Saturday, November 28, 2009

On-the-ground in Honduras

The election in Honduras is going ahead on Sunday, Nov 29, although what it will accomplish is very much up for debate.

For background on the vote from the mainstream media, here's a report from Reuters.

For a more opinionated piece, read Rick Arnold's comments. Rick is the coordinator of Common Frontiers Canada, which is one of my long-time web clients.

Over the years, I've marveled at the hard-working folk who donate their energy and time to educate the rest of us about North (and now South) American Free Trade.

Common Frontiers is part of a delegation of observers that are on the ground in Honduras right now, filing reports back to Canada. It's a scary and exciting place to be and their reports are good reading.

You can find the daily reports in a special section I've created at

Let me know what you think.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Peter McKay should be ashamed of himself

mackay.jpgCanada's Minister of Defense has a serious credibility problem. If ever there was a time to keep your lip zipped, it's when a senior government official has just testified to a parliamentary committee that Canada might have been involved in war crimes.

Ironically, I spent today helping prepare for a seminar on crisis communication. My advice? Stick to the facts. Say what you know and don't speculate. It didn't occur to me that anyone needs to be told that you also don't start shooting the messenger - I thought that was a given. But apparently, Peter McKay didn't get the memo.

For those of you who missed it, here's an excerpt from a story about Richard Colvin's testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
All detainees transferred by Canadians to Afghan prisons were likely tortured by Afghan officials and many of the prisoners were innocent, says a former senior diplomat with Canada's mission in Afghanistan.

Appearing before a House of Commons committee Wednesday, Richard Colvin blasted the detainees policies of Canada and compared them with the policies of the British and the Netherlands.

The detainees were captured by Canadian soldiers then handed over to the Afghan intelligence service, called the NDS.

Colvin said Canada was taking six times as many detainees as British troops and 20 times as many as the Dutch.

He said unlike the British and Dutch, Canada did not monitor their conditions; took days, weeks or months to notify the Red Cross; kept poor records; and to prevent scrutiny, the Canadian Forces leadership concealed this behind "walls of secrecy."

"As I learned more about our detainee practices, I came to a conclusion they were contrary to Canada's values, contrary to Canada's interests, contrary to Canada's official policies and also contrary to international law. That is, they were un-Canadian, counterproductive and probably illegal.

"According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure," Colvin said.

He said the most common forms of torture were beatings, whipping with power cables, the use of electricity, knives, open flames and rape.

Colvin worked in Kandahar for the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. He later moved to Kabul, where he was second-in-command at the Canadian Embassy. In both jobs, Colvin visited detainees transferred by Canadian soldiers to Afghan prisons. He wrote reports about those visits and sent them to Ottawa.
That seems like the kind of event that calls out for a neutral response from the Canadian government. Something like, "These are serious allegations and we want to find out everything we can before we make any further comment." You don't want to prejudice anything. And you can't prove a negative.

But instead of a reasoned response, the government immediately set out to smear Colvin and pain him as "a suspect source" and a "Taliban dupe." This is what Peter McKay said in the House of Commons the next day:
“What we’re talking about here is not only hearsay, we’re talking about basing much of his evidence on what the Taliban have been specifically instructed to lie about if captured," he said (via the Toronto Sun)
And this from the Canadian Press:
MacKay said Colvin had not provided "one scintilla of evidence" that wasn't second-or third-hand information.

He painted Colvin as a Taliban dupe and said Canadians are being asked to accept the word of prisoners "who throw acid in the face of school children, who blow up buses of civilians in their own country."
Nor was MacKay alone. According to the Ottawa Citizen,
A government that really wanted to change the way business was done would want nothing more than to look into this kind of allegation and see whether there's any truth to it. Instead:

Ontario Tory MP Cheryl Gallant said that Colvin’s allegations “would not hold up in a court of law” and British Columbian MP Jim Abbott accused Colvin of having no first-hand verification that soldiers handed anyone over to torture, given that the supposedly abused detainees he interviewed did not implicate Canada.
I don't know why the Tories let this issue derail them so completely from a fairly standard crisis response. But they've handled it badly. And what was obviously not a good situation is going to become a lot worse.

There are serious allegations being made against specific people. An inquiry is probably necessary to put the issue to rest - especially when the first response has given more credence to the allegations instead of less.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The elusive goal - death with dignity

Since I've moved to Victoria, I've had the good fortune to get to know David Cubberly. Although he was my local MLA for a couple of years, I got to know him through mutual friends and pot lucks we've been at.

After several years covering politics at the Saskatchewan legislature in the latter part of the last century - boy does that make me sound old! - I've become a bit cynical about politics and politicians. But David is what I would call one of the good ones.

He didn't run in our last provincial election and he's turned his attention to local community work. He's also become a blogger and I recommend his writings. He's a well informed, thoughtful writer with a lot of interesting things to say.

His most recent post is called simply "Dignified Goodbyes." It's an eloquent essay about why the time has come for society to seriously consider euthanasia as an option for terminally ill people.

He writes about his aunt, who died peacefully, in her sleep, and how everyone who knew her was pleased by such a gentle death. But his mother, wasting away with cancer, suffered through a long, painful decline that was a misery for her and her caregivers.
If to be unaware of passing away is deemed by most a good death, next best would be choosing the moment in a manner that mimicked, so far as possible, a gentle way of passing. That’s a scenario not currently available to most of us, a situation many feel we need to change.
Here in Victoria, I've become involved with the Victoria Hospice as a Board member. If ever there was a group whose members understand the importance of dying with dignity, the hospice workers are it. Death is a subject that most people avoid, yet it is as natural and as wondrous as birth - and as inevitable. All of us will die. We just don't know when.

David says the time has come for society to reconsider the question of a death with dignity.
I think we're coming to a time of decision with regard to personal choice for a dignified ending of life. There are signs of an emerging resolve on the public's part to see the issue addressed, especially in defined situations like terminal illness. Here on the west coast, where Sue Rodriguez was a public figure, where neighouring Oregon's Dying with Dignity Law demonstrates how safeguards can work, there's strong sentiment in favour of change.

Many believe it's ethically wrong to force someone dying slowly in great pain to simply tough it out. Yes palliative care should always be available and still isn't, as should hospice, to enable those who can to hang on until disease runs its full course. But we must face what most doctors recognize: palliation of suffering may be ineffectual at the higher reaches of pain, and the agony of lost autonomy and dignity can lead people to want to go.

It's time we recognized individual choice in the matter and ensured a humane and compassionate way to exercise it.
David's post is a lengthy look at a lot of the issues around physician-assisted death. He also talks about MP Francine Lalonde's private member's bill that is working its way through the House of Commons and he urges readers who would like to see parliament deal with the issue seriously to contact their MP and make their views known. (Judging by the volume of Google results when I searched under "bill c-384 canada news" I'd say that the anti-euthanasia lobby is very, very active and formidable, so I'm not sure that the bill has any chance of moving forward.)

Still, I urge you to read David's entire essay, and, if you agree, consider adding your voice to those who believe that the time has come to ensure that all Canadians have the right to live - and die - in dignity.

Online bookstores reveal our future

There are a lot of people that like to predict doom. It's an easy thing to do. After all, if you're wrong, that's a good thing, right?

In my lifetime, as in yours, a lot has changed. And the pace of change appears to be picking up speed. Or maybe that's another part of ageing. The more we can remember, the more items we have to compare with what we have now and it seems that more things are different. And they are.

Our information revolution has made it easier for doomsayers to operate. No matter what they're talking about, the Internet makes it easy to find evidence that just might prove their prediction. The online arguments against H1N1 vaccination stand up as evidence of that.

What's more interesting however, are online discussions that cut through the doomsayers arguments, exposing them as self-serving nonsense and opening up a more reasoned look at the issue and perhaps stimulating some honest discussion about the relative merits for and against. OK, I admit it. Deep down, I'm still an idealist.

That kind of confusing, round-about opening brings me to Clay Shirky. He's an interesting guy. He's not a glass half empty or a glass half full type. He's more of the "Hey, look at that glass," sort. He doesn't post to his blog that frequently, but when he does, people pay attention. He's one of those thinkers who people pay attention to because what he says always seems to make so much sense.

His most recent post is called Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization. Unlike my struggles with clarity in the opening to this post, Shirky grabs the reader's attention right from the start. Here's the first two paragraphs:
Last month, the American Booksellers Association published an open letter to the Justice Department, asking Justice to investigate Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon after they lowered prices of best-selling books to under $10. The threat, the ABA says, is dire: “If left unchecked, these predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public, and will allow the few remaining mega booksellers to raise prices to consumers unchecked.”

Got that? Lower prices will lead to higher prices, and cheap books threaten to reduce the range of ideas in circulation. And don’t just take the ABA’s word for it. They also quote John Grisham’s agent and the owner of a book store, who both agree that cheap books are a horrible no-good very bad thing. So bad, in fact, that the Department of Justice must get involved, to shield the public from the scourge of affordable reading. (Just for the record, the ABA is also foursquare against ebooks being sold more cheaply than paper books, and thinks maybe Justice should look into that too.)
He goes on to effectively sever the arguments of the ABA, among others, that lower prices for books are a threat to knowledge. Which is the same conclusion most people will come to if they think about it for very long. From there, he speculates on the future of bookstores in the Internet age.

If you've never read Shirky's stuff, go ahead and check out this post and grab the RSS feed. I think you'll like it. He has a disconcerting habit of taking issues that I've been mulling over and talking about them in such a clear and straightforward manner that I can't remember why I was puzzled by them in the first place. And I like writing that does that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Further notes on the Age of Twitter

Following up on my longish post about Stephen Fry's noodlings about Twitter, here are some pointers to interesting takes on Twitter and social media that I came across.

This is how Twitter will die. And, thus, live forever
Todd Maffin speculates that Twitter has reached the technology tipping point, "the moment when a fad evolves into being a secure part of our lives — and it is the point at which a technology becomes invisible. Not literally invisible, of course, but practically invisible in our day-to-day lives.

Beyond Social Media
Doc Searls, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto (now coming up on its 10th anniversary) has a thoughtful post on social media. And he starts by wondering whether the whole thing is a crock. What bugs him is that essential elements of social media - like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace - are private platforms, not public. Like the early days of Instant Messaging, we have a series of private companies competing for users with different platforms. Computers and what we use them for should be personal - and these new social media tools are proprietary. They need to evolve, as has email, blogging, instant messaging.

Nine Things Social Media Can Do
Mark Evans has a list of ways that Social Media can work for business. He says he came up with the list "in response to B.L. Ochman’s post in AdAge about the 10 things social media can’t do."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stephen Fry considers the Age of Twitter

I've been a fan of Stephen Fry for several years but I've only recently been following his blog. He's been journaling his thoughts for years, as it turns out, and the Web has given him a great platform.

He is a thoughtful, funny, introspective and wide-ranging writer. His prose is always entertaining, usually self-deprecating but also very pointed. He is a man of sharp opinions and someone who has little time for those who aren't prepared to defend the logic of their arguments.

He doesn't publish regularly but when he does, his posts are usually thoughtful and lengthy. So unlike my previous tongue-in-cheek (or perhaps just cheeky) post about listening to podcasts at double speed to save time, I need to set aside a block of time to digest his essays.

Although I took three weeks to get to it, his latest work was worth the wait.

In Poles, Politeness and Politics in the Age of Twitter Fry chooses a recent media controversy (over 1600 comments!) in England as a jumping-off point for a discussion on what the instant transmission nature of the Internet means for writers - especially some, like him, who are prone to expressing an opinion without fully thinking it through.

But he doesn't just state his opinion and leave it there. He is a story-teller. First, we hear about his latest misadventures in Poland, where he appeared on a local television program and ended up offending a lot of people:
Only a week and a half ago I was asked to appear on Channel 4 news to comment on the Conservative Party and their decision to ally themselves in the European Parliament with the Polish Law and Justice Party, a nationalist grouping whose members have made statements of the most unpleasantly homophobic and antisemitic nature. I usually decline such invitations, and how I wish I had done so on this occasion. I think I accepted for the achingly dumb reason that I happened to be in the Holborn area all that day and the ITN news studios were just round the corner, so it seemed like an easy gig. The more probable explanation is that, as my father and squadrons of school teachers correctly reminded me throughout my childhood and youth, “Stephen just doesn’t think.” Anyway. Words tumbled from my lips during that interview that were as idiotic, ignorant and offensive as you could imagine. It had all been proceeding along perfectly acceptable lines until I said something like “let’s not forget which side of the border Auschwitz was on.”

I mean, what was I thinking? Well, as I say, I wasn’t. The words just formed themselves in a line in my head, as words will, and marched out of the mouth. I offer no excuse. I seemed to imply that the Polish people had been responsible for the most infamous of all the death factories of the Third Reich. I didn’t even really at the time notice the import of what I had said, so gave myself no opportunity instantly to retract the statement. It was a rubbishy, cheap and offensive remark that I have been regretting ever since.
That story then moves us to a reflective section on how politics is evolving in the age of Twitter. Along the way, we find out about the traditional Three Estates (I had never really known that), how the Press became the Fourth Estate, and now we are entering, perhaps the age of the Fifth Estate.
Well, then. All in the same week the Fourth Estate has been rescued by Twitter and shamed by Twitter. Has the twinternet now become the Fifth Estate? And if so is it safe in the hands of people like you and me? Especially me.

Without, I hope, too much self-pity, I do seem to have made myself a target. Journalists who don’t understand what Twitter really is (the overwhelming majority) will use my name as a kind of shorthand for the service. The fact that I have been on it for a whole year (ie a decade, see second paragraph above) and have in that time accumulated a fairly large number of followers allows them lazily to go straight to my “Twitter feed” (as they insist on calling it) and either crediting me with being a kind of a Citizen Smith of the Twitting Popular Front, or blaming me for hypocritically claiming to strike blows for press freedom with one hand while trying to censor journalism with the other.
What are we to make of this new-found power of Twitter to wield public opinion? Are the superstars of Twitter (like Fry, with 840,000 followers) ushering in a new way of influencing? Will their tweets change the course of events? Should they? And what does it mean to be charged with this kind of responsibility? Will it become a force for increased democratization of opinion, as many believe it now is?
Twitter may seem to some to be dominated by bien pensant, liberal spirits at the moment. Will I be so optimistic about it when these spirits are matched by forces of religiosity and nationalism that might not accord with my chattering-class, liberal elite preferences? When the political machines march in and start recruiting and acquiring millions of followers, giving them the power to close sites with DDOS slashdotting campaigns, what will I say then?

Well, all kinds of bleak scenarios are possible. But for the moment let me believe in democracy and the good sense and good intentions of the commons. We commons have long treasured our ancient liberties. They stretch back in time, marked by Magna Carta, Milton’s Areopagitica, 1688 and the Bill of Rights, Wilkes and Liberty, the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Reform Bill, the Jarrow marches and innumerable other milestones that have led us to this point. The ancient liberties of the common people have found expression in plays, poems, ballads, essays, journalism, cinema, television and now they find a voice in Twitter and the internet. One medium has never replaced the other, but complemented and enhanced it. Let there not be war between Twitter and the press. Let them both be agents for freedom of speech and a better way of governing ourselves.
So at the end of this lengthy post about the nature of discourse and the evolution of social change (my description - not Fry's) we come back to what Twitter is. It is a 140 character slice of time. Individually, tweets are just that. But collectively, they have the power to influence and affect events. But that power cuts more than one way. Good things and bad things can result.

Unlike previous communications revolutions (like the printing press, the telephone, radio, etc) I don't expect this Internet-revolution to settle down into a settling-out period. We aren't going to become comfortable with this technology and agree on some standards of use. Internet-time, as Fry put it, moves far too fast for that. As quickly as we master one technology, we are behind the curve on the next.

But I think that will be a good thing. Because no matter what means we use to spread our message, it is ultimately the message that matters. Content is king. That has always been the case, but with each new exciting technology, we forget that.

For most of us, mastering the medium will remain a never-ending struggle to keep up. Or as Fry concludes:
The best I can do is hope for a quiet week ahead…

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Why didn't I think of this before?

I used to listen to a lot of podcasts. Lots and lots of podcasts. But it was easy - even enjoyable - to do when I was commuting 3 or 4 hours each day. That was what I was often doing when I lived in Hamilton but was working in Toronto.

But now I'm living in Victoria and either working at home or at an office just 10 minutes away. That cuts down on the time for listening to podcasts considerably.

I like to listen to them while walking the dogs and if I ever ride the bus (which I occasionally take to work.) But that still only works out to a fraction of what I used to have available.

But here's today's insight. I use an iPhone for my listening. This morning I looked at the podcast page and noticed the option to listen at double speed. Using it turns a 30 minute podcast into a 15-minute one. But it doesn't change the pitch (where speakers sound like the Chipmunks) so it is quite normal sounding. It's a great alternative for spoken word items, like podcasts or audio books.

I don't recommend it for everything but it's a great alternative for those of us who don't want to spend so much time catching up on our podcasts.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone