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Cut Me Some Slack

This weekend I’ve been learning all over again what it means to be a complete beginner at something.  You see, I went out and bought a slackline.  If you’re ever wondering exactly what it must feel like to be a young toddler learning to walk for the very first time, then I can’t recommend this sport highly enough.

There’s something wonderfully refreshing about tackling an activity you’ve never tried before.  Every little achievement feels like a major triumph.  To be able to stand on the line for a few seconds feels amazing; to manage to take a step or two before falling off can lead to wild applause from the bystanders.  And it’s also very egalitarian; the 10 year old in our party was making progress every bit as fast as me.

It got me thinking about the nature of fitness.  I often hear people say that they ‘want to be fit’, without ever really unpacking what that means. At it’s most fundamental, fitness refers to the body’s ability to perform a task.  And I realise that I can be exceptionally fit in one area and completely unfit in another.  For example, the months and months of training that I put in in order to be able to run an ultramarathon did absolutely nothing to prepare me to walk across a two-inch wide strip of webbing strung between a couple of trees.   Nor does it improve my ability to, say, perform push ups or hit a golf ball.

So the concept of fitness obviously encompasses a number of physical abilities.  I think they could be broken down as follows:

  • Endurance.  The ability to perform a repetitive action without becoming fatigued.  My marathon-running friends like Patrick have this in spades.
  • Strength.  The ability to apply force to an object.  Typically, we runners don’t do so well on this.  Ask me to do bench-presses or pull-ups, and I’ll tire out pretty fast.
  • Flexibility.  To be able to move limbs through a wide range safely.  Again, running doesn’t really do much to improve this.  My Yoga poses leave a lot to be desired.
  • Balance.  The ability to control your center of gravity on an unstable surface.  As the slackline is teaching me, I may be able to get myself around a triathlon course, but taking two or three simple steps can be a daunting task when the surface you’re on is swaying, bobbing, and responding to your every move.
  • Technique.  The ability to perform an action correctly and efficiently.  Every sport requires a commitment to learning correct body mechanics.  If you run incorrectly, you will hurt yourself.  It’s as simple as that.  If you learn to swim correctly, you will glide through the water nearly effortlessly, and still outpace those around you who are spending far more effort than you are.

There are probably more that I haven’t thought of.  I’m sure that diet fits in here somehow as well.  If I can perform well athletically but I’m not giving my body the food it needs to recover quickly and maintain health for the long term, then I’m not sure that I can claim to be truly fit.   So perhaps the final element of fitness is humility, the ability to adopt a lifestyle of continuous learning.

Today I got another taste of that on the slackline.  Tomorrow, who knows, I may stay on it for a few seconds more!

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Global Civics

Our world has changed dramatically.  The way we engage with each other must change too.

We are in the middle of one of the biggest social changes in all of human history; comparable to the dawn of agriculture.

For the first million years or so of human history, before the Neolithic revolution, we lived in small tribes of hunter-gatherers.  We had no large-scale social organization or institutions.    Everyone in the tribe knew everyone else – what their character was like, how much they contributed to the overall good of the community, who they were friends with, what they thought.

After the Neolithic revolution, everything changed.  Farming, probably the most important technological discovery ever, had a huge impact on the structure of human societies.  Agriculture led to a vastly higher population density, to fixed settlements, to division of labour, and to cities.

All of a sudden, we were living in groups bigger than we could keep track of.  No longer did we know personally all the people around us.  And so to manage this drastic psycho-social shift, we created new institutions and structures.

We created money to track the contributions of individuals to the shared economy.

We created laws to formalize what was acceptable behaviour in these new mega-communities.

We created courts, royal dynasties, and parliaments to organize these large groups of people.

And even our religious beliefs and systems changed.  Tribal shamans were replaced with formal priesthoods, with far-reaching social and political influence.

Eventually city-states grew into nation-states, and as they did so many people gave thought to what it meant to be a citizen.  Over time we developed the idea of a Social Contract, an agreement between the individual and the state.  The state provides stability, protection and  regulation, and the individual provides contributions of labour and  obedience to the laws and cultural norms of their country.

“civis romanus sum”

We may not talk about it much these days, but for centuries the exact relationship between the individual and the state has been a major topic of discussion.  The Latin word civis, or ‘citizen’ is the root of our words civil, civilized, civility, and so on.  A civil individual is one who understands his role and obligations towards a broader society.

Today, we live not just in connection with our local tribes, or our city, but with the whole world.  Each of us, daily, affects and is affected by people from around the planet.  This article can be read just as easily in Auckland as in Barrie.  The computer I’m writing it on was assembled in China.  In the news and in social media we can follow real-time updates from the sporting rivalry of the World Cup in Brazil or the horrific religious and ethnic violence in Iraq.

And so I believe we need a new, global, civics.  We need to be asking, and answering, these questions:

  • What does it mean to be a global citizen?
  • What are my responsibilities towards my co-inhabitants of this planet?
  • How do my economic and political choices affect those on the other side of the globe?
  • What positive, constructive steps can I take towards a healthier, more peaceful, more prosperous, more equitable global society?

Sometimes this world can be a depressing place.  When I read about the destruction of global ecosystems, the continued existence of concentration camps 60 years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, or our failure to bring war criminals to justice, I can get despondent.  But I’m not the first to feel this way.  The prophet Jeremiah experienced his country being invaded, his culture nearly destroyed, and  his fellow countrymen forcibly relocated.  He would have had every right to hate the system he found himself under.

But instead, he chose hope.  Seek the peace and prosperity of the city you’ve been exiled to,” he told the survivors.  And I hope today that we can learn how to seek the peace and prosperity of the entire planet. In our purchase decisions, in our politics, even in our Twitter conversations, perhaps we can pioneer a truly civil way of interacting with each other.

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Constructing Gender

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender recently.  In part this has been sparked by reading Margaret Farley’s excellent book Just Love.  Her work has  helped me realize two things.

  1. Gender permeates our thinking and speaking.
  2. Gender is harder to define than you might think.

We are forever talking about gender, and the differences between the sexes.

Books like “Men are from Mars…” become bestsellers.

Movies are categorized into ‘chick flicks’ and guy flicks.

Language itself is frequently gender specific.  In French, and in many other languages, objects are considered to be masculine or feminine, and referred to differently in each case.

Religions talk about gender a lot.  Many religions have codes outlining acceptable behaviour for men and women, and for the relationships between the two.  Even today, the Catholic church teaches that not only are women not permitted to be priests, they are not able to be – it is a kind of category error.  In the muslim world, there are strict rules regarding the participation of men and women in communal worship.

Gender-based violence is still a  huge problem in our society.  Perhaps 1 in 4 women in Canada have experienced some kind of sexual assault.

And yet despite this preoccupation with gender, I’m finding that it’s harder than you might think to define what we mean by the term.

When we talk about gender, when we talk about masculine and feminine, what exactly do we mean?

Maybe we mean the behavioural traits that are associated with one gender or another.   But what do we do if these vary from culture to culture?

Maybe we mean the physical characteristics that are associated with a gender.  But again, what if these overlap?  Men are said to be stronger athletes than women, but this is only true in the aggregate.  I will never run a triathlon as fast as Chrissie Wellington, however hard I train.

Perhaps we mean the social roles that men and women are expected to fill.  Nearly every society on earth divides task by gender, but interestingly they don’t always agree which tasks should be performed by which gender.

Perhaps when we’re talking about gender we’re simply talking about biology – the presence or absence of specific reproductive organs.  Although interestingly enough, these only start developing after a couple of months gestation, in response to certain genetic triggers.

So perhaps gender is all to do with genetics and chromosomes.  Fair enough, but even this runs into trouble when we start learning about the complex ways that humans and other animals determine gender.  Humans use X and Y chromosomes, other animals use Z, W, O chromosomes, or even environmental triggers such as temperature, to determine the gender of an infant.  Still other animals change gender during their lifetimes.   And even in humans, there are combinations of chromosomes and genes that lead to indeterminate gender.

So we’re left with this strange state of affairs – words that we all use, that we all assume have a common, shared meaning, and yet on closer inspection may hide some very complex realities.

I mean to consider the implications of these complexities in subsequent articles.

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The Worst Form of Government

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”

Winston Churchill

Tomorrow we go to the polls.  As of right now, I’m still undecided as to who I will vote for.  But I do know a few things for sure.

I’m glad that I live in Ontario.  Yesterday, up to 500,000 people were forced to flee Mosul in the wake of sectarian attacks.   Here, our political candidates have been trading verbal barbs.

In China, the government has been engaged in a massive exercise to remove all mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre from online discussion.  Here, I’ve been able to engage in email and Twitter conversations with several party candidates, and express my political frustrations quite freely on Facebook and on my blog.

In Syria, a civil war has been ongoing for the past three years, destroying homes, infrastructure, lives, and hope.  Hear, we experience one of the highest standards of living in the world, excellent healthcare, opportunities for social mobility, vast natural resources, and a peaceful society.

On Friday, we will have a new Provincial government.  Some people will be happy.  Others will be deeply disappointed.   The new government will, certainly, get some things wrong.  They will mismanage funds, there will be political scandals, taxes will not be as low as we might like, and there will not be the funding for every social programming that we think is deserving.

But despite all that, we will still have a functional, representative, democratically elected government.  My MPP will still be someone who lives in my city, who walks the same streets as I do, who I can actually reach out and speak to.  We will still have functioning schools, hospitals, roads, emergency services, and provincial parks.

We have these things because countless ordinary Canadians worked tirelessly for generations to build these institutions.  I’m glad for all the people from every party who think that the future of Ontario is worth fighting for, and who have engaged in this round of political discussion.  And regardless of who ‘wins’ tomorrow, I hope that every Ontarian wins, and gets a government that will continue to work for the best interests of the entire province.

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A Letter in the Mail

After having spent days complaining about the lack of engagement in genuine conversation from our politicians, I feel duty bound to celebrate when one of them talks to me. Rod Jackson, our PC candidate and the current MPP for Barrie, responding to my tweets with an invitation to discuss things further via email; and then sent me a page-long message with specific responses to each issue I raised with him.  Frankly, I’m impressed.  For him (or even for one of his staff) to take the time to engage directly with a single voter in the week before the campaign is a good indication of politician who actually takes his role as a representative seriously.

I certainly don’t see eye-to-eye with his party on every issue, but as I’ve said before, I deeply believe that we should be sending people with competence and integrity to Queen’s Park.  The ability to run an efficient campaign is actually a pretty good test of the former.  I’ve yet to formulate a satisfactory test for the latter, unfortunately – I suspect it requires taking a lot of time to actually get to know our candidates as people.


There’s been a lot of talk this year about ‘declining your vote.’  This is pretty much the only option that voters have for expressing their dissatisfaction with the available candidates in a way that actually gets counted.  Whether anything is done with that count is open to debate.  It’s certainly better than not voting at all, and probably worse than voting for a third-party candidate.  But either way, I’d much rather say ‘this is the person I want to represent me’ than ‘what can I do to stop that person from representing me.’ In an ideal world, as a voter I’d feel like an HR manager at a successful, popular candidate, interviewing a number of talented, qualified candidates, and having to pick the one who would be the absolute best fit.    Part of the problem is that a vote only records a tiny amount of information – a single check in a single box.  If there are 4 candidates in the riding, that information could be encoded in 2 bits.

  • Candidate A: 00
    Candidate B: 01
  • Candidate C: 10
  • Candidate D: 11

Which can only go so far in capturing the hopes, fears, aspirations and concerns of the average voter.  This is why we need to be engaged politically beyond simply voting.  We actually need to do the work of democracy – reading upcoming bills, understanding the mechanisms of government, writing to our representatives, learning about the issues facing our city, our province, and our world.

We could also start encoding more information in the ballot.  A Single Transferrable Vote system would go some way towards doing that.

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Swingtown

According to threehundredeight.com,  Barrie is poised on a knife edge for the upcoming provincial election.  The leading candidate is predicted to get 39.2% of the vote, the next candidate, 39.1%.  In other words, we’re the tightest race in Ontario.  For once, I’m genuinely living in a swing riding.

In 2011 the election was decided here by 2,500 votes.  I suspect this time round it will be much closer.  My vote, and the votes of my fellow residences,  may actually make a significant difference to the local and provincial political scene this year.

But despite it being such a tight race, so far none of the candidates feel like engaging with me on Twitter.  Maybe I should just vote for the first one who replies to me; on the principal that at least it indicates that they understand something about technology; and as a software architect I might want to be represented by somebody who understands my field?

Or maybe not.  I still feel that it’s important to select candidates based on their qualifications, competence and integrity.  Less so on their promises;  I think of electoral promises and manifestoes as interesting works of fiction.  Candidates love to promise more jobs and  economic growth, but I suspect that government has far less power over these matters than most MPs would be willing to admit.  Politicians are quick to claim responsibility for improved unemployment numbers, or an uptick in GDP; but the same politicians in times of recession will be quick to point out that the poor economic news is due to factors beyond their control: inflation, foreign exchange, trade deficits, climate.

The problem is: economics is an inexact science.  It’s very good at providing a narrative explanation for why things happened in the past; it’s far less good at producing predictive power for the future.   Before becoming he Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown famously promised to bring an end to the cycle of “boom and bust.”  He then presided over the biggest financial crisis in three generations.

So I’m cautious of politician’s promises to increase jobs or reduce debt.  because their ability to affect these matters is probably less than they think.   But I do care about how they will handle the responsibilities that they have been entrusted with.  And I believe that the best way to predict future performance is to look at past performance.  A wise man once said, ” Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with a lot. Whoever is dishonest with very little is dishonest with a lot.”

So when you come to make your choice, ask yourself – ‘what has this candidate done in the past?  How well have they acquitted themselves of the responsibilities they’ve been given? ‘

And if you can’t come up with good answers for those questions, vote for somebody else.

 

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Refusing to Talk

Another day, another missed opportunity.

None of our local candidates felt like answering my question about our provincial parks.  Canada is blessed with some of the largest and richest wilderness areas in the world; we owe it to the planet and our children to tend and protect them.  I’d like to see the candidates talk about this more.

In other social media news, the CIA joined Twitter

I can only speculate that this is another example of a political leader still thinking in terms of push-media and message discipline.  I wonder what the meeting looked like when they were planning this move.

Spy #1: “Hey, people don’t seem to like us very much.”

Spy #2: “Strange that.  I wonder why?”

Spy #1: “Do you think it has anything to do with the way we’ve assassinated people, lied repeatedly, performed chemical experiments on unsuspecting victims, overthrown elected governments and  used torture, kidnapping and murder as standard practice?  The way we’ve committed war crimes with impunity?

Spy #2: “Maybe – I suppose it could be because of the way that we managed to get ourselves appointed in charge of censoring the official report that describes the way we repeatedly tortured to death those in our custody?

Spy #1: “Doesn’t really sound plausible, does it?”

Spy #2: “No.   I bet it’s just because we don’t have a Twitter account.  We should get one of those things.”

Spy #1: “Good idea!  And make sure that our first tweet is an attempt at humour – that will show everyone that really we’re just a bunch of fun-loving guys, and not at all cold-blooded killers with no respect for the rule of law.”


I’m not sure that this is going how they expected.   The New York Review of Books is taking the opportunity to regularly ping @CIA with extracts from a damning Red Cross report on the agencies use of torture and secret prisons.  In an ideal world, the CIA would actually take this opportunity to enter into a balanced dialog; maybe explain some of their actions of the past 50 years; and who knows, even come to some comprehension of the horrific impact their human rights violations have had.

I suspect that’s even less likely than a politician responded to my tweets.  But I live in hope.

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Conversations Require Listening

So far only the Green party (@BarrieGreens) has responded to any of my tweets, so I’ve been thinking about the nature of political conversations.

The essence of any conversation is that it goes both ways. Social media gives us the opportunity to have good, serious political conversations with MPs and candidates, but it doesn’t guarantee that we will.  Frankly, I see failings on both sides of the table.

The politicians are failing by still thinking in terms of push media.  Twitter is seen as one more way to promote today’s sound-bite.  For a cohort of political animals who grew up in the era of message-control, the idea of going off-script to engage in genuine dialog must be terrifying.  I got a phone call just now from the Liberal party asking if they had my support; I told them that I was still on the fence, and took the opportunity to ask them their position on affordable housing – a critical issue here in Barrie.   The caller had no idea how to answer my question apart from directing me to their website.  Even a ‘thank you, I’ll convey your concern to Ann Hogarth‘ would have been valuable.

But there are failing on the other side of the table too.  We, the voter, owe it to the candidates to actually be informed about their jobs.  If we truly believe in representational government, then that means that politicians work for us.  We, the people, are in charge.  And a good boss is acutely aware of what he expects his employees to do, how well equipped they are to do it, what issues they are struggling with and how best to motivate them.  If we only tune in to politics for a couple of weeks before the election, we can’t really complain if the parties treat us as consumers of a product rather than their employers.

Only an informed citizenry can make wise decisions.  We owe it to ourselves and to each other to understand the basic mechanisms of parliamentary government, the provincial budget, and the upcoming issues.   But more than that, we need to decide what we are trying to achieve.  Companies have mission statements.  Google is trying to ‘organise the world’s information.’   Charity:Water exists to bring safe water to people in developing nations.

If we are to thrive as individuals, we need to know what story we are telling.  And if we are to thrive as a group of individuals, as a province, we also should know what story we want to tell, what we want to achieve, and what we want our shared future to look like.

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Selling, Competing, or Serving?

The great thing about living in the era of social media is that political conversations no longer need to be one way.  You can reach out to candidates through Twitter and enter into a productive discussion about policies and experience.

Of course, this relies on the candidates actually replying, as opposed to simply treating Twitter as yet another ‘push’ channel.  No one replied to me, so I’ll have to talk about something else.

Specifically, the ways that we misconstrue elections.  I have this strange ideal that elections are an opportunity for the citizenry of the province to have a serious discussion about our common goals, and the ways in which we intend to reach them.  I like the metaphor of a conversation.   However, there are two other metaphors that seem far more prevalent.

Firstly, the metaphor of sports.  Some people support their party with the same fervour that they support their local sports team.  The fact that the Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup in nearly half a century doesn’t deter thousands of people from supporting them, cheering for them, and avidly following them.  Real fans are emotionally attached to their team, regardless of their actual performance.   The way we identify with sports team is a strange phenomenon.  None of the Toronto Blue Jays are from Toronto, or even from Ontario.  And in the same way that we root for our sports team to win, we root for our favourite politicians to win.  Predictably, immediately after the debates last night, there were claims that this or that candidate had ‘won’.

The other metaphor that is common is that of sales.

Candidates and parties are advertised and sold.  And that would only make sense if we thought of voters as consumers.   But I am a citizen, not a consumer.  I don’t want to buy something from the candidates.  I want them to represent me and my fellow Ontarians.   As I’ve said before – an election is like a job interview.  I don’t want the candidates commercials, I want their resumé.

Tell me what you’ve done.  Don’t make empty promises about the future.  Show me that you’re already working to improve the lives and the environment of people in this province.   And then maybe I’ll consider voting for you.

Oh, and replying to my tweets would be nice, too.  Let’s actually have a conversation!