Sunday, October 27, 2013

Hamilton's Mum show 2013 version

It has become a ritual for me and my wife attending the Mum show.  I think the photos tell the story.

The show is at Gage Park, in Hamilton and runs to November 3rd.  You can actually buy potted mums November 5th.

One of my favorite shots.

The tropical room is part of the show.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Aarakshan: a study on education inequality

Recently I watched "Aarakshan," a Bollywood movie containing the usual dances, but dealing with a serious issue with a unique impact on India, and with repercussions for the whole world.  Here in North America we talk about privatizing education.  The movie really seems to demonize that idea while at the same time exposing arguments on the other side.  Much like the university quota system used in the United States, India has reserved education spots for the lower castes.

In the movie there is an under handed move to establish private education at the expense of those who cannot afford it.  Teachers are lured away with money and intimidation.  There are personal tensions that involve different castes, religions and of course personalities.  Some members of both high and low caste do their best to make education available to the disadvantaged.   Amitabh Bachanchan stood on the side of the righteous and Manoj Bajpayee played his creepily best as the opponent.  A little romance provided by Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone.   My favorite musical team Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy provided a few songs.

Education, to my way of thinking is the most critical issue in the world.  It impacts on everything else--war and peace, health, climate change, finance, industry, freedom etc.  Money and the profit motive can have a positive impact on the quality of education, but can we afford not to optimize our resources so that every person has an equal chance to improve?

India is deeply enveloped with religion and castes.  From the movie these factors are integral.  In fact it is resistance to the concerns of the higher castes of their children mixing with lower caste children that is a key issue in the movie.  As in America some deserving members of the more favored castes do get left out and "Aarkshan" acknowledges that problem.  In the movie the dedicated, unprejudiced teacher triumphs over the sleazy profit motivated investor.

Religion is a driving force for private schools.  Religious instructions do not belong in public education and in the minds of some this unacceptable.  What is preferable to me is to improve our understanding of other religions.  This has to be neutral, but admittedly that would not satisfy many people.  One can only hope that after a few generations it will become obvious that those who understand alien religions better are in positions of power and influence that more people will seek that type of education.

Evolution is a trigger issue for many people.  It may be many years before it is more widely accepted, but the sooner the better.  Climate change also seems to offend some sensibilities.  In fact to some people there seems to be a conflict between religion and science, admittedly of concern to fewer and fewer people.

The best education should be provided to those with the most talent.  Identifying talent needs to be part of the education system which will result in arguments not only about measurement but definitions of talent.   It seems legitimate that a society would want our future leaders to get the best education, no matter what level they started from.   That doesn't mean that the rest of us do not deserve the best available education.  Short sighted people will resist the taxes necessary to make all this happen, but it should be a much higher priority if we are to survive.

Everyone is entitled to spend their money for anything legal.  Society owes it to itself to make sure public education is not sacrificed.

Prakash Jha is noted for political movies that make you think.  "Aarakshan" is a good movie to provoke thinking on education.

Monday, October 21, 2013


Even those of us in poor physical shape take a lot for granted.  We are mobile enough to get from one point to another, to feed ourselves and to easily use a remote control.  We don't like to think about it, but being totally helpless is almost or even more frightening than death.

Many movies have portrayed this helplessness and I have chosen to discuss four foreign ones where the lead character is physically helpless.  "The Sea Inside", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", "Guzarrish", and "The Intouchables".  They were all well done and perhaps because they personalized a great human fear each left a strong impact.  SPOILER ALERT--the endings are important to the discussion.  I think you can enjoy these movies even after knowing the endings.

To create sympathy for the main characters there had to be a contrast between what was before, and what happened after the cause of paralysis. Usually either a flashback or some pre event coverage established the dynamism for the main character.  Another method was by projection where the main character was imagined to be doing something impossible and desirable, especially well done in" The Sea Inside", but also in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "Guzaarish".

Another common denominator is that each protagonist had a sense of humor which helped them to get through the ordeal.  In "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" the viewer was privileged to hear the protagonist's thoughts and we could laugh even though the other participants didn't get the humor. Each protagonist displays a humorous perspective on their situation.  The rest of us can be so pompous and deluded that we can't laugh at ourselves or our situations.

"The Sea Inside" (2004) was based on the life of Ramon Sampedro who was noted for spreading joy while campaigning for his own death.  Javier Bardem portrays Ramon as a charming mostly bed-ridden man who writes poetry and has connections to the outside world.  Most of those close to him are part of his team in his campaign for the right to die, except his brother whose house he lives in.  We learn that many women love him and in reality Ramon actually had more women enamored of him than was in the movie script.  Belen Rueda, an especially beautiful actress, is brought in as his lawyer and later we learn chosen because she also has a debilitating disease.  Javier is confronted by priests who try to convince him his wish to die is sinful.  After a court rejection he arranges his own death with the help of his network of supporters.  Won Oscar as best foreign language film as well as several international awards.  Directed by Alejandro Amenabar who I have admired in other blogs

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007) starts with us the viewers looking through a hazy veil from what we soon learn are the eyes of the protagonist, played by Mathieu Amalric  who is not sure what has happened.  He takes awhile to realize he can't speak and can't move.  We viewers are also privileged to hear his thoughts and go through some of his confusion.  The staff at the hospital have already devised a scheme to help him communicate, but it is very arduous requiring the therapist to go through the alphabet (arranged by most heavily used letter to least used) and stop when Mathieu blinks with his left eye.  His speech therapist played by Marie-Josee Croze becomes very upset and leaves the room when she learns he wants to die, but comes back and apologizes.  She later takes him to church to meet with a priest.  She has one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever enjoyed at a movie.

Director Julian Schnable elects to use flashbacks and projections. Mathieu had left one lover (mother of his children) for another, but after his paralysis his wife (in the screen version) tended to him, but at one point she had to pass on a message that he wanted to see the other.  This total type of paralysis was labeled "locked in syndrome" and he could only move his one eyelid and part of his tongue. Julian Schnable director, and  Ron Harwood, writer, created movie based on autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby.  Emmanuelle Seigner, and Max Von Sydow had significant roles.  At one point a fly that Mathieu cannot shake away is used to illustrate his helplessness.  In real life Jean-Dominique Bauby, was an editor at Elle magazine and spent most of his time writing his autobiography.  At the end we are told that Mathieu's character dies a natural death.  Won at Cannes. Originally saw this movie because I had checked movies with Niels Arestrup (a Rod Steiger type of character) and noticed this one.  Niels had only a small role, but I got to see a big movie.

"Guzzarish" (2010) Hrithik Roshan is the top male dancer in Bollywood and is often seen in muscular roles so a contrast was strongly made.  He really can act and in this he plays a magician where one trick went tragically wrong causing him to be a quadriplegic.  He becomes a popular disc jockey who occasionally gives inspirational speeches to other quadriplegics.  His nurse is the actress, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, once considered the most beautiful woman in the world who secretly loved our hero.  Near the beginning of the movie, a fly on the nose is used to illustrate how helpless Hrithik is, but in this case after trying to wave his head to get it to move Hrithik actually smiled calmly when the fly sat on his nose.  Towards the end of the movie he is tortured by constant raindrops on his head with no one to protect him.   Like Javier, Hrithik has to deal with priests who try to deter him from his wish to die.  When he got angry he sometimes asked his nurse and others to break a vase to help relieve his tension.  He doesn't win his court case despite persuading trial prosecutor to be in a box to illustrate how unbearable helplessness can be.  He is alive at the end having just married Aishwarya, but I am not sure what his intention was as she married him knowing that his fortune had been long gone and she would inherit nothing.  Won awards for special effects--Hrithik's "mishap" is shown with spectacular realism.

"The Intouchables" brings a rich man together with a poor man. Francois Cluzet is introduced to us as a wealthy, cultured quadriplegic in the process of hiring a male nurse aid.  Omar Sy is just trying to keep getting his welfare money and wants the protagonist to sign a form.  Francois is intrigued and ends up hiring him and it is an adjustment for both of them.  Omar is forced to sit through a number of high cultural events, but eventually he lures his quadriplegic boss to another level of culture which they both enjoy.  Omar expands the quadriplegic in different ways eventually bringing him to marry a woman he was too shy to approach directly.  Francois kicks back a bit with a little deception of own and the two go para gliding, the activity that caused the paralysis.  This is based on a true story and ends with a note explaining that two real characters were still alive and enjoying life.  This movie was entertaining and successful commercially.  There were a few scenes of physiotherapy where you could appreciate the problems keeping a quadriplegic healthy.  Unlike the other movies there was no court case.

Switching to an earlier English language version, "Whose Life is it Anyway" originally a British tv drama in 1972 then turned into a theatre play performed in London and New York.  Written by Brian Clark.  In 1983 it was redone for a movie with Richard Dreyfuss.  The former sculpter becomes a quadriplegic as the result of a car accident.  The play is about philosophical arguments for and against being allowed to die.  In a court case he fails to win his desire.

Christopher Reeve deserves a mention as he really was paralyzed after an equestrian accident.and did do a few movies that in some ways hit just as hard because the viewer had seen him as Superman.  He was known as an actor who turned down glamorous roles for more worthy challenges.  He accepted Superman because of the challenge of also playing Clark Kent.  By being open about what it was like to be a quadriplegic Christopher made more people aware of it and raised money for spinal chord research, some of which has had impacts.  He went to Israel as they were more advanced in research. He became a political activist as there was right wing religious resistance to stem cell research.   He also headed an organization to make independent living for paralyzed people more feasible.  He died of complications.

Legal issues revolved around the right to die. All court cases resulted in denying an end to suffering. In all cases the protagonist struggled with a sense of purpose.  Life and death matters concern us all. All living creatures naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain.  As thinking beings we think we can evaluate our own circumstances.  As feeling beings we are subject to emotions overwhelming logic. We do not allow animals to suffer, but a fellow human being is too close to us and we can't usually imagine suffering enough to want to die.   Sometimes a life and death decision is called for.  Who gets to decide?  Who wants to decide?  A natural concern is that those with a vested interest might manipulate.

What do you say to someone who has lost the ability to take care of themselves, to enjoy the things that made life enjoyable to them and who feel helpless and dependent on others.  Even though we may love them they feel horrible about being a burden.  Ultimately I believe the decision should be made by the person involved, although as outsiders we want to be assured that is a real and informed choice.  As outsiders we take a lot for granted and we can be self righteous about the importance of things.

For us the viewer--how often do we take the gift of life for granted.  How often do we complain about our limitations?  How often do we abuse our bodies and minds with junk?  Some people think bad misfortune is for a reason and that people can benefit from their challenge.

This has been my 200th post.  Thank you readers for encouraging me to get this far.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Sheena Iyengar appeared on Fareed Zakaria's tv show" GPS" and got my attention. The subconscious mind programs the majority of our decisions.  This past two years have presented me with many book versions of this theme.

In her book, "The Art of Choosing" Sheena uses mute animals to make a point.  In a zoo,  animals are fed and sheltered with no need to be anxious.  They also have no need to choose.  In their natural state animals make a lot of choices and strive to be safe. In zoos with a lack of choice their longevity and fertility are negatively affected.  Studies have shown that when people are given choices that let them control parts of their lives they react positively.

Sheena Iyengar (who is blind, but does indeed have strong visualization skills) spends a lot of her book demonstrating that the subconscious which she labels "automatic" does control a lot of our decisions that we are totally unaware of.  She points out that our "reflective" conscious mind does have some control.  Our mind has developed short cuts that automatically make decisions in a seamless manner.  We can become aware of many of these shortcuts, but it is a continual battle.

The idea of "choice" has a cultural context.  In the western world, particularly the United States it is something that is precious and the more choices we have the better.  The author makes a point going back to her parents' Sikh wedding which was ritualized and most critically, arranged.  Most in Western culture think choosing marriage partners for love is the superior way, but some studies have shown that in fact arranged marriages can have happier outcomes than romantic choices.

At another stage she points out life and death decisions have shifted in our culture from an authoritarian expert  (eg doctor)  to those most directly involved.  There is regret on all sides for painful decisions, but some people are comforted that it wasn't their decision.  In fact in lots of matters we defer our decisions to experts because we are confused and/or don't want the responsibility.  Fashion is one example she brings up with a multitude of colours chosen by "experts".

In our choices we will automatically have many made for us, but we can choose which decisions we want to reflect on.  For some choices we might want to rely on the advice of a trusted contact.  An example given on the tv show was that Barrack Obama has elected to simplify his choice of what suit to wear by limiting it to two, one black and one blue.  Saves his energy for more important decisions.

The number 7 is a critical point in that we can usually handle up to 7 items to choose from, but beyond that we have difficulties in weighing options particularly if they are very similar.  Giving a consumer too many choices can actually cut sales or prolong restaurant selections.

Sheena recognizes that we can apply science (in the sense of using our reasoning powers) to our most important decisions, but in fact we have to decide where we want to make the effort.  That is where the art comes in.  One problem we now have is that there are so many desirable choices that we regret even a good choice that might have been even better.  We also can spend so much time sorting through options that we lose time to enjoy our choice.

I am conscious that I seem attracted to books that deal with how the subconscious mechanisms control us and inflict a good number of those on readers willing to put up with them.  An underlying concern is free will--do we actually have any?  An elusive question, but I like to think that writers like Sheena Iyengar  give us tools to exercise free will.

You can watch Dr Sheena Iyengar with a presentation on TED

Thursday, October 10, 2013

My Career Selling Office Supplies

After posting about decades worth of my career I left out four years of selling office supplies.  If you are open minded you should be learning something every day and that proved to be the case.

Bouncing pay cheques is what drove me to selling office supplies.  I saw a classified ad and responded to it.  Superior Office Products was close to where I lived and they were willing to take a chance on me.  It was a few months before the background to the job offer was explained.  I didn't know much and one of the challenges was that I was selling from a catalog which meant thousands of different products.  I never became an expert for most of the products, but did learn a lot about the more commonly bought products.

Fortunately for me our company encouraged manufacturing reps to visit so I got to understand more of the products and also meet contacts that could help me nail down a sale.  I also went to a few trade shows. Product knowledge is critical to sales success.

Words can only take you so far.  Prospects have heard pretty much everything you have to say and answered a lot of the same questions ad naseum.  A quick demonstration often gets their attention. One of my favourites was to demonstrate a bottle of white-out that didn't spill.  You can guess the reaction when I tipped one at a prospect.  It not only got their attention, but spurred many to want to repeat the demonstration for co-workers.  One sales rep gained a lot of big customers by standing on a storage box to demonstrate its strength.  The idea is not so much to sell the item, but to get attention.  Then you can develop a relationship that allows you to sell what they need.

Samples were in one sense like a bribe in that you are trading something of value for attention (I have since appreciated that big advertisers view that as their objective).  Samples give the opportunity to follow up and sometimes lead to product endorsements.  I have learned new applications from customers using samples.  Read how this notion developed for me late in my sales career:

At a group meeting learned about a very successful sales rep from Windsor who sold to Ford Motors. We were later told that Ford didn't do business that way, however my fellow sales worker managed to keep under the radar.  His secret was something I tried to develop with some success.  He would visit various departments and ask about what typewriters, printers and fax machines they were using. Sooner or later the company would have a sale on the ribbons or paper for those machines.  At first he just sold items on sale, but over time they appreciated that he was very useful and he would get other bits of business.  He worked his way up to selling $1 million annually to Ford--not bad for being under the radar.

Another sales rep from another branch asked a very basic question about who you work for.  I thought I knew the name of my boss and her boss, but his question was more basic than that.  The customer is your true boss and that is true whether you are on commission or not.  You need to bring in more money than you take out.  I remember listening to an audio tape that suggested companies have set ways of doing things, but if you don't cater to what the customer wants eventually someone else will

The concept of commodities eluded me until working in this field.  As a salesperson you try to highlight your product's uniqueness.  But when products are not so unique the key factor is generally pricing. It helps for you to realize that service is a key to overcome a price fixation.

One sales rep explained to me how one of our competitors offered lower prices.  They paid their staff poorly and thus had turnover.  That meant the sales reps never got to understand their customers and were not able to service them properly.  Obviously it takes time to understand the products, services and prospects being sold.

One chair salesman pointed out that our competition should be expanded to include any others who are chasing after the same limited amount of dollars a customer might have.  He used example of new start up business where they first buy a computer and  then usually a big impressive desk for the boss. A lot of odds and ends before they get around to the chair for the secretary who my expert said has the whole business resting on her pelvis.  I thought he exaggerated a bit, but in fact I came to appreciate the truth after two of my customers were desperate to get a chair to keep a secretary from quitting.  The point is that everything can be important and that it is up to you to convince your prospect that what you are selling is more important than they realized.

Feeling I was missing too much I asked to go around with the top sales rep, Bill Clark. At the same time I was nervous and didn't want to leave a weak impression.  So essentially I forced myself to say more than  usual on a sales call.  He pointed out that on an initial cold call you are taking their time and if you want a second visit you need to avoid taking up too much of their time. When companies downsized employees were often given extra duties such as buying office supplies, but that just further cramped their time.  When it came time to check back to the office for messages he pointed out he always used the 800 number to avoid paying a quarter; tells you how long ago this happened.

Before too long I found myself with a large number of customers and prospects.   For many customers I was only a secondary supplier or worse.  In an earlier job I used newsletters and later on developed it even further.  But one of the key concepts comes from when I sold office supplies.   I had a fairly big geographic area.  And even when I made sales calls many of them were only a very few minutes long and the decision maker was often not there.  A newsletter helped communications.  I tried to make it useful information, threw in a contest and explained a wider range of what I could offer (for instance furniture). It seemed to have a positive impact.

At some point you realize you cannot have long discussions with everyone and you realize choices have to be made.  Around this time my wife and I became conscious that we were one of the few families of our acquaintance not to have a computer although I had started to work on one at work. Also was selling some computer accessories.  Mike Bromilow, a family friend was someone we had confidence in and he got us started.  As I started learning different programs I put all my customers on a data base and in addition to contact information I kept track of their sales on a monthly basis. Then I developed a formula using a rolling calculation to find out who bought the most.  Of course the other end of the thinking was about those people who weren't buying as much.  Tried to estimate potential and responsiveness.  Developed the concept of quantity x quality=sales.  Led to prioritizing of customers I later carried on for other products.  Learn more on learning this equation:

My daughter Heather helped me keep track of my computer records and I learned a lot from her as I did later with my son Michael.   At one point I yelled at Heather--Stop it! Stop It!  Stop It!  then "How did you do it?"

Part of the value of a newsletter and computer was to free up time for prospecting.  We were paid a higher commission on accounts during their first year.  One strategy for me was to watch the daily order sheet for the whole office where I would come to realize categories I had been overlooking such as certain types of retailers.  Mike Bromilow was able to give me data bases for small companies in my area.  At one time I subscribed to small town newspapers to learn of businesses.

Now to the background story.  At the beginning three of us newcomers (of a sales staff of 6) had been promised a certain level of income.  That didn't concern me because my commissions were increasing every month and I enjoyed the work. Aside from our inexperience what the 3 of us didn't know was that our predecessors had left to work for a competitor and were calling on many of the same customers. 

However one day my boss, Elizabeth Arvay added on a whole lot of house accounts, something I didn't understand.  House accounts were basically small accounts (sometimes relatively bigger companies) that just phoned in the occasional order for something their regular supplier didn't have.  Once I understood I started calling on them and they started calling in more orders.  House accounts were created to save money for the owners, but in fact they need attention or they will drift away.

Special orders were those orders not in our catalogue or warehouse.  I believe it was originally intended as a service to established customers, but I soon learned it was useful to get new customers. I didn't really understand that often a client would want 5 of some item and the company needed to buy 144 so they actually lost money and often ended up with a storage problem.  As a salesman I could be greedy, but I came to appreciate that profit comes from revenue minus expenses.  Still many of those new accounts would buy more profitable products.

Superior Office Products was a Quebec based company which had a few advantages.  One was that by Quebec law salesmen got vacation pay based on their commissions and still earned commissions while they were on holidays.  I also learned they have different holidays in Quebec--we in Ontario used to be jealous that they had Jean Baptiste Day a week before Canada Day, but didn't realize they didn't enjoy the civic holiday we got in August.  A few years later I was asked to proof read  a calendar and was able to point out they had the wrong holidays for their Quebec market.
For 18 straight months I sold more than the previous month.  Then seasonal factors and then structural factors became a concern.  The structural factors were mainly box stores that sold many of the same products with huge discounts.  I had customers and prospects start to laugh at my prices. Like many other companies we cut our prices, but what I didn't quite get was that the box stores were able to cut prices on high volume items and they usually didn't even bother to stock items that didn't turn over rapidly.

As time went by I became more conscious of customers not always paying their bills on time and this affected my commissions.  During this time there was a financial downturn that I became conscious of when I found one of my real estate customers had locked me out and in fact had gone out of business.  Others followed.  In our office were several phone operators who basically took our orders and passed on messages.  I didn't realize that one was devoted entirely to chasing down unpaid bills. I remember one resistant prospect who suddenly opened an account and made a fairly large order.  I learned about half an hour later that they had overdrawn their account with one of our competitors.  Basically I learned that a sale is not a sale until you get paid.

All this meant our company downsized and I was forced to leave and over time they closed.   Interesting I did some business with Elizabeth when I sold pet products a few years later as her daughter bred cats.

Not the first time I was out of work and I sought advice.  One good idea turned out to be checking on my previous customers.  One of them liked me enough to recommend me to a competitor office products supplier.

I didn't know what to think of Cloke's as after all they had been a hated competitor.  I was invited for a meeting with Gary Schumacher and in popped Pat, a former employee from Superior who I respected a lot.  She reassured me these were good people.  Ironically a few years later Gary was a similar reassurance when I became involved in the pet trade.

Gary was a great boss.  He was patient and understanding.  At one time he got a complaint about me being too pushy.  I was afraid I would be in trouble, but he looked at it differently.  As he explained he wasn't actually certain his sales reps were making as many calls as they claimed or if they were as aggressive as they needed to be.  He explained that it is great to be persistent, but that I had to learn not be a pest.  I am actually sure that I am fairly passive compared to most sales people, but the problem is reading the prospect to understand when they have reached their limit, ideally stop pushing before that point is reached.

Gary introduced me to another idea.  Often when you away from your desk (such as driving around your territory) ideas and contact information comes to you before you can write it down.  A recording device lets you keep track of these things and allows you to retrieve information and ideas at a more convenient time.  Talking into the device saved time compared to trying to write down the details and I often had trouble reading my own writing.

While at Cloke's after I complained about the poor quality brief cases I was given, a manager gave me a brief case from Samsonite.  It has lasted me a few decades and I highly recommend it.  On another job I was able to visit Straford and arranged a few times for repairs at the Samsonite head office.

Another staff pointed out to me that the phone staff sometimes were too busy to handle a bunch of orders I would phone in and too often details would be incorrect.  A fax phone was arranged for me to send in written orders to cut down mistakes and make better use of everyone's time and helping me understand fax phones better.  I ended up using it for some volunteer work for a swim club.

When I look back I have also since learned to use  a digital camera to record some information, but that was many years later.

There came a time when Cloke's fell victim to competition which more and more was big box stores and I was again forced to leave.  Gary must have taken a course in the procedure, because I ended up admiring him even more when he gave me the word.  Cloke's after a long history has disappeared. The world has changed and is still changing, but there are always things you can learn from your experiences.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Everyone in the world is concerned about the madness in the United States.  How could such a situation arise. Why would anyone want to shut down the government?   I don't have any inside information, but to me a good part of it is transparent.

The American government has been bought.  There is some wiggle room, but it is diminishing.  Out of any crisis things could change for the better (or not).

Obamacare which he is proud to associate his name or the Affordable Care Act that apparently is more acceptable to American voters is only a symptom of the problem.  The Affordable Care Act is actually a step in the right direction, even if it does offend some of the wealthy or the ignorant.  It is astonishing how many lies have been accepted.   Americans don't question why most other industrial countries have cheaper and more effective health care, or where medical problems are not the most common basis for bankruptcies.  It is true that at the top there is undoubtedly greater medical expertise in the U.S., but that is not accessible to most of the population.

The level of national debt is also used as an excuse, but the concern is hypocritical.  One solution is not all that strange--raise taxes and enforce payment better.  You may be concerned that job creators will be offended.  Of course they will shift jobs to slaves and robots as much as they can, but they should not be rewarded for that.  It is also very short sighted as they depend on a consuming public that now doesn't have the money or the job security.  Being too greedy is like biting the hand that feeds you.  I don't think rich people should bear the entire burden of paying off the debt, but they have benefited the most. in terms of infrastructure, opportunities, educated workers and consumers, and surprisingly (to many of them) regulations.

The debt crisis accelerated with the George W Bush regime with their major tax cuts for the wealthy even in the face of an unnecessary, but expensive war with questionable accounting.  They botched a legitimate war, thereby prolonging it.  The de-regulations and superficial financial oversight were root causes of the disaster that Obama had to deal with while those who caused it constantly complained and wanted to use their previous remedies--lower taxes and less regulation.

The Republicans are now very self righteous (in reality defensive) that they are the ones willing to negotiate and the Democrats are not willing to compromise.  The Affordable Care Act is one example of a compromise--straight from a Republican think tank and adopted by a Republican governor, Mitt Romney himself.  It has proved itself not to be the end of the world, at least in Massachusetts. Republicans routinely tack on repealing Obamacare and abortion demands to unrelated bills to not only make their points (to their base), but slow down government.  There have been over 15 requests to negotiate budgets all rejected by House of Representatives controlled by Republicans.  They now are offering piecemeal bits of budget, to make themselves look good, but avoiding more difficult budget issues.  They don't like it when the Democrats push back.

Americans can blame themselves.  In the 2010 mid term elections the trouble began with lots of criticisms of slow recovery and how awful Obamacare is.  Obama was hemmed in with his idea of a stimulus heavily criticized by Republicans who wanted austerity (except for the military industrial complex) and lower taxes.  Progressives were disappointed that Obama didn't seem to fight harder for their agenda.  Republicans had much less trouble getting out their committed voters.  They were then able to gerrymander voting districts to maximize their resources something which is done every ten years by the winners of state elections and now improved with technology.

Tea partiers are resentful of being called racists, but there is evidence they are not immune to prejudice.  Some surveys have revealed that Obamacare is hated, but the Affordable Care Act is more acceptable.  Racists realize it is not politically correct to use obvious terms such as the N word, but have developed codes.  Many are not so coded with Muslims who are safer to denigrate.  I don't think most Republicans are any more racist than the general population, but they do take advantage of racist thinkers.  Americans are much less racist than they were a century ago, but the feelings have not yet completely died.

I have read that the Republicans are controlled by Evangelicals and Tea Party members neither of whom seem particularly open minded.  Moderate Republicans are still active.  An original cause is that party strategists at one time realized their economic policies were not enough to get power and they harnessed themselves to "social" issues.  Racists used to vote for Democrats, but when Lyndon Johnson signed some Civil Rights legislation Republicans were quick to establish their credentials as against extreme civil rights, and although trying to be politically correct use lots of code to create a bond.  They learned that abortion and gay rights are issues that overcome obvious economic concerns.  Gun rights fit in with corporate agenda.  In my opinion they all made America less of a fair and free place.

Throughout history people have realized money very often decides elections, yet there are fewer and fewer restrictions on political donations.  The recent outrage over the IRS masks the fact that even more campaign financial abuse has been accepted.  It is a complex issue  that boils down to the fact that in order to get elected a candidate is required to spend more money than in the past.  They have to spend more time fundraising.  The money comes with expectations and the big money with greater expectations.  The fundraising time takes away from actually studying the issues and making reasonable compromises with those who have different priorities.  Media benefits from increased advertising revenue and they try to fan their ratings with horse race coverage.

The wealthy have bought their way.  Much of their high income is taxed at 15%, inheritance taxes have been lowered and they are able to hide money offshore.  How can they get away with it?

Why tolerate gerrymandering?  Why tolerate increased voter restrictions?  Why tolerate campaign finance abuse?

How can they get out of this mess? Both sides are accusing each other of causing a major disaster. The Speaker of the House decides which bills are put to a vote and Republicans avoid offering anything that they are not sure will go their way.  A big fear now is that with gerrymandered districts, a Republican has more to fear from their base than they do from a Democratic opponent.

The voters can alleviate the situation in 2014 if they choose to do so.   Some solutions require a long term effort.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The non voting protestor

When you look at the numbers they don't seem right.  Barack Obama got elected ok winning both the popular vote and the electoral college tally.  However, his hands are effectively tied by some hardball opposition who are able to take advantage of some quirks of American politics.

In American politics they work on a two year cycle with two political parties that make all decisions. Both parties seem to be in perpetual campaign mode.  The electorate gets most pumped up for the presidential elections held every four years realizing that the president holds significant power with the commander in chief status, the veto and the bully pulpit.  The American Constitution is set up as a delicate balance of power that can be manipulated.

The Senate is intended to be distorted.  During the Constitution negotiations small states were fearful of having big states (particularly big northern anti slave states) dictate policies to them and thus the smallest states have the same power as the biggest states.  In the United States it turns out that smaller states very often are critical in policy procedures and must be catered to.  Further complicating are procedures that allow a minority party to block efforts of the majority.  The minority Republicans are able to stop some issues coming to a vote.  They must confirm high level nominations for executive power.  They have used this power and then are able to boast that the majority policies don't work.  In reality it is very difficult to make significant policy changes.  The Senate is supposed to be the chamber of sober thought and that is ensured by longer terms (6 years) and staggering so that there is only a turnover of 1/3 each election.   In Canada little Prince Edward Island holds 4 seats regardless of population and Quebec fearing assimilation by anglophones campaigns for a minimal percentage of seats.

The House of Representatives is supposed to represent popular sentiment and are elected every two years.  Ironically the current House is controlled by the party that received fewer votes.  How is that possible in a chamber that supposedly reflects the wishes of the majority.  Every ten years Americans hold a census and unlike in Canada, the necessary adjustments to electoral boundaries are decided by the party in power for that particular state.  Although 2012 resulted in a major decision by the voters, it turns out that the 2010 election was more decisive including at the state level.

Going back to the previous 2008 election Americans decided for the first time to give a chance for a black presidential candidate.  The voters also gave majority status for the Democrats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.  As any new party in power the winners embarked on their agenda and encountered some success.  But it wasn't too long before the minority was able exert major obstacles to the supposed governing power.  The Senate power structure was undetermined while one seat was subject to court procedures before being decided and another was turned around after the death of a Senator.

When 2010 came around the Republicans were able to rouse their supporters in sufficient numbers to not only control the House of Representatives, but gain some leverage in the Senate.  More importantly they gained some very big leverage in state governments.  At the state level they were in a position to change boundaries for the House of Representatives and in many cases adjust voting rules to favour their party..

How did this happen?  In other blogs I have written about the disproportionate power of money, but it must also be acknowledged that big business special interest money is focused.  They do not need to get everyone on their side, not even 50%, but just those areas that have leverage.  From their positions of power they helped draw electoral boundary lines that allowed fewer Republican votes to result in a very resistant House of Representatives.

Again  how did supposed Democrat leaning people let this happen?  They were the big losers.  Some of them were upset that Obama didn't push harder for their agenda.  Others thought things were under control and still others didn't pay attention.

The Democrats were hurt almost irreparably by the 2010 election results.  Most of what they really want to accomplish is stymied and anything they accomplish is whittled down and delayed.  This can drag on through the next election and beyond.  Big money certainly has an agenda that is not in sync with most voters.

Obama and anyone else in his position has to contend with the opposition who use whatever rules they can and he has to deal with big money, including his own big money without which his power is jeopardized.  The huge government bureaucracy has its own agenda that is somewhat hidden.  The president knows and lives with many factors unknown to the general public.  It is easy to judge someone, but hard to factor in the circumstances.

Progress only happens with actual deeds.   Compromise has become unacceptable to some and they have tools that can prevent or at least diminish efforts to go forward.  They feel their way is the only way and even considering the preferences of the majority is strongly resisted.  It could be that hate is their fuel and if so I would like to think that love could help counteract that.

Obama knows he cannot exercise power without support.  The big money they can get is very necessary to get voter support so he finds himself watering down his ideals.  The opposition is bulldog determined to make him look bad.  They know how to leverage power.

Although fiscal conservatism and social conservatism have much in common it is far from a perfect fit.  The Republicans are very clever at aligning the two factions, but in the end it may be their undoing.

The problem is to get the power.  A compromise is one way of edging closer to what you really want. Partly it shows you are willing to work with others, but also a compromise gives a demonstration of the goodness of your idea.  Refusing to compromise has its advantages as well.  Republicans have to satisfy the voting members of their own party who are concerned about their ideology.  Some hope that by refusing to help Obama the voters will blame him for the resulting problems.

When faced with two choices as most Americans are every two years you can get upset that you don't fully agree with either choice and walk away.  It does make a statement, but it doesn't move anything concrete.  It is true you are often forced to choose the lesser of two evils, but from a distance it seems like there is a significant difference.  Do you want to surrender your options or widen your options. That is the real choice.  A rational voter is the great enemy of emotional manipulation.

Liberals can be very negative on Obama for not fulfilling their agenda.  They need to realize their agenda will most likely be discarded if Obama's team gets beaten.   How the Republicans are able to obstruct anything remotely progressive is frightening, but part of it is due to apathy.  Their opposition supporters understand the importance of voting.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Spanish ranks among the most common global languages.  It stands to reason they might have cultural elements that spread to the rest of us.  For example, Don Quixote, Picasso, tortillas, flamenco, paella,   Another example is Javier Bardem.

The first time I watched Javier was in "No Country for Old Men"  He played a cold blooded murderer with an unusual way of executing his victims.  Before seeing the movie I watched him at the Academy Awards where he had been nominated (and won) Best Actor in a Supporting role. Instead of a glamorous spouse or girl friend he went with his mother.  A big contrast to the image the movie gave him.

Born in 1969 in the Canary Islands to a show business family.  Starting at age 5 he started appearing in tv series.  His first movie was in  1990.  He developed a strong reputation in Spain before attracting wider attention..

"Love in the Time of Cholera", my second Bardem movie displayed a comic touch in a romantic role.  Set in Colombia and written by a famous Latin author it was screened for an American audience.  I enjoyed it.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was another vehicle for Javier in the American market.  Directed by the venerable Woody Allen and starring Rebecca Hall and  Scarlett Johanson with Javier creating a love triangle that expanded beyond.  Real life wife, Penelope Cruz won the Academy Award for best supporting actress..  A strange movie in many ways, allowing Javier to demonstrate his comic talents.

"Eat, Pray Love" with Julia Roberts.  He represented the Love part helping to conclude the movie.  He made a late appearance, but took over when he did.

At about this point I was so enjoying Javier's English performances that the next step was to check out his Spanish performances.  He looked so comfortable in a variety of English speaking roles, but most of us are at our best in our own environment.

"The Sea Within" demonstrated a versatility I wasn't expecting.   An excellent movie from conception to execution.  About a real Spaniard who was paralyzed and campaigned to legalize euthanasia.,   Despite my description Javier displayed a comic touch and surprisingly romantic. Directed by a favorite director Alejandro Amenabar.  My favorite of all Javier's movies.  Read more at:

"Before Night Falls" was brutal, and fairly explicit.  Here he played an historical Cuban gay and dealt with discrimination and AIDS   He received an Oscar nomination  which was rare for foreign language performance.

He received yet another Oscar nomination for "Biutiful" another brutal story highlighting his dramatic skills.  Difficult to watch all the suffering.

With "The Dancer Upstairs" another movie set in South American (unnamed, but seemed to be modeled on politics of Peru) he played a married man attracted to a woman who turned out to be a revolutionary;  a youthful talented Italian actress Laura Morante who happened to be in her mid 40's.   Most of the actors were Spanish actors, but English was the main language.  He played a gentle character during a radical underground troubles.  John Malkovitch directed.

Having done all this watching I decided to add "Skyfall".  I was an early James Bond fan, but got bored with the formula.  This most recent Bond movie was enjoyable from a lot of good acting (Daniel Craig, Judy Dench and of course Javier), music (especially Adele) and action.   Some commentators said Javier was the greatest Bond villain.  I thought he was fairly unique and enjoyable, not sure if I would make the same claim.  

Movie watchers tend to fantasize about their favorites and I admit I was pleased Javied married another of my favorites, Penelope Cruz and they now have two children.  Actors appear to want to be good at both comedy and tragedy.  Javier Bardem actually is.