TGIF

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Who among us, after a hard week at work, has not bellowed (or at least muttered): TGIF? Depending on your point of view, the G stands for either God or Goodness and we are thankful the weekend has arrived. Unless of course you are in the service industry in which case you have long hours and rowdy customers to contend with (and the faint hope of decent tips).

In any case, neither God nor Goodness has anything to do with having two days a week to ourselves. While the Bible (and other religious texts) calls for a day of rest, this was generally interpreted as a day spent in service to the church. Certainly, serfs in the middle ages didn’t sit around watching sports and drinking beer (although it was a fairly common breakfast food). When their work for their feudal Lord was done, they spent most of Sunday working in church fields for their heavenly one.

As for goodness, the owners of the means of production have never been driven solely (or at all) by altruism. These are the people who brought us sweat shops and child labour.

Few societies have valued leisure time as much as our own. Sure the Romans were notorious for their frequent holy days and mass celebrations – but their economy was run by slaves, who only got a break for one day a year when during Saturnalia,  they got to give the orders. Though, of course, they were careful not to go to excess. After all, it was back to the yoke the very next day.

The weekend, like almost everything we value in modern society, was gained for us by the struggle of working people, almost always organized into collectives called unions. A quick perusal of the newspapers of the nineteenth century and you will see endless diatribes about the evils of workers’ organizations. By God, they were teaching factory workers how to read! What next, the vote?!

Days off, shorter working hours, coffee breaks, unemployment benefits, health care (no matter how mediocre), pensions and disability insurance – all of these were wrested from society (that is, the rich) by the collective actions of workers and their allies in the intellectual class and the more progressive churches. Yeah, social gospel used to be a thing before most churches lost their way and became more concerned with limiting human rights than expanding them.

Nowadays, people like to say that unions are a relic of a by-gone era – even though they haven’t been around as long as capitalism or consumerism – and have outlived their usefulness. We should get rid of them or break their power. But every American state who has followed that route has sunk into a quagmire of lower employment, greater poverty and more rich people filling their pockets at the taxpayers’ expense (cause you know the first thing on a billionaire’s list of things to do is: avoid taxes).

So as you kick back and enjoy your weekend, maybe you should spend a moment thanking your grandfather and mother for the struggles they went through on your behalf. And maybe take a look at your own workplace and wonder if a little collective action wouldn’t do some good.

But that’s ten minutes.

The Limits of Technology

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Technology is ubiquitous and has always brought with it benefits and risks. “Sure fire is great – it keeps us warm and scares away bears but did you hear about Og? Burned out of cave and home.”

But the real problem with technology is its limitations. For a lot of people, Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum rings true. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And magic – like all supernatural things – is infallible. It always works.

This explains people who follow their GPS right off the end of wharves or who take a nap while their ‘self-driving’ car runs into a transport truck. Technology can do wonderful things but in the hands of idiots? Well, Og shouldn’t have poured mastodon grease on the fire.

Technology, to again paraphrase Clarke, is a very powerful, very fast idiot. Machines don’t really think – at least not yet. They rely on programming to do their work which means they rely on programmers. And there is the rub.

Programmers are exceptional at what they do – which is write code. However, their expertise doesn’t necessarily extend to the things they write code about. Anyone who has ever used the grammar function of word processors will know what I’m talking about.

In Ottawa right now, the new IBM developed pay system is failing to deliver pay and benefits to nearly 80,000 people. My wife is one of them. She fortunately is being overpaid and has been for nearly 3 months. Being a rational person, she hasn’t spent the surplus but has stuck it in the bank. She hopes she has put enough aside so that she can pay it back when they finally get things straight. But it is worrisome because, like the programmers who developed Phoenix, she isn’t a compensation specialist. It is notable that to fix the problem they are not only calling on programmers to write new code (at least I trust they are doing that) but are mostly relying on human experts to identify and fix the problems one by one.

That’s what happens when decision makers think they are smarter than experts and buy the bill of goods that proclaims that technology can do anything and do it cheaper and faster.

Part of this problem lies not with programmers but in the nature of expertise. When you are good at something, you generally don’t think through every step in a process. You have internalized best practices and have a hard time explaining it in clear tiny steps. Which is exactly what a programmer requires when they are writing code. Think of it this way: Wayne Gretzky was a great hockey player but when it came to coaching he struggled to impart that greatness to other players.

Most of the problems caused by inadequate technology can be resolved by the application of human expertise and hard work. Eventually the program ‘evolves’ (that is, is changed by human beings) and the initial bugs are resolved – only for new ones to be discovered.

Not a problem when all that is involved is money but I have to wonder – how far should we trust automated medical technology?

And that’s ten minutes.

Focus

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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.

Restless

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Sometimes I feel restless. It could be my father’s genes showing through. He spent 6 years a hobo, riding the rails in the dirty thirties, then more than two decades as a travelling salesman, away from home two weeks out of three. But on the other hand, he lived in that home for more than thirty years and was married to the same woman for longer still.

More than I can say for myself. I worked it out – since I first married at 19, I’ve lived in 8 towns and cities in six provinces and territories. During that span, I lived in 18 apartments or houses, moving on average every 28 months. I’ve been in my current place for nearly twice that. I’ve practically grown roots. Maybe I need to move.

I’ve switched jobs a lot, too, not to mention careers. I started out to be a chemist – got a degree and even a publication in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry – before switching to political science (2 degrees) and working at the municipal and territorial level, holding 4 different jobs in a little over 11 years. Over the next 11, I was a writer, actor, arts administrator, bartender and telemarketer. So much for 7 years at university. In 2002, I came to Ottawa and went to work for a Senator. I’ve been here ever since. Maybe I need a new job.

Although since I’ve also written a number of novels and bought a publishing company, maybe I already have one. Or two.

Maybe it’s the promise of spring that has been given us this week as the temperatures rise and the snow melts – except, for me, the season of change has always been the fall.

And yet, some mornings I wake up and want to get in a car and keep driving until I reach somewhere I’ve never been before. That’s problematic since I’d have to steal one. I may want to travel but I don’t want to be on the run from the law.

Maybe I feel I’m on the edge of something new but I’m not quite sure what it is or even when it will begin. I know I’ll be retiring soon – from my government job at least – but when exactly? Six months or sixteen? Maybe even 30 or more. Not in my hands – though I suppose it could be. I know what walking away feel like.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve got a book done but not released, two more half-edited but months away from seeing the light of day. A third even farther down the road – and more and more until I turn off that road, too.

What it reminds me of more than anything else is how I felt my last year in university. One thing was done; the next not yet started or even clearly defined. I could feel it in my twitching hands and in my restless feet. I could smell the new on the air but I couldn’t taste it yet or feel it.

But if I look over my shoulder, I see so much behind me, but if I look ahead all I see is fog.fog-1

And that’s ten minutes.

Making Stories

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A couple of months ago I was asked to submit a story to an anthology. The theme was interesting but nothing I’d ever really thought about. To be frank I didn’t have a clue where to start. Besides, I thought, I’m too busy to write a short story – I’ve got slush to read, novels to edit, an anthology to put together, not to mention year-end books to do, a web-site to build and marketing that won’t do itself. And that doesn’t even take into account my day job. Or the people I mentor or the workshops and contest judging I’ve promised to do.

But then my wife suggested I was working too hard and that was why I was tired all the time. I liked her diagnosis better than my doctor (he thinks all my troubles are caused by wine). We agreed that we would take the 4-day Easter weekend off and just have fun.

Great! Now I can spend four days not working. I can write a short story instead!

Now, the only problem was: what to write? I still didn’t have a clue and the deadline for the anthology is looming. I suppose I could write something else – but the anthology pays so well and I already have an in with the editors. No guarantees, of course, but better than a blind submission.

On Thursday, I was finished my lunch and had twenty minutes to wait until my next meeting began – which was being held in the same Yellowknife coffee shop where I had just eaten. I took out my note book and a pen and wrote down the theme of the anthology (as best as I could remember it). I stared at it for five minutes. I scribbled down a random disconnected thought. A minute later I wrote down a possible name for the protagonist. Then a few of the character’s basic features.

Then I thought about what they might want (notice I haven’t decided on gender yet) and then what might be standing in their way. Things were starting to happen but I only had ten minutes left.

Where does the story take place and what does it look like? What colours predominate this world, what smells, what textures? What does all that have to do with the story and the character? Well, maybe this person has been shaped by their environment. But that takes time – so now I had a sense of how old the person was.

So I knew what was standing in the way of the character’s goals but since it was largely an internal conflict – regarding duty and values – how might that be manifested? Could there be a physical representation of the conflict. Yes, I thought, the environment itself might be a character and since this is science fiction – that means the spaceship they (now there is a bunch of people – sort of) are riding in or rather the artificial intelligence that runs it.

All that was left was to discover the theme of the story – which needed to be a reflection of the anthology’s theme. I wrote down a sentence that encapsulated the conflict and what it meant to the character and the larger world.

My appointment arrived – but I had a story in two pages of notes, words, arrows, shapes and connections. Because that is where stories come from.

And this is ten minutes.

Monday Musings

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It’s Monday. I should be working. I’ve got to get to the office. Then I have to come home to my other office and work some more. Instead, I’m typing for ten minutes for your pleasure and elucidation. I trust you appreciate it. Even as I write, the items on my list of things to do are having a sexy morning. Honestly I can see them procreating.

Guns from Canada have fallen into the wrong hands! Apparently guns sold to our good friends, the despicable Saudis, to use against the rebels in Yemen have somehow gotten into the hands of the very same Yemeni rebels. People are shocked. Government officials – when confronted with the facts – say the ‘when they become aware of such things’ (duh) they will work with exporters to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So, exactly how are you going to do that? Every army in the Middle East have gotten their hands on weapons the international community says they shouldn’t have. How could that happen? Ask any gangbanger in Detroit and he’ll give you a hint. They ‘stole’ them or bought them on the black market or took them from the dead hands of their enemies. Sell guns to anyone and you better expect some or most of them will wind up in the wrong hands. It is, after all, the American way.

Bernie Sanders apparently was an active participant in the civil rights struggle according to a picture that has recently emerged. Emerged? Like a sword being lifted out of a pond by a watery witch. Despite his left-wing credentials, Clinton can still say that Bernie wasn’t a Democrat – even if he is a democratic socialist. Meanwhile right wingers in the Republican Party can’t decide if Donald Trump is more of a fascist than Barrack Obama. No really that is a discussion they actually have. Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it – the rest of us are doomed to suffer from the repetition.

I’ve decided that I’ve pretty much had it with winter. Next year, I plan to spend as much time in southern climes as I can afford. When the money runs out, I guess I’ll have to drown myself. At least the water will be warm.

I’m currently reading novels for possible publication. This is the good part of my job. Before I could read the novels I had to read all the submissions. That, I hate to tell you, is not as pleasant. Most people are not bad writers or even lousy story-tellers; most of them are mediocre. Sorry but it’s true. After four hours of reading slush, I usually get a brain freeze, not unlike eating cheap ice cream too fast on a hot day.

One last thought on guns – isn’t refusing to do mental health checks on people who want to own guns a crazy idea? Especially since recent studies suggest that the majority of people who gun down their families have a history of severe mental illness.

Well, that’s it, the buzzer has gone and I can get back to my list. I swear it’s twice as long as when I started this blog. Where is Planned Parenthood when you need them? Right, busy being lied about by Republicans.

And that really is ten minutes.

No End in Sight

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I talk a lot these days about retiring. What I’m really talking about is moving from one occupation to another. Frankly I’m tired of working in a regular job – getting up every day to someone else’s schedule and trundling off to an office where my activities are constrained by those around me and the systems in place to manage the work.

I’ve never been keen on systems. I didn’t mind school but found plenty of ways to circumvent or at least ameliorate the rules. It was not a case of rebelling – I was a radical but not much of a revolutionary – but of co-opting them to my own interests. Being smart and working hard can buy you a lot of freedom. It helped that the high school I went to had 2000 students and my university only 1300. You could choose to be invisible if you liked – or you could stand out in ways that seemed to buy into the system while secretly subverting it.

Good times.

Real life was never so easy. Governments and corporations have had a lot of practice shackling their employees, locking us into the iron cage of bureaucracy. Small businesses – unless you happen to be the owner – are nothing but arbitrary fiefdoms where employees are treated like family – in the worst sense of the word – and expected to work like slaves.

Work – the curse of the drinking class.

But, having been smart enough and lucky enough to work in a place that offers a defined benefit pension plan (indexed to inflation) means that soon I will celebrate, not freedom 55 but freedom 61 or 62 (the timing remains uncertain). I will have an income free from any obligation.

It’s as if I was suddenly a member of the gentry in a Jane Austin novel!

But as they say a man with an income is soon in need of, well not a wife – I have one of those – but an occupation. Something useful – at least to them – to fill the hours until happy hour. Without it, happy hour may start to come at 10 in the morning.

But what to do? Fortunately I’ve been planning for these days for a very long time and have plenty that will fill my hours with interesting tasks while still leaving me free to pursue my real hobbies of traveling and sampling all the various foods and drinks the world has to offer.

I have my publishing company and my writing. I don’t see giving up the latter – ever – and as for the former, well, that depends upon other people, those who choose to buy or not buy the books I publish. But for now it continues to beckon me. After all, writing and publishing have their own benefits and not merely in terms of being engaged in a creative process but in being engaged with creative people.

That’s what keeps your mind young even as the rest of you ages into decrepitude. Even after my body stops moving my mind can journey to far shores.

I’ve seen the alternative and it isn’t pretty. Wasting away in body AND mind. No, I’d rather go out like Robertson Davies, starting a short story on the morning of my death at age 90.

But that’s ten minutes.