I will NOT stop whining about the $25 baggage fee

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Sep 192014

Domini Clark’s (@tgamtravel) piece in the G+M today feels a little like mom or a schoolmarm’s finger wagging. Don’t whine about the new checked bag fee with Air Canada, Westjet, and Porter; there are plenty of other places where you spend much more than that and could save is the advice. Spot on. As a regular business traveller though, the advice is going to generate more irritation for me.

At the end of the column, the suggestion is to NOT check bags, after all business people can go a full week without checking a bag. Well thank you very much! It’s damn near impossible to find overhead space on a long-haul flight, like Vancouver to Toronto, because of all the casual flyers who check a bag and then bring two giant dufflebags on board. Seriously. More than once I’ve had to check my bag either at the gate (looking for volunteers) or after boarding and establishing that there is no place for my stuff.

This is not a solution. Maybe the rest of the article should have been augmented by saying, “Hey! The baggage fee is being levied on the bare-bones lowest frills fare. Buy one grade up or pay to put your clothes on the plane.” Which, by the way, does not change my mind about the fact that this levy is just another usurous bite into my wallet.

 Posted by on 19 Sep 2014

Innovation Fads, Fashions, and Trends

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Sep 142014

So much ink; so much paper! So many pixels! So many task forces! Thank God for the bottomless pit to mine for answers to Canadian innovation challenges. The proposals are as many as there are lobbies and hobbies. And every one of them has merit. But every one of them is doomed by narrowness and inadequacy. That’s because, as the girl said to the boy: “It’s complicated.”

The focus of well-meant public musings and counsel tends toward specific, actionable, and obvious drivers of the problem. The result? There ought to be more public and private investment at every stage; better training and skills; government intervention; coordinated geographic clusters; stronger commercialization; more creativity and risk taking; a focus on entrepeneurs; or a focus on enterprises. And on and on.

Less considered, probably because they make crystal clear causal arguments cloudy at best, are the softer facets of the ecosystem. There are one or more steps removed from the direct “this-then-that” connection between action and outcome. Also, innovation tends to be diagnosed discretely from other economic and social challenges, such as productivity decay. This is the result of a schooled reductionism that segregates systemic problems into constituent parts as if complex problems can always be solved in pieces and work when reassembled. But that’s not how complex systems work.

Setting aside my cynicism about the motives of those voicing positions, each contribution adds valuably to the discussion. But that discussion remains isolated, technocratic, and mired in detail. Consider only the example of innovation and productivity as a holistic pair.

Everyone who has sat through an executive discussion of new revenue contrasted with reduced cost knows that the latter goes straight to the bottom line. CFOs fall all over the second option. And yet, productivity is in decline in Canada. Why? Among the reasons is a “waste not, want not” ethic that would make a Puritan blush. There is also the discount sticker given to Canadian businesses by our chronically weak dollar. Let’s not forget government subsidization/protection. All of this cuffs the market’s invisible hand that might otherwise force competitive price drops, in turn demanding greater productivity—perhaps through innovation?

Weak demand for productivity innovation weakens the drive toward technologies, processes, and business models that address these challenges. Only among a few exceptions, such as mining, are businesses innovating—or investing in innovation—for productivity gain. In other cases, such as oil & gas, their cups have spilleth over so much that being unproductive is inconsequential.

That leaves the glory of consumer-directed innovations. Consumers want cool technological toys that may (the jury is still out) make them more productive. It’s true—or at least it’s said, which is the same thing apparently—that mobile devices make business people more productive. It’s also true that many consumers are also business people. But is WhatsApp or FaceBook or the iPod creating productive commercial capacity? The argument for “yes” is dubious at best.

Consumers reward these innovations though, or the successful ones anyway, explicitly with revenue or use; less explicitly through the idolatry of consumer products and the business people associated with them. Investors reward such innovations with easier and more valuable rounds of financing, and grand payoffs at Initial Public Offering. This all despite many of the longest-lived and profitable technology businesses, such as Microsoft and Oracle and Salesforce and SAP, innovating around commercial/management productivity. But they’re not Facebook or LinkedIn are they?

Defocus consumer innovation! Blackberry (RIM) lost its edge and lead not primarily because of threats in the consumer space but because it chased that space and forgot that its lead and advantage was due to its impact on industrial productivity. Also consider that while it’s true Henry Ford made the automobile a mass consumption product, his enduring legacy is the conveyor belt: the productivity innovation that allowed for the consumer delight.

So what’s the point? Simply this: all of those many answers to the innovation problem could be instrumental elements of a successful change to Canada’s innovation trajectory. Maybe… in some combination… or in some sequence…. But merely refocusing toward innovations that genuinely address how to make Canada’s businesses more productive, first at the edges then at the core, would set the stage for solving multiple economic challenges, including productivity and innovation, and fabricating a virtuous cycle updraft to raise all parts of the economy.

I use “F-Words”

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Sep 122014

I use “f-words” in mixed company. Well-bred professional, management, and executive types recoil in disgust. One might think that they would be inured to f-words. But they seem to hold themselves above all that.

Of course, the most troubling f-word is not the one on the tip of your tongue now. This one sounds “eff” but starts “ph.” Try saying philosophy in the company of busy career people; just be prepared for rolled eyes and that piteous expression that says you just don’t get it.

Those blank faces better “get it” soon themselves. Our privacy and maybe even democracy could depend on it. After all, not every tectonic shift is as blatant as the revelations of Edward Snowdon or as arrogantly, publicly contemptuous as the Fair Elections Act. Pay attention to the every day stuff!

Today’s transactional immediacy of business and government work is not an historical novelty. There was no time when these practical people were more inclined to think deeply about what they were doing. What may be different now is the measure of disdain for anyone who challenges business or government plans and actions more deeply than what the pervasive “value proposition” pap answers.

If we refrain from contemplations of epistemology and such, and stick to ethics and the sunnier(!) side of existential questions, philosophy is about purpose. That has to be clarifying for professionals, and is about as close as most organizations get to schwerpunkt (a typically consonant-ridden German word that means concentration point or main effort).

When I say philosophy in this company, I often mean, “What do you believe?” Not as in, “We believe the world wants a device that will allow them to…” That’s actually, “We think…” Rather, as in, “We believe that people need to remain connected to other people; we believe our purpose is to provide devices that…” Despite reading and abiding by directives such as Start With Why (Sinek, 2011), this kind of descent to expose the core assumptions of “Why” is one nobody really wants to take.

So why is that kind of philosophical pondering held in such disregard?

First, it’s hard. It requires rigorous thought, due consideration, and alternative points of view. None of which is acceptable in an environment of HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) rules or unconsidered braying of partisan vitriol.

Second, it’s still hard. It demands a sense of right and wrong. That then presumes you might stand for something, ideally something that can be argued rationally from some principles. Rampant specialization and narrow awareness does not lend itself to this capacity.

Third, it’s unnecessary. After all, whether its Mill, Burke, Rousseau, or Jefferson, there are philosophies a plenty to choose from and no need to waste time on such things now.

Fourth, well… it’s hard. Given the preference for action—any action!—to indicate ability, quality, and value, taking time to muse over that action gets indicted as regressive to say the least.

It’s true that some fundamental underpinnings of philosophy are timeless—give or take a millennium, otherwise we wouldn’t still look to Plato. But other philosophy is more set in a time and place—give or take a millennium or continent, so it needs to be refreshed from time to time.

Given the rate society is evolving in technology’s wake, we need to take a little time to continually consider whether our core values remain operative in practice. At the very least, we should give a modicum of respect and an ear to those who do it professionally, casually, or within the confines of their daily toil.

The problem with not thinking about these things and, worse, discouraging those who will, is that these things are affected by rapid innovation and change anyway.

The seemingly outrageous privacy invasions by governments is not the product of a sea change in method. It was a steady dripping of unconsidered change that allowed the method to metastasize into what it’s become: something odious. And, it all took root in so many innocuous “consumer benefits.”

The outrageous bill that is to be the Unfair Elections Act (2014) is only possible because over time we have largely become so blasé about hyper-partisan drivel and the corruption of governance by politics that many people see nothing especially egregious about the bill’s content. And so it now threatens a foundation of our society. That represents six years’ effort on the part of Canada’s New Government.

So let’s all throw around the f-word until it’s so common that everyone does it. We’ll all be better for it.

IT Security and the rise of the Data Chemists

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Sep 072014

The days of perimeter protection for online security and privacy are dwindling. Those tried-and-true approaches for safeguarding data and ensuring organizational and individual data security are destined to the quaintness of punch cards. Relying on them as the paradigm of security for extensive or elaborate IT implementations that have a future is not wise. There is a better way.

The concept of perimeter security is inspired by the notion that if you put all your eggs in one basket then you have but one basket to guard and protect. It is a castle, high on a hill with thick stone walls and drawbridges over impassable moats. The stuff inside is safe because the bad guys are kept at bay. Until it’s not.

One problem with perimeter security is that it depends on meeting force with force. So attempts to breach firewalls and ports are met with clever shields and redundant blocks. That is not a bad thing; it’s just a recursive cycle that probabilities suggest will always end in breaches. Moreover, it hardly matters how strong the perimeter is: once there is a crack, everything is in jeopardy. Since things have to move across the perimeter to function properly, the perimeter is porous by design, raising the odds of compromise.

To deal with the hole-y perimeter and make it reasonable for individuals to pass we take cues from the Old Testament. The Gileadites augmented their perimeter, keeping out the Ephraimites by demanding everyone crossing the border say the word “Shibboleth.” To make an old story short, those that could not were obviously trespassers and were dealt with in a decidedly Old Testamentary way. The concept introduces the demand for secret password identification.

In prevailing IT security, a previously established password presented at the perimeter gets compared to the one held behind the perimeter walls. This system can be compromised on the outside by capturing the password or matchable token from the individual to whom it belongs. Alternatively, the store of passwords/comparables inside the perimeter is, in fact, a geometrically more valuable treasure.
This approach is ever-less effective. In fact, it is practically a law that the value of perimeter protection is inversely proportional to participant sophistication.

So, what is the viable alternative? In Introductory Financial Management many years ago, I was introduced to the concept of diversification. It refers to investing in assets of varying risk profiles so that the aggregate risk would be more readily predictable. There is a lot of calculus and probabilities math behind this, so it must be scientific. Those who avoid scientific language might be inclined to describe diversification as spreading the risk or not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Critically, the risk is inherent in the value of the asset itself. If data is the valuable asset and the risk is that its acquisition by unauthorized parties can result in privacy or confidentiality breach which could have significant financial impact, that sounds a bit more like securities. In which case, managing risk more like a financial wizard becomes sound policy.

This challenges a core assumption of today’s IT security, being that one can prevent breach from happening. In other words, we presume and measure from zero, trying to keep the needle there (like airline safety). After all, if there is a lot of valuable data in one spot AND breach will affect lots of data and people, ANY breach is catastrophic and must be prevented. This base notion results in a course of action that takes us along the path that IT security has followed thus far.

What if that presumption were inverted? Instead, accept that there will always be (many) breaches. Then the goal cannot reasonably be to prevent them all, but rather to make them small, unprofitable, and essentially meaningless. In other words, diversify the risk away. This different starting point will result in a different approach. (That is the intent of encryption, but it should be quite evident that encryption alone is necessary but not sufficient in the cyber-security arms race.)

Take this idea further. What if there were no stores of meaningful aggregated data? It would not be worthwhile to penetrate the challenging security of an online service if there were nothing useful to acquire. Nobody would bother to break into a bank vault for one bar of gold. The crime doesn’t pay. Such a circumstance would require CIOs and security specialists to become “data chemists.” It is nothing less than alchemy—in reverse. Take gold and turn it into lead (or its elemental components). The real magic is in the owner being the only one able to reconstitute it into gold—when needed.

So, where does this leave us? Unfortunately, without specific answers; but with an idea for alternatives in the post-perimeter IT security world. The next wizards of security and privacy will succeed when they courageously change the metaphor and the starting point for their practice.
Start soon though: Our privacy and confidentiality depends on it.

“User Experience” is nonsense

 Business, Management, organization, stupidity, Uncategorized  Comments Off on “User Experience” is nonsense
Sep 022014

God damn Steve Jobs! It’s hard to dredge from memory or history another huckster who left behind such a legacy of dreck. Jobs was a tireless promoter who innovated relentlessly and—as legend would have it—single-handedly changed the face of the consumer world from personal computing to animated movies to music consumption and mobile telephony/computing. Love it or hate it; he did it.

But that’s not what I mean. The detritus in his formidable wake is all of the half-baked nonsense that others less capable have picked up. Where for Jobs the result if it would be a gastronomic delight, in other hands it becomes fast food. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Web world.

You see, Jobs was a man with vision, drive, and—to switch metaphors—the skills of a utility fielder. He was a showman and marketer with a sense for the appealing. He was an evangelist and salesman with a feel for the con. He was an industrialist with a grasp of production. And, allegedly, in his later tenure, became something of a strategist and commanding agent of change. What this adds up to is a well-rounded entrepreneur who knew inherently that even though he was reducing a complex mix of ingredients to a single catchy phrase, there was a lot of magic going on.

Those who worship at the alters of his several business religions are not so well versed. They do not appreciate that, just to hold the mystique for single-minded people like them, Jobs oversimplified and reduced to an aphoristic sound-bite, very complex conditions. They don’t get that Steve Jobs was a sophisticated carney and they are his marks.

Why do I rant? Because I am now fed up by the noxious and excessive blather from all levels of so many organizations about consumer experience or customer experience. Don’t get me wrong: such concern is paramount, or at least it will be until it proves unprofitable and therefore unacceptable to the stock market. To satisfy the customer—to make him or her or it categorically happy with your wares is fundamental to loyalty, repeat business, referrals, buzz, and ultimately revenue if not profit. And there is truth to the causal connection between the visceral experience with a product/service and the good outcomes noted above.

That said, the ham-handed Webheads roll this all up under the aegis of user experience. And then they reduce all of that holistic business complexity to what would properly be limited to user interface. When gullible and complicit executives support the cause user interface gets conflated with customer experience and the absurdities begin.

“So what’s the problem with that Mr. Pedant?” You ask. Not much except for how the UI (user interface) people—interaction designers really—get up on their hind legs and throw their weight around with the support of improbable, linguistic overreach. All of a sudden the interface carries dominion over all other possible aspects of customer experience. For instance:

  • A customer’s preconception of the product, from which his/her experience is anchored, starts with the ads and promotion. Shouldn’t Marketing Communications be in charge?
  • A customer’s sense of proportional value and the resulting positive/negative experiential feeling is critically related to the price paid. Why wouldn’t Pricing get the last word?
  • In the highly probable event of a problem with the product/service/Website, how the various customer service channels respond has enormous impact on customer experience. Why then does Customer Service not hold sway?
  • Let’s not overlook that an offering simply working (or not) has a clearly enhancing or detracting effect on one’s overall impression. So it seems that Operations ought to be the final arbiter of customer experience.
  • All this without even considering that the product group determines market need and value, and orchestrates all the above-noted constituent players and more—including the interface designers—to create and provide an offering to please customers and fill the company coffers.

Let’s agree that customer experience is valuable, but that it is the complex output of many inputs. Even if you make the dubious causal leap that customer experience equals success, it may or may not recognize that ultimately success is profit. And on this it merely muddies the simplicity to note that while touting the experience, Steve Jobs could shave Lincoln’s beard off of a penny. (Maybe that has had a little to do with Apple’s commercial success…)

To blithely dictate that user experience equals customer experience is wrong to begin with. To push that further and allow customer experience, which is actually now equal to user interface, to be the start and end or at least the dominant element of commercial input is simplistic, naïve, and unduly credits user interface (i.e., design) with too much.

Besides, isn’t this kind of hyperbolic overextension what “Marketing” is all about? Does nobody care that now Marketers have no real purpose let alone dominance?

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.

CUPW protests lack of irony in the news

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Jan 272014

Most news outlets are carrying a story today similar to this one (CBC) that covers the Parliament Hill protests by CUPW, directed toward the Prime Minister, against the Canada Post changes to service–most specifically to the end of door-to-door delivery. CUPW’s interest: membership will decline. And, to the organization, it doesn’t matter whether that’s because of terminations resulting from reduced work, attrition from retiring members not being replaced, or lunar conjunction. The end result is the same: the organization, like the employer, (first irony) has its very purpose and survival at stake.

The second, and even better irony, comes with a leaflet that I found in my mailbox (third irony). The leaflet, “Produced by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers,” is provided below so you can see I’m not making this up. In point of fact, I couldn’t: I’m not THAT creative.

Pamphlet side A Pamphlet side B

For anyone who needs training wheels for dark humor, let me assist. The leaflet, which is a petition to MPs, showed up in my mailbox. It has NO POSTAGE, and I am certain it was not delivered via Canada Post (don’t ask why). It clearly indicates what to do to mail the completed form to the MP for the area NO POSTAGE required (because it’s Parliamentary mail). Need more help? The union is complaining about the cuts to service, which start as a result of revenue from postage/mail declining precipitously. And even they don’t use the system to generate revenue toward their own health. It’s as if Henry Ford went to the trouble of giving his employees a good wage so they could afford to buy cars for their families as goes the legend, and instead they went out a got more horses and oats with their new “wealth.”

Love it.

 Posted by on 27 Jan 2014

Sympathy and its limits

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Jan 232014

As a parent, you have to feel sympathy for the Calgary mother who found out that her son was killed in Syria. Perhaps the sympathy wanes just a little bit when you find out that the son had converted to Islam and had gone to Syria to fight the jihad and ended up dead at the working end of another faction’s machine gun.  The mother was apparently ignorant of all of this, though his reason to her for heading to the Middle East was to learn Arabic in Egypt.  All this according to news reports and nothing else.

Put yourself in her shoes: her child is dead and somebody or something is at fault. We all need reasons; and in the case of ourselves and especially our children, it tends to be reasons external to ourselves. “My child was a victim.” It allows for a modestly less troubled sleep. But when this mother blames the government, saying, “‘In my eyes, the government is just as guilty as if they had pulled the trigger themselves,’ the mother told the National Post in her first public comments since the death was announced,” we head into dangerous territory. It’s likely that this is an emotional lashing out in the moment that will pass as Kubler-Ross predicts. But, recently, it’s as likely that this is the position that will harden into  accepted truth.

At which point, I begin to be unsympathetic. Not for the loss but for the denial and blame. The boy became a jihadist in a war zone. Is that normal for a Calgarian? Should the government be blamed for that too? Couldn’t they have warned her and forced the boy into a Catholic school? Is it the parents’ (the mother’s) fault? How could they watch this develop and allow the boy to go to the Middle East?

Blame is an interesting parlour game, but it hardly matters in most instances. It’s not nice to say, but sometimes… shit happens. And there’s nothing anybody could do about it. A nanny state that issues or denies a passport on the basis of what it thinks is in your best interest is not something that anybody wants. Except a grieving mother who can’t believe that her little boy from the Prairie died in a far away land fighting for something that didn’t affect him for a reason that nobody can comprehend.

 Posted by on 23 Jan 2014