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Understand or Repeat 2 comments

Of the three purposes of my visit to Austria (Sound of Music / WWII / Mozart), it is Mozart that has gotten short shrift, I’m afraid. I’m headed to Vienna so I expect I’ll rectify that.

The Salzburg Museum has an entire floor dedicated to the times leading to WWI, the war itself from Austria’s point of view, and the aftermath in Austria. Without knowing a bit about WWI, WWII is completely lacking in context. It isn’t until you get to that last bit about what happened to Austria, Germany and other European economies and societies after WWI that the context for the rise of the far right/Nazi movement becomes clear. The war devastated this central part of Europe. People were starving, dying and completely demoralized. They had no particular reason to hope given that the particular depression they were experiencing was underpinned by a new type of class system.  Let me frame that differently – people who worked hard, who existed in a working class space and never expected to struggle beyond the normal challenges of life, who never had ancestors struggle without resources to be self-reliant – these are the people who were in trouble. Consider that generations prior to the industrial revolution trained men (specifically) in skills and trades passed down and valued over centuries. With the industrial revolution, people started to rely on a system not of their own choosing or making rather than relying on themselves. The system failed. In that kind of environment, any voice that comes along to blame someone else (Jews, perhaps?) for your troubles will eventually get air time.

Currently, we do see the rise of the far-right in Europe, and lots of blame-naming (foreigners, perhaps?) and a drive by some countries to isolate from the EU. It seems a relatively small movement, perhaps. Remember that Hitler was laughed off the stage the first few times he tried to get some public traction for his ideas. He had only a handful of followers, at first. But the public context for his views shifted, moreso than his views did. The times changed. The people changed. Economies all over Europe collapsed.

Now? Speaking from a North American perspective, ordinary working people have trouble finding meaningful work, the kind that both satisfies their souls and keeps them in a positive cash flow and a decent standard of living. Low-paying, low-skill jobs keep even experienced workers at entry level work, often at more than one job. Personal and public debt is rising. This makes people scared and vulnerable. Education is becoming positioned for the elite – intellectualism and scientific pursuits are seen, by some in the far-right, as oh so much nonsensical waste of time. A lack of access to education within a general population makes simple political messages have wider appeal.

We, globally, need to tread carefully at this particular juncture in time. Thanks to the recent study tour I had the crazy wonderful opportunity to be on recently, I’m understanding more the true purpose of the European Union, as complex, unwieldy and expensive as it is. The core purpose is the avoidance of war through dialogue and highly structured, regulated interdependence. The rest – economic leverage to participate in a global market, free movement of goods/services, a mobile labour force – is fine print.  A key success factor, pardon the MBA-speak, is maintaining an internationalistic, rather than a nationalistic, perspective.  We need to listen carefully and select out voices that seek to elevate, or isolate, one group or culture of people to the exclusion of all others. We may start hearing more such voices … and we need to remember where such sentiments can lead.

Shakespeare Would Have Had One Ball Click Here To Comment!

Recently,  I have had occasion to have several windows open in my operating system as I attempt to achieve some kind of productivity. In addition to having two monitors on in my home office, from time to time, I may also have my work laptop open on a separate desk behind me, displaying yet more programs or activities. As I work my way through my  to-do list, I am aware of how I’m “matrixing” my time, as a former boss used to call it. I will work away at one project and will need to wait for a screen to refresh, or for a distant server to respond to a request. This causes me to bump over to the next task, or screen, (or Spider Solitaire) and continue working away at what had been going on there before needing to wait for something to happen.

Thus, one modern version of “multi-tasking” has been born from all the forced “waiting” that our otherwise lightning fast computer systems impose upon us.

Much of what I need to accomplish depends on the speed and reliability of my Internet connection, and the speed and reliability of remote systems, be that a remote webmail server or a remote learning management system server or a remote software application server. As we move more and more of our computing power to the cloud, we will inevitably experience greater wait times. I don’t care what the hype says about solid state servers or increased bandwidth to the masses.  Working remotely might get faster but it won’t be as fast as it would be if all the processing were happening right here on my desk.  In any case, many of us have chosen to fill those wait times with Spider Solitaire productive activity working on the next task while we wait for the results of our previous task to take effect.

Add to this multiscreen, multitasking behaviour the constant presence of our new appendage – the mobile device with all its apps. We are all mental and cognitive jugglers with – dare I say it – a plethora of virtual balls.

We are evolving into a de facto multitasking workforce and I think this is simultaneously expensive and not very productive. A lose/lose situation. We are told by experts that single-tasking is really the only productive way to work. Multitasking is a fallacy, existing really as a series of single-tasking events in sequence. (Here is an article about this. Here is another one. Take your pick.)  As our brains attempt to manage the switching costs, paid out in loss of cognitive function, of repeatedly leaving one task unfinished in favour of proceeding to continue on with the next incomplete task, we lose time, energy and the ability to synthesize complex ideas.

The actual cost? Although this is a vast generalization, we are losing the ability to focus deeply and think creatively.  I think this is a huge loss and I do see this loss on a grand societal scale. It takes time to consider and reflect on our lives, our families, work, passions – all the elements that make up for a balanced way of living. We are, collectively, moving away from being a thoughtful society and into being a busy society in which ADD behaviour is rapidly becoming normative behaviour.

Real creativity, real revelation, true innovation – these valuable and expected outcomes of “successful societies” – these traits can’t arise out of a society that can’t focus long enough to complete one task well, from beginning to end.  If our political leaders  wish to be truly focused on closing an innovation and/or productivity gap, I would strongly urge them to consider working on forging some new cultural expectations on what true productivity looks like. It doesn’t look like “always being busy”. It looks like “producing well-thought-out, well-planned, quality output”.  We need to reward thoughtful behaviours, single-tasking, creative and artistic endeavours, and any type of task that requires focus and clarity of thinking. And I think we need to pay attention to this sooner rather than later, before we devolve into a jumble of tales, told by idiots, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.*

*Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 26-28) Wanna bet that Shakespeare would have had only one screen open at a time?

Jack Layton 3 comments

It is the day after Jack Layton’s funeral, and much of what needs to be said has been said.  I can’t add to the eloquence of a Stephen Lewis, or to the raw beauty of people speaking with their feet, their chalk, their bicycle bells, their hearts.

Some of what was said really didn’t need to be said – and I’m talking to you, Christie Blatchford.

For me, there are three small but significant pieces to this story that haven’t been reviewed to my satisfaction, and I hope to address them here.

Health: When I hear the name “Jack Layton”, the image I have in my head is of an incredibly fit, active, healthy, vibrant man. A man who, even in a busy, active life, clearly made time to exercise. I have no information on his dietary choices. From my vantage point – 99% off the television and 1% from seeing him up close at Pride every year – he looked the picture of health. Always.

I’m finding it hard to draw a conclusion from this outcome. That someone whose physical presence always radiated health and vitality can be cut down by cancer. Of course, I have been surprised and made anxious as I watch some of my “picture of health” friends struggle with the disease. We are told to exercise, to watch our weight, to eat properly.  A huge industry has arisen, selling all manner of health supplements to ward off cancer and other insidious physical ailments. Yet, one has to wonder what is written into our DNA upon conception, and that if our time has arrived, it has arrived and no amount of Greens Plus, broccoli or cardio is going to challenge that programming.

Elizabeth May: Where are you?  Perhaps it is a trick of the media, like a trick of the light, that your voice has been quite absent this week. I see you as a well-spoken woman who usually has something insightful to say. Yet the Green Party has issued a boilerplate condolence message and left things there. I think we need more from the leader of the Greens on the occasion of losing the national party leader who was, in many ways, most closely aligned to that party’s views. Elizabeth – perhaps you weren’t close, and perhaps there was rancour, but leadership demands some class from you at this point.

Apology To Former Students of Indian Residential Schools: On June 11, 2008, the Canadian Parliament apologized – finally – for the treatment of First Nations children and families. What seems to have been overlooked was Jack’s role in encouraging and guiding the Government of the day – specifically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper – to take this action. Prior to making the official apology, Stephen Harper acknowledged Layton’s role in making this happen. Here is Jack Layton making his apology in the House of Commons on that day.

Jack says in this address in June 2008 that this is a beginning, not an ending. Here is Jack, two months plus a day before his death, June 21, 2011, still pressing the government to take action on improving living conditions for our Aboriginal peoples.

I haven’t heard a word about this part of Jack’s work this week, and I wanted to give it a bit of air time. This was a man who was comfortable operating in the full public eye and, yet, able to work behind the scenes in concert with his political foes to get important items hauled to the forefront and dealt with. There is lots to miss about Jack Layton. The part we will miss, without even knowing it existed, is the part in which he laboured, and encouraged others to labour, quietly behind the scenes to achieve momentous things.

We need so many more like him, and yet are granted so few per generation. Salut, Jack, et merci.

We Live In A Data-Gatherer Society Click Here To Comment!

We are all data collectors and data users. I bet if you thought about it, you’d realize just how much data you process on a daily basis, making your basic day-to-day operational decisions.

  • Surveying the fridge and the pantry before grocery shopping. Making purchasing decisions based on what you know you have, or are missing. Making other decisions based on what you know, or can predict, will be on sale at some later date, or in some different store.
  • Visualizing your day and how much time you can allot to certain tasks. Being able to estimate how long certain tasks will take, based on how long they took before, and taking into consideration new variables. For example, the drive across town to the grocery store took 20 minutes last week but will take 30 this week as the trip is being attempted at a different time of day.
  • Planning activities for children, based on what they have enjoyed in the past. Trying to predict, based on what you know, what they might like in the future.

These are all scenarios in which we, as adults, recall, calculate, remember, process and interpret data we have gathered unconsciously – even subconsciously – and stored over a lifetime. We do all that, then we make decisions.

So, what does it say about our government when it does not want to take time to gather accurate, detailed data on citizens in order to make their decisions? I know so many people, including myself, who are outraged about this. In my opinion, StatsCan has never collected ENOUGH data on Canadians. Certainly not enough on the issues that affect groups that are marginalized or otherwise poorly understood.

  • We know too little, and have therefore done too little, about the health and welfare of our First Nations communities. We have a fragmented, rather than a systemic, understanding of the factors that have led to disasterous conditions.
  • We have a national blood services agency that feels justified in voting an entire group of potential donors off the donation island as they do not have enough current data and must lead with assumptions instead.
  • We have only scant data what families really look like in Canada in 2010 and are still setting public policy based on 1950’s era assumptions about intact male/female partnered households, 2.5 children and sub-urban lifestyles.

Indeed, StatsCan has never gathered enough data, in my opinion. And we are right to be outraged. But, here is the real problem. This government does not wish to make decisions based on data. Facts are not relevant to their decision-making process. If facts were relevant, the G20 would have been held practically anywhere else in Canada BUT downtown Toronto. No, this government does not wish to act on a factual basis. It wishes to act on its own assumptions and biases, on “gut-feel” and “everyone knows …”. We have public policy based on the “gut feel” of the individuals who have wound up in the power structure in parliament, and their own particular views and biases that accompany them to Ottawa.

This is akin to going shopping without any data on what you have already, or where you might find the best or cheapest items. Like flying blind in the grocery store, you wind up with too much milk and it goes off before you can use it, and you pay too much for bread, and you bring home the wrong salad dressing.  Inefficient, and a poor attempt at meeting needs.

What if we had proportional representation? Surprise – the Harper Conservatives don’t like that idea either.  Here are some charming facts from the Fair Vote Canada site:

  • 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
  • In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
  • Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
  • New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

You see, if Canada had proportional representation, the census data issue would matter slightly (only slightly) less because the parliament would be comprised of elected officials who actually represented the choices made by voters on election day.  And, therefore, the issue wouldn’t come up at all – because if the people we had actually voted for were in power, in proportion to the actual vote, Stats Can would get increased funding to gather more useful data to assist in the setting of public policy.

To make reasonable decisions based on actual data, not assumptions. Like we all try to do, every day.

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