Category Archives: Culture

What’s wrong with Gen Y? Their parents



Wrapped in caution tape and kept far away from even the least consequential threats mankind invents on a quotidian basis, our children are forever doomed to lives of neurotic self-absorption. Forget saving the planet from the depredations their parents and grandparents have bequeathed.

At least, that’s the thinking, these days, among certain leftish-leaning editors, writers and, presumably, readers who bemoan the softening of youthful spines across these vast and trust-fund-encumbered lands.

Funny that – the thinking, I mean; as it seems so down-to-earth, not at all like the vaulted prose the bloody-minded right wing assumes progressives embrace with relish (and sometimes dijon). 

But there it was, in all its small-l liberal glory: An article brimming with genuinely fretful observations about lost childhood in sea of otherwise confident, consumer-driven print journalism for upwardly mobile adults.

“Hey parents, leave those kids alone” demands the display copy in Hanna Rosin’s cover story in April edition of The Atlantic. “In the past generation, the rising preoccupation with children’s safety has transformed childhood, stripping it of independence, risk-taking, and discovery. What’s been gained is unclear: rates of injury have remained fairly stead since the 1970s, and abduction by strangers was as rare then as it is now. What’s been lost is creativity, passion and courage. Now a countermovement is arising, based on mounting evidence that today’s parenting norms do children more harm than good.”

So, let me get this straight. The generation of parents who think that offering youngsters metal-spiked lawn darts and the opportunity to play helmut-less hockey is tantamount to child abuse is, nevertheless, reconsidering its position on the subject of juvenile risk-taking – as in, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to let junior remove the training wheels from his trike. 

In other words, this generation of parents is suddenly worrying too much about worrying too much. Does anything say “baby-boomer” better than that?

“It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation,” Ms. Rosin writes. “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ‘70s walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap – are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of ‘children’s independent mobility,’ conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 per cent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to nine per cent, and now it’s even lower.” 

Another piece in the same issue of the magazine quotes from a “ground-breaking study” that recently found parents to be responsible for their kids’ lousy performance in school: “Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire – regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education. . .Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.”

How much of this actually rings true for most people, and how much is actually phantasmagoria fueled by an increasingly rarified combination of generational guilt and healthy disposable incomes is hard to say. 

But we of the chattering classes do like to see perils and trends (indeed, perilous trends are among our favorite preoccupations) where none actually exist, or, at least, manifest themselves much in the general population.

Looking out my office window onto my residential neighbourhood, heavily peopled with rug rats of various shapes and sizes, I see games of tag, war, hide and seek; occasional punching, slapping and kicking. I see scraped elbows, skinned knees and bruised foreheads.

     I don’t see pampered darlings under escort to various play-dates. I don’t see adult authority figures brokering cease fires on the battlefields of childhood dreams. 

All of which is to say that “the overprotected kid” might be more myth than reality. On the other hand, “the anxiety-riddled adult” is all too common, indeed.


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Has the webbed world finally killed civility?


I’m not sure exactly when dread became my near-constant Internet-traveling companion – certainly, sometime after he first protocol suite went live back in the “me” decades of the late 20th century – but I’m having a hard time shaking my conviction that the online universe has rendered common courtesy deader that a door knob.

This is, by no means, an original observation.

“Have our brains become so desensitized by a 24/7, all-you-can-eat diet of lurid flickering images that we’ve lost all perspective on appropriateness and compassion when another human being apparently suffers a medical emergency?” CNN contributors Gary Small (M.D.) and Gigi Vorgan asked in a commentary posted (where else?) online a couple of years ago. “Have we become a society of detached voyeurs?”

Or worse?

According to a Canadian Press piece carried in newspapers across the country yesterday, “Research out of Simon Fraser University (SFU) suggests that the online abuse that has been so prevalent on the teenage battlefield is carrying through to the arena of adults at Canadian universities.”

The research, in fact, is the subject of a symposium, “Cyberbullying at Canadian Universities: Linking Research, Policy and Practice”, in Vancouver this week. One presenter, education prof Wanda Cassidy, notes the relatively high incidence of abuse hurled at faculty members these days.

In the abstract to her talk, she writes, “Survey data collected in 2012/13 revealed that 17 per cent of respondents had experienced cyberbullying either by students (12 per cent), or by colleagues (9 per cent) in the last 12 months.  Gender differences were apparent: 14 per cent of females had been targeted by students, compared to 6 per cent of males.  Only females experienced cyberbullying from colleagues, always by someone they knew, and primarily for work-related reasons. The messages were belittling, demanding, harassing, and/or excluding, impacting their work, mental health, and relationships.  Faculty members of racial minority status appeared more vulnerable to being cyberbullied.”

Another peresenter, SFU criminologist Margaret Jackson, says universities aren’t equipped to deal with the problem because their policy frameworks are out of date. “While most. . .outlined complaint procedures and possible sanctions, relatively few addressed the issue of prevention,” she notes in her abstract. “Only about one third made reference to ‘cyber’ behaviours, suggesting that the university. . .environment is not current with the information and communication technologies which occupy the daily lives of university students and faculty.”

As CP reported, “Cassidy said the emergence of cyberbullying in an older population comes with grown-up consequences, such as ruined professional relationships or reputations, anxiety, sleep deprivation and thoughts of suicide.

‘There was a fair proportion of people — both faculty and students — who said it made them feel suicidal. . .which is quite frightening, particularly when you think of faculty members.’”

If that’s not bad enough, the Competition Bureau of Canada issued a dire warning during its second annual “2 Good 2 B True Day” (Tuesday) this week. “Scammers are using the Internet in increasingly sophisticated ways to defraud Canadians of their money and personal information through malicious software, fake websites and online offers or job opportunities that are simply too good to be true,” it said in a statement.

What’s more, “Users of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest may be exposed to scams from ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ whose social media accounts are designed exclusively to promote fraudulent products. Scams promoted through social media may seem more credible because they appear in the same place as content created by a consumer’s friends and family. Social media users may inadvertently promote these scams by liking, tweeting or pinning information about these products.”

But, then, I wonder what we were expecting when we embraced the notion of running what amounts to a live wiretap right through our homes and businesses. The great innovation of the Internet was nothing if not vastly facilitated communications and information gathering. That why the American military establishment was an early and enthusiastic adherent.

Still, I comfort myself by acknowledging that the technology that makes it easy to anonymously mudsling and defraud on an unprecedented scale also makes it easy to crowd-source funds for disaster relief.

In the end, the only moral filters in the online universe come factory installed in the mind if the Internet traveler.

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When all reason goes to pot


Every so often, we Canadians elect governments that love to sweat the small stuff – especially when it’s wrapped in the big stuff

We, for example, appoint people to protect our environment only to recognize later that their version of preservation conforms to an arcane section of the legal code that says something like, “Earth is good; complete harvesting of the top soil, water table and everything in between is gooder.”

You know, it’s the small stuff, the fine print, that counts.

What’s presently “gooder” to the federal government involves a minor tweak in its official policy towards marijuana. Now, according to Justice Minster Peter MacKay, it may be okay to smoke up as long as you have the bucks to pay the. . .well, piper.

“Criminal Code offences would still be available to police, but we would look at options that would give police the ability, much like the treatment of open liquor, that would allow the police to ticket those type of offences,” he told Ottawa reporters the other day. “We have not arrived on the exact mechanism in which that could be done. . .We’re examining it. It’s not decriminalization. It’s not legalization.”

In fact, it’s not anything, really, except another attempt to avoid isolating certain individuals at the margin of a certain political base (people who still think, somehow, that the so-called “War on Drugs” remains a worthy, socially redeeming exercise) with an ideological salve paid for by the rest of us.

The actual experts on this subject generally demur to the proposition that the billions of dollars governments in Canada and the United States have spent fighting the so-called drug war over the past 30-or-more years has been a large-scale success.

According to the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy last year, its “researchers reviewed two decades of global drug surveillance data, finding that the supply of major illegal drugs has increased, as measured through a decline in the price, while there has been a corresponding general increase in the purity of illegal drugs.”

This prompted the Centre’s Scientific Chair Dr. Evan Wood (a co-author of the study) to declare: “These findings add to the growing body of evidence that the war on drugs has failed. We should look to implement policies that place community health and safety at the forefront of our efforts, and consider drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. With the recognition that efforts to reduce drug supply are unlikely to be successful, there is a clear need to scale up addiction treatment and other strategies that can effectively reduce drug-related harm.”

Indeed, no less notable a figure than Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil and Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, concurred when he stated: “In response to a study like this, policymakers often say ‘drugs are harmful so they must be kept illegal’. What they fail to consider is, as this and other research suggests, that drugs are more harmful – to society, individuals, and the taxpayer – precisely because they are illegal. Some European countries have taken steps to decriminalize various drugs, and these types of policies should be explored in Latin and North America as well.”

Of course, marijuana is nowhere near comparable to the hard drugs that have preoccupied sound-bite-driven politicians for years. And, in this context, some Liberals may be tempted to consider the Government of Canada’s apparent softening on pot possession and use as a step in the right direction. After all, a ticket and a fine is better than jail time. This misses the point.

As long as non-medical marijuana remains technically illegal, public policy will remain firmly fixed to enforcement models that cost money and, plainly, don’t work. Besides, the simple act of holding a certain quantity of grass is not, in any reasonable person’s judgement, morally equivalent to speeding or driving around with open bottles of alcohol.

This government should emulate other North American jurisdictions, where legislators have stopped sweating the small stuff and started embracing the big picture of a new, legal, regulated, and tax-revenue-generating recreational industry.

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Averting the world’s end, on trust

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As the word, “systemic”, appears not once but three times in the two-page Executive Summary of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks 2014 report, you get the distinct impression that this members-only club of the planet’s uberinfluencers is already planning for the apocalypse.

In previous risk assessments (released annually) the WEF has been content to merely list the various threats – financial, social, economic – that it thinks imperil the world’s fragile accommodations to national well-being.

This year, however, the Forum is determined to emphasize how these risks have become so well integrated that they pose a systemic danger to civilization, itself.

To be sure, it’s a little like watching a street prophet foretell the arrival of the four horsemen.

“Each risk considered in this report holds the potential for failure on a global scale; however, it is their interconnected nature that makes their negative implications so pronounced as together they can have an augmented effect,” said Jennifer Blanke, the WEF’s chief economist, in the news release that accompanied the report last week. “It is vitally important that stakeholders work together to address and adapt to the presence of global risks in our world today.”

The hit parade of hazards include, in no particular order of pernicious effect: income disparity, fiscal crises, monetary collapse and illiquidity (that means you New Brunswick). There’s also structurally high underemployment and joblessness, especially among the world’s youth.

There’s oil price shocks, critical infrastructure failures and currency devaluation.  Then there’s climate change: greater incidence of extreme weather events; greater incidence of natural catastrophes. There’s also greater incidence of man-made environmental catastrophes, such as oil spills nuclear meltdowns.

If that’s not enough to send you back beneath the covers, consider the failure of global governance models, political collapses, increasing corruption, a major escalation in organized crime and illicit trade, large-scale terrorist attacks, the deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

Wait, we’re nowhere near done.

There are food crises during which access to appropriate quantities and quality of nutrition becomes inadequate or unreliable.” There are pandemic outbreaks thanks to

“inadequate disease surveillance systems, failed international coordination and the lack of vaccine production capacity.” And there’s the “increasing burden of illness and long-term costs of treatment” which threaten “recent societal gains in life expectancy and quality while overburdening strained economies.”

Apart from growing income disparity, by which the WEF seems most troubled, the problem of the kids today hovers like a dark cloud. “Many young people face an uphill battle,” offers David Cole, the Group Chief Risk Officer of the Forum-affiliated Swiss Reinsurance Company. “As a result of the financial crisis and globalization, the younger generation in the mature markets struggle with ever fewer job opportunities and the need to support an aging population. While in the emerging markets there are more jobs to be had, the workforce does not yet possess the broad based skill-sets necessary to satisfy demand.”

Naturally, there’s a bunch more perils – including a nifty event the WEF rather provocatively dubs “cybergeddon”, in which “systemic failures of critical information infrastructure (CII) and networks negatively impact industrial production, public services and communications” – but why blunt the point with too much repetition?

We might as well face it folks. We are well and truly. . .um, you might say, fastened by means of a screw.

Or, maybe not. All good end-of-the-world myths contain escape clauses. And they all share the same qualities: an almost childlike faith in certain principles, the absence of which caused our headlong rush to perdition in the first place. The WEF’s creation/destruction story is no exception.

It wants us to put on our “longterm thinking” caps, get busy getting together for “collaborative multi-stakeholder action” that includes effective “global governance.”

Most crucially, though, its wants us to “trust”.

Trust, it says, “is necessary if stakeholders are to work together to tackle global risks, but trust is being undermined in some systemically important areas. For example, much of the younger generation lacks trust in traditional political institutions and leaders, while recent revelations about cyber espionage have undermined trust in the Internet in general and the governance of cyberspace in particular.”

Of course, restoring trust to a bitter, cynical world on the brink of collapse would be a neat trick, indeed.

One might even call it systemic.

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Defining moments in Canada’s identity


Some may quibble with their methods, means and policy agenda. Others may laud their no-nonsense approach to national governance and economic stewardship. But, as the days begin to set on 2013, all must agree that Canada’s Conservative leadership is not the laissez-faire bunch it once proudly billed itself to be. Far from it.

In fact, no federal government since the early 1960s has spent more time deliberately branding itself and, in the process, redefining what it means to be a Canuck – good or bad.

Even those among us who do not subscribe to such late-model Tory notions as patriotism, self-reliance and personal responsibility as social policy must admit that’s it’s never been easier to answer that perennially posed and quintessentially Canadian question: “Who am I?”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a law-abiding, right-thinking nation of 33 million souls. Forget the Great White North of old: haven for draft dodgers and Liberal elites run amok. Ours is a nation teetering at the edge of chaos, but for our timely embrace of law and order. Or so says the Department of Justice.

“There were almost two million Criminal Code violations reported to police in 2011,” the web site declares. “There were more than 424,400 violent incidents reported to police in 2011. Violent crime accounted for about one-fifth of the offences reported to police in 2011. Although most types of violent crime decreased or remained stable in 2011, there was a 7 per cent increase in the rate of homicides.

“The total costs of crime have been estimated at $99.6B per year – the majority of which ($82.5B or 83%) was borne by victims: $14.3 billion is directly attributable to tangible costs such as medical attention, hospitalizations, lost wages, missed school days, stolen/damaged property. Productivity losses represent 47 per cent of the tangible costs borne by victims followed by stolen/damaged property (42.9 per cent) and health care costs (10.1 per cent). Total intangible costs (including pain and suffering and loss of life) is $68.2 billion.”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a natural resources behemoth, ready to flood the world with its oil, natural gas and mineral wealth. Forget the people who once went out of their way to represent themselves as anything but hewers of wood and drawers of water. Or so says the Department of Natural Resources.

“Natural resources are an important part of the fabric of Canada’s economy,” declares the web site. “Natural resources are poised to play an even bigger role in our future. . It’s estimated that hundreds of major resource projects are currently underway in Canada or planned over the next 10 years, worth approximately $650 billion in investment. That $650 billion figure represents hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs in every sector of our economy, in every region of Canada.

“That’s why our Government has a plan to unleash Canada’s natural resource potential. We call it Responsible Resource Development. This plan is streamlining reviews of major projects by ensuring more predictable and timely reviews, reducing duplication, strengthening environmental protection, and enhancing consultations with Aboriginal peoples.”

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a proud country, clearly informed by its history. Forget any notion that ours is the only country in the world that was granted its independence after asking for it politely. Or so says Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the official War of 1812 web site:

“The War of 1812 was a seminal event in the making of our great country. On the occasion of its 200th anniversary, I invite all Canadians to share in our history and commemorate our proud and brave ancestors who fought and won against enormous odds. As we near our country’s 150th anniversary in 2017, Canadians have an opportunity to pay tribute to our founders, defining moments, and heroes who fought for Canada.

“The War helped establish our path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown with a respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. The heroic efforts of Canadians then helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.”

Some may quibble with all of this. Under the Conservatives, however, none remain confused for long.

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Footloose and fancy free in the undiscovered countries

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

I travel not to arrive, but to leave. To leave the familiar things and commonplace trinkets that litter my life is to become unhinged, like a boat that slips its mooring, unnoticed until dawn reveals that it is gone, off around the headland or beyond the horizon.

My wife and I agree that we have not travelled nearly frequently or widely enough during our three-plus decades of marriage. That’s what happens when two people get hitched at ridiculously tender ages and commence, immediately, to do their part for global population growth.

No branch of literature romanticizes the comings and goings of dutiful partners, raising and educating children, growing older, and becoming grandparents. But the bookshelves are full of odes to both the outward and inner travelers among us.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” the writer Henry Miller once said.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain penned.

As for St. Augustine, that reformed reprobate, he observed that “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

He was right, of course. He still is. That’s what bugs me, and always has.

How can I call myself a writer when I haven’t really been anywhere, when I haven’t inserted myself into another country, another culture, long enough to start missing my own bed?

That’s not strictly true. I’ve been to Europe and to the United States. I’ve travelled right across Canada, from coast to coast and back again. I’ve had a hot dog in Victoria and cod cheeks in St. John’s.

Still, somehow these excursions have seemed exceptional, like the odd Christmas present you honestly appreciate. To be in the wind as a way of life; this has always intrigued me.

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going. . .You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back. . .The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown.”

The musings are those of Paul Theroux, one of my favourite novelists and travel writers. His books, The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster, about his journeys in Asia, compelled me to consider quitting my job at the Globe and Mail in the mid-1980s and hop a slow boat to China, there presumably to find my ch’i.

Two decades later, I settled for a fairly elaborate (and, I thought, quite workable) scheme to live and work in the world via motor home – but not just any motor home.

At that time, my wife and I decided to pool the resources we had accumulated over the years (by not letting a bank give us a mortgage on a house) and plow them into a state-of-the-art, mobile command and control centre, a sort of freelance writing, broadcasting and blogging factory on wheels.

In it, we would circle the world, reporting on what we saw and who met in an endless travelogue, earning a living from media markets – which, we were sure, would trip over themselves for our stuff – in every country we visited.

In the end, the plan proved unfeasible. For various reasons, the timing wasn’t right. Still, we never quite abandoned the basic principle of travelling as a way of life. And as the years passed, we began to formulate an alternate approach.

This Christmas, we will be heading to New York City. While there, we will do all of the classic touristy stuff – Empire State Building, Central Park. But we will also seek out the “other” Big Apple, the city that even many New Yorkers fail to notice in the less-trodden neighbourhoods.

Two years ago, again at Christmas, we did London, England, this way. Two years hence, with any luck, we’ll do Rome.

If we get good at this, the adventures will pay for themselves. Our dispatches from the front lines  of conviviality and culture will find their way into what remains of the world’s travel press.

Or not.

What’s important is the effort. How can you know when you’ve arrived, if you never leave?

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Conrad and Rob hate the press. Alert the media?

What goes up...needs hot air

What goes up…needs hot air

On the subject of embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, Conrad Black – former guest of the U.S. penal system, former millionaire newspaper-chain owner and current television talk-show host – has had a change of heart. Sort of.

According to Newstalk1010 Radio’s website, an interview last month with Mr. Black suggested that Mr. Ford was not the ex-media baron’s “candidate of choice in the last municipal election and (that) Toronto deserves someone with a little more dignity than a person like Ford. ‘People saying what kind of example he’s set’ (said Mr. Black). ‘Well, maybe it’s not a great example, but that’s what you have elections for.’”

Having had a moment or two to reflect, Mr. Black now thinks “the piling on to Mayor Ford has been excessive.”

One may speculate as to the precise amount of “piling on” Mr. Black considers acceptable, but his point is simply that Mr. Ford “was elected mayor of Toronto.” Therefore, reason allows, “those who do not like his style will be free to vote against if he runs again. If there is sufficient evidence to prosecute him with crimes, due process should be followed. But he should be accorded a full presumption of innocence unless he is justly convicted. Beyond that his accusers should put up or shut up.”

Mr. Black comes to these conclusions – posted to the blog site of his TV show, The Zoomer – following an hour-long chat with Mr. Ford last week. The interview appears tonight on the Vision network. After which, Mr. Black is sure to lament, “Gadzooks, the piling of the scrofulous media degenerates, exhibiting undiminished determination, continues unabatedly.”

For the moment, what we do know is that Mr. Ford doesn’t mind sharing. In fact, he tells his new chum, “If they want me to do a drug test, a urine test, I’ll do one right now. If there’s any drugs in my system, any alcohol in my system. . . I have no problem doing that test.”

To which Mr. Black responds with almost avuncular solicitude, “Rob, there is absolutely no need to do a urine test right now.”

That’s right, Roddie, old boy: At least wait until you’re done with the interview.

Some will see the pairing of Messrs. Black and Ford as odd.

After all, Mr. Black is a scion of the Canadian establishment, a recipient of a privileged and excellent education, a famously successful businessman, an accomplished historian and author, a British peer who renounced his Canadian citizenship, and an ex-con who was (he insists) wrongly incarcerated on trumped-up charges of fraud and obstruction of justice.

Mr. Ford is. . .well, none of those things.

Rather, he is the son plain, working stock, who grew up and went to public schools in Toronto’s vast suburban wasteland. As a politician, he’s a right-wing populist and a proud flag-waving Canadian who, somewhat incongruously, likes immigrants because immigrants, by and large, keep electing his impressively rotund rear end into office whether or not he admits to drinking to excess (he does) or smoking crack cocaine (again, he does) or referring to a certain part of the female anatomy in crudely animalistic terms (one of those “inflammatory malapropisms” Mr. Black, himself, has warned Mr. Ford to avoid deploying whenever possible).

Mr. Ford is bologna and white bread. Mr. Black is caviar and toast points. Mr. Ford is yellow mustard. Mr Black is Chablis Dijon. Mr. Ford is a pickup truck. Mr. Black is a Bentley Mulsanne.

Still, the combination works precisely because it is so bizarre. The various controversies and public outrages that have made their respective careers so publicly accessible unite them – one, elite; the other, hoi polloi – in a sentiment that a growing number of Canadians – regardless of backgrounds – share: the media, as Mr. Ford has inelegantly put it, are maggots.

Do you want to act like an idiot whilst holding public office? Forget it; it’s not going to happen. Blame the media.

Do you want people to stop asking impertinent questions about embarrassing circumstances, even though such circumstances are a matter of police investigations? You’d have better luck finding a snowball in hell. Blame the media.

And while you are at it, stay away from mirrors. Like TV cameras, they add ten pounds, mostly to that region between the ears.

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Choosing our words wisely


It is one of those words that, through its overuse by bureaucrats, politicians and other members of the snake-charming family, loses its meaning in the company of rational men and women. That’s precisely why it is so easily misunderstood.

Still, we are informed, there can be no higher road on which to travel, no finer boulevard on which to set forth than the path of innovation. Wisdom’s lengthy annals are replete with expert advice on the subject.

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd,” said Winston Churchill. “Without innovation, it is a corpse.”

Naturally, Bill Gates would concur. “I believe in innovation,” he once opined. “The way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.”

On the other hand, Steve Jobs argued that “innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

At the same time, he added, “innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.”

Meanwhile, America’s very own Commander and Chief Innovator, Barack Obama, put it this way: “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”

Clever, to be sure. But I wonder whether we are any closer for having perused the witticisms to understanding what innovation really means.

Certainly, the dictionary is of no help. One of them defines the word as simply “the act of introducing something new; something newly introduced.”

Other terms, similar in meaning, include: invention, excogitation, conception, design, creative thinking, creativeness, creativity, concoction, and contrivance.

Then again, innovation can also mean change, revolution, departure, transformation, and upheaval.

In fact, it may just be that real innovation has as much to do with the tearing down of things than with their building up; that true innovation is not so much an act of generosity than it is one of brutal, protean self-expression.

Innovation is dangerous, and that scares bureaucrats, politicians and other members of the snake-charming family, who dress it up in its Sunday finest and park it in the parlor when gentlemen entrepreneurs come calling for government “investments”.

But, on the subject of innovation, at least one famous private enterpriser knows what he’s talking about. Here’s what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told a gathering of his assorted acolytes in October:

“Without a willingness to fail, you cannot innovate because most innovations won’t work. . .I cannot overstate how important (the) incremental innovation is. But for the big innovation, you have to be willing to fail. Every startup company faces that. Even big companies, like Boeing building the 787, face this. . .Use the critics as a mirror and ask if they are right. If they are right, then you change. If you think you don’t agree, then you should be stubborn on your vision. Part of being an inventor is that you have to have stubborn enough visions that many will think are wrong.”

We have, in New Brunswick (and, lately, in Canada as a whole), a tendency to think that failure of any sort is not worth the risk of taking a chance; even when, by not taking a chance, we risk almost certain disaster anyway.

What are our elected leaders actually doing that is at all innovative about the fiscal morass in which we find ourselves? What actual steps are they taking to generate real diversity into the local and so-called knowledge-based sectors of the economy?

Words are talismans. They possess the power to transform – to destroy and to remake the world – if we are innovative enough to let them.

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Cautionary tales from the oil rush


What goes up...well, you know

What goes up…well, you know

Forgotten somewhere behind the picket lines in rural New Brunswick, amid the gloomy certitudes about the oil and gas industry’s power to corrupt the environment, lies a more visceral byproduct of resource extraction: crimes not against nature, but humanity.

Canada’s violent offence rate is so low these days, few people associate lawlessness with mining and drilling operations anymore. History, of course, is replete with tales of banditry, thuggery and worse from the front lines and frontiers of assorted gold rushes and oil booms in North America.

There are, as Robert Service (the Arctic’s unofficial poet laureate) once wrote famously, “strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold.” Indeed, “the Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” Over the past year, however, such literary apocrypha has become reality in the border territories between western and Canada and the United States.

A New York Times piece, published on Sunday, describes recent disappearances and murders in the high plains of Montana and North Dakota. “Stories like these, once rare, have become as common as drilling rigs in rural towns at the heart of one of the nation’s richest oil booms,” the article reported. “Crime has soared as thousands of workers and rivers of cash have flowed into towns, straining police departments and shattering residents’ sense of safety.”

That observation echoed an earlier Times story in which “Christina Knapp and a friend were drinking shots at a bar in a nearby town several weeks ago when a table of about five men called them over and made an offer. They would pay the women $3,000 to strip naked and serve them beer at their house while they watched mixed martial arts fights on television. Ms. Knapp, 22, declined, but the men kept raising the offer, reaching $7,000. . .Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults.”

Regarding Canada, a piece in the Regina Leader-Post last April explained, “As the oil belt in southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana expands, police are grappling to deal with a resulting increase in crime. In our province, that means more traffic crime – specifically, more aggressive and impaired driving charges, as well as more fatal accidents. To address crime trends that have come about as a result of a population increase in the oilfield area, members of the Saskatchewan RCMP from the enforcement, intelligence and border security sections are in the midst of a two-day summit with their U.S. counterparts in Glasgow, Montana.”

Meanwhile, a story published on last month observes that “in 2005, the Williston Police Department in Williston, North Dakota, received 3,796 calls for service. By 2009, the number of yearly calls had almost doubled, to 6,089. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, the Williston P.D. received 15,954 calls for service. . .The police department in nearby Watford City received 41 service calls in 2006. In 2011 they received 3,938. That’s life in an energy boomtown.”

Ask a dozen sociologists about the reasons for the phenomenon, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. But it seems clear that the word “boomtown” says it all: the uncontrolled explosion of opportunity generates unpredictable consequences – including roving bands of assorted misfits and bad guys – catching institutions, infrastructure and law enforcement off guard.

Here, in New Brunswick, of course, we don’t know much about any of this. The safety and serenity of our bucolic environs has as much to do with the fact that we export our criminals, as well as our law-abiding sons and daughters, out west.

But should the glint in Premier Alward’s eye – and that in those of at least 100 other political and business leaders in this province – ever manifest itself as a pipeline from Alberta into Saint John and/or a commercially viable, environmentally benign, shale gas industry proffering jobs and income, galore, we may want to remind ourselves about the social costs of overnight success.

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Straighten up and fly right this week

Just go with the flow

Just go with the flow

Thanks to newspapers the western world over having nothing actually new to cover during the shoulder season between Halloween and Christmas, we learn from them the modern codicils of an ancient philosophy.

Welcome, dear reader, to Live Like a Stoic Week, which The Globe and Mail’s John Allemang describes in his front-page piece yesterday as, “a global self-improvement experiment, starting Monday (Nov. 25), that aims to spread Stoic virtue across the virtual world.”

By “Stoic virtue”, he means what the dictionary defines as indifference to both pain and pleasure. Other synonyms that may apply include: resignation, imperturbability, fortitude, fatalism, and stolidity.

Writing in 167 AD, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius – perhaps that most famous of historical Stoics – commenced Book Two of his “Meditations” (translation by George Long) thusly:

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.

“But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.

“For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

That’s easy for him to say.

Still, the good folks at Exeter University in the United Kingdom think what the world needs now is more of the old boy’s stiff-upper-liplessness. These organizers of the second annual Stoic Week write sweetly on their website, “the only thing that has real value is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee our happiness. External things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness.”

And that’s not all: “Many of our negative emotions are based on mistaken judgements, but because they are due to our judgements it means they are within our control. Change the judgements and you change the emotions.”

Meanwhile, heed the natural order of things: “We ought to acknowledge that we but small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control.”

And, so, “there are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not.”

Oddly enough, modern Stoicism sounds very much like a mash-up of quasi-New Age doctrines of self-actualization, positive thinking and environmentalism, right down to the “Gaia hypothesis,” which proposes (according to a Wikipedia entry) that “organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.”

The question, of course, is whether any of this can do us any good. Are we humans already past the point of no return to sanity?

The problem with Stoicism is that its practice requires a disciplined and (here’s the real rub) mature mind. Be honest. Who among us can claim to own one of those? Are we not more like classic hedonists, who believed that pleasure – in our case money, cars, booze, drugs, sex, and mindless channels of electronic entertainment  –  was, in and of itself, the greatest good of all?

At any rate, I’ll give forbearance a whirl. After all, a week without my many indulgences isn’t an eternity.

It’ll only feel that way.

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