Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Have you ever heard the phrase we have lower prices because we eliminated the middle man?  Sales people are all too familiar with efforts to cut out the middle man or at least his commissions.  What is the middle man and why does he (or she) exists in the first place?  Can you survive as a middle man (or woman)?

What is the role of a middle person?  The term implies a connector.  The middle person is one person bringing resources from one party to a second party who can use the resources.  At one time people did everything themselves, but not too many recall those days.

The first selling efforts were directly from one seller to one buyer.  Somebody had something someone else wanted and they bartered.  Might have involved goods (like meat, tools, weapons) or services (like protection, hunting or sex).  Previously one of them might have beaten up the other, but that is not "civilized."  We progressed to higher levels of specialization and at some point developed an idea of a currency so that the seller could use the proceeds to buy something else entirely.

The emergence of a middle person occurred when retailing evolved with one smart person selling goods they accumulated from different sources and could sustain a living and even wealth.  Really all he was doing was bringing buyers and sellers together in a more convenient manner (early one stop shopping).  It would have started on a local scale with perhaps one person agreeing to sell a variety of produce from one farmer or from a group of farmers and hunters.  As society prospered the concept of luxury and beauty became more prominent.  A merchant would seek luxuries and beautiful things from further afield to re-sell to those who could afford more expensive items.  Manufacturing could start to thrive perhaps in the field of textiles (clothing, bedsheets, etc) or furniture or utensils and tools.  Sometimes it might be on consignment or other times the merchant would take the risk of buying.  This would let the farmer or manufacturer concentrate on putting out the goods

The merchant has taken a risk.  As time went on innovations became more common.  Someone found a better tool.  Prosperous people wanted to surround themselves with beautiful (and prestigious) objects.  The middle person can help bring new and aesthetic goods into our world meaning they ave to be concerned about fashion tastes and competition.

Gradually many manufacturers became bigger, but most did not have the network or the expertise to actually sell all their goods.  Wholesalers took some of the risk by buying inventory ahead of time. Now you have three levels--the producer of goods, someone storing the goods until someone else can relieve the risk and finally the retailer who puts the goods up for sale.  It eventually got more complicated with consumers buying at one level and tradespeople buying the same or similar goods as part of their services at another level.  Eventually there would be more than one level of wholesaler.

On one hand it is risky to take on or create inventory that might not sell enough for a profit.   Then there is the human tendency to get comfortable with previous choices that worked out acceptably. There has always been another way of doing things and often they were better than our comfortable habits.  The manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers all were involved with selling to the next level and developed employees or agents that concentrated on the selling part of the business.

The middleman can be found at different levels.  Someone was employed to get manufactured goods to the wholesaler.  Someone else was employed to get the goods from the wholesaler to the retailer. And the retailer is really a middle man as well between the wholesaler and end user.  They are each taking a cut of the profit and each performing a service in a competitive market.  If after all the effort the end user decides it is not an acceptable value then everyone in the chain will lose repeat and referral business.  It might also be useful to remember that each cut of the profit allows the middle man to be an end user for someone else.

The problem today has evolved.  With computers and communications it is far easier for the actual producer of products and the people who want to use them to find each other.  This eliminates the need for many middlemen.  We can easily bypass not only a single middleman, but a variety and of course the price is lowered. There is of course a few complications with perhaps the biggest being the competitive intertwined market place.  There are so many products from a variety of sources that offer  a very wide range of problems that it is often very difficult to determine what is the best fit.

I remember a sociology professor saying a bigger population allows more complexity.  I also remember a sales tape that talked about how everything is getting more complex.

As a consumer I enjoy this new power, but am behind many of my more sophisticated colleagues. Recently I made a purchase of an e book.  Several middle people were cut out.  The author and publisher still got a cut and someone had to provide the mechanism for transmitting the words to my Kobo reader and someone to let me transfer the money from my possession to the seller's possession. But we cut out the printer, the person who sold the ink and another person who sold paper to the printer, the person who would have sold the book to a wholesaler and of course the staff who stacked the shelves, advised interested readers and took my money or credit card at the cash register.  From my view point pretty good deal--I saved money and inconvenience.

Why did I buy that particular ebook.  Well there was a marketing effort for sure to get my attention and I had already been persuaded that computers would help me in various ways and that reading ebooks makes a lot of sense.  I looked over various options for reading and made my decision based on what I knew and felt.  I realize I cannot read every book and did not necessarily choose the most ideal choice for my tastes, but I was able to consider a much wider range than I could have with the resources available to me even five years ago.

Efficiency has done away with many middle men (and women).  Is there any room left for the middle person?

One way of looking at it is that a middle man is between a resource and a need/want.  You can make a living producing goods and services if you can somehow find a way get your goods and services to the market.  A prospective consumer has a problem and is looking for a solution.  Often the deciding on what is the best solution can be very complicated and they only have so much time and energy.

How can you provide a service that facilitates exchange of goods and justifies a cut for you.  The first thing is knowledge.  Knowledge is a very big deal including not only what products/services are available, but what the consumer actually wants or needs or can be made aware of.  Nobody knows everything they need to get through the day and maximize their enjoyment of life.

One special source of knowledge is what might be called applications.  I used to sell a cleaner and as time went by I learned it would do a lot more things than I was originally told and many of them unexpected.  How did I find out?  My own personal experience was important, but even more important was the experience of my customers.  They found the product would do the things I had said and when they encountered another problem they tried it and often found that it worked.  When they told me I suggested it to other people.  All I was really doing was spreading knowledge that made life more pleasant for some people.  A lot of products do more than they are marketed for (and all products have limitations).  A good middle person can help point them out.  To find out more about applications.

Travel agents used to be a lot more common, but many have been cut out by online purchases.  Most of us are focussed on the bottom line, but in fairness we also have access to opinions.   Opinions of individual users can be dangerous.  Someone who has accumulated a wide variety of opinions is in a better position to advise.

The ideal salesperson is pro active.  The other kind is reactive, in other words waiting for someone else to make the first move.  There are a lot of order takers and sometimes they are so busy processing orders they don't have much spare time.  They are taught to add questions like "with fries?"  Salesmen have always realized they make more sales for items that people want more than what they need, however in today's confusing market it makes sense to make people aware of what they really need to simplify their life.

Another factor is trust.  Indeed there are many opinions, but who do you trust?  Ideally someone who knows both the product or service we are considering, but also who knows just what the potential buyer really wants.  In the past a sales person learned as much as possible about what they were asked to sell and tried to fit it into the needs of prospects.  The more choices available the more confusing the decision process.

In truth the position of the middle person has shifted.  Instead of being between the manufacturer and the retailer they might be working for a manufacturer who deals directly with the consumer.  Usually they are restricted in what they can offer the consumer, but often they do have access to a wide range of products and services to match the consumer's needs.  They could also be a complaint centre representing a manufacturer who realizes it is more effective to deal with difficult situations rather than have a retailer intermediary.

All this is general thinking and you have to sort out what is unique in your experience and where there might be a need not being met.  If there doesn't seem to be a very good fit between your resources and future consumer needs you need to develop one.  In one sense we are all middlemen. But you have to protect your position--using knowledge, being pro-active and earning trust.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Uncle Cam

Kinship is a precious thing too often taken for granted, but not something you want to lose when you think deeply about it.  Funerals are not events you look forward to, but as one of life's passages they bring friends and relatives closer. Cameron Stewart's death notice arrived on my email Nov 16th, just one day after he died.  It was not totally unexpected but saddened me none the less.

My Uncle Cam married my mother's older sister, Ruth some time after my mom and dad married and after Cameron served in WW II.  Every now and then I became aware of them, but Uncle Cam worked for Ontario Hydro and his family spent several years in a remote town near James Bay called Fraserdale that could only be reached by train.  I occasionally saw my aunt and uncle and cousins when they visited Oshawa my home town.  A few years later they moved to Cornwall and we perhaps saw them a bit more often.

Some things I remember about Uncle Cam.  At a family wedding held at my parent's home, we all had a meal and afterwards came an awkward time. Mostly my mother washed the dishes and put them away, but my Uncle was having none of that.  Without saying much he started to help and urged others to get involved.  We felt a bit ashamed of ourselves, but realized it was the proper thing to do and helped open up my attitude a bit.

After I was married and went with my wife's family to a wedding in Watertown, New York I decided it would be good to check up on my own family and drove to Cornwall.  I had been told that my Uncle Cam had given the Queen a tour of the Hydro facility in Cornwall.  We asked for and got our own tour and I remember at one point he said this was as far as the Queen went, but he took us further.  It was quite an impressive facility.

He was always easy to talk to.  My wife is half Italian and he talked about his time in the army in Italy during World War II and afterwards visiting with my aunt.  As I started to get involved with the family tree and read up about the Canadians battles in Italy I asked him if he was in any of the battles.  He answered that no he wasn't in any of those famous battles.  It took at least another two years before he explained that he had been involved in mopping up after those battles--in other words they gathered up the dead soldiers and tidied up the mess left behind after the killings.

I remember one family gathering, though not all the details.  One person got very upset and started yelling.  In most family gatherings someone might yell back or the group would attempt to ostracize or avoid the offender.  Not Uncle Cam, he took the person aside and walked with them and talked till things calmed down.  I was quietly impressed and wish I could say I followed in his footsteps, but I merely look back on it as quite remarkable.

When my mother was dying and the word got out that she wanted to see her sister, my uncle and aunt were at some trailer camp in eastern Ontario, but dropped what they were doing and rushed to the hospital in Cambridge where my mother lay.  This process stretched over two weeks and my aunt always seemed to be nearby, and also my uncle.  When my mother died (my Aunt Ruth was the only family member in the same room) two or three of us were talking about how my mother held the family together.  Uncle Cam didn't butt in, but when invited in to the conversation made a suggestion that we get together once a year for a picnic.  We didn't know this at the time but the weekend we chose (just before the Labour Day weekend) was their anniversary, but they always showed up.

I remember my aunt and uncle and cousins visiting for weddings, anniversaries, funerals and holiday get togethers never really appreciating how inconvenient it must have been living so far away.  I spent a lot of time at my Grandmother Coakwell's home after my family moved and also when in university and would come across some of my cousins.

In truth this was not a funeral.  Uncle Cam had chosen to be cremated as soon as possible.  He didn't want a big fuss to be made, but his family thought he was well worth remembering and celebrating. His ashes in an urn were the focus, not his body in a casket.  They were brought into the service by Grand-son Robert James and Grand-daughter Jacqueline van Dassen.

After someone dies you not only remember some things about them, but you also find out a few things you didn't know.  He was a Shriner.  What I know of Shriners is they enjoy life and like to do good and I think Uncle Cam would have been a natural fit.  I did know he liked boats and sailing, but was reminded by one of the speakers.  His daughter Brenda and his grandson Andrew reminded me he loved nature and there was one reference to "bird moments" that surprised me.

Peter Cotton, a son in law played the bagpipes during the service reminding me that Uncle Cam had a Scottish heritage.  I remember Peter at another  funeral (for Uncle Harold) where at one time the funeral visitors were expected to walk across a busy stretch of King St in Oshawa during rush hour.  He pumped up his bagpipes and marched us across the street where all traffic instantly stopped for our passage.

There was a display of the Stewart tartan on the urn and Jacqueline's head and I realized I should have worn my Davidson tartan tie or even jacket.

At weddings it is common to be asked if you are with the bride or groom and seated accordingly.  It is natural to gravitate towards the familiar and in my case that meant three siblings and my three cousins and their families, but it was pleasant to get to know the "other" side a bit.  Kate Stewart asked to be introduced and she knew me a bit from Facebook (we are now friends) and shared with my sister Rebecca an interest in playing the piano.  Ron Stewart, Uncle Cam's brother (and once involved with the Avro Aero project) remembered my father.

There were a few tears, but probably more laughter as we all thought of the fond memories we had of Uncle Cam.  He would have felt good about bringing us together, but not thinking a funeral was necessary for it to happen.

You can read about my Aunt Ruth at:

PHOTOS:  I apologize that my photos aren't as good as they deserved to be, but I regret even more that I didn't take more photos as they would help me to remember better.

The top is of Andrew Elbendari and Robert James with Derek Van Dassen.

The second photo is of Donna Stewart talking to my sister Jennifer and Charles.

The third photo is of the "grand son in law" of Ron Stewart with his two children who came from Alymer, Quebec.

The fourth photo is of Linda Stewart, Rebecca Davidson, Jennifer Davidson (with Jacqueline van Dassen standing behind) and Marshall Davidson.

The fifth photo is of Peter Cotton who I wanted to get a photo of with his bagpipes, but I was too slow and too shy at the wrong time.  I believe he was wearing the Stewart tartan.

The bottom photo is on Ron Stewart with his grand-son in law.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Collaboration in family tree research

Before computers became so useful for family tree research the secrets you are trying to unearth demanded more effort.  I read lots of advice, even went to a few lectures.  I located others with the same concerns who could advise me where to look next.  My Grandmother Davidson had left behind a lot of material and my dad and Grandmother Coakwell gave out a few ideas.

The Ontario Archives to check the census was an early destination.  This required a trip to downtown Toronto.  I was successful in identifying my family, confirming some details and learning a few others.  I had been told that Scottish families fell into a naming pattern with the first born son being named after the husband's father and the second named after the mother's father.  For the next census to find the same family with no results.  Gave up that line for awhile, but in the meantime had joined a local genealogy group in Oshawa, my home town.  A query resulted in someone suggesting the family had moved to Perth County.  Joined a group there and all of a sudden some things started to make sense.  There were family photos that had place names in Perth County.  Apparently part of the family stayed in the area, but part moved back to Oshawa for jobs.  The truth was the Davidsons were poor, but hooking up to a relation through marriage things started to turn around.  Musical connection and later a horse connection developed.

The Mormons had set up libraries which were visited in Toronto and Hamilton.  There was some fear of proselytizing, but the Mormons were very careful not to offend, and in fact they tried to help in any way they could.   They had church records on micro fiche and once you could identify which church an ancestor belonged to you could check baptisms, marriages and deaths.  Sometimes one marriage partner had come from another church and you could pursue records from that church.

To get started on my mother's side I heard from my Grandmother Coakwell of a man who had done a family tree for her husband's side.  I phoned someone with the same last name while in Oshawa and got the name, Lorne Proctor in Toronto who lived reasonably close to my Toronto office.   Lorne had been to England in his efforts to trace the Coakwell family.  He told me that the original name was spelled Cawkwell and that anybody spelling the name Coakwell was related to me.  One had invented a high altitude suit for the American Air Force and when he was not paid for it he sued and won.  My grandfather had a greenhouse.  Apparently that went back a few generations.  I was also surprised to learn that my brother had been named Marshall after this grandfather, but the name originated as another relative's maiden name.

In another blog my biggest surprise came after contacting the Markham museum that had been suggested to me by a co-worker.  Part of my ancestry was Mennonite, but unlike the migration to Waterloo migration, mine went to York county where they had insufficient co-worshippers that many married outside the religion.  A Mennonite genealogical group out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania was helpful. Other things started to click.  Check

One relative was traced back to Springfield, Massachusetts which interested me enormously because that is where the first basketball game had been played.  I had actually been to the basketball museum in Springfield on a government grant to do research there a few years previously.  Wrote a letter to the local library and they were able to connect me to a volunteer researcher.  He was very supportive and even excited.  After each family name was explored I would often ask to explore the female side and that resulted in dozens of more photocopies.  One family line was traced all the way back to  the boat that followed the Mayflower.  I was very pleased to learn that, but it dampened me somewhat when I later read that the second boat carried the "riff raff".  I tried following some of them back to England, but not very successful.  No basketball connection.  There was  a connection to the Wright brothers whose ancestors also lived in Springfield.  A strange fact was that I was related to some of the same people, but through different lines, in other words cousins had married cousins in at least one instance.  Read about my fascination with basketball;

One of the American connections had a children's book written about them--Sarah Noble.  which was read to and bought for my daughter Heather.

The number of early deaths and second marriages was quite striking.  In some cases my line was related through the second marriage and sometimes the first.  In at least one instance one of my ancestors was born as their mother died.  At a few critical times ancestors moved.  In some instances it was assumed to get a better work situation, but other factors were sometimes critical.  Some left for religious reasons as churches split and others left to avoid being forced into the military.

I remember getting called in the middle of the night (in bed with the lights out) from Saskatchewan. When a strange voice introduced himself I was fumbling in my brain to figure out what connections I had with Saskatchewan.  My Ukrainian father in law was originally from there.  My Grandmother lived in Manitoba for a brief time.  The connection was actually close to the most neglected branch of my research---the Davidsons.

Manley Waddell, a retired engineer was trying to fill in a few blank spots and confirm some details.  It turned out that a sister to a great grandfather Davidson had married a Wadell who took her out west.  We exchanged a few details, but the most interesting part came later.  Manley was not content to sit at home and write letters or make phone calls.   He traveled to Ontario, rented a hotel and drove to Stratford area to check local records and cemeteries.  After visiting him in a Toronto hotel we talked a bit.  After his trips he not only sent me some photos and updated information he had posted my information into the Stratford society.

On my wife's side I learned that many Ukrainians came to Canada as Catholics but converted to Greek Orthodox.  Apparently the Catholic church could only send Polish priests to serve the Ukrainians in western Canada, but they were not appreciated by the Ukrainians who had historical differences.  Apparently the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska was able to send down priests who were more acceptable.  I was married in an Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church.  My father-in-law's family settled in Saskatchewan at first, but then spread in different directions.  The first pioneers literally dug a hole in the bank of a river to get through their first winter.  Many letters were written and many talks with various Ukrainian relatives.  Developed a liking for some Ukrainian foods and enjoyed their dancing (as a spectator).

The Italian branch came to Canada with some settling in Hagersville and gradually moving to Hamilton.  One branch came from near Naples, home of the pizza and another from Abruzzo.  I actually took an Italian language course and got quite interested in Italian culture, including popular songs, opera, movies, wine and of course food.   Very pleased to learn one of my wife's relatives, a first cousin on her mother was famous author Nelson DeMille.

One unnerving experience was trying to get together with one of my mother-in law's cousins who wanted to pool our resources.  Before that happened she died unexpectedly and was about my age.

I haven't spent too much time in the last 15 years on the family tree, but my curiosity is easily aroused and I am hoping to get back into it using modern research tools, but also talking to people.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Many of us wonder why some nations thrive and others do not.  Often we just feel that our winning culture is just superior.  Some of us liberal minded people look for explanations in geography.  Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs and Steel" analyzed the occurrence of plants and domesticable animals to determine what areas had the best opportunities for growth.  Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson (who has co-written with Jared) say this does not go far enough to explain modern differences in prosperity.  More on Jared Diamond

The authors contention is that success is based not on geography but on whether the power of a society is extractive or inclusive.  I understand them to mean by extractive the elites at the top extract as much as possible from the masses.  Inclusive refers to more people having some power.

One area where this makes a difference is with innovation.  The authors explain that innovation most often requires creative destruction, meaning that the old established way of doing things is done away with while livelihoods and political power have to adjust to new ways of doing things in order to survive.

In an extractive society those with power see innovation as a threat to their power.  To maintain their power it is necessary to resist any innovation even if they recognize it might benefit the society as a whole.  Examples given include the printing press and railroads amongst countless other innovations that have been resisted.  Some powerful people stay that way by adapting to new opportunities.

A later blog dealt with innovation disrupting established industry:

Reading the book it seems like most of history evolved with extractive societies.  The clever elite would arrange society to give themselves the most power which they used to get the most wealth. Slavery occurred in ancient civilizations including Egyptian, Greek and Roman.  Feudalism was less harsh, but was designed to make sure labour was for the benefit of the elite.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 overthrew one English monarch, James II and replaced him with William III, but more importantly brought also the ascendency of the Parliament over monarchy.   Industrial Revolution in England was possible because power was dispersed over a wider class of people.  It depended upon innovators and entrepreneurs having opportunities and incentives.  Earlier the Magna Carta gave power to some aristocrats that loosened up the power structure a little.  The Black Death plague upsetting population also helped to shift power.  The trans-Atlantic trade when it came to England (not so much Spain and Portugal) also gave some leverage for some merchants to gain power.

The French Revolution represented a huge overturning of power.  It went through violence, dictatorship, even monarchs but the ideals spread with help of Napoleon.  Western Europe was liberated and those liberated from an extractive system were very resistant to going back.

A vicious circle refers to the situation where someone has power over everyone else and they are not willing to give it up.  The only way to overcome this is someone else with power overcomes them. Their motivation is almost always selfish, but if it is not selfish at the beginning they normally get corrupted.  The victims, ie. ordinary people have no incentives to work harder or offer ideas and usually no power that can be leveraged.

A good example of an extractive society is the system in southern United States prior to 1865. Slavery did not start in America, but was imported from Africa where slavery had a long history. Southern whites with enough resources soon learned they could increase their wealth immensely by controlling African slaves.  Slaves had no motive to improve efficiencies and innovation dried up. Slaves were freed because of the anger of northerners who had developed a more industrial society. But the Civil War did not end the oppression of the Africans as whites soon enacted what have come to be known as Jim Crow laws.  Finally they were done away with, but only after concerted efforts of both black activists and northerners.  As more people were part of an inclusive society, innovations occurred more frequently and wages improved for all.

A virtuous circle can be when somehow a lesser person is able to gain some power and over time extends that power to a wider base of people.  The person at the top has some dependency on this new power base or they most often would not allow it.  There is strength in numbers and as more individuals realize that they can gain in power.

Australia demonstrates how an inclusive society can develop.  Originally the pioneers were convicts whose personal rights were very restricted.  As time went on the administrators found it very impractical to not gradually increase their liberties.  They became entrepreneurial and innovative and mixed in with subsequent immigrants.

Another example of how an inclusive society developed was Botswana, in the middle of African colonial powers was able to get some relief from British authorities after a visit to England by some chiefs.  At the time they were one of the poorest nations in Africa, but because they developed an inclusive society they became one of the richer ones.  Fortunately for them diamonds were not discovered until after independence.

Still another example comes from Brazil.  They had suffered dictatorships, but in 1978 Lula was able to organize factory workers and have them empowered.  Brazil is now known as one of the developing nations to watch.

One of the things I got out of this book was a reflection on our current situation.  The tendency of elites to concentrate their power and their disdain for the common man is easily detectable in modern politics. How does inequality develop?  Those who have power are motivated to increase their power. They feel they are special, an exception to the rules.  A few have insight and can appreciate that "we are all in this together," but others feel they are deserving of a better deal than those others.  Why should they pay extra taxes so lazier people don't have to work.  Maintaining an inclusive nation requires vigilance.  The book recounts leaders who recognized that some innovations would raise standard of living for the masses, but felt threatened and when possible prevented innovations.

Modernization is not enough to succeed.  China has modernized, but has not developed an inclusive society and the authors predict unless it does they will decline.  A key word is empowerment.  When people have the power to make a difference  most of them will use that power to make things better for themselves.  Others will recognize there is strength in numbers.

I do recommend this book as it does give a very useful perspective for what we as individuals need to encourage.  Read more about the book and a current blog by the authors at

Monday, November 12, 2012

Who Really won the American Election?

Everyone is excited or upset that Obama won the American presidency.  We are starting to appreciate that the thing that upset voters the most, congressional gridlock still is a highly likely outcome as the House of Representatives will still be controlled by the Republicans.  The Senate is still able to stymie Democratic initiatives.

The Americans have a system that was the result of compromise.  The smaller states were reluctant to join with the bigger states fearing they would be overwhelmed.  The slave issue was also a big concern to the southern States.  The result was the two house system and the electoral college.  The House of Representatives is voted on every two years and is supposed to be a reflection of the whole population and is given budgeting powers.  The Senate members are voted for six year terms, two per state regardless of size and are staggered so that there is more continuity which is more appropriate to the the body of sober opinion and given right of cabinet approval and treaties.  The rules enabled the Republicans to cut off votes on issues even though they barely had 40 members in the 100 member Senate.

As I write this, it is difficult to get totally accurate figures, but it appears that the Republicans will control the House of Representatives by a margin somewhere near 234 to 193.  However other figures from previous days show that the Democrats candidates won more votes than their Republican counter parts.

Gerrymandering undoubtedly had an effect.  One of goals of the governing power at the state level is to determine the boundary lines for the Congressional representatives.  Both parties have a history of reshaping the boundaries for their own benefit.  Boundary lines were decided after the 2010 elections.  It does seem that where the Republicans control which is the majority of states at the moment the boundary lines will favor them.  Furthermore the voters often don't bother to vote if they know the odds are stacked against their preferred candidate.

In the end if the wishes of the people are overwhelming it should be reflected in the overall outcome, but it is more complicated again.  What complicates the outcome again is money.  The average voter has more immediate concerns than who wins an election, while other people have a great deal of interest as it affect their ability to maintain and increase their large amount of wealth.  With modern technology and money they are able to manipulate a lot to their advantage.  Marketing plays a big role with psychological insights..

Another advantage of controlling state governments is the right to determine many of the voting procedures.  Here in Ontario I worked a polling booth and as part of my training I was surprised to learn how determined they are to encourage everyone to  vote.  For handicapped people they have a lot of suggestions to help.  Even people with different mental concerns (like agorophobia) are encouraged to vote.

In United States in many areas it is realized that most poor people and most minorities vote Democrat.  As  many have jobs and limited resources merely by limiting their accessibility much of their power is eroded.  This last election was noted for very long waits to vote with some people giving up and not bothering.  Other people are not able to obtain acceptable proof of their identity and thus lose their right to vote.

Many people complained that they didn't like either party while others counseled that the election was too important to waste on a third party.  A two party system causes a few problems.  Each party has a policy on each issue, but some of the policies are really intended to rope in voters who otherwise would not vote for them.  In United States, the Republicans have added policies to appeal to people concerned about social issues that will vote against their own economic self interests.  Big money Republicans have found this an effective strategy to give a good run for political power.

In a multi party system this is more difficult.  A third party is focused on some specific issues and is easily recognized for their concern.  The other parties can focus on what their core interests really are.  Why doesn't this happen in the US?  First it costs too much money to set up a viable party, not only for the marketing, but also to fufil government regulations at the state level.  Second there is a real feeling that a third party vote is truly wasted.  In Canada and Ontario this feeling often gets translated to strategic voting where a voter will choose the lesser of two evils rather than their real choice. Third and even fourth and fifth parties sometimes do have power in Canada to modify policy decisions and are able to express their viewpoints.

The answer to my headline question is really the gerrymanderers.  The voters do not have the best choice.  The system will not change easily, but it is my hope that people will realize there are better systems and they can exercise power to help bring us to them.

The American election with their two party system helps me realize that proportional voting helps give people better choices.  In the United States one application would be at the state level where the number of representatives is set.  The voting could easily be proportional, within the state although there might be tricky arithmetic calculations at the margins that would have to be dealt with.  By itself it might allow a third party to sneak in.  The electoral college could be adapted from the winner takes all used by most states to a more proportional result in line with the voters' preference.

Two other problems are the role of money and the role of political parties in setting the rules.

Money encourages favoritism.  If one entity (read rich person or corporation) can help a political party they almost always expect something in return, even if it is merely accessibility.  We will never escape the necessity of a candidate to market themselves, but it could be simplified.  Unfortunately the people that can legally change the role of money got their power with financial power.  Laws restricting the role of money would help present a less distorted vision to voters.

Canada and its provinces have separated political parties from the election process.  If nothing else this gives more credibility to the results.   Without kowtowing to political parties the election boards can do more to make it easier for everyone to vote.  It is not perfect but far better than letting a political party control voting rules.

Democratic deficits which I recall first hearing from Paul Martin can be rectified in the future, but it will not be volunteered by those now in power.  The idea of a better system has to come from the masses.  We must educate ourselves and bring our concerns to the public.  Politicians cannot ignore legitimate concerns if there is enough public demand.


Back on January 3rd I made some resolutions and posted them.  That prompted one suggestion I put into place.  Still it has been a struggle.  There is always a reason to improve yourself  This post may be more egotistical than usual, but it is based on the idea that the more people aware of my commitments, even if only in my imagination the more determined will be my efforts.

If a resolution is to make a real difference it can't be too easy.  Ultimately my resolutions boil down to wanting to be a better person and enjoy life more.  How about you?

Physical fitness is a basic.  Over the years I have gone from an active youth to a sedentary adult and even more so in the last year.  Fitness can be thought of in three aspects:  strength, cardio-vascular, and flexibility.  Being slim is not being fit, but it sure helps and motivates.

Mental health is part of physical fitness and vice versa.  A sound mind in a sound body.  You make choices every minute.  Mental health includes both intelligence and emotions.

Multi tasking is a problem.  I crave too many things and feel I am missing.  I realize life is about choices.  Choices all the time.  Many of the choices are really distractions from things that move you forward to make life more enjoyable and purposeful.

Work gives a purpose in life and the means to enjoy it.  Ideally you want to do something that makes the world a better place in one way or another.  I have felt often the results of any effort is partly due to luck.  One day I remember being embarrassingly praised by one customer and walking across the street and getting lambasted because one order wasn't processed to their liking.  I have had people thank me just for showing up at the right time and more often did not show up at the right time.  The thing you have more control over is the effort.  If you shy away from an effort inevitably you will not get results.  The results will not happen when you make a single effort. so you not only have to brave an effort, but be patient for the results.

I am still doing pushups, but not situps so much as they seemed to aggravate a sore back.  I am now doing a few minutes of meditation most days.  I am mindfully eating a bit more, but it still amounts to a fraction of my meals.  As my pants are falling down, but weight is similar fat is slowly disappearing.

Work has been very frustrating.  Part of it is because I am waiting for things to happen.  Things I have been led to believe would happen, but haven't.  I have whined a bit and made known my frustrations.  BUT I have not been as pro active as I could have been.  I need to do a lot more and waiting is just delaying the results.  When Plan A is not available move to plan B and if necessary Plan C, etc.  However getting back to Plan A is  important.  Starting to pick up some slack.

At this part of the year I am going to keep doing what I can and establish new plateaus for resolutions around early January.   Look for something more definite in January.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What now? Americans and the rest of the world

The American election is a very complicated event to analyze, but on the whole I feel a little relieved.  It seemed that some dark forces would overcome some progressive efforts.  This election was the most expensive ever in absolute terms.  Also one candidate played around with the truth to an unusual degree.

In order to get the nomination Mitt Romney tried to outdo a lot of very hard core conservatives and then realizing the national voters were a bit scared of some of his statements modified and twisted them considerably.  There was a lot of deception that apparently some people took seriously.  If the Republicans had succeeded it would have led to the Democrats doing more of the same.

Over a century ago Alexis De Tocqueville pointed out that in a democracy the poor will vote for their own interests.  That is true and dangerous, but it needs to be balanced against a natural tendency for elites to concentrate their power.

The Republicans have long realized that their economic policies favoring the wealthy establishment were not well received by the masses and so have married their strategy to a lot of social concerns that for significant population segments overwhelmed their own economic self interest.

 Race was one social concern and it was visible.  Barrack Obama was pictured as a Muslim, as an angry black man and as not one of us (for instance when Sarah Palin suggested "real America" is where she felt most comfortable).  Although many white people resented a black man at the top they were also concerned that other minorities were changing their culture, especially Latinos.

Gay rights is another area that some are adamantly opposed to.  My own education is perhaps typical of my generation.  Once it was a joking matter that hid fears of not being masculine enough or of being a prey.  Most likely I encountered lots of gays without realizing it because in my youth it was something hidden away.  Later when I actually met some I realized they are not a whole lot different or less deserving.  Now more gays are being open and you realize they have made and want to make contributions to society.  By denying them their share of happiness it affects all of us.

Abortion is still another concern that motivates voting choices.  It can be very emotional, but not more so than for those confronted directly with it.  I agree that the idea is repulsive, however as a male I am not intimately exposed to it and feel I have no right to impose my feelings on someone who has a life decision with grave consequences.  The Democrats don't applaud abortion either and have articulated that it should be legal, safe and rare.  To me two of the most practical ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies and thus abortions are sex education and contraception, two areas that are opposed by the most extreme anti-abortionists.  My suspicion is that they are against promiscuity and feel that pre-marital sex should be punished.  Life is precious and there are other ways to respect it than reflexively opposing abortion in all contexts.

The hard core conservatives felt they had earned their right to the rewards of a prosperous society and were not going to let lazy inferior beings take anything away.  They dismiss their advantages and forget the element of luck that worked in their favour.  Letting their own greed take over they plot to control the rest of us trying to go about our lives.  Most of us believe in rewards based on merit, but admit that some people get more than their share.

The Democrats did not really win as the Republicans still retain control of the House of Representatives  who can continue to frustrate progressive measures not approved of by the wealthy or conservatives.  They could block all sorts of efforts to improve the American economy and freedom.  They will be watched more closely this time.

Some things going against the Republican strategy include minorities are becoming the majority on a daily basis.  Immigration will need to increase to fill the vacuum left by us baby boomers.  The health care program, although far from perfect will become increasingly popular as it has everywhere else in the world.  If inequality increases, more Americans will realize that the Republicans are the ones most responsible for diminishing the American Dream even as they proclaim they are its champions.  Something will have to give.

There will be a lot of soul searching amongst the Republicans.  You can't accomplish much if you can't get elected.  Hard core conservatism is diminishing in appeal.  Social media assures that candidates will not always be able to mislead people against their own self interest.

The whole electoral system creates a lot of unhealthy things.  The campaign goes far too long.  With new Supreme Court rulings money is playing way too big a role.  The electoral college assures small states have disproportionate power. Because some states are too entrenched in their voting patterns the candidates of the two main parties emphasize too much time and effort courting those who are in "swing" states.  The American primary system encourages promises to early states to build momentum.

The long range problems that Americans and the rest of the world need to tackle require immediate attention. Climate change, inequality, joblessness, overpopulation, pollution and democracy need to be priorities.  Americans still have the idea that they are the centre of the world.  That is changing and part of that is their own fault.

They are only a tiny fraction of the world's population yet gobble up disproportionate resources.  Although they tout the wonders of freedom they (I include myself in this) are not nearly as willing to work hard as much of the rest of the world.  Much of the third world is resentful of American attitudes while at the same time craving the perks of living in America.  Americans have been bullies and have allied themselves with foreign power abusers.  The world won't change overnight, but if we cultivate healthy attitudes the world will be better for all.  Obviously this will be very difficult, and the benefits will be a long time coming.

The future presents a lot of challenges to the world's population.  Most of us are only vaguely aware of the forces that could tear us apart.  Overpopulation may not be the threat it once was, but is still a major concern.  As industrializaton, urbanization and education (all tied together with greater power for women) birth rates have been declining everywhere.  We still need to be concerned about the pressure on our resources such as water, food and energy.

Climate change is known to be true by most scientists who have studied it and is felt to have some truth by increasing numbers of people who are affected by it.  It suggests we need to rely on fossil fuels a lot less just when many of us are tied into it tighter than ever.  Apparently meat eating is another luxury that contributes.  We need to understand our planet's climate better and start taking more serious steps to mitigate the bad trends.  We can't all wait for others to take the first step.

Joblessness doesn't have to be a problem, but the way we are organized it takes fewer and fewer people to supply the needs of the rest of us.  Agriculture is one example in that at one time most of our ancestors were engaged in farming, but today only a relatively small number of people are required to feed the rest of us.  In third world countries people are moving off the farms and taking on low wage jobs.   In first world nations technology is performing more tasks that used to be done by humans.

Unions fought hard to get decent wages for an 8 hour day and indirectly almost everyone benefits in the sense that there are more customers for more goods.  Conservative governments have succeeded in limiting the power of unions dramatically.  Unions still have some power and like others with power try to maintain their own status quo.  All people will need co-operation between employers and employees to optimize resources and opportunities.  Opportunities will come with expanded leisure time.  We have steadily been moving towards a service economy and that can continue as more people enjoy recreation, education and healthcare opportunities.  The entrenched establishment will oppose trends they see as diminishing their power.  We all benefit when each person gets a fair chance.

Bureaucracy may become a challenge.  There may be a danger that in our zealousness we create more inspectors, and regulators that stifle entreprenurial efforts instead of just controlling dangerous habits. Some people can be employed in cleaning up pollution and other messy problems.  Organic farming is more labour intensive.  In general although being big has advantages, small can also be beautiful.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


I have a bias for teachers.  First teachers have been very helpful to me over the years.  I was a supply teacher for a couple of days. And my son, Michael has chosen to be a teacher and go wherever the opportunity presents itself and right now that is in New Zealand.  It distresses me to read or hear about the criticism of teachers that seems to make them the reason for our education failures.

Taylor Mali can be described as a teacher advocate and I think one that deserves a bigger audience.  This book is a lot of short examples of what teachers make.  Not money, but value.  There are some good suggestions for improving teaching.

Taylor points out that teachers make students work.  Learning how to read and count require work.  Learning how to think requires a lot of work.  He recounts one experience of a student wanting to write an essay with a viewpoint he did not approve of, but kept his mouth closed and only pointed out she needed to research the topic to make her point.  In the end she disproved her original point, but really proved the value of studying a subject before making your final conclusion.  As Taylor pointed out changing your mind determines that you have a mind.  He quotes William Dumont referring to education as "a progressive discovery of our ignorance."

Another project from the 1990's was to hook up his American students to students with a Muslim background, some in Turkey and some in the States.  Surprisingly when asked about their attitudes towards Muslim religious practices, the Muslims admitted they were not particularly religious, although identifying themselves as Muslims (similar to American students who identified themselves as Christians), but it turned out they shared many of the same interests with Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls being a prime example.

Taylor found technology let him do his job better.  He found he could track his students and their grades better on computer programs.  He also found ways for his students to work together using computers.

Another suggestion he made concerned mentors.  He was very grateful when he started teaching full time that an experienced teacher would take 45 minutes a week to review what he was doing and what to expect.  He felt it made his time much more productive.  Mentoring could be a good use of experienced teachers as they near retirement.

Another comment was that in the state of Arizona they could predict how many people would end up in jail by the grade 3 reading tests.  If a student couldn't read by grade 3 they seemed destined for jail.  But a student costs about half as much per year as it does to keep a prisoner behind bars.

My thoughts on teachers.  Yes, there are good and bad among teachers, just as there are in any field. Should we be able to get rid of really bad ones--yes.  Not every one left is top notch excellent, but are they worthless?  If they can advance their students they are valuable and should be treated with respect.  Are teacher unions bad?  Not necessarily--they do fight for better treatment of teachers and that is very very necessary.  They also fight for better conditions and that benefits our students and ultimately everyone.  I think there are at least two more important groups to consider when criticizing our educational system.

One is parents.  How many parents talk to their teachers?  I mean without assuming the teacher is the cause of their child's problem.  How many parents make it easy for homework?  How many parents help with the homework?  How many parents praise learning and celebrate school success?  How many parents actually think of school as a baby sitter?  Parents have more influence than any teacher either by what they do or what they don't do.  One advantage teachers do have over parents is objectivity.

Two is taxpayers.  Going the cheap route is not always the best.  Our future depends upon our children and that includes for your old age.  We are in a competitive global marketplace and many other nations have identified education as a critical driver of growth and are putting their resources into it.  Teaching might seem what people do when they aren't good enough to do something else, but good teaching requires skill, talent and support.  If teachers are not respected and they aren't paid relatively well potential teachers will look elsewhere.  Taylor writes that we live in a society "...where everything and everyone has been slowly squeezed bloodless so as to maximize earnings for a tiny fraction of the population."

Education is not just so you can make a living, but so you can get more out of life.

I wish I could say I remember the names of all the teachers that had an impact on me, but I can't.  Perhaps the most important ones were those who got me started with reading and arithmetic.  Lots encouraged me to read more and gave me access to ideas I might not have stumbled on otherwise.  At university professors don't teach so much as lecture, but I remember a couple of sociology professors that turned classes into an inter active experience that really got me excited.  To get a science credit I took geology which normally might be thought as the ultimate boring topic, but the teacher made it something to look forward to.

One name I remember is Ken Musselman who taught me in grade 10 and 11.  He was a phys ed teacher at Oshawa Central Collegiate and a bit stereotypical in macho ness, but he also taught mathematics.  One day one of my classmates was having trouble with some geometry concept and Mr Musselman focused on him trying to help him understand.  When words failed he sent the student out to get a string and then he demonstrated with the string.  The student did go on to have a minor professional sports career and become an accountant.

If you haven't seen his You tube presentation on What Teachers Make you owe it to yourself