Monday, December 31, 2012

My 2013 Resolutions

Time can drag on when you are sorting out your priorities in life and how best to achieve goals.  A public declaration is part of my strategy.

Habits run my life.  I have spent over 64 years developing them and some of them are helpful but others have constrained not only how much wealth I control, but also more importantly my enjoyment of life.  A lot of thinking and preparation went into this set of resolutions

I am not without discipline and willpower, but not enough. Wean myself off of binging on chocolate--made difficult with gifts of chocolate.  Problem apparently is caffeine, but also I like the taste so much I end up eating more cream, sugar, etc.

The specifics listed below are intended to be something to be aimed for and then something to be built upon, but not to the point of becoming obsessive.  Now that I bought myself an egg timer I can use it for meditation and exercises.

Pushups minimum 4 times per week doing 100 pushups within a 20 minute period

Situps minimum 4 times per week doing 80 situps in a 20 min period

Meditation min 5 days per week of 10 min.  Mindfulness to expand.

Idle time--exercise, rest, learning, enjoying (relaxing) NOT aimless surfing Double stepping

Sales effort--minimum average of 40 efforts per day with 15 direct contacts

Reading--still more non fiction (improvement, business, biography, history), but increase fiction that is enjoyable

Enjoy music as much as the news.

Start the year with attention to organizing.  Like most people I have enough resources to make my life better.

Be nicer, listen more deeply

Sunday, December 30, 2012

FAVORITE MOVIES OF 2012

Everyone has their own idea of what the best movies are and I can't pretend to be any wiser than any of you.  Movies mentioned indicate my preferences.  Your thoughts are more than welcome in fact it is my hope to check out some of your ideas.  The movies mentioned are movies that I watched in 2012, many of them were made in previous years and come out of over 130 movies.  Many more are deserving of mention, but this is not intended as a list.

Director commentaries and special features often helped me appreciate something I would not have appreciated on my own.  Others think the movie must stand on its own.  Like everything else movies have a context and if you don't understand the context you will not fully appreciate the movie.

There is still a foreign language bias in my preferences and that means there are more choices than time.  Years ago it was common advice not to invest your money in any one country as it might not be safe.  Watching foreign movies doesn't mean that Hollywood is no good, but rather that there are wonderful ideas out there and you would be foolish not to enjoy them.  Like foreign foods they will add spice to your life.

Let's start off with the English speaking movies.

George Clooney figured in two I enjoyed, "The Descendents" (directed by Alexander Payne who also wrote the screenplay after winning Oscar for Sideways) was a family drama where a father draws his two daughters back into the fold while also deciding on a family heritage.

"Ides of March" was directed by George as well as playing one of the lead characters.  George seems to have a cynical view of politics which I share to some degree.  The movie has a few twists and has excellent acting by George, Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti and Paul Seymour Hoffman.

"J Edgar," (directed by Clint Eastwood) was recommended to me by one of my wife's closest friends, Barb Martin.  It was a fascinating character study of a man who liked to take credit for things he didn't actually do.  Still he was a skillful manipulator with a strong impact on American history.

"The Debt" (directed by John Madden) had two sets of actors to play younger and older versions of the same people.  It is a cover up thriller type of movie very well done.  Helen Mirren plays a key role.

"Water for Elephants," (directed by Francis Lawrence) was a drama played out on a Depression era circus background.  One thing I remember is that Robert Pattinson is more than a teenage idol.  An enjoyable movie.

"People Like Us" ( directedby Alex Kurtzman also writer, with music by a favorite Bollywood composer, A R Rahman).   Apparently the director had gone through a similar experience as the lead male actor and probably that helps give a feeling of authenticity. Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer all give effective performances.

Filmed in 2009 "Agora", an English speaking film directed by a Spaniard, Alejandro Amenabar got my attention.  The movie stars Rachel Weisz in a woman centric role.  The director was very fascinating as he explained in a special feature that he had wanted to do something that involved astronomy and ended up setting his story in ancient Alexandria focusing on a woman scientist.  Based on fact, but not necessarily 100% factual the director demonstrated how some ancients may have deduced that the earth goes around the sun and even that it uses an elliptical orbit.  Alejandro also co-wrote the script and has written the music for several movies.  An earlier movie of his that impressed me was "Abre Los Ojos" re-written by him as "Vanilla Sky".  Someone to watch out for.

One classic I watched (for the first time) was "Unforgiven."   Directed by Clint Eastwood.  It was numbing.  It was crude and brutal, but in a very realistic sobering manner.  Attitudes were stripped to their cores.  Crudity was brought out as part of every day life.  It was well worth viewing, but you need to have a strong stomach and be open minded.

"The Maltese Falcon" was a classic I had seen before, but was able to take a closer look at.  Black and white movies seem too old fashioned, but they perhaps should be judged by how well they used their more limited resources.  I have always felt the key factor in a movie is the story.  Actors enhance it and directors are the key resource managers.  Technology can sometimes take over and distract from the story. I understand this was the first movie that John Huston directed.  This movie helped Humphrey Bogart elevate himself to a higher level of stardom.  An enjoyable movie.  Just before Christmas I watched "The African Queen" again directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogard and Katherine Hepburn with excellent cinematography.  All around very enjoyable..

One of the last movies of the year for me was from a childhood memory, "Captain Blood".  I had first watched it with my father who was an Errol Flynn fan (and I suspect like myself also an Olivia de Havilland fan).   Later I watched it in stages with my young son Michael while waiting for school.  It was one of the first movies with music by Erich Korngold.  It might look a bit dated, but I loved it when I first saw it and it still gave me a thrill during the holidays.

A strange category with just one entry, "The Artist".  It is English, but it is subtitled.  It justifies the fuss.  One line in there was "mugging", implying without words actors tended to over act.  Some truth to that, but watching the movie it was interesting how they captured the mood without spoken words.  The acting was different, but the emotions came through loud and clear with the two French leads excellent.  A wonderful collaborative effort between French and American staff.   The cinematography was also noteworthy, and perhaps not noticed because in black and white.  Michel Hazanavicius directed it.

If you can't be bothered with subtitles the rest of this blog is like a tease.  You will be tempted, but you might get headaches or eyestrain or you will be forced to concentrate more than usual.  If you give in to the temptation you just might feel you have discovered a brand new joy in life.  The next three listed are my favorite three of the year.

Perhaps my favorite movie overall of the year was "A Separation."  In North America one gets used to thinking of Iran as a backward nation filled with fanatics.  This movie shows they are civilized and have the same sorts of personal tensions we are familiar with.  The story has mysterious elements, but I would emphasize the personal dynamics are done much better than standard movie fare.  The director set out to give the movie a documentary feel and succeeded.  The movie had to work around censors.  The writer and director (and his daughter played I would say the very significant third lead) was Asghar Farhadi who had to deal with Iranian censors and is not really appreciated by Iranian authorities.

Another top favorite is "The Intouchables" from France.  I assumed it wouldn't be shown at commercial theatres in my area, but it was picked up by the Art Gallery of Hamilton film fest.  Francois Cluzet plays a paraplegic in contrast to a previous role in an action movie, "Tell No One."  Omar Sy plays a cultural contrast.  The two give different pictures of modern Paris, the one very elegant and the other more desperate.  The story, based on real lives is funny in unanticipated details and uplifting.  The two characters at opposite ends of both wealth and health helped each other squeeze more out of life.   Directed and written by the team of Oliver Nakache and Eric Toleando.

From Bollywood, one that totally fooled me was "Kahaani".  It wasn't so much that the killer was a surprise, but the whole setup was in line with "Sixth Sense" or the "Usual Suspects" and for most of you this description will not spoil it.  Watching Vidya Balan, even playing an 8 month pregnant wife is one of life's pleasures.  The movie steadily tightens the suspense, but you are not really prepared for the resolution.  The most moving music is at the very end during the credits with religious overtones sung by Abitabh Bachchan, someone who I respect, but had not realized he sang.  Directed by Sujoy Ghosh.

"Barfi" was confusing to me at first.  The trailer indicates there would be a lot of comedy and there certainly was.  Also there would be some sort of love triangle and there was.  In many reviews at IMDB there seemed a reluctance to give out plot details and I now appreciate why they felt that way.  The movie is really about  relationships and was much deeper and richer than I anticipated.  Music played a strong role as it does in most Bollywood movies, but not in its familiar form.  The presentation is different with high reliance on flashbacks.  Directed by Anurag Basu.

"Don 2," heavy on plot, action and special effects was enjoyable. Filmed in Malaysia and Germany with wonderful cinematography.  The plot was convoluted keeping you on your toes.  Shah Rukh Khan showed he is more than just a romantic hero.  Directed by Farhan Akhtar.

"Stanley Ka Dabba" caught me off guard.  I had the idea it was a children's movie and it proceeded in many ways like I expected.  But towards the end I realized it wasn't a chidren's movie, but deeply concerned with education and a social problem in India.  Checking the special features I learned that it was filmed after a series of special classes initially without a script and very low budget.  The brain behind it was Amole Gupte who was also involved with "Taare par Zameen" another excellent movie that focused on an education issue.

Also watched a Bollywood classic, "Sholay".  I am so used to seeing Amitabh Bachchan as a strong father figure I didn't appreciate he got started as a young macho star.  It was very action packed from beginning to end with a few surprises along the way.  Directed by Romesh Sippy.

Canadian movie, 'Monsieur Lazhar.'  Also up for Oscar with "A Separation".  A very good movie, based on a one person play.  It fooled me into thinking they might have a tidy happy ending, but did have a realistic one.  For 2011 I felt "Incendies" was the best film I got to watch.  After watching "Monsieur Lazhar" I followed up an earlier movie of director/writer Philip  Falardeau, "Congorama" and was very impressed with its subtlety.  This year the best Canadian film and one of the best overall was "Monsieur Lazhar" which just demonstrates the strength of Quebec in international movies.

A Dutch film of 2011, "Bride Flight" was interesting following some Dutch women (and one man) headed to New Zealand after the war.  A soap opera plot, but well done and some wonderful scenery in New Zealand.   Directed by Ben Sombogaart.

"Headhunters" from Norway was one that interested me as I had just discovered the original author, Jo Nesbo.  They did an excellent job of dealing with Hollywood standards on a paltry Norwegian budget.

A recent French classic, "A Very Long Engagement" directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunnot who had done the more famous "Amelie" also with Audrey Tautou.  In this movie which was a lot more complex than I had imagined I was surprised to see Jodie Foster in a French speaking role.  Marion Cottilard who is becoming one of my favorites also had a signficant role.

Other movies worthy of watching came from Sweden, Turkey, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Argentina, and Brazil.
  
"El Mariachi" has become a classic. Originally intended for the Mexican video market with a $7,000 budget it drew attention at the Sundance festival.  It is a reasonably entertaining action film, but more entertaining was the director, Robert Rodiguez's commentary where he explained in almost every scene how he kept the cost down.  Most of the actors were not paid, the scenery was taken as it was found, props were improvised and the film was carefully monitored as they couldn't afford re-takes.

Looking forward to:  Life of Pi, Talaash, Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, Midnight's Children, Rust and Bone that have released in 2012.  I also plan to watch a number of classics, movies that told a meaningful story without all the modern technology.

If I didn't mention one of your favorites tell me and also why you liked it.  For my favourites of 2011 check out http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/01/movies-i-enjoyed-in-2011.html

Friday, December 28, 2012

BOOKS I ENJOYED IN 2012

As you browse through a bookstore or the library you are dumbfounded at all the interesting books you don't have time to read.  The situation is only compounded by the availability of e books where you don't have to worry about locked doors.  My selection process is a lot of browsing, reading, listening and watching reviews or references, and listening to friends' advice.  As a result of all that I have spent hundreds of hours over the past year enriching and distracting myself.  Hopefully you might find a few gems.  I have read over 70 books in the past twelve months and these are the ones I remember the most.

I purposely minimize reading fiction books as they are very distracting for me.  One good example is "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" written by Stephen L Carter.  I had read an earlier book, "The Emperor of Ocean Park" by the same author and was very struck at his understanding of the law and legal matters while still writing in-depth characters and a clever plot.

Abraham's Lincoln's assassination is one of the pivotal moments of history, although the author believes there are stronger forces than any one man.  After Lincoln's death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, Andrew Johnson tried to carry on the spirit of Lincoln's expressed intentions not to be too harsh on the southern rebels.  He was not as politically astute as Lincoln and soon generated a lot of resentment that resulted in his own impeachment trial.  One of the themes of this book is that even if Lincoln had survived and Johnson died the historical forces would have expressed themselves anyway. This book is a great mixture of plotting, characterization, political and legal subtleties.


The Burlington Public Library had their Burlington Reads selection "The Beauty of Humanity Movement" by Camilla Gibb and without knowing too much about it I reserved it.  It focused on Vietnam in modern times, but with a strong focus on the impact of the war.  It intrigued me enough that after reading it I visited a restaurant to try the soup that figured prominently in the book.  You can read about that adventure in one of my more popular blogs, http://bit.ly/OPpsTV  The book was an enjoyable experience enhanced by physically following up one of the themes.

A book I would describe as one to take to the beach is "The Panther" by Nelson De Mille. He turns out a thriller about every 18 months after a lot of research.  There is an intricate plot, interesting information and a lot of humour.  The humour comes from sarcasm and perhaps the best of it is the internal thinking of the main character, John Corey.  I have covered in another blog about marrying into the De Mille family which you can read at http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/05/tribute-to-nelson-demille-real-writer-i.html

Another mystery novel I read had a personal connection as I have known the author John Lawrence Reynolds through work.  He had written a number of mysteries set in Boston years ago, but when returning to mysteries he set his latest book on the "Beach Strip" in Hamilton and part of the joy was recognizing local places and history.  His characterizations are a big part of his writing.

Still with fiction I finally read my first Jane Urquhart book, "The Stone Carvers"  An enjoyable book which covered areas of Ontario I am familiar with.  Inspired by the Vimy Memorial.  I will be reading more of her books in the future.

A book that is still impacting me on a daily basis is "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigle.  Willpower is the one personal attribute that can make the most difference.  This is a how to book, but is only as good as the willpower you can put into it.  We all have some willpower, but the trick is how to stretch it and she offers a practical perspective.  A more detailed description by me can be found at  http://bit.ly/S9WrMo

The Shift---future scenarios  My favorite non fiction book of 2012. We would all like to predict the future, but it is similar to jello. Lynda Gratton runs by a lot of possibilities  and links them to trends that either can be encouraged or discouraged.  She gives herself the freedom of fiction to discuss many possibilities.  More details can be found at http://bit.ly/I9rpdj







"Fairness and Freedom" denote compatible traits but there is an important distinction.  Freedom sounds so noble and everyone craves it.  We want to do what we want to do.  Capitalism thrives on freedom, but too often the levers get re-set and some people have more freedom than others.  For instance those who control capital can shift labour to slave wages and fewer safety and environmental restrictions with just a few key strokes.  Free trade is not free for everyone.  Fair trade is an attempt to  make sure everyone gets their "fair share."  New Zealand has a longer history of concern for this while America is convinced freedom is everything.  Having concrete examples helps clarify the distinctions.  More details can be found at http://bit.ly/LxMuvF


Business   Demand is a book that gets right to the basic of business. Persuading people to buy something.  It has always been the case that if you make life easier for someone else to do something they want to do you can sell something.
Again, more details can be found at http://bit.ly/NiWrMo

Read about my favourite reads of 2011 at:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/01/books-i-am-glad-i-read-in-2011.html

Sunday, December 16, 2012

SPLIT SECOND PERSUASION

If persuasion was easy and simple  there would not be the need for so many sales people most of whom struggle.  Kevin Dutton has found that the average person endures around 400 persuasion efforts per day.  We have become hardened to most of them, but the author has uncovered some basic natural and simple facts of persuasion.  For those who think persuasion is not nice, you could reflect that at one time physical coercion was more common and as the author points out persuasion is an indication that we are really civilized.

Mixed in with a lot of references to scientific research are fun exercises, humorous incidents and an amusing style that will help you painlessly dig up some basic stuff of persuasion.  Some of the main subjects include babies, psychopaths and sales people.  We are all complex beings and most of us are clueless how our brains really work.  It is wired to take short cuts and some of us understand the shortcuts better than others.

Starting with babies, how is it that such totally defenseless beings are able to get their parents to relieve their (ie. the babies') discomfort as soon as possible?  Or cow complete strangers?  Crying helps, but there is more.  We are programmed to respond to baby faces with their rounder shapes with relatively larger eyes and  dilated pupils gets our attention.  This carries on to adults with one example being when the driver in heavy traffic is able to catch the eye  of fellow drivers they are more apt to be let in.  As counter to this, eye avoidance is common in traffic.

He gives many dramatic examples of split second persuasion where incongruity with sudden unexpected words or gestures reverse someone's direction.  From preventing a suicide to reconciling families, to a sale.  Kevin uses SPICE as an acronym to explain the mechanism.  It must be simple, perceived as in the other person's self-interest, incongruous, done with confidence and demonstrating empathy.

Psychopaths are pictured as cold blooded, but surprisingly the author says they are empathic.  Not in the warm way we usually visualize when the word is used, but calculating.  They understand what the other person feels and they can calculate how best to take advantage.  All psychopaths are not criminals and in fact many are business leaders.

Salesmen have learned or stumbled on techniques that work.  Most salesmen realize that sales are made not through logic, but through emotions.  Body language is key.  Light touching or leaning forward can be effective.  Confidence is hard to fake.  Searching for common ground is natural and helps develop empathy.  Knowing what the prospect feels is critical to persuasion and a smart salesperson will frame their proposition in ways that bring out favorable emotions.  Reciprocity is a normal human survival trait that salespeople can exploit in different ways.

Cognitive drain is a concept that when the brain has various operations on the go it loses its ability to either take on a new task or to perform at an acceptable level.  In other words we can be distracted.

"Split-Second Persuasion" is not so much a how to book as a layman's psychology text that will help you understand what is really going on.  If you are interested there are lots of practical thoughts.

Do you need more persuading to actually pick up the book?  Some more information can be found at the following website, http://splitsecondpersuasion.com/

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bollywood Music can grow on you.

My love of Bollywood music is the result of a lot of stumbling and now I am obsessed.  Most Canadians are blissfully ignorant of it or have a stereotypical prejudice.  There is a lot that is strange by North American standards and would take a lot of time to appreciate.  We don't often pay attention to the unfamiliar, which means that part of culture that is not touted by what we regard as authoritative is to be ignored.  Too bad there is lot to enjoy in this world.  I have chosen a few links I hope will appeal to your North American tastes to give you a better feel.

I got launched in my new interest with a song I still think is one of the best.  After some research I decided to watch "Kal Ho Naa Ho".  I was told by a library staff that it was a very sad movie, but the truth is at the first half it seemed pretty juvenile.  Then at one point the hero sings a very philosophical mellow song which caught me off guard as up to this point he had been engaged in a lot of frivolity.  They had another version of the song played towards the end which was labelled sad version and it was even with a little bit of over actingthe most sad part of any movie I had ever seen.  My wife thinks it is suitable for doing yoga.

You can listen to it at http://www.shankarehsaanloy.com/ and pushing the start of the audio gallery.  The first item of music is the song.  Most people will find it very melodious and soothing.  The sad part really comes from the movie context.  The other song items are all different from one another.

Another song  from "Kal Ho Na Ho", "Kuch To Hua Hai" resonates with me, a song of two people expressing their new love, and you might assume it is for one another, but one is focused on our sad hero.  The lure with this song is most of it is set in Toronto and I recognized a lot of the sights.

I checked who wrote the music and learned it was a threesome, Shankar Ehsaan Loy.  One was actually a playback singer.  They had formed to do radio jingles until someone gave them the opportunity to do movie music back in 1997.  I have enjoyed their music in "Zindagi Na Milega Dobara" which won a well deserved album award,   "Rock On", "Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna", "Lakshya" (with one military theme very well done), "Karthik Calling Karthik", "Dil Chatha Hai" and others.  One movie that I enjoyed their music more than the movie was "Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic" and admit the clever choreography was an important element.

In India, the hit parade tends to revolve around movie music which is actually released before the movie.  In North America musicals have lost their popularity, but music is still a driving force in India.  I respond more to music in context which is what Bollywood offers.  Of course the content of the movie makes a big difference and there is a big variety.  They are heavily influenced by Western music, but they can also utilize unique Indian rhythms and musical instruments.

A R Rahman is the  most famous Bollywood composer in North America with "Slumdog Millionaire" for which he won two Oscars.  Has scored for a number of American movies. In a list of his top hits there are many more noteworthy songs that hit his most appreciative audiences.  Some of his music I enjoyed includes "Ghaljini", "Lagaan", "Taal".  " A Peck on the Cheek",  "Bombay."  He composed music for 3 Deepa Mehta's (a prominent Canadian film maker) films, "Earth", "Fire" and  "Water".   He also wrote the music for my favorite Bollywood movie, "Swades"  He enjoys being a playback singer (in one famous movie seen singing on top of a moving train).  Admittedly I appreciated a lot of his music when I revisited it after my first listen.

One of Rahman's movies I enjoyed early in my education was  "Jaane tu...ya Janne Na" An interesting link from Jaanne tu...ya Janne Na" is http://ww.raaga.com/channels/hindi/moviedetail.asp?mid=H001264   The first song is very catchy and the second is an interesting novelty song and is partly in English (Pappu can't dance).

Pritam Chakraborty is known for both hard and soft music.  He loves to write Punjabi songs with wild dance rhythms, but also has a reputation for soft romantic tunes.  In "Jab We Met" one of the songs from this movie, "Tum Se Hi"  was voted most romantic song.  click on http://www.hindifilmnews.com/bollywood_buzz/poll-most-romantic-bollywood-song-ever-2/  then follow down to the second video (you might enjoy the first) and press the start sign.  Mohit Chouhan is given a lot of credit for popularizing this song.

Vishal-Shekar have a long list of movies to their credit.  One very popular infectious (to listeners not computers) video from Ra.one sung by American hip hop artist Akon.  Can't recommend the movie otherwise but have a listen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4EZHGFK-1c  They have written a number of other catchy tunes.

Salim-Sulieman Merchant are two brothers.   They have produced music for a number of movies that I have enjoyed, but can't remember the music which might mean the songs didn't distract from the movie.  I thoroughly enjoyed "Iqbal"'s background music and noticed the main theme repeated in "Ashayein" another enjoyable bit of movie music.  An irony here is that in "Iqbal", the main character played by Shreyas Talpade was a deaf mute who cracked top cricket play and in "Aashayein" he played a bit role, but sang the song.   Two others I remember the music fondly were "Bachna Ae Haseeno" and "Fanaa"  Sometimes the story is more dominant and sometimes the music, but ideally they blend together.

Jatin-Lalit are another two brothers with a lot of movies to their credit, two of which are considered modern classics, "Diwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" and "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.",  amongst my top enjoyable Bollywood movies.

If you tried a few links and weren't impressed I can only suggest the more you listen and the more in context the more likely these songs will start to grow on you.  I didn't appreciate everything the first time I heard it, but came to love a lot of Bollywood music.  If you are not turned on, your effort is appreciated.  Forgive me, but I do love this stuff.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Settlements are an act of defiance

A lot is shaking the Middle East.  Hatred and fear are mixed through misunderstandings.  It does seem that might is right, and both sides seem to understand the role of power.

I am offended by the Canadian government who has decided to take sides.  I would say the wrong side, but there would be an improvement if they at least tried to stay neutral.

I am an outsider who has only a superficial understanding of what has happened in Palestine, but I have read and listened countless hours as various positions are advocated.  It boils down to this.  Palestine is Biblical, the Jews were exiled from their own lands, mostly after the Romans.  They suffered from persecution everywhere they went culminating in the Holocaust.  Europeans and North Americans felt very guilty (partly because they ignored the Jewish plight and even discriminated against them as well).  Jews, mostly in Europe campaigned for a homeland where they would not be persecuted and Israel seemed the most logical. location.  They were successful through the United Nations in being granted their homeland with a few restrictions.  The Arabs were resentful and resisted this incursion on what they thought was their homeland (they too had been promised more independence) and many were either forced, misled or intimidated into leaving.

The Jewish settlers fought back and with help of foreigners actually conquered large amounts of surrounding lands which made them feel a little more secure with a cushion all around them.  A lot of resentment from Palestinians, but not enough support from their Arab and Muslim neighbours, some of whom were quite wealthy.  The Palestinians resorted to violence and picked up the idea of suicide bombs from the Tamil Tigers.  Suicide bombing is perhaps the most frightening weapon of anyone.  Even with the atomic bomb you realize the aggressor is probably concerned about survival.  The outside world looks upon it as a barbaric, inhuman, misguided and pathetic.  Israelis feel justified in harsh, methodical methods to protect themselves.  The Palestinians claim they want their land back and they want their idea of freedom.  They have been looked upon as backward psychopaths.

I am sure both sides can tell me stories of atrocities, stupidities and unsportsmanlike behaviour.  Most of us in the West feel the Palestinians are backward and should be grateful for what they have.  If they don't behave themselves they deserve to suffer.

Fear and hate, a very bad combination.  The problem at this level is simple enough.

Compounding the problem is this feeling of righteousness.  Words were written thousands of years ago that make one side feel they are entitled to even more land.  They think these words supercede any efforts to work things out fairly.  Israel, as part of their resentment of the recent United Nations vote to award Palestine non voting membership have decided to step up their settlement program.

Increasingly more of the world sees the settlements as an act of aggression against the Palestinians with really the intention of grabbing as much land as possible.  Factions of the Palestinians have grown tired of trying to negotiate and being ignored.  Their occupier has decided the only way to deal with the Palestinians is to press down harder and build walls to protect themselves.  They see no reason to negotiate seriously or to take seriously the complaints of the Palestinians.  When negotiations are not practical, practical people look for other means to attain their ends.

The Israelis are understandably afraid, but some are very self righteous.  They are not alone.  European settlers were similar; they conquered large parts of Africa, Asia, North and South America.  There was even a Biblical theme expressed by some that they had a duty to spread the true word of God to the heathens.  They had superior technology, they were more unified and diseases they brought disarmed much of the opposition.  All of these nations or tribes felt they had mythical justification for their existence, although we tend to look at most of them as backward and often can't understand why they aren't more grateful for the civilization we brought to them.

I don't have a solution.  The problem has been very one sided, with Israel having the power so they get to tell their story.  They are bolstered not only by Jews around the world, but by evangelical Christians who see their dominance mandated by the Bible.  Revenge is self perpetuating.  Trust can be very hard to build.  Building settlements in occupied lands  is very counter-productive.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

ARE YOU THE MIDDLE MAN EVERYONE WANTS TO ELIMINATE?

Have you ever heard the phrase we have lower prices because we eliminated the middle man?  Sales people are all too familiar with efforts to cut out the middle man or at least his commissions.  What is the middle man and why does he (or she) exists in the first place?  Can you survive as a middle man (or woman)?

What is the role of a middle person?  The term implies a connector.  The middle person is one person bringing resources from one party to a second party who can use the resources.  At one time people did everything themselves, but not too many recall those days.

The first selling efforts were directly from one seller to one buyer.  Somebody had something someone else wanted and they bartered.  Might have involved goods (like meat, tools, weapons) or services (like protection, hunting or sex).  Previously one of them might have beaten up the other, but that is not "civilized".  We progressed to higher levels of specialization and at some point developed an idea of a currency so that the seller could use the proceeds to buy something else entirely.

The emergence of a middle person occurred when retailing evolved with one smart person selling goods they accumulated from different sources and could sustain a living and even wealth.  Really all he was doing was bringing buyers and sellers together in a more convenient manner (early one stop shopping).  It would have started on a local scale with perhaps one person agreeing to sell a variety of produce from one farmer or from a group of farmers and hunters.  As society prospered the concept of luxury and beauty became more prominent.  A merchant would seek luxuries and beautiful things from further afield to re-sell to those who could afford more expensive items..  Manufacturing could start to thrive perhaps in the field of textiles (clothing, bedsheets, etc) or furniture or utensil and tools.  Sometimes it might be on consignment or other times the merchant would take the risk of buying.  This would let the farmer or manufacturer concentrate on putting out the goods

The merchant has taken a risk.  As time went on innovations became more common.  Someone found a better tool.  Prosperous people wanted to surround themselves with beautiful (and prestigious) objects.  The middle person can help bring new and aesthetic goods into our world.  Have to be concerned about fashion tastes and competition.

Gradually many manufacturers became bigger, but most did not have the network or the expertise to actually sell all their goods.  Wholesalers took some of the risk by buying inventory ahead of time. Now you have three levels--the producer of goods, someone storing the goods until someone else can relieve the risk and finally the retailer who puts the goods up for sale.  It eventually got more complicated with consumers buying at one level and tradespeople buying the same or similar goods as part of their services at another level.  Eventually there would be more than one level of wholesaler.

On one hand it is risky to take on or create inventory that might not sell enough for a profit.   Then there is the human tendency to get comfortable with previous choices that worked out acceptably. There has always been another way of doing things and often they were better than our comfortable habits.  The manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers all were involved with selling to the next level and developed employees or agents that concentrated on the selling part of the business.

The middleman can be found at different levels.  Someone was employed to get manufactured goods to the wholesaler.  Someone else was employed to get the goods from the wholesaler to the retailer. And the retailer is really a middle man as well between the wholesaler and end user buyer.  They are each taking a cut of the profit and each performing a service in a competitive market.  If after all the effort the end user decides it is not an acceptable value then everyone in the chain will lose repeat and referral business.  It might also be useful to remember that each cut of the profit allows the middle man to be an end user for someone else.

The problem today has evolved.  With computers and communications it is far easier for the actual producer of products and the people who want to use them to find each other.  This eliminates the need for many middlemen.  We can easily bypass not only a single middleman, but a variety and of course the price is lowered. There is of course a few complications with perhaps the biggest being the competitive intertwined market place.  There are so many products from a variety of sources that offer to solve a very wide range of problems that it is often very difficult to determine what is the best fit.

I remember a sociology professor saying a bigger population allows more complexity.  I also remember a sales tape that talked about how everything is getting more complex.

As a consumer I enjoy this new power, but am behind many of my more sophisticated colleagues. Recently I made a purchase of an e book.  Several middle people were cut out.  The author and publisher still got a cut and someone had to provide the mechanism for transmitting the words to my Kobo reader and someone to let me transfer the money from my possession to the seller's possession. But we cut out the printer, the person who sold the ink and another person who sold paper to the printer, the person who would have sold the book to a wholesaler and of course the staff who stacked the shelves, advised interested readers and took my money or credit card at the cash register.  From my view point pretty good deal--I saved money and inconvenience.

Why did I buy that particular ebook.  Well there was a marketing effort for sure to get my attention and I had already been persuaded that computers would help me in various ways and that reading ebooks makes a lot of sense.  I looked over various options for reading and made my decision based on what I knew and felt.  I realize I cannot read every book and did not necessarily choose the most ideal choice for my tastes, but I was able to consider a much wider range than I could have with the resources available to me even five years ago.

Efficiency has done away with many middle men (and women).  Is there any room left for the middle person?

One way of looking at it is that a middle man is between a resource and a need.  You can make a living producing goods and services if you can somehow find a way get your goods and services to the market.  A prospective consumer has a problem and is looking for a solution.  Often the deciding on what is the best solution can be very complicated and they only have so much time and energy.

How can you provide a service that facilitates exchange of goods and justifies a cut for you.  The first thing is knowledge.  Knowledge is a  very big deal including not only what products/services are available, but what the consumer actually wants or needs or can be made aware of.  Nobody knows everything they need to get through the day and maximize their enjoyment of life.

One special source of knowledge is what might be called applications.  I used to sell a cleaner and as time went by I learned it would do a lot more things than I was originally told and many of them unexpected.  How did I find out?  My own personal experience was important, but even more important was the experience of my customers.  They found the product would do the things I had said and when they encountered another problem they tried it and often found that it worked.  When they told me I suggested it to other people.  All I was really doing was spreading knowledge that made life more pleasant for some people.  A lot of products do more than they are marketed for (and all products have limitations).   A good middle person can help point them out.  To find out more about applications.  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2013/03/applications-in-selling.html

Travel agents used to be a lot more common, but many have been cut out by online purchases.  Most of us are focussed on the bottom line, but in fairness we also have access to opinions.   Opinions of individual users can be dangerous.  Someone who has accumulated a wide variety of opinions is in a better position to advise.

The ideal salesperson is pro active.  The other kind is reactive, in other words waiting for someone else to make the first move.  There are a lot of order takers and sometimes they are so busy processing orders they don't have much spare time.  They are taught to add questions like "with fries?"

Another factor is trust.  Indeed there are many opinions, but who do you trust?  Ideally someone who knows both the product or service we are considering, but also who knows just what the potential buyer really wants.  In the past a sales person learned as much as possible about what they were asked to sell and tried to fit it into the needs of prospects.  The more choices available the more confusing the decision process.

In truth the position of the middle person has shifted.  Instead of being between the manufacturer and the retailer they might be working for a manufacturer who deals directly with the consumer.  Usually they are restricted in what they can offer the consumer, but often they do have access to a wide range of products and services to match the consumer's needs.  They could also be a complaint centre representing a manufacturer who realizes it is more effective to deal with difficult situations rather than have a retailer intermediary.

All this is general thinking and you have to sort out what is unique in your experience and where there might be a need not being met.  If there doesn't seem to be a very good fit between your resources and future consumer needs you need to develop one.  In one sense we are all middlemen. But you have to protect your position--using knowledge, being pro-active and earning trust.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Uncle Cam

Kinship is a precious thing too often taken for granted, but not something you want to lose when you think deeply about it.  Funerals are not events you look forward to, but as one of life's passages they bring friends and relatives closer.  Cameron Stewart's death notice arrived on my email Nov 16th, just one day after he died.  It was not totally unexpected but saddened me none the less.

My Uncle Cam married my mother's older sister, Ruth some time after my mom and dad married and after Cameron served in WW II.  Every now and then I became aware of them, but Uncle Cam worked for Ontario Hydro and his family spent several years in a remote town near James Bay called Fraserdale that could only be reached by train.  I occasionally saw my aunt and uncle and cousins when they visited Oshawa my home town.  A few years later they moved to Cornwall and we perhaps saw them a bit more often.

Some things I remember about Uncle Cam.  At a family wedding held at my parent's home, we all had a meal afterwards and then came an awkward time. Mostly my mother washed the dishes and put them away, but my Uncle was having none of that.  Without saying much he started to help and urged others to get involved.  We felt a bit ashamed of ourselves, but realized it was the proper thing to do and helped open up my attitude a bit.

After I was married and went with my wife's family to a wedding in Watertown, New York I decided it would be good to check up on my own family and drove to Cornwall.  I had been told that my Uncle Cam had given the Queen a tour of the Hydro facility in Cornwall.  We asked for and got our own tour and I remember at one point he said this was as far as the Queen went, but he took us further.  It was quite an impressive facility.

He was always easy to talk to.  My wife is half Italian and he talked about his time in the army in Italy during World War II and afterwards visiting with my aunt.  As I started to get involved with the family tree and read up about the Canadians battles in Italy I asked him if he was in any of the battles.  He answered that no he wasn't in any of those famous battles.  It took at least another two years before he explained that he had been involved in mopping up after those battles--in other words they gathered up the dead soldiers and tidied up the mess left behind after the killings.


I remember one family gathering, though not all the details.  One person got very upset and started yelling.  In most family gatherings someone might yell back or the group would attempt to ostracize or avoid the offender.  Not Uncle Cam, he took the person aside and walked with them and talked till things calmed down.  I was quietly impressed and wish I could say I followed in his footsteps, but I merely look back on it as quite remarkable.

When my mother was dying and the word got out that she wanted to see her sister, my uncle and aunt were at some trailer camp in eastern Ontario, but dropped what they were doing and rushed to the hospital in Cambridge where my mother lay.  This process stretched over two weeks and my aunt always seemed to be nearby, and also my uncle.  When my mother died (my Aunt Ruth was the only family member in the same room) two or three of us were talking about how my mother held the family together.  Uncle Cam didn't butt in, but when invited in to the conversation made a suggestion that we get together once a year for a picnic.  We didn't know this at the time but the weekend we chose (just before the Labour Day weekend) was their anniversary, but they always showed up.

I remember my aunt and uncle and cousins visiting for weddings, anniversaries, funerals and holiday get togethers never really appreciating how inconvenient it must have been living so far away.  I spent a lot of time at my Grandmother Coakwell's home after my family moved and also when in university and would come across some of my cousins.

In truth this was not a funeral.  Uncle Cam had chosen to be cremated as soon as possible.  He didn't want a big fuss to be made, but his family thought he was well worth remembering and celebrating.  His ashes in an urn were the focus, not his body in a casket.  They were brought into the service by Grand-son Robert James and Grand-daughter Jacqueline van Dassen.

After someone dies you not only remember some things about them, but you also find out a few things you didn't know.  He was a Shriner.  What I know of Shriners is they enjoy life and like to do good and I think Uncle Cam would have been a natural fit.  I did know he liked boats and sailing, but was reminded by one of the speakers.  His daughter Brenda and his grandson Andrew reminded me he loved nature and there was one reference to "bird moments" that surprised me.

Peter Cotton played the bagpipes during the service reminding me that Uncle Cam had a Scottish heritage.  I remember Peter at another Uncle's funeral where at one time the funeral visitors were expected to walk across a busy stretch of King St in Oshawa during rush hour.  He pumped up his bagpipes and marched us across the street where all traffic instantly stopped for our passage.

 There was a display of the Stewart tartan on the urn and Jacqueline's head and I realized I should have worn my Davidson tartan tie or even jacket.

At weddings it is common to be asked if you are with the bride or groom and seated accordingly.  It is natural to gravitate towards the familiar and in my case that meant three siblings and my three cousins and their families, but it was pleasant to get to know the "other" side a bit.  Kate Stewart asked to be introduced and she knew me a bit from facebook (we are now friends) and shared with my sister Rebecca an interest in playing the piano.  Ron Stewart, Uncle Cam's brother (and once involved with the Avro Aero project) remembered my father.

There were a few tears, but probably more laughter as we all thought of the fond memories we had of Uncle Cam.  He would have felt good about bringing us together, but not thinking a funeral was necessary for it to happen.

You can read about my Aunt Ruth at:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2014/11/my-aunt-ruth.html

PHOTOS:  I apologize that my photos aren't as good as they deserved to be, but I regret even more that I didn't take more photos as they would help me to remember better.

The top is of Andrew Elbendari and Robert James with Derek Van Dassen.

The second photo is of Donna Stewart talking to my sister Jennifer and Charles.

The third photo is of Linda Stewart, Rebecca Davidson, Jennifer Davidson (with Jacqueline van Dassen standing behind) and Marshall Davidson.

The fourth photo is of the "grand son in law" of Ron Stewart with his two children who came from Alymer, Quebec.

The fifth photo is of Peter Cotton who I wanted to get a photo of with his bagpipes, but I was too slow and too shy at the wrong time.

The bottom photo is on Ron Stewart with his grand-son in law.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Collaboration in family tree research

Before computers became so useful for family tree research the secrets you are trying to unearth demanded more effort.  I read lots of advice, even went to a few lectures.  I located others with the same concerns who could advise me where to look next.  My Grandmother Davidson had left behind a lot of material and my dad and Grandmother Coakwell gave out a few ideas.

The Ontario Archives to check the census was an early destination.  This required a trip to downtown Toronto.  I was successful in identifying my family, confirming some details and learning a few others.  I had been told that Scottish families fell into a naming pattern with the first born son being named after the husband's father and the second named after the mother's father.  For the next census to find the same family with no results.  Gave up that line for awhile, but in the meantime had joined a local genealogy group in Oshawa, my home town.  A query resulted in someone suggesting the family had moved to Perth County.  Joined a group there and all of a sudden some things started to make sense.  There were family photos that had place names in Perth County.  Apparently part of the family stayed in the area, but part moved back to Oshawa for jobs.  The truth was the Davidsons were poor, but hooking up to a relation through marriage things started to turn around.  Musical connection and later a horse connection developed.

The Mormons had set up libraries which were visited in Toronto and Hamilton.  There was some fear of proselytizing, but the Mormons were very careful not to offend, and in fact they tried to help in any way they could.   They had church records on micro fiche and once you could identify which church an ancestor belonged to you could check baptisms, marriages and deaths.  Sometimes one marriage partner had come from another church and you could pursue records from that church.

To get started on my mother's side I heard from my Grandmother Coakwell of a man who had done a family tree for her husband's side.  I phoned someone with the same last name while in Oshawa and got the name, Lorne Proctor in Toronto who lived reasonably close to my Toronto office.   Lorne had been to England in his efforts to trace the Coakwell family.  He told me that the original name was spelled Cawkwell and that anybody spelling the name Coakwell was related to me.  One had invented a high altitude suit for the American Air Force and when he was not paid for it he sued and won.  My grandfather had a greenhouse.  Apparently that went back a few generations.  I was also surprised to learn that my brother had been named Marshall after this grandfather, but the name originated as another relative's maiden name.

In another blog my biggest surprise came after contacting the Markham museum that had been suggested to me by a co-worker.  Part of my ancestry was Mennonite, but unlike the migration to Waterloo migration, mine went to York county where they had insufficient co-worshippers that many married outside the religion.  A Mennonite genealogical group out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania was helpful. Other things started to click.

One relative was traced back to Springfield, Massachusetts which interested me enormously because that is where the first basketball game had been played.  I had actually been to the basketball museum in Springfield on a government grant to do research there a few years previously.  Wrote a letter to the local library and they were able to connect me to a volunteer researcher.  He was very supportive and even excited.  After each family name was explored I would often ask to explore the female side and that resulted in dozens of more photocopies.  One family line was traced all the way back to  the boat that followed the Mayflower.  I was very pleased to learn that, but it dampened me somewhat when I later read that the second boat carried the "riff raff".  I tried following some of them back to England, but not very successful.  No basketball connection.  There was  a connection to the Wright brothers whose ancestors also lived in Springfield.  A strange fact was that I was related to some of the same people, but through different lines, in other words cousins had married cousins in at least one instance.

One of the American connections had a children's book written about them--Sarah Noble.  which was read to and bought for my daughter Heather.

The number of early deaths and second marriages was quite striking.  In some cases my line was related through the second marriage and sometimes the first.  In at least one instance one of my ancestors was born as their mother died.  At a few critical times ancestors moved.  In some instances it was assumed to get a better work situation, but other factors were sometimes critical.  Some left for religious reasons as churches split and others left to avoid being forced into the military.

I remember getting called in the middle of the night (in bed with the lights out) from Saskatchewan. When a strange voice introduced himself I was fumbling in my brain to figure out what connections I had with Saskatchewan.  My Ukrainian father in law was originally from there.  My Grandmother lived in Manitoba for a brief time.  The connection was actually close to the most neglected branch of my research---the Davidsons.

Manley Waddell, a retired engineer was trying to fill in a few blank spots and confirm some details.  It turned out that a sister to a great grandfather Davidson had married a Wadell who took her out west.  We exchanged a few details, but the most interesting part came later.  Manley was not content to sit at home and write letters or make phone calls.   He traveled to Ontario, rented a hotel and drove to Stratford area to check local records and cemeteries.  After visiting him in a Toronto hotel we talked a bit.  After his trips he not only sent me some photos and updated information he had posted my information into the Stratford society.

On my wife's side I learned that many Ukrainians came to Canada as Catholics but converted to Greek Orthodox.  Apparently the Catholic church could only send Polish priests to serve the Ukrainians in western Canada, but they were not appreciated by the Ukrainians who had historical differences.  Apparently the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska was able to send down priests who were more acceptable.  I was married in an Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church.  My father-in-law's family settled in Saskatchewan at first, but then spread in different directions.  The first pioneers literally dug a hole in the bank of a river to get through their first winter.  Many letters were written and many talks with various Ukrainian relatives.  Developed a liking for some Ukrainian foods and enjoyed their dancing (as a spectator).

The Italian branch came to Canada with some settling in Hagersville and gradually moving to Hamilton.  One branch came from near Naples, home of the pizza and another from Abruzzo.  I actually took an Italian language course and got quite interested in Italian culture, including popular songs, opera, movies, wine and of course food.  Very pleased to learn one of my new relatives is author, Nelson De Mille whose books I always look forward to reading.

One unnerving experience was trying to get together with one of my mother-in law's cousins who wanted to pool our resources.  Before that happened she died unexpectedly and was about my age.

I haven't spent too much time in the last 15 years on the family tree, but my curiosity is easily aroused and I am hoping to get back into it using modern research tools, but also talking to people.

Monday, November 19, 2012

WHY NATIONS FAIL

Many of us wonder why some nations thrive and others do not.  Often we just feel that our winning culture is just superior.  Some of us liberal minded people look for explanations in geography.  Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs and Steel" analyzed the occurrence of plants and domesticable animals to determine what areas had the best opportunities for growth.  Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson (who has co-written with Jared) say this does not go far enough to explain modern differences in prosperity.

The authors contention is that success is based not on geography but on whether the power of a society is extractive or inclusive.  I understand them to mean by extractive the elites at the top extract as much as possible from the masses.  Inclusive refers to more people having some power.

One area where this makes a difference is with innovation.  The authors explain that innovation most often requires creative destruction, meaning that the old established way of doing things is done away with while livelihoods and political power have to adjust to new ways of doing things in order to survive.

In an extractive society those with power see innovation as a threat to their power.  To maintain their power it is necessary to resist any innovation even if they recognize it might benefit the society as a whole.  Examples given include the printing press and railroads amongst countless other innovations that have been resisted.  Some powerful people stay that way by adapting to new opportunities.

Reading the book it seems like most of history evolved with extractive societies.  The clever elite would arrange society to give themselves the most power which they used to get the most wealth. Slavery occurred in ancient civilizations including Egyptian, Greek and Roman.  Feudalism was less harsh, but was designed to make sure labour was for the benefit of the elite.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 overthrew one English monarch, James II and replaced him with William III, but more importantly brought also the ascendency of the Parliament over monarchy.   Industrial Revolution in England was possible because power was dispersed over a wider class of people.  It depended upon innovators and entrepreneurs having opportunities and incentives.  Earlier the Magna Carta gave power to some aristocrats that loosened up the power structure a little.  The Black Death plague upsetting population also helped to shift power.  The trans-Atlantic trade when it came to England (not so much Spain and Portugal) also gave some leverage for some merchants to gain power.

The French Revolution represented a huge overturning of power.  It went through violence, dictatorship, even monarchs but the ideals spread with help of Napoleon.  Western Europe was liberated and those liberated from an extractive system were very resistant to going back.

A vicious circle refers to the situation where someone has power over everyone else and they are not willing to give it up.  The only way to overcome this is someone else with power overcomes them. Their motivation is almost always selfish, but if it is not selfish at the beginning they normally get corrupted.  The victims, ie. ordinary people have no incentives to work harder or offer ideas and usually no power that can be leveraged.

A good example of an extractive society is the system in southern United States prior to 1865. Slavery did not start in America, but was imported from Africa where slavery had a long history. Southern whites with enough resources soon learned they could increase their wealth immensely by controlling African slaves.  Slaves had no motive to improve efficiencies and innovation dried up. Slaves were freed because of the anger of northerners who had developed a more industrial society. But the Civil War did not end the oppression of the Africans as whites soon enacted what have come to be known as Jim Crow laws.  Finally they were done away with, but only after concerted efforts of both black activists and northerners.  As more people were part of an inclusive society, innovations occurred more frequently and wages improved for all.

A virtuous circle can be when somehow a lesser person is able to gain some power and over time extends that power to a wider base of people.  The person at the top has some dependency on this new power base or they most often would not allow it.  There is strength in numbers and as more individuals realize that they can gain in power.

Australia demonstrates how an inclusive society can develop.  Originally the pioneers were convicts whose personal rights were very restricted.  As time went on the administrators found it very impractical to not gradually increase their liberties.  They became entrepreneurial and innovative and mixed in with subsequent immigrants.

Another example of how an inclusive society developed was Botswana, in the middle of African colonial powers was able to get some relief from British authorities after a visit to England by some chiefs.  At the time they were one of the poorest nations in Africa, but because they developed an inclusive society they became one of the richer ones.  Fortunately for them diamonds were not discovered until after independence.

Still another example comes from Brazil.  They had suffered dictatorships, but in 1978 Lula was able to organize factory workers and have them empowered.  Brazil is now known as one of the developing nations to watch.

One of the things I got out of this book was a reflection on our current situation.  The tendency of elites to concentrate their power and their disdain for the common man is easily detectable in modern politics. How does inequality develop?  Those who have power are motivated to increase their power. They feel they are special, an exception to the rules.  A few have insight and can appreciate that "we are all in this together," but others feel they are deserving of a better deal than those others.  Why should they pay extra taxes so lazier people don't have to work.  Maintaining an inclusive nation requires vigilance.  The book recounts leaders who recognized that some innovations would raise standard of living for the masses, but felt threatened and when possible prevented innovations.

Modernization is not enough to succeed.  China has modernized, but has not developed an inclusive society and the authors predict unless it does they will decline.  A key word is empowerment.  When people have the power to make a difference  most of them will use that power to make things better for themselves.  Others will recognize there is strength in numbers.

I do recommend this book as it does give a very useful perspective for what we as individuals need to encourage.  Read more about the book and a current blog by the authors at http://whynationsfail.com/

Monday, November 12, 2012

Who Really won the American Election?

Everyone is excited or upset that Obama won the American presidency.  We are starting to appreciate that the thing that upset voters the most, congressional gridlock still is a highly likely outcome as the House of Representatives will still be controlled by the Republicans.  The Senate is still able to stymie Democratic initiatives.

The Americans have a system that was the result of compromise.  The smaller states were reluctant to join with the bigger states fearing they would be overwhelmed.  The slave issue was also a big concern to the southern States.  The result was the two house system and the electoral college.  The House of Representatives is voted on every two years and is supposed to be a reflection of the whole population and is given budgeting powers.  The Senate members are voted for six year terms, two per state regardless of size and are staggered so that there is more continuity which is more appropriate to the the body of sober opinion and given right of cabinet approval and treaties.  The rules enabled the Republicans to cut off votes on issues even though they barely had 40 members in the 100 member Senate.

As I write this, it is difficult to get totally accurate figures, but it appears that the Republicans will control the House of Representatives by a margin somewhere near 234 to 193.  However other figures from previous days show that the Democrats candidates won more votes than their Republican counter parts.

Gerrymandering undoubtedly had an effect.  One of goals of the governing power at the state level is to determine the boundary lines for the Congressional representatives.  Both parties have a history of reshaping the boundaries for their own benefit.  Boundary lines were decided after the 2010 elections.  It does seem that where the Republicans control which is the majority of states at the moment the boundary lines will favor them.  Furthermore the voters often don't bother to vote if they know the odds are stacked against their preferred candidate.

In the end if the wishes of the people are overwhelming it should be reflected in the overall outcome, but it is more complicated again.  What complicates the outcome again is money.  The average voter has more immediate concerns than who wins an election, while other people have a great deal of interest as it affect their ability to maintain and increase their large amount of wealth.  With modern technology and money they are able to manipulate a lot to their advantage.  Marketing plays a big role with psychological insights..

Another advantage of controlling state governments is the right to determine many of the voting procedures.  Here in Ontario I worked a polling booth and as part of my training I was surprised to learn how determined they are to encourage everyone to  vote.  For handicapped people they have a lot of suggestions to help.  Even people with different mental concerns (like agorophobia) are encouraged to vote.

In United States in many areas it is realized that most poor people and most minorities vote Democrat.  As  many have jobs and limited resources merely by limiting their accessibility much of their power is eroded.  This last election was noted for very long waits to vote with some people giving up and not bothering.  Other people are not able to obtain acceptable proof of their identity and thus lose their right to vote.

Many people complained that they didn't like either party while others counseled that the election was too important to waste on a third party.  A two party system causes a few problems.  Each party has a policy on each issue, but some of the policies are really intended to rope in voters who otherwise would not vote for them.  In United States, the Republicans have added policies to appeal to people concerned about social issues that will vote against their own economic self interests.  Big money Republicans have found this an effective strategy to give a good run for political power.

In a multi party system this is more difficult.  A third party is focused on some specific issues and is easily recognized for their concern.  The other parties can focus on what their core interests really are.  Why doesn't this happen in the US?  First it costs too much money to set up a viable party, not only for the marketing, but also to fufil government regulations at the state level.  Second there is a real feeling that a third party vote is truly wasted.  In Canada and Ontario this feeling often gets translated to strategic voting where a voter will choose the lesser of two evils rather than their real choice. Third and even fourth and fifth parties sometimes do have power in Canada to modify policy decisions and are able to express their viewpoints.

The answer to my headline question is really the gerrymanderers.  The voters do not have the best choice.  The system will not change easily, but it is my hope that people will realize there are better systems and they can exercise power to help bring us to them.

The American election with their two party system helps me realize that proportional voting helps give people better choices.  In the United States one application would be at the state level where the number of representatives is set.  The voting could easily be proportional, within the state although there might be tricky arithmetic calculations at the margins that would have to be dealt with.  By itself it might allow a third party to sneak in.  The electoral college could be adapted from the winner takes all used by most states to a more proportional result in line with the voters' preference.

Two other problems are the role of money and the role of political parties in setting the rules.

Money encourages favoritism.  If one entity (read rich person or corporation) can help a political party they almost always expect something in return, even if it is merely accessibility.  We will never escape the necessity of a candidate to market themselves, but it could be simplified.  Unfortunately the people that can legally change the role of money got their power with financial power.  Laws restricting the role of money would help present a less distorted vision to voters.

Canada and its provinces have separated political parties from the election process.  If nothing else this gives more credibility to the results.   Without kowtowing to political parties the election boards can do more to make it easier for everyone to vote.  It is not perfect but far better than letting a political party control voting rules.

Democratic deficits which I recall first hearing from Paul Martin can be rectified in the future, but it will not be volunteered by those now in power.  The idea of a better system has to come from the masses.  We must educate ourselves and bring our concerns to the public.  Politicians cannot ignore legitimate concerns if there is enough public demand.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO MY 2012 RESOLUTIONS?

Back on January 3rd I made some resolutions and posted them.  That prompted one suggestion I put into place.  Still it has been a struggle.  There is always a reason to improve yourself  This post may be more egotistical than usual, but it is based on the idea that the more people aware of my commitments, even if only in my imagination the more determined will be my efforts.

If a resolution is to make a real difference it can't be too easy.  Ultimately my resolutions boil down to wanting to be a better person and enjoy life more.  How about you?

Physical fitness is a basic.  Over the years I have gone from an active youth to a sedentary adult and even more so in the last year.  Fitness can be thought of in three aspects:  strength, cardio-vascular, and flexibility.  Being slim is not being fit, but it sure helps and motivates.

Mental health is part of physical fitness and vice versa.  A sound mind in a sound body.  You make choices every minute.  Mental health includes both intelligence and emotions.

Multi tasking is a problem.  I crave too many things and feel I am missing.  I realize life is about choices.  Choices all the time.  Many of the choices are really distractions from things that move you forward to make life more enjoyable and purposeful.

Work gives a purpose in life and the means to enjoy it.  Ideally you want to do something that makes the world a better place in one way or another.  I have felt often the results of any effort is partly due to luck.  One day I remember being embarrassingly praised by one customer and walking across the street and getting lambasted because one order wasn't processed to their liking.  I have had people thank me just for showing up at the right time and more often did not show up at the right time.  The thing you have more control over is the effort.  If you shy away from an effort inevitably you will not get results.  The results will not happen when you make a single effort. so you not only have to brave an effort, but be patient for the results.

I am still doing pushups, but not situps so much as they seemed to aggravate a sore back.  I am now doing a few minutes of meditation most days.  I am mindfully eating a bit more, but it still amounts to a fraction of my meals.  As my pants are falling down, but weight is similar fat is slowly disappearing.

Work has been very frustrating.  Part of it is because I am waiting for things to happen.  Things I have been led to believe would happen, but haven't.  I have whined a bit and made known my frustrations.  BUT I have not been as pro active as I could have been.  I need to do a lot more and waiting is just delaying the results.  When Plan A is not available move to plan B and if necessary Plan C, etc.  However getting back to Plan A is  important.  Starting to pick up some slack.

At this part of the year I am going to keep doing what I can and establish new plateaus for resolutions around early January.   Look for something more definite in January.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What now? Americans and the rest of the world

The American election is a very complicated event to analyze, but on the whole I feel a little relieved.  It seemed that some dark forces would overcome some progressive efforts.  This election was the most expensive ever in absolute terms.  Also one candidate played around with the truth to an unusual degree.

In order to get the nomination Mitt Romney tried to outdo a lot of very hard core conservatives and then realizing the national voters were a bit scared of some of his statements modified and twisted them considerably.  There was a lot of deception that apparently some people took seriously.  If the Republicans had succeeded it would have led to the Democrats doing more of the same.

Over a century ago Alexis De Tocqueville pointed out that in a democracy the poor will vote for their own interests.  That is true and dangerous, but it needs to be balanced against a natural tendency for elites to concentrate their power.

The Republicans have long realized that their economic policies favoring the wealthy establishment were not well received by the masses and so have married their strategy to a lot of social concerns that for significant population segments overwhelmed their own economic self interest.

 Race was one social concern and it was visible.  Barrack Obama was pictured as a Muslim, as an angry black man and as not one of us (for instance when Sarah Palin suggested "real America" is where she felt most comfortable).  Although many white people resented a black man at the top they were also concerned that other minorities were changing their culture, especially Latinos.

Gay rights is another area that some are adamantly opposed to.  My own education is perhaps typical of my generation.  Once it was a joking matter that hid fears of not being masculine enough or of being a prey.  Most likely I encountered lots of gays without realizing it because in my youth it was something hidden away.  Later when I actually met some I realized they are not a whole lot different or less deserving.  Now more gays are being open and you realize they have made and want to make contributions to society.  By denying them their share of happiness it affects all of us.

Abortion is still another concern that motivates voting choices.  It can be very emotional, but not more so than for those confronted directly with it.  I agree that the idea is repulsive, however as a male I am not intimately exposed to it and feel I have no right to impose my feelings on someone who has a life decision with grave consequences.  The Democrats don't applaud abortion either and have articulated that it should be legal, safe and rare.  To me two of the most practical ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies and thus abortions are sex education and contraception, two areas that are opposed by the most extreme anti-abortionists.  My suspicion is that they are against promiscuity and feel that pre-marital sex should be punished.  Life is precious and there are other ways to respect it than reflexively opposing abortion in all contexts.

The hard core conservatives felt they had earned their right to the rewards of a prosperous society and were not going to let lazy inferior beings take anything away.  They dismiss their advantages and forget the element of luck that worked in their favour.  Letting their own greed take over they plot to control the rest of us trying to go about our lives.  Most of us believe in rewards based on merit, but admit that some people get more than their share.

The Democrats did not really win as the Republicans still retain control of the House of Representatives  who can continue to frustrate progressive measures not approved of by the wealthy or conservatives.  They could block all sorts of efforts to improve the American economy and freedom.  They will be watched more closely this time.

Some things going against the Republican strategy include minorities are becoming the majority on a daily basis.  Immigration will need to increase to fill the vacuum left by us baby boomers.  The health care program, although far from perfect will become increasingly popular as it has everywhere else in the world.  If inequality increases, more Americans will realize that the Republicans are the ones most responsible for diminishing the American Dream even as they proclaim they are its champions.  Something will have to give.

There will be a lot of soul searching amongst the Republicans.  You can't accomplish much if you can't get elected.  Hard core conservatism is diminishing in appeal.  Social media assures that candidates will not always be able to mislead people against their own self interest.

The whole electoral system creates a lot of unhealthy things.  The campaign goes far too long.  With new Supreme Court rulings money is playing way too big a role.  The electoral college assures small states have disproportionate power. Because some states are too entrenched in their voting patterns the candidates of the two main parties emphasize too much time and effort courting those who are in "swing" states.  The American primary system encourages promises to early states to build momentum.

The long range problems that Americans and the rest of the world need to tackle require immediate attention. Climate change, inequality, joblessness, overpopulation, pollution and democracy need to be priorities.  Americans still have the idea that they are the centre of the world.  That is changing and part of that is their own fault.

They are only a tiny fraction of the world's population yet gobble up disproportionate resources.  Although they tout the wonders of freedom they (I include myself in this) are not nearly as willing to work hard as much of the rest of the world.  Much of the third world is resentful of American attitudes while at the same time craving the perks of living in America.  Americans have been bullies and have allied themselves with foreign power abusers.  The world won't change overnight, but if we cultivate healthy attitudes the world will be better for all.  Obviously this will be very difficult, and the benefits will be a long time coming.

The future presents a lot of challenges to the world's population.  Most of us are only vaguely aware of the forces that could tear us apart.  Overpopulation may not be the threat it once was, but is still a major concern.  As industrializaton, urbanization and education (all tied together with greater power for women) birth rates have been declining everywhere.  We still need to be concerned about the pressure on our resources such as water, food and energy.

Climate change is known to be true by most scientists who have studied it and is felt to have some truth by increasing numbers of people who are affected by it.  It suggests we need to rely on fossil fuels a lot less just when many of us are tied into it tighter than ever.  Apparently meat eating is another luxury that contributes.  We need to understand our planet's climate better and start taking more serious steps to mitigate the bad trends.  We can't all wait for others to take the first step.

Joblessness doesn't have to be a problem, but the way we are organized it takes fewer and fewer people to supply the needs of the rest of us.  Agriculture is one example in that at one time most of our ancestors were engaged in farming, but today only a relatively small number of people are required to feed the rest of us.  In third world countries people are moving off the farms and taking on low wage jobs.   In first world nations technology is performing more tasks that used to be done by humans.

Unions fought hard to get decent wages for an 8 hour day and indirectly almost everyone benefits in the sense that there are more customers for more goods.  Conservative governments have succeeded in limiting the power of unions dramatically.  Unions still have some power and like others with power try to maintain their own status quo.  All people will need co-operation between employers and employees to optimize resources and opportunities.  Opportunities will come with expanded leisure time.  We have steadily been moving towards a service economy and that can continue as more people enjoy recreation, education and healthcare opportunities.  The entrenched establishment will oppose trends they see as diminishing their power.  We all benefit when each person gets a fair chance.

Bureaucracy may become a challenge.  There may be a danger that in our zealousness we create more inspectors, and regulators that stifle entreprenurial efforts instead of just controlling dangerous habits. Some people can be employed in cleaning up pollution and other messy problems.  Organic farming is more labour intensive.  In general although being big has advantages, small can also be beautiful.