Monday, May 31, 2004

Let’s stop the nonsense now

I’m starting to sound like a broken record, I know. My plan was to be posting items that cover a wide range of ideas and possibilities that affect us in our day-to-day lives. Or as I put it in the title of this blog, “A look at the events of Dave's world, updated as circumstances warrant.” But it seems I can’t quit writing about this gosh-darned federal election. So just a short one this morning.

Over the weekend, I saw a few stories about polls and their influence on the election. Is there any doubt that they affect the outcome? Call me grumpy, but I side with Dr. Foth on this issue. The media now is trumpeting the fact that the Liberals are sliding. They’re into a minority government, perhaps even moving to a Conservative minority. These predictions are given as fact. Then the question becomes, how will the parties handle this new reality. The media and the polls have completely hijacked the democratic process, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s not that I don’t like statistics, and polling. But I think it’s dangerous to start talking about the results as if they were “objective” or somehow represent reality. They are no such thing. For example, suppose a reputable polling company went out and polled 1200 voters randomly on election day, then extrapolated those results and compared them to the reality of the actual results? Does anyone seriously believe that they’d be right? Or even close? Do you really believe that the pollsters would be right 19 times out of 20? I don’t think so. Think about it.

I remember learning in high school about a theory that the very act of observation affects the outcome in a scientific experiment. I don’t remember who first put forward that idea. More recently, quantum physicists have discovered that the act of observing causes a change in any action. This could have profound effects on how we transmit and verify secure information, among other applications.

More relevant for me, this also means that the very act of reporting poll results affects the outcome they are supposed to be predicting. People are affected by hearing what is supposed to happen. It’s inevitable that hearing about polls will affect the outcome. So although some might argue that as individuals we have the right to know the results of these polls, I submit we should ban the publication of the results. If the various media outlets would agree to stop commissioning these polls and publishing the results, our democracy would be a much more interesting place.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Where do you stand on polling?

What are we to do with opinion polls during a federal (or any other, I suppose) election. A story in today's Toronto Star says the Liberal support is slipping towards a likely minority government. OK, so what are we supposed to do with that? Can we all stop worrying about this election and just concentrate on our lawns, or barbeques, or whatever? Sure, we can follow what's going on, but stories like this do make it seem like the whole thing is a bit pointless, don't they?

The Globe and Mail's Hugh Winsor has another take on the polling issue in a story about duelling pollsters which features a battle between two pollsters on seat projections.

Polls are everywhere in this election, even at the CBC, which has made a point of noting that they won't be featuring "horse-race" polls in their coverage. (So I guess we won't find out which horse is going to win the Belmont next week.) But that doesn't mean the CBC isn't polling. They still intend to feature polling on what voters are thinking about on issues and stuff, just not on who might or might not be leading in voter preference right at this particular moment.

Yesterday, in an interview on the CBC Toronto morning show, John Laschinger, well-known Canadian campaign guru, said he'd prefer that polls predicting the outcome of campaigns were done away with completely and he congratulated the CBC for not doing them. I'd have to agree. Whether they are accurate or not is one question. But I don't think there's any question that they skewer the campaigns when they come out. Of course, they're not the only thing skewering things these days. Blackberry's and similar instant-communication devices have injected a whole new dynamic into the coverage. Reporters covering the various campaigns are inundated with e-mails from rival camps spinning the lastest story even before one campaign event is over, as this analysis in the Globe points out today.

Back in the "old days"...

The speed of communications today is amazing, and it's created all kinds of challenges for the media. Thinking back to my own experiences with political campaigns, I feel like an old man telling war stories. In the 1995 Saskatchewan election, I had to beg and plead for a special budget from the Leader Post and the Star Phoenix so we could rent three cellphones for the reporters covering the Liberal, Conservative and NDP campaigns. Our thinking was we could talk to each other from the various buses and get quotes and responses the same day. Alas, it usually didn't work very well, since cell phone coverage was so poor we usually couldn't get a signal in the small towns we were visiting.

The lack of "instant communications" in earlier elections also created opportunities for campaigns to try to outwit the reporters. I remember the first federal campaign I ever covered was the 1988 federal election. I joined the Brian Mulroney leader's tour when it swept through Saskatchewan. There was no such thing as "instant communications" back then. Some of the Mulroney crew may have had cell phones, but not the reporters. I had arranged to join the tour in the morning, after Mulroney gave a speech to a breakfast audience at a downtown hotel. Although Mulroney was the prime minister, the security was wonderfully lax for the campaign coverage. I introduced myself to one of the officials as a reporter with the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and was invited to hop on the campaign bus with the other reporters. Of course, Mulroney wasn't on our bus...he had his own. But away we all went, heading down the road towards Saskatoon. I can't remember exactly why the PM was travelling by bus between the two cities, since he usually flew everywhere. But drive we did. And along the way, I got my first taste of big-time political organization.

Not too far out of Regina, our buses pulled into a farm owned by a major Tory supporter, where the PM met local Tory supporters and a number of area MPs and candidates. The farm photo-op was standard fare back then, and was carefully set up to give some nice pictures for the TV people to go with the usual soft-ball comments about farm aid, although the details escape me. It was a nice day and it gave Mulroney a chance to stand in the sun, with his shirtsleeves rolled up, tie loosened and listen earnestly to someone tell him how tough things had been for the area's farmers. Then everyone was back into the buses and away we went. But as we hit the highway, it was clear that something was up. Or at least, to my innocent eyes, it seemed that way, as Mulroney's "wagonmaster" and his staff huddled at the front of the bus. It turned out that we were going to make an "unscheduled" stop along the way, so that Mulroney could talk to some real, genuine local people about the current farm crisis. This was interesting. Although I'm struggling to remember, I think there had been some criticism of Mulroney for dodging voters at his campaign events, which may have been why our buses finally pulled into Davidson and stopped at the Husky car-truck stop, for a little walk-about.

Inside the Husky restaurant, the tables were filled with people, who all seemed thrilled to meet the Prime Minister. They shook his hand, and answered his questions with thoughtful answers. For about 15 minutes, he made his way around the restaurant, accompanied by TV cameras, sound men and reporters struggling to get their tape recorders close enough to capture every comment. But alas, for the reporters, there wasn't a negative comment to be found.

Since I was new to this whole business, I wasn't sticking close to the PM. Instead, I stood at the side, watching the media circus work it's way through the small restaurant. But off to the side, I noticed a guy with a notebook and a camera and I asked him which outlet he was with. It turns out that he was a freelance reporter, working for one of the major magazines. But he wasn't travelling with the Prime Minister's entourage. Instead, he had been in Saskatchewan for several days. It turns out that the night before, he had been talking to a local Tory organizer who had bragged that there was going to be a major "impromptu" media event in Davidson the next day.

Intrigued, he had shown up early in the morning at the Husky, where he had been told Mulroney was going to visit. Although the PM wasn't scheduled to visit until after lunch, local Tory supporters arrived at the restaurant at 9 am and began filling all the available seats in the place. They wanted to make sure that nobody from the NDP or Liberals were able to get into a position to be able to embarass the PM. Every time a "real" person came into the restaurant for a coffee or a meal, a table would be cleared for the customer, then promptly filled up again with Tories as soon as they left.

This went on all day, until the Prime Minister's "impromptu" visit, which didn't actually happen until about 3 pm. But thanks to the loyal, local Tories, things went off without a hitch, the PM met a lot of happy locals and the evening news showed him wading into a filled local restaurant to meet with "real" people. It was all very nicely done.

Unfortunately, I can't recall the name of the reporter I met that afternoon, or remember how that incident worked into his story on the campaign. After all, it was only one small event in a six-week campaign, and the kind of thing that happens every day. But it opened my eyes to just how much work goes into the staging of these political events. It was an education that I was able to put to good use for the next eight years, as I continued to cover politics in Saskatchewan and across the country.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Trash Talking on the Campaign Trail

“Elections are pretty catty, aren’t they?””

That’s what my 16-year-old daughter said this morning, while we listened to politicians trash each other’s latest proposals for health care, taxes, or whatever. No matter what the statement, the first, predictable, response, was scorn, contempt, sneering…(insert your favourite modifier here.)

Nowhere is there any attempt to engage in a real debate. No, that would not be the way it’s done these days. We’re off and running on Day 4 of the Great Canadian Election…and we’re already getting tired. True, it does look like it will be an interesting contest, with no one sure about the final outcome. But like many others that I’m hearing and reading, I’m just a little tired of the predictable and negative nature of modern campaigning.

It’s a leader’s campaign, no doubt about it. The TV networks and newspapers are full of what the leaders are saying, where they’re going, and what they’re saying about each other. It’s Paul Martin’s health care plan, Jack Layton’s inheritance tax and Stephen Harper’s musings about the welfare of Atlantic Canada under another Liberal government. OK, they might be party positions, but that’s not the spin that’s put on them. We’re supposed to vote for the leader we like the best, the one we trust the most and the one who seems the most competent.

That’s why my youngest daughter’s comments are so intriguing. If what I’m reading about in all the major media is true, she’s the generation that today’s politicians should be taking square aim at. Her cynicism and lack of real interest is a simmering problem. Or perhaps the better target might be my 19-year-old son and his friends. They’re all eligible to vote in their first federal election. But a quick sampling of a few of their opinions reveal a distinct lack of interest in what’s going on. Elections are for others, despite the fact that they all participated in mock election exercises in high school. They’re not tuned out…they just don’t see politics (and government) as relevant to them. Maybe they’re right. (The Globe and Mail has an interesting series on what younger voters think.)

When I came of age, voting was something you did. I don’t remember thinking about it much. I voted, and that was it. My father was a civil servant, and never revealed his voting intentions to any of our family. He was an old school public servant, who believed he and his colleagues should be non-political. During his career, his view fell out of fashion, as various Saskatchewan governments began encouraging, and then expecting, civil servants to take an active role in ensuring that the current government (the one signing your paycheque!) stayed in power. My Dad watched as political appointees took over from career civil servants. Eventually, he was squeezed out too, since he wouldn’t agree to be politicized. I know some of what happened to him now, but at the time, I had no idea. It was only after he retired that some of what he went through came out.

I suppose my background influenced my own political views. I have a strong respect for our parliamentary tradition. But I still don’t tell people how I vote. That made sense while I was a journalist, but now, I guess it’s just a habit. When I was a reporter at the legislature in Regina, I often stayed late at night listening to the debates, even though there was no earthly reason to do so. I liked the arcane detail and the traditions. I probably would have been happy to have been a clerk. It wasn’t news and nothing I was listening to was going to make it into my stories. In fact, my stories were long gone. Most of the day’s news was written immediately after Question Period, which conveniently occurred at 1:30 pm, so that the TV news guys could file in time for the supper hour news. For the rest of the day, the press gallery was a pretty lonely place. Just the odd print reporter hanging around to see if anything interesting happened.

I’m digressing…back to the point that started this rambling post. I know I’m a hopeless romantic, but there’s little about political discourse today that attracts me anymore. Today’s election campaigns are calculated, scheduled and managed. There is little that happens that hasn’t been planned in advance. Sure, there are still mistakes, and they’ll still make big news. And you know that voters are going to surprise us yet again. They may not end up voting the way that pollsters predict. Or they might. There’s enough polls during the campaign that chances are someone, somewhere will probably get the results right. During the campaign itself, however, the comments will be “catty” most of the time.

Back in 1993, Kim Campbell was crucified for her candid comments that election campaigns were not the place for a serious discussion about public policy. Although she paid a price for that statement (and a few others), it looks like she was right. We don’t discuss serious policy during election campaigns. But the difference now is that the politicians are up front about it. They walk from one planned event to another, secure in the knowledge that they’re aiming their comments at the TV, not the real people that are in front of them. (Or not, as is sometimes the case in the case of some photo-ops for the cameras.) You’d think that people would be upset about it, and in truth, you do hear a lot of grumbling about the process. There might even be more grumbling this time than in previous elections. But the process doesn’t seem to be changing much.

Will I be voting on June 28? Sure…but then, I usually do. I wonder how many others will be joining me?

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Back to Iraq 3.0

If you're interested in getting a different perspective on the War in Iraq, you might want to check out the blog Back to Iraq by Christopher Allbritton. He's a freelance journalist, who was one of the "unembedded" reporters in Iraq back in 2003 when the war began. What makes his situation unique is that he raised the funds to go "Back to Iraq" through donations to his blog from his readers. It's an interesting situation. He arrived back in Iraq for the third time just last week. Here's a story that gives a bit of an update on Chris. But to see for yourself, check out his blog.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Democratic Deficit

Yesterday, Ontario's Liberal government brought in their first provincial budget. And with it, they pretty much eliminated the need for voters to ever pay attention during elections ever again. During the campaign, there was nothing that the Liberals could not do, if only voters gave them a chance. Then, once they had it, they had to admit that things were so bad they'd have to put aside all those promises. And we end up with health premiums (the equivalent of a 13% income tax increase), delisting of some medical services, like chiropractic and physio treatments, and frozen spending on most government programs.

Let me say up front, I'm not necessarily opposed or in favour of some of the measures announced in the budget. Government does have to make hard decision, no question. But what galls me is that politicians no longer even pretend that they should try to be accountable for what they say. So it's perfectly fine to rail against doing something, only to do exactly that once they're given the keys to the office. They don't even pretend to apologize any more.

This is not unique to Ontario. We've also seen it in Newfoundland, BC, and Saskatchewan, where economic reality has rendered irrelevant campaign platforms and promises. But for me, the Ontario Liberals have finally put to rest the notion that politicians are ever accountable for what they say during an election campaign or in opposition. While this is hardly news, voters have always been willing to ignore history at election time and listen to politicians' promises as if they were serious. So last year, we heard Dalton McGuinty solemnly pledge not to raise taxes and even go so far as to sign a document to that effect. That was only one of his most obvious promises. There were plenty of others. It seems there was nothing he would not pledge his new government would do, and he promised they would be capable of fulfilling all these various promises because they were really, really smart, honest and hard-working. And it worked. He won the election.

Alas, it wasn't long before the backtracking started and everyone from the media to the former government began shrieking about how McGuinty had lied to everyone. But the fact that McGuinty had made those promises to get elected, and that subsequent events had forced him to recant almost all of them, are not really the point. Instead, it's the cavalier way that the Liberals dismiss criticism by saying that they have no option. Finance Minister Greg Sobara says reality has forced his hand. The fact that he might be doing the exact opposite of what he promised is not relevant, he says. It's just a job he's got to do. While he didn't come right out and say it, his comments come close to saying, "Come on, we both know that election promises are not real promises." (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!)

Politicians argue that economic reality trumps any moral commitments they might have made. Indeed, moral arguments that include things like honesty and integrity are seen as quaint, but out-dated. Modern governments can't afford niceties like that. But that attitude has ruined the electoral process. Voter apathy is increasing and experts predict dire consequences for our democracy as it continues. The truth is, our elections have become shams. Fewer voters mean more predictable campaigns. We are being manipulated by professionals who are intent on making sure that the outcome is predictable. Sure, there may be a short-term PR problem with parachuting candidates into a riding, instead of letting the local members choose, but that's not a long-term problem. By election day, it won't be an issue. And if fewer people vote, that's all right, because that just means we can spend our money on a more select group and influence their opinions.

And let's not harbour any illusions here. Money makes this election machinery go around. With few exceptions, the more money that is spent, the more likely a candidate will win. This works in every democracy. There are ideas for reforms that might limit this reality, such as proportional representation, etc., but they're not likely to get very far. Radical electoral reform will only happen if a sitting government allows it. And given the recent cynical nature of federal politics in recent months, I'm confident that a new Liberal government is not likely to lead that charge.

So where are we now? As a reasonably informed voter, who watches most political events carefully, I see my vote as less and less significant. I no longer see candidates at my door. In the last provincial election, not a single candidate graced my doorstep. Coverage of election issues was focused on what the leaders said each day. And thanks to high-speed communications, any comments by local candidates just repeated the party line. And as events since the election have demonstrated, there is no connection between what was said during the campaign and what happens after. No, the "running of government" takes precedence over any silly things like promises or signed pledges or expressions of support.

Our relationship with our elected representatives is getting stranger. No longer do we even pretend that we take anything they say seriously. Lying is now allowed. In fact, it's expected. When you're in opposition, you are against everything the government says or does. That's your job. If, by some miracle, you get to be the government, you no longer have to stand behind your comments. Sure, you'll take flak from the new opposition, but that's all right. They're busy saying all the things that they'll then be able to ignore once the pendulum swings and they're in the driver's seat in a few years. There is no constructive debate between our political parties. Question Period and spending estimate debates are meaningless. The business of governing rolls on regardless of which party is in power.

I admit I'm growing more cynical. I am one of the disaffected voters who wonders, "What's the point?" Should I even pay attention to the upcoming federal election? Or should we just leave it to the professional pollsters to explain what will happen and let it go at that? Does it really matter which party forms the government? I just don't know any more. I'm sure that in the weeks to come, I'll be thinking about this a lot and probably writing more about it. Maybe, once I start hearing a few good promises, I'll be able to put aside my cynicism and enjoy the campaign. I hope so.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Are you going to buy into Google?

It's an interesting question, and one that many of us are likely thinking about these days. Should we consider participating in this unique "IPO auction" that's being proposed for Google? And what the heck is the auction and how does it work anyway?

I admit I'm interested. After all, I'm a pretty committed Google user. I use their Search Engine exclusively, and their Google Tool Bar keeps pop-up ads off my webpages, my home page is GoogleNews, I use Blogger to host my blog, I'm considering adding Google ads to my website and I've just signed up for a GMail account. Clearly, they're a company that I'm comfortable with.

But in the weeks since they announced their plans, I've read and heard some conflicting opinions about the company and the direction it's taking. For a good summary, see the Star's Tyler Hamilton's take on the IPO. The naysayers think it's just another mega-company, and likely to turn into an evil empire, a la Microsoft, Time Warner, Disney, etc. (even if the founders are well-intentioned.) The supporters say it's a different kind of company, and one that looks like it's going to act differently. I'm an optimist, so I'm probably in the latter camp. But while I was thinking about this, I had a revelation...what does the company say itself? After all, the speculation is based on what the founders of the company have actually said in the information they've filed with the SEC. But like most people these days, I've been content to just read snippets of it and listen to other people's opinions about it...or perhaps their opinions on what others have said about it. Does anybody really read the original sources any more?

So I looked up Google's preliminary prospectus or whatever it's called, and read some of it for myself. I admit I haven't read the whole thing...but I did read the open letter from the founders of the company, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It's a fascinating read and I like what they're saying. But more importantly, it lets me hear from these guys directly, and make up my own mind. I realize that one of the realities of how I've been getting my information these days is depending on the media to interpret things for me. There was a time when I was part of the media, and I got to look at all the original source material. Then I would summarize it and do a story for my readers. It's an important function, no question about it. But over time, we can become too reliant on it. Instead of finding out the facts for ourselves and forming our own opinions, sometimes it makes sense to go to the source.

Ironically, that's the true benefit of the technology that Google has given us. We can now instantly go find the source documents that the media are using as a basis for their story. But more often than not, we think we're too busy to do that, so we end up just reading the stories. It seems the more access we get to information, the less we actually use it. The way that information is available now over the Internet is a defining attribute of our generation, perhaps one of the most significant. Only time will tell. But thank goodness that companies like Google are around to help us take advantage of the technology we've developed.

In the long term, I believe that Google will succeed in its mission. The part I like the best is when they say they've won't do any evil. Sounds like a winning formula to me. And after reading Larry and Segey (that's they way they refer to themselves throughout the document) have to say, I'm willing to support that mission. I don't really know how this auction process will work, but I intend to be a part of it somehow.

But don't take my word for it. Check out what they say in their letter and make up your own mind. And then use Google's cool search tool to find out what other people just like you are thinking as well...

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Catching up with uploads

Judging by the paucity of posts in recent weeks, some of you may think that not much of significance has been happening...but it's not the case. However, I've been struggling with a recurring problem with my arm caused by using a mouse, a version of tennis elbow, according to the people that are helping me deal with it.

As a journalist years ago, I developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in my wrists from the constant work at the keyboard, which threatened my ability to make my living. When I switched to corporate communications, I was using a keyboard less often and the problem remained manageable. But in recent months, I've been writing more and problems are resurfacing. So far, my wrists are OK, but I've been having a lot of pain in my elbow, forearm and shoulder, and it's getting worse, instead of better. So for the past couple of weeks, I've been spending a lot less time at the computer, trying to rest the offending muscles. It's creating a few problems for me, no question. As someone who is making a living as a writer, not being able to write for extended periods of time will be a problem. However, I'm confident that I'll be able to come up with something to work around this. At the moment, I'm getting a lot better at using my left hand to control my mouse, as well as using a brace to cushion my forearm. I'll keep you up-to-date as I work on various options.

In the meantime, I haven't been following current events with the same zeal, so my posts have been less frequent. But in recent days, I've been following the contortions that federal politicians are going through to try and define where they stand on health care. Specifically, on who should be able to deliver it, and whether anyone should be able to make money from it. It's an interesting debate, and it brings a lot of different positions to the table. I'm not really satisfied with any of the various party positions, and I want to begin exploring some of the back story on this issue. But today, I'm off to Toronto for a business meeting and lunch with an old friend, so my musing about the health of the nation will come in a later upload.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

What Are Webfeeds (RSS), and Why Should You Care?

I've written before about RSS feeds and why they are important to writers, especially those of us with a strong interest in integrating technology into our daily affairs. One strong proponent of RSS has been Amy Gahran, a US writer with a specialty in online content. In a recent post to her Contentious weblog, called What Are Webfeeds (RSS), and Why Should You Care? Amy has expanded and revised an article she wrote a few months ago about RSS. (And which I referred to in that earlier post.)

Amy was also the person behind an online survey of bloggers to come up with a term that better describes what RSS is. In this new article, she introduces us to the winner, "webfeed." She is an interesting writer and someone worth listening to if you care about how people get access and make sense of all the information that is available to them on a constant basis. It's worth checking out what is happening.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Springtime in London (Ontario, that is...)

This weekend, I’m participating in an annual ritual known as the championship weekend. For those of you who do not have children that play some sort of competitive sport, let me explain. In this case, the sport is basketball, and the participant is my youngest daughter, who is about to turn 16. She plays rep basketball.

Each year, her team forms in October, and begins training towards this ultimate weekend tournament. Beginning in December, and continuing for most weekends throughout the winter and spring, teams from all over the province gather for club tournaments. The various games played all count towards a mysterious ranking system, which ends up seeing the various teams into one of many divisions, depending on their win-loss record, points scored, teams played, etc. And finally, after hours of practice, exhibition games, tournament games, sweat, joy, heartbreak, anger, hurt feelings and simmering feuds, it all comes down to this one weekend of glory (hopefully.)

Kelly’s team, the Hamilton Wildcats, has had a frustrating season, to this point. They ended up ranked 35th in their midget girls category, with a 25-18 won/loss record, which placed them in Division 3 for the weekend. After a strong start to the season, her team ran into difficulty maintaining their momentum, although they regained their scoring (and winning) touch in the last few weeks. If all goes well, they could be peaking at just the right time. (Hope always springs eternal at this time of year, especially among the long-suffering parents who sit through every game.)

The Ontario Basketball Association championships for midget girls (ages 14 and 15) are being held here in London, ON (known by all as the OBAs). There are over a hundred teams competing from all over the province. Kelly has been part of this team for the past three seasons and this is her third trip here. But unfortunately, they have yet to win a single game – until Friday night that is…Last night, playing the last game of the day, Kelly and her cohorts cruised to a convincing 49-27 win over the Whitby Saints. The road to a championship (as CBS might put it) has begun.

Today, the quest continues. Two more round-robin games, then a quarter-final tonight. If they win, they’ll play two more games on Sunday.

Why am I including all this information in this posting? Well, I needed to do an Upload, since I’ve been neglecting my blog lately. Second, this is part of a theme that I want to explore in a few more essays. I’ll be talking about the things kids do, and the way their parents participate…More later.

UPDATE – The Wildcats won both games this afternoon…the quarterfinals are tonight.

FINAL UPDATE -- Kelly's team won a nail-biter in the semi-finals, then lost a close one in the finals. So they ended up with a silver medal. All in all, it was a great end to the season and a great championship weekend. And now...we all get to rest. The kids seem fine, all they had to do was play ball. But the parents are all basket cases. Way too much pressure!