Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ricardo Darin brings charm from Argentina

We don't think of Argentina much when it comes to entertainment, except perhaps for the tango.  Ricardo Darin, born in 1957 has the looks and charm of a Hollywood star, but is most comfortable in Spanish.  His name helps sell movie tickets in South America and Europe and has a presence in North America.

As the son of two actors Ricardo was able to start his career at age 10.  He became involved with tv soap operas and comedies developing a strong fan base and winning a few awards.  He also acted in live theatre and directed a few plays.

My first Darin viewing was with  "El Aura" put on by the Art Gallery of Hamilton giving it a little extra prestige.  Ricardo played an epileptic taxidermist who fancied himself a clever robber of a casino.  He won a best actor award and left an interesting impression.

"XXY" was viewed years later and like almost all the others was a library DVD.  It was on a delicate topic.  Ricardo acted the father of a child who was a hermaphrodite (both sexes)  Trying to let the child decide what sex with lots of social pressures coming from unexpected directions..


Three movies switched from drama to emphasize his comic timing. "The Education of Fairies" was serious, but had a lot of humour.  He played a toy inventor who as he put it, fell in love with two people all at once, actually a widowed mother and her son.  This one was set in Spain and was the only one I saw not set in Argentina.

"Son of the Bride" was a very well regarded movie winning lots of awards and nominations including best actor award for Ricardo.  Norma Aleandro who I admired from other films played a senile mother whose husband wanted to remarry her as therapy.  Ricardo played an irresponsible but loving son.  This was one of many collaborations with writer director Juan José Campanella.  Juan was born in Argentina, but spent over 20 years in the United States where he graduated from the New York University Film School and went onto to direct in such tv series as "House M.D.", and "Law and Order".  Returning to Argentina he directed and wrote some award winning scripts.

"Nine Queens" was another comic role this time as a con artist in 2000.  Lots of twists, but I admit I had seen some of the twists before.  There was a later Bollywood revision in 2005 with Abhishek Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra, but not quite as good.  Ricardo won another best actor award.

"Carancho" is a film noir based on how too many fatal traffic accidents are handled by crooked lawyers.  Ricardo plays a repentant lawyer who teams up with an emergency doctor and deals with crooked cops and insurance companies.  A powerful drama with lots of twists.

"The Eyes of the Suspect" has been considered a masterpiece perhaps because Juan José Campanella co-wrote, directed and edited it.  The film won Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Ricardo played a former justice lawyer digging up an old unresolved rape/murder and an old unrequited love. Apparently the leading lady, Soledad Villamil had acted out romances with Ricardo in earlier films that were hits with the public.

Also has tried his hand at directing a movie, but with limited success, "La Sena."

"Wild Tales" recently got attention as nominated for best foreign film Oscar and did win numerous other awards.  It is six short stories (Ricardo in only one, but received his award nominations).  The music was composed by another Argentine export, Gustavo Santaolalla who is known in America for "Babel" and "Brokeback Mountain,"but has done the music for movies over Latin America, Europe and even India.

Going through IMDB listing for Ricardo he does appear as a leading figure in some above average rated movies with interesting plot lines.  Argentina has an interesting politics and some of that is reflected in his movies.

My motivation for writing this blog is that I would like to have more access to this actor's films.  He himself is a joy to watch, but perhaps more importantly he has been selective in his script choices.  I watched a video where someone asked him if he wanted to act in Hollywood, and basically he said he had been offered bits, but they weren't as "interesting" as what he is offered elsewhere.  Everyone who asks for one of his movies increases the pressure so we can all enjoy some high class entertainment.  I have only seen the movies that I have bolded and there are lots more as yet unseen.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Death is natural, but body disposal ???

Death may be natural, but it still horrifies us and humankind has always sought ways to alleviate our distress.  Not only fear, but also guilt and grief.  Rituals have developed differently around the world, but underlying them all is our need to deal with the profound inescapable event.  We are looking for some sort of comfort as we resume our lives without our loved one (or at least someone we felt some attachment).  Any death reminds us of our own mortality.

In modern times some people rebel against the commercialism of funerals and others worry about death's role in our environment.  Religious beliefs are under attack and many seek reassurances they can't find through traditional means.  We want to show respect for those who died and we want death to fit into some comforting overview.

Funeral ceremonies are a rite of passage.  After embalming a body, fixing it up with cosmetics and dressing the corpse with their best clothes for a few days display many of us bury the bodies of our loved ones in a hard box and put it six feet under (supposed to protect from wild animals).  Words meant to comfort are spoken.  We visit the tomb stones, lay flowers and perhaps weep.  For the most part I am familiar with this routine, but now realize there are alternatives.

In ancient societies we know the dead were often buried with artifacts of things that were important to them and often people still do that.  Books, clothing, jewelry, and more.  Certain places were set aside for burials and with markers to remember.  The bodies were often just loose, but as time went on more solid coverings were used to protect the body from the elements.

Cremation has a long tradition in India and other countries.   The body disappears leaving some ashes that people can leave at an institution, keep in their homes or as some romantically envision, spread over significant land or water.  Early Hindus were repulsed with the slow decomposition of the body and had the idea that dead bodies made soil infertile. More theological support was that humans needed to detach their spirit from the body.

Christians avoided cremation as they associated it with pagans.  Some felt that it denied the possibility of resurrection, although others felt God could resurrect ashes as easily as flesh and bones.  Ironically fire was used to punish heretics.  Later cremation gained acceptance as one way to contain contagious diseases and also was less expensive.  A concern expressed by some is that green house gases are used.  Originally wood was used as the fuel, then later oils and gases to be speedier.  Efforts are being made to reduce the environmental impact.  One other factor favouring cremation in our overpopulated world is that burial space is becoming a precious commodity.

The Zorastrian religion started in Persia well before the birth of Christ.  In fact apparently one of the three wise men represented their faith.  They have survived to modern times with most living in India where they had fled after persecution.  They do not advocate for burial or cremation, but have developed a system where dead bodies after ritual cleaning are laid out in a dakhma (translated as towers of silence) to be devoured by scavenger birds and later their bones to be dissolved in lime and eventually washed to sea.  Although they do it based on their religious philosophy others consider it a green solution.  In India the bird population declined as poison used in agriculture killed too many and today Parsees as followers are called are breeding captive birds.

Burial at sea was once common out of necessity on long sea voyages, but today it is done more by choice.  Coffins, urns, ashes or sewn in sailcloth  are all used.  Sometimes it is another romantic idea relating to personal experience.

An early movie I enjoyed was "Beau Geste" with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland which dealt with three brothers who at a young age displayed a reverence for what they identified as a Viking Funeral which was being burned in a ship that sank.  Near the end of the movie one of the brothers had an improvised Viking funeral (in the desert).

Two methods of cheating include mummifying and cryonics.  Attempts to be immortal are natural enough  They are for the wealthy (and vain).  Do we really want to be immortal?  Can mankind support immortals and newborns?  Perhaps a topic for another blog.

Mummifying best known from Egyptians.  The powerful Pharaohs felt entitled and arranged to have their bodies preserved and encased in the incredibly expensive Pyramids.  Many mummies have survived and can be seen in museums, but obviously they were very wealthy or favoured by the powerful.  Embalming is one step in preserving bodies and is still very common.  Mummifying was also done in other parts of the world with the oldest discovered in South America We associate the process with chemicals, but in some cases dehydration was the mechanism and sometimes it was not planned.

Modern men with greater technical resources offer another solution called Cryonics.  Basically it boils down to timely freezing in hope of medical improvements.  The most famous example is baseball star, Ted Williams.  Not aware of anyone having been revived, but hope is eternal.

As a young reader I remember reading a version of Hiawatha as told by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow of a story that has stayed with me.  There is a lot of controversy about where Longfellow got his original material, but apparently based on native Indian legends including Iroquois.  Hiawatha was remembered as a noble leader who sought to improve his people's lot in life.  He prayed and fasted and when he convinced the gods that he was sincere he met a man dressed in green and yellow who offered to wrestle with him.  After several days the stranger told Hiawatha that he, Hiawatha  would conquer him and that he should be laid in the soft earth where rain and sunshine would flow down upon him.  After this was done and some time had passed, corn, considered a great gift to the Indians started to grow.  To my simple young mind it was the first thought that life can come from death.  

Recently I learned of a new phenomena, composting bodies. This is still in its initial stages but consists of a tower 3 stories high where mourners with support can wrap the deceased in simple linen, carry the dead body to the top where it is lain (after a ceremony) amongst compostable materials and allowed to decompose.  The body is conveyed to lower stories until it eventually has fully decomposed and can be given to the family or friends or appropriate neighbours.  The remains can be disposed of to fertilize flowers or trees, but not currently food.  Seems the most natural of all.

You can read more about this new way through the Urban Death Project at  http://www.urbandeathproject.org

Funerals are really for the living.  In today's global busyness our "close" relatives aren't so close anymore. Too often it takes a death to make us realize we do share something in common.  It is literally our last chance in the sense that doing anything else says something about our priorities.   We need to feel we have done the right thing, accept that a loved one has died and commemorate with others who share some of our feelings.  The last wishes of anyone are something we try to respect.

For myself for the past few years when I summarize the previous year in an annual blog I have been starting off with personally significant people who have died and try to remember how they impacted my life.  

Photo, by Miriam Barnes is of my parents who have been dead 30 and 15 years respectively, but not forgotten.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

START WITH WHY

Simon Sinek had been trying to discover the source of what inspires.  He states that most sales are done through manipulation with such tools as pricing, fear and aspirations.  Manipulation works, but it doesn't inspire.  What he has learned is that people do not buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.  This is the secret to inspiration.

His models include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Martin Luther King and Herb Kelleher.  They inspired people not because of their manipulations, but because people felt inspired about why they were doing what they chose to do.

Simon improved his understanding when it was explained to him about how the brain works.  The limbic system is innermost and makes decisions without words, in other words based on emotions and feelings.  The Neocortex helps to rationalize decisions and can influence decisions.

Colin Powell makes an important observation in this information overloaded era, "I can make a decision with 30% of the information.  Anything more than 80% is too much information."  I would just be concerned that you pick the right 30%.

Customers aren't always right.  Southwest Airlines  founder Herb Kelleher once said "It is a company's responsibility to look after the employees first.  Happy employees ensure happy customers and happy customers ensure happy shareholders in that order."  By treating employees fairly, trust is developed and loyalty that is transferred to customers and shareholders.

Another example given is with the Education for Employment Foundation, set up by Ron Bruder who is using this organization to develop optimism for opportunities in the Middle East.  Ron felt part of the problem in the Middle East is that too many young people are discouraged from innovating and he has set out to move in the right direction.  Innovation can be a key to jobs.

Getting back to the premise, Simon elaborates with the idea that value is a perception and not a calculation.  People buy brands that give confidence as they understand the compelling why behind them.

With innovative inspirational entrepreneurs an important lesson is that in trying to crack the mass market you need to identify early adopters first.  They are the ones who will understand the why and their enthusiasm and loyalty will carry towards the rest of the market.

An obstacle to continued growth is success.   As long as the leader is still around there is inspiration, but sooner or later they leave and the Why often gets lost to the How and the What.  One example is Walmart whose founder, Sam Walton might be best known for low prices, but in reality his secret was in how he treated his employees.  Other companies have been more successfully in passing on the original drive and some examples have been at Apple and Southwest Airlines.

Simon worked with ad agencies and wondered why some campaigns worked and others didn't although the ingredients seemed essentially the same.  As he came to understand the brain he concluded that too often the What and the How were understood, but not the Why.  Leaders need followers and the best are those who share enthusiasm for the Why.  In conclusion Simon says two things are required for innovative success.  The first is a vision of he world that does not exist.  Equally important is the ability to communicate it.  The vision comes from Why.

You can read more about Simon and his ideas at https://www.startwithwhy.com

Why is an important question, not asked enough, particularly by adults.  Earlier I had hit a similar theme from Amanda Lang http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2013/04/the-power-of-why.html  She felt that curiosity had been knocked out a lot of people as they were socialized, but that following up Why was the way to innovate.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

TAX COLLECTORS, A DIRTY JOB FROWNED UPON

If you think about it most of us in Canada and the United States have it pretty good compared to much of the rest of the world.  But we wouldn't be human if we couldn't find something to complain about.

Taxes are one of the favourite complaints we can all share.  Often there are legitimate gripes about how our money is spent or how some people seem to pay less than their fair share or how complicated the forms are.  One irony is that when government budgets need to be cut,  tax collectors are among those who suffer.

Ironic because they represent at least a partial solution to government budget problems.   Legislators have the option of raising or lowering taxes, or of adjusting spending, justifying their decisions on fairness and need.  Tax collectors, by definition are the ones who execute the actual transfer of money from the people to the government.

The politics of taxes is full of bluster and calculations.  To get elected politicians promise all sorts of things.  Much of what is promised involves spending money.  Other politicians have a different emphasis on lowering spending so they can lower taxes.  They all claim their way is the more fair way.

In feudal times the poor were taxed so that very few could hope to escape their lot in life.  The aristocrats lived relatively well and controlled the rules.  As time went on smart, hard workers helped create a system that gave more people a chance to improve their circumstances. The Magna Carta occurred because the King wanted more money to maintain  his life style, but also to wage what he felt was a necessary (or at least desirable) war.  Forced to make concessions, this one development allowed for progress for some of the underlings  Many years later income tax was brought on for war expenses.

Progressive income tax seemed easily understandable at one time, but one sometimes hears wealthy people campaigning on the idea of a flat tax.  In fact some taxes such as a sales tax might already be described that way as every one pays the same rate.  When I was much younger Elvis Presley was reported as paying a 90% tax rate and it seemed a bit unfair.

What was really unfair was the way it was reported.  He and others only paid 90% of their income that was over a very high amount.  There wasn't much incentive to chase after more income, but again we overlooked accounting strategies such as deferring income, and certain investments.  I really should have been confident that Elvis managed to lead a much higher standard of living than the multitudes of the less fortunate.

It is generally recognized that some people barely make enough money to survive and up to a certain level they don't pay any income tax.  Other people can survive and contribute a small amount towards the general good and they are expected to.  At different levels people are able to contribute a larger share.  Rich people are in a position to pay more and most usually do.

Although there are more poor people who could if organized influence how the rules are set, it is really the rich that have the most influence.  It takes money to get elected and ambitious politicians go seeking money and all too often find they also get obligations towards their donators.

One concern is that the rich see themselves as different than the poor.  To them it is obvious that they are smarter, harder working and most importantly more deserving.  The smart poor realize they need the rich not only to provide jobs, but also money for the common good and should not be abused.  Some rich people realize they need poor people to do things that need to be done, including buying goods and services the rich are selling. but other rich people just think it is a shame that so many poor people expect to be given money and treated equally.

Many of the rules of taxes and spending are set by the rich with little awareness from the many who don't realize they also have power to help set the rules.  Investment money is taxed differently than money earned from manual labour.  Tax rates have been adjusted more for the benefit of the wealthy. There are tax "breaks" for common people that in many cases were offered to win votes as well as an incentive for desirable behaviours.  All of these adjustments have some merit and all voters have a chance to influence.  A government budget is a very delicate operation trying to balance the common good against available resources.  Ideally educated voters realize they need to strive for an optimal balance that benefits everyone.

The rules certainly are complicated, but much of it is for good reasons.  It is difficult to be fair, but when understood, there has been some honest efforts.  There is plenty of "social engineering" where the legislators are trying to encourage behaviour. thought to be beneficial.  It could be simplified, but a lot of incentives would be lost and likely the wealthy would come out ahead anyway.  Accountants and software designers benefit from the complications and many would lose their educated work.

Aside from setting the rules it seems some of the rich are concerned that tax collectors are an unnecessary and unfair nuisance. They, the rich after all are "job creators." and their life style is an incentive for others to work harder.   If you have the money you can hire accountants to help steer your money so that the government doesn't take any more than necessary.  You can also hide some of your money.  Poor people can admittedly also hide some of their income and if enough do it, it becomes a problem.

Those who work in slaughter houses also have a pretty dirty job, but us carnivores are grateful someone is willing to do what needs to be done.  Tax collectors do not usually get as much gratitude. Fortunately a lot of it is done behind the scenes with automatic deductions from work sources and even some investment sources.  Once a year there is an accounting and many people qualify for a rebate making them feel pretty good and a few people curse that they have to pay extra.  My opinion is that if you have to pay money that means you have had the use of that money for a period of time and if you are getting a rebate the government had the use of your money for a period of time.

When the forms are filled out and sent to the tax authorities someone (computers obviously play a key role) goes through them determining if they are accurate or not and sometimes adjustments are made with resulting whoops and curses.  If you are unlucky you may be contacted for a tax audit.  Fortunately (?) the tax collectors do not have the people power to do everyone or many more of us might find further adjustments.  They are trained to look for triggers that indicate potential problems.  Actually they are pretty good at finding errors or omissions that benefit the taxpayer and rebates are common.  On the other hand they know (as most of us also know) that taxable money is hidden in phoney tax deductions or in foreign bank accounts.

Some people feel sorry for the people who get caught, but most of us realize that one way or another every honest tax payer loses when someone else can cheat.  Either the money that was supposed to be spent on behalf of the taxpayers is not there or sooner or later other taxes are imposed to make up the loss.  Or the third option, money is borrowed which also costs the tax payer.

A tax collector does not make the law, they only execute it on behalf of the government which most of us get to vote on.  They also represent an expense of the government that is paid for by tax payers. Like any other job some tax collectors are better than others, but each can only do so much.  There should be a calculation about where the optimal point for efficiency is.  Actually I believe there is and for the most part tax collectors and auditors are able to generate more revenue than they cost.

Anyone complaining about government deficits should want a more efficient tax collection system, but all too often they don't.  In fact it is common for governments to cut the budget of the tax collection department so that in the end they are less efficient.  It is actually in the interests of both rich and poor to encourages greater honesty.

In the United States there has been a "scandal" about the IRS (Internal Revenue Services) to do with tax deductions.  Laws have been enacted that allow deductions for charitable purposes that are in fact being used for illegal political causes.  The concerns raised suggested that the government was unfairly picking on one political party.  It is common knowledge that there is in fact abuse.  It is possible that both major American parties are guilty, but investigations have determined that the tax department is not partisan in this matter, but in fact trying to do their duty.  Ironically it is their job to make sure there is no political bias in tax collecting, but they had their budget slashed.

The tax collectors do more than just chase after money.  Millions of people are confused about how to fill out the forms and want to avoid making mistakes.   The tax department will answer questions and explain concerns tax payers might have, in practice lessening the need for accounting advice.  With budget cuts many tax payers remain confused, do make mistakes and often miss out on deductions they are entitled to.  Tax services benefit from the confusion.  While they are doing their best to handle taxpayer concerns of the 90% they are not able to pursue every suspected criminal avoidance.

As a youngster I was fascinated by gangsters and was surprised to learn that Al Capone was not imprisoned for the many violent deeds he was accused of, but by the Treasury Department who was able to prove he didn't pay his fair share of taxes.

I have had a vested interest in the topic as not only have I been paying income tax for over 40 years in Canada I have also filled out many tax forms for other people some for pay and a few voluntary efforts.  The forms are complicated, but logical if you have the time.  There are many steps one can take to minimize their taxes and with a little effort they can be learned.  Some taxes are more complicated than others and do require expert help to avoid trouble.

Photo:  From the tropical room at the Gage Park Greenhouse in Hamilton.  I hope it counter balances the topic.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Kill the Messengers

Political blogs are always a bit risky and any are sure to offend someone.  Mostly I have written about American and international politics plus get on my soap box for proportional voting.  If you have read any of them it is not hard to figure out I am a liberal (with a small l).  Canadians would not be surprised that I am not fond of Stephen Harper or the Conservative Party that currently rules my country.  Actually I am not in the minority on this as most voters chose opposition members

Mark Bourrie is also not a fan of Stephen Harper and he writes from the viewpoint of a journalist who feels the fifth estate has let down democracy.  Big money and political interests have combined  to hobble freedom of expression.  I agree that the media has a responsibility to let the rest of us know what is really going on and what is really important.

One of Harper's greatest sins is his attempts to control information.   In a series of steps the Harper government has made it more difficult to get information from the government.  Scientists now have to get permission to talk to the media and it is not always forthcoming.  Budgets for research libraries have been cut.  Mark gives many examples and details.  At the same time the government is now able to access private information from its citizens and will use that information to diminish opposition.

Mark recounts how the Harper government has tried to change our historical memory.  Peacekeeping has been de-emphasized to boost our memories of such military battles as the War of 1812 and Vimy Ridge. He closed the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre.  From the opposition he was eager for Canada to help invade Iraq and now in power is trying to prove himself by fighting in Syria and more recently by training Ukrainians to fight the Russians.

Mark details a lot of newspaper history and it hit a few nerves.  My background is in circulation and amongst other jobs I worked for the Globe and Mail circulation department.  Early in its history they were very careful to check railroad schedules to get their paper to small towns early in the morning.  The Globe and Mail developed a market for the better educated, higher income Canadians and spread over the country, rather than concentrated in metropolitan Toronto.  I became upset with some of their practices affecting newspaper carriers.  They seemed to have the attitude that when they decided a story was big enough they would increase the number of papers they would charge the carriers with regardless if the carrier was able to actually sell them.  I agreed they have a relatively good editorial product, but too many carriers and their supervisors suffered for this one practice.  For more on my Globe and Mail experience visit. http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/08/my-career-in-newspaper-circulation-part_12.html  and skip to the last 1/3 or so of the post.

The Metroland expansion, fuelled by the Toronto Star also hit a nerve as I also worked for them.  At one point I was proud to work for a paid circulation product as amongst other things it proved that people wanted it.  The proof came to me when people did not get the paper to their satisfaction and would complain to someone like me to correct the problem.  Metroland soon changed most of their circulation to free and I was in the way.  They did grab up suburban  papers wherever available and increased their drive for ads at the expense of serious editorial.   For my Metroland experiences visit
http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/08/my-career-in-circulation-part-3-winding.html

One telling point about the importance of newspapers is that as local papers pulled out their own Ottawa Parliament coverage, voter turnout declined in those cities.  The average Canadian got much of their political understanding from the local press.  Stephen Harper is not responsible for the decline of newspaper readership, but did his best to minimize their impact.

Attack ads are a favourite tool, even when not needed.  Some of the attacks are outrageous, but they seem to have an effect.  His opponents are pictured as weak, immature, unpatriotic, and naive.  They remind me of the Swift boat campaign where the Republicans were able to paint a true thinking war hero into a fraud artist, while hiding their own draft dodging candidate.  Stephane Dion, Michael Ignfatieff and Justin Trudeau have all been the victims of distorted attacks.

Allan Gregg is quoted towards the end of the book.  I have always enjoyed listening to Allan who through his polling company has come to understand a lot of what is really going on.  He had been a long standing Conservative who advised Brian Mulroney and also promoted the Tragically Hip.  He became disillusioned when Harper decided to kill the long form census.  He did not buy the excuses as he knew it was very useful information to help form government policy and together with other actions demonstrated that Harper has his own agenda that he does not want facts to interfere with.

As I write this the Mike Duffy trial is on.  I used to watch Mike on tv many years ago and he always struck me as someone with inside connections.  It now appears that Stephen Harper thought so too and has tried to take advantage of Mike as a fund raiser and attract the right people.  As it turned out this decision is opening a can of worms and nobody can be sure of all the results.

The Harper government is a good example why proportionate representation is such a good idea.  Most of the people actually do not align with most of Harper's views and voted for other parties., but they are stuck with them anyway.  The Conservatives received only 39% of the registered votes, but are now in a position to set the rules for future elections.  For example they voted away the $2.50 each party received for a vote.  Politics is more than policies--it is more to do with how you get to exercise power.  Stephen understands this and has been able to appeal to a base, denigrate other people and split the opposition.

One area of disagreement is that the author dismisses Paul Martin.  I don't have any inside information, but appreciated what I considered long range thinking unlike any other politician.  

An earlier post on Stephen Harper:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2014/06/frankly-his-comments-are-gutless.html

A blog like mine generalizes politics, but I encourage you to read the book, get the details and judge for yourself.  "Kill the Messengers" helps explain how we got to this point.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Synchronized Skating would add to the Olympics

Admittedly the Olympics are too big a circus already and it seems they are now taking out events that are not popular.  My home town, Hamilton put on an excellent international show for the World Synchronized Skating Championships which helped re-draw my attention.  Synchronized Skating deserves a bigger platform such as provided by the Olympics.

Dealing with the negatives first.

Too many athletes already.   Each athlete represents an increase in accommodation, transportation and to some extent facilities.  Television time is fixed and each new event spreads interest a little bit thinner.  Maybe team sports should be separated  for a separate Olympics or limited by way of number of teams, number of events.  Or maybe financing needs to be examined.  We do not want to create barriers for small countries, but need to find some way to get participating nations (at least those with a reasonable level of financial resources) to contribute to the expenses.  Perhaps an incentive might be to share in the revenues.  A model set by other sports offers another solution.  World Cup soccer was split between Japan and Korea and more recently World Cup cricket between Australia and New Zealand.  Political decisions could be made and it must be acknowledged that at some point the Olympics is in danger of being more circus than the ultimate athletic festival.

It is striking that there are actually a few men taking part in synchronized skating.  A potential problem is that men bring a more muscular dynamic to the sport.  At present there are no restrictions or regulations regarding a gender mix.  They could have all female or all male teams as in many other sports or they could have some sort of restriction.  At this stage each participating nation might have a different mix of men willing and able to improve the overall excellence of a team.  In any case it is a delicate balancing act dependent on available athletes.  In this modern age it is wonderful that gender offers fewer restrictions to what a human can achieve and contribute.  My involvement with horses has made me aware that at the Olympic level men and women compete equally in equestrian disciplines.  Men may be stronger, but women are often able to emerge victorious with other skills.

Another concern is that there are too many complaints about judging.  Over the years there have been political manoeuvrings and often just incompetence in a variety of other sports.  I noticed in the recent weekend that the crowd did not always agree with the judges, but that too exerts more political pressure.  Syncronized skating adopted criteria to be more objective.  A few years ago I went up a few steps towards being a swimming judge and can appreciate a lot of thought (and practice) goes into the decisions.  There will always be doubt and it must be admitted that a different set of objective judges might well come to a different decision.

One element common between synchronized swimming and synchronized skating is costumes and makeup.  For those who want to win, details matter and it probably is true there is a at subconscious preference for one combination of costume and makeup over another.  It goes back to faith in judgement.  But it is also is part of artistic impression and possibly lets crowd preferences have a subtle influence.  Personally it just adds to the enjoyment, but also the expense.

Some elitists feel skating along with other Olympic sports are more artistic than athletic.  Art and sports do seem to have a different focus, but they also overlap.  One of the joys of being a spectator is the beauty (or aesthetics) of athletes.  Michael Jordan is one of my favourites not just because of his points, or his victories but because of how he did them.  Teamwork is also something of beauty in that often that the result can be more than the sum of the elements.

Synchronized skating demands strength, speed and skill.  In addition to the individual demands are the demands of co-ordinating 16 athletes.  We love the artistic impression, but everyone should acknowledge that athletic skill is absolutely essential.

All sports depend on a grassroots support in order that a few can reach the highest levels of excellence.  Those at the bottom benefit from the physical exercise, building confidence and social skills.  They also form a base of spectators who can appreciate what it takes to excel.  A lot of attention is focused on the figure skating singles and at some point some drop out because they do not have the resources (talent, time, money) to keep at it.  Broadening the base so more people can meaningfully participate means more people can benefit and appreciate excellence.

Synchronized skating, first labeled precision skating was formed by Dr  Richard Porter who formed a group called the Hockettes to perform between intermissions of the University of Michigan Wolverine hockey games.  It grew from there with the first international competition between Canadian and American teams n 1976.  Sweden and Finland rose to international standards quickly each winning a number of international championships.  Today there are 22 nations participating on 5 continents and is growing in participants.  It truly is not only a crowd pleaser, but a challenging participation sport requiring speed, strength, skill and discipline.

The original Olympics was also a cultural affair with sculpture and poetry being integral.  The Olympics with all its faults still commands international respect as a goal for excellence.  Synchronized skating can only add to the festival.

It was a wonderful show with a local group, Nexxice from Burlington winning, last year's champions from Finland finishing a very close second and Russia making a big breakthrough for bronze.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Will we waste another opportunity with Iran?

The news is full of commentary on the Iranian nuclear negotiations.  On this side there is serious doubt about how the Iranians can be trusted  Very little direct commentary from the other side.

Trust is perhaps the fulcrum upon which everything else turns.  Americans point out that Iran supports terrorist groups, but Iranians feel they are boosting liberation forces for the Palestinians and fellow Shiite followers.  Americans have meddled in all sorts of countries.  They overlook that back in 1953 the C.I.A. organized and supported a coup d'tat that replaced an elected premier, Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran in order to protect western economic interests and went on to help set up a brutal secret police force, Savak.  The Americans have also been involved in Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Chile and others.  Iran has not invaded any country in the past several centuries, but have been invaded by Iraq with support from the United States.  Iran, before being named as part of the Axis of Evil actually provided logistical assistance to the Americans and currently are fighting against a common enemy ISIL.

Militant presidential candidates and other Obama bashers need to realize that additional nations are part of the negotiations and need to be considered in any adjustments of the agreement.  Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany each have a stake in negotiations.  We need to have trust amongst our allies and adversaries.  Bear in mind that each of the parties on our side has a different perspective on the issue and some compromises are part of the deal.  If we don't respect one another how can we expect the other side to respect us.

That is all in the past; what can be done for the future?  We can be sure that military and intelligence resources will be preparing for the inevitable expiration of the agreement.  What will be done to build up mutual trust?  Ten years is half a generation when we probably need a full generation to really make a difference in attitudes (theirs and ours).

The Middle East is a mess.  Invading Iraq has opened up a lot of problems.  Al Qaeda was not welcome there at the start of the American attack, but now it and more extreme elements are threatening the whole area.  Sunni and Shiite distrust and fear each other.  They used to inter marry and carry on business together.  Fundamentalists and extremists are forcefully trying to impose their views on others.  This is an internal dilemma best handled by other Muslims and we need to be careful not to take sides except to defend against violence.

We feel very uncomfortable with dark skinned people, especially if they are Muslim  But we have a responsibility to help with the refuge problem generated by Mideast conflicts.  Refuge camps are potential sources of violence.  One way or another the stresses have to be relieved.   Canada has stated a preference for Christian refugees which might be commendable, but doesn't really deal with the problem.  Americans are not much better while some countries have tried to pick up the slack.

Education is an area where there is a limit to what can be forced upon the resistant masses.  From both the top and grass roots, efforts should be encouraged for cross cultural projects.  They generally take a long time to have a national impact, but are important to start the ball rolling.  Sports and cultural exchanges have been useful with Russia, China and other nations.

I remember years ago having problems with my auto tires.  A persistent slow leak was very inconvenient  and took it to my regular reliable garage, but the problem soon returned.  It took a Syrian immigrant I encountered at a gas station to really fix it.  He made my life better and I am sure he did for others.

Palestine is very often used as an excuse or rationalization, but might there be something to it?  Israel is a haven for Jews that are still discriminated against around the world.  Millions of people (mostly Evangelicals) around the world feel Israel has Apcoylyptic meaning that lends very significant support to Israel despite any evidence of unfairness.  The Palestinians feel that it is their land and other Arabs and Muslims feel they have been mistreated by western and Jewish powers.  Settlements are an obvious affront to any honest attempts to reconcile the two races and somehow have to be stopped if not reversed.

During the recent Israeli elections Netanyahu expressed what many consider his true feelings that no two state solution will be instituted while he still has power.  He has backtracked a little, but we should also realize that the Israeli voters have very strong concerns about security.  Emotions such as fear are very difficult to overcome.  Outsiders are painted as not understanding or worse.  We like to think we have their best interests at heart and we truly realize that war is bad for everyone.  Palestine has tired of empty promises and the one sided rhetoric against them and are trying to involve the International Court of Justice.  United States, Russia and China have avoided the court, but in reality the court might be able to accomplish in a more neutral forum what the bigger powers with their vested interests cannot.  Might the Muslim world credit the west with finally rectifying an injustice?

While we look at this from a distance we have more interests and responsibilities.  Climate change, most likely caused by industrial nations has factored into the Mideast by way of droughts.  Ironically some of the same people who believe the Jews have to control the Holy Land before the second coming also believe the climate is controlled by God and we humans should not interfere.  To me they overlook that we have been interfering and not showing respect for God's creation.  Climate change is affecting the entire world in different ways including floods, rising ocean levels, sea water acidification, stifling heat as well as droughts. The Mideast is just one area bearing the burdens of climate change and few see the connection.  There are bound to be more tensions stemming from climate change.

Anti-Muslim forces seem to be strongly influencing America and other nations.  Allied with climate change deniers, conservative right wingers use whatever available tools for their own greedy economic interests.  It is time to take a longer range view or we will all suffer.

An earlier take on some "Persian" experiences:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/10/my-three-persian-experiences.html

Some of you may know that I have family ties to the Arab Muslim part of the world.  Like anyone else when I hear another perspective I often notice that those giving it are decent people with much in common with what I aspire to, it actually is more understandable.  Close your heart and your mind and there is no shortage of weird violent people out there.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Screen Bingeing

When I was growing up television was dominated by weekly shows.  We all looked forward to our favourite comedy, drama, variety (Ed Sullivan) and western shows.  Popular movies would be on tv a year or so after they had played in the theatre.  Late shows were older movies.  Drive-ins were common with my parents taking me and my siblings to them.  Although hour long dramas were common enough, they didn't have the status later claimed by made for tv movies.  You could say the goal of tv shows was to be continuous; to find the formula that stimulated habit forming viewing.

It all boils down to the fact that we humans love stories.  Dramatic tension, humorous relief.  Sex, violence, mystery, romance.  Living vicariously.

My favourite form was the mini series, often based on a lengthy book.   "Roots" was a weekly show that got the attention of millions of North Americans painting a picture of black heritage that was largely unknown. I was also  a fan of James A Michener having read most of his books and watched  many of the adaptations of his lengthy multi generational stories.

 "Rich Man, Poor Man" was another I remember with pleasure.  There is always a trade off between doing something in depth or getting to the point quickly.  My job made it difficult to watch prime time tv, but as the mini series had a limited run I tried to make an exception.

I like the BBC approach.  Choosing a book or series of books and instead of rushing production they opted for fewer shows with more emphasis on quality.  One example for me was "The Jewell in the Crown."  The "Wallander" series has only been three shows per year, but all excellent.  Now many of these shows are available in DVD format and/or streaming.

At one point copying tv shows became a solution.  I remember reading a bit about the legal battles as copyright holders were concerned it would cheapen their products and allow viewers to bypass commercials.  The first rationale to justify it was that it allowed people with inconvenient schedules to see movies and tv shows at a more convenient time and termed this practice time shifting.   But many people did in fact  build a  library of films for those times when the options were relatively boring and loaned them out to friends. In fact often they would watch one show while taping another.

As you get older you get used to some things, but the younger generation is constantly learning new technology that adds to enjoyment.  Our two kids gave us a big flat screen tv and a Netflix subscription.   Many, maybe too many, hours of enjoyment have resulted.  I realize that electronic entertainment is more portable than ever.

Netflix made it possible to watch a whole series in quick succession.  Streaming is still a new concept for me, but the technology is having an effect on millions of us.  Missing an episode because of work or family obligations was occasionally annoying and waiting for the next episode frustrating for many.  Binging was now possible and desirable because many of your friends and acquaintances had already seen the series and maybe there was still more episodes to watch.   Many were movies and tv series that had already appeared in America or Europe and some were created for the network.

Breaking Bad" was the first series for us and we had to catch up to a lot of friends and co-workers.  We were hooked.  I could not imagine being caught up in the life of drug dealers in a mid sized  New Mexico town and all the dramatic twists and turns, but it held a grip on us.

Soon after that I heard about "Suits" and before long we were following the exploits of a fraudulent young lawyer and those surrounding him.  Other series that were usually recommended included
"The Killing" set in perpetually rainy Seattle;  "Homeland" about a returning prisoner of war who had been converted to extremist Islam.   "The Good Wife" about the wife of a politician disgraced with a sex scandal.  "House of Cards" got as much attention as "Breaking Bad" and painted a picture of contemporary corruption at the White House level  "The Bridge," set between Malmo, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark was the first sub-titled series and I learned that the two lead characters, one Swede and one Dane only spoke their native language to each other and were well understood.  Three with a British tinge got our attention  "Wallander," "Scott and Bailey,"and  "Last Tango in Halifax"

The streaming service prepped us for more binge watching using DVDs.  Our daughter loaned us a DVD set of "Orphan Black" which was way-out in left field for us, but we soon got hooked and will try to catch the new season on tv.  Borrowing from the library meant even more binging; a whole season compressed into one week.  We saw a season or two of "Downton Abbey" before doing the more casual pace of the tv program.  We got in the habit of watching an episode starting with dinner which varied a little in time and often watched an extra one.

Just as television and DVD's have proved to be markets for movies, the streaming networks are markets for television and movies.  We are swimming in streams of media choices.  Recently I wanted to watch "Book of Negroes" based on a book by Lawrence Hill.  I had actually had a chat with the author who admitted that he was working on the tv script to become a mini series.  I had loved the book (prompted by Canada Reads) years ago, but work and other conflicts meant I could only see parts of it--hopefully it will either be streamed or come out in a DVD format so I can watch it all in sequence.

What is the right length for a story?  It can get boring seeing the same characters with similar plots so variety is a factor. You would like to think you are selective, but part of the process is listening to what your friends and co-workers liked and reading or listening to trusted reviewers.   And let's face it we can all become addicted to the idea of finding an engrossing series.  What would you suggest should be binged on?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Discrimination and Choice

The new supposedly religious freedom legislation signed by the Indiana Governor Mike Pence has created quite a stir.  One of the fallouts is the word "discrimination"  What does it really mean?

A definition found through Google is in two parts.  The first part:  "the unjust or prejudicial treatment of people or things especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex."  The second part:  "recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing or another."  Interesting to me is the absence of sexual orientation in the first reading, but likely will be corrected in the near future.  I am very much in favour of both definitions.  The second definition has suffered every time an issue stemming from the first definition occurs.

Society as a whole has gradually come to the realization that prejudice of all sorts may be too easy, for us mortal humans but we can not function to everyone's benefit if we do not respect other people.  This has held back mankind, but the situation has been evolving.  We are all subject to human nature and at its core is that we as individuals are always "right."  But that other person also thinks they are "right."

Education, both formally and informally is advancing so that more and more people are opening up their understanding towards people their ancestors would have been close minded about.  The barriers are breaking down and everyone gains in the process.  Governments with their legal tools, sometimes with popular support and sometimes without, have been enforcing a fairer atmosphere for everyone.

It will always be a delicate balance because of what I think is fair notion:  your freedom ends at my nose.  All that means is you are free to exercise your freedom as long as it doesn't hurt me.  Obviously we don't want any law that allows someone else to physically hurt us and by logical extension we don't want any law that prejudicially discriminates against us.  Pierre Trudeau once said the state has no business in the nation's bedroom and that seems very reasonable.

I recognize that all people are prejudiced--which really is just a short cut for making decisions.  Many of us were made to feel uncomfortable with homosexuality and others made to feel guilty.  If we take the time to examine the issue we would accept that it is natural and that those who practice it are otherwise "normal" and almost always can contribute to the better of us all.  Anyone with a prejudice can rationalize it if pressed and too often can lean on strongly held traditions if not  legalities.

We know that it is not good to discriminate against the LGBT community and I think it is shameful that some people want to do just that and would use this poorly thought out legislation to justify it.  Mike Pence might even score a few points with some bigots that form an important base component of today's Republican party.  

Unfortunately it is natural for humans to distrust those who are different from ourselves.  Civilization moves forward when we learn to trust other people.  Again unfortunately there are some people we should distrust.  Success is based on discrimination.  Which is the better choice?  Who is a bad credit risk?  Who is incompatible with our goals?  What is offensive?  This is the discrimination I support.

I have been in sales for a few decades with some ups and downs.  I am very conscious that people used discrimination against me--most of it along the lines--they couldn't afford what I was trying to sell, didn't have the interest, didn't have the authority.  Sometimes I felt it was personal--they just didn't like me because I was too young, too old, too short, too white, too different.  Like all of you I am also a buyer and I try to discriminate between good, better, and bad.

Socially and with work, life goes better when you can discriminate between what is most helpful and what is not so.  Prejudice is often a short cut tool that means humans too often make bad decisions.  No one can be completely free of prejudice, but it is in our interest and the public interest that it is minimal.

Businesses seems to realize it is good to accept customers.  You don't have to agree on every issue to be civil to one another.   Many of them realize to grow you have to find more customers and satisfy the ones you already have. When prejudice wins we all lose.

An argument has been made that all businesses are supported by the community in terms of infrastructure such as sidewalks, water supply, legal recourse, etc and that no one has the right to refuse service to anyone who reasonably requests it.  I agree with that sentiment, but am concerned that someone who sets up a business is obligated to go against their conscience or their judgment.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, the blacks of Montgomery, Alabama decided to boycott the city's bus service.  This got attention and eventually helped turn back Jim Crow practices.

If a bigot is willing to publicize their prejudicial behaviour there are remedies.  Society does have to protect itself from bigotry.  But we also have to protect ourselves from being forced to do things that really offend our conscience.  Some people are offended by the census which can be counter productive.

Prejudice is natural.  Most religions at their core preach acceptance and non judgment.  We all make and need to make judgments.  It is very likely many decisions are informed by prejudice.  Society advances when we overcome our natural  (and taught) prejudices, but do we have the right to force others to adopt our open mindedness on a particular issue and if we do why not on other issues?

I am concerned about religious beliefs and practices being forced on me and we have all lived under religious practices even if mostly benign.  I am skeptical that forcing people against their core prejudices .should be supported  If you offer a service to one people should you be obligated to offer the service to everyone. I would say no, even though it might be poor business.

Conscience is a complex thing.  Some people believe euthanasia is merciful while others think it is violation of God's will.  Can we condemn either of these matters of conscience?

I am concerned how the word itself is abused.  Discrimination is not always a bad thing--prejudicial discrimination is always a bad thing.  We as individuals and as part of society  have to protect ourselves from the latter, but encourage the former.

The photo is of a painting done by a horse I spotted at the Can-Am Equine Expo.  You can read whatever you want into it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Peace Pipe Dream

Just finished reading "Peace Pipe Dreams," by Darrell Dennis about two years after reading "The Inconvenient Indian."  They both should prick our conscience, but will probably only reach us "bleeding hearts liberals."

Descendents of Europeans don't spend much time worrying about the dilemma of modern day Indians.  For most of us the biggest concern is getting the politically correct title.  Native American, Native Canadian, aborigine or indigenous.  Legally speaking the original natives are split into First Nations, Inuit and Metis (which are really part European).

Darrell gives a bit of history of the image.  At one time Indians were seen as survival agents and then necessary allies and then backward and now just in the way.  They have been painted as strong and noble and also drunk and lazy.  Too many Canadians when they think of Indians are resentful of the "advantages" the Indians have.  The truth is they are unique individuals, that have and are contributing to our society.

Darrell Dennis is articulate with a comedic touch as he deals with several misconceptions regarding his fellow Indians.  He researched the historical background that developed these myths and makes them understandable.

When we (us non Indians) read about Indians demanding various things we often think it is pitiful they feel entitled and are so unreasonable.  We forget there was a reason for the treaties and they have not always been respected.  We resent they should feel they need control of more land and that apparently they aren't burdened with taxes.  Overlooking the fact that we have encroached on their land and used their knowledge, talents and bravery to help us get a toehold.  It wasn't long in our history before our European predecessors took advantage however they could with their technology and legal understandings.

Without the Indians the first Pilgrims would not likely have survived.  Trappers would not have prospered without the co-operation of Indians.  Different tribes were recruited by the British, the French and the Americans to help them tip the balance of power.  Many small events and more notable ones like the American Revolution and the War of 1812 involved deals with Indians to get their support.  Indians were tribal and considered themselves sovereign over different areas.  All sorts of things were promised and many of them not delivered.

Naomi Klein pointed out in "This Changes Everything" that some of the treaties are the best hope for environmentalists, but also warns that Indians often do not have the resources to fight for their rights.

In Canada, status Indians living on reserves are tax exempt.  But in fact most Indians do pay regular Canadian taxes and even status Indians do pay some taxes.  Darrel points out there are strict rules on qualifying.  We forget what the Indians did that we all benefit from.

Indians are too often pictured as wife abusers.  Darrel points that most tribes were actually matriarchal and respectful of women's opinions when Europeans first came to America.  It was actually the Europeans who kept women in their place.  For years the Indian Act discriminated against women so that if they married anyone other than a status Indian they lost their own Indian status and their children were ineligible.  Meanwhile if Indian men married outside their wives gained Indian status.

Alcohol is closely associated with views of Indians and in a negative way.  Many assume that there is some genetic defect that turns Indians into alcoholics.  Darrel sites research that disproves that theory.  He does go back into history into fur trading days when alcohol was very effective at inducing Indians to bring in more furs.  Most of the Europeans they dealt with tended to be binge drinkers and many Indians copied them.  After centuries of abuse many Indians find themselves as unwelcome outsiders and alcohol abuse is one outlet.  On the whole, Darrel points out most Indians are not extreme drinkers and there are many that avoid alcohol altogether because of the negative image.

Still another concern is that tribal politics are usually painted as corrupt.  Darrel concedes as with every group there are always some who take unfair advantage of their power.  But much of Indian elections is supervised by the government.  In fact much of the money that is supposed to be for the benefit of Indians ends up in bureaucratic politics.

In summary mainstream Canadians are mis-informed and inclined to believe negative stereotypes.  Part of it seems to be guilt, but we have to admit we are pretty ignorant about the realities and for some we don't want to think about the issues.  Darrel has done an excellent job going back to historical facts, making analogies and uncovering reality.  Indians were critical to our survival and we owe much to them, but more importantly they deserve to be part of a prosperous future.  This book raises many good points that Canadians (and Americans) need to understand.