Tag Archives: reviews

The Walrus, "Fair Dealing" & the Culture of Journalism

Last month, in its November/December issue, The Walrus magazine had an excellent piece by Gil Shochat on government, transparency and access to information entitled The Dark Country. (notice the hyperlink…) If you haven’t read the piece, go read it now. It is devastating in its analysis and absolutely dead on. We need radical reform around how we access government information – something we have been trying to begin to pioneer here in Vancouver – and this piece taps into the roots of that need. (The part on Abousfian Abdelrazikwhom Canadian public servants openly talked about as at risk of being assassinated by Sudanese Intelligence operatives – is particularly dark.)

I first heard about the piece when friends emailed and called me to say they enjoyed my quote. It was (and is!) great news to get. Great, because from the sounds of the quote it seemed like something I might write, was in context, and it is nice to be noticed by others for one’s thinking and advocacy.

It turns out that the quote is from a relatively long and quite popular blog post I wrote a few months back titled Open Data – USA vs. Canada in which I outline some theories regarding why open data and government transparency has gained more traction in the US than Canada. Specifically, about halfway through the piece I wrote:

The [Canadian] government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers [the Queen’s]. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared.

Which brings me back to The Walrus. I’m thrilled that they included the above quote in their piece. I’ve been working hard to advocate for government transparency and open data, and so a quotation is both a nice acknowledgment of that work and a great way to reach a wider audience. However, why not link to my piece in the online edition? Or mention that it was published on eaves.ca in the print edition like Andrew Potter did in his Macleans column? (although no online link…)

There could be an argument – under copyright law – that to quote my piece under Fair Dealing (Fair Use for Americans), The Walrus should attribute the source (in this case, my blog). But even without a reference to Fair Dealing, there is something deeper, something about the culture of journalism, that would lead you to believe they would want to link.

One of the hallmarks of journalism has been its collaborative nature. Frequently, stories build on previous works. Discovering a scandal is often not the work of a single reporter, but the culmination of many peoples’ work. This is why I’ve always admired journalists’ willingness to attribute. Long before the Internet, there existed a “link economy” in the press, where reporters cited the work of those who came before them who had helped them break or uncover a story. Sometimes this was done grudgingly, but it was done irregardless.

The internet, and especially the blogosphere, has a similar phenomenon, often referred to as the aforementioned “link economy.” Bloggers and writers link to what others sites, knowing that may mean people click away from our website – but secure in the knowledge that if we send them somewhere interesting, they’ll be back for more. Remember the most viewed website in the world is dedicated to sending people to other sites; it’s called Google.

So let’s be clear, when The Walrus doesn’t link to others, it is a policy decision. They believe in the myth that they need to keep people on their website – which means they also believe in keeping their readers away from the very material that makes their stories interesting. This makes their website less interesting (and is why I don’t visit it – I visit websites with external links, ’cause I like to explore ideas — in both the literal and internet surfing sense).

So what richness did readers miss out on in this case? Well of course, none of The Walrus‘s readers even know that I wrote a piece that they could read with the click of a mouse. But beyond my own self-interest, there’s much more that could have been included:

  • The Globe piece containing a quote about detainees can be found here.
  • The Access to Information Act is referenced (and is central to the piece); it might be interesting to link to it.
  • James Travers, whose Hill Times piece entitled Conservative Prime Minister Harper’s highly-touted federal Accountability Act a recipe for more broken rules (phew!) also goes unmentioned and unlinked.
  • Reporter Stephen Maher does have his piece mentioned (“Ottawa Is Sending Me into a Black Rage”), along with its publication (Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald). However, one can’t fault The Walrus for not linking to them since… It doesn’t appear that the Chronicle-Herald keeps anything online after 2 weeks, and their library, which offers to help you find articles, has this for a webpage.
  • Also of interest is the report by the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Newspaper Association that shows we are behind Mexico, Pakistan and India in access to government information – no link again, although it can be found here. (And this was hard to find in Google/Internet terms.)
  • There’s more, but you get the point…

The point being, that if you don’t link to others, you are making it harder for your readers to delve deeper, and therefore to care more deeply about the subjects you’re writing about. In an online world, you are effectively acting as though all knowledge about the issue resides on your page. This is absurd. As a result, not linking to others feels not only like a violation of good journalism standards, and of the most basic codes of conduct on the internet, it’s a poor business decision.

This is because when you don’t link, others won’t link to you either. Consequently, you sit outside the conversation. As Taylor Owen and I wrote in Missing The Link (which we offered to The Walrus as the basis for a piece – though they declined):

The staff writers of The New York Times, while certainly talented, are not the beginning and end of news. Pretending that they are is laughable, and their customers know it. Consequently, simply recreating newspapers online won’t work. Americans may be interested in living in gated communities, but they don’t want to surf within them. Web pages that interlink with others are more likely to be visited because readers will know that in addition to the base content or analysis, they will also be pointed to interesting material, both within the site and outside. Isolated news pages will invariably remain just that—cut off.

And that sums up The Walrus‘s site – cut off. Which is sad, because Gil Shochat’s piece is completely brilliant.

Update 11:31am: Jeremy Keehn – senior editor at The Walrus (as well as very smart man, and someone I consider a friend) responds in this thoughtful post. Going to reflect on his comments – hope to have some intelligent to add in a bit.

New Policy Journal: The Public Policy and Governance Review

Last week saw the launch of a new biannual online journal called The Public Policy and Governance Review. Started by students and faculty from universities across Canada the journal seeks to inject some new ideas and thoughts into the public policy sphere.

I would argue that it already has.

Check out this paragraph from its “About Us” page.

The Public Policy and Governance Review is in the business of promoting ideas and is not interested in proprietary rights. We believe that authors deserve credit for their work and that using any intellectual material warrants referencing, but other than that, we hope that the ideas published in the PPGR disseminate well beyond the confines of this website. As such and as a matter of principle, the Public Policy and Governance Review uses a less-restrictive licensing agreement for publication than traditional copyright. We publish as much of the PPGR as possible under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivative Works license. This is a licensing agreement that relaxes some of the restrictions associated with traditional copyright and allows our readers to distribute material more easily. It allows authors’ works to be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes as long as the work is not modified and attribution is maintained.

Take note – these are Masters of Public Policy and Governance students and they have chosen to use a Creative Commons license – not copyright – for their journal. Note that they WANT others to re-post and comment on the material on blogs and other sites. This is a journal interested in using the most modern technology and legal tools to do what all journals start off wanting to do: initiating interesting conversation and spreading ideas.

This alone should make senior public servants take notice. If you are a senior public servant and you think debates over copyright don’t matter to you… your next hire (and ultimately, your successor) thinks differently.

Two additional asides:

First, for real copyright geeks that are wondering, yes I actually think they should have allowed attributed derivative works… since, well, all works are derivative works of something – nothing is completely original – but, well, one step at a time I suppose.

Second, before the launch of the first edition of the Public Policy and Governance Review the editors sat down and interviewed me on the future of the public service. You can read the interview here (pdf).

My new mac – some thoughts for other PC users

As some of you know, I recently shifted from a PC to a Mac. It’s a big transition for me… I’ve used a PC all my life, so it is easy to say that I’m having a little (but not a ton) of culture shock.

I’ll be honest about the single best selling feature of the mac: Spotlight.

I do very few things on my computer. Mostly I write, I surf, and I email. A LOT of email. So first and foremost, having a computer where I can find my emails and documents easily is critical. When you’ve got over 70,000 emails you want to be able to search, well, neither Microsoft Outlook, any Windows desktop search engine I’ve ever seen, or even Google desktop (which essentially requires you to load a browser each time) is going to cut it.

I NEED to be able to find stuff quickly. Google has bred me with an expectation of instant results (not a slow churning solution). Maybe Windows 7 will get there, but I’ve given up waiting. My 5 year old thinkpad wasn’t going to last long enough for me to see.

Am I happy? Absolutely. One thing our Apple friends do well is design. I love the keyboard, the screen and pretty much everything physical about the machine. Moreover, the convergence of Mac & Windows software has made the transition relatively easy – I’d be frightened to think of how much time on my computer I spend on the browser, but it is a lot… so moving from Firefox to Firefox is pretty sweet.

That said, the transition hasn’t been perfect. There are several features on the Mac that have been frustrating, and even disappointing. For those thinking of making the leap I thought I let you know the rough parts; it shouldn’t dissuade you, just set some expectations that not everything in Macworld is peaches and cream. Of course, if some veteran users have solutions to these issues, I’ll be eternally grateful.

So here’s my list of 4 things I’d change on the Mac – some of these are so petty I’m almost embarrassed…

1. No “send to” email client option. One thing Windows has that I’ve not found on the Mac is the “Send To” folder. Drop any application in the Send To folder and when you right-click on a document you have the option of opening the document with that application. What I loved was being was being able to right-click on a document, send it to my email client and bingo! A new email was created with the document attached. Very productive and easy. Alas, no such luck in the Mac.

2. No “open container” option in spotlight. Yes, I love Spotlight AND… when the drop down menu is showing me a list of found items, why can’t I right-click on it and open the containing folder? Sometimes, I don’t know what document I’m looking for, but I do know it is co-located with a document I do know the title of… Just saying.

3. In Mail, you can’t drag an email to iCal to create an event. Best feature Outlook (and I presume Entourage) has that Mail and iCal don’t is the ability to turn an email into an event. I know that Mail has the funky – click on the date and it will create an event – but it rarely brings in the relevant information. In Outlook I simply dragged an email to the calendar and presto! I had an event in which the email contents were in the notes. That way I could easily copy all the relevant details and, had a ton of context I could quickly reference within my calendar.

4. Okay, so this one seems REALLY petty… but it strikes at something deeper, something important for PC users to know. I’m feeling a little annoyed that, in Mail, when I delete an email in my inbox the cursor always moves to the newer email regardless how the mail is sorted. In Outlook it always moved “down” (Which I had arranged to mean that it went to an older email). Small, I know, but it is driving me crazy when I’m dealing with my email. Of course, this is all part of what I understand to be a larger philosophical problem with Macs (and why I’ve never been an owner before) which is that the company is centered on the idea that it knows how you should use your computer better than you do… so customizing is limited. This is the biggest culture shift for PC users. Owning a Mac is like being in a gated community… its pretty and manicured, but you have to adhere to the community bylaws, or else…! Yes the Windows world has got serious medical issues (viruses), a generic corporate feel (Windows Themes) and a approach to planning that seems modeled after Houston (I say this with some affection) but you also had a lot more freedom to create trouble or solve things your way. At the moment, I’m welcoming my new overlord because it’s like my computer has been taken over by the Swiss! It’s efficient, but if I try to complain… well you get the point.

Pretty much everything else that I’m wrestling with. The way Alt-Tab works on the Mac or the fact that I can’t open press “command+F” to open the “File” menu are things that I know, in time, I’ll adjust to.

Articles I'm Digesting 10/09/2009

Here’s a few articles I’ve been reading that I’ve found particularly compelling.

Big Food vs. Big Insurance

by Michael Pollan  (via David B.)

This great piece talks about the secondary impact of health care reform – namely that if US Health Insurance companies have to insure every American they will suddenly care a great deal more about what Americans eat, as this is a major driver of healthcare costs. Money quote (the one David B sent me that got me reading):

“But these rules may well be about to change — and, when it comes to reforming the American diet and food system, that step alone could be a game changer. Even under the weaker versions of health care reform now on offer, health insurers would be required to take everyone at the same rates, provide a standard level of coverage and keep people on their rolls regardless of their health. Terms like “pre-existing conditions” and “underwriting” would vanish from the health insurance rulebook — and, when they do, the relationship between the health insurance industry and the food industry will undergo a sea change… Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.”

Here’s a great example of a leverage point, Pollan shows how healthcare reform will shift policy alliances, power and money in Washington and could allow for a long awaited (and needed) reform of food policy. It’s a fascinating analysis and it shows how strategically the Obama administration is thinking. They know that if they can win this battle – even with an imperfect bill – they will be gaining powerful allies for the next few battles. Brilliant.

Twitter: “pointless babble” or peripheral awareness + social grooming?

by Danah Boyd

A few weeks ago the Globe continued its war on social media by publishing this piece about how 40.55% of tweets are babble. It’s the kind of analysis that is so poorly constructed one doesn’t even know where to start in rebutting it. I’d been thinking for a while to write some coherent rebuttal, but fortunately Danah Boyd has already written it.

Open Government Data Principles

This is one of the best and simplest distillations of guiding principles around how governments should treat data that I have seen to date. Simple, concise, short yet comprehensive, these principles should hang on the CIO’s office wall in every government department or ministry around the world. As per their request I’m trying to think of ways to improve it, if I come upon any, I’ll blog about it.

Brand new old idea: The GoC Public Servant as Knowledge Worker

By Douglas Bastien

I remember when I had a contract with the Privy Council Office looking at young people in the Public Service and how they might network together, I took out a book that talked about managing knowledge workers in government and thinking how curious it was that few people in government saw themselves as Knowledge Workers. And yet, how government sees and manages its employees doesn’t always align with how knowledge workers would expect to be managed.

Doublas Bastien piece is bang on in its description of the problem. It is also a deeply depressing read. Depressing because one is forced to confront that so many of the challenges the knowledge economy, technology and social change would pose to government were identified a decades ago. Our government can predict and HR challenges, but when it comes to managing one… that’s a different story. But we shouldn’t be surprised, we don’t promote managers in government,  we promote policy wonks, and so we don’t manage the problems, we issue policies to deal with it. Definitely read Douglas’ piece, and if you like it, consider going back into my archives and reading one of the post on Public Service Sector Renewal I’m most proud of.

The Valpy Social Media debate

So a few days ago I posted this response (a cleaner version to be found here at The Mark) to a piece Michael Valpy wrote in the Globe about how social media threatened the social cohesion of the country. My problem with Mr. Valpy’s piece is that it framed the question in the most negative light – seeing only the downside (and in some cases imagined) consequences of social media and none its positives. I was reminded of Steven Johnson’s delightful and intelligent counter-factual that describes a world where video games precede, and are then displaced by, books. One senses that if we lived in a universe where social media preceded main stream media Mr. Valpy would be writing columns worrying about the loss of the country’s small, rich and diverse conversations, crushed by the emergence a dominant agenda, curated by a small elite.

I was initially excited to hear that Mr. Valpy was writing a response in The Mark. Sadly, his piece wasn’t really a response. It addressed none of my critiques. Instead it focused primarily on repeating his original argument, but more slowly, and with bigger words.

I’ve re-read all three pieces and still feel good about my contribution. My main concern is that when reading the counterfactual at the end of my piece, many people have come to assume I look forward to the decline of main stream media (MSM). Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I believe in the potential of social media and, when I stepin  my counterparts shoes, I also see that MSM offers us a great deal. At the same time, I don’t believe MSM is the sole generator of social cohesion, national identity, or democracy. All three existed before the arrival of MSM and, should it come to pass, will survive its decline.

As a newspaper columnist I can imagine it is frightening to see your audience splintered into smaller fragments. At the same time however, I am surprised that a national commentator can’t see how unhealthy this imaginary social cohesion was, and how unsafe the public space was for many people. Remember, this is an article that paints, in a concerning tone, the passing of a world where people, to paraphrase Mr. Valpy, attended a modern version of Mass to become aware of what others thought they should be aware of. That is not a description of an active and engaged citizenry. That is a description of sheep. Well now the sheep are awakening. Yes it is scary, yes there are unknowns, and yes there is fragmentation. But there are also enormous positives, positives I wish Mr. Valpy and others at the Globe would include in their commentary. If they did they and their readers might see what I and those I work with see: the opportunity for something that it is better than what was on offer before, no matter how rosy a picture he paints of the past.

Ultimately, I think Mr. Valpy and I do share common ground. He sees “A glorious objective” in Michale Ignatieff”s call for a public space:

“Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.”

I too believe this is a noble aim. But, while we stand on common ground, I fear Mr. Valpy and I look away in different directions (I would be interested in trying to reconcile these views – and have said as much to him). My reading of his piece leads me to believe that he looks into the past and posits that not only is such a state possible, but suggests we once achieved it. That there was a  Canada where people understood what one another were saying and meant, but that it is slipping away.

For me, I think any such past was more illusion than mirror.

I look forward and see not the realization of Ignatieff’s glorious objective, but an enhanced ability to pursue it. There are no countries where  people understand what each other say and mean. Only countries where citizens are good or bad at committing to try to understand what each other say and mean. In other words, home isn’t where you are understood, it is where others are prepared to go out of their way to understand you.

The opportunity of social media is it gives citizens – The People Formerly Known as the Audience – the ability to increase the range of views about which they want to be understood. This can lead to disagreements (such as the one the Valpy and I are having now) but it also forces us to face the fact that others do not understand, or agree, with what we say or mean. Whether it is disagreeing or agreeing however, the hall mark of social media has been its ability to expose us to new communities – to connect people with others who share interests and care about issues we’ve both long cared for ourselves, or have just discovered. As much as I like my country when its citizens are held to together by a common passport and newspaper, I like it even more when it is held together by a dense weave of overlapping, interconnected, conflicting and ever changing communities around hobbies, politics, personal interests, books, culture, and a million other things. Communities where new voices can be heard and new expressions of the Canadian identity can be manifested.

The promise of social media is its ability to complexify our story, and our relationships with one another. Ultimately, I see that complexity being much more interesting than illusions cast by crude mirrors reflecting only what their holders decide should be seen. Will social media be able to hold up some new “mirror”? I suspect yes, but ultimately don’t know. But whether it can or cannot, I feel optimistic that the ascendancy of social media doesn’t mean the end of our social cohesion.

How the Mighty Fall vs. The Black Swan

blackswanI’ve almost finished listening to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a book about how large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. At the same time, Tim O’Reilly caused me to stumble upon this article previewing Jim Collins‘ (author of Good to Great and Built to Last) new book “How the Mighty Fall.”

In some way the two authors’ could not be more different. Taleb writes in a harsh, sarcastic, cutting tone that heaps scorn on many of the worlds finest minds as well as, one senses, the books readers. His harshest barbs are reserved for academics, who if often sees as being to interested in theory to help with real world problems. I’ve never seen Taleb in person or on video, but after listening to The Black Swan I can’t help but see him as an lethal and angry intellectual street fighter, mad at a world that didn’t notice his brilliance earlier.

How the Might FallCollins, in contrast, reads like a classic business academic writer who has gone mainstream. He never offends, and his tone is never harsh – he seems like the archtype westcoast Business school Professor – smart, driven and direct, but slightly geeky in that friendly way and not overly intense (hence westcoast).

But while their styles (and I hypothesize, personalities) are dramatically different, they overlap in some curious and interesting ways. Both are concerned with business issues and both are writing about outliers. Taleb is concerned with the outlying events that can completely alter one’s world. Collins in concerned with outlier companies – those that experience impressive and continuous success. And while I’m sure there are lots of areas where the two will disagree, it is interesting to focus on where the two almost completely overlap.

The first appears where Collins talks about the first symptom of a company going into decline: Hubris Born of Success:

“The best leaders we’ve studied never presume they’ve reached ultimate understanding of all the factors that brought them success. For one thing, they retain a somewhat irrational fear that perhaps their success stems in large part from fortuitous circumstance. Suppose you discount your own success (“We might have been just really lucky/were in the right place at the right time/have been living off momentum/have been operating without serious competition”) and thereby worry incessantly about how to make yourself stronger and better-positioned for the day your good luck runs out. What’s the downside if you’re wrong? Minimal: If you’re wrong, you’ll just be that much stronger by virtue of your disciplined approach. But suppose instead you succumb to hubris and attribute success to your own superior qualities (“We deserve success because we’re so good/so smart/so innovative/so amazing”). What’s the downside if you’re wrong? Significant. You just might find yourself surprised and unprepared when you wake up to discover your vulnerabilities too late.”

This whole paragraph sounds like a friendly version of Taleb. Praising leaders who don’t claim to understand the full complexity of their world, their business or even their own success? Classic Taleb.

More interesting however, is the emphasis on luck. Taleb regularly argues that luck is (at a minimum) underestimated and more often ignored outright, as a factor in a businesses success. No CEO wants to stand up and say, yes, we become $10B dollar company not just because we were good, but because we were lucky – it doesn’t exactly send a positive message to share holders (or does it justify their enormous bonus). But Collins not only agrees that luck is a factor, he argues that good companies admit to themselves that luck was a factor.

In hockey you hear people say you’ve got to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good. The point is, if you work hard, bounces will eventually come your way and you’ve got to be good enough to pounce on them and make those opportunities count. Begin to think you don’t need luck, you stop seeing the opportunities and also begin to believe you are inherently better than anyone. Fact is, you’re not. You’ve got to work. Hard. And hope for some luck. Even then, you probably never become Google.

The second interesting place of overlap is in Collins discussion about how companies begin to deny that they are at risk or in peril.

“Bill Gore, founder of W.L. Gore & Associates, articulated a helpful concept for decision-making and risk-taking, what he called the “waterline” principle. Think of being on a ship, and imagine that any decision gone bad will blow a hole in the side of the ship. If you blow a hole above the waterline (where the ship won’t take on water and possibly sink), you can patch the hole, learn from the experience, and sail on. But if you blow a hole below the waterline, you can find yourself facing gushers of water pouring in, pulling you toward the ocean floor. And if it’s a big enough hole, you might go down really fast, just like some of the financial firm catastrophes of 2008. To be clear, great enterprises do make big bets, but they avoid big bets that could blow holes below the waterline.”

In The Black Swan, Taleb has an entire piece on assessing risk which parallels this quote. He notes that too often business people and – in particular – financial types, focus on predicting the likelihood of an event – even when a prediction model is deeply flawed or essentially meaningless. Since often assessing the likelihood of an event is often impossible Taleb argues it becomes much more important to ascertain the likely magnitude of it’s impact. So avoid doing things or exposing yourself to risks that, if they go wrong, will blow out your hull. Indeed, the Black Swan is essentially a 250 page book on this paragraph.

Reforming Government on the Globe & Mail's Wiki

A few months ago John Ibbitson – the Globe and Mail columnist who used to cover Ottawa and now covers Washington, DC – asked me if I’d help edit the 3rd chapter of his new book, Open & Shut.

The chapter, entitled Yes, Mr. President; No, Prime Minister asks why is it that after 8 years of President Bush, President Obama is able to quickly change the direction of government whereas in Canada, newly elected parties often struggle to implement their agenda.

Last week the book was released. As part of the launch process the Globe and Mail created a wiki dedicated to the book’s themes where readers can critic or expand on its ideas and analysis. More interestingly, as readers post to the wiki John will respond to their  ideas, critics and thoughts on a blog hosted by the Globe.

To kick off the wiki on Open Government, John asked me if I would write a short essay answering the following the question:

Federal politicians, and federal public servants, seem increasingly remote and disconnected from the lives of Canadians. Open and Shut maintains that this is because the public service remains closed to outsiders, and because Ottawa has ceded so much power to the provinces. Do we want our federal government to matter more in our lives, and if so, what should we do to give it meaning?

You can see my response, and what I hope will eventually become a growing number of comments on the future of the public service, here.

As an aside, two other sections have been created. One is on Open Politics, which is teed up by John Duffy (political strategist). The other is on Canada/US integration, which is kicked off by Scotty Greenwood (executive Director of the Canadian-American Business Council).

Articles I'm Digesting 24/4/2009

Here are some pieces from around the web that I’ve been digesting this week.

Why the bluster has given way to bland by Patrick Brethour in the Globe and Mail

This excellent article summarizes what I think is the most exciting trend in BC right now – the race for the pragmatic centre in our politics. Those from outside BC often fail to understand its politics (if I’d got a nickel in college for every time I was asked: how can the same people vote for the NDP provincials and The Reform Party federally???). This piece goes some way in explaining the province’s political history to those not from here.

Also of note… despite the claims of some reformers, British Columbia has already experiment with a Single Transferable Vote (STV). In twice in 1952 (the first election generated an unstable government that lasted 9 months) with the Social Credit Party winning out both times. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t discuss electoral reform, but let us not pretend that it is something untried and completely novel.

Clinton says US shares responsibility for Mexico’s drug violence by By Warren P. Strobel in the Christian Science Monitor

This isn’t a fancy or insightful piece – but it is important. For the first time in memory a senior figure in the US administration has said what everybody has long known, that:

“Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians,”

The war on drugs is now so deeply a part of the American political way of life I have little hopes of seeing a dramatic shift anytime soon (no matter how good or accurate the movie Traffic was). Nonetheless, this is a critical step. More importantly, it starts the US down a path where discussions around address addiction as well as curbing and managing demand become more plausible strategies.

As many of you know, I’m sadly confident we are never going to “win” the war on drugs and drug violence, especially by curbing supply – indeed, as I wrote the other week, not even the RCMP believes this anymore. This is what makes strategies like Harm Reduction, and places like the Insite injection site so important. They don’t replace policing and prevention, but as the last 40 years have helped demonstrate, progress will be impossible if harm reduction is not part of the mix.

hbus, the transit day tripper by Holly Gordon in The Coast

He’s a great little story about a scrappy programmer in Halifax who is trying to build a parallel – and better – transit route planner on line. Cities should be begging for people like William Lachance – the create of hbus.ca beta – which “scrapes” bus information from the official site and repackages it in a more helpful and useful way. Imagine that – a citizen helping the city deliver a service more effectively!

Sadly, the City of Halifax doesn’t see it that way:

“We can’t give our information out for somebody else to put up and run their own Metro Transit trip planning because we ultimately are accountable for it,” she explains.

This concern is of course, nonsense. By her logic, she should be preventing someone from calling a friend and asking them to look at the bus schedule and telling them when the next bus will come because… well now that friend “controls” the data and not the City of Halifax. This really is 19th century thinking run amok.

Of course ask William what responses he gets and you hear a slightly different answer:

“You get one of two responses,” says Lachance of Metro Transit’s replies to his friend’s—and later his own—requests. “One is just ‘no.’ The other one is that they give you their policy on the dissemination of geographical data, something on the order of ‘give us a lot of money and we’ll give you the information you can basically only use for personal use.'”

While both responses sound different, they are functionally the same. “We, the city, will not give you data your taxes paid to create.” Why? Because we don’t want to, or… because we think we can extract still more money from you. This despite the fact that most local governments actually lose money trying to sell their data. Heavens forbid that actual citizens try to make their city easier to navigate.

The No-Stats All-Star by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine

This is one of these delightfully insightful pieces about how really digging into the numbers can reveal truths that often go unseen. Here is the story of Shane Battier, an NBA player who is relatively unknown and whose basics stats suggest is an ordinary player. And yet… dig a little deeper and it is reveal that when he is playing the stats of players on his team are better, and those of players on opposing teams are worse.

Battier clearly has some basketball styled “soft” skills that make him effective, but that would likely be ignored or remain unseen to the majority of sport’s scouts and observers.

I’ll admit, one reason I really enjoyed this story is that I think there is a little bit of Battier in all of us, and in certain special people around us. There are people in my life who are like Shane Battier, I perform better, react faster, think more clearly, when they are around me. In addition, I’d like to think that there are boards I’m on, people I work with that, while no one can say “yeah, David is excellent at doing that” that nonetheless I help the group work more effectively… Indeed, I often fear this is most of what my professional life is like – that I help everywhere, but in a way that is to hard to pin down in manner that is tangible or recognizable.

Articles I'm digesting 6/2/2009

The Quiet Unravelling of Canadian Democracy by James Travers

This poignant piece by James Travers is long overdue. The concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office – which started with Trudeau and has continued with each successive Prime Minister – along with the decline of cabinet and of parliamentary committees, is corroding our governing institutions. Travers sums it all up succinctly and frighteningly.

My sense is that – while no one would articulate it this way – people may be disengaged from politics because we expect so little from our MPs, so little from the system itself. Our governing system has – I believe – been durable because it relies less on hard rules and more on conventions and norms. This has given it flexibility but also demands a certain degree of self-restraint and self-managed code of conduct among its participants.What makes the corrosion hard to point at specifically is that there is rarely a single, specific triggering event – no moment when a “rule” is broken, but rather a slow process where conventions and norms are abandoned. Take the recent Conservative Party tactic of engaging in personal attacks during member statements. No “rules” were broken, but another norm, one that tried to help elevate the level of discussion in the house, was weakened.

I’m less interested in radical changes – such as new ways to elect members – since it is unclear to me why or how these would change things (and the unanticipated consequences are more troubling still). Instead, there are small steps that could have dramatic results. Giving MPs real money for research and policy staff (like their counterparts in the US) would be one area where I think a small change could – over time – shift some (admittedly not all) power back to MPs. But in the mean time let us get better aware of the problem – so if you can, take a look at Travers piece.

Einstein, Franklin, and the Role of Creativity in Today’s World” (a lecture) by Walter Isaacson (via David B)

After listening to this beautiful lecture Saturday morning I realized that I’d read (or listened to, to be precise) Isaacson’s book Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. The lecture tries to tease out what made Einstein and Franklin great men – it wasn’t enough that they were intelligent (lots of people are intelligent) but what is it that made them creative? In short, it is to do what is important to you and to maintain the capacity to challenge – to be intolerant of assumptions, institutional inertia and lazy thinking – while remaining hyper-tolerant of others, their thinking and their perspectives.

If you don’t have the patience to listen to the whole talk (which is 44 minutes, there are 25 minutes of Q&A) then consider fast forwarding to the 37th minute of talk where he talks of both men’s final moments. The way they are at humble, aware of their sins and successes, inspiring to those around them but, most of all, consistently dedicated to the values and tasks they love, well, honestly, it left me teary. Consider Franklin’s funeral in 1790 where:

“All 35 Ministers, Preachers and Priests of Philadelphia link arms with the Rabbi of the Jews to march with him to the grave. It is that type of creativity of tolerance, of looking for new ways of doing things that they were fighting for back in Franklin’s time and I really do think that’s a struggle we are fighting for both at home and in the world today.”

The lecture reminded me of why Isaacson’s book transformed Franklin into a hero to me.

The Quiet Coup by Simon Johnson

This article has been circulating around for a couple of weeks now and it is the most damning admonition of both the financial collapse and both Bush’s and Obama’s response that I have read.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity [between the US and the financial collapses in South Korea, Malaysia, Russia and Argentina]: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

It gets worse.

But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits—such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside.

The biggest danger? The crises gets somewhat resolved… and nothing changes. This is why I’m such a big fan of Umair Haque’s blog.

Is Charest ready to pounce? by Rheal Seguin

A while back I predicted that, after the Conservatives bungled the budget and the coalition was struck that Layton, Dion and Harper would all lose their jobs before the end of 2009. I stand by the claim (and now have money riding on it with some good people out there). It would appear that the press is increasingly smelling blood in the water around Harper…

The creative age, the budget and the future of class conflict

Yesterday the Martin Prosperity Institute released its report Ontario in the Creative Age. I’ve been reading through it with great, great interest. The influence of Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City is obvious (and expected) and the report is an important and fantastic read. Regardless of whether or not you live in the GTA/Ontario, I highly recommend it. Indeed, I would love to see the Province of British Columbia and the Metro Vancouver commission a similar report. I can imagine the methodology is now in place to do one relatively quickly, and it is urgently needed on the west coast. (Can anyone point to an economic development plan for the Greater Vancouver Area? For the City of Vancouver?)

The report also plays on a theme that has interested me for a while now. The nature of class conflict in networked and creative economy. The report tackles the issue more directly than anything else I’ve seen by Florida to date. This line from the report is illustrative:

The rise of creativity is a double-edged sword. It creates tremendous wealth creation opportunities for some. Yet it can leave many behind – particularly those in jobs built on routine, and those who do not have the opportunity to gain the skills to participate advantageously in the economic transformation we are going through.

Still more interesting are the trends:
class conflict

Combine this chart with there second chart that shows how wages grow depending on skill sets (no prizes for figuring out the Routine-physical-oriented jobs correlate with Physical Skills and that Social intelligence skills correlate with Creativity-Oriented jobs).

class wages

It is easy to see that the possibility of tension between routine-oriented and creativity-oriented workers could grow, especially as wage differences continue to increase.

Perhaps the most depressing conclusion to draw from this report is that the stimulus package will do little to address this inequity. A lot items that get funding in such packages (for example, some shovel ready projects) not only generate only temporary growth, but many of the jobs they foster are both becoming fewer – so we are encouraging job growth in shrinking job markets – and have a declining return on investment – so we are encouraging the development of skill-sets in workers that will not increase wages. Consequently, the very actions that traditionally might have helped stave of wage inequality (and in turn class conflict) may actually me exasperating the future likelihood of such inequality.

It’s hard to sell funding for R&D and research as these are often seen as “elite” activities, but interestingly they may offer us the greatest hope in reducing future tension and inequality. Sadly, research, science and education received little attention in the budget.