Pin the Tale on the Disruption

This is a conclusion of a previous blog series entitled ‘Seven Days of Disruption‘.  These blogs discussed a variety of potential disruptions that could affect the public service.  During a Financial Management Institute conference entitled ‘Disruptive Writers‘ on November 22, 2017, 110 presenters, attendees and volunteers were asked to rank one of 18 disruptions as having the greatest impact on the Canadian Public Service over the next 10 years.  This blog will describe the game ‘Pin the Tale on the Disruption‘ (in case I want to use it in the future) and describe the results of the game including the response rate.

The Results of the Game

The number one identified disruptor (+15%) was the emergence of Artificial Intelligence.  Four disruptors were given more than half of the scoring, these four were:

  1. Evolving Artificial Intelligence
  2. Growing debt Overhang
  3. Cyber Insecurity
  4. IT Revolution 2.0 and the Rise of the Machines

Despite the inclusion of sociopolitical disruptors (e.g. Canadian regionalism, Canada in the age of Trump or De-Population Waves), technology disruptors represented more than a third of the scoring and were in first, third and fourth place respectively.  While hardly a scientific or statistically sound survey, the game ‘Pin the Tale on the Disruption’ should help public service leaders plan and align operational and tactical plans over the next decade.

Results of ‘Pin the Tale on the Disruption’ – FMI Event 2017-11-22

How the Game was Played

  • As part of the pre-conference notes and as a physical hand out, each participant were given 12 dots and a listing of disruptions to vote on.
  • Participants could also ‘make your own disruption’ if they thought one or more were missing (note, no additional disruptions were noted).
  • Dots were applied before the conference and during the break.
  • Instructions were provided upon registration, informally at each table by event leader and then en masse at the start of the session.
  • By apply dots, attendees received a ticket which entered their name in a draw for a prize (note, the tickets were inadvertently forgotten so prizes were given out via other means).

Future Notes on How the Game Went

  • Approximately 1,200 dots were distributed and 757 dots were applied for a response rate of 63%.
  • This response rate is lower than expected (with an ideal around 80%) and could be improved via better floor walkers and in-event promotion.
  • The moderator and the game coordinator had a good rapport.
  • Identifying and having a roving microphone in advance to encourage audience participation would have been ideal.
  • A pre-game run through with the moderator and participants would have been beneficial.

Blog Annex – FMI Event Description:

Disruptive Writers. 

This FMI event will focus on real and potential disruptions and how to navigate change.  Three local authors have each written about this topic from very different perspectives.  These authors will describe their books and their journey to becoming authors.  

Day 6 – Regions, Resources & Populism

This is the last list of potential disruptive factors that could influence the Canadian Public Service over the next decade or so.  See the previous blogs for the previous set of disruptions and Seven Days of Disruption blog for the entire set.  These are in support of November 22, 2017 FMI Conference – Disruptive Writers.

  • Quebec and Regional Tensions (editor)
  • Resource and Commodity Supply, Demand and Price (adapted from 2015)
  • Rising storm of populism; Canada and Cultural War in the Age of Trump and the Progressives (adapted from 2016 and editor)

Quebec and Regional Tensions (editor)

A full generation has grown up without ever hearing about Quebec separation, referendums or regional tensions.  Can it last?  The first challenge is geography, Canada is big – very big.  Many Canadians will never visit all of the provinces and territories, how can you sustain a country in which geography conspires against a sense of affiliation.  The next challenge is economics.  Canada has been sustained in the past half century by a wealth transfer from the Western Provinces to the vote rich eastern regions.  Despite multi-billion dollar provincial deficits, Alberta is still a ‘have’ province and will contribute to the ‘have-not’ areas.  Finally there is tribalism or regional identity.  Quebec has been the center of this with two referendums and the 1999 Clarity Act being central activities in the twenty years from 1980 to 2000.  Northern Canada, with the creation of Nunavut, seeks its own path to prosperity.  Atlantic Canada continues to struggle economic although recent mineral discoveries have brightened these prospects. So, will Canada continue to exist and prosper as it moves toward its bicentennial or will it be tore asunder by its size, politics and economics?

Resource and Commodity Supply, Demand and Price

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015: The resource “super-cycle” of the early 2000s saw global prices for energy, minerals and agriculture prices hit 30-50 year highs.  A new global resource “slump cycle” began in 2014, characterized by a dramatic oil price drop.  These underlying dynamics mean that the resource slump cycle will continue into the foreseeable future. Past resource cycles have continued on average for 13 to 15 years, because it takes time for supply infrastructure to realign with demand dynamics. Therefore, the current mismatch in demand and supply is likely to persist until 2027–2029. Renewable energy is a wild card as it is expected to continue to attract steady investment despite lower prices—likely as a result of less costly technologies, government regulations, and consumer preferences for cleaner power.  As a major exporter of minerals and an energy super power, this slump will particularly hurt the Canadian economy and the ability to maintain government tax revenue.

Canada and Cultural War in the Age of Trump

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2016: A populist, worldwide backlash to globalization and neoliberal economic policies continues to spread in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis due to a broad range of underlying structural issues, from digital information proliferation to wealth inequality. This backlash is creating policy instability and raises the risk of a potentially hostile environment for globalized business models.  A.T. Kearney defines populism as a mass political movement that harnesses “the power of the people” to reject the elite and the status quo. Populism is usually concentrated around a charismatic leader, and often includes advocating for more redistributive economic policies—or even illiberal tendencies to concentrate power in a single individual.  The impact for governments is navigating protectionist trade partners; volatility in civil, constitutional, policy and regulatory endeavours, and the risk of knee-jerk reactions resulting in the break down of civil society.  Compounding this challenge is the ‘dumbing-down’ effect of social media converting civil discussion and complex thought into 144 character sound bits and simple likes and memes.

Editors Note: There is a description that a cultural war is underway in the United States between ‘progressives’ or left and ‘populists’ or right.  Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party are progressives with Sarah Palin and being populists.  Generally the left accuse the right as being fascists (for more on how this may be topsy turvy, see: ‘The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left‘) and the right accuses the left of destroying liberal democracy through masked thugs and censorship of institutions such as universities.  In Canada we have less of this possibly because our political system allows for a more nuanced reflection of opinions (e.g. we have left of center NDP, right of center Conservatives and the center-left Liberal Parties. Nevertheless, what is the impact of this cultural war coming to Canada and can our democratic institutions survive the battles?

Day 5 – Islandization, IT and Post-Consumerism

This is the second last list of potential disruptive factors that could influence the Canadian Public Service over the next decade or so.  See the previous blogs for previous disruptions and Seven Days of Disruption blog for the entire set.  These are in support of November 22, 2017 FMI Conference – Disruptive Writers.

  • “Islandization” of the global economy (2017), NAFTA Negotiations and the rise of protectionism (editor)
  • IT Revolution 2.0 and the Rise of the Machines (adapted from 2015)
  • Post Consumerism (adapted from 2016)

“Islandization” (2017), NAFTA Negotiations and the rise of protectionism (editor)

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2017: After a quarter century of rapid globalization, restrictions on immigration, trade, and other cross-border flows are now increasing. A new phase—which we call “islandization”—has begun, marked by growing levels of nationalism, protectionism, and parochialism. While the United States is at the center of this trend, many of the countries leading the globalization charge are also quietly islandizing, creating a dramatically different operating environment for global businesses and governments.

Editors Note: Returning to the Great Depression, one of its acknowledged causes of its prolongation was the establishment of trade barriers between advanced economies exactly at the time when economic activity was needed the most.  At the same time, exporting jobs and manufacturing skills undermines an economy and a tax base.  In other words trade like most things is something to be managed with no exact ‘pre-set’ value.  Canada is a directly beneficiary of being a trading nation even if most of it goes south to our NAFTA partner.

IT Revolution 2.0 and the Rise of the Machines

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015: The Internet of Things (IoT) is a fast-growing constellation of connected “smart devices,” such as smartphones,  self-driving cars,  household appliances, industrial robots and smart electrical grids. With continued dramatic growth in connectivity, these machines increasingly transmit information to one another and take real-world actions without humans in the loop. Beyond gizmos and conveniences, IoT may lead to dramatic change for societies, economies and governments.  For example, if self-driving vehicles take off, what are the regulatory, economic and employment impacts of giving up this human activity?

Editors Note: Industrial robots are an important IoT growth and China is forecasted to become the world’s largest user of industrial robots by 2017.  This means greater competition for manufacturing jobs and industries in Canada.  Beyond productivity, the IoT also contains significant cyber-security and privacy concerns for consumers and citizens.  As a positive, the innovation and productivity gains are central to the miracle of human development we have seen over the past two hundred years.  The Industrial, Green, Fossil Fuel and Information Revolutions have all created greater material wealth for humans… notwithstanding the negative corresponding negative impacts to the planet and our fellow species.  In other words, two hopes: 1) we can manage the rise of the machines to generally improve the human condition and 2) our robot overlords treat us better than we have treated some of our fellow animals and humans.

Post Consumerism

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2016: Consumer values and preferences in developed markets are shifting toward buying fewer physical goods and valuing experiences over possessions. While this is creating new business opportunities for service providers, it also raises important challenges for traditional consumer products groups and retailers.  Concurrent with this change is the emergence of the Amazon.com who are effectively competing for a shrinking pool of consumption.  The OECD reports that the rate at which member countries consume physical materials has begun to decline and that at present “OECD countries generate 50 percent more economic value per unit of material resources than in 1990.” While this change is generally good for the environment (and likely good for the soul – editor) it may also pose challenges to governments as retail outlets fail and small business retailers cannot compete with either Amazon or online digital experiences.

Editors Note: Remember Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs?  If post-consumerism turns out to be a ‘thing’ it certainly would validate Maslow’s work?  There is some tough sledding though including unwinding a century of modern marketing and an economic structure based on consumption.  Nevertheless our landfills and planet would probably thank us.

Day 4 – Debt, Immigration and First Nations

This is the fourth list of potential disruptive factors that could influence the Canadian Public Service over the next decade or so.  See the previous blog for the first set of three and Seven Days of Disruption blog for the entire set.  These are in support of November 22, 2017 FMI Conference – Disruptive Writers.

  • Growing debt overhang (2017)
  • Immigration and Changes to the Canadian Values and Characters (editor)
  • Indigenous Power (editor)

Growing debt Overhang

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2017: Driven by historically low-interest rates, debt levels around the world have risen dramatically and now stand at all-time highs. These debt obligations are on increasingly shaky ground as a result of both their sheer size and key policy shifts under way in the United States and China. An adjustment—orderly or more likely otherwise—will occur in the near to medium term.  Concerns are for debt in governments, corporations and households.  Canadian Government total debts is less than its G20 peer countries but still well above 85% of national GDP (source wikipedia).  Unfortunately Canada trails its G20 peers in corporate and in particular household debt.  Household debt is also worryingly high with Canada at the epicenter of this debt buildup. Canada is among the developed markets in which household debt rose 2 to 3 percentage points in 2016—in large part due to a rise in mortgage lending and housing markets that seem to be overheating. Household debt now stands at over 101 percent of GDP in Canada.

Editors Note: The Great Depression of the 1930’s is often attributed to the accumulation of debt both at a personal and national level.  Credit purchase of goods and mortgages were both relatively new financial tools which fueled a rapid expansion of the US economy in the 1920’s.  Beyond consumables, the stock market was also a beneficiary of leveraged purchases.

At a national level, Europe was still reeling from the effects of the First World War.  The massive allied debt owed to the United States and its unwillingness to forgive this debt made the allies less forgiving in turn for German war debts and reparations.  Add in protectionism and an entire house of cards folded with the correction of the stock market in October 1929.  Interestingly many of the same conditions have parallels in our own time.

Immigration and Changes to the Canadian Values and Characters (editor)

Canada has been a net beneficiary of immigration since humans first started to leave Africa tens of thousands of years ago.  However when most people think of immigration it is not of Bering Straight land bridges but instead of the initial waves of mostly European settlers from the 16th to the end of 20th century.  Since the 1970’s, government policies and changing demographics have seen immigration sources move from European sources to being from all parts of the globe.

A greying Canadian population will mean that immigration must continue even to maintain our current population let alone allow from natural growth.  Despite a Canadian government policy of multiculturalism, what is the impact of displacing a predominantly Euro-centric population and set of cultural values with a more global set of values?  As well, are there risks of a ‘Balkanization’ of Canada such that a Canadian citizen may grow up in an enclave without ever leaving the culture (or perhaps language) of their ancestral home.  Are there risks of a loss of Euro-centric values of liberalism and individual freedoms if in migration was attracted to these norms in the first place?

Indigenous Power (editor)

Human colonization of the North American continent started many thousand of years ago with either the current first nations or perhaps even an earlier wave of human migration.  Irrespective, the people who make up Canada’s first nations have a long standing claims and association with the land. In many parts of Canada this association was articulated in a series of treaties. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and more recently the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls are two recent government efforts to make for a better arrangement between Canadian society as a whole and the First Nation segment.  For Canadian governments and the larger society, the questions of how to resolve land claims (including competing claims for the same territory), integrating this culture while still maintaining the liberal principles of equality for all.  As well, there is the question of what is the end game for all of the players?  What does resolution look like and exactly what will it cost to achieve this state?

Day 3 – Greying Population, AI and Extremism

This is the third list of potential disruptive factors that could influence the Canadian Public Service over the next decade or so.  See the previous blog for the first set of three and Seven Days of Disruption blog for the entire set.  These are in support of November 22, 2017 FMI Conference – Disruptive Writers.

  • Depopulation Waves (2015)
  • Evolving Artificial Intelligence (2015)
  • Geopolitical Realignment (2015) and Continued Global Violent Extremism (2015)

Depopulation Waves

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015: As global population growth slows, some countries’ populations are already shrinking. Global population growth is decelerating from 1.8 percent in the 1980-2000 to just 1.1 percent in the 2000–2025 period. The three main drivers of depopulation are aging, international migration, and high mortality and morbidity rates.  Depopulation presents a range of challenges including labor shortages, weaker consumer demand, lower tax revenue and higher health care costs as the greying population lives longer.

Editor Note: Additional impacts to the above are a massive transfer of wealth from the baby boomers to their children.  Of course this wealth is only of value if the economic and social structures continue to exist to support them.

Evolving Artificial Intelligence

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015: Artificial intelligence (AI) is already used in sectors as distinct as finance, journalism, and engineering, and it continues to find new applications. For instance, AI is used in security trading dark pools, writes breaking news articles, and dominates humans in many games (such as chess, backgammon, Scrabble, and even Jeopardy!). It is also being leveraged in an attempt to cure cancer (as part of the Big Mechanism project being run by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA]) and make lethal decisions on the battlefield through its integration into the weapons systems of several countries. Increasing investment in deep learning technologies will enable AI to expand to even more sectors.

Editor Note: This topic has been explored in detail both in the business press and in fiction (anyone remember HAL from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey?).

Geopolitical Realignment and Continued Global Violent Extremism

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015: Global economic and political power is increasingly diffuse thus compli­cating leadership efforts within the international system. In the years since the Global Financial Crisis, the United States and other Western powers have receded from the global stage  while rising regional powers have increased their political influence.  These changing power dynamics are decreasing the effectiveness of global political institu­tions. These institutions have transformed little in the past 60+ years and are failing to accommodate shifting power dynamics.  Global arms spending, has grown in recent years after decades of decline following the conclusion of the Cold War.

Today’s most pressing issues, including security concerns, are global in nature but cooperation has proved increasingly difficult in the current international environment. The international security architecture has been slow to address global terrorism and transnational organized crime. Moreover, lack of trust in govern­ments and businesses complicates international efforts to prevent cyber threats.

Editor Note: Canada has been a direct participant and beneficiary in the international movements of the second half of the 20th century.  From being a founding member of the United Nations and NATO to conceiving the concept of peace keepers, Canada has been described as ‘punch above its weight’ in international affairs.

Day 2: Power, Cyber-Security and Renewables

This is the second list of potential disruptive factors that could influence the Canadian Public Service over the next decade or so.  See the previous blog for the first set of three and Seven Days of Disruption blog for the entire set.  These are in support of November 22, 2017 FMI Conference – Disruptive Writers.

  • Changing Nature of Power (2015)
  • Cyber Insecurity (2015)
  • Dawning of a new urban transportation age and the Canadian City (2017 and editor)

Changing Nature of Power (2015)

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015: In today’s world, power is increasingly fleeting and diffuse.  It is disseminated across individuals empowered by new technologies such as search engines and social media; to lower levels of government, including cities; and to start-ups and user-driven networked organizations. The rise of the global middle class is leading to greater individualism and expectations for service from their governments and from businesses, with consumers having never had a broader freedom of choice. Global trust in most institutions reached an all-time low in 2015, with governments continuing to be the least-trusted institution.

Editor note: So What?  The answer is that trust is foundation of a society and an economy.  It profoundly reduces the transaction cost in both.  Public institutions support this trust by enforcing social norms. In a strange twist, public institutions are sometimes powerless at the hands of a small but vocal group of individuals.

For example, an August 2017 discussion on free speech at Ryerson University was cancelled because the University was concerned about safety and security.  Described as domestic terrorism by one of the panelists, this is an example of public institution (Ryerson) self-censuring thought and discussion with a resulting degradation of its own power and trust.  While the individuals involved may congratulate themselves on forcing their view points onto an entire institution, they should also recognize that they are sharing a common heritage with the black, brown or red shirts who dominated politics a century ago.

Cyber Insecurity (2015)

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015:While the upside of the Internet is enormous, cyber threats continue to multiply. Estimates put global cyber crime losses at somewhere between $375 billion and $575 billion annually.  All connected devices and systems are vulnerable to attack. Computer systems, for example, are vulnerable to ransomware. The growing IoT also lacks strong security systems and is highly vulnerable to data theft.  To make matters more complex, the cyber arena is a growing domain of warfare between countries, in which businesses can be caught in the crossfire. The “Darknet”—parts of the “Deep Web” that are not discoverable by traditional search engines—remains a serious criminal threat, especially with the rise of crypto-currencies. It is cloaked with encryption software that provides anonymity to users. The Darknet is used as a source of cyber attacks, as well as a place to buy and sell ransomware and other cyber weapons. Another business risk of the Darknet is that it provides a marketplace for stolen data collected through cyber attacks, augmenting hackers’ motivation to continue conducting such attacks.

Editor note: Governments see online services as a way to provide better government for fewer resources.  The Singapore, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom are acknowledged leaders in this effort although the Canada Revenue Agency has also made great strides in allowing for a digital experience.  Nevertheless, governments have a number of challenges including the Facebook-effect, the Shiny-bauble problem and resource asymmetry.

Facebook Effect – You are the Product

The Facebook-effect is the problem of comparing government services to a for profit service such as Facebook.  If Facebook can provide service xyz or make its offerings free, why can’t a government?  There are of course a number of answers to this.  Firstly Facebook is not constrained by the same legal, moral and democratic frameworks.  Facebook has an entirely different revenue model.  For social media, the user is the product.  Thus your likes, shares and contributions builds up a profile of you as a person which can then be monetized.  For governments such monetization of a citizen would be outrageous.  Finally, Facebook can fail while governments are expected to be enduring.  If Facebook ceased to exist tomorrow it would be inconvenient but a new social media product would take its place (anyone still using MySpace?).

The Shiny-Bauble Problem

Governments like to implement new things.  Ribbon cutting and shovel turning is good press and leads to the primary objective of any government – staying in power.  As a result, governments get distracted by the Shiny-Bauble which have a short-term effect or solution that has little enduring value and may cause long-term harm to a society.  The worst thing about Shiny-Baubles is that they may become entrenched in a society by a small group who benefit from the government largess.  In other words, the only thing worst than a Shiny-Bauble is trying to turn one-off.

Resource Asymmetry

Governments often have fewer and less enabled resources to delivery digital services or fight cyber-threats than the legitimate and illegitimate competitors.  The above Facebook discussion is one aspect of this resource asymmetry and consuming valuable government resources pursuing a Shiny-Bauble is another.  A darker example of asymmetry is that the bad guys only need to look for and exploit a single weakness in a government’s cyber environment.  At the same time, a government must fight all threats while trying to provide services.

Dawning of a new urban transportation age and age of renewables (2017 and editor)

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015: The global urban population has risen steadily over the past two decades. According to the United Nations (UN), there were about 2.9 billion urbanites in 2000, but that number has increased to 4.1 billion and will hit 4.5 billion in 2022. The number of megacities, defined as cities with 10 million or more inhabitants, rose from just 17 in 2000 to 29 in 2015, and the total is projected to rise to 36 by 2025. Hyper-urbanization is heightening congestion levels in cities around the world. The age of the automobile may be ending as cities adopt innovative new technologies and use more traditional mass and individual transit methods to enable smarter and more sustainable urban transportation and growth.

(Editor) Public transit and electric vehicles are two ways that urbanization will change the face of a city but tele-commuting and promoting walk/bike-able cities are another.  This raises a challenge for Canadians as much of our housing stock has been built since the mid-20th century and the economics and logistics for all of these mitigating solutions will require significant government investment and coordination.  It will also require a change in cultural norms and expectations as owing a home has become central to financial and personal-security well-being.

Day 1: Climate, Biotech and Canadian Competitiveness

What are some of the larger potential disruptive factors that could influence the Canadian Public Service over the next decade or less.  The following three are the first in a list that will be used at the November 22, 2017 FMI Conference – Disruptive Writers.

  • Seven Days of Disruption (Initial Blog).
  • Accelerating Global Climate Change and the cost to mitigate (2015 and editor)
  • Biotechnology: Frankenstein, Super-bugs and Super-cures (adapted from 2016 and editor)
  • Canadian Competitiveness and Productivity (editor)

Accelerating Global Climate Change and the Cost to Mitigate

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2015: Food production, rising sea levels, increased range of tropical diseases and impacts to fragile environments such as the arctic and northern forests are some of the negative impacts identified.  At the same time, Canada could be a net beneficiary as more of its land mass becomes suitable for agriculture and lower cost for exploration of mineral wealth in the arctic.  These are tenuous gains as compared to social and mass population upheavals however.

Editor note: in many ways the past 200+ years of using fossil fuels can be compared to a young person inheriting a vast fortune from an unknown dead relative.  The changes have been both negative and positive.

On the positive side, there are billions of people alive today or who have lived in the past two centuries that would not have lived without the exploitation of fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels have given us a standard of living in which even the poorest Canadian is living better than many past kings or queens.  Hydrocarbons deliver clean water, warm homes, take away sewage, pave our streets, move food to our stores, fix nitrogen out of the air to grow the food and give us miracle materials such as plastics.

However, like a young adult waking up from a massive party we are also noticing that the trust fund is running low.  As well, 200+ years of living with fossil fuels has directly or indirectly killed many of our fellow species, polluted our homes.  The hunt for the fuels have led to corruption and creating vast fortunes in societies that have exported extremism and intolerance of things like women’s rights.

The cost to leave the fossil fuel era is considerable and may not occur in our lifetime.  The reality is that the engineering and technologies to replace an energy dense and convenient storage medium such as gasoline is considerable.  Canada has committed to shutter its coal power plants.  In 2014 this represented approximately 10% of the nation’s total generation nearly all in Western Canada [1].  Assuming these plants are closed by the target date of 2030, 63.6 terrawatt hours of capacity will need to be replaced [2].  Globally, Canada’s coal generation represents 0.67% of the total world generation capacity [3].  Thus the cost of leaving fossil fuels in the ground are not only direct but indirect as we place ourselves at a competitive disadvantage despite being a global powerhouse in energy reserves.

Biotechnology

Adapted from A.T. Kearney 2016: Just four years after its invention, “copy-and-paste” biotechnology is bending the cost and timeline curves for major scientific breakthroughs. CRISPR-Cas9—which stands for “clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” and “CRISPR-associated protein number nine”—was discovered in 2012. This biotechnology has the ability to delete, repair, or replace genes, making it a function for genetic manipulation that will allow researchers to do three things more cheaply and effectively than ever before: alter human genetic code, cure diseases, and even create new lifeforms.   Its applications will have far-reaching impacts on a multitude of industries, altering business models, regulatory environments, and consumer demands and preferences worldwide.

Editor’s Note: Bio-technology is one of the things that makes us human even if the technology part has advanced considerably.  10,000 years ago the methods would have included burning forests to plant crops or encourage grazing animals; selecting grains such as wheat, rye or rice; or domesticating the dog, horse or cow.

More recently state sponsored food research was central to of the green revolution of the late 20th century.  Genetically modified food has continued this revolution although with a sense of unease.  Bio-technology promises designer cures for diseases and an improved standard of living for humanity.  The shadow includes Frankenfoods, designer babies and other nightmares from science fiction.  Regulation and a stable civil society is one way to control this.  Another method is to ensure that the work is done in a culture of openness and transparency – something perhaps more difficult if the research leaves Western countries and is taken up in repressive regimes or nations lacking a history of civil discussion.

Canadian Competitiveness

Adapted from the Conference Board of Canada: Canada’s standing on the 2017 Global Competitive Index as issued by World Economic Forum improved one place to 14th.  Switzerland ranks first, followed by the United States, Singapore, the Netherlands, and Germany.  Taxation and government regulation impeded competitiveness while a good K-12 and post-secondary education systems provided an offset.  Canada benefits from efficient labour markets and a sound financial and securities systems.  Canada lacks consistent investment in research and development, has degrading public infrastructure, poor coordination between universities and business and an over-reliance on natural resources.

Editors Note: This subject was discussed at the September 21, 2016 FMI Edmonton Chapter event Fostering Innovation in the Public Service When Money is Tight.

[1] Adapted from Canada Coal Profile, Figure 6 and Table 1, accessed 2017-11-13; https://www.iea.org/ciab/papers/Canada.pdf.
[2] ibid Power generation (gross) in TWh in 2014.
[3] Key World Energy Statistics, Electricity Generation by source, accessed 2017-11-13;  http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2017.pdf

Seven Days of Disruption

On November 22, 2017, the Edmonton Chapter of the Financial Management Institute is running an event entitled ‘Disruptive Writers‘.  In addition to hearing 3 great speakers discuss their books on either future disruptions or managing change, we will be playing a game called ‘Pin the Tale on the Disruption‘.  Sort of a mini-Delphi of what participants at the conference think will be the biggest challenge to the Canadian Public Service between now and …. ohhhh, say…. 2025 (e.g. about 7 years hence).

The Source of Disruption

There is a variety of sources for the disruptions but they are primarily based on the excellent work of the A.T. Kearney who have produced 3 Global Trend documents (available as follows):

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future (Yogi Berra)

A word of caution about the difficulty of making predictions.  Inevitably something better or worse will have muscled all of the excellent possible futures out of the picture.  In addition, Black Swans and the unpredictable are a near certainty.  So, to my future self, I profusely apologize/acknowledge for being so absolutely wrong/right in naming the following future disruptions.

A Laundry List of Disruption (in alphabetical order)

  1. Accelerating Global Climate Change and the cost to mitigate (2015 and editor)
  2. Biotechnology: Frankenstein, Super-bugs and Super-cures (adapted from 2016 and editor)
  3. Canadian Competitiveness and Productivity (editor)
  4. Changing Nature of Power (2015)
  5. Cyber Insecurity (2015)
  6. Dawning of a new urban transportation age and the Canadian City (2017 and editor)
  7. Depopulation Waves (2015)
  8. Evolving Artificial Intelligence (2015)
  9. Geopolitical Realignment and Continued Global Violent Extremism (2015)
  10. Growing debt overhang (2017)
  11. Immigration and Changes to the Canadian Values and Characters (editor)
  12. Indigenous Power (editor)
  13. Islandization” of the global economy (2017), NAFTA Negotiations and the rise of protectionism (editor)
  14. IT Revolution 2.0 and the Rise of the Machines (adapted from 2015)
  15. Post Consumerism (adapted from 2016)
  16. Quebec and Regional Tensions (editor)
  17. Resource and Commodity Supply, Demand and Price (adapted from 2015)
  18. Rising storm of populism; Canada and Cultural War in the Age of Trump and the Progressives (adapted from 2016 and editor)

Driving MS Daisy 2018

A Little Context Please

Canada has the highest rate of multiple sclerosis (MS) in the world, with an estimated 1 in 340 Canadians living with the disease. While it is most often diagnosed in young adults aged 15 to 40, younger children and older adults are also diagnosed with the disease (source, MS Society).  Each June the MS Society of Alberta and the NWT runs the Leduc to Camrose ride over two days and about 150km.

Who Cares About MS Anyway – I Want to Go HOME

Picture this, you are on the MS Leduc to Camrose ride and true to form it is raining, you are tired and there is BIG-FRIGGIN’ hill between you and the next rest stop.  This hill seems to be about as high as Mount Everest.  Who the HECK builds a road up FRIGGIN’ Mount Everest and then runs a MS BIke Ride on it!

As you stare at this hill that is growing by the minute in height, you cannot even remember why you signed up for this ^#@)!=& ride in the first place. Actually you know why, that cursed wife/husband, girl/boyfriend, co-worker, aunt/uncle, etc. talked you into it.  Who the hell cares about MS anyway, you are cold, wet, miserable and you just want to go home.

Giving Everest a Pass for MS

Just as Mount Everest is growing taller, a white pick up truck pulls in front of you.  From it walks a friendly volunteer.  The volunteer discusses how MS is episodic, there are great days and there are days just like this one that REALLY suck.  Like most diseases, it is easy to be over-whelmed and even lash out to those who care for you and are trying to help.  The volunteer suggests that you hop in the truck, take a pass on the Mount Everest’esque hill and get driven just a few kilometers to the rest stop.

At the rest stop the volunteer then asks you to do something strange, sign the truck.  With a larger marker, you write your name, perhaps including a small note.  You notice that you are not the first to sign the truck.  Hundreds of people who have been helped by the truck or who have helped create the truck inter-mingle on the hood, fenders and doors of this circa 1995 white truck.

It is then you understand why you signed up for the 2018 ^#@)!=& MS ride.  It is because some days, people with MS just need a small rescue and a bit of hope to get to their next rest stop so they can carry on the next day.  Your wife/husband, girl/boyfriend, co-worker, aunt/uncle, etc. pulls into the rest stop.  All is forgiven… well until the next big FRIGGIN’ hill that is… but that is down the road… just like living with MS.

Wanted an Old Truck Called Driving MS Daisy

On June 9 and 10, 2018 I would like to be that volunteer (see my 2017 MS Ride notes on why I am doing this).  The truck needs to be in a good running condition and reasonable shape.  Likely the MS Society will register and insure it.  When 2018 is done, MS Daisy 2018 may be auction off and a MS Daisy 2019 will be created with a circa 1996 white pick up truck.

Sponsors and Friends of MS Daisy

MS Daisy 2018 will be a community and collaborative affair.  I am looking for a variety of sponsors from getting the truck pro bono, repairing and restoring the truck, applying thank you-decals, driving it (possibly all over Western Canada), writing on it and finally auctioning it off to start fresh.

A Pro Bono Circa 1995 Truck

To start, I need a truck. Ideally I would like to find a circa 1995 white full sized crewcab pick up truck.  She can be as old as 1984 or as new as 2003.  These dates represent the range when MS is diagnosed (34 years old) or typical first onset (15 years old).  Also I am calling MS Daisy a she because MS strikes 2:1 females versus males (and it makes for a better pun).

Perhaps there is a car dealership or broker who has one sitting in their inventory or a great deal comes up on the wholesale auction.  In any case, the organization providing the truck would get primary sponsorship space on the truck itself.

Repair and Restoring the Old Girl

Circa 1995 vehicles typically are showing their age.  They have a bit of rust and require at least some mechanical work.  There is a parallel here to MS in which a healthy lifestyle may prevent MS episodes or at least make the next episode easier to weather.

In my ideal world, this work would be done by a technical college or even a high school as a class project.  Even better, a garage or auto body shop would sponsor and supervise the work done by the students for apprenticeship credits.

While in the shop, MS Daisy would get a basic engine overhaul, full mechanical inspection and repair (e.g. brakes, electrical system, suspension, etc.) and possibly new rubber.  Cosmetically, she will receive a paint job, ideally in flat matte white.  Why, because it easier to write on of course!

In addition to sponsorship decals, everyone who is involved in buying and restoring MS Daisy will get to sign her.  In this way, the MS Society can use MS Daisy as a symbol to show how the disease touches the lives of many Canadians.

Driving MS Daisy 2018

The intent is drive MS Daisy in the June 9/10 2018 Leduc to Camrose MS Ride.  This by itself would be success.  However, the MS Society may choose to use MS Daisy to help other riders participating in other events held in Alberta and Western Canada.

Beyond MS, the MS Society may also wish to loan the vehicle out to other events.  For example, MS Daisy can help with the Tour de l’Alberta, the Tour of Alberta or even other rides that meet the MS Society’s goals or that sponsor the society.

Whether on the Leduc to Camrose MS Ride, another MS Ride or on a partnership event, everyone who comes into contact with MS Daisy will sign her guest book. The fact that her guest book is her hood, front fenders and doors is part of what makes MS Daisy eccentric and a bit charming.  It also builds a tangible link between individuals, the vehicle and the MS brand.  In the day and age of instant celebrity and oblivion via social media, this gives those touched by MS Daisy a touch point to a larger community cause (plus she will make an awesome backdrop for an Instagram photo!).

Retiring MS Daisy

Every year MS will strike a new group of young people in Canada and every year a new MS Daisy should be found.  But what to do with the old one?  Why send her off to a new adventure of course.  She will be sold at auction (e.g. Ritchie Brothers) everyone who signed MS Daisy will be invited to to see her go to a new new home.  To a certain extent, this is the final metaphor for the MS Daisy program.  By riding in the MS Ride, we want those who have the disease to go on with their lives in as normal of fashion as possible.

But what about 2019?  Ideally a new MS Daisy will be nurtured into existence, driven around the Western Canada and then auction off to start a new life as well.

Financial Considerations and Next Steps

Will Driving Ms Daisy 2018 raise money for the MS Society?  Yes but not a lot.  There will be a ‘MS Daisy’ team entered in every event the vehicle participants in.  Ideally this would raise between $500-$3,000 in donations.  The value of the final auction will also net the society between $2,000 to $7,000 gross proceeds.  This will raise in total of  $2,500 to $10,000 gross proceeds.

This may not seem like a lot but there are also no costs associated with MS Daisy for the MS Society other than registration and insurance.  The campaign has an opportunity to promote the MS rides among cyclists participating in other events and it will generate over all brand awareness for MS.  Secondary benefits include reaching out to new sponsors to support the ride.

This has been fun putting together this promotional campaign.  Hopefully it is of interest and in the meantime, does anyone have a circa 1995 white pick up truck?  I would like to use it to help someone conquer an Everest’esque hill on the June 9 and 10, 2018 weekend.

 

MS Ride 2017

On the weekend of June 10/11, 2017; I once again volunteered for the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society’s Leduc to Camrose ride.  I got involved in the ride primarily through my involvement with the a local bike club, EBTC.  I have done a few different things for the ride including pounding signs for a few years.  However, what I did this year is what I enjoy volunteering for the most – Marshaling the ride.

Motorized Marshal

First a bit of context for the MS ride.  There are a number of volunteer roles one of which is being a bicycle marshal.  This involves riding the course, fixing minor repairs (e.g. flats), encouraging safe riding (e.g. no ear buds, ride single file, etc.) and watching for riders who need either encouragement, instruction or even medical attention on the course.  The marshals ride both days and the roughly ~150km.  They receive free meals, accommodation and access to the entertainment, etc.

Alas my fitness goals did not match with my timetable and so instead of cycling I drove my truck – and I am glad that I did.  I was better able to serve the 1,600 or riders who signed up and raised money for the ride.  As well, I was able to be the last man in (other than the safety folks) behind the final rider on both days.  As a result I was able to:

  • Sweep the challenge loop (an extra 20km section for those who want to push themselves).
  • Relieve marshals who had stopped for minor repairs so they could keep cycling.
  • Leap frog lost riders to join the main group of riders.
  • Leap frog marshals into the main group of riders; this allowed them to linger at rest stops to provide assurance and safety to riders.
  • Stop and discuss with tired or overwhelmed riders the options of taking a leap-frog or even exiting the ride.
  • Cheer on riders whilst sitting on my tail gate.

Relieving marshals, leap frogging riders and volunteers or performing extra sweeps are important but are not what I found the most gratifying nor what I believe added the greatest value as a ‘motorized marshal’.  Instead, I added value by sitting on my tail gate and talking to riders.

Particularly on the second day, many riders are exhausted.  They may not be experienced riders.  They may have danced a bit too much the night before or the traditional miserable MS Ride weather may have worn them down.  As a result, they are looking at a hard climb out of the Gwynn Valley or some of the other hills and are considering giving up.  To me this is a pivotal moment to help the MS Society achieve its priorities.

The MS Ride Priorities

The Leduc to Camrose ride is the largest in Canada and involves the coordination of 1,600+ riders, hundreds of volunteers and sites and logistics.  Ultimately this effort is to raise money for MS.  The society’s goal for 2017 was $2.2M for which it fell short by raising a little under $1.7M.

Learning About MS and Cycling from a Tail Gate

But back to the Gwynn Valley and a rider who is inexperienced or exhausted looking at a ~2km and 7% grade climb.  These riders are easy to spot.  They look a little frightened.  They may be with someone who is an experienced rider and who is trying to coax them up one more hill.  They are also close to giving up on the ride which would be unfortunate.  As a result my tail gate conversation often went something like this (after initial pleasantries and introductions were made):

  • FRANK:
    • So, are you very familiar with MS, do you know how it is an episodic disease?
  • RIDER: Ummm, no.
  • FRANK:
    • MS is a bit unusual in that it comes and goes.
    • One day a person is fine but the next day they may be unable to get out of bed.
    • Conversely they may be ill for a long time and then have a remission for days, months or even years, did you know that?
  • RIDER: No
  • FRANK:
    • This ride is about research and finding a cure for MS but it is also about understanding the disease and raising money so that someone who can’t get out of bed one day gets the support he or she needs so when the disease abates they can get back to their life.
    • Isn’t MS a strange disease?
  • RIDER: It is, I did not know that.
  • FRANK:
    • In a way this ride is a bit like a journey with MS, isn’t it.
    • You start out strong and then it wears your down.
    • There are people at rest stops and on the highway to help keep you going. However, there are some points on the ride when you may need a bit more help.
    • Perhaps it is just an extra cookie at a rest stop, perhaps it is a leap-frog to the top of the hill or may be it is a ride to the finish line.
    • Right now for you, how about just a leap-frog to the top of the hill?
    • You get a few minutes to rest, you will take a pass on this hill but you will be ready for the next one and the rest of the ride.
  • RIDER: But I don’t want to cheat, I want to finish the ride on my own.
  • FRANK:
    • I understand that but this is not cheating, this is about understanding MS.
    • When you get home and you think about this ride, imagine if the support vehicle was not there and you did not have an option.
    • You would have had to climb this hill on your own.
    • We are not going to drive you to the finish line, but for JUST this ONE hill, we are going to help you.
    • In the same way, just for that one day, the MS Society helps that person stay in bed and helps the family care for that person until they are better.
    • The ride to the top of the hill is not cheating
    • Instead a ride helps you to understand the disease and, more importantly, why it is so important that you are riding this weekend and raising money for MS.
    • The leap-frog isn’t cheating but it is a metaphor for MS.
    • For this one hill, can we give your ride until you are ready to take the route on your own?
    • Also, after this ride, if someone asks you if you finished you can tell them that you were glad to take a ride just like people with MS are glad to get help from the society?
  • RIDER: Thank you, I will take the ride and I will tell people the story of why I was glad to take a leap-frog to better understand MS.
  • [Editors note, my wife also suggested that they took the ride so I would stop talking.  No comment, author].

Finishing the Ride and Raising Money

Okay, maybe the conversation did not always go EXACTLY like the above but in the end I managed to coax about a dozen people to take a short ride when they needed a break.  More importantly, I believe that these 12 people finished the ride and left with a positive image of the ride and a better understanding of MS.

This is why sitting on my tail gate applauding people who go by or coaching some of them is critical volunteer role.  Hopefully by doing so the riders are more likely to come back next year, fund raise harder for the ride or contribute when someone asks for a donation.

…. And I Endorse This Message.

Recently the Edmonton Chapter of the Financial Management Institute reached out to three levels of government to promote their May 17, 2017 Mental Health Event.  The result: two endorsements and some notes on how to ask senior officials and politicians to promote an event.

Why Do you Need an Endorsement?

A little context please… You are on a committee of some sort.  It may be for a volunteer organization (e.g. FMI, Scouts, church or work related) and you are doing something special (running a conference, publishing a book, launching a program or a website).  In doing this you would like someone important (politician, senior public servant, corporate officer or religious official – collectively these are affectionately known as the “grand pooh bahs of something” or the GPBS) to acknowledge or endorse the thing you are doing.

Because this is a memory jog for me, the focus of this blog is an assumption that you are on the board of a FMI Chapter here in Canada and you want a GBPS to endorse your upcoming conference. The first question to ask is ‘Why do you want/need a GPBS endorsement?‘; typical reasons include:

  • Mercantile: to increase sales to an event because you can point to the “GBPS’ endorsement” as proof the organization thinks it is important.
  • Extending a Corporate or Social Policy: increase the credibility of the event by showing that if good ole’ GBPS says it is important, it must be.
  • Immediate or Future Marketing: asking for an endorsement is one way that a GBPS will have a better awareness of your organization.  Reminding the GBPS of the endorsement is a potential ice breaker for other discussions.
  • Get Around Training Limitations: organizations may have constrained training budgets.  Having an organization’s GBPS endorse the event is a way to pry open the coffers.

What Am I Endorsing – the So What Question?

The next question to ask is what is in it for the GBPS?  This is critical as it is easier to get an endorsement that aligns with a policy, initiative or passion of the person rather than the GBPS being neutral, indifferent, or worse, hostile to your upcoming conference.

The reality is that the garden variety GBPS is probably interested in many of the same things you are.  In fact an endorsement could be a cheap and easy way for the GPBS to show progress on a subject area with very little cost or effort to them or their office.  For example, the theme of the May 17 FMI-Edmonton conference introduced above was a mentally healthy work place.  This was important to both the senior official from the Alberta government (who is passionate about employee engagement) and is central the federal government as well (the senior official has devoted considerable effort promoting mental health within the federal public service).

So, What Do you Want?

Be very clear what you want and articulate it early.  The following list of ‘ASKS’ is ordered from the easiest to the hardest for a GBPS to provide to your organization:

  1. Provide a letter of introduction or greetings.
  2. Provide written, in person or video opening comments and greetings.
  3. Endorse attendance and use this endorsement in FMI communications.
  4. Attend, speak or present at the event.

A letter of greetings is very low-cost for a GBPS particularly if you mostly write the letter for them (see more on this below).  Providing opening comments to a conference is slightly harder but once again are made easier if you write the first draft.  Attendance, video greetings or presentations are tough.  A GBPS’ calendar is not their own and even if they say they will attend they have a nasty habit of bailing at the last moment.  An endorsement to attend is also difficult to provide particularly if it sets up a precedence for other conferences.

The Care and Feeding of a GBPS

As noted above, the office of the GBPS is probably swamped – so make their life simple; this means doing the following (the first two bullets are recaps from above – but worth repeating):

  • Understand why you want the endorsement.
  • Be clear how this helps the GBPS achieve their goals and what is the ASK.
  • Send a clear request through formal channels (if they exist) but also use your informal networks to promote the endorsement with the GBPS.
  • Provide the GPBS with samples and even write the first draft as applicable.
  • Follow up with a courtesy phone call or email; be short, sweet and extremely respective of the person’s time.  For example, Betty is the Chief of Staff for the Deputy Minister GBPS; a phone call may follow this script:
    • JOHN: “Hello Betty, it is John Smith here. I am following up on an email I sent you two days ago concerning Mr. GBPS providing a letter of endorsement for our FMI conference on left-handed screw drivers.  Can you confirm that your office has received it?”
    • JOHN: “You did, perfect and thank you for confirming this.”
    • JOHN: “As you work through your internal processes, if you have any questions about the conference I am happy to answer them on the phone, email or pop down to your office.”
    • JOHN: “May I follow-up in two weeks to see how the letter is progressing?”
    • JOHN: “Is there anybody else I should be speaking with from your office so I don’t bother you”
    • JOHN: “Thank you very much for taking the time to talk and confirm the endorsement letter is in progress, it is greatly appreciated!”
  • Email is the typical way to initiate contact.  A sample format can be found at the bottom of the blog but generally is broken into the following:
    • 1. Salutation and who is FMI: A quick overview of who you are and what is FMI.  1-2 sentences is lots but include some links at the bottom in case the GBPS’ staff needs to do some research.
    • 2. The ASK and the WHY: Provide 1-3 sentences of what you are asking for, by when, how it will be used and what is in it for the GBPS.
    • 3. Thank You and the Sample: Close the email and include a sample (as applicable) for the ASK.  This may be in the email or attached.

Follow Up and Usage

When you have received the endorsement, immediately send a thank you note to the people who made it happen.  1-2 lines very short expressing your appreciation.

Hi Betty, John Smith here from FMI.  I received the endorsement letter and I wanted to let you know it is perfect.  I strongly believe that this conference will really advance an understanding of left-handed screw drivers and you and your office helped to make this happen.  Once again, on behalf of my board, thank you.

Only use the endorsement in manner you said you were going to use it.  If you said it was going to be on the chapter website, don’t necessarily send it out via your Linked in account to all of your users.  Think of the endorsement as a matter of trust – respect that gift of trust.

After the Event

The last step is easily as important as all the others above, let the GBPS know how the conference went and the impact of their endorsement.  Once again a quick email is sufficient.  Thank the GBPS re-affirms the time they spent providing the endorsement, increases your brand recognition and improves the chances of getting a future endorsement.

Hi Betty, John Smith from FMI.  I wanted to let you know the May 17 conference on left-handed screw drivers was a complete success.  3,000 enthusiastic public servants attended and we really advanced an understanding of this issue.  Once again the endorsement letter Mr. GBPS provided really helped to make this conference successful.  Thank you once again!

Links

Hello Ms. EBPS,

I am a Director with the Government of Widgetland but I am writing you wearing my other hat as President of the Financial Management Institute (FMI) Yegville Chapter. I am a volunteer board member with this not for profit organization and our primary purpose is to deliver high quality learning events on topics that are of interest to a public sector audience from all three levels of government. Our next event will be coming up on Wednesday May 17, 2098 and will include an impressive lineup of speakers who will address the topic of ‘The Safe Use and History of the Left Handed Screwdrivers‘.

I know in your role as Deputy Minister of Grand Pooh Bah and with our provincial government focus on employee engagement, you have a strong desire to support and encourage healthy left-handed activities and a resilient workforce that is well positioned for the future. So would you be willing to provide some written greetings from the Government of Widget Land that could be included in our moderator’s opening remarks? I believe that your message would be well received by our audience and would help boost our profile as well as share a positive message. Thank you in advance for considering my request and I look forward to hearing your reply in the near future.

By way of additional background we are part of the National Financial Management Institute of Canada that serves over 2,800 members across Canada. www.fmi.ca

In addition, the link below will give you some additional information about our upcoming event as well as past events that were delivered by the Yegville Chapter.

http://www.fmi.ca/chapters/yegville/

I have taken the liberty of providing some suggested content and format:

Format: an open letter from Ms. GBPS to members of the Widget land Public Service, fellow public servants and other attendees.  This will be reproduced digitally in the front of the pre-conference notes.

Re: Greetings from the Deputy Minister of Grand Pooh Bah.

Dear Colleagues,

[Note to  GBPS’s staff, possible themes in the message]…

  • Greetings from the Widgetland Public Service.
  • Public servants from all levels of all governments need to create open, inclusive and healthy workplaces for staff and colleagues.
  • Attending a conference such as this one is one way to learn more about how to build such work places.
  • Meet fellow public servants and learn how we can better serve our constituents through a healthy work place.
  • Safety is a paramount concern for the government of Widgetland and left handed screw drivers caused more than 1,000 injuries last year in our province.

3lbs of Jell-O versus Some Crazy* Statements

On May 17, 2017, the Edmonton Chapter of the Financial Management Institute is hosting a conference: Building a Healthy Workplace.  The overview paragraph reads:

Over the past 50 years we have seen the move from the industrial revolution to the information revolution.  Increasingly, organizations handle information as a commodity and as a result there has been the rise of the knowledge worker.   The other side of this change is that employees rely on their brain to contribute value and to provide for their families.  What happens when their brain fails them as a result of mental illness? 

The Crazy* Next Door: the Dark Side of an Amazing Organ

This is an important conference because of devastation of mental illness.  The topic conjures up images of the shaggy and slightly smelly homeless person shuffling down Jasper Avenue muttering to their own personal demons.

The reality is that you are just as likely to encounter the mentally ill at work, the gym, your home or in the mirror as on Jasper Avenue.  The difference is that this second category often suffer in quiet desperation.

The brain is an amazing organ.  Its complexity, its ability to heal itself (the subject a field of study called neuroplasticity), its ability to create/love/hate and surprise are all part of that admiration.  Unfortunately, with complexity comes the chance of error and mental illness is part of the bargain.  Weighing about 3lbs, with trillions of neuro-connections, sloshing chemicals and a Jell-O-like matrix to hold it all in, it is amazing that the damn thing works at all!

Beyond Compassion, Crazy as a Competitive Advantage

But perhaps there is more to mental illness and that jello mass between your ears than meets the eye.  Perhaps a little crazy is a competitive advantage.  The ability to see the world a bit off and as a result understand a bit more.  Certainly full on crazy is a bad thing and fortunately help has progressed over the years for this.  Nevertheless, making allowances for a bit of Vincent Van Gough may give your organization an innovation boost or an opportunity to look at its creative processes.

There are a few cautions here.  The first is the obvious difference between tolerating a bit of eccentricity versus being oblivious to someone in mental distress.  Another caution is the role an organization has in supporting someone with mental illness versus exploiting the benefits while potentially disregarding the costs and need for their support.

Competitive Mental Health

To explore the relationship between the 3lbs of Jell-O, what is normal, what is illness and what people and organizations can do to help, at the May 17 FMI conference we plan to play Mental Health Myth Busters.  Each attendee will receive a number of statements.  Some of the statements are purposely provocative so as to promote discussion.  The following instructions are provided with these statements:

As you are having breakfast and ideally before the conference starts, please complete the BLUE sheet, here is how: For each of the questions on the BLUE sheet enter a number between 1-5 according to the following scale to the right.  Please use the whole number (no decimals) that best matches your opinion.  If possible, please do not discuss your answers with other individuals but instead use your own best judgement.  Once completed, give the BLUE sheet to one of the Myth Busters before the conference starts or at the break at the latest. 
 
Before the end of the conference please do the same as the above but with the GREEN sheet.  Once again, please give the sheet to a myth buster before the end of the conference.  

Privacy and How this Data will be Used.
This data will be collected in an anonymous manner.  Although an ID number is being used it is not cross referenced to you in anyway.  A before and after comparison based on the ID numbers will be completed.  We are asking for some demographic information but otherwise are requesting that you DO NOT put any identifying information on the sheets. 

The data from the BLUE sheet will be used to inform the panel discussion.  A comparison of the GREEN and BLUE sheets will be made available after the conference.  Feel free to use the pre-conference notes version if you want to keep your own notes. 

1-5 Opinion Scale

Why are We Making Crazy Statements

While the statements are meant to help make the conference an engaging event they will also have three serious intents.  The first is that they can help people test their ‘gut-check’ relative to the fact-check.  Because the scoring will be anonymous, individuals can use the opportunity as a learning experience.

The second intents is that we will use how people responded to the statements as the basis for the panel discussion.  Thus, if a statement yields little difference of opinion – this is likely not a myth to spend too much time on.  Conversely if a statement shows wide variety, then this is one to focus discuss.

The final intent is that our partner organizations (Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health and the Canadian Mental Health Association) may use this slightly-scientific method to gauge the opinions of this segment of the population.  As well, by having a before and after comparison, it will be interesting to see if the responses of the individuals change.  This can help to determine whether the conference had a real benefit in exploding mental health myths.

One Crazy Note…

[*] I am purposely using the term crazy as a term of endearment.  I realize to the politically correct this may seem jarring which is a good thing.  We all carry around our own degree of crazy (mental normalcy) and owning your own personal crazy is one way to reduce the stigma of mental illness.  

2017 – EBTC Wrider Plan

I have a confession, I enjoy organizing riding events because I can’t subsequently talk myself out of the event if I need to run it.  In other words, it forces me to go on a bit of exercise without a handy excuse to back out at the last moment!

The following is my plan for the Edmonton Bicycle and Touring Club’s 2017 program.  It is here really as a reminder for myself and to help with the 2017 planning process and will involve the following events:

  1. Cranky’s Early Season Bike Event & Beginner Ride
  2. Wheeleasy Wriders
  3. Pigeon Lake Inner Loop
  4. Ad hoc Rides
  5. Old Home Target the Tour *NEW
  6. Call a Newbie *NEW
  7. Trip Leader Mentoring *NEW
  8. Grading the Grading (evaluating a proposed cycling grading system). *NEW
  9. MS Ride Marshall *NEW
  10. Some Links Worth Mentioning (and Clicking)

1. Cranky’s Early Season Bike Event & Beginner Ride

Event Title: Righty-Tighty, Lefty-ARRRGGGHHHHHH!

How is your bike looking?  Air long since left for a lower-pressure job?  Chain feeling a bit rusty?  Drive-train looks more like a Drive-Caboose?

If this describes your bike or if you are a ‘fix-a-phobic’ this 90 minutes is for you!

Andy Phelps from Crankys will cover the basic of bicycle repair.  During this session you will learn such basics as:

– How to quickly check your bike and realize that you REALLY should not go riding today.
– Why even more oil is a bad thing for a chain and how much is a good compromise.
– What are all those screws and gadgets on your circlely thing by the back wheel and when to turn them (and why you should leave well enough alone)

If at this point you are a MS Ride Repair Recluse, you can still come out and contribute.  We will pair the ‘terrified of all things mechanical’ with those who know the difference between a Robinson and a Philips screwdriver.

Send Frank an email at wriders@myorgbio.org (really a courtesy for the Crankys so they know how many donuts to buy).

If you do come out, be sure to also consider joining the “Where the H*** did I put my bike? – Early Ride” (see the calendar of events or the next EBTC email).

Event page on Bikeclub.ca:
April 1 Beginner Ride:
Crankys Website: http://crankys.ca/

Where the H*** did I put my bike? – Beginner Ride

I think I own a bike; ya, it is in the garage somewhere….

If you have a vague recollection that you once owned a bike and some fleeting memories that you even rode it last year, this ride is a way to shake out those cobwebs and start the 2017 season!

Or if you joined the bike club with things like the MS Bike Ride in your future, this is where you can meet EBTC’ers and start the journey to a saddle sores (I mean cycling joy!).  Registration not required, just show up and we will go.

Details are below.  Note that if you want to do a longer ride off of this trip (e.g. a loop to CFB Edmonton or a Villeneuve Ice Cream Run), reply all to this event and see if there is interest (and more importantly a trip leader to sign people up).

April 1: 0900-1030h – Crankys Bike Repair Refresher:
April 1 Beginner Ride:

2. Wheeleasy Wriders

This is a Thursday night program run from 6-7pm from April 27 to June 29 weather dependent.  The program will generally and intermittently follow the content described in the blog, the Art of Riding Bikes.

Weekly Wheeleasy Wrides! Huh, what is a WWW? It is always three rides in one. A beginner ride for those just getting started; an intermediate ride by playing Beat Frank; and a fun learn-about-cycling experience.  The details are as follows:

  • Meet at the Victoria Park Oval at 6pm (note, watch bikeclub.ca, EBTC-FaceBook and EBTC-email for changes in venue)
  • Depending on the wind direction we will do: Victoria Park & Environs
    We will be Wheels Wrolling at about 6:05pm.
  • The ride will be about an hour or twenty’ish KM in the river valley‎

3. Pigeon Lake Inner Loop

2076-06-17 – Pigeon Lake Ride – Pigeons, Putzs and Pleasures‏‏
10:00 – 17:00
The Pigeon Lake ride is a classic and there are two options!  The first is the outer loop run by Anne-Marie and the alternative is the inner loop lead by Frank Potter.  The following are the details.

Outer loop (Anne Marie)

About 60KM long on secondary highways and led by Anne-Marie Adachi aadachi@telus.net Pigeon Lake. Because of the remoteness and highway travel, this ride is rated as an intermediate ride; there is no cap for registration.  A road bike is ideal for this route.  Anne-Marie will provide a map and directions at the start of the ride.

Inner loop (Frank)

This is a GREAT RIDE  that takes you along cottage roads, provincial parks, a nasty highway and a few surprises.  We will be riding at a cruising pace which gives everyone a chance to chat, kibbutz and enjoy the promise of summer coming.  A hybrid bike is ideal, a road bike is okay and a mountain bike for the more fit can be used.  The route is ~60KM and about 40% is on hard packed gravel or trails.  There are not a lot of services en route.  We will stop in Ma-Me-O Beach but the shop there was closed last time.  As a result, please plan to pack sufficient fluids, a snack, etc. for the route.  By way of safety, please have a well maintained bike.  If you have a break down you could be waiting hours in a remote rural area for a rescue or a taxi from Wetaskwin.  There are few tricky corners so generally we ride as a group.  Those who want to add about 10 km are encouraged to play ‘beat-Frank’ on two designated sections.

Email Frank at wriders@myorgbio.org for more details and to claim your spot; please note that registration is caped at 15 riders.

Meet Up Details for Both Rides

We will meet at Mulhurst at 10am and will be wheels rolling by 1015h.  Mulhurst is on the east side of the lake an is accessible from Highway 2 and highway 616.  If you need an address for your GPS, use 5402 Lake Drive, Mulhurst Bay AB T0C 2C0 or see the attached map. *** CAUTION *** This address is NOT Correct in Google Maps.  We should return to Mulhurst between 2-4pm depending on the groups’ progress.    The inner loop’s return time is highly UNPREDICTABLE, please plan accordingly.Please park on the side streets, etc. but our actual departure point is the Cedar Crest Inn Restaurant & Lounge, 5402 Lake Drive, Mulhurst Bay AB T0C 2C0.  This is also were we will have a late lunch.  The food is pretty-good (bar food) and the terrace over looks the lake.  For more information, visit: www.cedarcrestinn.ca/home.htm.  Please note that they are generally expecting us but if you want to reserve a table as you are riding, be sure to call them at: (780) 389-2272.

4. Ad hoc Rides

Weather dependent, these will follow routes noted either on the Wriders Wride Wlog or perhaps some new adventures.

5. Old Home Target the Tour

NEW for 2017 – I will organize about 3-6 Target the Tour events but with a twist.  These will be in our old stomping grounds of Morinville and will follow the past Tour de l’Alberta routes.  The rides will be graded according to difficulty and the 50KM distances will be semi-supported (e.g. have a sweep, leader, maybe even Beat Frank!).

Note these will be supplemental to the traditional target the tour rides run by the club.

6. Call a Newbie

NEW for 2017 – I will commit to making about ~20-40 phone calls over the season to new members.  The calls will seek to accomplish the following:

  1. Welcome the member to the club and determine what are their personal goals and expectations for EBTC.  Direct the member to one or more rides applicable to their level.
  2. Follow up with some members (typically at the beginner level) after their first’ish ride to see if the club is meeting their expectations.
  3. Provide feedback, perhaps anonymously, to the executive from the above.  Use the above feedback to potentially change my program or influence EBTC’s programming

7. Trip Leader Mentoring

NEW for 2017 – Support new or perhaps unsure trip leaders in becoming more comfortable in their role.  This can be potentially through the following:

  • Attend the new trip leader training session.
  • Run early and mid trip leader check in rides.
  • Run one or two trip leader tune up and training rides.

8. Grading the Grading (evaluating a proposed cycling grading system)

NEW for 2017 – Evaluating a proposed cycling grading system and adapting it to EBTC as required.

9. MS Ride Marshall

New for 2017 – Not really a ride but something I want to keep track of.  I plan to be a ride marshal but I also plan to ride dead last sweep.  The reasons for taking on this role are as follows:

  • The emergency folks never know the last rider, when they see me – they will know the end of the course.
  • The end riders have a degree of comfort they are not been left behind.
  • There are fewer tires to change…. maybe.

10. Some key links are as follows:

On this Site:

External Sites

Islamophobia – Defined

This may end up being a wrong turn at Albuquerque but I see that Mississauga-Erin Mills Liberal MP Iqra Khalid is proposing a private members bill M-103 to address ‘Islamophobia’.  I thought I would contribute to the democratic process by providing some definitions and examples of what Islamophobia should mean.

A Little Constitutional Reminder

The Canadian constitution reads as follows: 2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion; 
  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • (d) freedom of association.

As a result, under the constitution, the following statements are equally protected:

  1. The Pope is God’s Vicar here on earth.
  2. Mohamed is God (Allah’s) last prophet.
  3. Joseph Smith received golden plates from God.
  4. Ones actions should be mindful of Karma.
  5. All the above is superstitious nonsense not worthy of a rational person.

Superstitious Nonsense & the Belief instinct

To number five above, the likes of Richard Dawkins would take this as their belief protected by the constitution.  Where atheists can fall down is not recognizing the enormous evolutionary advantage religion has given humanity in being a successful species, the importance of the ‘Belief Instinct‘.

Religion has allowed us to create larger organizational units by applying the mortar of group cohesion across individuals.  This has not been without its costs.  The Crusades, the oppression of women under Sharia Law or polygamy under early Mormonism are all examples where religion has gone wrong.  While it is easy to spin and wish to re-write the past, it is more important to recognize the following:

  1. Religion is a fundamental instinct of humanity and will manifest itself with or without a formal outlet.
  2. Religion, like other primal urges, needs to be directed to the betterment of society.
  3. Religion must evolve as societies do so, while there are some universal truths, such as though shall not kill, there is no universal or ‘right’ religion.
  4. Without religious evolution, humanity risks reaping the worst from the belief instinct while losing the benefits it can provide.
  5. Canada can be a guiding light of helping individuals, communities and religion evolve to accommodate new social and cultural norms.

A Suggested Addendum to the Private Member’s Bill

To help Ms. Khalid to navigate the tricky waters of religion, I would suggest the following revision to private member’s bill M-103 (written in non-legal speak):

Whereas the people of Canada:

  • hold core values, such as the freedom of religion, above all others,
  • recognize the role of faith and the belief instinct in personal matters and social cohesion,
  • recognize the value religion has conveyed and inflicted on humanity,
  • recognize the values of equality of all people and equality of all before a common law.

Whereas the people of Canada acknowledge the Arabic word Islam to mean ‘acceptance’ and therefore Islamophobia means an irrational fear of acceptance. We the people thus condemn Islamophobia which is defined as any religion or systematic or personal belief system that:

  1. Seeks to enrich individuals who hold position of religious-authority through corruption, personal gain of power or actions contrary to the law or Canadian norms;
  2. Has tenants and implicit/explicit actions that are contrary to the law and fabric of historical Canadian values including those of justice, freedom of religion, equality, personal responsibility and reasonable inclusion of people of all faiths and perspectives;
  3. Seeks to do harm to Canadian society through either direct or indirect action including encouraging actions contrary to the laws of good government;
  4. Seeks to forcibly convert or impose its views on individuals who chosen to have alternative views including a non (atheist) view of religion; and
  5. Fails to evolve with the changing nature of society, for example the changing role of personal beliefs in contrast with the original tenants of the religion.

To reduce Islamophobia, we ask all Canadians to not only look into their respective minds and souls but to also reach out to others who do not share their beliefs and state:

I don’t believe in your God or religious view-point, but first and foremost I will do everything in my power here on earth to protect your right to hold your beliefs as a Canadian‘.

Acceptance-philia

In a small way hopefully the above can lead to Islamophilia or a love of acceptance.  Acceptance that religion is a human instinct to be managed, that religion must evolve to meet cultural changes.  Ultimately our time here on earth is short – let’s all make the best of it before we meet our respective maker.

EBTC Volunteer of the Year

I found out this week that I was honoured with the Edmonton Bicycle and Touring Club‘s (EBTC) volunteer of the year for 2016. I would have found out eight weeks sooner had I read the email from the club president a bit more carefully.  Setting aside the dangerous of skimming emails, I thought I would take a moment to think about the bike club and how it has master the art of promoting its volunteers and also its mandate of hope.

A Club Sans Drama

It may be that I am blissfully shielded from such matters as a worker-bee-volunteer, but the EBTC is blessed with a lack of petty-drama.  That is small people making big deals out of inconsequential matters of little interest to anyone but themselves.  I have been in enough volunteer organizations to know how much of a blessing this is.  Nothing kills the volunteer spirit faster than inconsequential bickering.

Purpose, Affiliation and Experience – the Currencies of a Volunteer Experience

Next the club has nailed the three critical ways to pay volunteers: Purpose, Affiliation and Experience.  I described these in an earlier blog on volunteering – which funny enough was inspired by going to an EBTC brunch in 2013.

  • Purpose: This may seem easy but even for a club seemingly focused on one thing, cycling, it has its perils.  Does cycling mean racing, touring (supported or unsupported), the Tour de l’Alberta, training, mentoring, etc.  While never perfect, the club has reasonably been as many things to as many cyclists as possible without diluting or killing itself.
  • Affiliation: This is sense of belonging that starts with a purpose but requires people who fundamentally like each other enough to hang out.  Having a low-drama-quotient helps but implicit and explicit cultural rules are also is critical.  The club has managed to gently nudge would-be-drama-queens out the door while guiding others toward correct behaviour.
  • Experience: Finally the easiest one, experience.  hundreds of individual rides over a wide span of abilities is the foundation for the success of the club.  As important, members have opportunities to improve their riding skills through these events.

Hope – the Clubs Main Product

The merits described above are because of strong cultural traditions and an even stronger executive and a good ‘product‘:

The Edmonton Bicycle and Touring Club (EBTC) is a recreational not-for-profit volunteer-run group dedicated to facilitate its members to cooperatively run bicycling trips during the spring, summer and fall, cross-country skiing trips in the winter, and social events all year round. 

However, these are all based on a more profound product which is also germane to most volunteer organizations: HOPE.  Hope is when a strong rider wants to maintain or improve their skills. It may be an out of shape rider hoping to find her activity or a family seeking an activity sans phones and distractions.

EBTC and Spreading Hope to a Larger Community

The club is doing a great job at its core functions and with its current members.  Nevertheless, the following is a list of possible challenges for EBTC to take on to become not only a better club but also contribute to a better member of the YEG-community.  The risk, of course, of taking these on is that the club may drift from its core mandate.  The benefit of considering these (or other ideas) is that the club improves the purpose, affiliation and/or experiences EBTC can provide to its members.

  1. Family Centric Riding: Currently the club focuses on adult ridership.  While this makes sense from a logistical, risk and legal perspective – it does mean that the club relies of chance to cultivate new memberships rather than a pipeline that promotes from within.  Children are dangerous creatures for volunteer organizations but this may be where partnership with existing organizations (learn to ride, Scouting, etc.) may be easier than building EBTC’s own program.
  2. Lower-income Riding: how can the club help families and solo riders who can ill forward groceries let alone a good bike?  One method would be to encourage low cost bike maintainance or facilitating the sale or loan of bikes from members.
  3. Sharing the Land Riding: how can the club attract members of the first nation communities?  Rolling across a quiet road has some parallels to what a person may have experienced in times past.

Good Intentions and Execution

The above are food for thought and the only good idea is the executed idea.  This is where the club volunteers come in and once again I was honoured to be selected by my peers.  Hopefully time, energy, circumstances and good fortune will continue to allow me to volunteer.

Monetizing Being a Public Servant

Early season snow storms are dangerous things.  Not only for driving but also when you take a long walk and your brain slips into thought experiments.  For example, when you are walking along and your brain says – hey you could potentially retire in a few years and do something outside the public service where you currently work.

In other words the snow and my brain conspired to ponder the question, ‘How do you monetize your career as a public servant?’.

Monetizing the Problem

First a definition, what is monetization? There are a swack of definitions but they all generally boil down to trying to convert something to ready cash. The following extract from Wikipedia’s definition provides a good example:

… attempting to make money on goods or services that were previously unprofitable or had been considered to have the potential to earn profits.

So, what exactly are we monetizing in this context? How to have a career post public service that commands a similar level of pay, respect and respect. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but public servants have a (not)/justifiable reputation of being unemployable post government.

The Obvious Methods

So, after a career of say 25, 30 or more years, how do you convert that experience into a second career or even part-time income?  The obvious answers that came to me include:

  1. Maximize a Public Sector Pension and/or Semi-Retirement
  2. Gain Unique Experience of Value to Someone
  3. Retire from a Senior Position that has Cache and Contacts
  4. Keep Your Toe in the Real World

Maximize a Public Sector Pension and/or Semi-Retirement

This is the most obvious method is that you enjoy the government backed annuity otherwise known as a public sector pension.  Sure, maybe you will do some greeting at Wal-Mart or try to convert a hobby into a paying proposition – but generally you don’t monetize the experience.

There is of course a cliché here that public servants have gold-plated pensions and to certain extent it is true (to learn more about this subject, see the post-conference notes on public sector retirement by the FMI).  The other side of this cliché of course is the lack of stock options, bonus and other non-monetary factors related to be a public servant.  Nevertheless, a thirty-five year pension is a pretty sweet bit of monetization!

Gain Unique Experience of Value to Someone

The fellow who spent his career as a spot-mountain-frog-lip-taster-technician may discover that he has a very unique skill set.  Governments do things that business and organizations don’t so this is definitely a consideration for monetization – assuming there is a market for the specialization – and there is the rub.  No other organization may want to pay for (thus monetize) frog-lip-tasting.  However there are some less obvious examples of converting experience into post-retirement careers.

If you work in an administrative function, likely the experience can be monetized – to a point.  A human resource consultant, accounting clerk or procurement specialist can find (if they want) post-retirement employment.  Unfortunately, the more senior the public sector experience the less likely of making a lateral leap.  As an accountant, I have managed to avoid dealing with taxes, shareholder accounting and the like because I have focused on budgets, systems and governance.  As a result, most controller roles are closed to me because I lack this basic for-profit experience.  The same examples can be made for other administrative functions in human resources, procurement, etc.

Retire from a Senior Position that has Cache

Retiring as a Deputy Minister or City Manager may open up future opportunities.  Think of the senior politicians, for example, who have gone back into law firms or think tanks.  Alas often the value you can bring to an organization are the contacts and systems knowledge of the recently departed government.  This knowledge is perishable in the extreme, particularly if there is a subsequent change in government or significant re-organization.

Mandatory cooling off periods may further diminish the relative value of recent experience if one needs to wait six to twenty-four months before cashing in.  Nevertheless, if you got to be a senior civil servant, you probably have skills of value beyond a government context.

Keep Your Toe in the Real World

One method of ensuring the ability to work in the real world post public service is to not really ever leave it.  A toe in may range from owning real estate property, working part-time (e.g. doing taxes if you are an accountant) or teaching courses.  In this way you have non-government experience to point to.  A further upside is having additional income of doing some or all of these things.  A downside is working more than one job during your career.

Monetization May Mean More than Money

If you are willing to stretch the definition of monetization, there is more to life than a second (third, fourth or fifth) career.  You can also use your experience in a volunteer capacity helping our or other societies.  For example Canadian Executive Services Overseas takes retired executives and places them globally and here at home (e.g helping first nation communities).  Churches, non-profit boards and community leagues are other potential beneficiaries of a life time in the service of the public.

Not all of these will pay the bills if one’s pension is not fully maximized.  However if money is not a primary driver (hey, you did take a government job after all), then you may be paid in post-retirement experiences!

Thank you snow storm for helping me clear my thoughts whilst walking… now back to work because I am not quite at the point of being able to start monetizing….

Guts, Gory and the Organization

Giulia Enders has written a delightful book on our Guts.  If the title was not sufficient the sub-title describes it all: Gut: The Inside Story of Our Bodys Most Underrated Organ.

Gut is a good read for anyone who digests food (which pretty much covers everyone living) and is a potential lesson for organizations that there is more complexity in a system then we can ever imagine.

Have Some Guts, Read Gut

Gut is a pretty easy read.  Enders presents the physiology of the Gut in a very accessible manner and explains the key functions of the major organs (e.g. stomach, small/large intestines, liver, etc.).  Originally published in German, the English translation has great cheek and humour.  In fact, Gut would make an excellent text-book for junior or senior high school biology given its easy accessibility.

As a microbiologist, Enders delves into the other organ of our body, the microbiota of the gut.  Based on current research, Enders makes the case that the dividing line between where our cells start and bacteria and other germs end is not as clear cut as we may think. For example:

  • Children born via Caesarean section are not endowed with the bugs found within their mothers’ birth canal.  As a result they must source their bugs from the environment and these may not be the most beneficial.  These children take months or years to develop a healthy gut microbiota.  They are also at a risk of developing asthma or allergies.
  • Breast feeding has a similar impact on allergies and the like.  Mothers milk not only feeds the baby but also contains nutrients galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) to feed the child’s gut.
  • The gut’s bacteria helps to train our immune system to not only recognize threats but to also not over-react to them.  As a result, this reduces allergies, asthma and potentially juvenile diabetes.
  • We periodically wipe out all or portions of our microbiota through the use of antibiotics, poor diet and stress.  When the good bugs depart their spots can be replaced by the less than desirable who then can be difficult to displace.
  • The appendix is not a slacker who does not realize its time has passed.  Current research indicates that the appendix is a store house of good bacteria that can repopulate the gut if the intestines have been flushed due to diarrhea.

Organization’s Need Guts

Ender has not only written a very accessible book that discusses such delicate matters as what our poop should look like, she has reminded us that perceptions of systems are based on best available information at a point in time.  For the gut, bacteria are necessary to not only break down food but to also stress the immune system so it does not over or under react.  Structures such as appendices may appear useless but turn out to be vital to our long term health.

The gut can be used as an analog for organizations.  Poop jokes aside, a healthy organization is more complex and mysterious then it first appears.  While we may be inclined to oversimplify them, organizations have interactions and systems that may not be immediately apparent.

Elevators are Like Guts – They Mix and Separate

Here is one small example: riding elevators.  In my building a new system has replaced the traditional ‘up’ button with destination buttons.  Rather then jumping on the first elevator going up, you select your floor and proceed to that lift going exactly to that floor plus perhaps a few floors above and below yours.

This system has dramatically improved the speed by which people are carried to their floors – and it has cut the accidental and random interactions of people.  Previously who you got on with was chance.  As a result, there was an opportunity to interact with a variety of people who you may only see intermittently.  Now the elevator ride is much more homogenous – you ride with people from one floor above or below.

More efficient, yes – beneficial to the organization – not necessarily.  In as much as good bacteria trains our immune system and a diverse flora is better for us, random interactions and non-sterile organizational mixing is also of value.  Good organizations need slight agitation, a diverse culture and some randomness to be effective and healthy – just like a good gut.  In addition, organizations should recognize that individuals who may not seem to be part of a main structures may in fact have a disproportionate impact on the health of the culture.  Introducing the occasional disruptive employees/contractors, the mail room clerk who is a clearing house of information across many floors or a cafeteria that promotes chance encounters vertically and horizontally across the organization.

Embrace your Internal and Organizational Micro-biota

The gut is more complex than we ever imagined and has a stronger influence well beyond converting food to energy and nutrition.  In the same way, organizations are more complex then we can imagine and elements we may think of being without use can turn out to be instrumental to its health.  Enjoy Enders’ gut and good luck with your biotas – both the micro and organizational varieties.

Cash is King but Flow is the Empress

David Trahair writes on financial matters and provides a very welcome Canadian point of view on retirement and investment considerations.  In his 2012 book: Cash Cows, Pigs and Jackpots; The Simplest Personal Finance Strategy Ever he provides both financial advice and some self-help to boot!

The central theme running through this book is the importance of positive cash flow (Cash Cows) versus negative flow (Cash Pigs).  Trahair also goes into a few pleasant surprises such as lottery winning as a retirement strategy (Jackpots).

Pig Tied to a Stake; Frederick George Richard Roth; Metropolitan Museum of Art: #06.404

Keep your Cash Pigs under control. Pig Tied to a Stake; Frederick George Richard Roth; Metropolitan Museum of Art: #06.404

On the one hand, much of what is in this book you may have read elsewhere in similar financial and investement books.  On the other hand, he does a good job of combining a number of different threads together including why happiness should be a high on your list of wealth

Happiness as an Investment Strategy

Trahair references the science of happiness, for example, you have a happiness set point.  50% of your happiness is pre-determined by both your genetics and your early up bringing.  The other 50% is split 10/40 between external circumstances (e.g. job, new things; 10%) and intentional activities (e.g. things you choose to do such as physical activity, 40%).

Huh? What the heck does happiness have to do with my investment strategy?

The answer is, be careful that you are not trying to buy things that are free.  If you had an unhappy working career there is every chance you will have a miserable retirement. Figure out how you can be happy and then plan the money around it.  You may discover that you need less treasure then you originally thought!

Before leaving this theme, Trahair references a movie and a book that I will need to track down and read on the subject of happiness:

  •  ‘Happy‘; a documentary on happiness by Roko Belic; and
  • Happy for No Reason‘; a book on the same subject by Marci Shimoff.

Some Old (But Still Very Good) Advice

Trahair revisits advice given by other financial sages such as David Chilton, the Wealthy Barber including these timeless gems:

  • Record your expenses, doing so will help you understand where your money goes.
  • Avoid bad debt, e.g. debt to purchase non-enduring assets such as vacations, electronics or meals (Bad debt = Cash Pig).
  • Avoiding debt is easier by living within your means.
  • Living within your means includes owing less house than what the bank says you can afford.
  • Enter into home ownership only after considering the merits of renting.

To the last point, Trahair provides a good summary of the merits, terms and considerations of owning a home, renting and even buying a condo.  Once again this material is available in other sources but Trahair does a good job of making these technical details easy to read and understand.

This includes understanding what inflation is (how the Canadian Price Index is calculated) as well as the state of the Canada Pension Plan (pretty good by all accounts).  Pulling it altogether, Trahair provides an overview of how a Cash Pig at one point in your life (saving for retirement) can become a Cash Cow later on (cashing in RRSPs).

A Bit Too Much Excel but Still a Good Graduation Gift

One fault Trahair has is going into too much detail of his Excel tools (which you can download free from www.trahair.com).  I recognize that these are good mechanisms to demonstrate his point and the scenarios that he is painting – but they also bog down the narrative.  Hopefully in future editions he sticks to the key messages and moves Excel-Explanations into annexes.

Nevertheless, if you know someone who is graduating this year and are thinking about a present I would suggest a bundle of books.  Firstly all of Trahair’s editions (available from his website) and Chilton’s series on the Wealthy Barber.

Good luck with you cash pigs and cows – and may the FLOW be with you!

Smarter Than you Think

In my ongoing effort to remember what I have read, some notes on: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The Penguin Press, 2013.

By blogging about this book I am doing exactly what Thompson says we will do ever more of, extending human abilities through the use of technology. This is nothing new, the first killer app(lication) was the invention of writing.

Writing – The First Killer App

This six thousand-year old technology was created to aid in business and government administration and it had its detractors including Socrates. He feared that the written word would ‘kill off debate and dialectics’. Other detractors pointed to the loss of memory and enshrining errors. In the end Socrates was both right and wrong. While people lost the deep understanding of a few topics (often committing their few books to memory) they gained a more varied, complex and extensive knowledge of many topics. [pp. 116-120]

Singularity or Centaur?

More recent examples of technology besting humans has been in the realms of chess and Jeapordy. In, Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Big Blue in a tournament of six games. This is not entirely surprising, chess is a game that lends itself to brute force computing. While Kasparov was able to delay the inevitable by introducing some creative moves, in the end the weight of Big Blue crushed him.

But that is not the end of the story, Kasparov and amateurs came back and defeated other computers and chess masters – by working in concert with the machine. This blended the brute force of the machine (e.g. looking ahead a dozen moves) and the imagination of the human. Thompson calls this machine-man combination a centaur (a mythological creature. Its head, arms, and chest are those of a human and the rest of its body, including four legs, hindquarters, and a tail is like that of a horse, deer or dog).

In Thompson’s view we are all becoming centaurs. Every time we fact check something on our smart phone while watching TV or in conversation, we are blending technology with the human. Even ten years ago this was either not possible or not very convenient (at least without leaving the dinner table to run up to the computer and Google that fact in dispute.  In the 1970’s my family kept a dictionary and encyclopedia at arm’s length to fact check dinner conversation).

To Thompson’s credit, he does not mention or go down the rabbit hole of the singularity. That is the point when humans and machines blend and we leave our corporeal existence for that of a machine. This is a good thing as I suspect that the singularity discussion is a red herring fraught with technological, practical and metaphysical challenges (would it be heaven or an eternal hell for your consciousness).

Ambient Awareness

Perhaps the one area where we are becoming singularity’esque is the awareness for family, friends and colleagues through social media.  Ambient awareness is defined as “awareness created through regular and constant reception, and/ or exchange of information fragments through social media”.  Thus we have a sense of what someone is doing because of changes to their social media postings. For example, a break from posting breakfast updates may indicate they are unwell or a change in tone that their new relationship is doing well.

Although considered a new idea in the context of social media, I would argue that it is a re-packaging of perhaps one of the oldest attributes of the humans, tribal awareness. Although technology no longer requires us to be in the same village or hunting party, the ambient awareness is an extension of living and relying on those in close proximity to you.

Building on the tribal theme, Thompson identifies one risk of Ambient Awareness, homophilia, or seeking out those with the same opinions and points of view as your own. Social media makes homophilia worse because tools such as Facebook analyzes the contacts you pay attention to and highlights them. There is a self-reinforcing loop in which those who share your views are brought to the fore and those that don’t are dropped. [pp.230-231]

Remembering to Remember

Thompson does a great job describing how human memory works and does not work. A relevant point to this book is the importance of having memory jogs to help the brain recall information.This is because memory is constantly regenerating itself. We start with a gist of a recollection and then fill in the rest The filling in part may be factually accurate or we may change a detail that is then stored as part of the memory.  Diaries, photographs Facebook postings and blogs (such as this one) are all part of the externalization of memory. We are moving from a time in which most of our lives were forgotten to when we must activity delete/forget a recording that we don’t want to keep.  [pp. 26-28]

Thompson describes another class of individuals who purposely record every minute of their existence, lifeloggers. Wearing body cams, audio recorders – every minute of their life is recorded. The biggest challenge these individuals have is not in the recording (although there is some resistance to this) or storage, it is in retrieving on demand from the store. The solution seems to be another centaur. That is letting the machine record the details and then have it play back snippets which keep the grey matter in shape through retrieval.

Surveillance, SousVeillance and the Three C’s

One of the impacts of all of this recording is that governments have better tabs on what you are doing and you can keep tabs on what governments are doing. Police states are nothing new but they got a boost with the invention of the microphone and tape recorder.  As political candidates have learned, drunken photos from a college party ten years ago may come back and haunt a candidacy for political office (or even job interview).

The opposite side of Surveillance is Sousveillance or watching from below. A CCTV may be used to record a riot but a hundreds of phone cameras can be used to record police excess. Beyond photos, Twitter, blogs and other tools have allowed for the tracking of human need and to organize protest and responses.

What has happened is a drastic cut to the cost of Coordination and  Communication so as to exercise Control.  Where as before a top down command and control model was needed, now a website and an integration to texts can do much of the same (for example https://www.ushahidi.com).

The Future Including New Literacy

While most of Thompson book is uplifting and reduces the worry about the impact of technology, he does have some cautions – in particularly when it comes to digital literacy. For example, the importance of teaching children critical thinking when it comes to digital information. This literacy is not only understanding information provided but also understanding how the tools are best used.

Smart-phones and externalization of knowledge will not make us dolts – but it is also not without risks.  Thus, just like writing, the printing press and photography, we will need to figure the best ways to use the technologies. Thompson has written an excellent book that can prepare us for this future.  Now 3 years old, hopefully it is a book he plans to update periodically so as to keep current with the technologies of the day.

All quotes are from: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The Penguin Press, 2013.

The CIA and You!

Okay, not THAT CIA (Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government).  Instead an acronym/heuristic for things that Control-Influence-Affect you.  In a nut shell, to be happier, more productive or at least less dysfunctional remember that there are things that:

  • Control: You can directly control, make the most of these opportunities.
  • Influence: You can influence these but you do not control them.  Be care how much you influence, the more you influence you exert – the less control you often end up with.
  • Affect: You are affected but you can neither control nor influence this things.

Child Rearing According to the CIA

Sometimes called ‘strategic apathy’ or know what not to care about, children provide a great example of the CIA concept:

  • Control: for about the first six years of a child’s life you pretty much have control.  Or at least you think you do until the two-year old has a melt down in Walmart.
  • Influence: starting about age six your control wanes and instead your influence predominates.  Influence falls to a new low around age fourteen and then starts to pick up again after age seventeen.  With grown children, the degree to which you influence is slight but not unimportant.
  • Affect: at some point your children will take control of your life.  Hopefully it is deciding to pull the plug after a great life and a snowboarding accident occurring on your 99th birthday.  If you are not so lucky, they will choose your nursing home.  Consider this carefully when your two-year old is having her melt down in Walmart.

Not a New Idea

This is not an original idea, the ‘Serenity Prayer‘, adopted by Alcoholics anonymous, has been around for nearly a century and has a similar theme.

Serenity Prayer, courtesy of www.sobrietygroup.com

Serenity Prayer, courtesy of www.sobrietygroup.com

What is different is the evaluation criteria and what to do about CIA.  Here are some questions that for each part of the heuristic.

  • Control
    • All the questions from Influence, plus…
    • Why and how did you come to have control of this?  How does your control align with the principles of legitimacy?
    • What is the worse that can happen if you do nothing?
    • If you do something, can you reasonably predict the impact of the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’?
    • Can you loan/give/share control with others without losing your accountability or responsibility?  Would this make the solution better, worse or about the same?
    • In exerting control, are your objectives and intentions noble?
  • Influence
    • All the questions from Affect, plus…
    • Why and how did you come to have influence over this?  Do you want this influence and what is worst/best thing that could happen as a result to you?
    • How much influence do you have as compared to others?  How do their intentions align with yours?
    • By influencing this, will it diminish or augment your influence or control over other things?
    • How little influence can you exert to achieve your objectives?
    • In exerting influence, are your objectives and intentions noble?
  • Affect
    • Why and how did you come to be affected by this?
    • Who has control and if no one, should someone have control and should it be you?
    • Who has influence and how do their intentions align with your priorities?
    • With effort, can you be in control or influence this thing?  Would you want to you and is it worth the effort to do so?
    • If this came to pass, could you live with it, will it harm you, your family or your community?  If yes to the first and no to the second, why are you thinking about it?
    • Is there a precedent here that you need to worry about?
    • Can you turn this to your advantage?  Can you at least hedge against any untoward impacts?

The CIA So-What?

This Phrankism has been useful in deciding upon a course of action.  It is amazing how often we spend considerable effort trying to change things that we do not control or even influence.  Sort of the adage ‘everyone talks about the weather but never does anything about it’.  The CIA heuristic is a handy way to stop, think and then act in a manner that expends the least amount of energy for the greatest benefit.

A (Step-By-)Step Father How To Guide

Now that another Fathers’ Day has come and gone, I got a nudge from myself to blog about being a step parent.  I have been a step father to two great sons for almost 30 years.  This blog is not to say being a step parent was easy or to provide a twelve-step program to success (pun sort of intended).  Instead, this is a father’s day pause to reflect on the challenges and joys of step-parenthood.  Also, in case I fall into a time vortex, what I would do the same or differently.

Great-Grand-Father's Tale of the Revolution—A Portrait of Reverend Zachariah Greene.  Metropolitant Museum of Art (detail), Accession Number: 1984.192

Great-Grand-Father’s Tale of the Revolution—A Portrait of Reverend Zachariah Greene. Metropolitant Museum of Art (detail), Accession Number: 1984.192

On that note, yup, I would do it all over again.  The things that I would change are all about me being a better role model and parent to the boys and not about them. They are/were good kids and they did not choose to go from having a just a single mom to having a step dad.  This point leads me to my first lesson as a step father, you married the kids mom – you did not marry the kids; they were just part of the package.

However, they are still children.  When in doubt about your responsibility as a parent, remember this simple rule: adults are responsible for giving children the right sort of memories.  Some of those memories will involve having enough food to eat and a warm bed to sleep in.  It goes without saying that those memories do not include abuse or neglect (the likes of Hansel and Gretel notwithstanding).  As for the operative word, the ‘right’ memories; they don’t all have to be happy memories.  Some of the most important memories will involve a ‘bad choice well explained’ after the fact.  Ideally though, your step children’s good memories will outweigh the bad from the moment you enter their lives.

In this case the operative word is ‘enter’.  Your spouse and their children had a life before you came along.  It may have been brief or you may find yourself with grown step children.  No matter the point of entry, remember this: “you will never be part of that portion of their life”.  Don’t begrudge, belittle or betray it.  Instead, listen, smile and honour it.  One of my reflections is that in my desire to establish my own family I had forgotten that these people had one before I showed up.  Until you establish your own traditions and stories, for a long time you may be seen as an interloper to their family.  Guess what, you are an interloper; get over it and start to build those good memories.

Despite years of effort, credit for your contributions to the newly formed family may not be forthcoming.  Your response should be, ‘so what’.  Biological parenthood can take as little as a brief moment of passion.  Step parenthood, like good parenthood,  takes a life time of ongoing choice and commitment.  Stick with it, you may be surprised with a thank you that seemingly comes out of the blue (even if it was itself years in the making).  Beside, even if you don’t get a thank you, eventually the kids will graduate school and move out… and then life starts to get really weird!

Hypothetically speaking, someday you may find your self at a step-grandchild’s birthday party with your wife, stepson and step-daughter-in-law.  Also at the party is your wife’s ex-husband and perhaps maybe a few other subsequent-ex-wives.  Throw in a mixed family on your side and you may need to graph some of the relationships of child having the birthday.  As for the kids themselves, they are cool with it.  More presents and people to love them is what a mixed on mixed on mixed world means.  And that means you need to be cool with it because it is not about you, it is about modeling the behaviour of an adult who loves and supports unconditionally.  These will be memories that you can give your step-grand children (and to your own children, and their half brothers and your step daughter-in-law and…. etc.).

The Secret to a Secret Life

Pssst, wanna hear a secret?  Dr. Gail Saltz writes about people who have kept secrets from spouses, family members, friends and themselves.  That is not all though, she is an okay writer and the book was a solid read but it left me ever so wanting for a few more secrets.  Pass it on!

Scherzo di Follia; Accession Number: 2005.100.198 (detail) metmuseum.org

Scherzo di Follia; Accession Number: 2005.100.198 (detail) metmuseum.org

By way of a full disclosure, I have written about secret lives before in my blog: How to Disappear – When you Really Need to Go!  That read was more of a how to book to disappear when you don’t want others to find you (e.g. after winning the lottery and avoiding your dead-beat relatives).  Saltz’s book provides an alternative perspective of living a secret life, the psychological impact.  Her biography lists her accomplishments as “Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, columnist, bestselling author“.  This book is based on her experiences with the first two: Dr. Saltz, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

From these experiences she provides a series of pseudo-case histories from her own practice including a matronly shop lifter, a happy married sex-addict and an upper-middle class tax cheat.  She also introduces some of the famous people who have lived secret lives such as:

  • T.E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia; military hero and sexual pervert.
  • Charles Lindbergh: american hero and polygamist.
  • An assortment of rogues-galley such as Ted Bundy.

Not every secret of course is as pathological, immoral or criminal.  In fact secrets are part of childhood.  According to Saltz, keeping secrets establishes an identity outside that of your parent’s.  The secrets start with playing peek-a-boo, evolves to secrets about possessions (including secret friends) in mid-childhood and then secrets of shame in adolescents.  Secrets are part of an adult world ranging from passwords, PIN numbers, sexual tastes of your spouse, non-disclosure agreements or even your own self-talk about whether or not to kill your SOB-boss.

These secrets, through our life-journey, are necessary or largely harmless.  There is a tipping point when a secret goes from a protected password to gnawing at one’s psychological health.  Saltz lists the cost of keeping these types of secrets both in the book and in two appendices (there are two Cosmopolitan Magazine like check lists for determining if someone you know has a secret or whether you have one); symptoms include:

  • Moody, nervous, temper, beleaguered, preoccupied
  • Acts suspicious such as unaccounted for time away from friends, family or work
  • Missing money or unexplained bills
  • Depression, physical ailments or exhaustion

In other words, it may be the flu, a bad weekend in Las Vegas, over spending for a surprise birthday party or there may be a dark secret.  This is hardly a convincing list and this is where I find Saltz’s book a bit disappointing.  Saltz’s remedy for most secrets in the book is to go and see a shrink for absolution.  As well, although she introduces some historical secret keepers, she missed some real whoppers.  Folks like high-ranking Nazi officials living in Argentina, Alan Turing living with both a war and a homosexual secret life or even ex-CIA or secret agents living with the actions demanded of them by their country.

In other words, Saltz’s book is good, but not great.  The psychology she introduces seems a bit to pop-psychology like and a little too good to be true.  I would have liked a bit more meat to go with the secret-sauce Saltz was serving up in the book, ‘Anatomy of a Secret Life’.

 

 

Proofiness

Mathematics can be used and presented in a manner that distorts the underlying truth or at least the underlying likelihood of a truth.

A mathematician seated at a table, working on mathematical equations

A mathematician seated at a table, working on mathematical equations

YAWWWNNNNN, who cares – Charles Seife does and tells us why you should care too in this book, “Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled By The Numbers“.

Seife’s position is that bad math is more than being hoodwinked into buying oatmeal (see Quaker Oatmeal cholesterol numbers); bad numbers disenfranchise voters and erodes the democratic rights of Americans.

A Bad Math Field Guide

Be warned, this is a heavily American-focused book in which about half is dedicated to the challenges of the US voting systems.  If you can get past this bias, some interesting terminology and underhanded methods are exposed.  Here are a few:

  • Truthful numbers: come from good measurement that is reproducible and objective
  • Potemkin* numbers: derived from nonsensical or a non-genuine measurement
  • Disestimation: taking a number too literally without considering the uncertainties in its measurement
  • Fruit packing: Presentation of accurate numbers in a manner that deceives through the wrong context.  Techniques include cherry-picking, apples to oranges and apple polishing.
  • Cherry picking: Selection of data that supports an argument while underplaying or ignoring data that does not.
  • Comparing apples to oranges: ensuring the underlying unit of measurement is consistent when comparing two or more populations.
  • Apple-polishing: data is touched up so they appear more favourable (this was the Quaker Oatmeal trick).
  • Randumbness: because humans are exceptional at discerning patterns we also suffer from randumbness, insisting there is order where there is only chaos.
  • Prosecutors Fallacy**: Presenting a probability incompletely and leading to a false data assumption.

* Named for Prince Potemkin who convinced the empress of Russia that the Crimea was populated by constructing villages that were only convincing when viewed from a distance – such as a passing royal carriage.  An example of a Potemkin number was Joe McCarthy’s famous claim of 205 communists in the State Department.

** This one is worth a blog on its own so for more, read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosecutor’s_fallacy.

Take Your Field Guide With You to Work

These are important concepts for not only a citizen to consider when looking at dubious polling information but in the business or public policy world as well.  If there is a shortcoming in Seife’s book, this is it.  In my opinion he over focuses on the bad use of numbers in the public arena without touching on how CEO’s, CFOs, Boards and government-Ministers may also be hoodwinked.

Individuals being asked to make decisions based on numbers need to be able to cut through the packaging techniques discussed above.  This is becoming more important as our society moves to a 144 character Twitter attention span and public policy needs to be distilled down to a simple infographic.  As well, while developing a dashboard for a business is valuable, be sure that it is not filled with polished, cherry picked, Potemkin numbers based on a disestimation

Disenfranchising a few Million

Returning to the book, Seife has some advise for the US when it comes to the United States census.  Written into the constitution, once-every-decade process of counting all American citizens costs about $6.5 Billion dollars.  For this expenditure, it is estimate that the census misses about 2% of the United States population and double counts about 1%.  While these numbers would in theory cancel each other out (more or less), the impact is that there about 10 million US voters not accounted for in the census.

This error rate can be mitigated through techniques known as statistical sampling which will smooth out the distortions.  The result would be generally more people counted in poorer, racial minority areas who don’t like to fill in census forms or talk to government officials.  The ‘result of the result’ would be these people would then have more politicians to vote for (larger representation) and to send to Washington.

So far sounds good except that poor, non-white folks tend to vote for the Democrats which is why there is another perspective: only a count – counts. This being America, the counting challenge has generated a lot of legal attention and two population numbers.  One used by everyone who needs precise data to estimate everyday population trends and another used to reapportion the House of Representative seats.  After numerous legal battles, millions of Americans are disenfranchised because only a more error prone enumeration technique is permitted (see pages 185-198 for a more thorough explanation and also some very impressive legal gymnastics by the Supreme Court).

A Math Journey with a Curmudgeon

Seife sees himself as unbiased journalist although his leftiness tends to negate this somewhat.  He distrusts political polls, NASA, fluffy articles in scientific journals and the social sciences.  In other words, reading Proofiness is like visiting with a self-indulgent, opinionated curmudgeon – who is also brilliant and often right.  If you use numbers to make decisions in your day to day life, I would encourage you to take your ‘Proofiness-Field Guide’ with you.

Triumph of the City

How can you not love a book that combines economics, civil engineering and history!  Edward Glaeser combines these elements into a generally good read that traces the impact of the city from its earliest times to its modern incarnations.  His thesis is that building-up is good and environmentally responsible; sprawl is understandable but not sustainable.

Origin of a City

Cities started and thrive on technology.  The invention of agriculture and the domestication of beasts of burdens was the genesis for our urban journey.  As a result, cities became gateways along trade routes for the spread of culture, innovation and disease.  Since these earliest times, ongoing technological changes have allowed cities to flourish.  The creation of a better transportation (the wheel, canals, steam, street car, automobile, etc.) have allowed for cities to take advantage of the exchange of goods and services.

More recently (e.g. the last 150 or so years) social changes and technologies have allowed cities to move from places of pestilence to locations where you are more likely to be healthier, happier and live longer than your rural cousins.  These technologies are of course the lowly toilet, sewer system, asphalt (to reduce dust), internal combustion engine (to reduce things like horse dung) and clean water.  Parallel political structures needed to be created to provide these externalities* such as effective police forces, water works, street maintenance and an (ideally) non-corrupt overall administration to manage these services.

The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City; Stirling Behavioural Science Blog

The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City; Stirling Behavioural Science Blog

Slums as a Success Story

At this point, many people would point to the slums of Mumbai or Rio and suggest that the conditions there make cities a failure.  While Glaeser does not minimize the human suffering that does occur in quasi-legal no man’s land of slums, he also suggests that those living there are (on average) better off than their rural kin who they left behind.  Cities encourage innovation, reward hard work and there is a better chance to have access to medical care, clean water and schools for your children in a slum than in a rural province.

Once again, it is important to differentiate anecdotal, statistical and absolutes at this point.  For the young man who left a rural village in Brazil and died the next day in gang warfare in a Rio slum – cities would seem to be a bad deal.  But his tragedy has to be matched against the many others who became middle class through hard work, innovation or access to education.

Political Impact on Cities

Cities and political processes go hand in hand.  For example, the more democratic a country is, the more distributed its cities are likely to be; conversely, the more autocratic, the more likely that a single city will lord over other cities (the largest cities in dictatorships, … contain, on average 35 percent of the countries’ urban population versus 23 percent in stable democracies, p. 235).  Over the past 100+ years perhaps the greatest political influence on a city was the favouring of the automobile through the creation of highways and mortgage deductions for private ownership.

In the United States, the creation of the inter-state highway system (which was partially completed to support improved military transportation) has allowed for the creation of suburbs compounded by three other factors: road economics, tax policy and school funding.  The fundamental law of road congestion states that as roads are built, they are filled at nearly the same rate as their construction.  Thus more roads mean more traffic with only congestion pricing (a political hot potato if there ever was one) mitigating this effect.  Returning to the United States, a generous mortgage interest deduction further encouraged the purchase of the best available home a family could afford.  The localization of school boards and their funding meant that parents would also select a home where the good schools were.  The impact since the end of the WWII was the creation of a suburban sprawl and the gutting of inner-city communities.

The urban riots the United States has experienced can be partially traced to the flight of educated and leadership enabled citizens (white and black) away from the urban centers.  This was more than a lack of policing or social policy, this was as much the destruction of the social fabrics of the communities.  Akin this effect in the United States, Glaeser comments on how much safer the Mumbai slums are than the Rio equivalents despite the former being poorer.  Mumbai slums are better functioning social spaces and thus they provide their own safety nets and controls that are less likely to be found in the more transient Rio slums.

Creating Great Cities

Glaeser offers some direction on how to keep cities healthy, happy, lower environmental footprint and safe.  Firstly, allow cities to grow up.  This increases the density per square metre meaning that the same public-service is being optimized.  Green spaces are important to allow parents to raise their families and community safety must occur concurrently.  Community-based and adequate policing is part of the safety equation in addition to creating functioning social-spaces and communities.  Further to this, a community needs to have a say in the make-up of its local environment (bars, night clubs, daycares, etc.) but must not have a complete veto otherwise cities become balkanized into enclaves of Not in My BackYard.

Glaeser also strongly supports the consumption pricing of public goods.  Thus those driving in from the suburbs should be paying for this right or the developer constructing a high-rise tower should pay a sufficiently high enough fee to compensate the local community for this vertical-intrusion.  These are excellent economic principles that often falter in harsh light of political reality.  Nevertheless, at least they should be part of the discourse on what type of city we want to live in and have available to us.

Triumph of the City is a good read for anyone interested in the practical application economics and civil engineering to the messy realities of human communities.  The book is strongly skewed toward the United States context but Glaeser should be commended in bringing in numerous global examples to balance this bias out.  There are lots of juicy footnotes for those who want a deeper dive into the details.  Triumph of the City is a good book for any History/Economics/Civil Engineering-wonks out there.

(*) In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit [WIKIPEDIA].

Ribbon Cutting and Fire Rescues

Would you run for political office?  If you are like most people, it is hard enough to get out and vote let alone run for an elected position.  Once you have been elected, the vast majority of your time, energy, commitment and effort has to be spent on what the British/commonwealth tradition calls ‘good government’.  Failure to deliver good government will defeat you at polls but it will never win an election, particularly in era of 144 character twitter-attention spans.  What will win an election are actions that fall into one of two categories: ribbon cutting and fire rescues.

A ribbon cutting is the delivery of a net new service or good to the community.  While it may be a new hospital or highway, it may also be a targeted tax policy or change in legislation.  A rescue is where a public official shows his or her mettle by dealing with a crisis, preferably natural and not the fault of the ruling party.

In this context, we can also understand the encroachment of the Nanny State in people’s lives.  After all, a government can only build so many hospitals or highways.  However, more restrictions on tobacco, lower blood alcohol levels for impaired driving targets or legislation to mandate gay-straight alliances in schools are examples of a government doing something (cutting a ribbon) while paying little in direct costs.  This is not to pass comment on the relative merits (or lack thereof) on these and other social engineering efforts.  Nevertheless, each of these efforts incrementally expand the role of government in people’s lives.  The challenge with this expansion is that we are creating increasingly complex societal-systems.  With complexity come instability and the potential for a system failure.  With failure comes the need for a rescue and more complexity means more rescues.

A rescue maybe a temporary measure which partially or fully replaces a process.  Temporary measures have the habit of becoming permanent ones which in turn creates more exceptions and greater complexities.  Worse still is a rescue which resolves one crisis by impairing or destroying a largely functioning process (call this the baby and bathwater rescue).

Some elected officials face greater challenges (rescues) then others.  President Abraham Lincoln, Major General John A. McClernand (right), and E. J. Allen (Allan Pinkerton, left), Chief of the Secret Service of the United States, at Secret Service Department, Headquarters Army of the Potomac, near Antietam, Maryland.  Detail of a photo by Alexander Gardner.  Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Accession Number: 2005.100.1220.

Some elected officials face greater challenges (rescues) then others. President Abraham Lincoln, Major General John A. McClernand (right), and E. J. Allen (Allan Pinkerton, left), Chief of the Secret Service of the United States, at Secret Service Department, Headquarters Army of the Potomac, near Antietam, Maryland. Detail of a photo by Alexander Gardner. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Accession Number: 2005.100.1220.

At this point, if you are tut-tuting the silliness of the public officials cutting ribbons or performing rescues, recognize that you may also be contributing to this behavior.  When was the last time your called up your public official and said, ‘great job on peace, order and good government; keep it up’.  If you did call, perhaps it was to get a street snow plowed, legislation passed or money spent on an issue important to you.

Successful public officials need to balance election-winning ribbons and rescues while simultaneously providing good-government.  Elected officials who focus on ribbons and rescues but lose sight of the ‘peace, order and good government’ can destroy a functioning civil service.  In this situation, it takes an effective senior civil servant (e.g. a Deputy Minister or General Manager) to deliver the ribbons and rescues while protecting and improving the organization’s infrastructure and processes.

Thus, if you do plan to run for elected office, thank you.  We need good people who are willing to take themselves and their families into the fish bowl.  Once you are there, remember the importance of balancing the contradictions of good-government with ribbons-rescues.  If you are a senior civil servant, remember it is your role to mitigate the short-term rescues-ribbons with the longer-term sustainment of an effective and efficient government.    Neither of these roles (politician or senior civil servant) are easy but both are critical for an effective democracy.

Openheimer, Los Alamos and Summer Camp for Physicists

The Manhattan Project is well-known to even the most history illiterate.  The general story is that $2 Billion (1940’s) dollars were spent on secret facilities (including one in New Mexico, Los Alamos) to beat the Nazis to building the bomb.  A German surrender meant that the bomb was dropped on Japan ending the hostilities of the Second World War.

Traditional history is that the two bombs saved about 500,000 allied soldiers from death and dismemberment and many fold more Japanese military and civilians.  Revisionist history suggests that Japan was on the state of surrender anyway and the bombings (in particular the second one on Nagasaki) were unnecessary.

Los Alamos National Laboratory; “Jumbo”, a 200 ton container, was originally intended to be a part of the Trinity test, but was eliminated in final planning. Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Before the bombs, there was the effort to create the bombs.  In perfect hindsight, it is generally acknowledged that the Germans had no hope of ever developing a similar device. They had neither the treasure, time or talent to do so (on the talent front, their policies encouraged many of the central players such as Teller, a refuge from Hungary, to be available for the British and American efforts).  Nevertheless, in the dark days of the early 1940’s such knowledge was not available and the assumption was that London or New York could become a smoking pile of radioactive waste.  And thus the most American effort to the build the bomb.

Jennet Conant explores this effort in her book, “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos”.  Conant is an excellent story-teller and this is a great read for the history or leadership buff.  There are two central figures in the book.  The first, well-known to history, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and the second largely unknown, Mrs. Dorothy McKibbin.  Dorothy was Los Alamos’ first employee and she manned the Santa Fe address that was the front for the laboratory many miles away.  More than simply a functionary, she was the sole contact for hundreds and then thousands of scientists, engineers, contractors and their families while they were in virtual lock down for nearly two years.  She located hard to find and rationed supplies, was a confidant, tireless worker and supplied her home for a number of marriages amongst the inhabitants Los Alamos (due to war-time secrecy only their first names appeared on the marriage license).  Down to earth, practical and a friend to all she was the perfect foil for Oppenheimer who was brilliant and could be arrogant and oblivious to social niceties.

The book rounds out an understanding of Oppenheimer.  For example, he was an avid outdoors man who would spent days trail riding or hiking in the desert.  This was an aspect of his personality that I would have not have guessed.  As the Director of Los Alamos, Oppenheimer had every reason to fail as a leader of the Los Alamos project because of his temperament and political past.  In the end, he commanded respect and loyalty amongst those who stayed and toiled – or hatred and loathing amongst those who left.  The leadership lessons focus on the establishment of a clear objective (building the bomb) and learning how to reach out to those who look to you for your leadership.

109 East Palace is a great companion read about the history of the project.  Ms. Conant brings a female perspective to the book telling the stories of wives, secretaries and families locked behind the secure gates and fences.  Conant does this without losing site of the technical and scientific achievement of the two years in Los Alamos.

In the end, a highly recommended book for those interest in history and leadership from a military, scientific, and female perspective.

Xeno Chronicles: How to become a Pig and live to Tell About It

The Xeno Chronicles: Dr. David H. Sachs and His Fantastic Plans for the Future of Medical Science by G. Wayne Miller

Xenotransplantation is the use of non-human organs in humans.  Follow this link if you want a good summary of the concept: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenotransplantation

Still with me, then consider reading this book if you want a slightly more complete understanding of one researcher in Xenotransplantation, Dr. David Sachs.  Dr. Sachs is a very sympathetic character who has a dream of saving people through the use of animal organs.  In 2005, the publication of the book, Dr. Sachs has had some success with a genetically bred pig.  Unfortunately concurrent with this success is the loss of his major funding source.

The author does a good job of both portraying Dr. Sachs as a highly capable research, boss and a nice person in general.  Glimpses into Dr. Sachs early life are provided including a bout of polio.  On the other side, Wayne Miller presents a reasonably balanced portrayal of the pros, cons and moral minefield of using ‘Babe’ for our human replacement parts.

Babe the pig – not the same variety used for xenotransplantation but possibly just as cute (and tasty!). (image courtesy of virgin media)

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the concept of breeding animals for replacement human parts.  As long as the animals are treated well and have their life ended humanly, breeding (and the eating) Babe so that a person can life a fuller and longer life is okay with me.  Unfortunately (or fortunately for Babe), Xenotransplantation seems to be a long way off.

Although Baboons have survived a few months on pig hearts, every hurdle cleared seems to expose another challenge.  Thus, my larger problem with pursuing xenotransplantation is the diversion of resources away from other organ sources.

For example, an Opt-Out rather than an Opt-In system can increase the supply of donations.  In an Opt-Out system, everyone is assumed to be a donor unless they have expressly requested that they take their organs to the grave (Monty Python movie sketches notwithstanding).  A better registration of the intent to donate can mean that organs don’t go to waste when there was an intent to donate (e.g. Alberta’s new Donor Registry).

The challenge with a better human (or allotransplantation) is still rejection by the recipient.  Although this has improved over the decades with better matching and drugs, rejections is a threat looming over everyone saved with a new organ.  Xenotransplantation has a better supply of organs but the reasons for rejection.

Which leads me to my conclusions of xenotransplantation, this book and a lifetime of research conducted by Dr. Sachs.  I suspect that it may be time to give up on the idea of Babe as an organ donor.  It was a good idea and a good try but the effort remaining and the risk of cross species disease transmission does not make a good investment for society.  Instead, lets continue improving the supply of organs but also put our efforts into either machines that duplicate an organs function or growing  organs through cloning.

A machine that duplicates an organ function can be ever more precisely engineered.  Thus the clumsy artificial heart of the 1990’s can quickly become the science fiction of tomorrow.  Even better, lets grow or clone replacement organs and thus eliminate rejection and disease cross contamination.

So my thoughts on the idea of Xenotransplantation, Dr. Sachs and Miller’s book?  A good idea whose investigation was worthwhile and an okay book for those who can find it cheap or free.

Buying In – BzzAgents and Volunteer Marketers

Just finished the book, “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” by Rob Walker who writes a column for the New York Times Magazine: “Consumed“.  Being a cheap consumer, I purchased the book second hand from the excellent local used book store (SHAVA) that we have here in St. Albert.  As a result, the book is a bit stale published in 2008; well before the financial melt down and the resulting impact on consumption.

Nevertheless, Walker is an engaging writer who walks the reader through the world of consumption, brands and fashion.  For example, who knew that the Hello Kitty mouth was too hard to express in a cute way – so it was cut from the final design in 1974 (pp. 15-16).

Hello Kitty - sans cute mouth

Hello Kitty – sans cute mouth

Or that the Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) beer was purchased in 1985 by a Texas ‘beer-baron’ whose business plan was to slash costs and let the brand “decline profitably”. PBR used to be the blue-collar beer of the working man.  Now it is the markedted blue-collar beer made en masse.

While Hello Kitty and PBR are cute and taste okay (in that order), the interesting section in his book is on volunteer product evangelists or word of mouth marketers (p. 166).  These are volunteers who work for companies like BzzAgent who employ ‘volunteers’ to talk up products.  The volunteers button-hole friends, neighbours and unsuspecting would-be consumers with encouragements to buy sausages, perfume or read particular books.  They are encouraged to post positive reviews and write glowing praise of the particular product that is being promoted.

Some of the volunteers spend as much as 10 hours a week doing the promotion, writing reports and networking with other volunteers.  This is a part-time job working for a marketing company, promoting products – all done pro bono.  Walker provides an example of one word of mouth marketer:

Gabriella and the rest of the [BzzAgent] sausage agents are not paid flunkies trying to maniplate Main Street Americans; they are Main Street Americans…. … and she gets no remuneration.  She and her many fellow agents had essentially volunteered to create “buzz” about …. dozens of … products, from books to shoes to beer to perfume.  By 2006, BzzAgent claimed to have more than 125,000 volunteer agents in its network.” (p. 168)

While these volunteers earn points for prizes – many do not cash in the points.  So what motivates them?  One BzzAgent agent Ginger explained her willingness to volunteer for the following reasons:

  • It was a chance to get products before their release (and be an insider)
  • BzzAgent gives her something to talk and opinion about with other people
  • She believes she is helping people – by promoting a specific product.

To be fair BzzAgent’s code of conduct includes an expectation that:

BzzAgents always tell others they are part of a word-of-mouth program.  Be proud to be a BzzAgent. When Bzzing others, you must let them know that you’re involved with BzzAgent and tell them what you received as part of the campaign. If you genuinely like something (or even if you don’t), it’s your open, honest opinion that counts.

Code of conduct notwithstanding, somehow it feels like BzzAgents are on the wrong side of an invisible line.  Certainly they are not boiler-room fraudsters trying to hustle little old ladies out of their life savings – but still there is a part of me that is a bit queasy about the whole word-of-mouth marketing model.

Perhaps it is because I am a ‘free-lance’ word of mouth marketer.  I promote businesses that have given me good services or products and I do so because I believe that I am being helpful.   However, I do so on products and services of my own choosing and without having to report back to the business (or an intermediary such as BzzAgent) of my efforts to date.  As well, when in the course of a normal conversation, how exactly do you interject that you are now been sponsored by the ACME corporation?  I envision a conversation like:

  • Frank’s Friend: Boy it sure hot today!
  • Frank: Sure is… oh, by the way, this part of conversation is brought to you byBzzAgent and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer or PBR.
    • Boy this PBR is sure refreshing, goes down smooth and is cheap too.  The beer of hipsters and rappers, PBR is the only beer for me. 
  • Frank: We now return to our regular conversation already in progress.
  • Frank’s Friend: Huh?  Are you okay?  I think you need to get out of the sun and stop drinking so much of the PBR swill.

Myself, I am happy to stay on this side of that invisible line and continue to promote/malign in an objective manner good/bad products and services.  Nevertheless, I would love to hear your comments – perhaps over an ice-cold and refreshing PBR, the official beer of word of mouth marketers….

Where Public Health Stops and the Nanny State Begins

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Talbot speak.  If you don’t know who he is but you have heard of the current measles outbreak or past-pandemics, then you know of his and his office’s work. In addition, if you get a chance to hear him speak (and hopefully not telling you that there is a quarantine on your house), be sure that you hear what he has to say.

Firstly he is an engaging and down to earth speaker who has a knack of being able to explain the complex via the simple metaphor.  Secondly he has excellent perspectives on how public health can be cheap yet effective.  Finally he has an excellent sense of the history of public health and a sense of humor.  He can tell you about the cholera outbreaks of yester-year to the current measles blip with a wry context.

So while I would encourage you to hear Dr. Talbot speak, listen as a private-citizen looking to protect your own right of choice in a free society.  Hear what he has to say on public health but ask where the public good stops and the Nanny State begins.  Here are some examples, one past and some future.  The past example is the public health battle against public smoking.  I will admit that I have had the very occasional good cigar but otherwise have never caught the smoking bug.  Thus, over the past ten years, I was ambivalent and ultimately thankful when smoking was banned in places like bars and restaurants.  In my view,assuming you have read the warnings on a cigarette package, and you are not polluting my space or kids – it was your choice to start, continue or stop smoking.  In other words, banning smoking in public places is a reasonable public health compromise of personal choice versus public good.

Fast forward now into a time when sugary drinks are perhaps the new smoking campaign.  Not only will we not be able to super-size our mega-drinks while ordering a big Muck, they pop is banned outright as a public health measure.  Because I am not a big pop drinker, perhaps I will continue to watch this change with more ambivalence.

But what about the next step beyond smokes and a glass of pop.  What happens when public health measures become so intrusive that there is a backlash against them – and good is thrown out with the bad.  Perhaps we are seeing this already with the local measles outbreak.  A virtually preventable disease making  a come back because some parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children.

In other words, public health measures which effectively reduce our choice or make decisions for us (smoking, sugary drinks) may lead to public health challenges because people are tired of having choice taken away from them.

This situation can be described in the question of where exactly does public health stop and an intrusive nanny state in the guise of public health kick in?  I don’t have an answer but it is an excellent question that I will ask Dr. Talbot the next time I hear him speak.

DIY Sleep – Luddite’s Style

I have two shocking confessions.  The first is that my first and only smart phone to date is an employee issued Blackberry Bold.  The second is that I appear to snore – a lot.  To the second confession, I have an apology to make.  To all of those friends and family members I have shaed a room with, I am sorry about the snoring thing.  (Errr, a small explanation, room sharing means the same sleeping areas, for example a dorm in a hostel…).

The two confessions are related in the following way.  To start, I thought I had a health problem (snoring) and being a Do It Yourself (DIY) kinda guy, I went out and bought a digital voice recorder and software for analyzing sound.  Over the past few nights, I have been recording the ambient room noise and then analyzing them with the software.  I have done this to confirm that yep, I sure as heck snore.

Sound Sample from May 9th.

Sound Sample from May 9th.

The above graphic I plan to give to my family doctor physician when I see him next week.  Not sure what happens next but I do I hope to start sharing rooms with friends and family once again (in a platonic hostel-dorm sort of way).

The smart phone confession comes in when I thought, “This is brilliant, why hasn’t someone built an app for this (recording and analyzing snoring)”.  Well lo and behold, about 100 different apps available on the market (google ‘app snore sound record’ for about 700,000 hits).  Had I been more smartphone savvy and less of a Luddite, I would have realized that instead of a DIY solution, my Blackberry could have done this with an app that is either free or at most a few bucks.

Looking a head 10 years, perhaps it might be strange to your family physician if you did not show up with a record of your sleep – whether you suffered from snoring or not.  Of course the smart phone 10 years hence may also tell your doctor your average blood sugar, physical activity, pulse rate, blood pressure and karma/fung shi levels as well.  In other words, the smart phone may become our most powerful tool to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

There is an Orwellian double-edge sword here.  What happens if that information is not freely given but instead is demanded by insurance companies, employers, health authorities or governments.  This is not as much of a stretch as you think.  The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that there are 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 injuries as a result of driving drowsy.  People who do not drink or smoke get insurance breaks – why not people who sleep well?  Employers can test for drugs, why not how well you have slept over the last month?

George Orwell aside, I hope my Luddite-DIY-Snore information can help me get a better night’s sleep in the coming months.  Wish me luck!

Command, Control & the Smiles of Good Fortune

Being in my ’50s, I remember the Cold War.  In the early 1980’s, I had earnest discussions with friends about the merits of nuclear deterrence, the policies of Ronald Reagan and the threat of the Soviet Union.  While now seemingly a distant memory, the 1980’s were also the last full decade when us humans faced mass extinction via nuclear war on a global scale.  In this new century, we can now look forward to only localized extinction.

Nuclear Explosion – Courtesy of the Guardian

The 1980’s is the context for Eric Schlosser’s book, “Command And Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, And The Illusion Of Safety”.  (Some of Schlossers other books include: Fast Food Nation, Chew On This, and Reefer Madness).  Schlosser paints both a sympathetic and frightening picture of nuclear weapons, their record of safety (sort of 100%) and how close we all came to extinction in the Cold War – but did not because of divine intervention or dumb luck.  Schlosser has written the near-perfect non-fiction history.  He blends a central story and the large tapestry of the nuclear weapon ‘industry’ from the late 1930’s to present day.  The story is about a tragic accident at a Titan II missile facility near Damascus Arkansas in 1980.  One airman dropped one socket which resulted in the destruction of the facility and risk of a nuclear explosion.  On that day, confusion, bravery and a system unable to cope with the unexpected reigned – and this formed the central story of Command and Control.

Missile Silo – Post Explosion

Most of the book, however, deals with the context and the events leading up to the dropped socket and its effects afterwards.  Schlosser has written an extremely balanced book.  Too often in current popular culture, the US Military, Ronald Reagan or nuclear weapons are painted in dogmatic caricatures.  Instead Schlosser provides excellent context to these people and events – without pulling punches for incompetence.  A good example of this balance is his discussion of the anti-nuclear movement in Europe against the NATO deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe.  His wry observation is that the protestors of the 1980’s were demanding missiles, not yet installed, be removed while blissfully ignoring the Soviet and Eastern Bloc missiles already deployed and pointed at their homes.

In the end, Command and Control is about fallibility of people, systems and technology – and the role that bravery, systems, good technology – and a lot of luck – played in avoiding any serious accident in the American or NATO nuclear arsenal.  While inspiring from the perspective of good people doggedly working to make the system better, Schlosser leaves the reader with a few warnings.  First, there are still tens of thousands of weapons of various designs and states of repair in the world.  The relative peace we have had since the 1990’s has made nuclear Armageddon less likely but has also increased the chance of an accident as these weapons age, experience personnel retire, less reliable countries develop weapons and organizational culture changes while weapon custody does not.

The second lesson Schlosser imparts is that complex systems (with multiple points of contact and connection) increase the chance of an accident.  At the very least, a complex system may experience a catastrophic run away response to an otherwise small error.  Complex systems, such as the command and control of a nuclear arsenal, have inter-dependent parts that can act unpredictably when under stress or when exposed to unexpected influences.

Schlosser has written an excellent book that is very accessible.  My only critique would be the cast of thousands introduced and the difficulty keeping the individuals straight (particularly when listening to the audio version of the book).  Otherwise, a great read and highly recommended for all military and history buffs out there.

PS.  Apparently you can buy decommissioned missile bases.  For only a million dollar (ish) you can own the worlds greatest paint ball facility/deep scuba-diving tank.

View of a Titan II Complex

 

 

Paying your Volunteers Well

This past weekend I was at a thank you brunch for the Edmonton Touring and Bicycle Club.  This got me thinking to get back to a post on volunteer organizations (see Knowers, Doers and Funders in Volunteer Boards) and specifically why do people volunteer in the first place?  From a rationale-economics model it makes absolutely no sense – giving away your time and talent for free. Volunteering is not limited to a few individuals either, according to a 2010 study by Statistics Canada, nearly half of us volunteer.  Recent models and the study of altruism in animals suggests that there is an evolutionary basis for volunteering (more on this in a second).

This inclination to volunteer is good for our community because it means, at a fundamental level, people want to contribute.  As a result, the question is how to encourage and sustain a natural inclination?  The answer is two part: payment and reducing as much as possible the burden of volunteering.  To start what I hope will be four additional blogs (insert good intentions here)….

The Currency of Volunteer Payment

Let’s start with the three currencies by which organizations can pay their volunteers:

This series is a companion to a previous blog entitled “Knowers, Doers and Funders in Volunteer Boards”.

The Burden of Volunteering

There is a ‘negative-payment’ involved in volunteering, the burden to do so.  My fourth blog will be and exploration of what are the impediments volunteer organizations put into place that dissuade volunteers.

As always, let me know what you think or send me your volunteer horror/success stories.

Maximizing a Secondment Experience

This past Friday I met up with a fellow Government of Alberta (GoA) employee by the name of Henry (name changed to protect the innocent from bad blogging) who is soon off to Washington DC for a two-year secondment with an international banking organization (the Bank). Henry wanted to pick my brains about my secondment experience with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a few years back. I thought the advice I gave him so good that I figured I would take some notes on the off-chance anybody ever asks me again (hey, it could happen).

Before, During and After

As it is always good to start with a definition, thefreedictionary.com defines it as:

2. secondment – the detachment of a person from their regular organization for temporary assignment elsewhere.

From this definition, a secondment involves three parties. Henry; the GoA or the ongoing employer; and the seconding organization – in this case the Bank. Secondments also have three distinct time periods: the time before you go, the time on secondment and then the return. While good to think of them in three distinct periods they should nevertheless have a constant theme – the Value Proposition to three parties involved in the secondment.

Before the Before – The Secondment Circumstances

A secondment happens because a person has:

  • a) applied for a position possibly unbeknownst to their current employer,
  • b) the ongoing-employer encouraged the person to apply, or
  • c) the person was requested by the seconding organization.

There is a subtle difference between these circumstances. Henry was encouraged to apply to the Bank position by the GoA. Thus his boss (his home Ministry) is behind him 100%.  In contrast, I have found myself in both circumstance a) and c). In 2003 I had sought out an opportunity to work in Munich Germany – type a). Unfortunately the employer at the time did not grant me a leave of absence and as a result I quit that job to go to Germany. In 2010, the IAEA sought me out to assist with an accounting project – type c). In this case, I was able to secure a leave so as to take the secondment. What changed in the intervening seven years? I had a better understanding of how to sell the value proposition of the leave to my ongoing employer.

To support this value proposition, it was critical that the IAEA email/write to my boss and describe the circumstances behind why they specifically wanted me and the value to the GoA of my involvement. This provided credibility to the experience and started the process of making my experience a larger organizational experience.

Before – Start with the End in Mind

Henry, assuming you have the full endorsement from your Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM), it is now time to start planning for your return from your secondment. Steven Covery calls this ‘starting with the end in mind’. Envision the first day/week/year of your return from the secondment and define how you want to be thinking about success for the experience. To help you with this visioning, enlist the aid of your boss (and your boss’ boss); ask questions such as:

  • What are the three critical things you want me to accomplish while on this experience?
  • What is the number one problem for our organization the seconding organization can help us with?
  • If you were me, what would be your personal and professional priorities for this experience?

You don’t have to accept all of their advice but you should accept those that align best with your own ambitions, interests or priorities. The benefits for you to start with the end in mind includes:

  • It reinforces the fact that you will be returning to the ongoing employer.
  • It begins the process of making your secondment a shared experience with the organization.
  • It helps you to define the ongoing value proposition themes.

I have been focusing on your employer Henry but don’t forget to do the same thing for your friends and family. What does your wife want to have accomplished in the same time period? Can you offer to host family members so as to share the experience? Can you take your children and can they take part in the international school experience? For myself, here are the goals I had when I went to Vienna:

Goal 1: Family & Health

  • Setting up circumstances to share this experience with my wife and son
  • Maintain my health so I can continue to be productive
  • Experience the Austrian cultural life as much as a non-German speaker can

Goal 2: Exit Gracefully the IAEA

  • Contribute positively and effectively to the project
  • Over the course of the year, complete about 90 ‘things’ well to support the project

Goal 3: Re-Enter the Government of Alberta Gracefully

  • Re-charged, reset and ready for new challenges.

Goal 4: Prepare for Future Opportunities

During the Secondment

In a very short period of time you will be living the dream – the secondee in Washington DC. Then, in a few months the honeymoon will end. At this point you will start to feel (at least a bit) depressed, in limbo, out of touch and isolated. Fortunately the cultural difference between Washington DC and Edmonton are not as extreme as say Edmonton and Haiti. Nevertheless, more than likely you will be living in a small apartment, working in a small cubicle for seconded staff*. And the permanent staff members and those around you will have their own lives and families to go home to.

* small aside, I had a great office and room-mate while working for the IAEA – nevertheless I have worked in some crappy places as a consultant.

So feeling tired, out of sorts and a bit crummy is normal; expect it, deal with it and get over it. A two-year secondment means that you will have 780 days on the ground. 780 is not a large number and it will go by fast. Nearly 25% of the time will be the weekend or statutory holidays (and you will be working a few of these, trust me). 10-15% of these days will be vacation/leave (guard these jealously!). Now you are down to 500’ish work-days. Be clear with your new boss what you want to/can/must accomplish in those 500 days.

Just as important, for the weekends and leave days, what do you want to accomplish? Do you want to visit every memorial/museum in the city, drive the entire east coast of the United States, explore the Southern United States – set a goal and have a great time accomplishing it!

At the same time though, don’t forget about your ongoing employer. While I was in Vienna I tried to provide a monthly ‘blog’ to my home Ministry. Generally I would alternate between a technical themes (e.g. on accounting, governance structures, etc.) and personal matters (e.g. Christmas markets, cycling or Vienna wall murals). Contact your communications person and establish a writing schedule, possible themes – and then stick to them! Amongst other things, it will force you to better understand your experience, your organization and it will give you some great memories (see the links at the end of this Blog).

After the Secondment

Here is a curious fact Henry – a week or so after finishing the experience, it will be as if you never left. If you don’t plan your return carefully this fact can lead to a sense of loss or make you question why you went in the first place. In contrast a well-planned return can give you a sense of closure, purpose and context for the experience. Here are some suggestions for a ‘gracefully re-entry’ to your Ministry:

  • Keep your goals up to date. The will evolve and change, that is okay, but keep focused on why you took the secondment in the first place before, during and after its completion.
  • Keep in touch with your boss, organization and co-workers. See the blogs discussed above but include a few phone calls to your boss, emails to co-workers, etc. to stay in touch.
  • Share the experience by presenting it. Plan to do a series (e.g. 2-4) brown bag lunches on your experience. Space them out every 2-3 weeks. During the presentation don’t forget to profusely thank your boss and the organization for the experience.  I have included links to the three presentations I did below.
  • Stay in touch with the Bank and its family of employees.  They are part of you and your network now.  And of course, if they need a good accountant who writes blogs, I can send you my resume….

So Henry, that is my advice in a nut shell. Your secondment experience will go by fast! Best wishes to you and your wife and make the best possible use of your 780 days. Also, don’t forget to include me on your blogs about your experience!

 Sample Blog and Presentations

(Links fixed, 2013-11-27)

The Propensity to Mediocrity

First some dictionary definitions of the components of the expression:

  • Propensity: n … An innate inclination; a tendency.
  • Mediocre/Mediocrity: of only ordinary or moderate quality; barely adequate.
  • Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com

While ‘Entropy will Always Get you in the End’, we should put up a good fight until then.

Excellence and maintaining excellence is hard work.  Being number one, on top, in the first quartile means constantly beating: number two, those under you and the other three quartiles.  People, organizations and societies want time to rest, enjoy the fruits of their labour or enjoy their entitlements.

My supposition is that people are hardwired toward rest and perhaps even mediocrity.  From an evolutionary perspective it makes perfect sense.  If you are well fed, comfortable, dry and at peace – why risk your genetic inheritance until you are hungry, in discomfort, the roof is leaking or threatened.  Further to some of my prior blogs (e.g. Collaboration – Is it Hard Wired), In/Group and Loyalty is a potentially innate human-attribute.  Excellence, by definition, removes people from the group.

Does this mean that I believe that people are inherently lazy or evil – no.  Do I think that people-families-communities-organizations-societies will seek to cash in on their current riches and past hard work – yes.  Should we care and do something about this – it depends.

There are times when it is important to rest, repair and reflect. As Stephen Covey would observe, Sharpening the Saw is critical to a highly effective person-organization-etc.  However, people-families-communities-organizations-societies also need to be on the lookout for those who confuse earned-rest with entitlement.

So, how do we thwart the Propensity to Mediocrity? Like most things in life, through hard work, discipline, leadership, support and innovation.  Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” has codified these as: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.  Alas, this leads to a fundamental set of contradictions:

  1. Contradiction 1: there is only a limited number of things we can be great at; striving to be great at all or even good at most will typically lead to mediocre in all.
  2. Contradiction 2: individuals must be given the latitude to be great, even if there is a risk that a few will choose entitlement over effort.  Disciplined leadership means dealing with the few lazy-miscreants and not imposing their punishment on everyone.
  3. Contradiction 3: discipline does not mean authoritative.  Discipline means that tough conversations occur and great solutions are found.  Authoritative often means tough conversations are supressed and mediocre solutions are imposed or tolerated.

If the above seems difficult, even a bit fuzzy – it is because the propensity to mediocrity is easy and the discipline to great is difficult, challenging, never entirely clear or even assured.  Entropy will get us in the end but in the meantime, our ongoing wealth, prosperity and standard of living are based on the need to both rest and to constantly fight mediocrity.

Bewitched – A Fifth Column of Social Change?

Growing up in the 1970-80’s; I would regularly watch re-runs of the television show Bewitched.  Like 97% of the male population, I was hopelessly in love with Elizabeth Montgomery (the other 3%, according to the Kinsey report were likely in love with Dick Sargent).

Recently my wife and I noticed that the show was available on Netflix and so as a bit of mindless entertainment, we have started to watch them.  Despite some breath holding early 1960’esque moments relating to guys punch each other, jealous boyfriends threatening to kill estranged girlfriends (1–25: Pleasure O’Riley) and of course the whole suburban housewife thing – Bewitch (at least the first season and a bit) was surprisingly subversive for its day.  Here are some examples from season one and the first couple of episodes from season two:

  • Darrin and Samantha shared the same bed (the first married television couple to do so).
  • Witches demanding better representation in the modern media and staging protests to do so – this being an echo of similar demands from Blacks, minorities and later gays (1-07: The Witches Are Out)
  • In a political meeting of the neighborhood, there was a cut away seen showing a black man sitting in with the neighbors – this at a time when blacks in the Southern United States just earned the right to drink from the same water fountain let alone live in the same community  (1–34: Remember the Main).
  • Corruption is exposed in local politics (1–34: Remember the Main).
  • The owner of a pizza chain tells of his passion for pizza with a speech that starts “I have a dream” (1–35: Eat at Mario’s).
  • Endora causes both Darrin and a stranger to appreciate the burdens of child-bearing and Richard Nixon is named specifically likely suffering from a curse (2-02: A Very Special Delivery).

If these seem trivial in today’s context, consider this, while these were being broadcasted (circa 1964-1965):

  • Martin Luther King ‘I have a Dream’ speech was made in August, 1963.
  • John F. Kennedy had only recently been assassinated in November 1963.
  • Richard Nixon was in his wilderness years having lost to Kennedy and sitting out the 1964 election.
  • The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted in July of 1964.
  • Samantha’s parents (Endora and Maurice) live full lives without the obvious binding effect of marriage.
  • The Vietnam War, Watergate, Hippies, counter-cultures were stirring but still not in full bloom.

Noting the social-historical context of when the shows were written, produced and aired – lends new perspective to something I enjoyed but did not appreciate from my childhood. This is a series about an emancipated woman (Samantha Stevens) adjusting to a set of suburban norms but who was also a fifth column of social change in the homes of America.  Thus, I have new respect for the show. Of course it does not hurt that I still have a crush on the mid-1960s Elizabeth Montgomery.  So, my wife and are looking forward to reliving a bit of our past and US history through a well written television series that is still very watchable.