Routine can be a good thing. It can help you keep your day productive and your life on an even keel. Some people can barely function without a level of routine; taken to extremes it can become obsessive compulsive. Others abhor the quotidian; they seek constant stimulation in the novel. Any kind of routine seems to them like a prison – the most routine place in the world outside a monastery.

Society, of course, relies on routines. We all go to work at more or less the same time, take our lunch at noon and carry on the rest of our day in a more or less predictable way. Even the cowboys of capitalism – stock traders – live their lives according to opening and closing bells.

It’s easy to see how all this comes about. We divide the year in weeks and weeks into days and each day has its own characteristic. Blue Mondays and Thank God It’s Friday. The cycles of the year become institutionalized into the cycles of life – each season having its own rituals and regular activities.

It’s hard to imagine a life without any routines. One would have to eat one’s meals at different times every day. Since the purpose of breakfast is to break our fast after sleep – without routine, you would have to rise at a different time each day – sometimes at 5 a.m., sometimes at noon. Who could sustain such an irregular life?

Yet one could imagine it. Sleeping only when sleepy and rising when awake. Freed from the routine of sunrise and sunset – say aboard a deep space vessel – would the clock cease to mean anything? For some, it might, but, for others – those drawn to military roles for example – they might live their lives even more by bells and signals. Imagine the conflicts between anarchists and martinets in a crew on a five year mission. Yet – that conflict of strict routine and those who flout it has never, as far as I can tell, been much explored in science fiction. Crews rise together, eat together and work in shifts – continuing the cycles that were set for them by the diurnal character of their evolution.

All this is to say that, while I generally embrace routines – getting up at roughly the same time every day and eating much the same breakfast before sitting down, each day, to write these ten  minute essays, occasionally my mind rebels at the necessity of obeying self-imposed schedules. Every once in a while I demand a change in the routines of life.

Every once in a while I need a vacation from my life.

So, I hope you enjoyed this last little ramble because tomorrow I’m going to Cozumel and I’ll rise when I wish and sleep when I must and swim at a different time every day and walk on the beach – sometimes going left and sometimes right as whim takes me. And I’ll even try new foods and drink different drinks and talk to strangers.

Then I’ll come back and see if life has changed. Think of it as rehearsal for the next phase when I’ll answer to no one’s schedule but my own. Well, and Liz’s, of course.

And that’s ten minutes.



To hear some people tell it, the future of Canada depends on the completion of a pipeline from Alberta to the East Coast. Alberta independence is right around the corner – as if an independent Alberta could force its former countrymen to move their oil when they couldn’t get it done inside of the country. The logic, if you want to call it that, is baffling. But that’s politics.

While the Prime Minister wants Canada to be known for its resourcefulness and not, as the previous one did, for its resources, he knows full well that part of our resourcefulness is our ability to extract resources and export them to people who want and need them. That includes oil and gas but also a wide range of minerals and, as well, energy products such as hydroelectricity.

Quebec mayors have stated they don’t want a pipeline running past their cities when they should be far more wary of trains full of volatile petroleum products. Lac-Megantic is a dreadful reminder of the dangers of rail transport – which we are told is the only real alternative to pipelines. While pipelines are hardly perfect, their safety record is superior to every other form of transporting oil.

So it would seem a no brainer, right? The government needs to find a way to get east and west to both agree (and when I say east I mean Quebec because most people in New Brunswick are pretty keen to get that oil to their refineries) on the need for a pipeline while getting the majority of Aboriginal leaders onside and the public satisfied that the environment will be protected. They have no choice.

Well, maybe they do. The real choice is not between pipelines and trains but between petroleum and other energy sources. While I don’t for a minute believe our world will drastically reduce its consumption of energy – which remains linked to economic growth and human progress – there is some doubt whether we will continue to demand vast quantities of oil. If we are really committed to a low carbon future 10 or 20 years from now, then why would we build a pipeline designed to carry oil for 40 or 50 years?

Obviously, pipeline proponents – who are in my experience very fiscally cautious – don’t believe the world can wean itself off oil. They fully expect that the Rona Ambrose’s of the world (I’m amazed she didn’t chant ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ in the House of Commons this week) will be on the winning side – even if it means the world will be on the losing one.

The next few years should interesting ones for all concerned. If the government can make real progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions – or more importantly if the USA and China can – the urge to build pipelines both by governments and by the bankers who will be expected to finance the pipe may diminish.

Then Canada will truly have to show its resourcefulness.

And that’s ten minutes.



Do you remember the scene near the start of Casablanca, where a man is warning an elderly couple to be very careful because there are thieves everywhere? In the meantime he is slipping the gentleman’s wallet out of his jacket pocket. These days the warning would be that there are spies everywhere, told to you by people who are busily invading your privacy.

Of course, we are being spied on relentlessly – by corporations, by governments, both domestic and foreign and, most of all, by our friends and acquaintances.

Yesterday, the new Canadian government declared a moratorium on supplying communications meta-data to our allies because it illegally contained personal information about Canadian citizens – rather than simply visitors or perceived foreign threats. They won’t start up again until they are sure that the Canadian spy agency is obeying the law. Of course, in the United States, there would be no such problem because the law apparently lets – even encourages – the security apparatus spy on presumably innocent citizens. If you don’t believe me ask Edward Snowden.

Spying has a long tradition – it’s been going on ever since formal states were created. States have spied on their enemies and often on their own citizens. In communist China, grannies were the primary recruits, combining their natural inclination to gossip and judge their neighbours with a small state stipend.

Soon, everyone got in on the game, and spies were dispatched far and wide. If they were caught, their governments disavowed any knowledge of their actions – yes, just like in Mission Impossible. The Canadians who were just arrested in China were no more guilty of spying than the Chinese diplomats Canada expelled a couple of years ago.

And so it goes. Spying is big business. Most corporate security firms have branches that carry out industrial espionage. Knowledge is power and information – which may want to be free – is worth big bucks.

But of course, it is not only the big bad corporations and the security apparatus of out of control governments that engage in spying. Increasingly, we spy on each other. We even spy on ourselves. In the age of social media and cellphone cameras, everything gets recorded and then posted on-line for others to see. Take the guy in the Oregon occupation who thought it was a brilliant idea to film his fellow freedom fighters committing illegal – or just stupid – acts and post them on YouTube. Those clips will undoubtedly be very useful to the prosecutors.

For myself I have nothing to hide – well nothing I’m going to reveal here. I’ll probably continue to post pictures of my vacations and Christmas trees, my meals and my garden, for everyone to see. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? Wait a second, someone is banging on my door and yelling for me to come out with my hands up. It’s…

But that’s ten minutes.

Aboriginal Rights


This week the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government has discriminated against Aboriginal children by under-funding child welfare services compared to funding that provinces provide their non-aboriginal citizens. The Finance Minister is meeting this week with indigenous leaders to see what can be done to rectify the situation.

Anyone who has spent even a brief time working on aboriginal issues will not find this surprising unless – like members of the Fraser Institute or the previous government (which stalked and harassed the woman who brought the complaint) – they are in complete denial. Ever since Paul Martin put a 2% cap on growth in transfers to First Nations as a (supposedly temporary) budget restraint measure back in 1997, things have been growing worse and worse for aboriginal programs and services.

While populations have grown at the fastest rate of any group in the country and other cost factors have often risen faster than the cap, already underfunded communities have fallen farther and farther behind. According to an Auditor General’s report, funding for education is more than $2000 per student less for on-reserve schools than are received by provincial counterparts. To put that in perspective, First Nation schools – who generally don’t have the advantages of the shared services of a larger school district – receive 15-20% less funding than a provincial school a few miles down the road. It makes it difficult for them to recruit and retain teachers let alone offer the full range of programs kids need in a modern world.

Some commentators have said that the problems of aboriginal people will not be solved simply by opening our collective wallet and throwing money at them. This may be true – but opening our wallet is probably an excellent and necessary first step.

Real solutions are more complex but aren’t hard to envision. Aboriginal people need – first and foremost – to be funded at similar levels as other Canadians for core services but they also need to have the ability to take control of their own destinies by having full access to economic development opportunities and by establishing their own systems of governance.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the Mi’kmaw took control of education nearly twenty years ago through a formal self-government agreement with the federal and provincial governments. Their students now perform and graduate at rates higher than their provincial counterparts, meeting provincial curriculum standards and, at the same time, giving their children the opportunity to learn their own language and culture as part of the local school programming.

Solving the problems caused by over a century of deliberate and systemic discrimination under the paternalistic control of the Indian Act and the department it spawned will take more than a few extra dollars in the budget – it will require an entirely different approach based on the aboriginal and treaty rights that are recognized and affirmed in our constitution.

And that barely scratches the surface of what needs to be said but that’s ten minutes.



For the last twenty years, activists on the left have complained about the right-wing drift of major social democratic (or democratic socialist) parties. This was most noticeable in England where Tony Blair’s Third Way was viewed as a capitulation to market capitalism. Similar moderation in Europe and America followed. Some would argue it was the laxness of left wingers that lead – more than right wing deregulation – to the market collapses of 2008. Because the left had failed to be vigilant, bankers and venture capitalists went wild and nearly destroyed the world economy.

They may have a point.

The response has been interesting. In England, the Labour Party has elected its most left-wing leader in 50 years. While the mainstream media have declared that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable in modern England, the same pundits also said he couldn’t win the leadership. Shows what they know.

In the United States we see the rise of Bernie Sanders. Though I still doubt that he can overcome the Democratic establishment, he has certainly made waves and may succeed in nudging the Dems back to the left – even if only a little bit. And, in politics, one should never say never. In Canada, the failure of a centre-leaning NDP to form government has fired up the left wing of the party who call for a return to traditional values and policies of the left.

The general view of the left is that the mainstream social democratic parties have been corrupted by market philosophies, becoming pale versions of their conservative opponents. The right has succeeded – in this view – because of their adherence to hard-core ideologies and by using extreme tactics of ‘truthiness’ to get their message across and inspire voters.

The problem is – the right is hardly consistent or, as Sarah Palin shows, even fully comprehensible in their policies or values. Take Palin’s accusation that the policies of the Obama government caused her son to punch his girlfriend in the face. It might seem to be partisan sniping but what lies behind it? Our former Prime Minister might well accuse Ms. Palin of ‘committing sociology’ – that is, blaming external societal forces for individual behavior. Rather than sticking to a true conservative value of personal responsibility, Palin excuses her son’s behavior and blames society. Maybe she is just a protective mother but I suspect something bigger.

Just as left-wing parties were infected by the central tenant of conservative philosophy – that the market is the most effective an efficient way to organise society – so have conservatives been changed by the major ideological weapon of the left –identity politics. As soon as a conservative propounds that social mechanisms have isolated an identifiable group (in this case white men) aren’t they accepting a basic idea of the left, that people live in a social system and are impacted by systemic social factors both in terms of their economic opportunities but also in terms of their individual actions and values?

Left and right have both become muddied by their opponents’ ideas. It may make for crazy politics, but oddly it holds out hope for the future of democracy. If people (and especially politicians) find out that they now have common ground, might they find ways to talk about it that doesn’t involve denunciation?

Whether that’s a good thing – or whether we need one side to win – remains to be seen.

And that’s ten minutes.




Parliament resumes today in Ottawa. The media has been full of stories about what the government will be doing as well as what they should be doing. The former is more significant than the latter. The agenda of the new Liberal government is crystal clear – set out in their platform document and repeated in the Throne Speech. It is unlikely to be swayed much by the demands of the opposition or the opinions of pundits. Neither – according to the polls – will the general public.

And that’s exactly how it should be. I say this, not because I agree with everything they promised (I most certainly don’t) or because I think the Trudeau Cabinet is anything special (other than the gender balance which is long overdue).  Rather, the government should be provided with the leeway to implement the program that the electorate voted for. One can make the case that only 40% of the voters supported them – just as the case was made about the Harper government – but that is the system we have. Fortunately one of the main planks in the new government’s platform was a change to that system.

The opposition will oppose, of course. One might hope they will offer some credible alternatives (and not simply repeat the elements of their own defeated government or platform). The second biggest mistake that the opposition parties could make is to be too vociferous in their attacks – which will make them look excessively partisan at a time when people have grown tired of that. The biggest mistake would be to use parliamentary tricks (or the Senate) to actually block key elements of that platform. That would make them look undemocratic – a charge from the past one might think the Conservatives would like to slide away from.

Things will change as time goes by. The government will make mistakes (and that is another reason not to be obstructionist – opposition parties need to give governments enough rope to hang themselves) and eventually, in 18 or 24 months, they will have implemented most if not all aspects of their platform. Indeed, anything not done in two years will probably have been given up on.

It is then that Parliament – hopefully a more open and active legislature than it’s been for the last ten years – will really come into its own. The government will be facing new challenges and will propose new solutions. The opposition should be doing the same – focusing on where the government went wrong or might soon go wrong and making the case for why they should be selected to govern Canada the next time around.

Because until the next election, the government will be the government. If it is a good government, they will listen to what the opposition has to say and will – to the opposition’s distress – incorporate the best of their ideas into their programs and policies.

I don’t expect that Ambrose and Mulcair will temper their remarks or limit their criticisms; this is politics after all. But maybe the media and the party partisans shouldn’t be so breathless in covering what they have to say. Because right now, nobody else really cares.

And that’s ten minutes.

Capricious Gods


If there were a God, there would be no question that he would best be described as capricious – unpredictable, moody and arbitrary. This idea would come as no surprise to ancient peoples. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Israelites would have no difficulty understanding the concept.

The gods could and likely would act in any way that suited their moods at the moment. Life was a constant struggle to try to figure out exactly what that mood might be and how to ameliorate it. That was why auguries and sacrifices were so important. Yet, even if you lived an exemplary life, that was no reason to think the gods wouldn’t suddenly turn on you and visit all sorts of unpleasantness down upon your head. Just ask Job.

While the gods were unpredictable to the ancients, he was not unknowable. If a man was struck down with a wasting disease, it wasn’t hard to know why. He had clearly offended one of the gods and was being punished for it. Not much to do but to make a sacrifice and hope for the best. The idea that god works in mysterious ways was completely foreign to the ancient mind.

Why would god choose to kill a good man and let a bad one live? Again it’s not hard to figure out. The good man was struck down precisely because he was good – he had clearly embarrassed Apollo by his goodness or his talent or even his piety. He had to go. As for the bad man? Well, the gods love to torment their creations. Undoubtedly, Hermes was getting great pleasure out this tricky little weasel and wanted the game to go on for a while.

The modern Christian – and I suppose those of other faiths – have a more difficult problem. They can hardly accept that a loving and forgiving god could operate except for the best of reasons. It’s fascinating to watch them try to explain why four-year old children get cancer and die. God must have wanted him in heaven is the most mealy-mouthed answer. To which I might say – what the hell for? He’s God – he can’t possibly need anything. We can’t know God’s mind, they respond

Of course, some so-called Christians have no difficulty in figuring it all out. It is the sins of… you pick it, liberals, homosexuals, Obama, Muslims – whatever. God is angry and he’s showing it by letting all these terrible things happen. You would think that an all-powerful and all-knowing God would be smart enough to know exactly who is pissing him off and powerful enough to punish them directly.

Which I guess is why they are so much more interested in the old testament than the new – a god who is capricious and who, as Shakespeare said: is like wanton boys to flies, is so much easier to envision as one who will do your dirty work for you.

Yeah, I’m pissed off this week. A good, gentle, brilliant man fell down some stairs and died. Another, an abusive, addicted, violent, limited man fell down some stairs the same day and lived. And someone told me it was God’s will. Yeah, I get that, even if Jesus wouldn’t.

And that’s ten minutes.




Of all the things I’ve lost over the years, the one I miss most is the ability to sleep through the night. For most of my life, I fell asleep within seconds or at most minutes of my head hitting the pillow and remained asleep for eight solid hours or more, unless I was yanked untimely from my dreams by the bleating of an alarm clock. Blessed with a huge bladder (TMI, I know), I seldom even had to get up in the night to pee.

Oh, to return to those days. While my bladder remains huge, I seldom sleep solidly through the night. I wake up because I’ve gotten sore from lying in one position, because I need a drink of water, because my snoring wakes me or my wife up, because of no reason at all. On a very good night, I’ll awake once or twice. On a bad one, my eyes flop open every 45 minutes. Sometimes I can go back to sleep fairly quickly; others I lie awake for an hour or more, thinking circular thoughts about something that is troubling me.

On occasion, I’ve composed one of these little essays at 4 in the morning and then repeated it over and over in my head so that when I finally stagger up it is no effort at all to transcribe it. Then there are the times when I’ve thought of something brilliant to say only to have it slip away in the time between 4 and the dawn.

I’ve developed a few tricks to get me through. Breathing helps, especially if a press my face into the crook of my arm so the sound is loud in my ears. I’m sure the gradual buildup of carbon dioxide under the sheets helps bring a return of unconsciousness as well. My wife uses visualizations but these have never worked for me – they get more and more complex and pretty soon develop exciting plots which either promotes wakefulness or guarantees nightmares that, you guessed it, wake me up.

Whenever my mind is whirling with some task that needs doing, usually related to my day job or to the publishing work, I have developed a simple process. I ask myself if I’m going to get up and do what needs to be done. I stick my nose above the covers and notice how cold it is and I snuggle against my pillow and notice how cozy it is and decide that perhaps I don’t need to do that task right now after all. But about one time in ten, I actually get up, put on a warm robe and head for my computer to work for a few minutes or an hour or as long as it takes.

I then spend the rest of the day longing for bed while resisting the urge to nap – which would only guarantee another restless night.

Recently, I read a study that suggested that the idea of sleeping through the night is a relatively new one, brought on by the schedules of the industrial age and the demands of the ever ticking clock. Three hundred years ago, people went to bed when it got dark, but often got up in the night to do some early morning chore by the light of the moon or write letters or read by candle light. Sleep came when it was required. And maybe that’s something I can look forward to when I am freed of other people’s schedules and can finally just… zzzz.

And that’s ten minutes.

Learning Styles


When I was in Grade 3, my new teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, was lecturing us in geography or history about the Seminole people of southern Florida. I was staring out the window, contemplating the lives of birds. She noticed my apparent inattention and called on me to discuss what she had been talking about – which I did without hesitation, having read the material the night before and having paid sufficient attention to know where to pick up the lesson.

She never bothered me again. Other kids – less assiduous in reading their homework or less able to focus on two things at one time – were not so lucky. Today they would have been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder (ADD).

I prefer the old language – not paying attention. ADD implies there is something wrong with the student – something that needs to be fixed, perhaps with medication. The old language is different – it implies a transaction.

Look at the structure. Johnny is not paying attention to me. Or, Johnny is not paying money to me. In this construction, there is a transaction. The teacher is offering something; if Johnny thinks it is worthwhile, he pays for it with his attention. If it is worthless – uninteresting, unengaging, unimportant – he uses the limited currency that he has to pay attention to something else.

Now what needs fixing is not Johnny but the transaction between teacher and student. What needs fixing is the education system.

There was a number of articles recently that argued that learning styles are not real – everyone absorbs information and knowledge through the same process of memory formation. While this maybe true – based on current neuroscience evidence or rather lack of such evidence – it is also true that the brain can only attend to so much at one time. It is part of developmental psychology – again supported by neuroscience – that as we age, our ability to attend to multiple things increases, though there is a definite limit. This is one of the reasons we are able to do more complex things (like driving a car on a busy highway) at age 18 that we couldn’t do at age 12.

So, while the way people learn may be identical at the amygdala and hippocampus level, getting people to pay enough attention to learn anything may differ quite a lot. For example, some people need to write things down as the teacher is talking to help them focus on the lesson being taught. For me, I have to put my pencil down and really listen. If I start writing notes, I am apt to start writing fiction. Not very helpful when it comes to recalling the facts.

The real problem is we simply don’t know enough yet to say for sure what aspects of the brain need to engage for effective learning to take place. Those who say all students are the same either have never tried to teach any or are trying to justify their own way of learning things – usually linear-sequential – as the only real way of learning.

Like most things, what we don’t know about the brain and learning is greater than what we do. While there is no evidence that different learning styles exist, there are still dozens of research avenues where the details need to be filled in. We have a lot to learn about learning.

And that’s ten minutes.

Sherlock Holmes


I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since I first discovered the stories as a teenager. Since then I’ve read every original Doyle story at least five or six times. I have the beautiful (and massive) 3–volume Annotated Holmes edited by Leslie Klinger sitting on a shelf in my office.  I’ve read a great many of the homages and pastiches written over the years and I’ve even had a couple of Holmes stories published.

Naturally, I’ve welcomed (and dreaded) the plethora of Holmes adaptations that have appeared – both authorized by Doyle’s estate and those that have sprung up now that copyright has expired.

I enjoy them all, from Robert Downey Jr.’s action hero Holmes to the recovering addict of Elementary to the motor mouth rendition of Benedict Cumberbatch (is it just me or do other people sometimes find that Holmes talking so fast you can hardly understand him?) But, of course, none of them reflect the character that Doyle wrote or intended so many years ago. The closest to that were the early Jeremy Brett renditions – though even his portrayal went off the rails by the end, whether because of him or the direction he was given.

I blame it all on Sigmund Freud, which of course is a bit like saying I blame it on Nicholas Meyer who wrote the novel and screenplay of The Seven Percent Solution (for which he received an Oscar nomination). There Holmes, recovering from his cocaine addiction, meets up with Sigmund Freud and together they solve a mystery. Meyer, who also wrote the first three even-numbered Star Trek movies (fans will get that significance) cleverly revealed the modern fascination with Holmes which focuses on his use of cocaine (only mentioned in a very few of the stories), Moriarty (mentioned in even fewer)  and the psychological implications of a man who appears – at least at first – to have sprung fully formed out of the nature of the times. He must have a tortured past, right?

The Holmes of Victorian England was not like that at all. Rather, he was meant to represent the power of reason operating in the service of justice. It was about neither the self (the egomaniacal Holmes of Sherlock) or about overcoming weakness. It was actually meant to be about the power of intellect to cut through the fog of social convention and get to the heart of social ills. Holmes was a crusader – much as Doyle was himself – who cared more about justice than the law.

Holmes is, of course, an enduring character, for the same reason that many of Shakespeare’s plays continue to resonate. The attraction is not in the perfection of the writing or the way in which all the questions are answered and all the details laid out. Rather it is because there are gaps that allow us to insert our own interpretation into the story.

Holmes becomes the detective we need at the time. That’s why he can be transformed from the cool rational – if flawed – observer of the spider’s web of crime to the tortured intuitive megalomaniacal participant in world spanning plots. It is all in the interpretation.

But you should go back and see for yourself. But I should warn you – the values of Victorian England as written by an upper class male weren’t always pretty.

But that’s ten minutes.