Senate Sunrise

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Before coming to work at the Senate of Canada, I had never held the same job for more than 5 and a half years. While I never expected to stay so long, I’ve now spent more than 15 as the policy advisor to the Senator for the Northwest Territories.

I guess I wound up staying so long because the work was interesting, the conditions agreeable, the pay reasonable and maybe, most of all, I felt I was making a contribution.

Lots of friends have worked in the public service and one of their great frustrations was having everything they did edited, modified, limited, canceled, changed, misused by those higher up (and even lower down) the decision chain. When I wrote a letter, a speech or a report, only one person could ask for a change and as the years went by and I learned his voice better and better, the changes became fewer and fewer.

Over the years, I’ve written letters that went to 4 Prime Ministers, dozens of Ministers, Premiers, MPs, MLAs, corporate officials, heads of non-profits and ordinary citizens. Some of those letters actually changed public policy. I wrote ( and even gave) speeches, authored or oversaw reports, participated in meetings at every level and, most days, learned something new and interesting.

It was fun.

Obviously, I can’t list everything I did but there were a few highlights. In 2007, our office used caucus research funds to hire Jamie Bastedo to write a report on climate change in the arctic. Called “On the Frontlines of Climate Change”, it was one of the first popular reports about the impacts of global warming on northern communities and people. It was widely distributed across the NWT and across Canada and was even used as a teaching tool in a number of high schools and universities. This was the first of several papers that Jaime and I worked on – including one on alternative land using planning methods and another – which we co-wrote – on small-scale science and technology as an economic driver in the North.

I also worked on a lot of committee reports. A few stand out. For ”Sharing Canada’s Prosperity: A Hand Up Not a Handout”, on aboriginal economic development, I organized a policy team that included myself, Senator St. Germain’s policy advisor, Stephen Stewart and staff from the Library of Parliament to provide support to the Aboriginal Peoples committee. Though it is uncredited, I wrote the introduction to Negotiation or Confrontation, the report on the Specific claims process. Another report, done for the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources committee was “With Respect Canada’s North”. I assisted with organizing committee travel, provided policy advice and even traveled with Senators on a fact-finding trip across the NWT. I played a role – sometimes small and sometimes large – in another half dozen reports.

And , of course, there was the work on legislation. Everyone is making a big fuss these days because the Senate is amending government Bills but until 2008, the Senate routinely made amendments to about 25% of the bills that came before it. None of the governments of the day liked it but it was only during the Dark Years (2008-2015) that they used their majority in the Senate to thwart most changes. But in the early days, I helped draft a number of amendments, some of which made it into the law.

Travel in the north and to First Nations communities across Canada was a fascinating and rewarding opportunity and solidified my knowledge of northern and indigenous issues. I met literally thousands of people and learned from every one of them. And I like to think I helped my share, too, whether with tax problems, immigration issues or, most importantly, with dealing with residential schools.

It was a fascinating 15 years or work and continuous learning – imagine a job where they essentially pay you to think and read and study and then, report on what you found out. Not perfect everyday but a lot better than most jobs.

Of course there were dark times – the attack on Parliament Hill and the various Senate scandals, the Auditor general, the Harper majority – but the good outweighed the bad.

Pretty hard to sum up 15 years in 700 hundred words but that’s clearly somewhat more than ten minutes.

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Senate Sunset

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In a few days I’ll be retiring from my job at the Senate of Canada. When I came to work as Senator Nick Sibbeston’s policy advisor some 15 and a half years ago, I never thought I’d stay so long. I’d originally accepted the job right after 9/11 because I wanted to get back into government work after an 11 year absence. I thought I’d stay with him for a couple of years before moving on to the public service. I almost went a couple of times – I came very close to getting a job with the Canadian Space Agency in 2011 but it was not to be.

In the end I stayed as long as I did because the work was interesting and the working conditions amenable. The pay wasn’t as much as I might have gotten elsewhere but it was certainly a living wage.

Having been there so long, I can attest to some of the substantial changes that have occurred in this 150 year old institution this century. When I arrived, the security guards at the Senate were required to salute Senators when they entered the building. My own boss thought this was hilarious but you could see that some of his colleagues lapped it up. In those days, about the only real rules about expenditures was ‘don’t exceed your budget’ and ‘don’t get caught spending money on your private concerns’. Even then a few Senators got into trouble and one even went to jail. Senate administration generally would question Senators’ staff but never Senators themselves. Only the Internal Economy Committee – made up of other Senators – could do that.

In that atmosphere, is it any surprise that a few people might go astray? But in reality it was very few and, generally, it was among those Senators, appointed for highly partisan reasons, with already questionable moral compasses that proved the most troublesome.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve been supportive of the move to make the Senate much less partisan. There have been bumps along the road and there are still rocky times ahead I’m sure. But one by one the bad apples are being gotten rid of or at least polished up. The rules under which Senators and their staff operate have been tightened considerably – a process that had actually begun years before the Duffy suspension, trial and eventual acquittal on all charges.

There are new rules regarding harassment that will make sure that the behavior of people like former Senator Don Meredith is nipped in the bud, long before it gets to the point of sleeping with teenagers. One hopes.

And lessons were learned from the experience with the Auditor General, too, though not necessarily what you might think. Bureaucrats and especially auditors (accountants who failed the personality test) have very little understanding what the job of politicians actually is. The biggest shame I ever saw in the Senate was when Romeo Dallaire resigned because some piddly-assed number cruncher decided working to eliminate the use of child soldiers was not public business. And before you say, yeah but they found a million dollars in inappropriate expenditures, I’ll mention that they spent $24M to do it.

And tomorrow I’ll tell you about some of the great things I got to do working at the Senate because that is a bit more than 10 minutes.

Putting It Off

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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.

Retirement

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In two weeks I will be retired, or as a friend of mine wisely calls it, refocused. Still it will be a strange thing not to work for someone else. I took my first paid job when I was fourteen (though I did freelance for a few years before that as a lawnmower and snow-shoveller and berry-picker). I still have the pay-stub from my first regular job. It was for $4.65 for 3.5 hours work. That was obviously a long time ago.

Since then I’ve worked for a lot of different people and organizations – mostly on regular salary though sometimes on contract. It has been a varied life. I’ve worked as a library assistant, a gardener, a chemist, a research manager, a house painter, a labour negotiator, an actor, a bartender, a pizza cook, an arts administrator, a policy advisor, a medical researcher, a telemarketer, a political assistant and several other professions I now forget.

During that time I did work for myself as well. I spent my teenage years selling greeting cards door-to-door and, later, took research jobs on contract. Of course, I’ve been a freelance writer for more than  25 years and, most recently, an editor and publisher for my own company.

I expect that I’ll keep writing on a regular basis and I hope to even make some money in the process. But it’s not the same as having to go to the office every day. I only have myself to answer to and only I can make me sit at the computer and work. I expect to be a pretty easy going boss. Although I intend to write a novel between now and the end of September, that’s only about 900 words a day of new prose. I can generally do that in an hour or two. There will be research, of course, and re-writing and editing, not to mention the publishing company, but still, I don’t plan to write every day and I don’t plan to work any more than 4 hours in any given day.

But what will I do to fill the time? After spending most of my life working 8 or more hours a day – for someone far less easy going than me – what will I do to stop from being bored?

Even to ask that question suggests you don’t know me very well. I can’t stand being inactive – it doesn’t just bore me it makes me grumpy. So I will read and walk and talk and party and cook and travel and photograph and think and watch and listen and play and dream up adventures to do or write about.

Retirement? I don’t think so. Refocus – it is a wiser term.

And that’s ten minutes.

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.