Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Underground Railroad

We have all heard of the underground railroad, but weren't too sure what it really was.  My understanding is that it was really a network of volunteers guiding escaped slaves up north to freedom.  I once visited a black museum in Amherstburg, Ontario where they commemorated escaping over the river that separated Canada from The United States.

The book, which won a 2017 Pulitzer prize really uses the concept of an actual underground railroad as a vehicle to tell a story and make some points.  The railroad is dug out where whites cannot see and uses conductors.  This allows a series of stops and side stories.  Whites are aware of the underground railroad, but for some it is just a figure of speech.

One point in a short side story was about body snatchers in Boston.  Medical students are required to disect dead bodies which were in short supply.  One depicted body snatcher discovered that if he grabbed dead negro bodies there would be no fuss, unlike with some white bodies with loud self-righteous relatives.  A more relevant point was that the students realized that black bodies were the same as white bodies, thus attaining a sort of equality.  Some Africans were conscious that the whties had stolen land from the native Indians, but in this book at least there was almost no interaction.

At the African beginning and also during American transfer of slaves was that slavers were careful not to spread language facility by mixing different language speakers.  Slaves were not to be taught reading.

Whites range from cold hearted cruel owners detached from the reality of what they are doing to the guilt ridden to do-gooders to the fearful.  Slave catchers are a big part of the story as they get paid to retrieve escaped slaves.  For many it is just a job.

Many of the slaves are accepting of their fate and fearful of change.  One young black boy orphaned and fearful becomes a helper to a slave catcher.  Mulattoes also appeared in the story and although they were usually treated like slaves, they did enjoy some privileges that resulted in ambiguous relationships with other slaves.

There was real fear concerning what the slaves could do if they got free.  In fact education was a concern as a weapon against whites.  Abolitionists could be punished if circumstances allowed as they could precipitate a rebellion.

To many white Americans this is all history and they do not think of it much and certainly don't feel it is much of an excuse for poor behaviour today.   The Holocaust also fades in memory and we also need to remind ourselves the effects do indeed carry on, despite our loss of consciousness.

Earlier read "Underground Railway" by Ben H. Winters  which was really an extension of earlier conditions with the adjustment that the Civil War never happened.  America evolved without the violent disruption.  The author was really suggesting that slavery could have survived if Lincoln failed to make it to the White House after his election.  Read more:

The key link in both books was that de-humanizing of people was an outcome of ignorance and greed.  Once de-humanizing had progressed enough, cruelty was a tool to benefit other humans (investors).  As both books make plain as someone once said, for evil to prevail it only required many to stand by and watch.

Sunday, April 30, 2017


Donald Trump likes to project himself as unpredictable supposedly making him a better negotiator.  There might be some logic to that, but I think it is more complicated.

In the world of sports we root for our team, but would soon lose interest if the outcome was totally predictable.  As a youngster I enjoyed watching my home town lacrosse Oshawa Green Gaels win pretty well every game I saw by a large margin.  I still appreciated the skills involved, but it became increasingly boring to watch.  Taping live events and watching later has the danger of spoilers.  Concern over the outcome is part of the excitement.

Movies and television shows are determined before we decide to let them entertain us.  We all have preferences, but over time these preferences can be modified.  Sometimes the ending can be fulfilling, other times you feel cheated and other times mystified.  Surprises can do all those things.  Do you like happy endings?  Do we predict a mood from how it is resolved.   IMDB values its readers enough to insist upon spoiler alerts.  Awhile back I did a post of movies from both a producer and consumer perspective.

The stock market doesn't like surprises and will often react very quickly on a rumour, but sometimes can be rereassured.  Smart investors are those who buy low and sell high.  A panic can put prices down very quickly.  Euphoria can put prices up unrealistically high.

Our lives are consumed mostly by habits and routine.  You get up, go to work or school for so many hours eventually getting off to enjoy some familiar activities.   Family and friends for the most part are supportive and reliable.   Disrupt that routine and we can become anxious or even depressed.  Long term we anticipate many of life's milestones with many being looked forward to and a few maybe dreaded.

It is true that being unpredictable can throw off your opponents.   Sometimes pleasant unexpected events can boost our spirits and make us more agreeable.   You do better if you can accurately predict the reaction of those you interact with.  Some people avoid confrontation and although one might think they have been defeated, the collateral damage can be unpredictable.  Good will has to be earned.

Who do you trust?  Someone who surprises you, not always in a positive way.  Someone who offers very few surprises?  Would you say trust is a big part of negotiating?  When the unpredicted happens who do you trust?

The photo comes from a performance by Circus Orange.  I predict they will put on a good show, but they manage to find a way to do something unpredictable every time I am lucky enough to see them.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Gwynne Dyer

Last nite was a special unexpected treat for me.  Gwynne Dyer is my favourite newspaper columnist and I don't say that as an isolated newspaper reader.  I enjoy the columnists for the New York Times and Washington Post amongst others, but Gwynne has impressed me the most.  Somehow he appeared at my local library, Hamilton Public Library.  He did not disappoint.

Trying to figure out what makes him different, the library CEO explained his interest came from noticing the mainstream news did not cover the developing world in any depth, except Gwynne Dyer did.  Although he has a very strong military background (has taught at military colleges and traveled more than most) he has an awareness of political dynamics that is well beyond most.  That also means he understands human dynamics.  The first of the so-called political pundit who recognized the seriousness of climate change.  As a fellow Canadian he realized that although the Western world was dominant it wasn't the only factor in the global affairs.

The topic was Donald Trump, a subject that seems to be on everyone's mind.  Gwynne admitted several times he didn't like him and originally, back in November thought Americans could not be that dumb.  Based in London he also thought the Brits would not be dumb enough to exit the EU.   After interviewing countless people he has evolved his thinking to the point he thinks Donald Trump might be the wake up call needed.

One difference he explained was that immigration was a  bigger issue in Britain as they were not as used to immigrants unlike United States (and Canada) where most of us are at best a few generations from immigrants ourselves.  Ironically where immigrants are well established in the big cities there was not a strong backlash against them, but in other areas they were one of the key factors.

In America a more serious problem was jobs.  He said official stats are misleading, the true unemployment is much higher in the United States.  The problem is not only one of finance, but also of humiliation.  It is easy to blame outsourcing and immigrants, but Gwynne maintains by far the bigger factor is automation and it will continue to get worse.  Unless something is done he sees anger deciding elections.  The anger could result in someone worse than Donald Trump who he sees like a canary in the coal mine.  One bit of humour (of many instances) was that in twenty years something like 50% of jobs will fall to automation.  He suggested that pole dancing would not.

One possible solution to the dilemma is a universal basic income.  The world is not ready just yet.  He related an experience in Switzerland where the attempt through a referendum failed, was explained as a first step.  He thinks that since the election more people are talking about universal basic income.

His speech was relatively short, but the question period was very interesting.  He handled it brilliantly, giving people a chance to speak their mind.  Korea, Syria were covered with realistic answers.  One of the organizers had to help close the questions or I suspect he would have carried on.

One guest recalled  a talk given at Sir Wilfred Laurier around 1996 and asked if he had changed his mind.  First he joked that he thought he had had everyone at that talk killed.  He admitted that he might have changed a bit, but that most of his core beliefs are the same

Another guest asked about how inequality is increasing and he foresees that mankind will revert to what most of its history with dictators ruling over the poor masses.  Gwyne reverted back to hunter-gatherer days when there was much more equality, but then when mankind got civilized  more decisions were made top down, because there was relatively poor communication.  The great salvation today is that  there is mass communication.

On another question he commented that the right contained some smart rich people (the ones who earned their money, not those who inherited it) who could easily see that for them to be rich they need customers and they need to avoid a revolution.   One of the big concerns about Universal basic income is if those receiving it will be motivated to do the still necessary work.  He mentioned that  Hamilton is one of three Ontario cities  that will experiment among poor and will help determine a future course.

Gwynne felt that one of the best hopes for the future was international alliances.  One factor with the formation of the EU was to avoid future wars amongst the European powers and it worked with many other benefits.  Recent developments have restored some of his faith after the Brexit  and Trump disasters.  The United Nations has also been successful in avoiding wars between the big powers.

He also suggested we should encourage Michelle Obama to run for president in 2020.

I met some good friends, Rob and  Sue and learned we have something in common.  Gwynne's column is the first thing they look for in the local paper.

If you are not accessible to one of the 100 or so newspapers around the world that carry his twice weekly columns you can check him out at his webiste:

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


Yuval Noah Harari has written two books that analyze where humankind has come from (:// and  where we might go.  Thank goodness it is told with some humour because it is really very deep.  It delves into what makes us who we are.  You will be challenged to study yourself.  There are so many interesting insights in this book, but I can only highlight a few.

Analyses present realities, but always taking into account evolution that brought us here.  For example he points out that revolutions tend to be taken over by those previously close to power such as in Romania and even more recently in Egypt.  Coming through evolution is that humans have the advantage of organizing over all other life and those already organized have the advantage over the rest of humans.  Terrorists are too weak to use conventional methods, but the biggest danger is to over-react which is normally a part of the political process.

Looking to the future he sees that now humankind is now able to view death as a technical problem, rather than a religious concern.  As we conquer one disease after another and go deeper into the root causes of aging we develop newer strategies.

Increasingly we view ourselves as the centre of the universe and the author notes that wildlife has been halved while domestic animals have multiplied and are more cruelly treated.  People are said to have souls, but animals do not.  Evolution takes away the concept of souls for humans.  New Zealand became the first nation (May 2015) to declare animals as sentient beings.

Cognitive revolution came when humans took advantage of their superior intelligence and began to organize on a bigger scale.  The process started about 70,000 years ago

Agricultural Revolution began about 12,000 years ago and allowed for concentrations of people and specialization.   Writing, invented by Sumerians 5,000 years ago allowed elites to control larger numbers of people and it might be said started data processing.

The Science Revolution started around 1500 and was initiated by the awareness of our ignorance.  Today we realize there is so much we don't know, but we are progressing at ever accelerating rates.

Trust is another key to success.  The best example is the credit system which has enabled economic expansion that has benefited everyone.

DNA analysis is now available and becoming more affordable.  At this stage is often used to determine disease probabilities.  Manipulating genes is well established and likely to fine-tuned.

The big question for me is free will.  The author cites several examples that demonstrate there is something behind every acton.  Where do desires come from?  My advice is that to live the best life you must use whatever resources are available and take responsibility for every decision.  Yuval points out that Buddhist thinking is that cravings always lead to suffering.

As we are all algorithms and we can easily be replaced.

Yuval point out that Google and Facebook know more about us that many people around us.  Dataism is a new religion that will take over the world.  Anything that can be measured (they believe that is everything) can be used to make decisions.  It is likely that a very small elite would emerge in power while the rest of us for practical purposes would be thought of as useless.

The author admits nobody knows what the future will bring, but after laying out some possibilities he leaves us with three questions that will decide the future of humankind.

1. Are organisms really just algorithms and is life really just data processing?
2.  What is more valuable--intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious, but highly intelligent
algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

The two of his books I have read have been amongst the most profound ever.  To learn more about Yuval Noah Harari, visit

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Content Trap

Getting ahead in the world seems like wading through a never ending swirl of new trends.  Research and analysis tries to keep up with developments.  As Bharat Anand started this book he predicted life would change during the process.  He was surprised that a project he became involved with forced him to adopt some of the book's thinking

In a world with relentless pressures and seemingly never ending technical innovations the author identifies two basic problems:  1).  getting noticed and 2). getting paid.  If you aren't different in business you will die.  The value of this book is a a deeper understanding of future business basics.

Traditionally advertisers have paid for the dissemination of information.  Now there is free information, including ads on the inter-net  Many newspapers are out of business because many people find it more cost effective to advertise on line.

Schibsted, a publishing firm in Norway illustrates it is possible to take a print newspaper and convert to a very prosperous online entity.  In South Africa, the Occar Pretorious shooting happened between press deadlines forcing the owners of one firm with an opportunity for a scoop to first present story online.  This forced them to change their focus.

Connectivity is the key factor.  User connectivity, product connectivity and function connectivity.  Schibsted asks 'how can we help our readers to help each other."  The strength of a network is its connectivity.

It is fixed costs that make upscaling so profitable.  Walmart always credited for tough bargaining with suppliers, but they are variable costs.  Other moves they made include rural locations, clustering, reduce advertising.  These steps reduced fixed costs.

Most consumers resent the bundling cable channels.  The author contends there are benefit for both providers and consumers.  The practice keeps the costs down as individual channels would have to have a higher price.  The consumer gets lower costs for their choices while the provider reduces fixed costs.

One fact hit me--You Tube offers their viewers a chance to skip watching an ad, but it is only after 3 seconds which is required in order to charge an advertiser.

Complementary items increase each others value and are an example of function connectivity.  At one time a CD was an ad for a concert, but now the price of obtaining music is cheap while concert tickets are more expensive.  The Michelin system for evaluating restaurants was originally intended to encourage people to drive more.

David Ogilvy:  "Information about the product is more important than persuading the consumer with adjectives."

Competition advantage ultimately comes from scarcity and differentiation.  Managing the two is the key to digital success.  Many examples are given how some companies stumbled or sometimes planned for better connections to demonstrate their value.

While in the midst of this book Bharat was asked to help design online courses for the Harvard Business School (where he was a professor).  Stumbling around he realized that students learn best when they engage with others.  Borrowing from concepts learned writing the course encouraged students to interact.  We all connect with others in ways not previously thought possible.

To get some more insights from Bharat visit:

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

La Derniere Fugue

Movies try to replicate life, however for many of us they are escapes from life.   "La Derniere Fugue," a Quebec movie released in 2010 wasn't pre planned for me, but just a time filler to keep up my pace of watching movies.  Getting into it woke me up.  This really was not only life and death, but somewhat about the meaning of life.

It begins with a Christmas family around the dinner table with parents sitting down and kids running around.  The head of the family, the grandfather has Parkinson's, with trouble speaking and feels shunted aside.   He is not supposed to eat dessert or a lot of special Christmas items.  He loses his temper, falls down and causes a lot of embarrassment.    He mocks one of daughters who is going through menopause causing her to leave the table.  Another couple are bickering.  A teenage grandson talks with his father and says he would like to help grandpa to die.  At first it seems poorly thought out and disrespectful.  Over the course of the movie he conspire with father who carries resentment and guilt.

A series of flashbacks with a different set of actors helps to put things in context.  One episode is remembered bitterly by the son whose father pushed him aside into the water when he was about to catch a large fish.  The father took credit for it.  Later we learned the father (the grandfather) confessed to his wife and expressed regret, but never brought up to his son.  Many of us parents have done things we regret to our children and now rationalize that we are more mature now.

In many of the flashbacks we see the younger grandfather playing the piano and spouting off a wide range of scientific facts to his children.  Back to the current time the one son talks that his father was too smart for what he had to do to make a living and had to keep quiet.

The grownup children talk to their mother with the idea they should put their father in a home.  They appreciate their mother is exhausted.  The one son and his son talk to the grandmother and tell her they want to make it easier for the grandfather to die.  They have in mind letting him eat what he really enjoys.  Early in the movie they give him some forbidden potato chips and emergency ambulance is called in only to realize he was only choking.  She defends her husband and says, (paraphrasing) he doesn't really want to die because even though they are good Catholics they fear that after death there is nothing.

After a humiliating physiotherapy session the Grandfather says he wants to die.  His wife and son and grandson set out to make his last days as enjoyable as possible.  He explains about favoured foods and above all wants to go fishing back at the lake he remembers.  At what would be one of his last meals the family is recalled and on this occasion one of his son-in-laws explodes and says he is leaving his wife.  Then they are all told the grandfather knows he is going to die soon and welcomes it.  You might guess the gist of how it ends, but you will miss a lot of details.

Another line got my attention.  Youngsters are always trying to figure how their elders ever got together and what it was like.  The grandson asks if they ever French-kissed.  The Grandmother laughs and says "of course.  What a silly question?"

Animals appear in a lot of movies and are specially trained for their role.  Fish played a critical role in this move and I marvel at the effort that must have occurred to help move the plot.

Lea Pool directed and co-wrote the script.  She was born in Switzerland and many of her films seem to have Swiss backing or characterization.  Many of her films have won international awards, such as "Emporte-Moi," "Le demoiselle savage," "La Passion d'Agustine" and "Lost and Delerious," none of which I have seen.  One I saw was in English, "The Blue Butterfield" which also won awards.   I have already reserved a few of her films.

Gil Courtemanche, co-wrote  from his novel, had been a journalist and television host--Investigated the Rwanda genocide and wrote ""Un dimanche a la piscine a Kigali" which won the French version of Canada reads and was also turned into a movie.  Died in 2011 after this movie.

The title refers to some piano music that the protagonist was also playing.  I recognized two tunes form Bach that I enjoy.

The Grandfather was played by Jacques Godin and he made you feel uncomfortable and embarrassed for his family.  I had seen him in a forgotten move released in 1964, "The Luck of Ginger Coffey."

The grownup son was played by Yves Jacques had been seen by me in one French movie with Audrey Tautou, "Therese" and two Quebec movies, "The Barbarian Invasion" and "Jesus of Montreal" (1989)   Some of you might have seen him "The Aviator" or "Grace of Monaco," but I missed both of them.

The Grandmother was played by Andree Lachapelle who was also in "Jesus of Montreal."     Also appeared in "Leolo" and "La Passion d'Augustine."

The grandson who conspired to give his grandfather an enjoyable death was played by Aliocha Schneider in only his second movie.  After this he has become busy with tv series and a few more movies.  Aliocha had a deft touch displaying a deep concern for his grandfather, but also able to have fun.

Not everyone will enjoy this movie, but there are light moments as well as life and death decisions.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


That book title sounds innocent, perhaps even helpful.  At my age I thought it might give a few hints on how to get more out of life.  Well it does, sort of,  but it is really philosophical and pointed at dealing with the human avoidance of our inevitable death.  Michael Kinsley will make you laugh a bit while you ponder the bigger questions of life.  Just to be clear most readers would consider his humour on the black side, but like good humour it hits a point.

Michael, himself  learned  at a relatively young age (23 years prior to this book) he had Parkinson's which he thinks of as an early signal for his own mortality forcing him to think ahead.  He was fairly successful  as a journalist and editor for such media platforms as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Slate, Harper's and The Economist.  We all tend to not think of our inevitable death, but as we age it becomes harder to ignore and some of us are hit with a fatal disease that sharpens your focus.

When we wake up to the end, we have three choices:  denial, acceptance and confrontation.  Michael feels acceptance is no strategy.  He mostly opts for denial with the concept that his disease will have minimal impact on his life.  He admires those who choose to confront.  He chooses to take a humorous perspective.

One bumper sticker, "he who dies with the most toys wins" is contrasted with "you can't take it with you."  In the end possessions are cast aside as not being the ultimate goal.

Having increasingly noticed that longevity is often accompanied with dementia, many people would  amend their future hopes.  Cognition becomes identified as what we want to hold onto as long as possible and when it is diminished so is our life value.  Outside the book, I am reminded of a Pacific Island where they view Alzherimer-like diseases differently.  The victims are often happy and in all cases relatively oblivious of reality.  Maybe they are better off and although we fear becoming that way, the real problem is the extra concern and labour of the care givers.  No one wants to be a burden, but maybe it is an easier exit if one is unaware of it.

As I am a very small fund raiser for Parkinson's I was interested in some given information.  Side effects are often overlooked, but include for some patients, depression, bad skin, insomnia and a gambling compulsion.  I had heard of deep brain stimulation that gives relief to some, but didn't realize it was performed while the patient is conscious.  The author advocates stem cell research.  He is well aware that his body and mental faculties are declining.  Told by one doctor that he would lose his "edge," Michael was very conscious that his success had hinged on his "edge."

Another concern is for our reputation.  Although his Parkinson's disease has been proceeding slowly Michael has noticed that people assume he is not quite as bright as he once was or as capable and tests confirm this notion.  Reputation, or better still fame seems a worthy goal.  He runs through a lists of dominant people in different fields and concludes that most are not remembered.  Jane Austen was not famous at her death, but about 75 years afterwards with the help of relatives her fame began to arise.  Earlier in the book he relates an account with Robert McNamara in his 80's admittedly making amends for his role in the Vietnam disaster, something the author points not everyone gets to do.

Another goal associated with impending death is to leave a legacy  As a boomer he has a lot of criticism for his own group, deferring to what he thinks was a more deserving group--the ones who fought WW II.  There is a lot about how greedy each generation can be, but hard to deny the previous generation did something noble.  He ends on a political note, about how he thinks we boomers should leave a legacy.  He thinks we have spent our government into unimaginable debt and that the estate taxes should be revived to reach more people, not just the filthy rich.

Fortunately for us who are only vaguely aware of what happens at the end of old age, Michael has retained some of his edge and we are the better for it.

Mostly acknowledgements are skipped, even for an enjoyable read, but this is truly unique and humorous.  He thanks a long list of his doctors for allowing him to live long enough to write the book,

To read about another angle on death, the disposal of dead bodies,