Monday, April 29, 2013

The Metric system needs to be more universal.

In some ways this blog was written to irritate my American friends and boost Canadian pride, but I also believe a wider adoption of the metric system would benefit everyone.  Conservatives resist change even when change is necessary for growth and even survival. The metric system is not that new, going back to Napoleonic times, but many Americans have felt it an affront to their established habits.

While we try to communicate and work with a diverse world population we need some systems we can agree on.  It is what we agree on that allows us to discuss our differences. It will be a long time before we have a universal language (and it won't necessarily be English), but if we can agree on measurements it will ease communications.

When I was young  I was only vaguely aware of the metric system and in fact spent a fair amount of time trying to understand how many inches in a foot, how many feet in a yard, how many feet in a mile, how many ounces in a pound, etc. etc.  In science classes there was some measurements in metric which at first were just another complication in figuring out things.

Sometime after I became a parent my kids were much more exposed to the metric system.  I know a lot of adults of my age and especially older ones were very resistant to the government bringing in the metric system.  One argument was that until our major trading partner the Americans agreed it would just further confuse things.  My point is that yes Americans are confusing the system and it is time they bent.  If we had waited for them we would have lost too much, just as they are now losing.

My own adjustment was easiest with driving a car.  Once the distances were posted in kilometres I started calculating how long  it takes to travel to my destination by the speedometer now posted in kilometres per hour (with a reference to miles as well).  Fortunately the speed limit on major highways was 100 kilometres per hour.  Filling up in litres instead of gallons and figuring out how far I could go on a full tank soon was incorporated into my thinking.  Will admit that weights are still not adapted many years later because my wife does most of the buying of meats and grocerites.

American scientists have adapted to the metric, but the public has not.  When scientists attempt to explain their research they do so from a metric basepoint, but usually add in the Imperial measurements so consumers can understand.  But politically Americans feel they are exceptional and they don't see why they should bend.  Another indication they are not as global as they like to think.  Americans show a disdain for scientists that is absent in most of the world.

Ironically, although the metric system is used by scientists it is actually much easier for the rest of us to work with.  What could be easier than working with ten--the number of fingers or toes of most humans?  All kinds of calculations involving measurements are unnecessarily complicated meaning they take more time and are more subject to error.  Errors with metric are usually involved with decimal points and mostly easily spotted.  Americans increasingly find it confusing when they travel outside their country and have to adapt.  Mind you it is also annoying for the rest of the world to have to put up with American idiosyncrasies   We are forced to adapt, but to what end?

I am still used to thinking of a basketball hoop 10 feet above the floor.  Of course it still is, but we can use the metric equivalent.  Originally the peach basket was tacked in where there was an available place to tack it.  Americans think of basketball as their game, but they should remember it was invented by a Canadian.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"The Power of Why" the basis of our future

Amanda Lang was spotted occasionally on tv. and she always seemed to make sense, but I was most impressed after watching her being interviewed by Peter Mansbridge regarding her new book.  A lot of her thinking was very personal and she was not ashamed to discuss how she advanced after making some poor decisions.  She sometimes seems like a punching bag for Kevin O'Leary, but I think she holds her own.

As a business news journalist Amanda has become very conscious that a critical step in economic growth is innovation.  Innovation can be very dramatic, but more practically can be incremental. People are stumbling on better ways to do the old familiar things and occasionally discover a major breakthrough that changes the game.  Amanda notes that in society people tend to seek acceptance rather than questioning the way things are.  We strive to fit in.

This starts as we become socialized after birth.  We are criticized for questioning authority.  School is too much rote learning.   In business we become afraid of rocking the boat.

She quotes a study by Canadian Tire that goes very deep into why people do what they do.  One of the unexpected consequences which struck a nerve with me was the realization that Canadian women can be pretty hard on their men.  This was only a small part of the discoveries to find out how to bring more people  (men and women) into Canadian Tire.

Questions are at the root of solutions.   Problems are so common that many are taken for granted, but questioning in depth sometimes reveals opportunities.  Managers are often risk adverse, but instead Amanda recommends the encouragement of inquiry.  An engaged employee is one more apt to find solutions.

As a youngster Amanda loved riding horses and developed an interest in dressage.  Dressage is a discipline where you are judged how well you can get your horse to perform intricate movements with minimal signals.  Forces you to think like a horse.  Looking back she sees that successful people (in business and personal life) need to understand how the other person thinks.

The book is very simple to read and does include helpful examples.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lobbyists do deserve more appreciation

Lobbyists have a bad rap.  Probably much of it is deserved, but the essential underlying role they play is crucial for society to survive and thrive.  The key phrase used against them is "special interest." Sounds terrible, but each of us has our own special interests and few of us have the resources to make sure our special interests are understood and respected.  When you break down your special interests they include your job, age, ethnic background, location, medical conditions, gender, sexual orientation, hobbies, environment, etc. etc.  There is someone advocating for some of your interests or maybe against them all the time.

A lobbyist is really a salesman representing an idea.  A good idea deserves a hearing.  Too many good ideas do not really get a fair hearing and we all lose when that is the case.  

Your political representative uses or should use your geography as their base of concern.  Most jurisdictions are based on geography whether elected or bureaucratic and we do share concerns (special interests) with our neighbours.  In addition to your narrow concerns you should be concerned about the rest of the world, because whether you understand it or not it is all inter-related to what you do value.

Each special interest needs advocates or they will not achieve proper attention.  An elected representative cannot be an expert in all the fields that affect their constituents.  There are many new and/or unknown issues and opportunities that should be advocated.  It takes a lot of effort to get a new idea adopted that can benefit a wider audience.  A good lobbyist (salesperson) is responsible for progress.  The elected politician needs to analyze the factors of any issue and make a logical fair decision.  Sometimes they do not calculate right and in other times they give more weight to one side perhaps because they are rewarded for doing so.

The bad image is deserved to the extent that a lobbyist has disproportionate influence.  This usually comes from money but sometimes from traditions that have an overdue grip on us.  Money creates a problem because it can sway decisions that affect people who don't have more than a vote once every few years to affect that decision.  In most modern democracies it takes money to get elected, lots of it. A politician needs money to draw attention to themselves, to find out what the voters will vote for and to present themselves most favorably.

The more successful lobbyists seem to give big donations to political parties and candidates.  No one likes to say the donations affect any outcomes, but they certainly seem to open up access.

It has come to the point that most politicians spend much more of their time fundraising than they used to.  This of course dips into the time needed to actually serve their constituents.  They need to study issues from all angles, they need to discuss with others to better understand reasonable compromises.  Political donations come with a price.  At the very least that price includes time away from their real duties.

To get elected is much more complicated than having the best policies that benefit the most people. There are so many different issues that when narrowing your vote down to only two choices (theoretically more in many jurisdictions) how the policies are packaged and presented is critical.  Of course there are the general categories of conservative and liberal, but that doesn't always work for most of us).  As one general example none of us really want to pay taxes, but we all expect as much service as possible.

The ideal is to have a level field for an election.  Admittedly that Utopian ideal is inconceivable when you think hard on the matter.  But we need to work towards it and a big factor is tied to money.  Why should it take a colossal amount of money to get elected?  Why can't candidates be given an equal platform to present and debate their policies?  One problem I admit is that the voters are not all committed to making an open minded effort to evaluate all the different issues that impact on their society.  Politicians of course know this and try to use all the resources they can command to get their message out to voters in such a way a prospective voter will feel an emotional resonance.  Un- fortunately politicians have learned that negative messages about their opponents can also influence the results.  Distortions are all too common.  Politicians avoid being pinned down--personally I sympathize with that, but they should be able to convey their general philosophy and run on some kind of a track record.

Money requirements are supposed to eliminate frivolous candidates, but it also eliminates many earnest competent people.  I would add that before someone is eligible for the higher offices, they should have some experiences at lower offices.  This is not intended to eliminate successful people from other fields, but force them to gain some government experience before given a chance to manage at a higher post.

For a level election it is obvious to me that each candidate should have equal access to the voters. We could put resources to better use by avoiding ad wars.  Only individuals should be allowed to contribute small amounts.  An elected official cannot really be forced to listen to everyone, but at least voters should have the option to vote for someone else.  A smart politician will listen to everyone--even those they do not agree with or whose association would be criticized.  What a politician can accept from a lobbyist should be very strictly limited.

A big loser in my proposal would be the media.  There might be a slight shaking out and rationalization of how they use their resources to attract an audience.

Lobbyists should be registered and their salaries made public (maybe including their expenses). There should be no shame in their success as long as based on merits.  There are at least two sides to every story and you have to give some credit to the person who presents their case more effectively. If you happen to be on the other side you need to find a more effective way of presenting your case. What distorts this procedure is bribery.

Bribery might be difficult to pin down and one can be sure efforts will be made to bend the rules.  As a salesman I understand the benefits of giving someone a sample to test.  If something is expensive the test should not include ownership.  A lot of room for interpretation, but the start towards true democracy is to diminish the role of money, not the honest function of a lobbyist

An excellent movie that illustrates the problem lobbyists is "Miss Sloane."

Friday, April 5, 2013

A few thoughts on Roger Ebert

Roger, the well known movie reviewer and a prolific writer died yesterday after lengthy medical complications.  I did not have any personal contact and only have read a small portion of what he wrote, but he had a positive impact on me and millions of others.

I like to think I write movie reviews, but my goal is really to give a little different perspective and maybe a nudge.  Roger looked at movies in much more depth and consequently his perspective was more detailed than I aspire to. 

My local paper, The Hamilton Spectator carried his reviews and I found myself checking them as almost the first thing to read and learned to value his judgments.  I discovered his website and caught many items not covered in local papers.  Barrack Obama commented that if Roger didn't like a movie he was honest about it, but also strong in his praise of movies he did like.  His credibility was very important in drawing attention to worthy movies that otherwise couldn't attract attention.

Twitter has opened up a lot of doors.  Twitter is criticized for being full of trivial time wasting information.  Roger would sympathize with that view and tried to send only messages that he thought worth somebody's effort to read, most often with links to something meatier.  In one article he explained his philosophy on twitter.  I flagged it, but checking today it is not available.  As I remember he did feel Twitter was a useful way to get your messages out to a broader audience, but would be more effective if only used when you had something worthwhile to tell the world.  He wasn't one of those who sat by the Twitter feed, but rather somebody who worked out what he wanted to say and used some technical service to spread the tweets throughout the day.  His political and philosophical views were similar to mine, but his were better articulated.  Reflecting his ability to write Roger was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

On his website were a lot of movie reviews of course, but some of them were by correspondents and he seemed fond of using people from different parts of the world with their own unique perspectives. Like many reviewers he liked doing a year end summary of his favorite movies.  One year he had two lists--one of the commercially released American movies and another of foreign art movies.  As someone who attended a lot of festivals he was well aware of movies that were essentially inaccessible to most Americans (and Canadians).  What most of us see are reviews of movies that are playing near our home town.

He didn't just attend festivals he supported them.  The Toronto International Film Festival (known as TIFF) gained a lot of credibility with his presence and his praise.  Festivals are where he would encounter not only foreign movies, but also independent movies (those not made and distributed by major studios).  His support enabled not only the movies to be more accessible, but to make movie lovers more aware of them.

I read his book "Life Itself."  He had a life that may have been focused on movies, but he had a broader view.  Went through a period of alcohol abuse and towards the end had more than his share of physical challenges.  He persevered with the encouragement of his wife Chaz and kept doing what he enjoyed and felt gave his life some meaning.  Movies are important and he made us think about them in more depth.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


The Hamilton Public Library is always looking for ways to attract attention to its services.  As one of their fans, I like to see efforts to find more fans.  Jian Ghomeshi could help draw a crowd and fortunately he was agreeable.

As a CBC radio listener since my early twenties, in some quarters that makes me weird.  I remember a comment by a rep of a popular St Catharines radio station after confessing that I listened to the CBC which had no commercials.  She might have become defensive, but commented that I probably like to listen to the talk, not just have background.

During the passage of past decades CBC occasionally expressed a concern that their audience was aging.  They did a lot of things to counter that and one was to bring in Jian.  I am considered pretty stodgy when it comes to popular music and his enthusiasm didn't always hit me the right way.  Before going further I will go back a few years to my daughter Heather's teenage years when somehow she became enthused about Moxy Fruvous which included Jian.  Hard to avoid in my household and although my enthusiasm level never reached my daughter's level I could appreciate that they were different.  Moxy Fruvous  didn't try to overwhelm with noise, but preferred to use clever lyrics to catch attention.   Heather was a swimmer and got involved with the CANUSA games, a friendly rivalry between Hamilton, Ontario and Flint, Michigan.  Over a few years we sent her off to Michigan and hosted visitors from Michigan.  Heather managed to project her enthusiasm for Moxy Fruvous to one Flint family in particular to the point of buying records and attending concerts.

Getting back to the CBC which I still listen to almost as much as before.  Often I would switch stations when Jian came on, not wanting to hear about some unfamiliar rock group and didn't care to be enlightened.  I would sometimes switch back and catch part of a conversation.  I heard two of his more famous interviews--one to Billy Bob Thornton who was very un-co-operative to an extent that attracted international attention.  I wasn't set up for that one, but stuck with it for a bit as it was unusual in that Billy Bob was very obnoxious, complaining about Jian, amongst other things.  Jian was just trying to do his job and as a salesman I appreciated how he handled it professionally.  Another chance interview was with a Chinese dissident and which had been set up with some promos.  Very impressed that Jian would get such an exclusive as the dissident was risking a lot, but felt Jian would be perhaps the best way to get out his message.

My job situation changed and I often left work late at night when I was too tired to change the channel. Jian was re-broadcast in the evening and had lots of interesting interviews which were wider ranging than I had been assuming. I now found his interviewing fascinating beyond just the subjects.

A few months back my wife Sharon had been to an event hosted by Jian Gomeshi and had commented on how funny he was.  When the Hamilton library announced a special nite with Jian promoting his book which was selected as the choice for Hamilton Reads I thought Sharon would appreciate the event.

Jian is unique.  One thing I notice about him is that he is very introspective, but a different thing about Jian is he is able to express his thoughts.  As he said his experiences related in his book, "1982" were as an outsider.  Born in England, but coming to Canada when he was seven and then moving to a new neighbourhood a few years later he found himself as the only "ethnic."  Trying to fit in he somehow decided to model himself on David Bowie.

Years ago I worked with newspaper carriers and encountered interesting situations among immigrant children.  Most of the immigrant parents wanted their children to learn the value of work and making money (this also applied to those who already were well off).  The kids tended to be conscientious and hard working, but some of them saw life differently from their parents.  Their goals were different as they tried to fit into a new lifestyle.  I remember two successful young carriers who felt they weren't fitting in and when asked what they wanted to do when they got older one replied go back to Italy and the other go back to India.  The latter has really stuck in my mind because he became a victim of the Air India bombing.  What success I had in newspaper circulation is at least partly due to the efforts of immigrant children  who were some of my best canvassers (you know those pesky kids who sell newspaper subscriptions) as well as the most conscientious.

During his presentation Jian made a lot of interesting points.  Identifying himself as a Generation X baby he made observations about the different generations including my boomer generation that were insightful.  From his own perspective as a gadget lover he was amazed at the changes that had occurred in the last 15 years.  The impact on us is still not appreciated fully.  My own observation is that for the first time in history older people feel a strong need to seek advice from younger people.

One example he gave was of the effort made in his youth to buy a record album of whatever his desired music was at the time.  He had to walk, take a bus and then a subway and sort through the shelves at Sam the Record Man and then reverse his steps and finally get to listen to his music.  Jian implies that the music of today might not be as valued so personally when the effort to obtain it and file it with thousands of other songs can be done by pushing a few buttons.

Another example he gave was trying to maintain some dignity in making a very sensitive phone call.  There was no email, social media,  mobile phones or even wireless phones and in fact he had only access to a phone at home with a chord that restricted his privacy.  The phone chords were all curled up which Jian felt was useful for dealing with the tension.  Fortunately there was no call display so he was able to hang up when the girl's mother picked up the phone instead of his target.

As an Iranian he touched on something that also had a personal effect on me.  When the movie "Not with My Daughter" came out my sister had married a Muslim from Morocco who has had a positive impact on my life.  The movie's effect on Canadians and Americans was that all Iranians and all Muslims could not be trusted and should be feared.  Jian found himself associated with terrorists and has worked to bring attention that a lot of good things came out of Iran.  He put a few jabs at a popular movie, "Argo" that I sympathize with having heard Jimmy Carter giving more credit to Canadians and Juan Cole's remarks that Iran was not set in a fair context.

Two other things I would like to say about Jian if you will just bear with me a bit more.  He is funny.  It helps that he doesn't mind being the butt of his own jokes.

For my last point at the end I bought his book and got in line for an autograph.  Feeling kind of guilty that there was a long line behind me and I really didn't know what to say when my turn finally came.  I just requested that instead of addressing to anybody he just add Hamilton and the date.  He wasn't about to brush us off and get moving down the line so he could head back home; he actually stopped us and thanked Sharon and me for coming, shook our hands and let us back away at our own pace before turning his attention to the next autograph seeker.  He is a NICE guy and I reserve caps for special people.

My apology for this post: