Rigged

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Donald Trump has expressed concerns that the upcoming Presidential election may be ‘rigged.’ I thought originally that he was making an elaborate metaphor about the apparatus of government – you know the ropes and pulleys required to drive forward the ship of state.

But no, he means it in the sense given by the urban dictionary:  to describe situations where unfair advantages are given to one side of a conflict.

He provides no evidence as to this claim – nothing new for Mr. Trump – so I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for it. Like we should accept his claim that there is nothing wrong with his tax returns (move along, nothing to see here) or that his small hands are no indication of anything else.

I suppose in a way he might be right. Clinton does seem to have some distinct advantages. She’s sane for one thing – though it is just my opinion that Trump is not. But she does seem to have more money, a better organization, and a substantial lead in the polls. And those are all unfair advantages: a form of systematic discrimination that Donald Trump – if he were anything but an old white man – might readily recognize.

It’s hard to know where Trump’s latest claim comes from – it is increasingly suspect that the things he says come from anywhere. He may well simply have impulse control and a supreme belief in the rightness of his own, well, beliefs. Who needs evidence when you know you are always right?

If I thought Donald Trump were capable of being self-aware and able to see the writing on the wall, I would say he is trying to prepare his supporters for an epic defeat – and it could well be truly epic. If current numbers hold up and Clinton wins the election say 50% to 42% with 8% going to third parties, it will rank in the top ten of the worst thrashings in modern American presidential races.

Nothing like the election of 1936, of course, where FDR got more than 60% of the vote and took all but 8 of the Electoral College votes. Or even Reagan and Nixon’s best performances when they beat very left wing Democrats (do I hear an echo?) by substantial margins. But it could be similar to the crushing of Barry Goldwater who was the worst performing Republican since the 1936 vote.

Of course, it might be simpler than that. Trump may simply be trying to change the channel – anything to get away from his attack on a Muslim American war hero and the subsequent close examination of his own draft deferments during the Vietnam War. It worked for him when he got into trouble accusing a judge of bias against him, why not now?

Because now, we are into the real race. Now, there is only him and Clinton (with apologies to third party supporters). Now, nothing will go away and the self-inflicted wounds of the GOP campaign threaten not only Trump’s defeat but maybe the destruction of the Republican party for the next 20 years.

And 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.

Party Unity

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While it may be a consummation devoutly to be wished, the question of unity within the Democratic Party remains in doubt. Or does it? A poll released yesterday suggests that 90% of hard-core Bernie Sanders supporters intend to vote for Clinton in November. Despite protests at the Democratic convention, it turns out that just as Bernie Sanders doesn’t control or even speak for his most rabid partisans, they, in turn, don’t speak for the majority of Sanders less active supporters.

Nothing new here. People who go to conventions are not the same is ordinary voters – they have more ego invested. Having been battle tested, they are always ready for the fight even if every victory they achieve is bound to by pyrrhic.

What will happen to the Bernie or Bust people? I expect a lot of them will take their ball and go home and won’t be heard from again until after the election. Others may turn their frustrated energy towards a campaign for the Greens or, illogical as it may seem, for the right wing Libertarian Party candidate. A few may even campaign for Trump. But most of those who remain active will work to get Democrats elected – they may not support Clinton directly but will pick local candidates for Congress or Governor to try to break the Republican stranglehold on those elected bodies.

The same cannot be said for the situation in Republican Party. Whereas the second place finisher for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders, called on people to elect Clinton, Ted Cruz, who finished second for the GOP, refused to endorse Trump and was actually booed off the stage. Meanwhile, numerous Republican leaders have been lukewarm in their endorsements or are actively working for the defeat of their own candidate. How that works out on Election Day is anyone’s guess, but the same Pew poll that showed the shift in Sanders supporters found that fewer than 80% of those who worked for another GOP candidate will vote for Trump. I doubt if many of those will wind up working for Clinton but it may give the Libertarian candidate a boost. Or, more likely, it will add to the huge number of Americans who simply don’t vote.

While many progressives and independents were somewhat shocked at the rhetoric at the GOP convention, they might take comfort in the fact that most of the convention-goers there, like the Bernie or Bust folks protesting at the DNC, don’t represent anyone but themselves. Radicals make great TV but seldom deliver what they promise. Trust me, after 45 years of activism on the left, I know.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

The Future of Energy

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This morning I woke up to the news that the first round-the-world flight of a solar-powered plane was completed. There were a lot of technical difficulties along the way as one might expect when something is done for the first time and I don’t expect to be flying to Yellowknife in a solar plane anytime soon. Still, it was still a remarkable achievement and a probable signpost of things to come.

On the same day, another news report talked about the dramatic decline in the number of oil rigs operating in North America. Since last year, the number has been cut in half. Despite persistently low oil prices, demand for the black goop continues to moderate. While bad news for oil producing regions, it may be excellent news for the rest of the world.

While oil is decried for its polluting qualities (250,000 liters are currently fouling the waters of northern Saskatchewan) and for its contribution to climate change, it is its impact on global politics that may be the most pernicious. Oil fuels the terrorist activities of ISIL and has led to social, political and military conflict across the globe. While North Americans haven’t actually come to blows on their own soil in recent years – they have been sent to fight in the oil wars in the Middle East for years. Conflict in the South China Sea, with Beijing ordering the construction of fake islands to spread its influence, is completely about access to oil reserves that lie under those waters.

The end of oil would create massive social disruptions (these are already occurring in Venezuela and Nigeria where falling oil prices have placed strains on governments and economies) and would undoubtedly impoverish some countries – though not Norway who cleverly banked their oil revenues. Even the Canadian economy would not be immune to the long term decline of oil prices – but we have the advantage of diversity and while some regions would lose out, others would stand to gain from shifts in energy consumption away from oil and toward solar, wind, hydro and other alternatives.

Energy use is likely to continue to grow over time and in the past that has always meant the growth in the consumption of oil. But as alternatives to oil like solar (and, by the way, you can thank Obama in large part for that) gain ground, we may be able to raise the standard of living of people across the world without the price of pollution or global conflict. After all, the sun shines and the wind blows wherever people live on this planet – with equal distribution a major irritant for global conflict will disappear. And oil will cease to be the bankroll for dictators and terrorists.

That would be a sunny future indeed. And that’s ten minutes.

Builders and Wreckers

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There are two types of people: those who separate the world into categories and those who don’t.

Seriously though, I’ve found in my years of observing them that politicians often do fall into two categories: builders and wreckers. It is not really an ideological vision – I can name plenty of conservative builders. John A. MacDonald, for example, or Robert Borden. More recently, John Diefenbaker and even Brian Mulroney (who started to look good after the wreckers took over his party). You can find conservative builders in every country. These are men and women who have a particular vision for the world that is expansive and constructive. You might not agree with their vision but you have to acknowledge that it’s there.

There are wreckers on the left as well – though they often masquerade as builders. I suspect history will judge Hugo Chavez as a wrecker, rather than a visionary. He didn’t build a true socialist society but rather squandered the nation’s resource wealth to pay for populist projects. When the money was gone, so was the state. He could have taken a more prudent approach – like Norway which has secured its long term security under both left and right wing governments.

Canada has recently changed governments and a lot of people have suggested that it has taken little time to do away with the previous PM’s legacy. I would argue that is because Mr. Harper had no real legacy. His party was a party of the small – they had no vision for the future but only a determination to tear down what previous generations had built – peacekeeping, an open society of expansive human rights, social safety nets, environmental protections. It left a lot of rubble to clean up but there was nothing there to get in the way of rebuilding.

It’s too early to judge what Mr. Trudeau will be. He is certainly an activist and seems to have a specific vision – quite clear when you wipe away the hype over selfies and public relations – of the Canada he wants to build or, at the very least, restore. But he needs to go beyond restoration of previous glories and do something new and big. Restoration is always a conservative project and often lapses into a subtle form of wrecking, called petrification.

Like making America great again. While Mr. Trump claims he wants to build a wall, it doesn’t appear that he plans to build anything else. Indeed he has all the hallmarks of a wrecker on a grand scale – certainly his legacy of corporate bankruptcies and a failed university would suggest that. But more importantly he wants to tear down social safety nets and environmental protections – elements that provide the only protection most Americans (including the vast majority of his supporters) against rapacious capitalism.

I might have some doubts about Ms. Clinton’s builder credentials – though I think they’ve improved because of a push from Mr. Sanders – but I know she will at least keep what America has built. And maybe keeping America great is better than some vague promise to make it great again.

And that’s ten minutes – back again for an indeterminate run.

The End

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This is the end. A little over 20 months ago I began this 10 Minutes of Words blog. Since then and counting today, I’ve written 591 of them – totaling more than 300,000 words. If I had written that many words of fiction, I’d have more than three novels. Which I guess is a lesson for those who say they can’t find time to write.

Of course, I wouldn’t have written 3 novels (fiction is such a different process) – but I might have written one. Or a bunch of short stories.

To be fair, during the first few months, writing every morning for ten minutes or so (I occasionally went longer) was a great way to start my day and get my brain up and running. For someone who can’t even imagine being a morning person that wasn’t a bad thing. But eventually, I found I dreaded it. I’d sit and stare at the screen for five minutes or more before I even had an idea what to write. Sometimes I’d have to start over when my thoughts refused to follow a logical path. More than a few times I erased an entire blog and started again with a different topic.

In short, this ten minutes began to stretch out to 30 on some days. It was no longer an exercise in thinking and writing – it became a central focus of my day. Some nights, I’d even lie awake in bed trying to work out a particularly complex argument. Ten Minutes began to occupy an inordinate amount of space in my head.

I tried various strategies – writing out lists of possible topics, writing a series of related blogs and so on. Often I’d look at the list and wonder what I had had in mind. The series almost always seemed forced. I eventually decided that winging it with a blank slate at least had the advantage of being spontaneous. Sometimes, they were the funniest blogs I wrote if not the most profound.

Still, I think I did hit profound on occasion – at least based on the responses I got from my readers. Eventually I may go back and see if I can mine these nuggets to see if there is enough gold to make a short e-book worthwhile. Or not.

For those who have been regular readers – all 40 or so of you – I appreciate your loyalty and support. On occasion it has seemed pretty lonely in here. Other times I’d hit a resonant note and several hundred people would drop in and see what I had to say. My record was the piece I wrote about the shooting at the Ottawa War Memorial which garnered over 700 views since it was published. Not exactly best selling territory. The least read entry was one about Gardens which attracted only 8 readers.

In any case, it wasn’t all about numbers – though obviously if I had 10,000 readers I’d probably still be doing it or actively looking for a book deal somewhere. I’ve enjoyed the process and the contacts I’ve made.

But this is it. I may be back from time to time as the mood strikes me but it won’t be a regular, or even frequent, thing. I’ve got other stories to tell in other venues. If you look for me – you will find me.

And that, at last, is ten minutes.

Purpose

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“A life without purpose is like the life of a dog.” I’m not sure who first said this. Me, maybe. Don’t get me wrong; a dog’s life might not be so bad. You sleep until someone – or your stomach – wakes you. You eat whatever is available (though it may well make you sick) and you hump whatever you can. Best of all, you always know where you fit in – alpha dog, beta dog, gamma dog.

No alarm clocks, no going to the office, no worries about what is right or wrong. Nothing to do but live in the moment. A great life. If you are a dog.

Humans are not so lucky. We are aware of our own death from an early age. We are prompted by religion, politics, economics and family to do something. Get a job or prepare for death. Be like Jesus or Buddha.

Yet, most of us go through life without any real sense of why we are here and what we are supposed to do in our brief span upon the earth. As noted, there are plenty who are willing to tell you, willing to take the answer out of your hands and mind.

Some tell us to practice mindfulness – which is to be aware of the forces, internal and external that act on us and to focus fully on the present. A bit like dogs, I suppose. The proponents have appropriated aspects of Buddhism (mostly stripping it off its spiritual elements) to create a ‘meditative practice.’ You can take weekend courses or go to summer camp to learn it. Those that love it love it a lot. Those who don’t suggest it might cause psychotic episodes.

But if it lowers your stress and reduces the chances of you beating your kids when they annoy you, I say meditate away. Even if all that focus on the self seems a little – well, selfish.

Purpose isn’t about you. Purpose is about what you do in and with the world. Some people discover that early on; realize that it is possible to make the world a better place through concerted and focused action. Often we can only make change in groups but some people express their purpose in small ways – helping neighbours or supporting candidates who are motivated by hope and charity rather than fear and anger.

Because of course a purpose-filled life is not much good if your purposes are self-aggrandizement and the oppression of others. But you know that isn’t what I mean.

It’s important to remember one thing: you can never fail when you lead a purpose-filled life. The meaning comes from the striving not in reaching the goal. If your purpose is to end world poverty, you are apt to end your life in failure – unless you accept small victories for exactly that.

I like to summarize it by saying you should always strive to live your values. Whenever you do something that is likely to affect your family, friends, neighbourhood, community, country, world, you can ask: is this consistent with my most deeply held and cherished beliefs.  This does not mean you will always do good – some beliefs shouldn’t be actualized – but it does mean you will always do something.

But of course, first you have to know what your values are. The good news is that, unlike a dog, it is something you can actually do.

And that’s ten minutes.