Even as 2017 ends with a sigh of relief, it still managed to give us a few chuckles

Well, we’ve made it to the end. “May you live in interesting times,” goes an old Chinese curse, and if nothing else, 2017 was an “interesting” year.

It was a year of revolutions. It was the year in which Donald Trump and his crew threw out all the old rules about the U.S. presidency, only to find out that it wasn’t just his supporters who wanted change as Colin Kaepernick took a knee for equality, and the “#MeToo” movement took down the high and the mighty.

Other countries, meanwhile, opted for youth. Emmanuel Macron became President of France at age 39, Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister of New Zealand at age 37, and Sebastian Kurz became Chancellor of Austria at a mere 31. In Ireland, meanwhile, the 38-year-old, openly gay, ancestrally half-Indian and half-Irish Leo Varadkar was promoted to Taoiseach — i.e., Prime Minister.

And Britain? The land that once gave Margaret Thatcher three majority governments in a row very nearly gave the keys to 10 Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn, an unapologetic socialist, despite early expectations of a Conservative landslide.

And as 2017 ends, protests are rapidly spreading in Iran, hinting that nearly 40 years of religious dictatorship could be on the verge of being swept away by a secular and democratic tide.

While 2017 was a year of serious business and once unimaginable change, it also gave us a few good chuckles to lighten the mood a bit.

Why you should keep Alexa and Siri away from your TV. 2017 started off with a rather funny story out of Texas, where a six-year-old managed to convince her parents’ Alexa voice-recognition device to purchase her a $170 dollhouse and “four pounds of sugar cookies” — with the bill going to her parents of course. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Days later, a San Diego TV morning show host concluded a report on the story by uttering the words, “I love the little girl saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse’”.

“Ordered” or “order”? Apparently some viewers’ Alexa devices couldn’t tell the difference, and the station received complaints that “the TV broadcast caused their voice-controlled personal assistants to try to place orders for dollhouses on Amazon.” (Jan. 7)

Hi, this is head office calling! The search was on for an Irish-accented prankster this spring after two incidents in which callers claiming to be from “head office” convinced employees in Britain to close their stores and do bizarre things in exchange for prizes. In one incident, the caller from “head office” instructed employees to “…lick the shoppers’ feet… [and] even convinced the employees to ‘pretend to be a vacuum cleaner’.” In another, at a Poundworld discount store, “the staff had to refer to [two customers] as ‘Ugly’ and ‘Beast’ and in return they had to call the manager ‘Beautiful lady’ with the promise of £50 each time they said it.”

“We are both too scared to go into Poundworld now,” said one of the customers caught up in the prank. (May 23-26)

Waking up the Nation. If you’re setting up a national emergency alert system, it is naturally good practice to make sure it works. New Zealand Civil Defence dutifully carried out its own test in early October.

The good news was: The system worked.

The bad news was: The system worked — for real!

An unknown number of New Zealanders — about one-third of the nation’s phones were believed to be capable of receiving the alert — were woken up by three emergency alerts sent to their smartphones beginning at 1:32 a.m., informing them that “This is a test message for the Emergency Mobile Alert System that will be available by the end of 2017. Visit civildefence.govt.nz to find out more.”

“Dear @NZcivildefence, thanks for testing your mobile emergency alert system at 01:30AM. The whole house is awake now. #muppets,” one perturbed New Zealander wrote on Twitter.

“This is completely unacceptable … and [we] want to say sorry to every person that was woken by the messages during the night,” New Zealand Civil Defence spokesperson Sarah Stuart-Black said. (Oct. 3)

British prime minister’s speech turns into a comedy of errors. Having very nearly lost an election she was expected to easily win, and with Britain’s Brexit plans having turned out to be “no plan at all”, British prime minister Theresa May needed all the good luck she could get going into her Conservative Party’s annual conference in October. The highlight was to be her speech to the party faithful, broadcast on live television, and she must have hoped that perhaps the spirit of Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher would guide her through it.

What she got instead was the ghost of Benny Hill, as she was first handed a termination notice by a prankster claiming to be acting on behalf of Foreign Secretary (and potential leadership challenger) Boris Johnson, then suffered a coughing fit, and then had to continue on as the letters fell off the wall behind her.

By the time she was finished her speech, “Building a Country That Works for Everyone” had become “Building a Country that Works or Everyon”. (Oct. 4)

How in the world did he get up there?! A hospital offers many tempting places for an inquisitive young child to explore, and precautions are generally taken to prevent wandering. Hospital staff in Auckland, New Zealand were baffled however, in October, when a child somehow managed to climb into the ceiling unnoticed. First called at about 8 a.m., rescuers from the Fire Department managed to coax the child out of the ceiling by 9:45 a.m., but how the young explorer ended up there remained a mystery. (Oct. 19)

 

Five nude people in a car. It’s not unusual for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to respond to motor vehicle accidents, but it’s certainly unusual for them to find five nude people inside, as they did when they responded to a report of a car-truck collision south of Edmonton in November. Police were said to have considered it a “purposeful collision” and to have suspected that drugs or alcohol were involved. (Nov. 7)

What a bunch of donkeys. Jail staff in India’s Uttar Pradesh state had had enough with all the trouble the eight had been causing in the neighbourhood, injuring children and wrecking gardens. But the eight miscreants weren’t humans — they were donkeys that had been let loose in the vicinity of the jail. When the donkeys’ presumed owner pleaded ignorance, the jailers decided to lock up the eight donkeys until the problem could be resolved. Eventually, the donkeys’ owners and other local officials were able to arrange for the animals’ release. (Nov. 28)

Fare dodger gets his due. How else to end 2017, the Year of the Absurd, than with the news out of London, England that a would-be fare dodger got his “penis stuck in ticket barriers at Covent Garden Tube station”.

If you’ve taken the London Underground in recent years, you’ll know that you must go through automatic gates to get in or out of the station. Last Wednesday, one man decided to try to get a free ride on the Tube by sneaking past the gates, only to find himself pinned by them — at the crotch. Transport Police were able to free the hapless fare evader after about two minutes, but not before one bystander filmed the scene and another taunted him with “Butter him up!”

Once freed, the man reportedly “hugged a police officer and a passer-by” — though perhaps not the taunter. (Dec. 31)

Best wishes for a happy New Year!

Trust leads to security leads to trust: The forgotten lesson that made a mess of 2016

“In the future, Americans — assuming there are any left — will look back at 2016 and remark: ‘What the HELL?’” American humourist Dave Barry wrote in his retrospective on 2016. “If years were relatives, 2016 would be the uncle who shows up at your Thanksgiving dinner wearing his underpants on the outside.”

Likening it to “a choice between ointment and suppository,” the U.S. presidential election was Barry’s prime example of the mess that 2016 turned out to be.

“CNN told us over and over that Donald Trump was a colossally ignorant, narcissistic, out-of-control sex-predator buffoon; Fox News countered that Hillary Clinton was a greedy, corrupt, coldly calculating liar of massive ambition and minimal accomplishment.”

“And in our hearts we knew the awful truth: They were both right.”

The absurdities of 2016 extended beyond the United States. The British — mainly the English — voted in June to leave the European Union, despite the possibility of a renewed bid for Scottish independence (continued membership in the E.U., popular in Scotland, having been one of the factors that prompted Scots to vote against separating from Britain in 2014), and the unraveling of the hard-won Irish peace (Northern Ireland also having voted against leaving the E.U.)

In other populist revolts, the Austrian far-right came uncomfortably close to winning the 2016 presidential election, and recent polls showed Marine Le Pen, of the anti-immigrant Front National, running a close second in the run-up to the 2017 French presidential race.

The strange mood has even crept into Canada, where the presumptive front-runner for the leadership of the Conservative Party — the party which has governed Canada for half of the past 30 years — is Kevin O’Leary, a comically abrasive businessman turned full-time TV personality, with no political experience, who brandishes a spatula in a Dec. 24 YouTube video and vows to take it to Ottawa and “scrape all that crap out”. (To his credit, O’Leary has avoided the anti-immigrant sentiment of Kellie Leitch, the Winnipeg-born Conservative leadership candidate whose capacity for getting attention through mean-spiritedness has not so far given her lasting momentum.)

What is behind the bitter mood that made 2016 the year of Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen and the slowly rising weirdness of the Conservative leadership race?

The most probable explanation comes from the book Viking Economics by George Lakey, a retired professor and peace activist. In the book, he contrasts the sense of mutual security and trust that citizens of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland feel with the chronic insecurity of life in the United States — not to mention other countries, to varying degrees.

The United States operates a different economic model, which values insecurity . . . A family depends on a job that might disappear tomorrow; it lands in a feeble safety net; it has few prospects for finding another job as good or better. Small wonder that U.S. unions sometimes defend inefficient labor practices and outmoded organization of work, even though undermining productivity — whatever it takes to keep workers in jobs. In other words, compared with the high-productivity Nordic model, the U.S. insecurity approach creates an incentive to resist efficiency.

Lakey contrasts the American tendency to resist a social safety net with the freedom that a strong social safety net has given Nordic business owners to experiment with new ways of doing things, and to Nordic unions to accept and even welcome such changes.

There is reason to believe that the Nordic approach has secured positive results. The 2016 World Competitiveness Scoreboard places fifth-place Sweden and sixth-place Denmark just behind the third-place U.S. (and ahead of tenth-place Canada) in its ranking of the world’s most competitive economies. China and Switzerland took the top two spots.

And there is reason to believe that chronic insecurity takes a toll on people, and on their faith in democracy.

Andrew Wroe, of the University of Kent in the U.K., has carefully researched whether economic insecurity and anti-government sentiment are linked. In the case of the United States, he wrote in a 2015 commentary on the London School of Economics web site, the answer is “an unambiguous yes”.

As Jacob Hacker points out in The Great Risk Shift, the US government has deliberately privatised risk in the name of ‘personal responsibility’ by dismantling large parts of the social insurance system, and it has done so at a time when macro-economic changes have actually increased threats to economic security.

[. . .]

. . .[P]rior research demonstrates that political trust is vital to the good functioning of contemporary polities. One possible remedy for low trust would be to halt and then reverse the privatisation of risk by bringing the government back in. Comparative European data show that countries with more extensive welfare systems generally experience higher levels of political trust, possibly because welfare protects people against insecurity. However, the major progressive reforms that may help restore trust in the US are primed to fail precisely because trust is so low. Distrusting citizens, which constitute a large majority of all Americans, are less likely than trusting citizens to support major liberal reforms to the welfare state; indeed, they are more likely to support conservative alternatives that further privatise risk and, in turn, further increase insecurity. Such is the irony of the politics of trust.

Indeed, in 2014, three French researchers examined the relationship between the comprehensiveness of the social safety net in OECD member-countries and the degree to which the citizens of those countries trusted one another. They found that countries that were more polarized between trustworthy and untrustworthy — or “civic” and “uncivic” — individuals had the greatest difficulty supporting an effective social safety net.

Uncivic citizens, the sort who evade their tax obligations while seeking to extract all they can from social benefits, will support the expansion of the welfare state more strongly than civic citizens will, since they expect to benefit the most from it while shirking the costs. A rise in the share of uncivic citizens could thus increase the demand for a generous welfare state. However, an opposing force is also at play. Civic citizens will be less inclined to support high taxes if they expect to be surrounded by uncivic individuals who do not pay taxes and abuse social benefits . . . [But an increase in support] appears when everyone is civic. In this situation, all individuals strongly support the welfare state because nobody cheats on taxes and social benefits.

So, in short, what went wrong that gave the world the upcoming Trump presidency and Brexit debacle? A safe bet is that the U.S. and the U.K. fell into a “distrust trap”: a culture of economic insecurity, and resentment at feeling abandoned to fend for themselves by politicians who went on to live comfortable lives separate from the wider community, killed trust in politicians. Meanwhile, difficulty trusting fellow citizens made a strong social safety net that would ease their burdens unsustainable.

The lesson? Trust matters. With it, a society thrives. Without it, a society begins to fall apart.

Between 2005 and 2009, the World Values Survey asked people around the world if they felt that “most people can be trusted”. In Norway and Sweden, with their strong social safety nets and high levels of confidence in their parliaments, two-thirds or more of citizens agreed that, yes, most people can be trusted. In the U.S., however, only 39 percent considered most others trustworthy; and in the U.K., just 30 percent felt this way.

As for Canada: we were barely more likely than the Americans to trust our compatriots, with 42 percent of us considering most other people to be trustworthy. Never assume that a Donald Trump can’t happen here.

The Jimmy John’s case: When doing what’s best for the organization means doing what’s worse for the economy

Usually, when you hear about staff being required to sign non-compete agreements as a condition of employment, it’s easy to assume that this only applies to the big-shots: executives, senior managers, people with intimate knowledge of corporate strategy, and so on, and surely not to a 19-year-old restaurant server or even a 24-year-old shift supervisor at a suburban fast-food outlet.

Think again. In a country where so many feel that “the little guy” is condemned to always end up with the short end of the stick that many have turned to Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders as would-be saviours, a news story appeared this past week that might just reaffirm their suspicions.

Illinois attorney-general Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit mid-week against Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, a Champaign, Ill.-based sandwich shop franchise, for requiring its employees until just last year to sign non-compete agreements. These agreements forbade employees from seeking employment with any other restaurant “that does at least ten percent of its business making sandwiches” within a two- or three-mile radius of any Jimmy John’s restaurant nationwide.

Under the agreement, the ban on working for even marginal competitors remained in effect for two years after leaving Jimmy John’s.

The non-compete agreement was almost certainly designed as a bluff to discourage staff turnover, not with the intent of actually enforcing it. Enforcement would have required:

a.) Keeping track of former employees’ whereabouts, or somehow finding out that the former employee had landed a job at Subway a mile and a half away, 15 months later (possible, but unlikely);

b.) Giving enough of a damn about the alleged breach to actually attempt to hold the former employee to the terms of the non-compete agreement (extremely unlikely for a low-wage job, and unlikely even in some better-compensated, mid-level jobs, if the path of least resistance was to just ignore the whole matter), and;

c.) If all else failed, convincing a court to enforce the agreement even though the courts have a history of overturning such agreements in all but the most serious of disputes.

Even Jimmy John’s conceded in a written statement that holding restaurant workers to non-compete agreements was a bit absurd:

“We made clear to the Attorney General that we would never enforce a non-compete agreement against any hourly employee that might have signed one. We offered to have our CEO sign a declaration to that effect, and pointed the Attorney General to an April 2015 ruling dismissing a federal claim against Jimmy John’s over the use of non-compete agreements, on the grounds that those agreements were not at risk of being enforced.”

Non-compete agreements are nevertheless popular. While the percentage of Canadian workers covered by non-compete agreements is not readily at hand, a White House analysis released just a month ago found that 18 percent of American workers are subject to restrictions on finding work elsewhere, including 14 percent of those earning less than $40,000 annually.

They even have their defenders. “Something strange is happening in the Beehive State,” law professor Nathan Oman wrote in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News this past March, as legislators were passing a new law banning non-compete agreements — a law Oman described as “a solution in search of a problem” and “a classic example of the legislative process run amok.” In defence of non-compete agreements, Oman wrote:

“In non­compete agreements, employees commit not to work for their former employers’ competitors if the employment relationship ends. This encourages employers to invest in their employees and share proprietary information. Everyone benefits, which is why employees and employers agree to the contracts in the first place.”

“In theory, such contracts could harm workers and consumers by giving monopoly power to employers. We solved this problem, however, more than a century ago. Like every other state, Utah law already requires that such contracts have reasonable limits on their geographic scope and duration. Indeed, any business that used them to monopolize a market would commit a crime under federal antitrust laws that have been in place since 1890.”

Others see non-compete agreements as being harmful to the overall economy even if they are beneficial for individual businesses by protecting secrets and calming competition.

On Twitter, I called the idea of requiring restaurant workers to sign non-compete agreements "asinine". Martin's response (in jest, I hope!) made my day. If you don't already do so, follow me on Twitter at @kevinmcdougald

On Twitter, I called the idea of requiring restaurant workers to sign non-compete agreements “asinine”. Martin’s response (in jest, I hope!) made my day.
If you don’t already do so, follow me on Twitter at @kevinmcdougald

A 2010 research paper by three academics from the MIT Sloan School of Management, the INSEAD global business school and the Harvard Business School found that non-compete agreements were economically harmful by encouraging former employees to move away in search of work and thus “stripping enforcing regions of some of their most valuable knowledge workers while retaining those of lesser value.”

“To the extent that one can draw normative conclusions from the above findings, policymakers who sanction the use of non-competes could be inadvertently creating a potential regional disadvantage. From a regional policymaker‘s perspective, the free flow of particularly high-ability talent to the best opportunities seems beneficial as long as it occurs locally . . . whereas such talented workers who take out-of-state jobs are a loss to the region. Regions that choose to enforce employee non-compete agreements may therefore be subjecting themselves to a domestic brain drain not unlike that described in the literature on international emigration out of less developed countries.”

[…]

“…[E]nforcement of non-compete agreements might act as a brake on labor pooling in two ways. First, regions that allow firms to enforce non-compete clauses against ex-employees drive some of their most highly valued skilled workers out of the region, decreasing the local supply of talent. Second, the interorganizational mobility of those workers who remain in the region is lower when non-competes are enforced. Given the role of labor pooling as a microfoundation of agglomeration, we should therefore expect more clustering in regions such as Silicon Valley where non-competes are unenforceable.”

This was supported more recently by a U.S. Department of the Treasury report which found that, while non-compete agreements can protect trade secrets and thus encourage innovation, reward employers for spending more on employee training and reduce staff turnover, they can also lead to lower wages, cause people to leave the careers in which they are most productive, and slow productivity growth.

The Treasury report recommended, among other things, that employers be dissuaded from requiring non-compete agreements unless there is a high probability that they could and would be enforced (i.e., not frivolously or as a bluff, as in the Jimmy John’s case) and requiring that employees continue to be paid at partial salary by their former employers in exchange for agreeing not to seek employment with competing organizations.

The Jimmy John’s case, and the evidence above, suggests that it might be a good use of legislators’ time in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere to limit the use of non-compete agreements. While those in the business and legal communities might see such agreements as useful from their point of view, it’s a benefit that comes at a cost to the wider community. It’s also an example that there’s a gap between what’s good for business (or labour, which has made its own case for competition-limiting measures at times) and what’s good for the economy. The two are not always the same, or even compatible.

Palmerston, Larry and the Acoustic Kitty

A new hire started work this week at Britain’s foreign ministry — and his lunch break lasts all day long.

Palmerston, a black-and-white shorthair cat, is the new Chief Mouser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s headquarters on London’s King Charles Street, kitty-corner (pardon the pun) to Parliament and just around the corner from the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street.

Like his counterpart Larry, the brown and white tabby inhabiting 10 Downing Street, Palmerston’s duty will be to help the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) deal with its persistent rodent problem. To welcome Palmerston to the team, the FCO issued a tongue-in-cheek news release, quoted in The Telegraph:

Palmerston is HM Diplomatic Service’s newest arrival and in the role of FCO Chief Mouser will assist our pest controllers in keeping down the number of mice in our King Charles Street building.

Palmerston’s domestic posting will have zero cost to the public purrse as a staff kitty will be used to pay for him and all aspects of his welfur.

But has anyone thought to check Palmerston — or Larry — for any smuggled goods? To make sure he isn’t a secret agent for the Americans, the Russians, the Israelis or the Chinese?

Believe it or not, there actually was once an attempt to use a cat to commit international espionage.

In the mid-Sixties, the ever-imaginative CIA explored the possibility of enlisting a cat, with a microphone and transmitting antenna implanted in its body, to eavesdrop on conversations. It became known as the Acoustic Kitty Project.

But, as former CIA officer Victor Marchetti told The Telegraph in 2001, after the Acoustic Kitty documents were finally declassified, the idea of using a cat to perform espionage quickly ran into problems.

“They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity. They tested him and tested him. They found he would walk off the job when he got hungry, so they put another wire in to override that.”

But finally, the CIA had the Acoustic Kitty ready for his (or her?) first public test. According to Emily Anthes in her 2013 book Frankenstein’s Cat, “CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to the park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench.”

Cats tend to have a mind of their own, however. Instead of making his way to the park bench, Anthes wrote, “the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi.”

“There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials, and the cat was dead,” Marchetti recalled decades later to The Telegraph.

Estimates of the cost of the Acoustic Kitty project range from $10 million to $20 million.

Despite the cat-astrophic flop, one of the released (but still partially censored) documents praises the researchers who worked on it.

“The work done on this problem over the years reflects a great credit on the personnel who guided it . . . [and their] energy and imagination could be models for scientific pioneers.”

But, “our final examination of trained cats for [censored] use in the [censored] convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”

 

* — See also the World War II Bat Bombs experiment, which tested the possibility of releasing bats over Japan with tiny bombs strapped to their bodies, and having them fly into the country’s many wooden structures to start fires. The tests took a disastrous turn when some of the bats were accidentally released, setting both a hangar and a general’s car on fire.

April 19 election likely to end NDP’s long run in office

On April 19, Manitobans will go to the polls to elect 57 members of the provincial Legislative Assembly. That election will either turn the governing NDP into an opposition party in the Legislature for the first time since 1999, or, in the unlikely event that it is re-elected, into a statistical oddball.

Governments go through a life cycle. They start off fresh and new, even exciting sometimes. But, the longer they live, the more battle-weary they become. Sometimes a periodic shake-up and the introduction of new faces prolongs their lives, as it did for the long-running Alberta Progressive Conservatives who governed that province continuously from 1971 to 2015.

More often, however, governments find themselves running into natural limits on how long they can govern before the public tires of them.

Where are those limits? To figure that out, I looked at the life span of 41 Canadian provincial governments entering office after Jan. 1, 1960, and which left office prior to Jan. 1, 2016. By “government”, I mean a continuous period of party-rule. Thus, the current NDP government in Manitoba would count as a single government, even though it has been led by two premiers: Gary Doer (1999-2009) and Greg Selinger (2009-present).

The average lifespan of a provincial government during that time was 9.8 years, dropping to 8.9 years if one excludes Alberta’s 43.7-year Progressive Conservative government as an anomaly. This suggests that a government enters a vulnerable period as it approaches a decade in power, a time when voters might be looking around for something fresh.

This is further supported by looking at the “middle 50%” of governments, by filtering out the shortest- and longest-lasting 25 percent on either side of the continuum. Continuing to exclude the Alberta PC Anomaly, only one-in-four governments lasted less than 6.1 years, while only another one-in-four lasted longer than 11 years. This points to the difficulty (though not impossibility) of knocking off a first-term government, and the rapidly declining odds of survival after a decade in office.

Now let’s look at the extremes.

With the Alberta PC Anomaly still excluded, the bottom five percent of governments lasted up to 3.9 years before being thrown out. This includes Pauline Marois’s ill-fated 2012-14 Parti Quebecois government in Quebec, and Dave Barrett’s 1972-75 NDP government in B.C. The once-powerful Union Nationale’s 1966-70 Quebec government also finishes just above the cut.

At the opposite extreme, the longest-living five percent of governments lasted 16.1 years in office, these being the Progressive Conservative governments that ran Newfoundland and Labrador from 1972 to 1989 and New Brunswick from 1970 to 1987. The 1991-2007 Saskatchewan NDP government finishes just slightly below the cut. (I’m still excluding the Alberta PC Anomaly, as you can see.)

If making it into the top five percent of government lifespans represents “extreme old age”, the Manitoba NDP government crossed that threshold in about mid-November 2015.

It should be cautioned that elections can produce surprises, and that even improbable events — as a fifth term for the Manitoba NDP government would be — still happen once in a while. But these events are just that: improbable.

If the NDP loses the April 19 election, as they likely will, its old age and the desire to refresh things a bit will have played as much of a role in its downfall as the provincial sales tax increase, the party’s internal discord, and its weakening of internal discipline since 2011; though the public’s feelings about the latter three things will determine how deep a cut it takes in its seat count, and the party’s odds of staging a comeback in four years.

And if it wins and becomes one of the top one percent of governments in terms of longevity? Well, hopefully you will have placed and won a bet, as the government will have beaten the odds in a way that few Canadian governments ever have.

Londoners use hostage-taking to criticize restaurant’s food

For at least a few minutes on Feb. 24, the world’s eyes turned to London as news broke of a hostage-taking at a Bella Italia restaurant near Leicester Square — a landmark location in a global business and cultural capital long vulnerable to terrorism.

After a few minutes, the world’s nerves eased as it was learned that, although a serious crime, the hostage-taking was neither technically a terrorism incident nor a long-running stand-off. As The Telegraph reported:

Police said that a man with a knife held a woman against her will inside the restaurant, with two other people also inside.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said the incident was not terrorist related.

All the people involved are believed to know each other and there have been suggestions on social media that the man is a disgruntled former employee.

Scotland Yard later said the incident had been been resolved and a man had been detained by police. There were no reported injuries.

Yet a strange thing happened on Twitter during and after the incident. In addition to many tweets passing the news on to others and expressing wishes for a peaceful end to the incident, Londoners used Twitter to express their frustration with the Bella Italia restaurant chain.

Bella Italia is roughly equivalent to Canada’s Olive Garden chain: family-friendly, but bland, unromantic and a bit cheesy according to reviews. As Londoners expressed their views on the chain, Twitter searches for Bella Italia quickly filled with absurdity, humour and snark:

Now you know where not to go for good Italian food in London.

From a troubled part of the world, a story of courage and kindness

The year 2015 was at times a harsh one to the world’s Muslims who, because of the actions of Islamist extremists, found even the innocent and the law-abiding among themselves treated with everything from quiet suspicion to crude vitriol. And throughout the year, a question heard again and again: Why aren’t the moderate Muslims doing something?

Then, on Monday, came news from Kenya that illustrated the low regard that many Muslims have for those who carry out violent attacks, supposedly in the name of Islam.

That day, a group of al-Shabaab Islamist extremists attacked a bus travelling to Mandera, a town in northeastern Kenya near the Somali border. Upon boarding the bus, the militants ordered the passengers to split themselves up along religious lines: Muslim and Christian.

There was little doubt what the militants intended to do to the Christians aboard the bus. In April, gunmen attacked Kenya’s Garissa University College, singling out non-Muslims to be shot.

But the extremists who attacked the bus en route to Mandera on Monday found the passengers united across religious lines against them. As Reuters reported:

Abdi Mohamud Abdi, a Muslim who was among the passengers in Monday’s incident, told Reuters that more than 10 al Shabaab militants boarded the bus and ordered the Muslim passengers to split away from the Christians, but they refused.

“We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily. We stuck together tightly,” he said.

“The militants threatened to shoot us but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters. Finally they gave up and left but warned that they would be back,” he said.

The BBC checked with the company that operated the bus, and received confirmation that “Muslims had refused to be separated from their fellow Christian passengers.”

Merry Christmas and Seasons Greetings to all.


And now a bit of lighter entertainment. The first clip comes from local public access television, circa late-’80s. After many years in oblivion, it resurfaced on YouTube a few years ago and soon went viral.


Candid Camera host/creator Allen Funt dresses up as Santa and talks to the kids in this Sixties piece:

And a bit of Christmas black humour, introduced to me by a good man named Carl (to whom I owe an overdue beer):

A society where all feel at ease among the best defences against terrorism

While researching the Sept. 24 post Understanding narcissism vital to understanding politics, I came across a fascinating hour-long discussion of the topic by Jerrold Post, the founding director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, and subsequently added a link to it as an addendum.

Post’s insights led me to search the public library catalog for any books written by him. Indeed, one of his books was available: The Mind of the Terrorist — The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to Al-Qaeda.*

And what a timely read that turned out to be, as the book ended up being my commuter reading during the same week that major terrorist attacks took place in Beirut and Paris.

As I write this, French police are seeking a suspect who is a Belgian-born French citizen; and one of the attackers on the Bataclan concert venue is said to have been born and raised in Paris as the son of an Algerian father and a Portuguese mother.

Anyone who has read Post’s book will be unsurprised by the prospect that the Paris attacks might have been largely planned and carried out by people born and raised in western Europe, who went on to murder their own compatriots. Post writes on page 225:

“Throughout Europe, there is an increased radicalization and recruitment of terrorists from second- and third-generation emigres to the global Salafi jihad, with estimates reaching as high as 87 percent of the new recruits coming from the diaspora. Although most Muslim immigrants and refugees are not stateless, many suffer from an existential sense of loss, deprivation, and alienation from the countries where they live. Their families had emigrated to Western Europe to seek a better life, but they and their offspring had not been integrated within the recipient society. They are then exposed to extreme ideologies that increasingly radicalize them and can foster entering the path of terrorism.”

Feeling “excluded and alienated” from “the rigid European social structure”, Post goes on to note that even those who were “[n]ot particularly religious . . . drifted back to the mosque to find companionship, acceptance, and a sense of meaning and significance. This in turn made them vulnerable to extremist religious leaders and their radicalization…”

Post offers valuable insights here, based on many years of experience in studying terrorism. There is a risk in Canada and elsewhere that dramatic terrorist attacks, such as Friday’s slaughter in Paris, will lead some people to lash out at Muslims and failed-state refugees generally, despite the fact that terrorists “do not appear to come predominantly or even significantly from failed states,” as a 2007 study by two researchers at the U.S. Department of Defense Naval Postgraduate School noted.

Such lashing out would be as counterproductive as has always been the case whenever a denial of “companionship, acceptance, and a sense of meaning and significance” in the wider community pushes people toward radicalism.

“It is only when youth begin to be hopeful about their future and fully participate in their societies that we will see the plague of terrorism decline,” Post writes in the book’s final words. “And that will take a comprehensive program sustained over decades to alter these deep-seated attitudes, for when hatred is bred in the bone, it does not easily yield.”

Canada’s safety from terrorism can be more easily secured by being that society of hopefulness for the future and full membership for all, regardless of religion or ethnicity, which Post describes.

 

* Call numbers 363.325019 POS 2007 or HV6431 P669 2007, depending on which system your library uses.


See also Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar’s magnificent response to Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris: “Ceux qui aiment. Ceux qui aiment la vie. À la fin, c’est toujours eux qui gagnent.” (“Those who love. Those who love life. In the end, it is always them who win.”)

The 2015 Canadian federal election: Do demographics tell the tale?

So, what happened on Oct. 19 to sweep Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives from power, and install in their place a Liberal majority government led by Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau?

In an effort to figure that out, I stayed up late Friday night and into the early hours of Saturday morning, downloading data from the 2011 National Household Survey for 70 random federal constituencies — a little more than 20 percent of the total — based on their 2013 boundaries, and incorporated the latest Elections Canada vote counts.

Then, after getting some sleep, I used a common spreadsheet technique called the Pearson Correlation  — no relation to the former prime minister by that name — to measure the closeness of the relationship between each party’s vote count in those 70 constituencies and different aspects of their demographic composition. The Pearson Correlation uses a scale from -1.00 to +1.00. The closer the correlation is to the extreme ends of the scale, the tighter the apparent relationship.

What jumps out about the Liberal Party is the way in which it tended to do better in constituencies with larger concentrations of university graduates, suggesting the possibility that either this was a group that felt particularly attracted to the Liberals, or just more averse to the other parties.

A solid relationship also seems to exist between the size of the Liberal vote and the number of residents being of various Middle Eastern ancestries, and the finance and insurance sector workforce in the area.

On the other hand, agricultural or resource sector employment, and trades training, seemed to have a negative effect on the size of the Liberal vote, suggesting lingering memories of Pierre Trudeau’s strained relations with these groups continues to have an effect. Some might be surprised to hear that the size of the local Indigenous community tended to have a negative effect on the size of the Liberal vote.

The Conservative vote tended to be higher in constituencies with larger Western and Northern European ancestry populations, and in those with larger non-Catholic Christian populations, recalling Mr. Harper’s comments about “old-stock Canadians”. Yet the Conservatives also tended to do better when the number of constituents of Eastern European ancestry was larger, suggesting the Conservatives’ core messages might resonate well with these groups. Unsurprisingly, larger concentrations of six-digit income households, and of management occupations, also tended to be associated with a larger Conservative vote.

The size of the French-speaking population in a riding stood out as being the factor most negatively associated with the size of the Conservative vote, as did the size of the local Catholic population, suggesting the Conservatives might need to make amends to both as it moves into the post-Harper era.  Unsurprisingly, the concentration of low-income households also appeared to have a depressing effect on the Conservative vote.

As for the NDP, virtually everything that seemed to work to their candidates’ favour, and to their detriment, was related directly or indirectly to income. The NDP tended to do better in constituencies with larger numbers of households earning less than $60,000; and their fortunes seemed to be particularly well-tied to the concentration of households in the $10,000 to $14,999 range. But higher incomes, larger average family sizes and higher rental housing costs and home sizes appeared to depress the NDP vote.

The Bloc Québécois tended to do better in constituencies with higher concentrations of born-and-raised Quebeckers, and worse in those with larger immigrant communities, following a long-standing fault line in Québécois politics. Larger concentrations of trades workers and health care workers also seemed to work a little bit to the BQ’s favour, suggesting this is a party with some of the working-class appeal traditionally associated with the NDP in the rest of Canada.

One of the curiosities of the Green vote is that it seems to be positively associated with the size of the Danish and Finnish-speaking populations: a spurious correlation, or a sign that this party that has often expressed Nordic sentiments has some appeal to those with Nordic roots? The Green vote also seems to be higher when the concentration of people with no religious affiliation is higher, which might be counterintuitive given leader Elizabeth May’s well-known Christian faith, but perhaps less so if one sees the Greens as the freethinkers of Canadian politics, averse to the demands of loyalty and conformity that have traditionally shaped Canadian political parties.

And finally, the vote itself. Voter turnout tended to rise with average and median incomes, and to be lower in constituencies with relatively high concentrations of social benefits recipients and people with very low levels of formal education. While low voter turnout is often assumed to be a “youth problem”, it also appears to be a “poverty problem”.

If you are one of those rare people who gets a kick out of scanning through a table full of correlations, feel free to go nuts here.

 

Constituencies included: Abitibi Temiscamingue, Acadie Bathurst, Ajax, Alfred-Pellan, Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, Barrie-Innisfil, Barrie Springwater, Battlefords-Lloydminster, Beausejour, Berthier-Maskinonge, Bow River, Brampton East, Brampton North, Brandon-Souris, Brome-Missisquoi, Burlington, Calgary-Shepard, Calgary Signal Hill, Cariboo-Prince George, , Chicoutimi-le-Fjord, Cowichan Malahat, Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, Don Valley West, Edmonton Mill Woods, Elgin-Middlesex-London, Essex, Etobicoke Centre, Grande Prairie-Mackenzie, Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes, Hull-Aylmer, Humber River-Black Creek, Joliette, Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, Laurier-Sainte Marie, Lethbridge, London North Centre, London West, Madawaska, Marc-Aurele-Fortin, Mirabel, Mississauga Lakeshore, Mississauga-Malton, Montmagny, Nanaimo Ladysmith, Nepean, New Brunswick Southwest, Newmarket-Aurora, Niagara West, Oakville-North Burlington, Oshawa, Ottawa Centre, Parry Sound-Muskoka, Port Moody-Coquitlam, Regina Lewvan, Repentigny, Richmond Centre, Rosemont-la-Petite-Patrie, Sackville-Preston, Saskatoon University, St. Boniface-St. Vital, Therese-de-Blainville, Toronto Danforth, Vancouver East, Vaudreuil-Soulanges, Vimy, Whitby, Winnipeg North, York Centre, and Yorkton-Melville.

Singapore succeeded by being reliable, and well-educated, in a flaky world

Singapore, the Asian city-state of 5.5 million people crammed on to several islands of not much more land area than metropolitan Winnipeg, has a decidedly illiberal streak. Travelers entering the country at Changi Airport must turn their chewing gum, a prohibited good,  over to Customs officers, and submit any foreign newspapers, books or magazines, which are considered controlled goods, for inspection. Journalists, filmmakers and bloggers who irritate the government can easily find themselves being sued for libel, and the domestic servants who made up four percent of the Singaporean population in 2012 had to wait until 2013 to get the legal right to a one-day weekend despite their employers’ collective fury.

Yet amid this heavy-handedness, Singapore has made strides matched by few nations in the world to secure a higher quality of life for its citizens. When it obtained its independence in 1965 — unusually, by being expelled from Malaysia — it was an impoverished country with a GDP per capita of $500 U.S.

Nearly fifty years later, in 2013, Singapore’s GDP per capita was equivalent to $55,000 U.S. It is unequally distributed wealth, to be sure. But just a kilometre away, across the narrow strait that separates the two countries, Malaysia’s per capita GDP was just $10,000 U.S. that same year.

The gap between Singapore and Indonesia, just 10 kilometres away in the opposite direction, is even more extreme: at $3,475 U.S. per capita, Indonesia was as poor in 2013 as Singapore was at independence in inflation-adjusted terms.

Much of this will be credited to Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister who ruled Singapore directly from 1959 to 1990, and then indirectly as “Senior Minister” and then “Minister Mentor” until 2011, who died at age 91 today.

What was so special about Lee’s rule that allowed a tiny island country that seemed to have everything going against it in 1965 to achieve a level of success that eluded its neighbours just a few kilometres away?

A 2013 op-ed by Prof. Calestous Juma of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University noted that Singapore’s success largely came down to focusing on the right priorities. Most important among these were the fact that Singapore offered a far more honest and reliable system of government than its neighbours, and a well-educated and largely bilingual English- and Mandarin Chinese-speaking workforce. As Juma wrote:

In fact, governance distinguished Singapore from its neighbors. As Lee Kuan Yew says: “They are not clean systems; we run clean systems. Their rule of law is wonky; we stick to it. We become reliable and credible to investors.”

His key message on the driving force behind Singapore’s success is simple: “The quality of a nation’s manpower resources is the single most important factor determining national competitiveness. It is the people’s innovativeness, entrepreneurship, team work, and their work ethic that gives them that sharp keen edge in competitiveness.”

He emphasizes the importance of knowledge in economic transformation but also rejects the classical separation between scholarship and entrepreneurship. “Those with good minds to be scholars should also be inventors, innovators, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs; they must bring new products and services to the market to enrich the lives of people everywhere.”

This lesson from the evolution of Singapore’s educational system poses great challenges for most developing countries. They run outmoded educational systems that do not reflect the entrepreneurial demands of modern times.

Juma also notes that Singapore succeeded by having transportation and communications links to the rest of the world that not only worked reliably, but would not have been possible without the rule of law:

One of the critical areas that require tough decisions include large infrastructure investments that lay the foundations for economic growth. Singapore built “world-class infrastructure…good communications by air, by sea, by cable, by satellite, and now over the Internet.”  But such long-term investments demand not only having long-term economic vision, but consistence and predictability in the rule of law.

That offering reliability — reliable administration, reliable rule of law, reliable education, reliable communication, and reliable transportation, among other things — is the key to national success should be a surprise to no one. It is by the same formula that Denmark, Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland and Norway came to make the Top Five in this blog’s World’s 10 Best-Managed Countries list in December, 2014.

And they did so without Singaporean-style illiberalism: in fact, those top-five countries are about as small-l liberal as they come.

The Singaporean lesson offers ideas for consideration here in Manitoba, a province that perceives itself to be an economic under-performer.

Manitoba already benefits from some of the same attributes that allowed Singapore to grow: reliable communications links to the rest of the world and the rule of law most of all.

But Manitoba lags most in producing healthy, well-educated people —  the “single most important factor” in building a competitive economy, as noted above.

Manitoba regularly ranks lower than almost every other province in terms of educational outcomes. While 68 percent of the Canadian labour force aged 25 years and over had a college diploma, trades certification or university degree in 2014, Manitoba’s 60 percent was not only well below the national average, it was the worst of the 10 provinces.

The 11 percent of the age-25-plus labour force who never finished high school was the second highest rate in Canada, just below Prince Edward Island’s 12 percent and somewhat higher than the Canadian average of eight percent.

To be fair, improving Manitoba’s performance in this area is something that Manitoba governments have been working away at for the past 20 years or so, recognizing not just that poor educational outcomes condemn not just the living to a lower quality of life, but that a parent’s educational outcome is one of the best predictors of their children’s eventual outcome.

This has also been helped by Manitoba’s eager intake of immigrants, whose children “were much more likely to participate in postsecondary education than students with [Canadian]-born parents”, as Statistics Canada noted in 2013. This suggests that in addition to meeting current labour market needs, immigration could also change Manitoba’s core culture from one that until the ’50s largely disregarded higher education to one that eagerly embraces it.

While it won’t necessarily produce an economic miracle of Singaporean proportions, sticking diligently to improving educational attainment rates among those born here and bringing in as many newcomers with great ambitions for their children as we can accommodate would serve Manitoba well.