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

Is that really what the technology is for?

 society, stupidity  Comments Off on Is that really what the technology is for?
Jan 062015

New Year’s eve… Like many, many people apparently, the lovely and talented Mrs. G and I skip the parties and go straight to the movie theatre. Often following Chinese buffet dinner, but that’s another matter entirely. There is 30-40 minute opportunity to observe people in action. And what I saw made me sad.

There, four rows ahead of me was a couple that sat down to do the same thing as we were doing. They were (even) older than us. There was 10-minutes before the movie would begin. They sat. Then they each whipped out a smartphone and completely ignored each other.

But this is not the saddening part.

I often sit in in airport lounges and other places where waiting is the order of the day–or at least the hour. I, too, will check email, text messages, look up stuff that’s pressing, and respond to the demanding beeping of the reminder apps. Usually I’m alone not sitting with someone (like my spouse) with whom I could and probably should be communicating.

Even that’s not the saddening part.

I get it. You’ve got things to do. This is as good a time as any to be productive. Go ahead. However… the fellow sitting four rows in front of me, in a movie theatre, on New Year’s even, at 8:55PM, 10-minutes before the movie would start, WITH HIS WIFE was… playing solitaire.

That’s what’s so important? That’s how small life has become? That’s how meaningless direct human interaction has become? Was this the vision of the RIMs and Apples when they developed this technology?

Or then again, maybe they’d just had a fight in the lobby over whether to pay extra for the butter topping…

Holacracy… old wine new bottles

 Business, Management, organization, society  Comments Off on Holacracy… old wine new bottles
Aug 292014

Found this article in the Globe and Mail (Say goodbye to hierarchy, hello to holacracy) about the disappearance of hierarchy at some “cool” businesses (such as Zappos). It’s essence is per the following definition:

Holacracy is a social technology or system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a fractal holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested at the top of a hierarchy

Since it’s only been in existence since 2007 and seems to be favoured by new economy, technology-based businesses and not-for-profits, it might be a little early to tell whether there is broad merit in the approach. Having self-contained, self-directed units makes complete sense and aligns with many features of nature and certainly of “Complexity” and “Emergence” theories. I’d say generally I’m in favour with the caveat that there are limits to its relevance.

Take the military, for instance and as a deep-relief example of where hierarchy is necessary. While it makes sense that battalions or platoons or fleets or squadrons, in combat, be enabled with self-direction over their own activities to achieve clear goals (this is fundamental), you can’t run an army that way. That kind of organization needs, at its broadest levels, timely and ongoing coherence in purpose and action fast. Holacracy would tend toward incoherence in the short run, though it might be more valuable and effective in the long run. So, organisations that need to be coherently directed toward a possibly fluid goal with a minimum of evolutionary trial and error as the holocratic parts bump into one another might not be right for this structure.

That generally describes large enterprises of the money making or other variety. But even as I type this I wonder if the issue is not black and white but many shades of grey. That is holocracy at one level does not mean hierarchy at another. Perhaps there is harmonious combination of these two structures that would be generally applicable. Maybe that’s been considered by the creator of the idea and/or its various evangelists, including Ken Wilbur.

The article I’ve tagged makes the point but, truth be told, I didn’t read it that closely to know whether it only mentions government or dwells on it. There is a statement to the effect of this being how government works and isn’t it ironic that after so long being told government should be more like business, it’s business that is now being told to be more like government… is? I don’t know about that, but again it could be the degree of magnification. Yes, government departments and agencies do operate as holon. So in that respect, I get it. But, within those departments and agencies I’ve yet to see anything but wicked, rank-respecting, bloated and unwieldy hierarchy.

There is, however, one area of government that is definitely holacracy. That is the confederation as Canada is structured with its provinces being largely independent parts loosely held together by the national centre (federal government), and as Switzerland is with its cantons being practically distinct and unrelated units. These work to greater and lesser degrees. One can find wonder or horror in the structure depending on what you choose as a focus.

In any case, it smells a bit like old wine in new bottles. Nostalgia being dusted off and sold for more than its worth. Harumpf.


Nutbars and Islamism

 Religion, society, Uncategorized  Comments Off on Nutbars and Islamism
Aug 272014

Telos is a Greek word that means “end,” as in the goal or finish. Telos is a fundamental element of practically everything. Think about what you do. There is a good chance that everything you put your energy toward: your art, your business, your studies, your… has a goal toward which you direct intent. Organizations exist with a typically explicit though sometime implicit Telos as well. Religion is the very best example of organizations that have multiple Telos–at different levels.

This little essay is an exposition of how Telos drives religions. It may also be seen as a vehicle for me to call out and question the abundant craziness existing under the flag of Islam. It would be a shame for anyone to view it and me this way because, to be perfectly clear, all Religions tend toward sociopathic war footing from time to time–except maybe Buddism. It’s just the nature of the beast. Still, one has to wonder what combination of theology, Religious life-cycle state, sociology, and economic realities lends itself to the sinister genocidal themes and thrusts of so many jihadis at this time.

Here I insert the obligatory acknowledgement that I do not for a minute believe that all Muslims–or even the generality of Muslims–are disturbed or homocidal. But I have to wonder why Islam seems to claim so many of that type of demagogue? Does it provide convenient cover? Does it provide succor? Is it accidental?  Is it, in fact, only a statistical anomaly (i.e., it’s not happening any more within that cluster than any other; we’re just noticing it for some reason)?In any case, back to Telos.

Religions have Telos in their stories. The stories that form the theology of any given religion are imbued with direction and objective that the religion stands behind. As a (wayward) Christian, I can assure you that the Telos of the Old and New Testaments is Divine Providence. The whole point of the books is to arrive at God’s will. But that is merely the theological Telos; the current and end beneath the theology. It binds the religion as a belief system.

But religion is also Religion: the very human organization that delivers the theos to the masses. Religion has a Telos as well, and it is not always the same–nay it is almost never the same–as the Telos of the religion. The organization has different intents than its stories purport.

Let’s get something out of the way here: Religions go through a life-cycle and they are all acquisitive. A religion/Religion always starts out as an idea of some individual who is at the time outcast, unusual, definitely profane, and probably nuts. This has to be so by virtue of the fact that unless the indivdual was breaking from the prevailing religion, a new religion is not going to be created. Thus profane in term of the status quo. Unusual because (s)he is not doing what everyone else is doing viz. religion and that often happens because (s)he has been outcast (ostracised) from the group in some way or another. People who are nuts regularly end up in this situation.

This individual’s idea takes hold with some acolytes that take the idea and run with it. At this stage the nascent religion is a cult. Cults that do not die in their youth, become mainstream religions to greater or lesser degree. Consider Christianity. It was a Nazerine cult that blossomed following several events not the least of which was a crucifixion, ascention, and the deathbed conversion of the Emperor Constantine about 240 years later. The last event was the prime trigger to turn Christianity into the mainstream religion. Sects branched off the main trunk of this idea over time including Orthodoxy v. Catholicism, Protestantism, and a host of various fundamentalist formulations.

Religions can effectively die too, as have so many in the past. You don’t find many that follow the polytheims of Ancient Greek or Rome. I have met a Zoroastrian recently, but it’s hard to find Toltecs practicing their religions and so forth. But Religions moreso than religions want to live. And to live, their lifeblood is followers. So Religions are acquisitive.

Ideally people are won over by the inherent perfection of the theology. More typically they are swayed by an evangelist of some sort and peer pressure to join. Then, of course, every religion has at one time or another used more than moral suasion to recruit: forced conversion under pain of death, extorted conversion under pain of death, elimination of the heathen… under pain of death. All of these tactics are used under the auspices and in concert with some, occasionally perverse reading of the religion’s stories.

The read of the stories has to be perverted because rare is the religion that is not both aggressive and gentle. These religions are guides to social structure and how to live; often, as I’ve heard, expansions and elaborations on the Golden Rule. So turn any religion into a basis of war or pretext for mass murder is obviously perverse. By no stretch of the imagination can I come up with a scenario that squares, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” with “Kill the infidel.”

This brings me around to Islam and, more especially, its various perversions most recently in the form of Islamic State. But this co-opting of the religion for the purpose of demagoguery is neither new nor, it’s safe to say, unusual. So it begs the question: why? Christianity, another of the three major world religions, is not that much older, by which I mean to say, it’s not as though Islam is going to a phase or growing pains.

Yet there is something in Islam that seems to lend itself to being perverted in a particular fashion. A warlike, world-dominating fashion. Although I’ve read an English translation of Al Qu’aran (because you can’t really read It except in Arabic), I don’t really recall the prophetic calls to action that spur on the 20th and 21st-century Saladins.

So I get quickly led to the perversion of the religion in the service of… power. This is not a big leap because the perversion of religion for power is as common as ants. The Borgias made a family dynasty of it. Or, consider The Church of England.

Is that really all there is to it? The PLO, Taliban, Hamas, Islamic State, you name it: it’s all about power. But that power aspiration doesn’t end like the Ayatollahs’ conquest of Iran, within national borders. These others are far more ambitious. (I didn’t invoke the Caliph Saladin’s name for no reason, you know.) And they have the tools to make good on their desires. Or, if not then at the very least to cause plenty of disruption and grief for everyone else.

The sooner we ALL realize that these nutbars are not religious; they don’t care a whit about their religion except to the extent that it can advance their aims by rallying the dull-witted to their cause, the sooner we’ll change our tack on dealing with the problem. They are not legitimate, their aims are illegitimate, their Telos is death; and this must be shone upon by the cold light of day.


Snakes on a plane (redux)

 society, stupidity, Uncategorized  Comments Off on Snakes on a plane (redux)
Aug 272014

I fly fairly consistently though by no means am I row 13 troll racking up 100,000 miles a year or more. That said, I’m on enough to know that airlines squeeze people into too small a space for actual comfort.

More than that, people flying on business tend toward pulling out laptops to make productive use of the time in the air. That laptop has to sit in the already unsuitable space on the meal tray. So when the person immediately in front of the worker exercises his/her right to recline the seat back for greater comfort, it not only invades the already cramped space but makes using the computer all but impossible. I, personally, have had the clamshell lid cracked because it got sandwiched when the seat in front of me was thrust back.

So when two 48-year olds come just short of blows because one guy, sitting in the worst seat (middle) uses a little piece of plastic that costs 14-cents to make but is $22 at retail called the Knee Defender to prevent the seat from coming back, forcing the plane to be diverted from destination, you can do nothing but say, “Yeah, so what?” (See BBC story here)

Have to say that because it’s inevitable and has probably happened without such media fanfare many times. You also have to say it because both of these people were being douche bags (though I sympathize more with the guy using the device than with the gal who wanted to recline). Douche bags they might be, likely very self-righteously protecting their position and logic.

The airline, on the other hand, never mind the regulators, are culpable and should be punished. Here’s why. They create and foster the situation.

They create seat pitch (the gap for knees and breathing space) and squeeze it as tight as they can get away with. They do this because over 30 rows, 1-inch adds up to another row of seats which adds up to more revenue at a solid marginal profit. Notably, this fight broke out in a part of the plane that already had a larger pitch than cattle class.

They install seats that recline. Frankly, I think this whole notion is ridiculous and warrants physiological testing. The amount of recline the seat affords is not enough to be really any more comfortable; only enough to be irritating, imposing, and beyond annoying to the person behind you.

They make (and sell) the space and time on the plane to business travellers as a time to get things done. For crying out loud, they’re installing wifi on-board. Wifi is useless without a device to connect and trying to do real work on a tablet or smart phone is preposterous.

So, it’s the airline that creates the conditions that create the possibility for nobody’s wrong, self-righteousness.

Reclining passenger says, “Hey, the seat reclines and it’s my right to get more comfortable (or at least have the feeling that I’m getting more comfortable) by reclining completely. As far as I’m concerned, given the structure of the seating, that space MUST be mine to recline into.

The passenger being reclined into says, “Whoa, hold on, this space between my nose and your upright seat is inadequate to begin with. As soon as you recline, especially if the person in front of YOU isn’t reclining, you’re getting more space–MY space, which I need to work in. Back off. Reclining is a privilege, not a right.”

At the end of the day, the douche bag who pushes her seat back is probably more in “the right,” but in any case, the airline is in the wrong. And who suffers? The recliner, he being reclined upon, and EVERY OTHER PASSENGER who didn’t get to Denver as promised or has to listen to the kerfuffle.


Take the train. It’s civilized.

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?