Contributing to the cyber security conversation

 Business, Canada, IT Security, politics  Comments Off on Contributing to the cyber security conversation
Oct 162016

My firm, Institute X, responded and provided a paper to the Canadian Government’s Consultation on Cyber Security. It’s a considered white paper that assumes government should do what it’s supposed to do (public safety and security; and support Canadian industry). We suggest that an “unreasonably” high standard for cyber security and directed support toward the Canadian cyber security industry (e.g., national security-protected procurement) will benefit Canada on multiple fronts.

Download it here: institute-x-cyber-security-consultation-submission-oct-2016.

Innovation advice… really?

 Business, Canada, politics  Comments Off on Innovation advice… really?
Dec 042015

It’s incomprehensible why a serious broadsheet exposes a 1000-word space to the maundering of a senior bank executive except to recall that the business broadsheet is a forum for recitations of faith. When a high priest needs a pulpit, a serious broadsheet provides one. How else to understand Victor Dodig’s contribution to the “innovation” echo-chamber in the November 27th edition of The Globe and Mail (“Canada must fill three gaps to reach its high-growth future”)?

“Innovation” is today’s incantation that serious people in management (and reporters) recite to prove their faith. So certain is its good, it is above question. That the talk of innovation suffocates all other sensible considerations, and lets (Canadian) executives off easily is beside the point. Mere invocation of innovation gets attention and, apparently, 1000 words in a serious broadsheet

In any case, Mr. Dodig’s ostensible objective is to reveal to the new Liberal government causes that inhibit Canada from achieving economic growth. His writers pick up Jim Balsillie’s tune and rehash au courant cocktail party clatter about the absolute national essentialness of innovation… as cover for another specific message. I choose to assume of Mr. Balsillie a pure-hearted intent, and so expect the larding of his noble clarion call with self-serving appropriations like a Bill working its way through Congress, weighs on him.

I ascribe unctuous malfeasance to the article if only because in 1000 words addressing three gaps, only about 150 address gap three: an innovation ecosystem, and a whopping 34 words speak to the second—something a banker would be credible with: innovation financing. The remainder of the essay (about 80% for those with post-secondary education yet remain innumerate) speaks to changing the public education system to alter the talent shortfall, and to innovative “emerging firms” being acquired by foreigners who take innovative Canadians elsewhere.

After laying out the harms visited upon Canada’s economy by failing public education, Dodig poses the question, “So what do we do [about students ‘choosing an educational path geared toward acquiring credentials rather than skills acquisition and what the labour market needs’]?”

Had he stopped there and proposed specific actions to counter insufficient interest in STEM fields, and the terrible literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills in Canada, it would have been appropriate if not valuable. Mr. Dodig foreclosed that possibility by answering: “We need to promote education choices that match the needs of the job market.”

Like too many others, this commercial catechism appears sensible at first encounter and in certain narrow contexts. Its impotence as a broad response is usually dispatched quickly. An unnecessary act in this case because Dodig himself renders his recommendation pointless mere paragraphs later (without infringing at all on the space needed to argue for better financial support and an innovation ecosystem). As he transitions to raise—but not address—another innovation problem, Mr. Dodig seamlessly shifts our essential innovators from job market to entrepreneurial class. As such, the innovators he implicates won’t be employed by his or any other organization because they are those starting the “emerging firms” subsequently bought out for their developments and brain power then quickly whisked away to deprive the country of its economic future. Not that this isn’t a vexing problem, only that it is immaterial to job skills training (i.e., “meeting the needs of the job market”). Entrepreneurs not in the job market hardly need education to match the needs of the job market, you see.

A kernel of truth stabilizes Mr. Dodig’s recitation. But methinks the purpose is less about innovation than about redirecting public education toward a goal of finally, wholly eliminating the need for businesses to train for their own needs. The proposal is that Canadian society should fund employee education for (large) firms that employ—so they don’t have to.

Doubtlessly people should be employable, and a well-educated individual ought to be employable, which is to say literate, numerate, and able to solve problems by way of critical and creative thinking at one or both of theoretical and applied levels. But those qualities apply to software coders, managers, artists, entrepreneurs, electricians, and even hockey players. In other words: to everyone. Yet, rather than propose an overall higher national standard of such capacity, perhaps with incentives to pursue engineering instead of law, or cryptography rather than marketing, this counsel focuses on job-ready skills to benefit employers. What’s next: other factors of production underwritten by the public purse so they too are “ready” for business?

Mr. Dodig is right about the shortcomings he raises. Still, you can scratch deep and find no hint of the banks’ role in defunding manufacturing (i.e., finding Canadian manufacturing too risky to provide credit for operations or expansion or exporting…) or limiting cash for risky emerging firms. Mr. Dodig is silent on the notion of sharing risk with the innovators he’s so concerned about to help them create and then to keep them Canadian.

Finally, it would be cruel to ask the obvious question: If this bank(er) is so interested in numerate and literate and creative talent—of the STEM variety, particularly—rather than students who have merely “acquired credentials,” why continue demanding the MBA as an essential credential for its own innovative roles, such as they might be? To the extent these MBAs are scientists, technologists, engineers, or mathematicians with business finishing school certificates, fine. But we all know the majority have merely acquired the credential to make real money in consulting and banking, or to be marketers. (Oh, the irony.) And there is abundant evidence everywhere that they are not necessarily more numerate, literate, or able to genuinely solve problems critically let alone creatively. On these counts the bank fails. Before ostensibly providing counsel to the new government or even using that as cover to inject ideas into the public domain, Mr. Dodig’s bank ought to lead by example not faulty rhetoric… if he’s serious.

Asymmetric policy action: cars and drivers

 Business, Canada, Management, politics, society  Comments Off on Asymmetric policy action: cars and drivers
Jan 072015

I would offer to write a brief piece for Policy Options, The Walrus, or some other such magazine but have no desire to spend the time documenting the self-evident, which will be obvious later, just to appear “well researched.” Instead, I’ll write here and content myself with distributing the link.

Here’s the premise. Governments of all sorts are incapable of rapidly deploying intelligent policy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is politics and the pressure to do big and meaningful things. It appears better to do nothing than to do something not publicity grabbing. So, trivial things get done for trivial political reasons, or overinflated mega-projects are launched only to crash into a mess of overspending and under-performing.

But, in the spirit of the unfortunately discredited Broken Windows theory (the idea that broken windows are an example of indicators that residents don’t care so further vandalism is more likely…), I have a couple of ideas for the provincial governments. These ideas have three key features. First, they are simple to implement, administer, and enforce if necessary. Second, they are or can be revenue neutral at worst. Third, their most significant benefit is indirect financial and social impact. The biggest drawback is that they will be resisted because both target the sacrosanct car and driver.

First idea: Outlaw blackened windows on all vehicles not in livery service.

I don’t know when manufacturer-installed and after-market window tinting became vogue. When I was young it was not done and may have been unlawful—at least in Manitoba. Only limousines had tinted windows, and only for the passenger compartment at that. Today, every other car on the road has completely opaque glass all the way around.

The problem here is pure social psychology. The window tinting enables an anonymity effect, which subtly encourages people to do things that they would not do if they knew people could see who they were. It’s common and goes a long way to explain increasing driver aggression, particularly from within cars with tinted windows. There is also the entitlement effect in play on the roads and in parking lots, but that typically affects only drivers of luxury vehicles.

The solution is to immediately ban the production and sale of vehicles with tinted windows. Vehicles with existing tinting and livery vehicles would have to be grandfathered. Admittedly, there are gaping holes for anybody with a pre-2015 vehicle to apply aftermarket films, which couldn’t be banned without affecting the ability to apply such films to house and commercial windows. But, inspection and registering of the vehicle for tinting could be made part of the emissions testing process.

The value is in the opportunity to negate the anonymity effect to shape more civilized behaviour on the roads. More civilized behaviour, less rage; less rage, fewer altercations; fewer altercations, lower insurance and other costs.

Second idea: Compel mandatory driver retesting every five years (at least).

Needless to say, acceptance with open arms is improbable. Despite my high school driver’s ed. teacher’s mantra that “driving is a privilege not a right,” common belief is exactly the opposite. That’s why people will drive, legally, well beyond their capacity to do so. It’s also why drivers get into intractable ruts of poor, potentially fatal driving habits like never signalling, weaving between lanes, tailing too close, running lights and stop signs, passing on double solid lines, and so on.

But the program is relatively small with asymmetric downstream impact. Retesting could be easily implemented: most of the processes exist. Licenses have to be renewed—that is, a new picture and so on, not just the fees paid—every five years typically. Only a testing component would need to be added. And even that process exists for new drivers. By increasing the renewal fee to cover the testing, the program could run cost neutrally if that were important.

The immediate benefits would be obvious. All those drivers that we see who should be participants on Canada’s Worst Driver would get cleared off the road. All those drivers who no longer have the physical or mental agility to be behind the wheel would be cleared off the road. For seniors and others who, allegedly, depend on driving their cars, there could be a grant of lifetime access to public transit. Once again, the level of highway civility ought to go up owing to a clear, shared understanding of the rules and what to expect of other drivers. Right now, it’s a crapshoot anticipating what other cars will do in any given situation.

The longer-term benefits are where fixing this particular broken window starts to change the neighbourhood. With more recently refreshed drivers behind the wheels (especially if you can see them through untinted windows), we could expect increased safety and thus the incidents of traffic accidents ought to go down. The effect of that one impact ripples outward. The most obvious and probably valuable effects are: policing could be directed toward other areas instead of highway traffic; use of ambulance and other emergency service for traffic accidents, including hospital-generated health care costs, would decline; and property damage and insurance costs would be reduced. (This last one adds up particularly in provinces where public insurance prevails.)


This is just fixing broken windows and shouldn’t demand extensive study, debate, and investment in (mega-)projects. But the asymmetric effects will well outweigh any insignificant political costs. It should not require loads of courage to command them into practice.

And if you like these, you should hear some of my other ideas for health care, information technologies, productivity, and innovation

The Safety Dance: one step forward; three steps back

 Canada, ethics, politics, society, stupidity, Uncategorized  Comments Off on The Safety Dance: one step forward; three steps back
Aug 242014

Today’s politically correct vogue is to wring one’s hands and fulminate about how dangerous the world is and how dire the need to protect one and all from its perils. Mental health disabilities and concussions are, among other human traumas, serious stuff. But it all seems a little overdone.

While the incidents of mental health claims and sport-related serious injuries are as high as ever in raw volume, a doubter might question its significance. Is there really more? Or are we just searching for, noting, and recording it now? This challenges the premise of greater danger, and the argument applies as readily to mental health injury as to cancer and allergy epidemics. It’s harder, I think, to argue that concussions went unrecognized and so could have been under-reported 30-years ago. That suggests greater danger. It does not mean it’s not ridiculous. Not the injuries; the circus of problem-solving.

The same day newspapers carried the story about Minister Clement’s pronouncement on mental health action, I saw a fellow on a bike wearing what looked like a 40-year old Cooper™ hockey helmet. It wasn’t a zippy cycling helmet, so it caught my attention and took my thoughts to the ongoing, very public finger wagging about concussions in hockey. I recalled that there was a time when that flimsy piece of plastic with an eighth inch of Styrofoam was the only wrapping on kids’ heads. Yet, so many of us live to reminisce about it.

What bothers me most about the well-meaning debates and pronouncements, be it about depression furloughs or kids’ cranial collisions, is that they are just so typically focused wrong. It is, of course, easier and more socially acceptable, never mind profitable, to push protection and palliatives than it is to deal with real problems. We leave uncomfortable stuff alone.

Regarding employee mental health issues untenably impacting labour costs, what we really don’t want to talk about is that we’ve done and keep doing it to ourselves. We avoid how mobile devices and PCs before them inconveniently changed what it means to be working. Not only are we all expected to be available within the hour if not actually responding in the moment, it doesn’t end at 5:00PM or Friday at the pub. That is fact.

Instead of acknowledging and debating the incompatibility of commercial efficiency and human frailty, we are treated to paeans to the “new reality” or some derivative. It’s liberating, they say. Not so much unless fetters factor into your definition of free. But it is an efficiency gainer, so it’s not going anywhere. That leaves the chattering classes to accept the root issue wholesale and babble on about the deleterious effects.

What about the hollowing out of the organization? It’s good for organizations because short-term productivity is high. It’s not good for people, because no machine runs at the yellow line for years on end without burning out. People in “management” are being overworked, the demands on their time extend well beyond what was traditionally work time, and they know that they are always one false move from not having to worry about it at all. Why would anyone be stressed or depressed?

Then there’s this business of sports injuries, with concussion trending right now. Of course being concussed is bad, especially for a brain still being formed. Then again, so is pushing a teenage body to meet the demands of an adult body. Speaking only of hockey, what we don’t want to talk about is that WE are the cause of the problem, one that we’re not eager to cure.

Back to the Cooper™ helmet. Hockey is a pretty rough sport. It was when I played as a kid. But it was rough within limits. Bad helmets and other variants of plastic, felt, and sponge left a lot of opportunity to feel pain, which took some spirit out of the boys. You didn’t try doing too much harm to others because, among other things, it was probably going to hurt you too.

Over the past forty years, we’ve outfitted our little gladiators with Kevlar and ballistic protection that makes them (feel) practically invincible. When over-protected, the most important organ in the body doesn’t work effectively. Because there is no pain escalation to indicate it’s time to back off, one can forget that one is, in fact, going to get hurt. And when it inevitably does happen, it won’t be just a little owey either! Add a persistent hockey season. Unlike the few boys that went to one-week, summer hockey camp in the 1970s, now every child has pre-season training and development prior to the try-outs that precede the season, which gets followed by a post-season work-down, etc… In other words, kids have the protection needed to detach them from the reality of being hurt, plus we train them to be stronger and more aggressive earlier. Never mind the parents who demand that little Mikey behaves like the NHL star that dad wishes he’d been, and then encourage aggression by behaving like lunatics in the stands.
Hockey today isn’t more dangerous, nor is cycling or skiing or any other sport. Work and life is not harder than a century ago. What we’ve done to ourselves in the name of progress, though, is create everything we need to push ourselves and our children up to and past the breaking point physically and mentally. Contrary to my first employer’s view, people are really not machines. You can’t merely grease them and replace worn parts.

They can’t work at their limit all the time. They can’t be expected to always self-heal from the inevitable injuries. But every employer knows that there is plenty of supply. So, ultimately, they can be replaced when worn out. It’s just costly; and not very pleasant salon conversation.

Meantime, we can all talk about how children are being physically injured and adults are being mentally tormented, and about what paternalistic safety equipment and palliative programs we can enforce. It makes us feel like we’re doing something valuable. And that’s good for our mental well-being.

* I wrote this a few months ago and submitted it for op-ed… nothing.

Foretelling decline by observing focus and attention

 Canada, politics, society, stupidity  Comments Off on Foretelling decline by observing focus and attention
Aug 212014

The National Post headline says, Canada’s language watchdog probing John Baird’s Twitter account over lack of French posts. Sadly, the headline says it all. There is, of course, a story that challenges the requirements for a “public” account to be in both official language. That is, as opposed to a “personal” account. Implicit, of course, is the recognition that Twitter has a growing and overwhelming institutional side equivalent to broadcast media. After all, that’s what the parallel would be.

That challenges the entire notion of Twitter, a question or dark secret that ought to come out into the open: Twitter has been co-opted by the corporatists (as is everything eventually). All you Libertarian technologists take note.

In any case, isn’t this situation (i.e., a federal government minister, elected in a riding in the nation’s capital, who ought to be communicating with constituents in both official languages as appropriate for this circumstance) something that “the market” should address. And here, of course, “the market” is the electorate which can determine whether he is offside or not. Do we really need a public office to tilt at this windmill?