We all have a range of opinions; some of us have opinions on everything. Like taste, opinions are not disputable; you feel one way or you feel another. That doesn’t mean some opinions aren’t wrong—just that the people who hold them are not open to persuasion by facts. Facts are something else entirely. As they say, you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts.

Some people find that annoying and insist on their own facts. We might refer to them by a lot of names but I prefer to call them “willing slaves of tyranny.” As soon as you deny reality and accept “alternative facts” (that is, lies) as equally valid as something that can be objectively proven, you become the ready and easy bait for would-be dictators.

Still, most opinions are harmless, right? For example, I’m of the opinion that Brussels sprouts aren’t fit for anything but garden fertilizer; they certainly shouldn’t be eaten. Many disagree and have even argued vehemently that I’ve just never had them served in the proper way. I listen more or less politely and then explain that those recipes would be delicious if only they didn’t contain the offending sprouts. I’ll even accept they might be nutritious (those are simple facts, provable by scientific analysis) without agreeing that they are worth eating. After all, those vitamins can be obtained elsewhere. I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong but I respond with: to each their own taste and have I extolled the virtues of stinky sticky blue cheese?

You see – there are opinions (taste) and there are facts (nutritional value) and never the twain shall meet.

But most things in the world are not like that. You can have the opinion that the world is flat but the facts say you are wrong. Some people can’t let the facts or any kind of evidence prove their firmly held opinion wrong. Those people are stupid or they are deluded and, if they happen to be famous, they are stupid, deluded and dangerous. Celebrity is not a certificate of excellence.

Of course, some people know they are treading on dangerous ground and qualify their remarks with such phrases as “in my humble opinion” (IMHO) and then proceed to prove they never have looked up the word “humility” in the dictionary.

Some of you might say that in a democracy, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and that’s true, but they are not entitled to think that their opinion is some reflection of reality or is in some way superior to the opinions of other people. They are certainly not entitled to the idea that their opinion cannot be criticized or disputed, or heaven forbid, proven wrong-headed or actually wrong by an examination of the evidence.

Of course, this is much like a salmon trying to swim up a dry stream – the salmon is programmed to do it and determined it will somehow work but it learns the hard way that you can’t fight reality (or the laws of physics). It would be nice to think that this fact denying affliction only troubles one small group of people or one side of the political equation.

But the reality is—we all, including me, like to hold onto our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. It’s wired right into our brains. But here’s the great thing, we have language to communicate and explore alternative views and we have reason and the scientific method. And if we all just used those tools on a regular basis, there would probably be a lot less arguing over opinions. IMHO, at least.

And that’s ten minutes.

Putting It Off


They say that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Personally, I doubt I would be able to think anything if I knew they were going to put a noose around my neck – but that may just be me.

You would think that after 40 some years of working and having to meet deadlines, I’d be better at getting things started. Sadly, no. If they offered degrees in procrastination I’d almost certainly have a Ph.D – if I ever got around to applying for it. It’s not that I don’t work hard; it’s not even that I don’t want to work hard. I do. I enjoy work – whatever that work is – once I get stuck in.

But starting is always a challenge. Take today. I normally write my ten minutes when I first get up. But now it’s almost 10:30 and I’m just getting started. And I’m only doing it so I don’t have to begin the number one item on my list – which is to re-write the story my critique group commented on. Nearly two weeks ago.

I try every trick in the book – endless lists, arbitrary deadlines, self-loathing – but none of them seem to work. Maybe I should threaten to kill myself at the end of an unproductive day. Good night, Hayden. Good work. Most likely kill you in the morning.

It’s as if I thought that at my age, I really shouldn’t have to work anymore. Nonsense! As everyone on Facebook tells me, if you aren’t being continuously creative and productive, you’re not really living. Which makes me wonder why they spend so much time on Facebook telling me how to live my life.

Oh well, nothing to do but forge ahead. As soon as this is finished, polished and posted with any relevant links I can dream up, I’ll get right to those re-writes. It’s not that it will be so hard – I’ve already re-written the story six times in my head (mostly while lying in bed, urging myself to get up and start the day).

Of course, I’m a little grubby and need a shower – clearly you can’t work effectively if you don’t smell fresh and clean.

Okay, so I’ll admit it, I’m really only writing about procrastination so I can avoid the really tough ten minute diatribe I should be writing. If I was really determined I’d scrap this nonsense and do the really important work of making the world a better place.

Maybe tomorrow.

First I have to have a shower. Then my second cup of coffee (one can’t be brilliant on a single cup) and then maybe I should think about those edits again before I commit myself to electrons. Then, it will be lunch. But after that for sure.

Though I do have a date to go see Logan this afternoon. Oh, hell.

I guess there’s always later. Is it later now?

And that’s ten minutes.



The ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others is a great skill. It is far superior to multi-tasking, which gets all the good press. But, really, multi-tasking is simply shifting your focus rapidly from one thing to another. Or it’s a sign you are easily distracted.

But focus is not something that can be achieved in a moment. Deep focus takes effort. You have to learn to push aside all other thoughts, all emotions, even all sensations. Focus is what lets athletes play through pain; it is what allows scientists to concentrate on a single variable at a time as they work to a solution. Focus is the only thing that will allow you to complete a significant work of art.

I’ve always been good at focusing on things – at least for a time. I can immerse myself in a complex effort, like doing the year-end books or writing a short story and lose all track of time. Later, when my back is throbbing or my eyes are itchy and irritated, I sometimes wish I couldn’t.

Focusing on tasks is one thing; focusing on a career is quite another. That is a skill I’ve struggled with. It’s not so much that I am easily distracted but that I am easily bored. I do something for a while but then it ceases to be challenging; it ceases to hold my attention.

For a while now, I’ve been multi-tasking my life. I have a job – one I’ve been doing for fifteen years. Trust me, there isn’t an issue I haven’t seen before. I’ve acquired expertise in a variety of topics only to forget it all when the job required a different emphasis. Well, it’s not really forgotten – just put aside until I need it again. I seldom find myself having to do anything original these days.

Publishing is a complex process, especially when you are pretty much managing or doing all aspects of the job from reading slush to marketing books to doing the books. Still, it has its rhythms, its repetitive tasks and while each book is unique, the work required to get it on bookshelves is not.

I’ve also been writing for years and, again, while each story I tell is different, there is a familiarity to the task of plotting and crafting and writing that makes it all the same. I wrote most of a short story this weekend and, at a certain point – about ¾ of the way through, I thought: I know how this all works out. And only an effort of will, an application of focus, actually made me write down the words necessary to get to the end. It was satisfying but…

Another thing I’ve been doing is experimenting with being a ‘public intellectual.’ It started as an off-hand remark to friends but I got such positive affirmation, I experimented with it, in part right here. Robert J. Sawyer thought enough of the concept that he made me a political pundit in his latest novel, Quantum Night. At the very least, I’ll be able to say: I’m not a public intellectual but I played one in a book.

So now, it has come time to choose: what will I focus on for the next 10 years, perhaps the last decade of my active engagement with the world? That’s an answer I’ll have to focus on before I can tell you. Or myself.

And that’s ten minutes.



According to Freud, most, if not all, human behavior can be explained by two things: sex and death. The desire for one and the fear (and embrace) of the other. Eros and Thanatos. Richard Dawkins might not disagree.

Sex and Death or if you prefer romance and mystery. The mystery you will have to wait for because today is Valentine’s Day – the day we celebrate the brutal torture and murder of a Christian saint by sending each other flowers, chocolates and paper hearts. It is not as irrational as it might seem.

For some people this day is torture. They cover it up by celebrating such things as Voluntarily Single Day or Day Before Chocolate Sales Day but we know how they really feel.

It all goes back to grade school when we were encouraged (forced) to send everyone a card for Valentine’s. No one could be left out even if we hated them. And if someone got forgot – someone always was, ripples of shame and hurt would circle our seven year old heads like vultures after rotting meat. Some cupid that was.

If the card sending was voluntary of course, it all became a numbers game. How many cards did you get and is your stack bigger than the next guy’s? Even at nine, size mattered.

And what did the cards mean anyway. If they were those precut ones with places for ‘to’ and ‘from’, you could pretty much dismiss them. But what about a store bought card – or worse yet, a homemade one all filled with hearts and arrows? Was it love or some sort of cruel joke? By twelve it had become a matter of life or death.

Thankfully the teenage years made it all clear. Between raging hormones and undying cynicism, we could decide it was all a shallow popularity contest (unless we were the popular one). Besides, what mattered weren’t cards but kisses in the closet. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter.

Even as we first became aware of the inevitable approach of death, we were in the midst of life and what was more important in life than romance. Everything else – sports, theatre, work, money – were merely preludes: tokens to make the down payment on the big prize.

And then – something happens. The first flush of lust turns into something else: commitment perhaps or a wandering eye – all driven by brain chemistry, but so what? We are rationalizing animals and if it feels like love, surely we know our own minds, right?

I like to think so. It may well be that we are nothing but the product of our chemistry (and of course, we can hardly be less than that) but I cling to mystery as my salvation. The uncertainty principle applies to those brain chemicals and their ever shifting bonds. And if it seems like love, why call it anything less?

So here’s to love – in all its forms. And if you don’t have someone else to love, you can (should) always love yourself. And who knows, there may be something in your future. Well, something that doesn’t carry a scythe.

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.

The Dark


The sun is shining this morning – though it won’t last, not with freezing rain forecast for later today. On the first day of December I am eagerly waiting for snow to come and cover the ground. Winter is coming but it hasn’t brought its mantle of white with it. Why would someone wish for snow? Because it provides some relief from the darkness of the next two months.

The dark of winter didn’t always bother me. I lived in the North for nine years and while I hated the cold, the darkness didn’t bring me down. In December, the sun would rise by 10 a.m. and set again by 3 in the afternoon. Farther north, it would go down at the end of the first week of December and not come back until January was well underway.

But I felt no different in December than I did much of the rest of the year. It is true I had more energy in June and July when it essentially never got really dark but the winter blahs? Not for me.

Things have changed. November is dreary. Long grey days and endless damp. The trees shed their leaves and colour leaches from the world, not to be replaced by white but by dismal browns and greys on land and black water in the river. I begin to long for snow simply so I can have the reflected light of sun in the days and streetlights for the 16 hours that don’t qualify.

December provides a bit of a break with Christmas trees and tinsel reflecting candle light. In fact as soon as it grows dim I close all the drapes and turn down the lights, filing the room with candles. Our candle bill gets quite staggering by March.

It seems the dark inside is better than the dark without. But it is the dark inside, really inside, that seems the worst. I know I don’t suffer much compared to some. I feel tired all the time and lack much in the way of ambition. I start later and finish sooner. It could be – it undoubtedly is – age. And it doesn’t take a lot to raise my spirits. For some, it is a heavy burden they carry all through the winter.

They even have a name for it – SAD: seasonally affective disorder – which reflects the way many people feel at this time of year.

Maybe that’s why in winter we fill our days with as much artificial light as we can. To call back the sun and stave off the darkness. It sort of works. But by January, the days are still short and the only relief is to pretend you like winter sports or to flee to the sunshine of Mexico and Cuba.

Or you can bury yourself in work and Christmas (or whatever light bearing holiday you prefer) and keep telling yourself in an ominous voice: Summer is coming.

And that’s ten minutes.




If you’ve ever tried to throw a surprise party, you know just how tricky it can be. I’ve done it three times – succeeding twice. The first was a bit of cheat since it was only a party of two – me and the person surprised. It involved secretly buying a plane ticket and booking a hotel and on the day of the flight, handing my wife her suitcase and getting in a cab with her to the airport. Surprise!

The other two were tougher. The first was for a co-worker in Halifax. I made every mistake possible. I did the planning at work. I started too far in advance. I invited too many people. I wasn’t sufficiently deceitful. Of course, the person found out – they acted surprised but they weren’t exactly giving an Oscar winning performance.

The other time was for my wife’s fiftieth birthday. I did everything right. I planned it ten days in advance. I planned it at work (not at home). I invited a limited number of people and held the party in a city far away. I had co-conspirators who lied magnificently. She still almost figured it out. Only when her mother suggested that no-one would go to so much trouble for a birthday – her birthday –  was she taken in. And she still figured it out seconds before we yelled surprise. Close though.

Which is one of the many reasons that I roll my eyes whenever anybody talks about conspiracy theories. There are many reasons to roll your eyes at such people – their selective memory, their willingness to continuously expand the circle of conspirators, the cherry-picking of information, their reliance on experts whose expertise does not fall within the field of interest and so on. But the main cause of eye rolling is that I’m fairly convinced that none of them has ever planned a surprise anything. Honestly, most of them are so trapped in their own heads, they wouldn’t dream of doing something for someone else. They are TOO SERIOUS for that.

Human nature hates a secret the way nature abhors a vacuum. The only way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself – as soon as another person knows the chances of being revealed goes up. Every person you add increases the risk exponentially.

Robert Snowden is a bit of hero to some but he was also inevitable. If he hadn’t blown the whistle (and probably he wasn’t the first) someone else would have. Too many people knew and the activities of the NSA were clearly moving into the unethical and probably illegal. That story has yet to be fully told.

As for the other stuff – 911 being an inside job (the most recent story relies on evidence from the Russian secret service. Now there’s a reliable source), the moon landing never happening, ISIS being backed by the CIA – they not only fail on a rational basis, that is, the reasons offered for doing it only make sense if you suffer from paranoid delusions (at least a little bit) but also on a basic truth of human behavior.

People blab. And people with ethical concerns will blab frequently no matter how many secrecy oaths you make them swear. Do conspiracies exist? Absolutely – just not successful ones.

And that’s ten minutes.



Some decades ago I recall reading ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. He described how evidence accumulates over time that refutes the old theory but the theory doesn’t change until there is a sudden paradigm shift that reconciles old data with conflicting evidence. Though others have since refuted Kuhn’s work to some extent – one wag suggesting paradigms only shift when the old scientists and professors die and are replaced by a younger generation – I still find the general concept useful.

I have witnessed and experienced many paradigm shifts in my time. Recently, I was trying, with my wife, to figure out where we would live when we retired. We have a nice place in downtown Ottawa but we knew it was too expensive for us in retirement. We had been paying down the mortgage but it suddenly seemed futile with the depressed state of the condo market in Ottawa. One morning I had a brainwave. Why keep trying to pay off the mortgage? What would happen if we extended the term back out to 25 years and reduced our bi-weekly expanded payment to the minimum monthly one? Boom! It reduced our monthly expenses enough that we can actually stay here and still do all the things we want to do in retirement. It was obvious once we thought of it but we had been stuck with an old theory and needed a complete shift in our thinking to understand that the circumstances – the evidence – demanded a different approach.

Similarly, I ran into a guy at work who was struggling with changing circumstances. He told me that he was coming around to a whole new way of thinking about the policy problems he was trying to solve. He even admitted that he was being tempted to adopt a policy position that he had always argued vehemently against. I told him – in the most complimentary (and sincere) way possible – that he should take it as evidence that his mind was still flexible and operating on all cylinders.

Keynes was once asked – in a sneering way – why he had abandoned a certain economic idea. He purportedly replied that he had discovered fresh evidence that showed his thinking was wrong and had therefore changed his mind. “In similar circumstances,” he asked, “what do you do?”

This is always a challenge in life – to admit that you didn’t have all the facts or, more often, that you were deliberately ignoring the evidence because it didn’t fit your dearly held beliefs. It is called confirmation bias and we all suffer from it – unfortunately some suffer from it more than others. It hardly helps that whenever a politician does change his or her mind they are accused of waffling or flip-flopping. We – and the media is particularly pernicious in this respect – seem to admire people who cling ferociously to stupid and discredited ideas while criticising those who – while sticking to their more basic moral ideas – adjust their political stances in light of changing evidence.

Maybe as a general practice we should try to believe several impossible things every day before breakfast. One of them might well be right and our whole day would improve because of it.

But that’s ten minutes.

Biological Wiring


According to the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, sexual misconduct in the military occurs because of biological wiring. Apparently, the same rationale might apply in the Canadian Senate. The Chief has since apologized amid calls for his resignation. No word from the Senator yet.

Well, what are we to make of this? Is the general right? Are men (and he didn’t rule out women) wired to behave badly? Are we nothing more than dogs?

Of course, there is a biological basis in human behavior – several of them – including the drive to procreate. Similarly we have a drive to eat and to sleep. We have lots of biological heritage from millions of years of evolution. Yet, we know that people who can’t control their urge to eat constantly or to sleep their lives away have problems. Why wouldn’t we think that people who can’t keep it in their pants, can’t respect other people’s imperative not to have sex (not necessarily never have sex, just not have sex with YOU), why wouldn’t we think they have a problem? A problem that needs to be dealt with in the most appropriate way – whether that is treatment, punishment or dismissal.

There are those who seem to believe that we are nothing but a series of instinctual twitches, driven by our chemistry and our genes to behave like automatons. I always wonder what motivates people to think that.

However, humans long ago transcended their biology. We have liberated ourselves from the vagaries of nature. While people may go hungry in the world, there is actually no biological or natural reason why that should be so. We, in fact produce enough nutrition to feed everyone. We just do a lousy job at distribution – another biological imperative presumably is to horde food and wealth and deprive ‘the other’ from what we enjoy.

So these are all choices we make. Perhaps that is the greatest biological imperative of all, to use our collective intelligence, our constructed rationality (made of language and law and civil practice) to overcome those remnants of biology that seem to drive some people.

The military of all places should understand that ‘wiring’ does not determine human behavior. The whole purpose of ‘boot camp’ and strict discipline is precisely to manage our fight, flight or freeze response, to overcome our natural reluctance to kill other humans, to make soldiers agree to follow orders of people they don’t necessarily think have superior qualities.

Perhaps the general needs to start thinking about how to overcome biological wiring so that he can be in command of human beings instead of mindless animals.

But that’s ten minutes.



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.