Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Age of Information 'Lite'

You might recall from school days the story of the young Greek guy who sat beside a pool, saw his image reflected in the water and fell in love with himself. He couldn’t drag himself away and sat moonstruck, staring at his reflection until he died.

His name was Narcissus and psychologists named a mental condition after him. They called it Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or narcissism, a grandiose view of oneself and a craving for the attention and admiration of others.

Medical libraries bulge with studies on narcissism, some of the most recent examining whether social media and the selfies phenomena are fertilizing the growth of narcissism.

You don’t have to visit a medical library to find evidence that narcissism is growing. Television, hijacked by reality shows, is all narcissism now. More and more, so is politics.

Two of the more obvious North American narcissists among us are Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump. Look around and you’ll see others.

I don’t know if social media is contributing to what the experts say is a frightening growth in narcissism. Certainly new media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram  and others, and omnipresent smartphones and tablets, has increased the craving for self gratification. We are a society becoming obsessed with wanting to know who is paying attention to us.

A victim of all this is informed thinking. Too much of the information needed to build sound judgment and make good decisions now comes to us in low-cal snippets. New media snippets in which clicks and views are more important than well–researched facts.

Never in world history has the need for informed thinking been so important. Our shrinking world is cluttered with issues requiring critical thinking based on information that is as solid as Haliburton rock. Yet the Age of Information contains too much information that is soft as sand, as trustworthy as shadows.

Reading is the most effective way of getting informed, but for many of us reading has become simply glancing. We glance at information ‘lite’ and make our opinions instantly.

Research shows that while our visual skills are improving significantly, our critical thinking and analytical skills are declining. This trend will continue as we play more screen games and puzzles, and allow our kids to spend more time with shoot’em up games than with books, either paper or digital.

There are plenty of statistics on our electronic game habits but too many are collected by the gaming industry to be taken as fact. However, it’s probably safe to say that more than half of adults and at least one-third of kids under 18 play personal computer games on laptops, desktops, phones and tablets. Many school teachers use video games as a classroom teaching tool.

Anyone can confirm this by spending time with today’s kids. They process visual information quickly because of time spend with television and screen games. Everything is real time.

Meanwhile, reading skills have declined. Fewer kids actually read for pleasure these days. Too little time is spent reading that develops imagination, vocabulary, critical thinking and seeing the perspectives taught by history.

Reading, whether the words are laid down in print or digitally, sets us on the road to informed, critical thinking. Informed thinking helps us to understand change – why it is often necessary and how to handle it. It also helps us develop better values, and generally become a better society.

And, it allows us to rise above rumours, superstitions and political hyperbole and speak intelligently and forcefully against dumb political decisions.

Speaking of dumb political decisions, Newfoundland, which has Canada’s lowest literacy rate, will tax books starting in July. Its provincial sales tax will rise from eight to 10 per cent and be applied to books. That will be on top of the five per cent federal GST already charged on books.

It also has announced it will close 54 of the province’s 95 libraries.

You kind of wonder how all that is going to work out for them.

I also wonder if things would have worked out better for Narcissus if, instead of just staring at his reflection, he had brought a book to the pool.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Coming from America

The Canadian customs officer feeds my passport into the scanner, then looks up and asks: “What are you bringing back with you?”

I suppress the urge to say what I always want to say after crossing the U.S.-Canada border: “Nostalgia. Just a lot of nostalgia.”

Each time I return from the U.S. I am loaded with nostalgia. I have so many good feelings about America – so many good memories – and find myself yearning for the way things used to be. Way back, when the border was barely noticeable.

There is a sense of lost freedom when crossing the border these days. Security has diluted much of the welcoming you used to feel both coming and going. The world is smaller and much too dangerous for anyone to drop their guard.

Few would argue that increased border security is not a necessity, but it has reduced the pleasure of going south.

Besides security, other factors also lessen the joy of cross border travel. Exploding health care costs make the possibility of getting injured or sick in the U.S. a serious concern.  

A slip, a fall and a broken arm can cost a visitor to the U.S. hundreds of dollars. A heart attack that leads to stents or more serious surgery can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ontario’s health insurance pays roughly $400 a day for U.S. hospital costs but U.S. hospitals charge far beyond that. Ontario also reimburses U.S. physician costs, but only at rates it pays Ontario doctors – rates far below what U.S. physicians charge.

Supplementary is a must for most of us travelling into the U.S., even for a day or two. Then there is the worry about your insurance company trying to avoid paying your claim. Insurance is a business and the fewer payouts, the better the profit.

Anyone buying travel insurance should spend considerable time and effort learning  eligibility requirements, terms and conditions, pre-existing condition limitations, restrictions and exclusions of the policy.

On top of security and health insurance worries there also is the concern about the money exchange rate, which was relatively stable until recent times. In times long past the exchange rate was really not a factor with the Canadian dollar running at par, or even above par for long periods like in the 1950s.

Changes to security, health care costs and exchange rates are what they are and we can’t go back to the way things were. Still, it is nice to slip into nostalgia.

Years ago we never gave much thought to the border. We used to walk across the bridge at Pigeon River into Minnesota to buy ice cream with barely a wave to customs officials. Visits to Duluth to buy clothes for the new school year or to visit relatives and friends were regular with no thought of health insurance or counting days outside the country.

My grandfather used to run the Lake Superior shoreline in his small boat from Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) to Minnesota lakeshore taverns to drink beer with friends.

Little thought was given to the border, or to specific citizenship. Rules were not nearly as rigid and many families had a history of mixed citizenship. It was sometimes hard to remember who was Canadian and who was American.

My maternal grandmother was born Canadian in Alberta but died an American in Nevada. My paternal grandmother was a Canadian from the Kenora area, and lived a chunk of her life in Minnesota before moving the family to Sault Ste. Marie, then Port Arthur. I can’t even recall if she died a Canadian or an American.

My dad’s dad was born an American who became Canadianized but never changed his citizenship. My dad was an American who eventually took Canadian citizenship.

It was like that back then. Less concern about borders and citizenship. Less involvement by government.

Back then we considered ourselves North Americans with more freedom to come and go where and when we wanted. We found little need for nationalistic labels.

I would love to see a return of those days, but that will never happen. However, a little nostalgia once in while never hurt anyone.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Meeting Rusty

Minden Times Column This Week

So, here I am in California getting to know Rusty.

He was withdrawn and wary at our first meeting. That’s understandable considering he spent his earliest days in the mean neighbourhoods of Los Angeles. Now he is enjoying a stable and loving life in the San Francisco area.

Rusty is my newest granddog. He joined my daughter’s family about a year ago and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to meet him.

He is a fine looking fellow. Medium size, light reddish brown in colour with fine rusty blond leg and belly feathers. Amber eyes. He looks a bit like an Irish setter but his face is too long and pointed for that breed.

He didn’t look this good when my daughter’s family adopted him from a dog rescue organization in Palo Alto. He had a cut on his head, was missing a tooth, had kennel cough and had lost the hair around his eyes.

The rescue group believes he was an LA backyard dog - dogs left on their own by owners who do not look after them. He doesn’t like loud voices, indicating he must have been kept by people who shouted at him a lot.

He was very tentative with me, watching me out of the corner of his eye and moving away whenever I came near. He is getting to trust me now and even brings me his ball to throw.

Rusty is my third California granddog. The first was Koona, a half Huskie, half Malamute my daughter brought with her from Canada when she moved here roughly 20 years ago. Koona lived to a ripe old age – 14 – for an Arctic breed.

Then came Ozzie, a pure-bred Malamute from a breeder who lived in the mountains near the California-Nevada border. Ozzie, a gorgeous big dog, died unexpectedly at four.

Both were among the most intelligent dogs I have known. They vocalized a lot, a trait of the Malamute. They were loving guys, but fiercely independent.

Rusty doesn’t talk. He communicates with body language. He is loving but more laid back that Koona or Ozzie. He likes to be around other dogs, and people once he gets to know them.

He joins a long list of Poling granddogs who have graced our lives - Diesel, Memphis, Emma, Chase, Tasha, Molly and others whose names I might have forgotten.

The only other living granddog is Georgia, a Great Dane Harlequin who lives with another daughter in Mississauga. Georgia is so large that she rides in vehicles with her head protruding through an open sunroof.

Rusty filled a huge emotional void left when Ozzie died unexpectedly. When a cherished pet passes it is difficult to think about getting another.

The day she adopted him, my daughter took Rusty for a get acquainted walk. Not long into the walk they came across five white feathers laying in their path.

There is a belief in some parts of society that a white feather fallen from the sky is sent by the spirit of a loved one who has passed on. It is a sign that all is fine and life should be carried on without them.

I don’t know about that, but I do know that native Americans believe a white feather signifies rebirth and new beginnings.

Rusty has a new beginning here thanks to an animal rescue group and a family that has given him a loving home.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Shoal Lake Caper

It is remarkable how small events often mark major change. There was such an event last week.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent last Thursday at the Shoal Lake First Nation in Manitoba, which has been under a boil water advisory for 19 years. (Yes, 19, almost two decades). He was there for the day, talking with elders, visiting  young people at school and taking part in community activities, including delivering jugs of imported water and attending a hockey game.

Trudeau being there was not remarkable in itself. He has indicated his commitment to improving the Third World living conditions of Canada’s native people.

And, perhaps it is a case of the son making amends for the sins of the father. Pierre Trudeau’s wrong-headed 1969 White Paper on aboriginal affairs proposed assimilation of native people into white society, and abolishing all previous legal documents pertaining to them, including treaties.

The reaction to the White Paper was so angry and explosive that the elder Trudeau was forced to withdraw it, incredibly saying: “We’ll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want.” The quote was so shocking that it earned a place in the Canadian Encyclopedia.

The new Trudeau obviously does not favour the continuing existence of the “ghettos”. Hopefully he sees that assimilating all native people into an urban culture is not the answer to improving their living conditions. No government should force any people to abandon their culture.

The most remarkable change signalled by the Shoal Lake visit concerned the news media. The only media accompanying Trudeau to Shoal Lake was Vice Media, the gonzo digital news and information newcomer that sometimes blurs the lines between news and  advertising.

The howling outrage from the national media was loud and immediate. Trudeau was showing disdain for the traditional media by leaving them out of the visit. Such an important story needed coverage by important media, not a wild and wet-behind-the-ears pup like Vice.

By taking along Vice, and not the big girls and boys like the Globe and Mail and CBC, Trudeau signalled just how less important traditional media have become. People increasingly get their national news from non-traditional sources such as Vice.

Vice, which started in the 90s as a counter culture magazine in Montreal, now is an international media conglomerate with various websites said to attract 60 million viewers a month.

The Shoal Lake visit showed how new media operations are years ahead of traditional media in terms of creativity and initiative. The prime minister did not invite Vice to come with him to Shoal Lake. Vice invited him.

Last fall Vice produced a documentary on the lack of clean drinking water in many native communities. (My last count was 85 communities). It planned to do more on this issue, so when Trudeau was elected, Vice suggested the new prime minister accompany a Vice crew to a remote reserve to see problems first hand. Trudeau agreed and picked Shoal Lake as the place to visit.

That’s the kind of initiative and new thinking that traditional news media such as daily newspapers, national television and radio have lacked as they fight to survive in the digital news age. Many have cut, and continue to cut, their journalistic staff. Many have  replaced editorial leadership with accountants and soup salesmen who know much about bottom lines, but little about professional news gathering and public service.  

Certainly, Vice and other new media lack some good journalism practices needed to deliver news that people can trust. Traditional media have developed and refined those important policies and practices over many decades but need new media type spark to become more relevant.

Some will argue that the Shoal Lake deal with Vice is just another example of Trudeau’s style without substance. More posing for the cameras. Perhaps, but he is showing aggressive new thinking more in tune with younger generations. Time will show if his thinking and style make life better for all Canadians.
So the Shoal Lake caper put the national media’s nose out of joint. A  suggestion to those once mighty newsrooms: Get over it and get going with fresh thinking. Either that, or get left behind.