistence in uniformity of belief in the face of such challenges).

Both might be considered somewhat relevant to politics, but were not chosen, perhaps because they might be construed as unflattering to the cause of the writer.

Jefferson’s book – his only work published in his lifetime – is a rambling commentary on the State of Virginia, religion, law, reason, morality, geography, trade, faith, science, agriculture and politics. His words have nothing to do with Canada, Ontario, Collingwood, or municipal recreation. Canada barely gets a mention in this book – in reference to the height of Niagara Falls.

Does the writer draw some connection between Galileo and the Inquisition, and Collingwood Council and a swimming pool? Adams might have some fun with that on his Eastend Underground blog, but I struggle to see the connection. Perhaps I’m too close to the issue to see such metaphorical relationships.

The full text can be read here: avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp

Jefferson also wrote (in Query VI) what strikes me as more relevant to the debate:

“Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”

To be fair, he was writing about the origin of the then-mysterious fossil seashells in limestone, not about ice pads and swimming pools. However, that again might have been turned back on the writer, so perhaps it was also ignored for chance of being misunderstood.

My favourite Jefferson line from that book is also from Query VI:

“Our quadrupeds have been mostly described by Linnaeus and Mons. de Buffon. Of these the Mammoth, or big buffalo, as called by the Indians, must certainly have been the largest.”

This, I realize, may have equally small relevance to recreational facilities, but calling a mammoth a “big buffalo” does sound swell. I’m sure I can find a use for that some day.

Let’s move on.

The second quote is this:

“Whenever men take the law into their own hands, the loser is the law. And when the law loses, freedom languishes – Robert Kennedy”

Again, the writer was correct: it was actually written by Robert F. Kennedy. But I had to find out when and why. That took a bit more work, because the entire text it was gleaned from is not online in one place (unless it is sequestered in Google Books). However, enough of it is extant that I could piece together a significant portion, and appreciate his intent.

Robert – Bobby – Kennedy was the US Attorney General in 1961. He spoke these quoted words in an address to the Joint Defence Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Chicago, July 21, 1961. That speech was a comment on the evils of segregation, then being challenged in the US courts and on the streets of the southern states. These excerpted lines are in particular reference to the actions of the state police who were beating and jailing the Freedom Riders (anti-segregation activists) in Alabama.

You can learn more about that speech and about the civil rights movement in a book called, The Politics Of Injustice: The Kennedys, The Freedom Rides, And The Electoral Consequences of Moral Compromise, by David Niven: buy it on Amazon.ca

Civil Rights protestIt’s a fascinating period: the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the beatniks, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the Berlin Wall, Khrushchev, the Avro Arrow,the Diefenbaker-Pearson debates, the Space Race…. Although I was young then, I still remember the TV news showing the marches and the protests. I remember rather fondly the folk music of the day. However, I would hesitate to equate the Freedom Riders – who put their lives on the line to end a social injustice in America – with a protest against an ice rink. I am quite sure we did not engage the dogs or the water cannons on the protesters, even though they were demanding higher taxes.

In that same speech, Kennedy said,

“My faith is that Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising as a people to confront the hard challenges of our age-and that we know that the hardest challenges are often those within ourselves. My confidence is that, as we strive constantly to meet the exacting standard of our national tradition, we will liberate a moral emery within our nation which will transform America’s role and America’s influence throughout the world-and that upon this release of energy depends the world’s hope for peace, freedom and justice everywhere.”

See here. Kennedy was speaking about the injustice of the segregation that kept African-Americans from enjoying the same rights that their white counterparts in the south enjoyed (like being able to vote, attend university, eat in any restaurant). Kennedy was a very vocal advocate for civil rights. Canada, on the other hand, had civil rights, and shared none of the social unrest around this issue.

I don’t recall that Kennedy ever turned his oratory skills on the issue of municipal swimming pools, but I have not read all of his speeches. I just know this speech was not about them. Without that context to link them, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see the relevance of this quote.

If we’re going to pull phrases out of context, I would prefer to use this one from the same speech, noted above:

“Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising.”

Like the lines used in the letter, it has nothing to do with Canada, municipal politics, or swimming pools, but it sounds like something you can have fun with. What’s life without a sense of humour, eh?

Kennedy made another speech to the B’nai B’rith in Chicago, in October, 1963. You can read it here. It’s quite powerful – again it’s mostly about freedom and civil rights. But like all of his speeches I’ve read, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Collingwood or municipal process.

I digress. The issue is about using words taken out of context as inspirational quotes, or to ascribe some credibility to an argument. When readers realize neither quotation is relevant to the issue, it makes you wonder why they were chosen. Without contextual relevance, where is the meaning? That’s a question wise readers will ask, and they may extend it to the rest of the letter.

Jefferson and Kennedy made many wise, pithy comments in their lifetimes, and deserve our respect and recognition for their lives and their wisdom. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to take their words out of context for your own agenda.
~~~~~
PS. The answers to the questions posed in that letter can be read here: here, here and here. You can also watch Rogers Cable 53 for a re-run of the council meeting where our CAO, Mr. Houghton, made his public presentation explaining the process and how staff arrived at a recommendation (which was not provided to the local media, however). All questions have been answered. Many times over. There are no more answers because the town, and council cannot continue to say the same thing over and over.

The Erosion of Civil Debate

Uncivil debateI’ve been dismayed by the tone of the recent debate over the town’s proposed and new recreational facilities. Not by the debate itself – I love the engagement and interaction, even arguing because it’s intellectually stimulating – but rather by what has become an increasingly strident, angry, confrontational and personal tone in many of the comments council has received, or which have been directed towards council.

I’m disappointed because I know we, as Canadians, can have rational, calm, thoughtful debate without rancour, without resorting to insults and name-calling, without raising our voices in anger, without resorting to gossip and rumour or trying to misdirect the argument with personal attacks and innuendo.

In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy,, Prof. Stephen Carter writes that, “Civility involves the discipline of our passions for the sake of living a common life with others.” Among the reasons he gives for why civility is important in a democracy:

Civility reminds us that in a democracy all our actions must meet the test of morality, and that our ability to discipline ourselves to do what is right rather than what we desire is what distinguishes us from animals;
Our adherence to standards of civil behavior serves as our “letter of introduction” to our fellow citizens, thus helping to build community;
By treating each other with respectful civility, we help make bearable the many indignities and frictions of everyday life.

Constantly attacking, criticizing, verbally assaulting, haranguing and hectoring some person or group only increases that friction. Worse: it builds barriers that become insurmountable rather quickly.

In several places, Carter reminds us that civility is a discipline, something that has to be learned and practiced, a conscious act of engagement with our fellow humans, one that makes a daily statement about not only how we value community and society, but what we give to maintain them in working order.

I’ve followed Canadian politics for more than 40 years. As I recall, debate in Canada used to be much more civil. Canadians are, for the most part, polite, civil, respectful and dignified people. However, that seems to be changing as our cultural, political and social interactions become more American in tone.

Canadians used to be known for respecting differing views and accepting that differences not only exist, but contribute to the complex makeup of any diverse, democratic nation. But as the American political debates became more and more angry and confrontational, and American society became more violent, litigious and polarized, so did ours.

Ad hominem argument
The Conservative “attack ads” of the last two federal campaigns showed that incivility, personal and ad hominem attacks were the new norm for federal interaction, creating nothing but friction between parties. The NDP and Liberals responded to the vitriol with similar attack ads against the Conservatives. Tit for tat does not make it right, merely increases the volume of the argument. Debate should always be about the issues, about the decision, or about the process: never about the person or people.

As one man wrote in a letter to the Toronto Star:

Surely it is not delusional to think that healthy democracy depends more on civil discourse and quality debate than “a complex set of circumstances” that leads to political forms and practices.

An editorial in the Chilliwack Times opined about a local issue that had become angry and divisive thanks to its lack of civility,

We shouldn’t accept these types of tactics as simply part of the usual political rhetoric. Using loaded language and unfair comparisons muddies the truth and makes the public even more cynical. It can also create bitter divisions among different groups and demographics, which does nothing to foster meaningful and progressive change.
We’re not naive, we know that political rhetoric is often bitter and almost always self-serving. But hopefully, more of our leaders will realize the value of appealing to people’s common sense and decency rather than their outrage and fear.

Anyone who has seen the often puerile behaviour of our federal representatives in the House of Commons knows that our government behaves more like a pack of squabbling, potty-mouthed school children than reasonable adults when debating issues in the House. But that tone seems to be spreading to all levels of government.

The late Jack Layton attempted to keep his party above that morass of bad manners; to engage in civil debate, and to return some respectability to the House. Sadly, he died before he could achieve much in this goal He knew that a lot of people look to our government as their role model for political interaction. Well, they used to, as I recall from my upbringing. But even if we have lost respect for parties and leaders because of their attack tactics, we mimic them, consciously or subconsciously, at many other levels.

In Ontario, NDP leader Andrea Horwath told a university audience that Ontarians are tired of the adversarial trend provincial politics have taken:

Ontarians are tired of “attack politics,” says New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, who called upon her two main political opponents Thursday to stop the name calling.
People are “tired of the dirty sand-box fighting and I think people deserve a true debate on the real issues and a true look at where the leaders stand on some of the (solutions) to the problems facing Ontarians,” Horwath told a crowd at Laurentian University.
Horwath said she’s challenging Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to “stop the hiding behind our war rooms and the missives of nastiness that get launched across our bows.
“And let’s start actually having a real serious conversation in front of the voters about how we’re going to fix some of the problems facing them and their families.”

Unfortunately, her call for civility has fallen on deaf ears. In a recent column in the Enterprise-Bulletin, Brian Macleod wrote about the parallels between Ontarian and American presidential politics:

Ontario politics are moving from partisan to polarized, and the only one that’s standing aside from an ugly debate during the next election is a re-emerging Premier Dad.
And despite the polls, don’t count out Dalton McGuinty just yet.
(snip)
The polarized battle is shaping up between Tory Leader Tim Hudak’s anti-union policies and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party has always had labour at its base.
(snip)
When Hudak’s party lost the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection earlier this month to the NDP — a riding his party held for 22 years — we got a hint of what is to come. He blamed the loss on “union bosses,” especially teachers unions who supported the NDP.
(snip)
Voters found Hudak’s unfocused policies wanting in the fall election and they don’t seem to be warming up to his fiery anti-union posture either.
In a sense, he’s doing a Mitt Romney, writing off an entire portion of the electorate in pursuit of votes from those who see unions as Ontario’s economic problem.

There’s a new political pejorative: doing a “Mitt Romney.”

Municipal politics, especially in a small town like Collingwood, are for the most part, individual, intimate and above the quagmire of party politics (our last term being somewhat of an exception). We have always been able to engage one another in mature, calm discussion because there was no ostensible difference between politician and ratepayer. Unlike federal and provincial tiers, we don’t get a full-time salary with a big office, gold-plated pensions, exceptional perks and can stand aloof from our electorate in a distant city.

How to leave commentsMembers of our council are your neighbours, friends, family. We are employed here, or retired here. You will run into us in the grocery store, downtown, in the mall, in the beer store, at the arena with kids and grandkids, at a restaurant or pub. We share the same concerns, pay the same taxes, drive the same roads, stroll the same parks as everyone else here. We don’t get a pension for our effort, and we are paid a rather small stipend to shoulder the responsibility we carry. The reward is not in money, or power, or glory, but rather in the giving of service to the community.

We are all here at the council table because we all care about this community.

Whether you agree or not with an council member’s vote on any matter, you really should respect them for taking on the responsibility of making that decision publicly, under the watchful eyes of the media and the community. None of us would knowingly do our home town harm – we vote for what we believe in our hearts is the best for everyone.

I owned and operated a retail business here for 11 years. People used to come into my shop weekly, often daily, to discuss local issues, local politics. No one screamed, no one lost his or her temper, even when we disagreed (and quite a few did). It was all very civilized and mature. We could talk one on one and act like adults who agreed to disagree. Sometimes having these one-on-one conversations helped to clear up misinformation or misunderstanding about process and decisions. I enjoyed those discussions. I enjoyed their tone, I enjoyed sharing ideas.

Angry emailCouncillors get a lot of letters, although today we get more email than written letters. People agree with us, people complain about us. Both are expected, both are welcome. But for the most part, written letters have been more genteel and civilized. Email is often more accusatory, more hectoring. Some people recently demanded we do what they want us to – no please, no thank you, no calm laying out of the logical value of their preference: the writers belittled our decision, then demanded we rescind it an implement their choice. That tactic will not encourage cooperation or compromise.

Few letter writers in the past used words like fraudulent, underhanded, retarded, or accused us of twisting the facts to suit our own goals. Email, however, has grown more strident than old-fashioned letter writing, possibly because it’s easier, faster, and done with less consideration than handwriting a letter. The act of penning a letter on paper gives people more time to think through their response. And letter writing is personal: you write a a person, to someone you know or have knowledge of – a person, not a thing or a machine. You have to fold the paper, put it in an envelope, walk it to the post office or town hall.

Email is a message typed onto a screen and sent to an impersonal URL with a click of a button; no emotion, no engagement, no personalities involved. And certainly not much respect for the feelings of the recipient. Facebook, forums, Twitter – they’re the same. We respond to a machine, not to the person. Anger is a common reaction on Facebook, especially when the other person has attempted humour or irony, neither of which are conveyed well through simple text.

Stephen Carter wisely admonishes us that, “Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace.” Within his concept of marketplace, I would add the influence of social media on our interpersonal interactions.

No one ever agrees with every government decision. That’s democracy, and we all have the right to disagree and say so.

Some people, however, believe that, when a government doesn’t do what they expected them to do, or what they demanded from them, it was a personal attack against them. They believe the politicians who didn’t obey must be dishonest, on the take, pursing private agendas, or looking to reap some personal benefit from the decision. They believe the politicians were ill-informed, uneducated, ignorant of the facts, simply because a different course was chosen. This leads to angry and unfounded accusations of malfeasance and underhanded acts. We’ve seen that sort of attack on Facebook and in other online posts about council’s rec facility decision.

Punch faceOnline debate is generally uncivil because it’s a solitary act, not a dialogue. It lacks the indicators and signs we get from face-to-face discussion and meetings: tone of voice, inflection, gestures, eye contact, touch… without those, internet arguments almost invariably deteriorate into angry, self-righteous confrontation, and verbal abuse. They often become an exchange of vitriolic hyperbole and escalating accusations.

It’s hard to believe anyone accepts the notion that eight of nine council members conspired in secret with numerous staff for 45 days to have a report make a predetermined recommendation, without a word being leaked during that time; that eight of nine council members could so blithely violate their oath of office, code of conduct, our procedural bylaw, our procurement policy, the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, without the clerk or her staff or any department head challenging them (or calling in the police). But that rather wild notion seems to be going around the coffee shops and online.

It’s even harder to believe that eight of nine members of council would collectively and illegally conspire for some as-yet-undefined “personal gain” that would benefit only one or two of them, when there is clearly nothing to be personally garnered by any of them. It doesn’t make any sense.

The debate has also been marred by some malicious gossip, innuendo, disinformation, unfounded claims, misinformation, and a few angry but fallacious accusations that implicate people outside council in the result, but who have nothing to do with council’s decision. It has, in a sense, become one of those angry conspiracy theories that build like a storm feeding on its own energy looking for a place to explode. This is not from the majority; I believe it is just a small, disgruntled group taking advantage of the contentious rec facility issue to hurt the reputations or credibility of some council and staff. Their interest in the actual argument about rec facilities is likely remote. But they have managed to flavour the debate with an acrid, sour tone. This has, in turn, polarized the two sides.

Like I said earlier: it’s not the debate that worries me, nor any disagreement: it’s the confrontational, personal-attack tone some of it has taken on. Fortunately, the debate is moot now, since the contracts have been signed and we’re moving forward. Perhaps the tone of future debates will move forward, too, and we can restore some of that old-fashioned Canadian civility to local political discussions.
Sticks and Stones

The sinking of the St. Croix, September, 1943

St. CroixOn this day, September 20, in 1943, the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, St. Croix, was escorting a convoy and protecting its ships from U-boats, during WWII. The ship was between Greenland and Iceland at 57.30N, 31.10W. It carried almost 150 crew, including a young man named William (Billie) Sydney David Pudney, aged 22, listed as a signalman (V 27871 (RCNVR)).

St. Croix with storm damageThe St. Croix was a bit past her prime; the 1,190-ton destroyer had been built for the US Navy in 1919 (then called the USS McCook), but given to Britain for the Royal Canadian Navy in September, 1940. In September, 1943, she was under the command of A/Lt.Cdr. Andrew Hedley Dobson, RCNR, her third commander since the ship was assigned to the Canadian Navy.

Billie’s picture is on the wall of my mother’s nursing home room; a young man in a sailor’s cap looking bright eyed and jaunty. He must have been feeling pretty confident on that day in 1943: in July, 1942, his destroyer, the St. Croix, had sunk the German submarine, U-90, and then again in March, 1943, while escorting convoy KMS-10, St Croix and the corvette, HMCS Shediac, depth charged and sank U-87.

By mid-1943, the tide of war had turned to the Allies’ favour: Germans were being pushed out of North Africa and out of Russia. The massive tank battle at Kursk, in the summer of 1943 broke the German armoured might, and was followed by the Soviets retaking Kiev and Smolensk, in September. Allied troops took Sicily, invaded Italy and even briefly captured its leader, Benito Mussolini, forcing Italy to surrender, also in September. Allied bombers were pounding German cities.

Air support for convoys in 1943 had greatly reduced U-boat tolls in the North Atlantic. Allied command felt confident it had overcome the threat, so during the summer it decided to withdraw many of the escorting ships for other duties.

St. CroixBillie probably felt the Allies were close to winning the war. We know now that it was far from over: two more years of fighting was still to come. The Germans, although under stress and losing ground, were not beaten yet.

The German Navy launched a new U-boat offensive in the fall of 1943. A patrol group of 21 U-boats, code-named Leuthen, was dispatched by Admiral Donitz’s U-boat Control (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU) to renew the attack on the North Atlantic convoy route. The Wolf Pack formed a patrol line south of Greenland in the “Greenland Air Gap,” where Allied aircraft had been unable to operate previously, due to the extreme range from their bases.

The fall offensive began with an attack on convoys ONS-18 and ON-202. Wikipedia notes:

On 12 September 1943 convoy ONS 18 left Liverpool bound for Halifax. Composed of 27 ships it was protected by B-3 Escort Group, comprising 2 destroyers, Escapade and Keppel, ( Cdr MB Evans RN, the Senior Officer:Escort); the frigate Towey, and 5 corvettes; Narcissus, Orchis, Roselys, Lobelia and Renoncule. ONS-18 was also accompanied by the MAC carrier Empire MacAlpine. When Western Approaches Command became aware of Leuthen, it was decided to reinforce ONS 18; the following convoy, ON 202 was ordered to close up, and a support group, SG 9, sent to join.
ON 202 had left Liverpool on 15 September, composed of 38 ships and escorted by Canadian escort group C-2, comprising 2 destroyers, Gatineau (commanded by Lt.Cdr PW Burnett RN, SOE) and Icarus; the frigate Lagan, and 3 corvettes; Drumheller, Kamloops and Polyanthus.
Support Group 9 comprised destroyer St Croix, frigate Itchen (Cdr CE Bridgman RN, SOE) and 3 corvettes, Chambly, Morden and Sackville.
Altogether the 65 ships were escorted by 19 warships, to face an attack from 21 U-boats.

Beside her record of hits on U-boats, the St. Croix had picked up many survivors of other attacks on convoys she was assigned to protect: 34 in 1941, 18 in 1942 and 28 in 1943. In the three years she had protected convoys, the St. Croix had avoided being hit herself. That would soon change. As Wikipedia notes:

On 16 September, St. Croix, then on her first patrol with an offensive striking group in the Bay of Biscay, went to the aid of convoy ONS 18, followed by ON 202, both heavily beset by a wolfpack. The defense of these convoys resulted in a long-running battle with losses to both sides. The convoys lost three escorts and six merchantmen, with two escorts damaged. The wolfpack lost three U-boats.

ONS-18 was the first target. A transport, the Lagan, was hit by a torpedo on Sept. 19, but the attacking U-boats were chased away, and one damaged. To the Germans’ surprise and distress, Allies did have air support in the Gap: Very Long Range (VLR) Liberators (bombers) had been developed and put into action earlier that summer to provide much-needed air support. U-341 was attacked and sunk by a Liberator from 10 Squadron RCAF. But the other U-boats continued to close in, regardless. By the 20/21, a dozen U-boats were in visual range, and eight were able to attack the Allied ships of the combined convoys (ONS-18 and ON-202).

Toronto Star, Sept. 1943The St. Croix’s luck didn’t hold out for very long. She was hit in the stern by a torpedo fired by the German submarine, U-305, on 20 September, 1943, at 9:51 p.m. It was one of five ships hit by torpedoes that night.

The Wolf Pack hunting the convoy would sink ten of the convoy’s ships, and damage two others, over three days of attacks. This would be the second worst loss of any single convoy since 1941.

Forty five minutes after the first torpedo hit, the St. Croix was still limping along. The U-305 returned and fired a second torpedo, this time a T-3, at the St. Croix. It hit. The St. Croix sank in six minutes.

Eighty one of the crew – five officers and 76 men – survived. They spent the night on two rafts and a half sunken whaler. The British frigate, the HMS Itchen tried to rescue them after the St. Croix sank, but U-boats drove her off. HMS Polyanthus tried to screen the Itchen during rescue operations, but she too was sunk (by U-952 on 21 September).

The cold, wet survivors were picked up by the Itchen, on the following morning. The Itchen also had been attacked by U-305 that same night, but the torpedo missed its mark. But this wasn’t the worst of it.

Three days later, the Itchen too was sunk by a German submarine (U-666). A single torpedo hit the frigate and she exploded. She had a complement of 230 officers and men, plus 81 survivors of the St. Croix, and one from HMS Polyanthus. Only two men survived that hit: one from the Itchen, and a stoker from the St. Croix.

One hundred and forty six men who had sailed aboard the St. Croix lost their lives in September, 1943. Some surely must have been counting their blessings aboard the Itchen after they had been lifted from the rough North Atlantic waters.

Allied losses were 3 escorts and 6 ships sunken, plus one escort and one ship damaged. Three U-boats were destroyed and a further three damaged and forced to return to base. Wiipedia tells us:

On 23 September the convoys reached the Grand Banks area, where fog hindered visibility both of the air patrols and the attacking Leuthen boats. U-238 was able to penetrate the escort screen and sank 3 ships; Skjelbred, Oregon Express, and Fort Jemseg. U-666 torpedoed Itchen; she sank, leaving just 3 survivors from her own crew and those of Polyanthus and St Croix she was carrying. U-952 sank Steel Voyager and damaged James Gordon Bennett. U-758 attacked, but had no hits confirmed and was herself damaged by a depth-charge attack.
Poor visibility, fuel shortages, and fatigue now beset both U-boats and escorts, but BdU, believing the attack to have been a great success, ordered Leuthen to break off the attack.
Claims by the various boat amounted to 12 escorts and 9 ships sunk, and a further 2 ships damaged.

Safe from further attacks, both convoys continued to their destinations. ONS-18 reached Halifax on 29 September, where my mother was based as a WREN. ON 202 carried on and arrived at New York on 1 October.

Billie, the uncle I never met, died in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, 69 years year ago, one of the first victims of the newly developed German acoustic torpedo, the GNAT, designed to home in on and disable the escorts so the U-boats could reach the merchantmen. I’ve never been able to find out if he was among the survivors picked up by the Itchen or if he died after the St. Croix sank.

U-305 would continue to hunt Allied ships until January 16, 1944, when it sank, probably a victim of one of its own torpedoes, and all hands were lost. In its career, it sank two transport ships and two warships. After the September battle, the Leuthen Wolfpack was disbanded; 12 of its U-boats formed a new patrol line with 9 other U-boats to attack the next set of east-bound convoys.

World War II would rage on for almost two full years more, ending in May 1945 in Europe, but not until August, 1945 in Japan. Many, many more lives would be lost in the fighting. Although the battle for the Atlantic would not end until 1945, the German command called off its 1943 U-boat offensive after four months. During that time, eight ships of 56,000 tons and six warships had been sunk, but Allies had sunk 39 U-boats. It was a catastrophic loss for the Germans.

But Billie would never live to see the end. He was 22 when his ship sank; a young man, full of hope, full of ambition, whose life was interrupted and ended by the war. On this day, every year, my mother, 93, and her family, still remembers him and the life he gave or his country.

The RCNA prayer:
As we stand here safe and free,
We wonder why ’twas meant to be
That men should die for you and me.
On all the oceans, white caps flow.
They don’t have crosses row on row.
But they who sleep beneath the sea,
Rest in peace, ’cause we are free.

Sources:

  • http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?15789
  • http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ship.html?shipID=3079
  • http://uboat.net/allies/warships/ship/100.html
  • http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/252.htm
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_McCook_(DD-252)
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_class_destroyer
  • http://www.junobeach.org/e/4/can-tac-des-e.htm
  • http://www.noac-national.ca/article/Dunlop/The_Sinking_of_U90.html
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convoys_ONS_18/ON_202
  • http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/ons/index.html?ons.php?convoy=18!~onsmain
  • http://www.warsailors.com/convoys/on202.html
  • http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/navy/print_description-e.aspx?source=explore&section=2-E-2-e&h_number=4-A-5-k&img_file=e-19800567-001_p9
  • http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/navy/objects_photos_search-e.aspx?section=4-E&id=47&page=1
  • http://canadasnavalmemorial.ca/about-the-ship/the-ship%E2%80%99s-story/
  • http://www.readyayeready.com/ships/shipview.php?id=1394
  • http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/crews/ship3070.html
  • http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/crews/person/7245.html
  • http://www.naval-history.net/xDKCas2510-RCN.htm
  • http://www.naval-museum.mb.ca/battle_atlantic/st.croix/ottawa%20list%20146.pdf
  • http://members.shaw.ca/jollytar/WW2%20Ship%20Losses/St.%20Croix.htm

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.

Do “psychics” make you laugh or cry?

Crystal ballA small handout for a local “psychic studio” that arrived in my mailbox offers “Superior PSYCHIC and Spiritual Cleanser.” I never know whether to laugh at the silliness of these people or cry over how they continue to bilk gullible, superstitious fools. We are still so Medieval in our thinking, in so many ways.

Here’s an entire “studio” – apparently a one-stop shopping centre for balderdash where you can go and get all your superstitions cleansed, or whatever it is they do (aside, that is, from cleansing your wallet…).

Apparently having a “studio” is all the rage among “psychics.” You can’t just have a table in your living room, maybe some Wal-Mart Hallowe’en decorations scattered around for atmosphere. You need a whole studio. Maybe a ‘no-waiting, no appointment necessary’ studio where numerous “psychics” are anxiously waiting for you to roll up and open your wallet. Yes, I found some of those advertised online.

I Googled “psychic studio” and came up with 11,600,000 results. I spent an hour or so reading the outrageous claims of dozens of charlatans and hucksters selling their “psychic” wares: “…experienced clairvoyant medium who works directly with your guides and angels to give you the guidance that you are seeking. Each session is unique, guided by the invisible realms and tailored to suit your individual needs.” What undiluted claptrap!

But turning back to the flyer, despite my skepticism about the subject matter, I had to chuckle over the wording and the bizarre, seemingly random capitalization on the handout:

“She will READ you like an open BOOK and tell you why You came and what You need to know with No Questions asked.”

Why can’t “psychics” read grammar books as well as “READ” people? They must get their language lessons from cell phone text messages. Maybe her angel or spirit guide doesn’t give guidance in punctuation or language usage. Apparently writing properly or competently is not a skill set necessary for “psychics.”

“Do you or someone you Love have Problems with Drugs, Alcohol, Legal Matters, Immigration, School, Work or Financial Problems.”

Not even a question mark to end that question. She sure covered just about all the bases, though, but I’m not sure people have many problems with financial problems. Unless they’re taking accounting courses.

“I Can and Will help you.”

Better, I suppose than “I can, but won’t help you.” Or “I can’t but will help you.”

What happened to the third-person “she” of the first sentences? Now it’s in the first person. What gives with the change of voice? Are there two voices here? We’re told she is “Professional and accurate.” Obviously not if you want a written reading from her, because any grade-school kid can write better.

What exactly is a “professional psychic”? One who charges the same rates as lawyers and architects? Is there some university degree I am unaware of for “psychics” that shows they have studied for years and achieved some academic success? I Googled that term and came up with more than 2.7 million hits, but could not find anything related to training, standards, testing, scholarship or a program of recognized education. One site tells me,

Being a professional intuitive can be a very rewarding career. There are many positive and exciting benefits, including helping people by offering them insight into their lives, working from home, and setting your own hours.
But becoming a professional psychic involves a lot of commitment and training. While it’s helpful if you have a genuine gift for intuitive insight, many training programs can help anyone to increase their natural skills regardless of your present level of psychic ability…
In addition to the four main skills, you may want to learn specific applications of those skills, such as:

  • Psychometry
  • Soul Reading
  • Telepathy
  • Healing/Medical Intuition
  • Mediumship
  • Channeling
  • Dowsing
  • Past Life Regression

So a “professional psychic” is someone who knows all the scams, the cons, the nonsense? Is there a professional organization that tests your ability to bilk customers?

Psychometry is a bit confusing here. There is a real, academic discipline called psychometry, which refers to, “the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and educational measurement. The field is primarily concerned with the construction and validation of measurement instruments such as questionnaires, tests, and personality assessments.” (Wikipedia).

What the author means is the non-academic, unverifiable flimflammery that goes by the same name: “…also known as token-object reading, or psychoscopy, is a form of extra-sensory perception characterized by the claimed ability to make relevant associations from an object of unknown history by making physical contact with that object. Supporters assert that an object may have an energy field that transfers knowledge regarding that object’s history. Psychometry is commonly offered at psychic fairs as a type of psychic reading. At New Age events psychometry has claimed to help visitors “meet the dearly departed” (a form of spiritualism).” (Wikipedia)

“With over 25 years Experience there is NO PROBLEM TOO BIG OR SMALL One visit will convince you she is superior to all other PSYCHICS.”

Whew. So many mistakes. Not sure why the italics, or why there isn’t punctuation after “SMALL”. It’s a mess of random capitalization. Does the writer somehow think that by writing in big letters makes a problem bigger? So why isn’t it written as BIG and small?

The sentence, or rather the latter portion, supposes that the reader has been searching for answers from all sorts of snake oil sellers in the past and found them wanting. Otherwise, how would you know the difference between a superior and inferior “psychic”? Is it dependent on how much money they get you to spend?

Our local “psychic” professes to specialize in several fields: “Palm, Tarot Cards, Crystal Ball, Planetary re-alignment, Chakra Cleansing, Handwriting, Face, Meditation, Aura, Astrology, Spiritual Healing, Water and Candle.”

Planetary re-alignment? I thought that took the effort of the Olympian gods. Even NASA with all its technology and space vehicles can’t budge a small asteroid, yet here’s a woman who can move planets around like marbles. Mars lost its oceans to a planetary realignment a billion years ago. Imagine the power of this woman who can do this all by herself!

You have to wonder how anyone specializes in face or palm. I suppose in the same way one cam specialize in elbow and big toe. Ditto with water and candle. I suppose if I can specialize in tequila, a “psychic” can specialize in water. But candle? I prefer specializing in light switches.

Meditation? Is this woman a Buddhist? Or has she learned meditation from a Buddhist or Hindu teacher? How can one specialize in meditation without years of training and practice? Meditation requires effort, practice and training, just like writing. You might be able to learn some of its basic principles from a book, but it’s like learning carpentry from books. I am reluctant to believe that anyone engaged in the “psychic” game would read any serious books on Buddhism. After all, a serious study of Buddhism – which encourages free inquiry and intellectual investigation over blind faith – might point out too clearly the real nature of the “psychic” racket. Perhaps there are New Age comic books that teach meditation for psychics instead.

I suspect the low calibre of the writing probably mirrors the calibre of the advertised meditation skills.

I find most modern Western descriptions of chakras a garble of pseudo-science, New Age obscurity, and pseudo-Hinduism; a mix of poorly defined notions. This millennial-old belief has, like so many ancient beliefs, been usurped by the New Agers and turned into a farcical practice based on gibberish, looneyism and balderdash.

I have read both ancient Hindu texts and more modern explanations of the chakras – the imagined energy centres of the body. Personally, I have no faith in their existence. My own skepticism needs empirical evidence before I accept claims about things that cannot be clearly seen, touched, measured, photographed under controlled conditions, or otherwise identified. Chakras, angels, spirit guides, auras, demons, ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot… all sorts of imaginary things fall under my skeptical microscope. I have yet to find proof of any, but I’ve only been searching for about five decades.

Here’s a quote from one site about so-called chakra clearing:

“Practice clearing your chakras in the bathtub or shower at least once each week. By being in water, you will be able to rinse your hand after each chakra releases. You will notice a lightening of your vibration and an overall easier sense of well-being. If you are working with someone else, rinse your hand into a bowl of water after each chakra clears. Water is fluid and the energy will just be released easily into the water without any effect on you or the person you may be working with.
• Place your open hand, palm side down, on your forehead. Men will use their right hand and women will use their left hand. Spread your fingers wide open to receive the energy easily. If you are working with someone else, place your open hand about two inches above each of the chakras, being cautious not to actually touch their body.
• Now tell yourself to release into your hand every single thought, feeling, and emotion that you have never been able to show or express. Releasing this energy may feel like thousands of tiny ‘hits’ on the palm of your hand. Leave your hand over your forehead until you are certain there is nothing more to be released.
• Next, move your hand above your throat. Release into your hand all the times that you have been killed in the past for speaking your truth, all the times that others have criticized you for sharing your words, all the times that you wanted to scream, and all the times when you did scream and no one heard you. Also release all the words you regret speaking and all the words spoken to you that you wish you had not heard.
• Just release all that energy into your hand, from your throat, from the back of your neck and from your shoulders.

Yeah, me too. My eyes rolled around in my head when I read that silliness. Do people actually believe this or are they all sharing some private in-joke, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster? But I digress. Back to the mini-flyer.

Handwriting? After reading this poorly-written and awkward piece, I wonder why someone with such poor literary skills would advertise handwriting as a specialty. Perhaps she writes by hand better than she types?

Anyway, the best part is at the bottom (the shouting is in the original): “AVAILABLE FOR HOME BLESSINGS & HOUSE PARTIES”. “Psychics” and house parties; what a mix. That really defines credibility, doesn’t it? Come on over for a party Saturday night… We have a keg of beer, a DJ and dance music, a case of Jack Daniels, a little weed and a “psychic”…

And, of course, “All Help is Guaranteed with Results in 24 hours.” How one guarantees help provided by a “psychic” is an amusing discussion all by itself. So why the 24 hour wait? What, your crystal ball has a wait time? It’s on dial-up to the spirit world? Come on…

Laugh and cry. That’s what this little flyer did for me. Laugh at its poorly written presentation, cry because I know,as you do, dear reader, that there are those who will take it seriously and waste their money on such nonsense.

Zellers closing mall store is another blow to local economy

No jobsCollingwood’s main anchor store in the Blue Mountain Mall, Zellers, will close by March, 2013, according to a story in this week’s Globe and Mail. It is one of 29 scheduled to close in Ontario, and one of 64 across Canada.

As the Globe and CBC pointed out in their stories, with an average of 100 people per store, that means a net lost of around 6,400 jobs, Canada-wide.

The impact locally is much greater. 100 jobs in a community of 20,000 people is a lot, even if most are part time.

Many retail outlets and supermarkets here offer only part-time work. People often have two or three of these jobs, just to get by. A single mother I worked with briefly had a job at a local supermarket, and as a housekeeper – both paying minimum wage – while trying to raise two kids.

If the workplace is unionized, the best most employees can get is 28 hours a week, forcing them to find other sources of income to make a livable wage. If you don’t have the seniority, you may not be able to get more than four hours a week in a union operation. And out of that you have to pay a minimum $7 in union dues, which gets you… well, nothing that I could see when I had that position.

I doubt there are 100 jobs available here, even part-time, to pick up the loss of Zellers. People may have to look for work much further afield, which will only increase their expenses.

Collingwood was an industrial hub almost from its inception in 1858 to the late 1980s. Industry means jobs – generally better-paying jobs, full time, and usually with benefits. Aside from the famous shipbuilding (which was moved overseas by its owners in 1985), it has had a tanner, flour mills, a nail factory, carpet factory, pottery, aircraft parts maker, furniture maker, automobile wheel plant, automobile hose plant, backyard recreation set manufacturer, seat-belt plant, distillery, starch plant, automobile glass plant, designer glass plant, piezoelectric ceramic plant, house truss maker, candy manufacturer, and other factories.

Today, most of those have been long closed, although a few remain.

Instead we have mostly “McJobs” in the hospitality, food, service, tourism and retail sectors. These are usually minimum wage, part time, may involve shift work or evenings-weekend work, and have no benefits, no pensions, and little opportunity for advancement or raises. Often people need to hold multiple McJobs just top pay the rent and eat. These jobs certainly don’t provide the money for people to become homeowners, and it is a struggle to raise children well at these wages.

It’s not a story unique to Collingwood – most of Ontario has been facing the loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs since the early 1980s. It accelerated in the 1990s, not only because more jobs were being shipped overseas to serve the consumer demand for low-price/low-quality goods, but because of increasing automation. That latter is the reason you see fewer bank tellers today – they have been replaced by ATMs. Many big box stores have self-serve pay stations so they can reduce the need for human cashiers. Some restaurants like Tim Horton’s, have replaced bakers and cooks by bringing in pre-cooked, frozen food that simply gets reheated, not actually prepared, by the local staff.

Old agePlus we have a growing number of seniors here who are not retiring, because they need more income than their old age security or government pension provides (the total being somewhere between abject poverty and utter despair, worse if you want to live under a roof, not a piece of cardboard, and you like to eat at least once a day – but don’t fret: your MPs and Senators have gold-plated lifetime pensions that ensure that they will never have to eat cat food, even if you – the taxpayers – do…).

Locally, we need to craft a new economic development strategy in Collingwood, one that takes into account the erosion of industry and manufacturing jobs, and the need to improve and develop our tourism-entertainment-recreation sectors so we can attract more visitors (creating the critical mass of visitors necessary to sustain current and new businesses, events and services.

The lingering wisps of memory, the subtle newness of a moment…

Hippocampus“Can the simple act of recognizing a face as you walk down the street change the way we think?” Thus opens a story posted on Science Daily. “Or can taking the time to notice something new on our way to work change what we remember about that walk?”

Intriguing questions. The act of recognition, the act of discovery; both can change how we both process information about an act, and how we create a memory of it.

This novel finding suggests that our memory system can adaptively bias its processing towards forming new memories or retrieving old ones based on recent experiences. For example, when you walk into a restaurant or for the first time, your memory system can both encode the details of this new environment as well as allow you to remember a similar one where you recently dined with a friend. The results of this study suggest that what you did right before walking into the restaurant can determine which process is more likely to occur.

Does this mean that we can train ourselves to remember an event or an activity better by planning to notice things? Or by actively looking for something familiar? But remembering and retrieving, while they are both controlled by the hippocampus, they are competitive processes.

Previous scholarship has demonstrated that both encoding new memories and retrieving old ones depend on the same specific brain region — the hippocampus. However, computational models suggest that encoding and retrieval occur under incompatible network processes. In other words, how can the same part of the brain perform two tasks that are at odds with each other?
At the heart of this paradox is distinction between encoding, or forming a new memory, and memory retrieval, or recalling old information. Specifically, encoding is thought to rely on pattern separation, a process that makes overlapping, or similar, representations more distinct, whereas retrieval is thought to depend on pattern completion, a process that increases overlap by reactivating related memory traces.

To take advantage of this would require people to be very alert and aware, all the time, not by accident or coincidentally – as in the recognition of a familiar face encountered in a walk. In his masterwork, Walden (Chapter Two), Henry David Thoreau wrote,

Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

Why is it that seeing one thing can trigger your awareness so that you notice other things, often completely unrelated to the first item?

“We’ve all had the experience of seeing an unexpected familiar face as we walk down the street and much work has been done to understand how it is that we can come to recognize these unexpected events,” said Lila Davachi, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author. “However, what has never been appreciated is that simply seeing that face can have a substantial impact on your future state of mind and can allow you, for example, to notice the new café that just opened on the corner or the new flowers in the garden down the street.”

The same face, the same building, the same tree seen at different times can trigger different responses. One day it might be surprise, another nostalgia, another indifference, and another anger. Why? Perhaps it’s because your brain is busily storing and retrieving all sorts of data, and on the way in or out, the pattern triggers other neurons that activates the emotional activity.

But why or how did this trait evolve? Is it a defence mechanism; something we needed when we came out of the forests into the open plains of Africa? Or is it something older, something from our reptilian past?

Does the same mechanism for memory and awareness affect animals? Dogs and cats, for example, have memories. But can they consciously control their awareness (which raises the question about whether animals are self-aware, to which I reply, yes, but how much awareness they can manipulate remains open to debate).

Another researcher added:

“We spend most of our time surrounded by familiar people, places, and objects, each of which has the potential to cue memories,” added Katherine Duncan, the study’s first author who was an NYU doctoral student at the time of the study and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University. “So why does the same building sometimes trigger nostalgic reflection but other times can be passed without notice? Our findings suggest that one factor maybe whether your memory system has recently retrieved other, even unrelated, memories or if it was engaged in laying down new ones.”

I remain fascinated by the development of these models of consciousness and the inner workings of neuroscience.

Super-fast evolution: new species in just 6,000 years

Sea starsAccording to a recent story in Science Daily, new species of sea stars may have arisen in as little a time as 6,000 years.

Researchers studied the diversity in DNA sequences from sea stars of two related species to estimate how long it has been since the two species diverged. Their results showed a range from roughly 6,000 to 22,000 years ago.

That rules out some ways new species could evolve. For example, they clearly did not diverge slowly with genetic changes over a long period of time, but were isolated quickly.

Over the last 11,000 years, the boundary between cold and warm water in the Coral Sea has fluctuated north and south. A small population of the ancestral sea stars, perhaps even one individual, might have colonized a remote area at the southern end of the range then been isolated by one of these changes in ocean currents.

These two species of “cushion stars” – Cryptasperina pentagona and C. hystera – while they look very similar, are very different in many aspects – habitat and sex lives in particular.

Pentagona has male and female individuals that release sperm and eggs into the water where they fertilize, grow into larvae and float around in the plankton for a few months before settling down and developing into adult sea stars.
Hystera are hermaphrodites that brood their young internally and give birth to miniature sea stars ready to grow to adulthood.

Six thousand years is a remarkably short time for a significant evolutionary activity – about the entire length of recorded human history. And about as long as some creationist crackpots think the Earth has been in existence. But it’s not a one-speed-fits-all for evolutionary change. Even the longer 22,000 years is still remarkably short. That’s about when the first Europeans arrived in North America, or the length of the time it takes the remarkable planetoid, 2006 SQ372, to complete its orbit.

Earlier this year, Wired Magazine published a story about research to discover how long it would take for a mouse-sized animal to evolve to an elephant-sized one. And the answer was 24 million years.

That’s how many generations a new study estimates it would take to go from mouse- to elephant-sized while operating on land at the maximum velocity of change. The figure underscores just how special a trait sheer bigness can be.
“Big animals represent the accumulation of evolutionary change, and change takes time,” said evolutionary biologist Alistair Evans of Australia’s Monash University.
Evans and co-authors revisit a fossil record dataset of mammal body size during the last 70 million years, in a study published Jan. 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The data was originally used to describe the evolutionary growth spurts experienced by mammals soon after dinosaurs ceased to be Earth’s dominant animals.
The relative sizes of mouse and elephant skulls. To go from mouse-sized to elephant-sized would take at least 24 million generations.
For the previous 140 million years, mammals had been rat-sized or smaller. With dinosaurs significantly reduced, mammals had a chance to fill newly vacant ecological niches, particularly that of the large-bodied plant-eater.

But what about human evolution? We have a pretty good record of our species’ evolution over more than 4 million years, from the apelike Ardipithecus through Australopithecus, Neanderthal, Cro Magnon to us. But we are, like other animals, still evolving. And the rate of evolution may be speeding up.

According to a story in National Geographic,

Explosive population growth is driving human evolution to speed up around the world, according to a new study.
The pace of change accelerated about 40,000 years ago and then picked up even more with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the study says.
And while humans are evolving quickly around the world, local cultural and environmental factors are shaping evolution differently on different continents.
“We’re evolving away from each other. We’re getting more and more different,” said Henry Harpending, an anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who co-authored the study.
For example, in Europe natural selection has favored genes for pigmentation like light skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. Asians also have genes selected for light skin, but they are different from the European ones.
“Europeans and Asians are both bleached Africans, but the way they got bleached is different in the two areas,” Harpending said.
He and colleagues report the finding this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And some birds may be evolving faster, too – depending on their colour. According to a story in Science Daily in May,

Researchers have found that bird species with multiple plumage colour forms within in the same population, evolve into new species faster than those with only one colour form, confirming a 60-year-old evolution theory.
The global study used information from birdwatchers and geneticists accumulated over decades and was conducted by University of Melbourne scientists Dr Devi Stuart-Fox and Dr Andrew Hugall (now based at the Melbourne Museum) and is published in the journal Nature.
The link between having more than one colour variation (colour polymorphism) like the iconic red, black or yellow headed Gouldian finches, and the faster evolution of new species was predicted in the 1950s by famous scientists such as Julian Huxley, but this is the first study to confirm the theory.
By confirming a major theory in evolutionary biology, we are able to understand a lot more about the processes that create biodiversity said Dr Devi Stuart-Fox from the University’s Zoology Department.

So much science, so much research that continues to prove Darwin’s original theory, albeit much refined today thanks to our genetic research. You have to wonder, then, why 46% of Americans and 42% of Canadians and many others in the world still believe in the nonsense of creationism nor the pseudoscience of “intelligent” design.

I blame the continued survival of creationism on our failing education system with its lack of emphasis on science and its lack of training in critical thinking; on our society’s growing distrust in and disrespect for intellectuals; and the increasing influence of fundamentalist religion in politics.

The rise of the tenor guitar

Gold Tone tenor guitarTenor guitars have been around since the 1930s, possibly a few years earlier*, but they’ve never had a big following compared with six-string guitars. That seems to be changing, and I suspect it’s in part due to the incredible popularity of that other four-string guitar derivative: the ukulele.

In the past six-twelve months, I’ve been seeing more tenor guitars on the Net, including several new custom tenor guitars made by talented luthiers. New sites about tenor guitars have sprung up, too. Both new and vintage tenors are showing up on eBay in what seems to be increasing numbers. There’s even an annual gathering for tenor guitarists, perhaps more (the page linked above doesn’t actually say where the event takes place, and there are no maps, but it’s in the USA somewhere).

I hadn’t really given tenor guitars much thought, myself, until fairly recently. The only tenor guitarist I’ve ever known is Eugene Smith, who sometimes still plays here in Collingwood. But as a ukulele player, my interest in four- and eight- stringed instruments has widened to all sorts of instruments I’ve never really thought a lot about before (like bouzoukis). I suspect other ukulele players have also considered tenor guitars as a natural complement to uke playing, especially after trying a baritone uke.

1930 Gibson tenor guitarI started playing ukulele in early 2008, put down my guitars shortly after, and never picked one up again once I got bitten by the uke bug (okay, I’ve picked them up, but not played one for more than a few minutes). I quickly gravitated to tenor ukes as the best size and sound for my own playing and finger size. Tenors have a 17″ scale compared to the 13″ scale of a soprano, which I found too cramped.

I started playing baritone uke more than a year ago, after I bought one on a whim from another uke player online. Baritones have a 19″ scale and I really enjoyed the space, and fuller sound. Last year I picked up another musical whim – a four-string cigar-box guitar. I just wanted something to challenge me and give me a different sort of sound to experiment with. It’s the full, standard 25″ guitar scale. While fun to play, the body of a cigar box instrument is small and limits tonal production. That got me interested in tenor guitars.

Many uke players look askance at baritones as too close to guitar scale to be considered a “real” ukulele. I have found them tonally rich, and the lower key suits my limited singing range for many songs.

Eastwood tenor guitarI had to be in Toronto, last week, and my route into the downtown took me past the Twelfth Fret music store. What musician, even an amateur like me, can resist its siren call? I had to stop and see if they had any tenors for me to try. Only one, sadly: a 1936 Gibson priced at $999. Ouch: that’s a bit rich for my wallet, I’m afraid, but I did get to play it and compare it with a baritone uke (a Kala spruce top). I suppose for its age, the Gibson is not overpriced for most people. Since I’m not a pro nor a collector of vintage instruments, I decided to continue looking.

Mostly what I wanted to discover was how a tenor felt to hold and play: was the fretboard too narrow? Too wide? The stretch of fingers comfortable or not? How did it feel in my lap? The ergonomics of an instrument are very important.

Maybe it’s because some popular trends, even in music, seep more slowly into the Canadian consciousness, that the tenor has not taken hold here. Canada has been 10-20 years behind the USA in the tequila craze, and is at least six years behind the US, UK and Australia in the ukulele wave. Since tenor guitars seem to be a new revival, I suppose we should start to see Canadians take notice and for music stores to stock them somewhere around 2020.

I’ve called many music stores around Ontario asking if they had any, and none have – a few have responded with comments that they didn’t even know what a tenor guitar was. Yet there are at least two manufacturers – Gold Tone and Blue Ridge – who are making them (two acoustic models each; a solid and a laminate top). Gold Tone even sells a tenor resonator, metal-body model. Eastwood has a sold-body electric tenor.

Gold Tone resonator tenorI have all sorts of technical questions about a tenor resonator guitar, however, and whether the tension on the biscuit is sufficient for the cone to make the expected sound.** National made a metal-body tenor in the 1930s, and I believe the Gold Tone is homage to that.

Tenor guitars usually have a shorter scale than a standard guitar – 21 or 23 inches, although some new models seem to also share the guitar’s 25″ scale according to some comments I’ve read online. They have a narrow neck, but a big body – and steel strings. That makes them a sort of super baritone uke. However, tenor guitars traditionally have a different sort of tuning than a ukulele or guitar: often tuned in “fifths” to CGDA. Just like a tenor banjo.

A baritone uke and a guitar would be tuned DGBE. I don’t see any reason why I can’t tune one like a guitar. That would be easier than trying to learn an encyclopedia of new chord patterns.

The main attraction, for me, of a tenor guitar is the combination of large body (for fuller volume and tone production) and steel strings. While I love playing my nylon-stringed ukes, sometimes the music calls out for the more metallic, crisper sound of steel. It’s not better, just different. I also think that the combination of nylon and metal in different instruments would sound nice if I get back to recording some of my music.

All of which should suggest to readers that I intend to get one, and yes, I have found one on Kijiji and expect to pick it up next week. Actually I’m quite excited by the notion of having a new musical instrument to experiment with. Would that my talent matched my passion for playing…

~~~~~
* Tenorguitar.com says they’ve been around for “100 years or more” and that “‘Lyon and Healy’, whose main guitar brand name was ‘Washburn’, claimed to have invented the tenor guitar just after the turn of the twentieth century. Certainly tenor guitars must have been around in the latter part of the first decade of the twentieth century from the existence of published and dated instructional books for both the tenor guitar and tenor banjo from this period that still exist today.”
** Traditional biscuits are made of dense wood like ebony or rosewood. I suspect one could improve the energy transfer to the cone by using a piece of brass or even glass as a saddle. I’ve never found one of these resonator tenor guitars to play in a shop, so I don’t know how they are constructed. I am very curious to try one, however.