Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

June 30, 2005

When Size is a Disadvantage: My Air Canada Story

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 14:37
airplaneYesterday I arrived at Montreal Airport at about 4:30pm for my 6pm return flight to Toronto. I was surprised to note that it was already listed as ‘delayed’, scheduled to depart at 6:30pm. I got my boarding pass from the machine and headed to the bar for an early dinner, and ended up exchanging Air Canada stories with two other guys at the bar who were waiting for the same flight. We all admitted we would rather be flying on the ‘upstart’ airline Westjet. but for logistical reasons were flying Air Canada. The terminal was jammed because all flights to the US East Coast were seriously delayed or canceled, and the temperature was near 90 Fahrenheit. We boarded the flight at 6:30 and twenty minutes later were told by a very flustered and tongue-tied flight attendant that the plane had ‘serious mechanical problems with its hydraulic systems’, that they would know in about an hour whether it was fixable, and that if anyone wanted to ‘jump ship’ there were still 50 seats available on the 10pm flight. A few people ‘jumped ship’.

At 7:30 we were told that the problem was not fixable and that we had to deplane and talk to the Air Canada rep about other arrangements. After we disembarked, we were told that a replacement plane had been arranged for us at the other end of the terminal. After a ten minute trek we discovered that the replacement plane was the one destined for Winnipeg, and that all the Winnipeg passengers had been given a new departure gate and later departure time. There was open discussion as to whether they were bumped to make room for the larger Toronto passenger group, and whether they would make it home at all that night. Announcements were few and far between, and it was left largely to the passengers to tell each other where their new gate was, and to organize ourselves. On top of that, the clerk at the gate said she had to go to look after her Winnipeg flight, so for half an hour there was no one from Air Canada at our ‘new’ gate at all. When they finally arrived, they clearly did not know how to manage such a situation, muttered to each other for fifteen minutes, and finally announced that because it was a different sized plane, all boarding passes would have to be reissued. Rather than just ‘mapping’ from the old seat assignments to the new ones, they reassigned every seat on a first come, first served basis. It took two of them 45 minutes to do this for about 150 passengers, and I was one of the first to board the new plane at 8:50. At 9:30 they told us that the new plane had a broken auxiliary engine so there would be no air conditioning until we pushed back. At 9:45 they told us that the auxiliary engine was also needed to jump-start the plane, and that the truck brought in to ‘boost’ the plane had failed to do so. The heat and smell at this point were suffocating. At 10:00 a second truck successfully boosted the plane, and at 10:20, almost 4 1/2 hours late, we took off.

The first apology we heard since the beginning of this ordeal came from the captain at 9:45. I got home just after midnight, eight hours after I had left my Montreal client — it would have been faster, more comfortable, and much cheaper, to drive. And other than a free beer or wine on board, no compensation was offered for the inconvenience.

What are the lessons from this story?

  1. The value of prevention: It’s much better to prevent problems from occurring than to try to cope with them when they do. One mechanical problem every once in awhile is unavoidable even with good preventative maintenance; two back-to-back problems is inexcusable. Small airlines don’t have the luxury of bringing in ‘back-up’ aircraft, and in my experience they are better at this than the big guys.
  2. The importance of not over-promising: All of the expected departure and arrival times given to us were wildly optimistic. Many passengers were arranging pick-ups and connecting flights by cell-phone, and had to change them at least six times. Smaller companies ‘get’ this: they give you a worst-case time, not a best-case one.
  3. The value of agility: Why is there no automatic, computerized re-mapping of boarding passes when passengers need to change planes. This is not that rare an occurrence. If it had been a small airline, they would simply have honored all boarding passes on any seat in the same class on the aircraft, and not bothered assigning seats at all. In fact, some of them only have one class and have no assigned seats. And why couldn’t they break Standard Operating Procedure and have the check-in clerks stay where they were, instead of swapping back and forth with the gate changes?
  4. The importance of courtesy: Too little information, too infrequently, inarticulately provided, and too few apologies. Come on, guys, this is not rocket science. Good thing we were patient, peace-loving, non-line-jumping Canadians.
  5. The importance to treating everyone equally: In a crisis situation, you can’t play favourites. This is a Titanic lesson. What appeared to be blatantly sacrificing the Winnipeg passengers for the Toronto ones was inexcusable. And taking the business class and frequent-flyer passengers first after everyone had been waiting an hour in unbearable heat (which they tried to do, and then thought better of) was just dumb.
  6. The value of service recovery: When you mess up, bend over backwards to recover the lost goodwill. Giving passengers compensation would have repaid itself many times over in repeat business, which Air Canada will now not get from many of these passengers.

Small is beautiful. From big computer makers to big airlines to big media to big pharma to big agribusiness, bigger is worse — for the economy, for the environment, and for the customer. When will we learn?

June 29, 2005

Is Big Business Lazy?

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:37
A discussion of why big organizations are inherently inefficient and grow more indolent as they grow more profitable, and why we all work harder than we have to.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being lazy. I believe it’s human nature (and natural, period) to only work as hard as you have to. Only shareholders and customers care about ‘productivity’ — that modern euphemism for more work for less pay. With few exceptions, if we could be comfortable doing less work, we would. In an ideal world, we could each work an hour a day, or a day a week, and all live comfortably. So why don’t we?

The main reasons are:

  1. The rich and powerful need us to work hard to keep them in the luxurious style to which they have become accustomed, and
  2. As communities have given way to large corporations and state organizations, our sense of responsibility and duty to that community have been lost, so we need to be forced to work for these big, anonymous organizations, for fear of starving or living in destitution, sickness and misery.

Many of us have sought to escape this wage slavery by becoming entrepreneurs, but thanks to the massive power of large corporate oligopolies, and the equally massive subsidies and tax breaks their political contributions earn them, entrepreneurs need to work even harder to garner the crumbs that are left for them in niches the oligopolies can’t be bothered to corral for themselves.

The irony is that once these oligopolies reach the level of comfort their power earns them, they naturally can, and do, become lazy themselves. Why produce quality locally when you can outsource production to China and let them do all the work? Why innovate when you can simply hire an army of lawyers to patent everything and sue anyone who dares threaten your industry dominance (or just buy them out)? Why provide good service when through bad service you can coerce customers into ‘self-care’?

Nowhere is this trend to big business laziness more evident than in the information and entertainment media. In television’s early days there was an enormous pioneering spirit and sense of responsibility to the viewing public. You had news and public affairs programming that was hard-hitting and investigative. You had dramas that were brilliantly written and so innovative that they embarrassed big-budget Hollywood with their courage and creativity. You had comedies that were genuinely funny, heart-warming and heart-rending in turn.

Today you have timid media unwilling to challenge or investigate government and corporate wrong-doing — the news is endless sound bites, the same video is repeated on every network — shared by the networks to cut costs, and focus is on cheap, easy stories — the crime blotter and celebrity scandals. Instead of well-crafted drama you have ‘reality TV’ — cheap, contrived, improvisational ‘staged’ drama with no message or information value spewed out by unimaginative producers and delivered by semi-literate amateurs. And as I have written before, and as a new article by James Martin (not available online) entitled The Future of Comedy: It’s Not Even Funny points out, ‘neo-funny’ comedies feature cheap humiliation and embarrassment of characters “that make the audience cringe rather than laugh”, in place of wit and humour that takes skill and genuine effort to create.

In short, the media (of all genres, not just television) have gotten lazy, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. Of course this is due in part to the fact that this strategy minimizes costs and hence increases profits, which is what modern corporations, alas, are all about.. But, bottom line, there is no right-wing conspiracy in the media — the right-wing slant exists because it’s easier and cheaper to pander to that audience segment, and there is today no sense of responsibility to either inform or truly entertain the public.

This is not to suggest that people, even executives, in large corporations do not work hard. On the contrary, because their ‘productivity’ has come at the expense of mid-management and now top management jobs, those who remain are working harder than ever. And large organizations. as John Ralston Saul has demonstrated, are inherently bureaucratic and inefficient, so an enormous amount of largely wasted time and unproductive work is required just to keep them from sinking into a bureaucratic quagmire.

So ultimately, no one benefits — as shareholders and customers we are getting higher profits and lower prices, but as customers we are also getting lower quality, and as workers we are getting lower wages, often, when we are laid off, as entrepreneurs, and often despite working longer hours.

Interestingly, there is a segment of the entrepreneurial workplace that has found the best of all worlds in this chaotic and overworked economic system. These are the people who have founded Natural Enterprises, keying in on niches the oligopolies cannot, or cannot be bothered, to fill, working modest hours for comfortable wages with low risk and 100% control over their company and destiny. They are true models for the rest of us, in large and small organizations alike — they work only as hard as they must, producing goods and services that customers genuinely need, at a fair price, and loving every moment of their work.

Are they lazy? Damned right. They know there are more important things in life than work, and that no one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time at the office.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking large organizations for being lazy while praising entrepreneurs for the same thing. They’re both rewarded for what they do, and it would be illogical to expect them to behave otherwise.

What this indicates, however, is that  the economic and legal system that produces this dysfunctional behaviour is seriously broken. The answer is to change the  economic and legal system to discourage oligopolies and offshoring, and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Would the world be better if we all worked shorter hours, for our own businesses, for more modest ROIs, trading less ‘stuff’ for more time for ourselves, our families and our communities? I think it would.

Cartoon by Robert Weber from the New Yorker. I know I posted it last week, but it’s so good and so a propos of this post I couldn’t resist a re-post.

June 28, 2005

Body Language: Three Public Transit Stories

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 14:42
If you drive everywhere and never take public transit (or if you don’t dare take it) you miss out on some extraordinary experiences. Here are three of mine:

A few years ago I was on a noisy and crowded streetcar in Toronto during rush hour. Two girls, probably in their early twenties, got on, and took two of the last seats on the streetcar, several rows apart, but within eyeshot of each other. Then, as the streetcar clanged into motion, they began talking with each other — using only sign language. The conversation was very animated, and although the other passengers could not understand what they were saying they became entranced with this exchange, What was most remarkable was the facial and body language of the two girls, which was probably completely unnecessary to the conversation, but was nevertheless quite pronounced. Does the absence of hearing tend to accentuate the use of visual clues like facial and body language, I wondered. Within a few minutes you could see the faces of other passengers responding to these visual clues — it was as if at some subliminal level they were ‘remembering’ how to interpret another’s meaning without language. Is this still encoded in our DNA? At one point I noticed two passengers blushing and showing signs of embarrassment — a second before the two girls broke into laughter and the one who had been ‘speaking’ made a facial gesture indicating that whatever she had been describing had been a very embarrassing event for her. How much more, I wondered, could we really begin to understand each other if we were not so constrained in our focus of attention on the narrow bandwidth of words? As I thought this, one of the girls got off the streetcar, which was caught at a red light. But the girls’ conversation never let up for a moment. It continued unabated out the window across the rush-hour din, until the girl who had alighted had vanished from sight.

Two years ago I was in the Paris MÈtro, the subway system there, at about six p.m. making my way to a dinner rendezvous with some business associates. The subway was full of office workers, most of whom probably eked out a living in that terribly expensive city, but, as always, they were stunning — immaculately and stylishly dressed, nothing rumpled or out of place despite the heat in the crowded car. I have a passable knowledge of French and was looking forward to doing a bit of eavesdropping (the euphemism now is ‘cultural anthropology’) to discover what young French men and women talk about at the end of the workday. To my consternation I heard few conversations to listen in on — it was noisy and I guess people were tired after a long day. But then I realized the real communication was not vocalized. Almost everyone in the car was ‘checking out’ everyone else, and, if you were attentive, telling you precisely what they thought. The French seem to have raised this to a high art form — it is extremely discreet and subtle, and not at all impolite. The women seem to check out other women from the bottom up: Shoes first, legs next, clothing and accessories after that, and hair and face last, though a bit more thoroughly, as they linger and acknowledge infinitesimally brief eye contact. But in that instant there seems to be either a quiet ‘nod’ of approval (though if you aren’t paying close attention you’d miss it). Extending that eye-contact by a tiny amount would seem to convey something stronger, “I like what I see”, short of an invitation (there’s a whole additional series of unspoken cues, I later learned, involved in making or replying to an invitation, and they’re not appropriate to a place like the subway) but still ego-warming. And there’s a slightly faster averting of the eyes to convey — distress, not dislike or put-down for your sad appearance, but more like embarrassment on your behalf that you just aren’t quite able to pull it off. The French women seem to check out men in the opposite sequence, from top to bottom, with the hair and face first, and the shoes being the piËce de rÈsistance: If she’s embarrassed for you, she won’t even move back to your face (her dismay would perhaps be too obvious, and humiliating for you), so she moves her gaze along, perhaps to the shoes of the woman standing beside you. If she likes what she sees, she will return to your face and quietly tell you so, with a movement of the eyes and mouth that to the uninitiated is almost imperceptible but to those who know, I suspect, speaks volumes. It’s all in the angle of her head when she looks at you, and the slight extension of the lips. Some French men seemed to check out everyone top-to-bottom, only returning to the faces they liked, while others (perhaps the majority) started at the breasts and the hips of women first, followed the line down and checked the face and hair almost as an afterthought. They were slightly less subtle than the women — the gaze, everywhere, lasted a fraction longer, and the look of approval was slightly more pronounced, though never obvious. This, after all, is only a MÈtro car, and this is how the French convey important information to people they will never meet, delightfully, and without saying a word.

My third story took place on a Toronto transit bus about a decade ago. The bus was packed, and I was standing in front of a long sideways bench. A man offered his seat there, beside a woman holding a very young child, to a young woman dressed to the nines in Goth apparel — all in black, with pierced nose and belly-button, spiked hair, a tattoo of a bird on the side of her face, heavy eye makeup and a lot of silver jewelery. Suddenly, the young child raised his hand, pointed at the Goth girl, began laughing, and said “Look Mommy, clown!” All of us were taken aback by this remark, and the mother covered the child’s mouth and went to apologize, but to our delight the girl waved it off and began making silly faces at the child, who began laughing with that complete lack of reserve and embarrassment that only a child can pull off, shrieking hysterically and doubling over to the point many of the other passengers nearby started to laugh too. Now the Goth had an audience, and she added embellishments to the act — she used her spiked hair as a ‘handle’ to turn her head, and then when she ‘let it go’ she shook it furiously back and forth. When she pulled the ring on her belly-button she would stick out her tongue and cross her eyes. By now half the bus was in hysterics, and the child was laughing so hard his mother had to hold on to keep him from falling off her lap. Then the young lady rose, made a silly walk to the rear door, and announced “Sorry folks, show’s over, this is my stop”. The passengers broke into applause, and with a parting bow the young lady turned and stepped off the bus.

June 27, 2005

‘Business’ Advice for Young Adults (and Their Parents & Teachers)

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 12:22
findingyourplaceAt the conference I attended last week, the author of a new, unfinished book tentatively entitled Spike’s Guide to Success made a 10-minute pitch in which he presented the entire thesis of the book: That according to his research, interviewing 500 of the world’s most successful people, the factors we usually think are necessary for success (high intelligence, good looks, and good fortune) don’t correlate at all with success, while eight other factors correlate strongly with success:
  • Passion and hard work (loving what you do, and persevering at it)
  • Focus and skill (doing one or two things really well, through practice)
  • Overcoming internal and external obstacles (pushing through personal barriers and persisting through failure, mistakes, criticism, rejection, obnoxious people and pressure)
  • Creativity and meeting needs (solving problems, creating opportunities, and serving people what they need and want)

He handed out copies of the book’s promotional website in the form of a small pocket-sized brochure. His charming, modest, well-rehearsed pitch really grabbed the audience’s attention, and was masterful marketing — I predict the book will be a best-seller. What was more astonishing to me is that it came one day after I wrote my Finding Your Place essay which included the graphic above and this paragraph:

What … determines [our] role… is a product of four things:
  • our passion — the desire and focus and dedication to excel at doing this one thing
  • our natural talents — things we inherently find easy to do well,
  • our learnings and experience — which come from study, but more importantly from practice, and
  • our audience — the degree to which this role is needed, appreciated, respected and encouraged.

The groupings are a little different (I think of creativity as a talent or learning, and overcoming obstacles as an extension of passion) but the message is the same: Love it, get good at it, make sure it meets a need, and persevere and you’ll succeed, and find your place.

Spike’s Guide will include profiles of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Martha Stewart and Albert Einstein, among its 500. My essay wasn’t that ambitious, and I confess I’m a bit skeptical whether we can reasonably aspire to that level of ‘success’. I’ve worked with a lot of entrepreneurs who have leveraged passion, talent, practice and audience into profitable, comfortable, joyous, low-stress businesses, but none of them will be, or expects to be, a billionaire. In fact there is a lot of evidence that at that stratospheric level of financial success, heredity is more important than any of the factors in my essay or Spike’s book — look through any list of billionaires and you’ll find many who have inherited their wealth. And inherited wealth and influence is conspicuously absent from Spike’s high- or low-correlation success factors.

I can see a danger of Spike over-reaching in his celebrity profiles, and undermining the value of his research in the process, and believe that the humbler (but consistent) lessons of my book Natural Enterprise are more useful to entrepreneurs than Spike’s rules. But Spike’s Guide has perhaps another audience that is at least as important as aspiring entrepreneurs: adolescents and teenagers.

Business Skills Scorecard
Green: exemplary; Yellow: satisfactory; Red: marginal
First column: Successful entrepreneurs’ scores; Second column: New graduates’ scores (author’s assessment)

In my opinion, our young adults are  not well equipped to decide what to do with their lives — how and with whom to make a living. Our education system, and we as parents, are both to blame for this. How could we tweak Spike’s Rules to make it into a guide for young adults and their parents?

What is most conspicuously absent, I think, are (i) the importance of imbuing in our young people self-confidence, a belief in and love of themselves, (ii) the importance of collaboration, of not trying to do everything by yourself (our Western cult of the individual, at its worst), and (iii) the importance of learning how to do good research, both primary (through face-to-face interviews) and secondary (online) — what I call “information skills”. The ‘scorecard’ above integrates these with the qualities in Spike’s Guide and my Finding Your Place essay.

If you’re a parent or a teacher, your task is to cultivate in the young people in your care the eight qualities they will need to succeed, no matter what they want to do: Self-confidence, common sense (critical thinking), creativity, research skills, communication skills (oral, written, and ‘body’ language), collaborative skills, focus, and persistence through obstacles. Most of these qualities are better learned by doing than by listening, and better taught by showing than by telling — by setting an example. Once they have these qualities all they need to do is apply them to find the right partner(s) — those whose strengths and weaknesses complement their own — and the right application, at the intersection of passion, customer need, talent and practice.

When I showed this to an artist friend, he said the only things that mattered were self-confidence and passion. I would agree that these are probably the most important, but I don’t believe they are enough. In the first column of the scorecard above, I’ve filled in what I think are typical ‘scores’ for the 50 or so successful entrepreneurs I know. These successful entrepreneurs are extremely self-confident and have good common sense, creativity and research skills, and they have both talent and acquired technical skill for what they’re doing. Most of them are weaker in either written or oral communication skills, most of them are ‘drivers’ who could benefit from better listening skills, and most of them try to do too much and give up on bold new ideas too quickly. Most of them like, but don’t love, what they’re doing, and meet their customers’ needs competently but not brilliantly — they’re vulnerable to competitive innovation.

In the second column, I’ve filled in what I think are the typical ‘scores’ for most of the young people I have met over the past two years at graduate seminars or conferences for aspiring entrepreneurs. They differ from the scores for successful entrepreneurs in only four areas: They are less self-confident and less creative, have much weaker research skills, and are discontent with their current job and/or its prospects. I blame the lack of self-confidence on our brutal society, which turns everything into a competition and never misses the chance to knock us down. Successful entrepreneurs have greater self-confidence either because their parents and peers gave it to them from childhood, or because they’re learned from failure what works and what doesn’t. The lack of creativity is also largely due to our Western society’s over-emphasis on exercising the left brain — though I think creativity can be (re-)learned, and will be by ambitious young people in spite of the educational system.

I’ve written before about how good we are at searching but how poor we are at researching — posing intelligent questions, conducting interviews, drawing out customer needs and wants iteratively, and engaging in what I’ve called ‘knowledge conversations’. Very little of this can be done online (and even online, true research skills are in short supply). The irony is that this is not a difficult skill to learn. We are all conversationalists at heart, and all we need is practice ‘conversing with a purpose’ to get good at it.

As for hating what you’re doing, there is only one cure for that — having the courage (which comes back to self-confidence) to quit and do something else.

I believe that poor information skills, and dislike of what they’re doing now are show-stoppers for young people — they will never be successful entrepreneurs until they learn to do good research (or at least partner with people who do), and until they find something they love doing.

I’ve left the third column in the scorecard blank for you to fill in with your own scores, or those of your children or students.

If I were a parent or teacher today I think I would tend to be generous (but not dishonest) in praising my children or students, because I think self-confidence is so important. I would introduce games and visits which exercised and strengthened their creative, communication, collaboration and research skills. I would try to set an example of focus (‘do one or two things really well’) and perseverance (‘fighting past’ personal and external obstacles, as Spike’s Guide puts it).

These days I am acutely aware of my children’s (they’re age 32 and 29) intense interest in my current career transition, and how important it is for them, as much as for me, that I not compromise and end up doing more work that I don’t love. I won’t let them down.

June 26, 2005

Are Americans Politically Ignorant, Apathetic, or Both?

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 17:21
I don’t know when this article will appear on How to Save the World. At time of writing, Radio Userland has been down for over 40 hours, and there is no word from anyone when they will be back online and accepting new posts or comments.

rfkjr2 I had the opportunity Friday evening to listen to Robert Kennedy Jr. of NRDC speak. He was in Toronto to support Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, a division of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. It was a stock speech — nothing substantial added to the angry litany of Bush’s regulatory rollbacks, non-enforcements, and appointment of giant polluters and their lobbyists to head up all federal environmental agencies. What was new was an expanded discussion about the role of the media in shaping American public opinion on issues such as the environment. The underlying thesis, which may not be new but is the first time I have heard it from him, was (I’m paraphrasing):

There is no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives on core values. What there is is an information gap, caused by the fact that most Republicans and conservatives get all their news from mainstream media sources that are either propaganda arms of the neocon, Christian ultra-right wing, or cowed, timid networks that lack the courage to report what Americans really need to know, for fear of attracting the wrath of this ultra-right wing group, and for fear that it would cost them corporate advertising revenues, and hence their jobs.

There were quite a few Americans in the audience, and I took the opportunity to ask them afterwards what they thought of this comment. I got three different responses in roughly equal amounts:

  • He’s right.
  • He’s wrong — there are real differences in American core values, not attributable to the media, which actually plays a fairly modest role in shaping people’s values.
  • There is no difference between the Republican and Democratic party, and neither represents the core values of Americans. All their squabbling and rhetoric is a sham, a smokescreen to keep Americans from realizing that both parties are in the pockets of corporate America, and that between the two parties it’s only a matter of how quickly the sell-out of America to rich, corporate interests will occur, and which corporations will benefit most from government kickbacks for their campaign donations.

What intrigued me about this third viewpoint was that it was espoused by almost as many self-proclaimed conservatives as progressives. What this implies is that there are a significant number of Americans who are revolted by Bush’s anti-environment and anti-worker laws, regulations and positions, but who don’t believe the Democratic Party will do a significantly better job in either area, and who vote reluctantly Republican because they prefer their conservative moral stance.

I confess to being shocked and appalled both at the thought that the average American could be that ignorant, and at the thought that the situation is so hopeless that informed, intelligent people really believe it doesn’t make that much difference which of the two oligopoly parties wins. I suspect the average Canadian would find either possibility almost unimaginable. After all, we have more than two parties, and the one in power now has a minority and as a result its legislative agenda has been dramatically altered by the need to get support from other parties to stay in office. We are so alarmed at the possibility of the Bush-loving Canadian neoconservative party (which recently took over the more established, moderate conservative party) getting into office that we hold our nose and tell pollsters we would vote for the modestly corrupt Liberal party, as the significant lesser of two evils. And Canadians have repeatedly shown enormous skepticism for what they hear in the Canadian media, and a proclivity for making up their own minds after discussion with peers, rather than after watching or listening to the ten o’clock news. Are Canadians really that different from Americans?

If Kennedy is right, and the majority of Americans are that ignorant (unable or unwilling to hear information that would dramatically affect their vote), or if this third group of cynics is right, and a large minority of Americans are so skeptical that they don’t think it matters which party wins anyway, the neocons win either way. Ignorance and apathy both mitigate against change. If you’re in power and you can breed both in the electorate, you’re laughing.

Let’s suppose Kennedy is correct. He argues that a grassroots movement is needed to get the mainstream media that are not already in the pay of American neocons to get off the fence and start force-feeding the American people some terrible truths. But if you were CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN or any of the (few) independent radio stations or newspapers, why would you risk the wrath of Karl, your ratings, your advertising revenues or your job, to do this? You can get these truths from the New York Times or the New Yorker, from NPR and PBS (for now, anyway) and from a handful of other sources, and from many online sites. The public isn’t abandoning the non-neocon mainstream media for these more illuminating sources, so why would these media rock the boat? Out of a sense of responsibility to give the public what they clearly don’t want? Yeah, right. If Kennedy is correct America is in deep shit, and anyone who listens to him carefully and thoughtfully is going to be filled with despair and defeatism, not with indignation and energy to bring about change.

Let’s suppose this third group is correct. Let’s suppose that half of the half of Americans who don’t vote stay away because they’re really convinced it doesn’t make any difference, because they’ve been screwed by both parties and don’t trust either of them. They have to be really cynical to stay away when the talking points of the two parties are so radically different from each other. Is the emergence of a third party, in a country where two-party politics has been so entrenched and where the entire system (gerrymandering, campaign finance, the media, the leadership debate selection committee etc.) is designed to sustain that duopoly, going to happen in anything short of overwhelming, catastrophic circumstances? Of course not. So if this third group is correct, the situation is even worse than if Kennedy is correct.

As much as I like RFK Jr. and greatly admire the work he is doing with NRDC, I cannot agree with his grim assessment that so many Americans are so ignorant they can’t think past the propaganda of the neocon media machine. I think the large majority of Americans are smarter than that. They may not be well informed, but they know bullshit when they see or hear it.

I am less inclined to doubt the cynicism of the third group, who despite the apparently dramatically different rhetoric we are hearing from politicians, really don’t believe it makes much if any difference whether the Tweedledum or Tweedledee party is elected. What Gene McCarthy called acedia (beyond apathy, spiritual torpor, resignation) in the dark days of Nixon’s America, is far more dangerous an enemy than ignorance. It is far more difficult to overcome, and it afflicts those who are creative and who would normally tend to be activists. Worse, if you follow the lessons of history, it is apathy, in deadly combination with fear, that has allowed the deterioration of values and the seizing of power by opportunists responsible for the greatest atrocities of the past millennium.

Apathy, acedia, learned helplessness, hopelessness. These, and not ignorance, are the real enemies of our time. We will not overcome them with rhetoric, or with knowledge. We might overcome them through a few charismatic and independent leaders, though they are as likely to take us down a worse path than a better one. We might overcome them by inventing and talking about a better way of doing things — a better social, economic, political, legal, environmental, and educational system — but will even that be enough to pull people out of their resignation?

Barring that, we can only wait until the situation gets much worse, until the pain of doing nothing exceeds the pain of revolution. Until, in other words, there is nothing more to lose.

June 25, 2005

Green News

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 22:44
“I feel betrayed by these statements. Bono and Geldof have made our job more difficult”:
So says George Monbiot, commenting on what happens when a few naive, well-meaning celebrities get conned by slick corporatist propaganda artists into endorsing regressive policies with a progressive veneer.

Honoring Children: My suggested tagline last year for a united progressive/green movement was “a legacy for our children”. Children’s performer Raffi is spearheading such a movement with the tagline “honoring children”, with the expectation that not only could this lead to healthier, happier, more productive members of the next generation, but might also make us think twice about the social, environmental and economic burdens our reckless, short-term thinking will burden them with.

Aggregating Environment-Friendly Commerce: Another new movement, Zero Footprint, is attempting to unite all producers of environmentally friendly and socially responsible products under a single umbrella ‘brand’ called 0Footprint. It’s a great idea, but unfortunately the group does not plan to certify or audit those companies that join the bandwagon, so it could easily become a cover for wolves in sheeps’ clothing. Already the site has a link to the so-called Global Sustainability 100 Companies, a ‘greenwash’ site by the Davos corporatists to try to portray some very irresponsible companies as environmentally friendly.

Conference to Establish an Environmental University: A Canadian group is trying to establish a university here that is similar in objectives to the UK’s Schumacher College or the US College of the Atlantic. Founding meeting is in Quebec August 27-29.

Conference on Animal Rights: An umbrella meeting of animal rights organizations is occurring in LA July 7-11.

June 24, 2005

Polite Conversation

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 06:05
I‘ve been at a conference for the last couple of days, and have spent a significant portion of that time eavesdropping on conversations. Aside from the obvious observations (that most people don’t listen, and that men do most of the talking and interrupting in mixed company conversations) what most astonished me was the unintended lack of politeness and courtesy that seems to characterize most conversations. It’s not that the participants are rude — it’s just that they seem to lack mutually-understood and mutually-respected protocols to govern conversation in a civilized manner. This, in a world in which we are beleaguered by rules in almost everything else we do, seems remarkable to me.

So I did a bit of research to see whether I could find some protocols, some rules of behaviour, that work effectively regardless of the number, gender or conversational style of the participants. The longest-established protocol is also, it seems, the most misunderstood. This is the protocol of the Talking Stick, which has its roots in aboriginal American culture and in that of some third-world cultures as well. The basic rules of the Talking Stick protocol, from what I can ascertain, are as follows:

  1. The person holding the Talking Stick is the only one who can speak.Others must listen and not interrupt, even to ask clarifying questions. The onus is on the speaker to be clear, brief, and respectful.
  2. Generally the person most respected by the group (the tribal elder, or the person selected by the elder to present the issue to the group) talks first.
  3. The Talking Stick is then passed clockwise as each person finishes, and makes one complete circle of the participants. Participants with nothing to add simply pass the Stick along.
  4. The person who spoke first asks then whether additional discussion is warranted, and if anyone thinks so, the Stick is again passed around the circle.

There have been a number of ‘improvements’ suggested to this process, such as allowing clarifying questions, allowing people to reach for the stick in any order, first-come, first-served, and summarization or ‘voting’ processes, but none of these enhancements has a distinguished history and none in my opinion represents a significant improvement to the basic protocol. Allowing the group to engage in two-person iterative Q&A, or sidebar conversations, would seem to me to abrogate the three duties of clarity, brevity and respectfulness, or at least render them less necessary. In some Talking Stick circles, if you take the stick you must begin your speech by briefly reiterating what the previous speaker said, and only when that synopsis receives a nod from the previous speaker can you begin saying your piece. In some cases this might work brilliantly, but in others it could make the conversation interminably long and repetitive.

It is not clear to what extent the Law of Two Feet applies in Talking Stick circles — where if you find the discussion valueless or frustrating you have the option to leave, without repercussions, and perhaps start another conversation on the same or another subject with those similarly inclined. The alternative would be to assume that if you chose to accept the invitation to join the conversation in the first place, you owe the rest of the group the courtesy of giving them your attention until it is finished. My personal view is that this judgement (whether leaving a conversation you find tedious is discourteous or not) is best left up to the individual.

I have witnessed many ‘moderated’ conversations, where one person decides who will speak next, or where people raise their hands to be next to speak and a first-come, first-served honour system applies, and found them mostly frustrating. But anarchy, where the loudest voice always prevails, seems to me even more so, and also unfair. Where the participants are part of a hierarchy, and rank clearly determines speaking priority, the result is too often not really conversation at all, but rather an information reporting and instruction exercise.

I have witnessed, too, meetings that allow the listeners to use tacit signals to prompt the speaker without interrupting them: Holding up a green card means “I like what you’re saying”, a red card the opposite, and a yellow card signals “I don’t understand what you’re saying”. They tend not to work, I think, because the green encourages unnecessary loquaciousness, the red is rarely used because it would be perceived as rude, and the yellow is rarely used because it might make the listener appear stupid. Electronic equivalents (IMs that the speaker can read on-screen while talking) present the same discouragements, and also are more of a distractions than most speakers can handle on the fly.

One of my favourite conversational formats is the interview/Q&A, where one (or more) persons pose questions and the other(s) restrict themselves to answering them. There is a certain inherent democracy in such conversations — each side gives up certain speaking rights in return for receiving others. Unrehearsed, they require considerable skill and agility to pull off eloquently. Rehearsed, they can be extremely effective at transferring knowledge but they become less conversations than performances.

So my sense, based more on observations of what doesn’t work than what does, would be that the use of a Talking Stick or similar icon might be very helpful, even in two-person conversations (to reduce propensity to interrupt). I’m ambivalent about whether passing the Stick clockwise or allowing anyone to grab it next providing they satisfactorily summarize the last speaker’s message first, would work better — and I suspect it would depend on the subject and the conversational style of the participants. I do like the idea of using a subtle timer to reinforce the importance of clarity and brevity, which seem so absent in most modern conversations that the resulting incoherence is often unintentionally hilarious to the eavesdropper. Beyond that, I’m not partial to any ‘improvements’ to the basic four-rule Talking Stick process described above.

What’s worked for you? Have you tried using such techniques, and when are they effective (and not)? Are there other techniques, newer or older, that work better, and when are they appropriate? And what of telephone and Skype conversations, or those anarchic multi-party IM sessions? Could a ‘virtual Talking Stick’ be introduced to organize such conversations? It should be easy enough for the technology to handle, but has anyone actually tried imposing this kind of discipline on non-face-to-face conversations? And perhaps most important, does practice using these techniques tend to make more polite, respectful and articulate conversations second nature? Or is there some reason I’m missing why interruption and ‘louder voices prevail’ protocols are so prevalent in our conversations, seemingly by default?

June 23, 2005

Finding Your Place

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 05:46
Common Dreams recently published an article by Huck Gutman, a man who had the opportunity to spend a week in New York City. While he partook of the usual visitor experiences in the city, what struck him most was this brief experience watching a man in a laundry through the store window:

As I walked, I passed a dry cleanerís shop. At its front, immediately behind a large plate glass window, was a man ironing a shirt. I stopped and watched. (I should mention that I like ironing my own shirts. In America, ironed shirts are an expensive luxury unless one does it oneself; and I have found that the repetitive motions of ironing, and the concentration required to assure that one irons wrinkles out and not in, is a restful activity. For me.) He ironed, and I watched. And watched. He ironed one shirt, then a second. There was a defined progression for each shirt. First, he sprayed the shirt lightly with water to dampen it. Then, as he ironed each successive portion of the shirt he sprayed on a light dose of starch to make the fabric stiffer. He proceeded to iron the collar, then carefully laid out each sleeve and ironed them, one at a time. Then he starched and ironed one half of the shirt, placed flat on his white-cotton clad ironing table. When he was done, he lightly touched the iron to the middle of the collar at the back of the neck ó just a small crease so it would fold properly. He hung the shirt on a hanger, and proceeded to the next. I, an amateur, iron quickly. He, a professional, did not. He took care, making certain that each sweep of the iron made a flat expanse of brilliant white fabric.

There is something almost primeval about this recognition of the importance of doing a job with excellence. As I mentioned in my article two years ago, It’s What I Do, doing something extraordinarily well is more than just a matter of pride. It essentially defines us. We are all inherently social creatures, and our sense of belonging to the communities which we adopt, and which adopt us, is caught up in, and expresses itself through, our role, our specialization. Even in the earliest tribal cultures individuals recognized other individuals’ strengths, experiences and talents, and this recognition refined and defined each individual’s role, and importance, in the community. These skills, these differences, established one’s position, one’s membership, in the community.

Doing what we are, what we enjoy doing, and what we do well, is essential to our self-esteem, so it is not surprising that it is naturally selected for. A Lakota leader defines ‘mastery’ — the need to build on personal competence — as one of the four ‘capacities’ of ‘the circle of courage’ that gives each of us heart, self-confidence, and spirit.

What is it that determines this special role, whether it be ironing, running, painting or writing or giving care to others? It is, I think, a product of four things:

  1. our natural talents — things we inherently find easy to do well,
  2. our learnings and experience — which come from study, but more importantly from practice,
  3. our passion — the desire and focus and dedication to excel at doing this one thing, and
  4. our audience — the degree to which this role is needed, appreciated, respected and encouraged.

findingyourplaceThe search for one’s personal role, our place in community, is often a lifelong quest. Today, when it is so easy to be anonymous or left alone, and in which we move from community to community often, the fourth element — our audience — can be the hardest to achieve. When we have no audience, when we do not know where we belong, we are left to choose what we will do in abstraction. As a result, many of us devote large parts of our lives to study and diligent work only to find we have no audience, and that no matter how great we see our own talent and acquired skill, it was all wasted time.

The task is much easier when we find our audience, the community with the need for what we can do, first. In this respect we are all entrepreneurs at heart. We are all seeking to find something that is needed, and for which we have talent and passion, and the rest is just hard work. Or rather, it isn’t hard work, because our passion, our natural talent, and the recognition of its value by our community makes it easy work, obvious and important. As we learn, lifelong, to do it well and then exceptionally well, we are merely following our heart, our destiny.

The characters depicted in the vidcap above, from Aaron Sorkin’s comedy Sports Night, have found, in journalism, the intersection of talent, experience, passion and audience. That’s why they can, and do, say That’s What I Do, That’s Who I Am. How many of us, in the real world, can say the same, without a sigh, a doubt, a frown?

June 22, 2005

The Cartoon Mastery of Robert Weber

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 06:04
Artist Robert Weber has been turning out some of the cleverest cartoons anywhere for thirty years. The one above is from this week’s New Yorker. You can buy prints of his work here.

Bad Medicine

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 06:04
poisonEvery once in awhile a story comes along that you can’t summarize or add to, all you can do is urge people to read it. Rob Waters, the guy who recently blew the lid off the irresponsible prescription of antidepressants to children even though the pharma companies knew these drugs heightened the risk of suicide, is back, writing in Mother Jones about a case of a 13 year old girl, Aliah Gleason, caught under the outrageous Texas law that allows government psychiatrists beholden to big pharma to barge into schools, subject students to compulsory psychological tests, and mandate expensive and controversial drug and incarceration treatments. Please read the full story. The outcome in Aliah’s story, after she was seized by the government from her parents:

The Gleasons would not be allowed to see or even speak to their daughter for the next five months, and Aliah would spend a total of nine months in a state psychiatric hospital and residential treatment facilities. While in the hospital, she was placed in restraints more than 26 times and medicatedóagainst her will and without her parents’ consentówith at least 12 different psychiatric drugs, many of them simultaneously.

As reported last year in the British Medical Journal, Bush wants to expand this invasive travesty to a national program with the grotesque name “New Freedom Initiative”.

This boggles the mind. How can an administration that claims to want to minimize the role of government justify this gestapo-like intrusion into citizens’ private lives in the absence of any crime being committed? Why are the legacy media not investigating the aggressive lobbying of big pharma for laws and programs that are blatantly designed to sell their most expensive and experimental products, and test them on children, our most vulnerable citizens? And how can all of this be tolerated in a nation that calls itself  “the land of the free”?

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