Voting

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Election season has begun here in Canada and abroad. Votes in Alberta and PEI (and in the United Kingdom as well) take place next week. There will be a federal election in the fall and several other provinces and territories will hold votes, either in the fall or next spring. Within 12 months the political face of Canada could be substantially changed. It makes an old political junky practically dizzy with excitement.

And I’m not the only one. Lots of people are getting ready to ‘vote the bastards out,’ or more positively ‘vote for change.’ Others are perfectly happy with the status quo but like people who go to a dance and refuse to swing out on the floor with anyone but the one who brought them — they are less interesting than those who are open to new experiences.

Sometimes in the to and fro of political debate we forget just how rare a privilege it is to be able to vote in a free and fair election. Despite questionable tinkering with the Canadian election act it is foolish — and really rank partisanship — to suggest we don’t have that opportunity in Canada. To compare us to the fake democracy of Kazakhstan or even the promised improvements in Myanmar is, well, a trifle jejune. As for all those countries under the heel of tyranny or the chaos of anarchy, there is no comparison.

I was reminded of this the other day while taking a cab ride. I don’t ride in cabs much but with a bum knee I’ve been getting more opportunities. The driver, when I mentioned I worked on Parliament Hill, became quite animated. He questioned me closely about the parties and their leaders, asking my opinion of their qualities and policies. He confessed he didn’t even like the word ‘conservative’ but was willing to check them out. He then told me that this fall will be his first chance to vote. No he isn’t 18 — he is a recent Canadian citizen who came to Canada from Ethiopia five years ago. He was keen to exercise his franchise.

It reminds me of the times I’ve worked as a deputy returning officer during elections — a job I’d recommend to anyone. Seeing new Canadians cast their first vote is an amazing experience. I remember one family who came in — father, mother and three children aged 8 to 15 or so. The father was practically weeping as he got his ballot and proudly went behind the curtain to mark it and then deposit it. The mother did weep. So did I, a little. The kids beamed with pride as their father explained to them that he was voting for the first time in his forty four years. Not that he was a slacker — he came from a place that had no democracy.

Equally exciting was when the group of eighteen year olds — all pierced and tattooed and dressed in leather — came to cast their vote together. Five first time voters exercising their right to say what they thought. I’ve often wondered who they voted for.

Personally, I’ve only ever once failed to vote (in a municipal election in the 80s). I have no intention of quitting anytime soon.

But that’s ten minutes.

Fearful

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The six month anniversary of the shooting at the War Memorial passed last week without impinging on my consciousness. While the memory of the event remains fresh — if I consciously think of it — it hardly matters to my day to day life. Security on the Hill remains tighter but it really only amounts to showing and swiping my pass a couple of more times each day. And getting used to seeing more guns on hips or slung over shoulders. That kind of subtle terrorism that the government uses to make us afraid of the so-called real thing.

Meanwhile, some writers have withdrawn from the PEN Gala because of the award proposed for Charlie Hebdo, citing concerns over the blatant racism and Islamaphobia shown by that magazine’s cartoons. I see both sides. There is a place where free speech crosses the line — but no line is so thick that it justifies murder for crossing it. PEN’s mission in supporting free speech can’t be limited to freedom from government oppression. In any case, doesn’t ISIL and its adherents claim to be a government anyway?

See, how hard it is to walk any line these days? In Baltimore, citizens riot — or do they? Reports are mixed as to how all that got out of control. Civil and peaceful protests escalating into violence and looting because of some outliers or perhaps because of outside interference? It is doubtful we will ever get to the bottom of that — at least not in a timely way. A way that would make a difference. One thing is clear though — when you turn a blind eye to violence on one side — the police or the protesters — it is inevitable that more violence will follow. It is hard to know how to wind it down but it seems to me that it is the police as the organized and supposedly disciplined arm of the state that are in the best position to just stop making things worse.

This is the atmosphere of unfocused anxiety we all seem to live in these days, And yet, one has to wonder if it is all a set-up? The evidence from the world of facts doesn’t seem to support the hysteria of certain politicians and the media. Despite hotspots and flare-ups, the world is both a more peaceful and more prosperous place than it was — though not for everyone and not equally.

Mostly questions these days. But sometimes questions are the place to start.

Who benefits from sustaining this climate of fear? Without suggesting a conspiracy — since they are hidden and secret and there is nothing hidden about certain agendas — the beneficiaries are the same as they ever were. People who got what they got by questionable means and then cry victim when someone suggests they should give it up. Dictators, rapacious billionaires, privileged minorities — maybe they are the ones, in the words of one of their servants — who should look in the mirror.

But that’s ten minutes.

Mystery

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Everybody loves a mystery. Trying to find out who done it or why is one of the great joys of genre fiction. Most people who try their hand at writing mystery, unfortunately, get it wrong. There is a good reason for that. Writing mysteries — successful mysteries — is one of the hardest things you can do as a writer.

I suspect it is especially difficult to write mysteries if you are a ‘pantser’ rather than a plotter. Writing by the seat of your pants means that you scatter clues around like wildflowers — you have to point the finger at everyone because you have no idea how the story ends until you get there.

Later you have to go back and prune the growth until it is possible for a discerning reader to figure out the crime at about the same time it gets revealed in the narrative. Getting to the end of a mystery should not be like stepping off a curb and getting hit by a bus you never saw coming. Twist endings are only satisfying if you have some inkling of the twist before it happens. While, as a writer, you don’t want the crime to be solved by the average reader fifty pages before the ending, you don’t want the majority of readers to wonder WTF? after they close the cover either.

Writing mysteries in short fiction is even harder than in novels. There are far fewer suspects, far fewer opportunities to divert the reader/detective’s attention. So most people rely on obscurity or plain old cheating to carry them through. But obscurity is not the same thing as mystery. To obscure is to hide something where as mystery is all about the slow reveal. Everything has to be in the open so that you can hide the real clues in plain sight. If you throw twenty objects on the table and then provide a method to separate the wheat from the chaff, the reader can at least feel they have a chance to figure it all out.

Which is why I plot my mysteries quite firmly — though I try to avoid rigidity. I start with the crime and plot backward to its origins. Then I weave that into the forward story of the detective or narrator. Despite that, sometimes it becomes clear in the midst of writing the story that my subconscious knows better than I do who the villain is. The clues I’ve carefully planted to point at one suspect can, seen in another light, implicate another. This is a bonus. Instead of having to trim extraneous clues, I can instead plant a few additional ones. Or, more fun, refute certain clues with new ones that call into question the truth of the matter or the reliability of the narrator. Mystery then becomes a matter of interpretation. It was all there to be seen but the reader discovers they were looking in the other direction.

You see, Watson, but you do not observe. One of the greatest clues to successful mystery writing ever given.

And that’s ten minutes.

Fixing the World

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As we listened to a story of a disabled woman in Quebec being denied assistance because her elderly mother had the foresight to set up a small trust fund for her future care, my wife said: See, that’s what happens when we let conservatives run things. They’ve destroyed everything and I wonder if it can ever be put back together again.

I agree, of course, conservatives have done a real job on the world and I sometimes despair of ever fixing it. But by conservatives, I don’t mean Stephen Harper or the American Tea Party or Angela Merkal in Germany. Conservative thinking plagues us all. Even progressives (or so-called ones) like Tony Blair an Barrack Obama have been complicit in going down the path of economic mess and environmental disaster — though not as complicit as some.

Conservative thinking leads us to want to ‘conserve,’ that is to keep what we have and to stick to the tried and true. Conservative thinking always looks backward and this tendency to think of the past as the model for the future plagues the left as surely as it does the right.

Take globalization. It is viewed as an unmitigated disaster by those on the left and they call for a return to localism, protectionism and Canada (or America) First programs. Yet, it is clear that trade and the use of comparative advantage increases total wealth in the world. When bank economists point to the fact of growing GDP in developing countries, they are not making it up.

The problem is not with growing wealth created by global economics. The problem is with the grossly unequal distribution of that wealth both in the developed West and in the rest of the world. A small percentage becomes as rich as Croesus while the majority are left in relative or absolute poverty. And it’s getting worse.

The problem is that our political systems have not kept pace with our economic and technological ones. Individual governments are unable to impact the international flow of capital — or even chase down tax evaders — and institutions created 75 years ago, like the World Bank, entrench rules that are rooted in the past and easily exploited by clever and rapacious entrepreneurs. Or, worse yet, by bureaucratic and unaccountable corporations.

We are told it is impossible. Yet creative, progressive thinkers have thought of ways to stem the flow of flighty capital. The Tobin tax, if it had been implemented ten years ago would likely have prevented the 2008 meltdown. In combination with new voluntary controls on markets that limit the speed at which transactions are allowed to occur (a fascinating example of capitalists wanting to remain capitalists but only in a fair game), international mechanisms could see global growth carried out in a way that reduces inequality and protects an increasingly fragile environment.

But we won’t get there with conservative thinking — whether it comes from the right or the left. We need to be innovators, change makers, and most of all, people with a collective vision to make the world a better place — so we no longer have to worry about austerity driving good people to do bad things.

But that’s ten minutes.

Debauchery

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Debauchery certainly isn’t what it used to be — not for me anyway. Yesterday was day two of my four day birthday weekend as I make my transition from my fifties to my sixties. Perhaps night one should have been a clue — there was no dancing, no music, just way too much cake, competition for the most comfortable chair, good conversation, the end of a hockey game and wine spilled on my sweater. No one got naked. Which may not have been all bad.

Day two started out in stellar fashion by being an hour late to my birthday lunch. Not entirely my fault — apparently I missed the confirmation e-mail that firmly established the arrival time at 11:30 rather than noon. That was my fault? Okay. So it was a little my fault. The other 30 minutes. Umm, well, twenty were because I got a late start to the day and the other ten was because of an ugly but fortunately non-fatal accident we came across while on our way to the party.

In any case they couldn’t very well start my party without me, could they? Except they did, sort of. Half the hors d’oeuvres were already eaten and one of the wine bottles was suspiciously low. But at least they saved the bubbly for my arrival.

It was nice too. Whereas on Friday I was almost the oldest person there, here I was the youngest of ten guests. Which I guess is why it was a birthday lunch rather than supper.

After I hung out with my very good friends. Liz and Phyl went for a walk in the woods while Mike and I fought off naps with a vigorous discussion of the merits of American versus British and French enlightenment thinkers. I believe we also talked about Homer and Thucydides. Cause that’s the way we roll on my birthday.

Later we had more food and a lot more wine while watching baseball. You can’t risk too much excitement when you’re turning sixty. Again nobody got naked although they do have a hot tub so it was always a possibility.

Eventually we had a lively debate over the proper place of humour in conversations and whether the telling of jokes was a clear sign the party was over. Unfortunately I had to go to bed before we settled the matter.

So this explains why I’m so late posting my 10 minutes today. I had to wake up and drink coffee and eventually drive home. Which was exciting. There was leftover bubbly in the trunk and just as we were pulling into the underground parking it blew its cork. It sounded like a gun going off in the car or a brick dropping on it. Can anyone say heart attack?

The good news is I still have another day and a half to rev up the fun. There is still a chance someone will get naked. We can only live in expectation.

But that’s ten minutes.

Memory

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Some research has suggested that people are remembering less and less, relying on search engines to replace the store of knowledge in their heads. It is no longer necessary to know what something is but where to find it. Some revel in the new found freedom of this digitally-induced amnesia while others express fears that it will reduce our ability to make profound discoveries through fact based inquiry which has more to do with asking questions than getting answers..

There have always been aides to memory. Even memory itself — that peculiar function of the hippocampus that manages recall from the far flung reaches of the brain — can be trained to help itself when nature fails to provide the necessary power of recall. Cicero, for example, devised a technique that one might call “the rooms of one’s house.” When preparing for a speech in the Roman Senate — many of which were delivered for hours without notes or repetition – he would imagine himself walking through the rooms of a mansion. In each room he would place an object and this object would trigger a memory or idea that was central to his speech at that moment. As he moved from room to room his dissertation would unfold, logically and powerfully, filled with quotes and facts. I suppose it all worked well unless he took a wrong turn.

Books, of course, have always served as a secondary memory. Personal libraries with pages dog-eared or marked with bits of paper to keep our place, could be called on to strengthen or confirm the facts we kept in our head. But in both cases — memory tricks and reference books — there remained a need to keep those facts present in the mind, at least to some extent.

No longer. With Google and smart phones at hand, one doesn’t need to know much of anything to look  and feel like a genius. If you can master the rather simple task of Boolean logic strings, you can generally find anything in a few seconds. I suppose, in future, the label of genius will mostly go to those with agile thumbs and a superior grasp of word association.

I’m not averse myself to relying on Professor Google — when a matter is in dispute or when memory fails to provide the critical detail to make the point. But I do find that the willingness to search for every quote, to fact check every moment of conversation has a profoundly dampening effect on the free flow of ideas. While facts are important and some check on outright lying is undoubtedly valuable, sometimes I think this ready access to a cloud of knowledge — a cloud that often obscures more than it reveals and contains its own fast range of inaccuracies (Wikapedia is notorious for being wrong in certain fields) — diminishes the human experience.

But that’s because I’m an old fart with an endless supply of useless trivia that all too often spills out in a pointless torrent. Or at least that’s what my wife says.

But that’s ten minutes.

Gender

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CBC is having a lively discussion about gendered robots. Of course all they are really talking about is the representation of gender in films or perhaps in some prototype robotic devices. Real robots don’t worry about gender. But people do. Much of the last half century has been about the representation of gender in public life. Gender matters.

One of the first things I wrote was a play called “The Prisoner of Zelda,” in which Zelda was a foul-mouthed, beer swilling, hockey watching woman and the prisoner (who had been caught burglarizing the apartment) was a sensitive, artistic, tidy man with great kitchen skills but low self-esteem. It was a comedy. And it was wildly successful — the most watched play that year at Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary.

But it was still about surface things. About image. We all know what a real man looks like. Tall, broad shouldered — essentially with a triangular body shape — with lots of facial hair. Real hair optional. Women are curvaceous with a 2:3 waist/hip ratio. Of course not many people actually look like that. Ironically one way that men use to achieve that form — steroids — actually reduces their masculinity.

Gender has a genetic component with men generally having a XY chromosome and women with XX. But plenty of variations exist even here with XXX, XXY or XYY and several others all appearing in small percentages of the population. These genetic differences do result in small variations of appearance though in many cases they aren’t particularly marked and many people do not even know they have this slightly different gender make-up.

A big part of gender determination has to do with hormones both the mother’s hormones during pregnancy (which can vary considerably because of internal and external environmental factors), as well as by the hormonal balances in individual bodies. The body is a messy machine and hormonal shifts can occur for a lot of reasons. More importantly, hormonal variations can be considerable without causing any difficulty for survival or success — in other words they are perfectly normal.

And of course a huge part of gender is cultural — what is allowed or disallowed or encouraged or discouraged. Not surprisingly the way in which gender is displayed varies from culture to culture — such as the use of makeup at the trivial end to the way friendships are expressed and what they consist of at the more significant end.

Culture also impacts how openly people can express their gender characteristics. Repressive cultures force certain gender characteristics behind closed doors (though they never succeed in eliminating them) which may include both homosexuality but also masculine women and feminine men. As society becomes more open, individuals have greater latitude to express their true gender feelings.

Gender diversity is therefore a direct expression of increasing freedom in society. Individuals — including libertarians and conservatives — who believe in freedom should therefore embrace gender diversity both in sexual orientation but also in the breakdown of gender stereotypes. In a truly free world there is no such thing as a man’s place or a woman’s place. Every place can be occupied by those who are comfortable being there.

And that’s ten minutes.

John Baird

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Everything you need to know about the Conservative party of Canada (or conservatives anywhere) can be learned by looking at John Baird. The Former Minister of Foreign Affairs represents the quintessential poster boy of the current government.

Baird was a well-known attack dog of the Harper government, tasked with slapping down opposition criticisms with a mixture of sarcasm and faux outrage. Yet, he was remarkably well liked in private — an affable pit-bull. The same cannot be said for his replacements, Peter Van Loan or Pierre “Fingers” Polievre. They have the nastiness down pat but no-one goes out of their way to suggest they are nice guys. Still, Baird is the pattern — the guy that demonstrates that bullying is the prime tactic of the government. Some are just better at doing it.

Baird of course is also the classic professional politician. Like many of his colleagues, he never had a ‘real’ job, starting as a political flack straight out of university and quickly graduating to permanent politician, first as a an Ontario MLA and then on the federal scene. For all their dismissal of Trudeau as not ready for the task, their own resumes run to the thin side. I’ve examined this more thoroughly here. While I have nothing against people devoting themselves to public service — I’m not sure that any of these people would qualify as serving the public more than themselves.

John Baird was not without principles — he was noted for standing up for gay marriage and gay rights both domestically and internationally. Without intruding on his personal life too far, I can tell you he had good reason and was the subject of this particular Rick Mercer rant. And that pretty much describes the whole approach of the conservatives in Canada. They have values but they make sure that only the right people see them and at the right time. Most are not as progressive in their thinking as Baird but make damn sure that no-one gets to see what they are really thinking unless it advances their own personal quest for power. Just as the Baird had no interest in letting the conservative base seeing his values with respect to sexual orientation, the other members of the party don’t want to the general public to be too familiar with their more conservative principles. Not exactly a hidden agenda — it’s easy enough to find — but kept obscure nonetheless.

There can be no question that Baird was an ambitious man and his sudden departure from politics no doubt indicates that he had concluded that he had risen as far as he could in the Conservative hierarchy. With no access to more power in the public field he opted to cash in with Board appointments and with special assignments to billionaires. Which also is replicated in his Cabinet colleagues — they are ultimately only interested in two things: power and personal advancement. If they can’t get one, they’ll go for the other.

It’s hardly true that all of them expect to cash in after their political life is over; most of them know this is the best job they will ever have and they will do anything to keep it. Make no mistake — they believe in their neo-conservative agenda including the central place of individual gain in that philosophy.

But that’s ten minutes.

Plasticity

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New studies in brain plasticity offer hope for an aging population while raising, perhaps troubling, questions about the nature of the self and the concept of the individual. As we age, many worry about the onset of neurological disorders like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. They threaten to become the new heart disease, even the new cancer. There is something particularly frightening about the idea of a decaying brain inside a still healthy body. Maybe that explains the current popularity of zombie shows on television.

However, it appears this is not the inevitable fate of most of us any longer. While much research is still needed to unlock the root causes of Alzheimer’s — let alone to discover effective treatments — new discoveries about the continued plasticity of the brain suggest that there may be a path away from dementia.

At root, what we’ve learned is that some of the myths about brain development are exactly that. For a long time it was thought that brain cells — nerve cells generally — could not replicate, meaning that once they were gone they were gone for good. Not true it turns out. We also believed that the ability to develop significant neural pathways diminished with age, making certain things — like the learning of new languages — extraordinarily difficult as we age. Yet, while there are age based factors in play, it is not as simple as a linear decline in our ability to learn.

What we find instead is that human brains remain changeable right up until the day we die. And why not? If we can track negative changes in the brain, why shouldn’t we able to promote positive ones? While some of the immediate commercial exploitation of the idea — like brain gymnastics — may be more hype than reality, there is a reality behind it.

In part the secret is learning something novel. Academics who change their field in mid-career show all the creative and innovative thinking that we usually assume can only be achieved by the young. It is the process of exploring new ideas and creating connections between discovered information that leads to breakthroughs rather than simply the flexibility of a younger brain. And maybe it’s just boredom.

While this all seems like an upside to those of us who are aging rapidly, there is a dark underpinning to this new understanding of how the brain works. One of the ways in which plasticity of the brain is promoted is to break down old ways of thinking and replace them with new neural pathways and mental frameworks. Taken to extreme we come back to the same issue I was worrying about yesterday — that we can actually strip away the personality and build up a new one in its place.

These, of course, are the fantasy fears of the cold war — the idea of the Manchurian candidate who can be programmed for betrayal. It is also the basis for the lucrative — though shady — business of cult deprogramming. Yet, the evidence has been there for a long time, explored as far back as the fifties by sociologist Erving Goffman in his studies of the person behind the mask. His conclusion: there is really nobody there. While I’m not entirely convinced it does make me wonder. Whoever me is.

And that’s ten minutes

Past Lives

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Recently I found out that a former wife was seriously ill. I didn’t discover it on my own but from a mutual friend – a person who has kept contact with both of us even though the two of us have been apart for more than 25 years. This was a woman I spent seven years of my life with and, so, I am sad to hear the news. Yet, not nearly as sad as I feel for other people I know who are facing similar challenges. We were once intimate but there is now no immediacy to the feelings I have. It is like it is happening to someone else in some other life.

I’ve taken a look to see how she is doing and while I recognize her on one level, on another she seems like a stranger. Not only because of the passage of time but rather because of what time — and all the events that happen over the span — does to us all. It changes us. But not in a linear fashion; not like a movie that tracks our lives from one moment to the next as if there were not disjunctions along the way.

Yesterday, I had coffee and conversation with a new friend — a face-to-face with someone I had previously only known over Facebook. He told me — in the course of our wide-ranging conversation — about his daughter, Anna. Anna judges her present actions based on what she thinks future Anna might think about them. Will she be happy and proud or disappointed? She also looks back on past Anna, sometimes, I suppose, with pride but also with disappointment. The more I thought about it, the more impressed I was with the profound understanding this young woman has about herself.

When we look back, we tend to see a cord that connects our present self with our past self — a single line of connection that gets us from there to here. Yet if we look closely, often that cord is filled with tangled knots — the complex and difficult situations we’ve passed through. Failed marriages, ruined careers, traumatic events. Looking closer still we might discover that the cord that enters the knot is made of one thing — say, nylon rope — while the cord that emerges is made of something else — perhaps braided cotton. It is quite possible that somewhere inside the knot those cords are not even connected. We entered as one thing but came out as another.

It makes sense in a way. We know that people can sometimes change dramatically — converting from one religion to another for example. Why would we think that the person who emerges from such an experience would even be the same after? Isn’t that what is meant by the change from Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus? But if we can change so readily — and I now think, so often — what does it mean to say: I am this person. What does it mean to think that I could continue to be me if uploaded to a machine or taken up to heaven?

And more practically, what does it mean for a society whose youth seem attracted to becoming something else — a different culture, a different religion, a different view of what makes anyone human, anyone valuable?

So I am left with this. The ties that bind us are not certain; they unravel at the lightest touch. So the best we can do is imagine future selves and wonder how our present actions will make them feel — or, in fact, make them, real.

And that’s ten minutes.