Click on This!!!

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A man wrote 600 short essays. And you won’t believe what happened next!

We’ve all read the overheated headlines promising some amazing revelation of human nature. But human nature being what it is – the results are seldom amazing.

Still, hope springs eternal and, despite our determination never to be sucked in again, we click on the link of 25 pictures that broke the Internet. Most of them don’t even cause me to break into a smile.

Everything is designed to try to get you to follow the link to this or that site. And why? Well, apparently, the more people that visit a site, whether it is a pseudo-legitimate news site like Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post or much less reputable portals to a life poorly wasted, the more they can charge for the advertisements that appear on them. Because that’s what they really want you to click on. The endless ads, carefully (ha ha) selected to match your tastes and habits.

But I never click on the ads, you say. I’m not influenced by such things. I wonder how the advertising industry has managed to sustain a multi-billion dollar business if no one pays attention to ads.

But of course you do. Most of us can sing a dozen ad jingles from our childhood – back when jingles were a thing – but not a single number one hit of our teenage years. Of course, advertising has an impact. You may not notice it but every time you are looking at a shelf of nearly identical goods – especially if you are in a rush and aren’t really focused – you will almost always reach for the one whose name – whose brand – you recognize. And you will, from time to time, believe that you do so because it is better quality than its cheaper competitors.

Years ago, when I was in chemistry class, we did a blind experiment to see which detergent was best at removing dirt. We stained identical scraps of cloth with identical and carefully weighed samples of dirt and grease. We then washed them for identical periods of time in identical amounts of water.

Guess what? The cheapest brand did the worst job. But not by much. And the most expensive one was slightly worse than the one in the middle. And none of them did a worse job when it came to the naked eyes. That is you could weigh the remaining dirt but not see it.

Most of the students were outraged by the results; some because they wanted the cheap brand to do best, proving a corporate conspiracy. Others wanted the brands to do exactly as well as the price attached to them. Because that’s how the market works, right?

Actually the market works exactly like that – on false information and inflated expectations. All driven by advertising.

There are those that think money doesn’t make a difference in politics and cite studies to show that high spenders don’t always win. But when you consider that in a perfect world those high spenders would not even be in the running based on their non-monetary characteristics…

Click on this to learn the real story.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Presidents

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I sometimes feel a little sorry for anyone who gets on the bandwagon of an American presidential candidate. For the most part they seem to believe that their chosen hero can accomplish anything, that their most outrageous promises can be accomplished in a week; their impossible ones will take as much as half a term.

Perhaps they don’t understand how their own government works. The President of the United States is powerful. But that’s only because he is the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. The USA has as many atomic bombs, a larger military, more economic clout and more cultural influence than any other country in the world. In some of those categories, they have more than the next five in line. China may have briefly had a marginally larger economy (with 4 times the population) – but since a significant portion of it was driven by American corporations it doesn’t really count. And China may soon fall behind again.

Despite this, America still manages to rank well down the list when it comes to taking care of its people. It’s rankings in education, health care and, of by the way, the happiness of its people, are kind of sad really. But that’s another story.

As heads of state go, the president has less power than the Prime Minister of England with a majority in Parliament. The PM isn’t even head of state (the Queen is) but their office holds all the power. While Parliament has to approve what the PM orders, party discipline makes certain that they do.

None of that exists in the USA. If you think there’s party discipline, you clearly haven’t been watching Congress lately. Ask John Boehner how successful he was getting the Tea Party Republicans to get along with their more moderate colleagues. Ask Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi about their respective experiences.

If Donald Trump becomes President, Cruz and Rubio will still be Senators. Do you honestly think they are going to forget the names Trump called them and cooperate with most of what the new President wants? Good luck with that. Of course, Trump could sue them (ha ha) or order them shot. Finding someone to carry out those orders might be a little tricky (unless of course they visit a war zone and they wind up as ‘collateral damage’).

Harry Truman (and he was the only President to actually use nuclear weapons) said his biggest surprise was when he sat at his desk in the Oval Office and gave an order – and nothing happened. He expressed pity for incoming President Eisenhower having to adapt from army life and finding the same thing. And Ike left the White House warning about the power of the military-industrial complex. Fun times.

Bernie Sanders will face the same trouble but he has as few allies in Congress as Trump. It is true that Sanders did get a bill or two passed in the Senate – but that was in part because he was an independent and not a Democrat. He only became one of those when he decided to run for office.

Separation of powers – checks and balances – that is the basis of American government. It often means that nothing gets done – unless you know how to negotiate, compromise, and strike while the iron is hot. And become damn good at exercising what few executive powers you do have. You know, like Obama.

And that’s ten minutes.

Twitchy

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You’ve seen them. People with their faces buried in their devices as they drift down the street or grabbing their phone when if ‘bings’ – even if they are in the middle of a conversation. Their fingers drum impatiently on their desk if their computer takes a few seconds to boot up or connect. They growl when their texts or tweets or Facebook posts or Tumblr messages aren’t instantly answered. They hate waiting for anything; they don’t seem to know how to relax, even for a moment. Instant gratification gratified instantly.

You know who I’m talking about. The Twitchy generation.

Oh, not millennials or whatever generation comes next. A lot of them seem pretty laid back about everything – their love lives, their careers, the end of the world. They even read physical books. But that’s another story.

I’m talking about the forty-somethings (spreading into the fifty-somethings). They seem to think that history happened six months ago and the future had better get here pretty damn quick. And why can’t I get that show on Netflix!?

I think people under thirty actually understand that none of the programs which are supposed to connect our world really operate in quite the way they promised. At least their eye-rolls and shrugs when I ask them about it seem to suggest that.

No it’s the people who didn’t grow up with the highly connected and immediate (unmediated) world, that seem to have lost all sense of time, all sense of the slow changing nature of the world.

Take the current political world we live in. Nothing has really changed in the last fifty years. Governments have a life and elections – unless you are living in an unstable democracy or none at all – occur to a schedule. Presidents are almost never impeached; majority governments never fall before their allotted time.

Yet, to listen to the pundits, six months is an eternity. I saw a headline the other day asking if Justin Trudeau was the Teflon PM. For crying out loud, he’s been in office for less than four months – how much dirt do you think the world has generated in that time for any of it to stick? And as for delivering on his promises – why aren’t they all done right now? Why do we have to wait for consultation or debate or legislation or doing it right? If it isn’t here now it’s never coming, I tell you. Twitch.

Meanwhile in the USA people are moaning that Trump will be president and think how great/awful that will be. There won’t even be a vote for eight months. It’s not long but it’s not tomorrow. And when he gets there – if at all – all those things that he promised won’t arrive on February 1st. Twitch. Twitch.

I see this all the time. My boss – who is in his seventies – will leave a restaurant if there is a line of more than six to get in. My wife swears at her ancient computer every time it takes fifteen seconds to connect. People my age grumble whenever their favorite movie is rescheduled for a month – and heaven help George R.R. Martin if he delays his next book again.

We won’t stand for it. What do we want?  Everything and when do we want it? Now, goddamn it! Or yesterday.

Screw history. I want the future. And I want it before tomorrow.

Twitch. Twitch. Twitch.

And that’s ten minutes. Too late as usual.

Big Brother

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In 1948, George Orwell wrote one of the first dystopic SF novels. The horrors of Nazi Germany were evident and, slowly, the monstrous impact of Stalinism was becoming apparent. Orwell wrote 1984 as a cautionary tale of what totalitarianism might bring – even to supposedly safe places like England and America.

Nowadays, it might seem more like an instruction manual. We all know – and some are outraged – by the surveillance of the state of their own citizens. The omnipresent closed circuit televisions (CCTV) in England, where there is one camera for every eleven citizens is one symptom. The only people who seem to have benefited are the manufacturers of hoodies and Guy Fawkes masks. Edward Snowden revealed US spying on both their citizens and on their so-called allies. Relations between America and Germany became decidedly chill when it was claimed that Washington had tapped Andrea Merkel’s phone.

Right now, Apple is fighting with the FBI over the encryption of a single iPhone, that owned by mass murderer (and presumed terrorist), Sayed Farouk, who killed dozens in a California attack. The FBI says it needs the information to save lives; Apple argues that breaking encryption will put everyone’s privacy (and financial security) at risk.

Yet, our phones are already used against us. These days, Big Brother is sitting in our pockets. Apps on millions of electronic devices are streaming private information to China – to what end no one quite knows. Certainly, most of us willingly give up private information on Twitter and Facebook, and while many may grumble about targeted ads, we don’t stop engaging in the addiction that is social media. Some buy ad-blocker apps – but if you think they aren’t mining your activities for information, I’ve got a bridge in New York I’d like to sell you.

Social media fulfills yet another of Orwell’s predictions. With the death of evidence-based and fact-checked journalism – started by Fox News, but perfected by dozens of blogger based ‘news’ sites, social media has made sure that, for many people, Truth is Lies and War is Peace. Propaganda has become the new reality; simply listen to the current debates in the US presidential campaign and you know that some people have come to prefer the pleasing lie to the hard truth.

In Orwell’s day, a novelist could actually have an impact. His novels – both 1984 and Animal Farm – did wake people up to the dangers of totalitarianism in both its government and corporate form, though it hardly stopped millions of people from flocking to new charismatic leaders and causes.

Can anyone wake up America and Europe, where neo-fascist parties of both the right and left are gaining traction?

It won’t be a politician though it might be a philosopher. And angry shouts and shaking fists are not the alarm clock we need. Those are the weapons of the enemy.

If I seem despairing, I’m not. I have a lot of faith in people. I’ve seen communities embrace the better angels of their nature. I’d like to leave you with a nice aphorism – such as ‘do you think I’ve come this far to stop now,’ but it turns out that those who listen to aphorisms may be prone to totalitarian thoughts.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Bull Moose

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The presidential election in the USA looks to be one of the most interesting since, oh, let’s say, 1912. During that campaign, there was a split in the Republican Party between the conservative wing and the progressive one, a stolid middle of the road Democrat and, yes, a viable Socialist candidate. It sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it?

The Republicans had always been a troubled and troublesome party. In those days, you must remember, the Republicans were the party of civil rights (Lincoln was a Republican) and had a strong environmentalist bent (Teddy Roosevelt, who had left office in 1908, established many of the federal reserves in the west). They even were – for the times – slightly pro-labour. The Democrats were the party of the south and were hardly the progressive group they are today. And it wasn’t illegal to be a socialist – which it sort of was after the Russian revolution of 1917.

After a fractious primary campaign (one of the first as at that time only 15 states held primaries) the Republican convention resulted in accusations of corruption and vote buying. Teddy Roosevelt, returning to the campaign trail after 4 years absence, had won most of the primaries but, at the convention, he found himself outmaneuvered by sitting President, William Taft, a conservative. He eventually withdrew and took his delegates and supporters with him to form the Progressive party.

Meanwhile Eugene Debs, running a grassroots campaign (he spent all of $66,000 on his campaign) was campaigning hard for the Socialists which had won a number of local and state elections in the previous decade. He had no real hope of winning and was mostly running to help build up the party – but he did make an impact, on the race, on the other parties and on the growing labour movement.

The Democrats had nominated the somewhat stolid Woodrow Wilson, a former college professor and administrator, who ran on a campaign to essentially “make America great” though he didn’t exactly use those words. American influence was growing in the world but Wilson believed that involvement abroad, especially in in Europe – where war was imminent – would risk American interests. The Republicans were much surer – they, and especially Roosevelt, had won the Spanish-American war and wanted to assert US dominance — as a Christian nation — on the world.

The campaign was vigorous with candidates trekking across the country by train. In the end Roosevelt’s personal popularity was not enough to break the habit of the two party system. He finished a distant second as the Progressive (aka the Bull Moose Party) candidate. The Republican, Taft, suffered the greatest defeat ever for a sitting President. Deb’s socialists finished a distant fourth with 6% of the vote – the most ever, before or since, for such a candidate.

Now we can flash forward to 2016. A conservative candidate wins the nomination of the Republicans but is challenged for the right of centre vote by a more moderate independent Republican. Meanwhile the Democrats nominate a fairly stolid centrist candidate. To keep things interesting and promote the revolution, a plucky socialist decides to run an underfunded campaign from the left. Trump, Bloomberg, Clinton, and Sanders.

It’s enough to make a political junky salivate.

And that’s ten minutes.

OMG, A Deficit

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The Canadian Finance Minister yesterday announced that the federal deficit will be at least $18B this year – before factoring in the election promises of the new government. The real deficit could expand to $28B. Or it could be less. The estimates are based on fairly pessimistic projections and includes a $6B contingency fund, which may not in fact be spent.

Predictably, the Conservatives are pointing fingers and claiming the Liberals are irresponsible. They say that they left the country in surplus. Well, sort of. It took some fairly creative – and highly questionable – accounting to make that claim. They booked nearly a billion in savings from public service sick leave – though that might well have been reversed in court. Such things have happened before. They also reduced the normal contingency fund well below $3B and held some fire sales of government assets in order to project a slim surplus of a billion or so – all based on $50 a barrel oil. And even that surplus came after seven straight years of deficits, some of which went to stimulus but part of which was due to overzealous tax cutting. It may (or may not) be true that Canadians want lower taxes but they want to pay their bills too.

Or do they? Household debt in Canada is at record highs. Some of this is undoubtedly because of people struggling to make ends meet but some of it is also because credit is cheap and we hardly live in a society where people are willing to put off till tomorrow what they can spend to day.

In any case, what is the implication of a return to deficit? The government argues that spending in a time of economic slowdown is essential to stimulate the economy and that seeking a balanced budget at this time would clearly make matters worse. The Conservatives argue things aren’t that bad. But these are the same people who tried to claim there wasn’t a recession in Canada last year – by changing the very definition of recession they invented. Their reputation as good fiscal managers relies mostly on editorial claims of the corporate media.

Meanwhile the NDP, who also campaigned on balanced budgets, are singing a slightly different tune. They accuse the Liberals of including a large contingency fund so they can dampen expectations and renege or delay some of their election pledges. The government tells them to wait and see – the budget will be released on March 22nd.

To put it in perspective, a deficit of $18B for the federal government (which raises about $275B in revenues) is the equivalent of a household with $60,000 income running up a debt of $4000. That’s not something you want to do year after year but it is certainly not unusual. More significantly, the percentage of federal debt to GDP is hovering at 25%, better than most countries in the world and not considered dangerous by more economists.

From another point of view, the US government has run deficits every year since 2002 and last year that deficit was $439B – a lot of money but less than a third of what it was the final year George Bush was in office. Is it a good thing? Hard to say but I do know that the American economy is doing better than most of those in Europe who have been practicing austerity for the last five years.

And that’s ten minutes.

Duffy Redux

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The final arguments of the Senator Mike Duffy trial are being made this week; this will be of limited interest to American readers as none of your Senators have ever had moral failings let alone committed a crime, right?

Two weeks have been scheduled but, since the judge already asked for and received written submissions, it will likely be wrapped up fairly quickly. It seems the prosecution has already given up on the most serious charges, that of taking a bribe. Since the person who offered the bribe, Nigel Wright, was never charged with anything it is hard to imagine how the person who received it could be guilty.

Unlike certain sex acts, bribery is not a solitary occupation.

The next most serious charges are fraud and breach of trust. The fraud one is tricky – it requires that the Senator willfully and knowingly tried to defraud the government. With respect to his disputed – and since repaid with the Wright cheque – housing allowance one might accept that Senator Duffy was actually confused. He was appointed to sit as the Senator for Prince Edward Island, despite, he claims, telling the PM that he lived in Ottawa. The Prime Minister recommended him and the Governor-General, that is the Crown, appointed him. They must have thought he lived in PEI or that his residency was established somehow by the appointment.

Given that the money was repaid – as you would do if you made an honest mistake rather than a deliberate criminal act – it seems less that 50-50 that the Crown (yeah, the same one that appointed him) is going to win on this one.

The dodgy contracts and travel for party business may be the best bet for the prosecution. It seem likely that Mr. Duffy knew he was trying to pay for things that were definitely outside the purview of Senate business and set up a shell to cover these questionable expenses. The travel for political purposes is a little trickier since there was no doubt why Duffy had been appointed to the Senate in the first place – to shill for the Conservative party. No one in Ottawa thought it was for his public policy acumen so why should Duffy?

The big question is what happens if Duffy is convicted of any charges (and there is a slim chance that he might get off scot-free). He might get probation or even a conditional discharge, neither of which might trigger an expulsion from the Senate. One might think an honourable man would resign in those circumstances but there is a considerable difference between being called Honourable and being such.

That will leave it up to the Senators themselves. The rules permit the Red chamber to suspend (they already did this, remember) or even expel a Senator. But Pamela Wallin, who was suspended at the same time as Duffy and Brazeau but was never charged with a crime, is back in her seat and collecting her salary. None of her colleagues have said a thing about that. Would they – and here I mean the Conservative majority – be willing to further tarnish the legacy of the former Prime Minister by having this story dragged through the papers again? It will be fascinating to watch if it comes to that.

But that’s ten minutes.