Friday, December 05, 2008

Canada's pygmy Prime Minister

Canada is in the midst of a political crisis:
It's true that Canadians did not vote for a coalition of Liberals and NDP headed by Stephane Dion (a decent man but weak leader who Canadians rejected in the Oct. 14 election) and supported by the Bloc Québécois. Neither did we vote for right wing doctrinaire (old Reform Party/Alliance) policies like banning pay equity or removing the right to strike of public employees under the guise of belt tightening needed for the upcoming recession that Harper kept insisting did not exist. Moreover, regardless of the merits, choosing this time to unilaterally cut public funding for political parties was just plain nasty or stupid, probably both.

Yet Harper had his Finance Minister toss these into an economic update, something that most observers, including supporters of the Conservative Party, now describe as his "bully" gene or arrogance. Harper's decision clearly triggered the current crisis. Instead of an economic plan to deal with a crisis our PM opted for partisan attacks.

The opposition parties were astounded and reacted as would be expected. Let him get away with this in a minority government and who knows where it would stop. The trigger was the partisan attack, especially on their finances, which could cripple them, but Harper also chose to ignore the economic crisis and paint an overly rosy picture of Canada's economy.

They proposed a 2-party coalition. Unlike Harper, the coalition pledged to deal realistically with the economic crisis.

That's how parliament works - the government must have the confidence of the House of Commons or it falls. Rather than calling another election so soon over the last, a coalition can take power under our system.

But such a coalition would also inflame the West, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Conservatives. Westerners could view the coalition as a way to cheat them of their government. An added problem is that it would be headed by Dion, an ineffective leader who had agreed to step down in May 2009 after the Liberals had a poor showing at the polls. And, perhaps most of all, changing governments during an economic crisis seemed risky.

To combat his imminent defeat, Harper backed down on the triggering partisan ploys but to no avail. The opposition had had enough and no longer trusted him.

Accordingly, Harper ratcheted up the rhetoric. He decided to demonize the Bloc as evil incarnate, vile separatists about to destroy Canada, even though he has a long history of cosying up to them himself when he needed their support.
He said the Bloc was part of the coalition when it was not. He said the coalition leaders did not have a Canadian flag at their signing ceremony when two were there and easily visible. He plain lied.

This Harper tactic has stirred up latent Western alienation against Eastern Canada and Quebec in particular. His caucus was heard to sing "O Canada" during the crisis, which reminded me of McCain and Palin's right wing supporters chanting USA! USA! as if they had a monopoly on patriotism. Pardon me while I puke. Are we in for rallies where Conservative supporters chant "CA-NA-DA! CA-NA-DA!"?

Harper went to the Governor General and asked that Parliament be prorogued (suspended) until 26 Jan. 2009. This is the first time that a PM has ever suspended Parliament to avoid defeat. And in the midst of an economic crisis no less.

Here come the US-style attack ads.... They are guaranteed to be full of distortions and outright lies and name calling and he counts on us being stupid enough to believe them. Unfortunately, many voters can be swayed by such nonsense and a media blitz of attack ads.
His support is up.

Is this what's coming next from our PM in a month-long string of advertisements aimed at keeping power? That the Conservatives alone love this country and want what's best for it? Are supporters of the Liberals and NDP to become "The Others," not quite "real Canadians" but left-leaning socialists, just one step away from "Commie red b_astards"? Is that where he is heading, all in an attempt to save his own skin? You know they are short of ideas and valid arguments when the separatist and socialist labels come out.

When Parliament resumes in January, who knows what will happen. The coalition is unlikely to hold given that the Liberals are in the midst of a leadership race. If Harper gets his way, the hate mongers within his ranks will be out in force. Canadians of different political persuasions will be turned against each other. His supporters will be so aroused against a coalition that they will destroy opposition signs, attack opposition MP offices, and spit on coalition supporters in the street, or worse, since they are anti-Canadian. All in support of his keeping power.

Most Canadians just want our political leaders to show leadership and cooperate so that our government works. Harper had his chance earlier but blew it. No doubt he will now give the impression of wanting to consult and show respect for others. Can he be trusted? If history is prologue, the answer is no.

Frankly, Harper's actions in stirring up national disunity and in asking for Parliament to be suspended to avoid a non-confidence motion that would defeat him are undemocratic
. His mean and bullying behavior during the current crisis is what Canadians somehow seemed to know about him. It's the reason he has not gotten a majority government despite a weak and crippled Liberal Party.

  • Harper could have chosen to draw opposition parties into a common fight against the economic crisis.
  • He could have respected the views of all Canadians and solicited ideas from elected representatives of all parties.
  • He could have chosen greatness by cooperating and creating an all-party team of advisers.
He could have stepped up at this historic moment of crisis and chosen to be a giant.

But instead he chose to be a pygmy. Our PM has proven to be a small man indeed. Our Parliament is now suspended, all so he can retain power. His stature is forever diminished.


From fiscal update to prorogued Parliament in 7 days

Fanning the fires of national disunity

Charest warns against Quebec-bashing in Parliament crisis

Ottawa rhetoric likely incited sign burning, B.C. MP says

Emotions run high in the West

The first Liberal step: Replace Dion

Liberals try a new leader, Michael Ignatieff

Monday, November 24, 2008

2b mployble or not 2b mployble thats ?

Just caught this on BBC News about a 3-year research project in California:
The researchers also wrote a book based on their study: Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media.

The authors conclude that adults should help children engage with digital media, thereby spending more time online since they are learning the skills needed to be successful in society. As a person who earns a living via the Internet, I strongly disagree, as explained below.

The project's 3 main objectives can be summarized as
  1. Describe kids as active innovators using digital media, not as passive consumers of popular culture
  2. Think about the implications of kids' innovative cultures for education and talk to educators about it
  3. Advise software designers about how to use kids' innovative approaches when building software
The authors provide 4 implications of their study:
1. Adults should facilitate young people’s engagement with digital media
"Contrary to adult perceptions, while hanging out online, youth are picking up basic social and technical skills they need to fully participate in contemporary society."
Translation: Help kids to spend more time on the Internet (and by implication, less time interacting face-to-face with people) - it's good for them.

2. Given the diversity of digital media, it is problematic to develop a standardized set of benchmarks against which to measure young people’s technical and new media literacy.
Translation: It's impossible to measure kids' media skills so we can claim anything without the risk of being contradicted.
3. In interest-driven participation, adults have an important role to play.
Translation: Adults - Stay out of a child's social space but it's okay to offer guidance if it's only their hobbies.
4. To stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media.
Translation: Schools better get with the Internet and one way to do that is buy our book. Okay, this is a joke but the "sky is falling in" warning is still there.

To me, the major finding can be summed up in this sentence:
Contrary to adult perceptions, while hanging out online, youth are picking up basic social and technical skills they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
The findings are not surprising given the research objectives, particularly the first:
Describe kids as active innovators using digital media.
If you set out to describe Drug A as an effective and useful treatment, chances are you will end up concluding that it is effective and useful.

But against what comparison? This study was observational and had no controls. In medical research the standard for comparing drugs is to have a control group as similar as possible to the test group (and chosen randomly). The control group is given what seems like the same treatment but is a placebo.

Where drugs are not involved, the same outcomes are measured in control groups who do not participate in the activity being investigated, e.g.,
  • students who took a course using the standard existing teaching method
  • people who lived at the same time in the same place as people who smoked or had junk food diets, etc.
Applied to the Digital Youth Research project, this would require a control group who did not use digital media nearly as much as the test group. Researchers would have had to measure in both groups a wide range of basic social and technical skills that were deemed as needed to participate in contemporary society and in real world situations, e.g., oral communication skills and interpersonal skills that are required when people interact face-to-face in society and on the job.

For doctors and other health professionals, this can include taking patient histories, discussing the risks and benefits of treatment options, counselling patients with depression, drug dependencies, and histories of sexual or physical abuse, etc.

For people who work in everything from hospitals to business offices to fast food outlets to oil rigs to garbage disposal firms to hair salons, this can include skills such as
  • bargaining with suppliers
  • supervising diverse staff
  • dealing with personality conflicts
  • resolving disputes
  • motivating people to excel
  • disciplining staff
  • dealing with customers
  • delivering speeches at meetings
  • writing business plans, memos, reports
Digital environments are not the real world.
  • Creating a web page using site-specific templates is not a good measure of creativity.
  • Interacting on Facebook by "poking" friends and writing chitchat or drivel on their "walls" is not real world interaction.
  • Using text messaging shortcuts to chat up a friend will not cut it in a real world job.
Boss to employee:
“WTF.. hm wut to say? l8 again? iono lol/well i left a note 4 u... ur so not a gr8 wrkr...u sud not giv me ne guff l8r @4 k?"
Children do learn some computer skills online but not necessarily what's needed in today's workplace.

As a university instructor with 22 years experience and an "early adopter" of computers in the 80s and Internet technology in 1994, I saw that students who grew up in the digital age have all the trappings of being IT savvy but their actual skills are pretty shallow:
  • Most do not know how to use applications like Word and Powerpoint effectively (yes, they can type and save the file but that's not really having expertise).
  • None could use, let alone be proficient with, spreadsheets and databases.
  • Surf the Web, sure, but know how to evaluate website information critically, no.
  • Know how to be efficient with their web searches, no.
  • Create websites, maybe, using prefabricated templates, but truly develop web content, no.
  • Use a mailing list, yes, but know how to create one or to use one effectively, no.
  • Multi-task, absolutely, which means having the attention span of a flea.
  • Reflectively think about what they have seen and heard and read, absolutely not.
  • Use text messaging, yes, but write effective memos and reports, no.
Almost all recent surveys of employers find that graduates lack many soft skills such as communication as well as more measurable skills such as verbal and numerical reasoning. Examples of what employers want and are not getting:

UK - Graduates lacking soft skills, employers warn

"The world of work is very much based on relationships and we all have to deal with other people working in teams. That means they have to be able to communicate in different ways. You have to be able to negotiate and be able to interpret and listen, some people working in teams will have to take leadership roles."
Australia: Graduate opportunities

Skills that employers want:
  • Literacy and numeracy
  • Time management and organisation
  • Oral and written communication
  • Team work
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Initiative and enterprise
  • Critical and analytical thinking
  • Ability to apply discipline knowledge and concepts
  • Information gathering, evaluation and synthesis
  • Emotional intelligence; interpersonal skills
  • Adaptability
Honestly now, is more time spent in front of a computer interacting on social networks like Facebook or chatting online or text messaging friends or building an online personality going to develop these skills?

The researchers, all experts in their field, did an extensive 3-year study and identified valuable aspects of how children use digital media. But to conclude that adults should facilitate children engaging with digital media, and by implication,
spending more time online, seems a stretch. Such a finding is not justified by their data, given their research design, and a multitude of employer surveys.

Just for fun, here's a text message version of the Lord's prayer from the BBC website:
"dad@hvn, ur spshl. we want wot u want &urth2b like hvn. giv us food & 4giv r sins lyk we 4giv uvaz. don't test us! save us! bcos we kno ur boss, ur tuf & ur cool 4 eva! ok?"
Other websites I maintain:

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sad state of democracy in Alberta

Note: The Oct. 27. 2008 issue of the Edmonton Journal has a shorter version of this blog entry in its Opinion section.

In his column "We lack strong presence in Ottawa. With an NDP member elected, will Edmonton be punished?", Todd Babiak wrote, "The fact that this is a serious concern for any thinking person is worrisome for the future of democracy in this part of the country, which is in desperately bad shape and becoming worse with every election."

Kudos to Todd for pointing out that democracy in Alberta is all but dead. Not only are there Albertans who are not content with winning 27/28 electoral seats but apparently some think Edmonton-Strathcona should be punished for the gall to elect a non-Conservative. How pathetic, if it were not so scary.

Have any of the "elect only Conservative" populace ever wondered why Alberta had so few members in Stephen Harper's cabinet after the 28/28 sweep in 2006? Reasons include the
  • Quality of most elected Conservatives in Alberta
  • Fact that Albertans can be taken for granted if they repeatedly elect 100% of the party slate;
  • Need for a governing party to have a cabinet that reflects all of Canada
Alberta lacked a strong presence in Ottawa after electing nothing but Conservatives in 2006. Our one party voting pattern is pretty much a joke in the rest of Canada. Edmonton-Strathcona electing a high quality representative like Linda Duncan can hardly be blamed if Alberta is again treated with disdain by Harper with few cabinet members.

Maybe it's time for Alberta's school system to teach civics and what it means to live in a democracy? Many people here do not seem to understand the basics of how a strong opposition results in better government.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rahim served well, say what?

Another follow-up to Canada's Oct. 14 election and the winning of Edmonton-Strathcona by the NDP's Linda Duncan.

The Edmonton Journal editorial of Sat. Oct. 18 was headlined Jaffer served city well and paid tribute to Rahim Jaffer's time as an MP. After acknowledging that "No one should be taking anything away from Linda Duncan and her team of committed volunteers, who made a bit of history Tuesday," the editorial outlined Rahim's life story, focussing on what a friendly guy he is, a "likable sort and decent human being."

No doubt about it, Rahim is a good looking young man with a ready smile. He clearly enjoyed his time in Ottawa and was often written about as an eligible bachelor-around-town, appearing on lists of Parliament's laziest, sexiest, and hippest MPs. As the Journal editorial notes, "he was Old Strathcona, as a familiar fixture plying the streets, auberges, shops and theatres of the city's most vibrant neighbourhood. It was a natural fit, done with a broad grin."

I suspect that the Journal had a hard time coming up with any real accomplishments during Rahim's 10 years in Ottawa. All they could come up with was, "As to local achievements of late, Rahim's hand in securing federal support for Edmonton's Universiade bid played a major role." Pretty weak, no?

Frankly, the editorial ignored examining the whys of how this likeable young man could lose. As a resident in his constituency, one reason is his party's policies. Another is that he got elected at age 25 with few accomplishments, largely only possible in a province where you can run a corpse as a Conservative and get elected. Caught up in his invincibility, Rahim did not show up at an all candidates forum. Another reason is the fact that he had no substantive accomplishments as an MP other than being a great poster boy.

Contrary to what the Journal would have you believe, walking around, smiling, and looking good does not equate with serving well. Nor does being a nice guy.

Oh, and did I mention that his NDP opponent Linda Duncan has a lifetime of amazing accomplishments and public service?

See more comments on Linda Duncan's win....

In defense of opposing viewpoints

Note: The Oct. 20. 2008 issue of the Edmonton Journal has a shorter version of this blog entry in its Opinion section.

Canada had a national election on Oct. 14, 2008 and this blog is a follow-up to that event. It was triggered by an entry in the Edmonton Journal's Sound Off! section on Thursday, Oct. 16 by someone identifying herself as Jen.

As background, in the past few elections Alberta, an oil rich province with right wing politics, has elected almost all Conservatives to Parliament and in 2008 they were expected to sweep all 28 seats. There was only one Conservative loss in Alberta and it was in my riding of Edmonton-Strathcona, which encompasses the University of Alberta. The Conservative MP, 36 year old Rahim Jaffer, who had held the seat since 1997, lost to the NDP candidate, Linda Duncan.

I was saddened but not surprised to read Jen's comments in Sound Off! Her post began, "Ms. Duncan, you won't be speaking for Alberta in Ottawa. You likely won't be speaking for anyone since you are an NDP MP with the power to do squat."

Clearly Jen does not understand the role of alternative viewpoints in a democracy. Taken to their absurd conclusion, in Jen's world there would be no opposition MPs and our Parliament would be like the old Soviet Union or any other one party state. Perhaps in a world dominated by the Jens of Alberta, no political dissent would be tolerated.

Political opposition is fundamental to democracy. It allows citizens to resolve differences peacefully, keep the ruling party sharp, and forge solutions that encompass the views of all citizens, not just those that voted for the winning party. Without opposition parties, all we would have is a dictatorship that does the will of the majority. The rights of minorities and alternative viewpoints would remain at the mercy of the ruling party. Under such a system, how could we ever be persuaded to change governments?

The career of Howard Pawley in Manitoba is instructive. He first ran for public office in the 1957 federal election finishing fourth with 443 votes. In the 1958 provincial election, he received 801 votes, finishing third. In the 1965 federal election, he received 4,456 votes, finishing third. In the 1969 provincial election he won a seat as an NDP MLA. In 1981 Pawley became Premier of Manitoba, a post he held until 1988. In 2001 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

In Jen's world, this man would be condemned as doing squat with his life, at least until he came a member of a ruling party.

Over the 31 years I have lived in Edmonton I have come across many Jens. At first I was shocked by the relative lack of diverse political views here and especially by the anger displayed by so many Alberta supporters of the then Reform party. I came to call them the "haters" because they were always so angry and literally detested those who dared to disagree with them politically. The joy of living in a democracy was lost to them. They were mired in a sea of resentment and spite against the dreaded Easterners and whatever other bogeymen local politicians cynically tossed up to ensure their re-election.

Jen compliments Rahim Jaffer on being a good representative in Ottawa. I'm not so sure about how good he was. Regardless, many good representatives lose elections, especially if they get caught up in their own celebrity.

The bilingual Rahim, a member of a visible minority, certainly was a poster boy for the old Reform Party in the days when it was known for its anti-immigration, anti-French elements. Lately he has become more known for being on lists of the hippest or sexiest or laziest MPs.

As a representative of Edmonton-Strathcona Rahim had minimal impact so far as I can tell as a resident of the constituency. Leading up to the election, we got weekly Conservative advertisements disguised as surveys asking us which leader we thought was better qualified to do this or that.

More than 20,000 people voted for Linda Duncan. She will be speaking for me in Ottawa, indeed for all citizens in our riding. From what I know about her she will be an exemplary, talented, hard working MP.

How is it that Albertans like Jen are not content with winning 27 of 28 seats? Jen sarcastically ends her Sound Off! comments with, "Ain't democracy great!"

Yes, Jen, it is.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Begin with the end in mind - Tim Russert's legacy

I just finished watching several tribute shows to Tim Russert, the host of the NBC Sunday talk show, Meet the Press. Being a political junkie, MTP is one of the Sunday morning shows I regularly watch. Two things struck me about the tributes to Russert:

1. How much air time was devoted overall to remembering him, which probably rivaled that of a president. Why so much time is an interesting question. Possibilities:

  • Tim was one of them (the media) and they all knew him. The media always give their own more attention, just as members of other professions do.
  • His death was so unexpected. The word "shocking" was used often in the coverage. He had just returned from a trip with his wife and son to Italy to celebrate his son's graduation from university.
  • He was arguably the premier political TV talk show host of his time in the post-David Brinkley era. All who spoke of him, whether to the right or left of center politically, noted that he was tough but fair in questioning his guests on MTP and set a standard for others to follow.
  • He was obviously dearly loved by his colleagues. Most of those interviewed noted the personal interest that he took in their families, how he was loyal to friends in good times and bad, and was generous about sharing his expertise and help. He even went out of his way to keep in touch with a nun who taught him and to introduce her to all his famous pals. And all this from a guy who seems to have worked 24/7 for most of his life. Also mentioned were his twinkling eyes and little boy enthusiasm for politics, sports, and just about everything. He was thrilled that a kid from Buffalo could meet and interview American Presidents. We all want to be around positive people who clearly love life.
  • Despite his fame and wealth, he was close to his working class roots in Buffalo and an avid promoter of all Buffalo sports teams. People appreciate those who have "made it" but remain true to their humble origins.
  • Because he was an integral part of the U.S. political process, his death was more than losing an individual. Many claimed that his passing would change the political landscape, particularly in an election year where interviews on MTP could affect political agendas.
  • He was a great all round guy and a family man. His book Big Russ and Me about his Dad was a wonderful homage to a man who worked two jobs (garbage collector and truck driver) all his life so his kids could have a better chance in life. He often mentioned his Dad and son Luke on his show in loving terms.
2. As described above, the second thing that jumped off the screen during coverage of Tim Russert's death was how he was universally loved by all of his colleagues, both those who were competitors and those who worked with him daily and knew him best. No one could get more glowing eulogies.

It reminds me of Steven Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and the 2nd habit: "Begin with the end in mind." Covey introduces it by asking us to imagine our own death and what family, friends and acquaintances might say about us in their eulogies. Covey then says that we should start living our lives in harmony with that end in mind.

Tim Russert's life appears to be a testament to how to live life with the end in mind.