Sunday, January 31, 2016

Brushes With Celebrities

We live in a celebrity worshipping society.  Most of the time it is from a distance, but whenever we get a little closer it can be quite an ego booster.  I am not immune.

Bobby Orr is still considered one of the greatest hockey players ever.  I had two advantages over others.  I lived in Oshawa when he played for the Oshawa Generals and I lived in Haliburton when he trained young hockey players at a local hockey summer camp.  In Oshawa looking back I believe a friend was just trying to impress me and literally introduced me to Bobby Orr while we were both in a long jump competition.  I remember that I jumped 17 feet 11 3/4 inches and that Bobby jumped something like 18 feet 3 inches.  He just missed the cut and I was ranked just below him.  A few years later I was in the local Haliburton hockey arena and another fellow also trying to impress me introduced me to Bobby again.  Unlike my image of most hockey heroes Bobby was very shy and modest, but obviously had a strong competitive spirit.

Gordie Howe was a hero from an earlier era, a time when I watched the NHL religiously but mostly cheered for the Boston Bruins and mostly watched the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It happened that he was an endorser for a product that my employer, OKD Marketing handled the marketing for.  He visited our office with his wife and for some reason I just barged into a small meeting and shook his hand.  I remembered a story I had read about how he met his wife at a bowling alley and asked her if it was true.  She said that in reality he had "stalked" her.

Someone, probably Len Olynyk suggested I might get Gordie involved in some sort of fund raising event.  Eventually I teamed up with a Canadian manager and talking to Bill Tufts, Jr a member of the Rotary Club got quite excited about the opportunity.  Eventually an agreement was made for Gordie Howe to come to Hamilton, make a speech and sign autographed books for which a part went to the Rotary Club.  One of my jobs was to book his hotel room and was amazed at how easy it was to get a free room for a celebrity.  I worked with the Canadian agent and learned that Gordie's wife was the key person and a lot of adjustments were made to suit her.  One person who impressed me was Steve Ruddick, the CHCH sports reporter who understood the situation perfectly and got a great interview with Gord and Colleen Howe.  A lot of enthusiasm and I ended up buying two books, one for my father and one for my wife's step father.  Afterwards my job was to escort Gord and Colleen to their hotel room.  My father in law had been born in Saskatchewan and that was one of our topics of conversation.

I had an indirect connection to Wayne Gretzsky.  It took me awhile to realize that Rheta Cornish who was a secretary for the circulation department where I worked had  been a legal guardian for Wayne Gretzsky when he played minor league hockey in Toronto.   Even as my interest in sports shifted to basketball I was a great admirer of Wayne, not only for his skills, but also for his broadcasted comments which always seemed thoughtful and diplomatic.  Rheta with her husband Bill attended Wayne's wedding, talked about his previous girl friend and also housed Wayne's sister when she attended a local college.  Rheta had a strong influence on me, some of which I am sure was shared by Wayne.  Read one of my more popular blogs http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2011/06/why-i-love-opera-wayne-gretzky.html

Coming back from a Florida vacation met and talked with Murray Dryden who had made a connection from Haiti where he was involved in a program to give poor children beds to sleep in.  For those who don't recognize the name, Murray is father to Dave Dryden, an NHL goal keeper and Ken Dryden, NHL goalie, author and politician.  As it happens I was delivering newspapers in Etobicoke for routes without a regular carrier and had met Murray while making collections, but didn't know of any connections at the time.

I also had a sort of indirect contact with a man who combined sports excellence and a strong political path.  When I was researching a book on basketball I had read that Bill Bradley had spent some time in Canada and on impulse wrote to him.  He responded with a thoughtful letter.  His New York Knicks played in Toronto against the Buffalo Braves, but it was an inopportune time for me to follow up.

Not on such a big scale, but also while researching my basketball book I got to interview Jack Donohue, Bill Robinson and Garney Henley amongst many who I greatly admired.   They were all happy to share their experience and joy of basketball.

The University of Guelph with a very strong agricultural (and veterinarian) base was trying to  boost its academic credentials.  I was lured by the tri semester system and the enthusiasm of a spokesperson at my high school.  My friends who went elsewhere laughed that I was going to a cow college, but when they visited they all asked to be taken to see the cows.  I ended up at Lambton Hall and unknown to me one the residence rooms on my floor had been set aside for the student president.  It happened that they were able to persuade a famous Canadian poet, Irving Layton (a common guest on tv shows for his provocative views and art).  One of the first events was for the residents on my floor to meet him.  What I remember is that he didn't believe in censorship and he was provocative.  As a college student his ideas weren't radical for me, but pointed the way to a better future.  In many ways he would not seem so outrageous today. but we  enjoyed the notoriety.

Not too many literary contacts, but I enjoyed talking with John Lawrence Reynolds who had done some writing work for my employer and I encountered him a number of times and have read most of his books.  I was also thrilled to get a signed copy of book I had bought from James A Michener whose book had been read.  I had also met Lawrence Hill (winner of two Canada Reads contests) at a Human Library put on in Hamilton.

It seems everyone has had an encounter with some one of celebrity status and they seem to remember  them in more detail than most of their other contacts.  How about you?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Clinton Vs Sanders

My bias is that either Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would be much preferable to any of the Republican candidates--so if you disagree you can skip the rest.  The world will be a different place if either of these two become President of the United States.

I also confess that I liked Howard Dean who eventually lost to John Kerry in the 2004 primary.   Howard Dean has since made contributions to the Democratic party.  John Kerry after losing the 2004 presidential election has proved to be an admirable Secretary of State.  Either man would have been better than what actually happened--unnecessary war and a major financial crisis.

Underlying the political scene in the U.S. is that rich people have a disproportionate influence in the matter.  Unfortunately this will not change, but should in one way be the voter's focus.  In that regard Bernie Sanders is the knight in shining armour charging at the enemy.  Again, unfortunately one man can only do so much and any attempt to change the situation will run up against Congress who have proved to be most resistant to any great change affecting the distribution of wealth.  Congress has several entrenched ways of resisting radical change.  In the Senate you need 60 out of 100 votes to move forward on many laws.  In the House of Representatives gerrymandering makes it seem unlikely the Democrats will gain control over the next election or maybe even two.  This also presupposes that all the Democrats (most of whom have their own donor obligations) would support Sanders agenda.

Campaign financing has been widened since a Supreme Court decision on the Citizens United case.  As campaigns are so expensive and so prolonged this gives wealthy people a chance to dominate politics.  They complain about government stealing their money, about lazy workers or those on welfare, about undesirables killing our culture.  In actual fact most Americans are born handicapped in the sense that  they are unlikely to be given the opportunities offered to the families of the 1%.

The only political way around those obstacles is a real political movement where elected officials fear for their re-election  Perhaps if Bernie can get a bigger platform that might start to happen, but I think it would take another election in 2018 to give him the necessary leverage.

Like many armchair critics I have sometimes been disappointed in Obama.  He could have spoken out more often and louder.  In truth he is an excellent speaker with a good vision.  He is hamstrung not only by rules, not only by racial prejudice, but also by money.  He would not have been elected if he had not attracted large amounts of money which inevitably comes with obligations.  He has accomplished a lot and now that he is in his last year is offering a better vision that his monied opposition.  Many of his good things have squeaked in with a lot of muscling and luck.  With a congress more supportive he would have accomplished a lot more.

Hilary Clinton is a politician and understands she needs money and she needs political support to get elected and to get things done.  I think she is realistic in how to gain power and what the constraints are.  I think her intentions are reasonably honourable.  Her pragmatism is commendable.  But at the same time her hands will be tied with her dependence on Wall Street and other campaign donations.

To some extent she seems also tied into being relatively hawkish on foreign affairs.  To some degree this may reflect a need to counter Republican bluster, but much may just be her inclination.  I think she has a fairly good understanding of the Mid East, but not quite as inclined to diplomacy as Obama or Sanders.  It is a delicate negotiation to talk to find common ground and building trust and reflection that cannot be denied.  Projecting strength undoubtedly intimidates many potential troublemakers.  I think a big part of war talk comes from arms manufacturers who benefit from international tensions.

The drinking water crisis in Flint Michigan has had different responses from the two candidates.  Bernie demanded that the Michigan Governor Rick Snyder resign.  In some jurisdictions that might have happened, but not very realistic for a Republican Governor.  Hilary took the more diplomatic route and suggested that Governor Snyder seek federal help which he did shortly after.  You could argue her timing was good (as others had made the same suggestion), and that Bernie was within his rights, but this time Hilary did exhibit better diplomacy or political manoeuvering.  Flint hits closer to home for me as several years ago both of my children competed in the CANUSA games with Flint and we have visited Fint and hosted some athletes from there.

I think they both have similar ideas on climate change, but I think Bernie would have more leverage against the big oil conglomerates as he has avoided donations from big oil.  Either would give the planet a better survival opportunity than the Republican denialists.

Electability is a big concern.  The Republicans led by Trump are very blustery and getting the attention of the masses who do not understand the details, mistrust authority and have their own set of prejudices.  Bernie seems to tap into some of the mistrust sentiments, but is a lot more practical in what he offers.  Clinton does have some inevitabilities about her--Bill Clinton was popular and successful and Obama did trust Hilary.  On top of that some voters see that a woman is overdue.  Perhaps Elizabeth Warren could be a vice president for Bernie,  but not practical for Clinton.  Bernie would probably be a one term president allowing Warren to be the first women president.  Elizabeth is the first choice of many Democrats.

Gun control is one area where Hillary has the backing of more Democrats and Bernie is somewhat not quite on board.  I think here he might be the practical one as he has a constituency that is rural.

It is amazing to watch the Republicans cut each other up and try to outdo the others by promising more stupid action.  The Democrats (including forgotten Martin O'Malley) have so far avoided such antics, but they are now criticizing one another and picking out words outside the context.  It is very true that Hilary Clinton has the inside track with lots of connections and in the end this could be the strongest factor against Bernie.

My hope is that Bernie will do well in the first two primaries and get looked at by some of Hilary's backers, particularly minorities who will see he is more on their side than they realized.  Black Lives Matter seems to have gotten Bernie more involved in their issues and he does have a long history of supporting minority groups including gays.  Bernie may win even if he doesn't get the nomination because he will steer the Democrats away from catering to the wealthy.

The mainstream media is glossing over Bernie who has been attracting comparable crowds to Donald Trump and has more grassroots donators than anyone, but he is a threat to their masters.  Most of us realize the world is stacked in favour of the very rich, but feel powerless to do anything about it.  Bernie speaks for us.  Hilary might be more successful in minor improvements.  History swings like a pendulum--one side dominates, then becomes complacent and an opposition emerges.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Can a Nudge help you make better decisions

It is assumed by many economists that most choices are rational and well informed.  This defies what most of us know about decision making especially when we examine our own choices.  The authors set an idealistic framework for decisions.  Idealistic, but also practical.  The better decisions made by individuals, the better for society and of course the individuals.

Libertarian paternalism is their guiding principle.  They believe in as much freedom as practical, but feel we all need to be guided for our own good, especially with difficult complex choices.   The authors say people can be divided into Econs, that is people who make rational decisions and Humans who make, well human decisions.  They advocate that people be given wide choices, encouraged to get advice and a key is to have a rational or at least a safe choice as the default.

The authors expend much energy demonstrating how humans have poor self control and are right now being manipulated in many different subtle ways.  We understand how many decisions are made.  Anchoring is one phenomenon that has been proven to increase desired results.  Many other factors are understood and are being used by businesses, governments and others to manipulate decisions.  The authors are advocating that this understanding be used to encourage decisions that are more beneficial for individuals while at the same time giving them a truly free choice..

The default is necessary when as too often happens people avoid making a decision.  Opt-in or Opt-out makes a difference.  Supporting options with information, but avoid confusing the issue.  They also advocate a strong feedback system so people can understand what has happened in the past and even suggest alternatives.

Conformity is a natural human trait, probably helped us survive.  I recall some of the experiments cited from my sociology courses.  In one of my classes we duplicated one experiment trying to show how people could be pressured into agreeing with obvious mistakes.  We went further to test whether women or men were more apt to conform to an erroneous observation.  I feel very guilty in that I persuaded the sister of a close friend to participate.  Although very intelligent she had been raised in a central American culture where women defer to men.  The authors conclude that to persuade people to adopt your preferred behaviour it is better to suggest that many others already do and/or that the trend is towards this new behaviour.

Computer programs can help determine what people like us tend to like, but as the authors point out it might be good to learn what people unlike us like.  Actually well balanced people have an understanding of what other people think and sometimes even modify their opinions.

There are lots of practical examples given.  They see a need for more organ donations and suggest it would be more effective using an opt-out system.  In other words unless you make an effort to not donate your organs it could be almost automatic.  They acknowledge there would be concerns and they offer suggestions.

Environmental concerns are on everyone's minds, but they prefer ways to persuade and inform citizens to do the right thing than to mandate behaviour

When they wrote the book same sex marriages were not so common or so legal, but they thought a solution was to privatize marriage.  Let religious people marry in religious settings with their own rules.  Let same sex people marry, but not force non believers to participate.  Acknowledges legal concerns which they reduce to contracts between individuals.  The problem many of us see is that non believers can make it difficult for same sex couples to make the choices they want to make.  Prejudice is something that cannot be rooted out with laws, but over time can soften and some of their suggestions might be helpful.

One interesting suggestion they make (and someone may have made progress in this regard) is to have software that can detect angry emails and force (or suggest) you need to cool off before sending it.  How many of us over-react to some slight and do something we later regret?  I think it is is the story of mankind.

The book was written in 2008 and a reader can appreciate that some of their suggestions have occurred.  The principles they discuss can have an ongoing applications.  They left a blog site you can check at:  http://nudges.org

Monday, January 11, 2016

A lesson in peace from Estonia

Estonia is a small country that most non Europeans are scarcely conscious of.  I first became aware of it as I had a university room mate with an Estonian heritage.   Later when researching information for a basketball book learned that Estonia, despite its small size had been a significant European basketball power and had contributed to the growth of basketball in Canada.  Incidentally I learned that they had been overrun by the Soviet Union and had been squelched.  Now that they are independent they find themselves inundated with many Russians who were moved there during the occupation. and feel some loyalty to the mother country.

The movie, "Tangerines" was the official Estonian entry for the best foreign film for the 2015 Oscars.  My first reading confused me.  It was said to be an Estonian movie in some quarters, but others stated it was a Georgian production and others even thought a Russian movie. The writer/director, Zaza Urushadze is Georgian, the location is Georgia The main actor, Lembit Ulfsak is Estonian, others are Georgian. Like many movies there certainly was an international involvement at both the financial and artistic levels.  I relied on subtitles, but understand that Estonian, Georgian and Russian were all spoken.

I understand there was a war involved in Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet empire, but didn't understand how a neutral Estonian could be involved.  Estonians settled in Georgia in the late 1800's, maintaining some of their culture, but most left when war broke out.  Russians were trying to maintain their imperial hold on former members like Georgia.  In 1992 a civil war broke out as part of Georgia (with help from Russia) wanted to break away.  The movie takes place in this context.  The situation was very complex involving Chechen mercenaries, Muslim factions and Russian preferences.  The internal politics are confusing, but the dynamics can be understood.

The story is very simple.  Two Estonians have stayed behind in order to finish packing a crop of tangerines.  Fierce fighting takes place in their area and it happens that two fighters of opposite allegiance are severely wounded and rescued by the two Estonians.  One in particular expresses a desire to kill the other who responds with bravado.  The Estonian taking care of both plays a mostly hands off mediating role that eventually succeeds.

The mechanism as often is that it is hard to hate someone when you get to know them and share some of their life.  Those at the top benefit while those at the bottom suffer.  A number of details occur naturally and the two antagonists gradually learn to respect each other (and their mutual caretaker) as humans.  There are many positive ways it could have ended and I credit the writer/director choice as very poetic, subtle and even realistic.  It is not a happy ending, but in another way it is hopeful.

The director/writer and actors do a terrific job.  This is more than just an interesting story, but an important story told in a professional manner.  One commenter pointed out that there was not a single female in the movie (though a photo gets attention).  Women have a reputation of being effective pacifiers (which seems so logical one can understand why belligerent males want to keep them out of negotiations).  The logic of peace being preferable to war is understandable even to some of us males.

"Tangerines" attracted attention being selected for many film festivals and getting a good share of award nominations.

Limbit Ulfsak has a role in another Estonian movie "The Fencer"  (not seen) nominated for the 2016 Oscars.  This one is directed by a Finn, Klaus Haro, who did  "Mother of Mine."  Other "Tangerines" participants also contributed to "The Fencer." helping to propel it to Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.  These two films illustrate good ideas, and good entertainment can come from anywhere.  Open our minds and we all will benefit with peace being one of the benefits.