Saturday, October 23, 2010

If you don't understand, blame the professor!

I've always read more than my peers - both in volume and in content. I won't pass up a good book, whether it's the latest best seller or something a little deeper. As I became older and more confident, I took on some scholarly articles, and suddenly felt stupid. Some of that stuff took four or five readings to divine the meaning. Then I read some well-written articles and books on esoteric topics, and I had my aha! moment. It wasn't my competence in question; it was the talent of the author!
Here are some well-written books that cover the deep stuff without putting you to sleep:
Education of a Wandering Man
by Louis L'Amour - he manages to slide in a lifetime reading list.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Peopleby Stephen Covey - it took me over a year to finish - not because it is a heavy book as some have claimed - but because the book demands life change. It's one of those books I wish I had read in my twenties. That and Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I know this book is important because I keep referring back to it when I have my Big Ideas.

One of Betty Friedan's autobiographies, Life So Far: A Memoir I keep going back to her book, too. She keenly observes the broad reach of societal change and targets the tickly spots. A true prophetess of our generation. This is only one of Betty's autobiographies, because like the energizer bunny, she keeps on going! I intend to re-read her section on health and excercise as I graduate through to my senior years. Also in this category are the first two books by Malcolm Gladwell.

Modern prophets are people who make a prediction - sometimes at odds with popular opinion - that also happen to come true. I sit up and take notice of these people. What is it that they see that we miss? The authors of the generational books, Strauss and Howe, are also frequently, broadly, right.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Children and Fairy Tale Monsters

I was sorting through my favorite quotes tonight, and this one floated to the top:

"Fairy tales don't teach children that monsters exist. Children already know that monsters exist. Fairy tales teach children that monsters can be killed" - G K. Chesterton

I am reminded of the hours spent reading stories of the brothers Grimm , Hans Christian Anderson and Aesop . I remember well my budding political awakening as I realized that Aesop's moral tales could reverse themselves depending on circumstance. At twelve, I realized I was reading a court advisor! I'd think we had done our children a disfavor by sanitizing these old tales; with poisoned apples, imprisonments and beheaded trolls, but then I realized we now have video action games that do the same thing.

I think also of what I've seen in my years as a Sunday School teacher, as toddlers mature to school age. The little children are not quite sure about the shadows behind the puppet. Is it real or not? But by about four or five, the children are well in on the joke and readily approach mascots, puppets, santas, clowns, and other imaginary monsters we foist on our children for entertainment.

Don't be fooled, our children are sophisticated social beings. They know a tall tale when they hear one. The longevity of our tall tales through the ages suggests that our children need to hear them, if only to suggest, by proxy, that the scary adult world can be navigated with wit and spunk.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Canada Understanding Itself

I read with dismay our government's plan to cancel the long census this coming year. I was one of the lucky participants of the long census four years ago. Now, Maxime Bernier, Conservative MP, calls it "invasive". Maybe so. But it is invasive and anonymous.

My deep concern is if the government is not interested in the shape and trends of it's own people, how can it govern intelligently? Good, solid, hard-core facts are needed to make solid decisions.

To get a handle on the trends on our society, there needs to be some consistency in the questions asked from year to year. I read with interest StatCanada's report on marriage. Divorce rates are down, a reversal of a long trend and largely held belief that divorces continue to rise. The report suggests that as couples wait later to marry, they have a better chance of success. That's an important bit of information, and policymakers should sit up and take notice. I don't want an inept government chasing fading issues. I want my government to be current, timely, and on the ball.

Another example of our silent nation is a dearth of information on our food supply. Erik Millstone's The Atlas of Food: Who Eats What, Where, and Why has a wealth of information from around the world including the UK and the United States. Canada, by comparison, is bare. Why? I checked the references and bibliography in Erik's book , and Canada either doesn't collect or won't release aggregate information on our food. Again, as a nation, are we deliberately blind?

There are reports that Canada is weathering this world-wide economic storm relatively intact. That's a cosy thought, and it will help me stay warm as I wrap myself in my flag this winter. But if I were a policymaker, I'd like to know why. Is there more than spunk and grit involved in our relative success? Knowing why we are doing so well can help our government know when they can step in to help, and when they should get out of the way.

Getting in to the zone on Whyte

I'm back from two days of painting on Whyte Avenue, as a participant of the Art Walk. I painted, painted, and painted some more. Interested passers-by asked me about my technique. I handed out all my business cards. The last time I was there was thirteen years ago...would you believe it?

For two days I flowed in the zone, so eloquently described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (P.S.) . I immersed myself in the moment, the images, the brush, the behavior of the paint. The result is I have one commission completed, and another more than three quarters done. Oddly I was barely hungry while in the zone, though I did take breaks to eat and drink.

Two days later, I am still mellowed out from the experience. Boy, if I could design my workaday to live in the zone, that would be something. A life of hard, enjoyable work, reminds me of the hard working centenarians of Sardinia.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How long can it take...

How long can it take to get your movie tickets?

I had the opportunity to test out the efficiency of the movie ticket line versus computer carousel last night, and the electronic lost. My daughter and her family entered the (longer) traditional line the same time I joined the (shorter) carousel line. She got her tickets before I did. How could this be? I estimate my line was at least ten times shorter than hers. Could it all be blamed on my compatriots' relative computer illiteracy? I think not. They were as motivated to get through the line as quickly as I was.

This is important stuff, because as businesses incorporate larger electronic solutions, their expectation of course is that efficiency will follow. When I ponder the GARP© principle of "Accessibility", which I rate as the most critical, I am convinced that turnaround times are critical to success. People are sensitive to waiting times, as we can see as a ten-to-one preference for the longer line at the cinema. If the electronic "solution" hinders, people will find their human work-arounds. The possible consequence is failure or abandonment of the e-solution.

What went wrong?

First of all, I think we underestimate the efficiency of the human interaction. We have eye-contact with the ticket-taker. I smile ingratiatingly. I lean in to the hole in the plexiglas, "Twoforsexinthecity". She hears ....sexxxx.... and sees me hold up two fingers. A few practiced pecks on her screen, and the tickets spit out. In seconds we are sending and receiving a hundred signals at once. Sound, expression all play a part. The ticket-taker infers and fills in the gaps in context.

The computer carousel by comparison is a passive receiver. I must learn it's patterns and behaviors and adapt to it. Will it first ask me for my SCENE card, or which movie do I want to see? How and when will I fill in the amount? And is it adaptable enough to accept my bank card? I think with tweaks the computer carousel will become faster - if the cinema is motivated to reduce the human element in ticket sales. And I think it is.

The lesson for business is to pay attention to their turnaround times. What is the turnaround for the average human-orchestrated transaction? Does the electronic solution compete? Does the computer ask the questions in natural order? Check speed in testing, and tweak, tweak until the e-solution can match for speed.

I notice the cinema now offers print-at-home tickets, which I am ashamed to say I haven't tried yet. How much you want to bet they print out in color? My cartridge is gold, and I squander it for no man ... even in the interest of research.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Chasing down the predator

I followed a furious blast of robin-noise this morning, and caught sight of three robins chasing a sparrow hawk. The hawk silently darted on arrow-wings around the corner of the house and swiftly was out of sight, the robins following behind. Chicks are fledging now, and will soon be making their first forays out of the nest. These babies are vulnerable. The parents know it, and so do the predators. Hence, the angry, noisy parents.

Then I got to thinking; three robins? Robins nest in pairs, and are territorial. What bird was the third? Sure enough, I googled it, and I found out that robin parents will collaborate to chase a predator out of territory. Makes perfect sense to me.

I noted also that predators, though noisy at other times, (the sweet whistle of the sparrow hawk and the raucous calls of the magpie come to mind) are deadly silent when on the hunt.

The lessons for us in all this? Feel free to call on your neighbour to repel a common threat. Watch out when predators go quiet.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Diarizing changes perception

When I was first diagnosed pre-diabetic, I indulged in three months of intensive tracking and diarizing; my blood sugars, my diet, and how I felt. This sort of furious activity temporarily impresses the professionals. I come in to my appointments with my reams of charts and graphs. So organized. So, dedicated. So... geeky. I don't keep it up forever, though. My inner hedonist wrestles free in time.

Those three months did me a valuable service, though. The connection between my eating and how I felt could no longer be ignored. I began to look at sweets and sugary drinks in a whole new way. They now blaze red flashing signals of misery. I easily pass them by.

My perception of portions and what full means were permanently changed as well. A good portion of meat shrunk to the size of a pack of cards. Vegetables swelled to half my plate. I no longer kept eating until I could hold no more. I became much more aware of my body and at interpreting it's signals.

My recent flurry of diarizing, to track medication and exercise and their effect on my blood sugars, yielded similar results. Again, I'd avoided the obvious. Regularly portioned exercise directly improves my ability to process sugar. My body aches were cries for more exercise, not a call to relax.

Which got me to thinking of the value of diarizing. Not all of us can do it all the time. But it pays to set aside a packet of days to pay attention. The exercise may just change your perceptions.

A great online tracker can be found at Registration for the basic service is free, and you can track through your iPhone. There are dozens of trackers to choose from, and you can select those you are following now.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The other side of Yahoo! - complexity simplified

I hope to have the opportunity to implement a few e-records structures this winter that should resolve whether a heirarchal, designed file structure is needed at all. I've heard both sides of the argument; records professionals arrayed against chaos, and IT gurus challenging why we bother at all.

What inspired me to write twice in one day is a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes on page 141 of David Allen's book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity - Oliver Wendell Holmes

I believe it may be possible to implement highly simplified structures for an organization, made up of no more than a dozen major categories, and a few places for non-record creations like drafts, reference materials, and templates.

In order to implement simple, however, the organization has to be committed to following clearly outlined business rules, such as regularly filing and keyword indexing business commitments. Everyone must understand what their obligations are in order for all this to work.

Why so much emphasis on the basics? Because with a tightly defined definition of a record, large volumes of incoming information can be cut out of the flow, being redirected to non-record buckets like Reading/Research. I figure with a good definition only about 5% of incoming information needs to be filed. With a reduced volume to organize and structure, records managers and business users have some hope of managing their business through an e-records system.

Building a New Habit

I am so excited that I am successfully incorporating a new habit - regular exercise - in to my routines. A measurable, positive effect of this change is that I have managed to reduce my A1C from 7.0 to 6.6! My doctor says that most often patients are unsuccessful at incorporating lifestyle change, and that the family doctor usually adjusts by modifying medication. I credit the group instructors of Force and Zumba at World Health, Darcy at the Primary Care Network, and the lay instructors for "Live Better Every Day", Bill and Lorraine, for enthusiastically supporting me towards my goal.

I've targeted regular exercise as my chief bugbear since hitting the third habit in Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ”. This third habit is “Put First Things First”, managing yourself. The idea is that before you can be effective and influential in your job - out there - in the world - you need to conquer your internal, personal world. Covey asks the reader,

What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular
basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

Covey’s book, originally launched in 1989, was hugely influential and often quoted. I’ve heard anecdotally that fewer people have actually read it from cover to cover. When I read the book in 2008 I found it to be hugely helpful, but I put the book down for a few months when I hit the third habit, putting first things first. The book demands action, and I wasn’t ready to make the change.

That question for habit three put me on hold. I believe it is Covey's call to change personal habits that makes the book difficult; not that the principles themselves are hard to understand.

Once I began the journey to conquer my personal new habit of fitness and exercise, I was able to finish the rest of the book in a few weeks.

Starting new habits and breaking old bad ones is tough. Our bodies quickly get comfortable with routines, and resist change. But regularly raising the bar and incorporating new habits builds strength and invigorates the mind. Have you seen those spry eighty-seven year olds? Wonder how they do it? They’ve incorporated this important lesson of continuous self-improvement.

These days, when the "powers that be" recognize a social problem, their first plan of attack is to educate the public. But personally, I don’t need more education. I know what is good for me. The problem has always been a matter of application, the incorporation of new habits.

My recent discovery is in the application of some tried and true practices to help me build new habits. I attended a once-a-week, six weeks course called “Living Better Every Day ” sponsored by Alberta Health Services, and developed by Stanford’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Program . The tools I practiced in the past six weeks have effectively helped me build new habits in to my daily routine. Here are ten steps gleaned from my learning and living in the past few years and months:

  1. Are you ready to change?
  2. Develop a SMART action plan for the next week.
  3. Write your action plan down.
  4. Keep a log or diary of your progress. I use the carrot.
  5. Recruit accountability partners (family or friends).
  6. Review and reflect on your progress weekly, and make adjustments as needed.
  7. It takes about twenty-one days to turn your new activity in to a new habit.
  8. Continually review your action plan and targets to keep away boredom, and within a few months you have established a new routine.
  9. Remember that relapses happen to nearly everyone. Anticipate possible causes for a relapse (i.e. interruptions to routine like holidays) and adjust your plan. After a relapse, create a new action plan without guilt.
  10. Trust the process. To keep from being overwhelmed, focus on the next action rather than the ultimate goal.

That's it. The work is in the doing, not in the reading. Steps one and two, I would say, are the most critical to success. Be ready and set small, achievable goals and you are well on your way. Occassional intensive diarizing has helped me connect behavior with consequences; first with food, and now with activity. I can no longer brush off that achey, lazy feeling as being "tired". My body, rather, is begging for movement.

Whatever stage you are at in your change journey, I wish you all success and great supporters along the way.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pulling Together Through the Tough Times - Apple vs Microsoft

Having recently purchased my first Apple toy and then lost it, I've felt the effects first-hand of the uneasy marriage between Apple, Microsoft, and Google. The failure of these giants to speak to each other in the clinical language of machine code has caused me more agony than a new business owner should have to bear.

I also learned first-hand that my inability to manage without a mobile electronic calendar and contact list verges on obsession. On the other hand, should a business owner tolerate the breakdown in service and communication that have consumed my last few days?

First of all, I love my Apple iPhone. Installation of apps of all sorts and description, is screamingly easy. My favorite personal management tools for my iPhone include:

All of this worked wonderfully until the iTunes store on my Microsoft PC stopped operating. Something about the security settings. Which I failed to find after days of searching. Which was OK because I could continue to download directly from my iPhone. I was starting to suspect that the sync with Microsoft Outlook was imperfect, as the in-box on my 'phone and PC did not match, and my 'phone calendar entries were not picked up by Outlook. Then I lost my beloved iPhone.

I asked Apple if with the built-in GPS if they could locate the phone for me. The service call cost me $25 only to find out that they cannot...unless I had first installed MobileMe. A little hard to install after the fact. After I dried my tears, I got myself another iPhone and tried to bull my way through the failure of iTunes Store on my PC. Failing that, I installed iTunes on my laptop. Which meant switching my e-mail to the laptop, too. Which is where the calendar and contacts list failed to upload, Outlook to Outlook 2010. I found an online user group where I commisserated with a dozen others. It was small comfort that I was not alone in my frustration.

To keep this story short, my calendar and contacts now reside on google apps. I found an app for my iPhone which synchronizes with google, calengoo.

Can you feel my frustration as a small-time customer, squeezed between giants who just don't get along...perfectly? Now, I am not one of those people who believes that big equals bad. I staked my career with a big organization, faults and all. There are good, hard working people in large organizations. With size also comes standards and influence, and the glory of mass production. If a large corporation fails to capture it all, however, it ends up with at least one rival. I call it the Coke and Pepsi effect. Both are big enough to resist absorbtion by the other. Competition can harden in a no-holds-barred, give-or-take-all hostility that sucks energies away from cooperation and improvement. Customers respond by taking sides, praising in the advantages of their choice over the other guys. We have ourselves a granfalloon.

I suggest that this failure to cooperate is damaging to everybody in a hard economy. Whatever is happening behind the scenes for these big organizations, it is high time they get over it and get along. I am reminded of the history of the small town of Blairmore in the Crowsnest Pass, which once was considered a prime crossing point for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. A dispute arose over the ownership of a prime bit of real estate in Blairmore. By the time the dispute was resolved in the courts, an alternate route through the Rockies had been chosen. Little Blairmore is permanently bypassed by the commerce highway.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fast, Cheap, and Beautiful But Never All Three

So wrote a designer on planning a kitchen. You can build it fast and cheap, but it won't be everything you dreamed. You can build it fast and beautiful, but it won't be cheap. Or, you can build in everything you ever wanted and at a fair price, but it will be a long, slow process. I love this description because it warns the buyer that there will be compromises, but they still have the power to decide which way they want to go. (Here's a book on kitchen renovations that looks like it provides decent value for the money, Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels, And Replacements: Without Murder, Madness, Suicide, Or Divorce )

Another favorite slogan of mine, from Shel Busey, home repair guru, is "Good, Better, Best". When offering solutions to a caller on his Saturday morning show, he gives them the good, better and best options, and what they get for their money. Again, the power is left in the consumer's hands, and they get a sense of what they are getting for their money.

I wonder as records and information management professionals, if we fail to engage our customer when we demand that the offered solution (such as an ECM implementation) have a perfect score. It may be that the consumer can settle for a less than perfect solution, if it meets their needs and budget. Which leads to the question, can we provide a heirarchy to the principles that an offered solution must meet up to?

I think we can, and while reviewing the eight principles of Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles (GARP), I propose the following order of criticality - Availability, Integrity, Protection, Retention, Disposition, Accountability, Compliance and Transparency.

Why did I pick availability as the most critical principle? At the end of the day, if you can't find what you need, you might as well pack it in. This is the reason businesses buy in to our solutions. But even within this principle, we need to engage our customer to find out what level of availability is critical. Can they tolerate delays in locating some types of information? How long can it be; seconds, minutes, hours? Very likely though, if some information falls in to the black hole of "never found again", the proposed solution fails.

About integrity of data, if we can't trust that what we put in stays the same, the system fails. I might point out that even in the paper world, we've never achieved perfect integrity. Check out files that have aged more than ten years. Check the quality of heat-sensitive paper like the receipts from the store, or ageing, brittle newspaper. We have coffee stains. We have bleeding markers. We have illegible handwriting, bad copies, ripped pages. If we have always lived with some degree of failure, can't we tolerate at least the same level of risk in the electronic world? Of course with data, errors loom large. A slip of a key and thousands of records can be lost.

All systems need some protection against unauthorized access. When I relate to levels of protection, I think of the various online registration processes out there. The general process is to provide your e-mail address, some personal information, and a password. Some verifying information is asked for, such as your mother's maiden name. An e-mail is sent to the provided address, confirming the person and place. When you respond by the link provided, you are registered. It is the registrant's responsibility to keep the password private. As hackers and 'bots have gained sophistication, new verifying elements have been added, such as those funny wiggly words.

I'm fairly comfortable in the e-world, and have registered and shopped all over the web. I've breezed through some registration processes, and wept bloody tears through the painful ones. If you would like to sample my pain, try out the Canada Revenue Agency registration process. You will be asked verifying personal information to a degree that reeks of paranoia. Can I even remember the name of my first love? Perhaps their degree of protection is justified. I wouldn't want my tax refund to go to someone else.

Applying Shel Busey's good-better-best principle, a consumer must evaluate their risk of exposure. If there is no money involved, and the personal information mundane (Harry registered for a fishing license), the level of protection does not need to be as secure.

I rated retention and disposition next, for the longevity of the system and protection of the organization in case of litigation. Contrary to the pack rat's base instincts, it is usually not in the organization's best interest to have random aged records hanging around. Once hit with litigation, all disposals are halted, and these bits and pieces of ancient history become potential evidence. Besides the high cost of managing, cataloguing, and referencing this old information, there may be bits of embarrassing comments buried in the muck. So there has to be a facility to retain records only as long as is needed for business purposes. As information professionals, we should be encouraging our businesses to develop simple retention schedules, easily applied. The simpler the schedule, the simpler the application developed to support it.

Accountability, compliance and transparency all have to do with the human element of managing a system. Here are the systems to make sure everyone knows what their responsibilities are and are doing what they are supposed to be doing. They are all critically important in supporting a high quality information management system. If these principles are critical, why did I rate them last? A consumer is not buying a product to be a watchdog on their own behavior. The assumption always is that everyone knows what they should be doing, and are honorable in fulfilling those duties. Checks and balances are there to catch the exceptions to the rule, the cheaters. Aside from audit logs, the checking of behavior is a matter of good written policy, consistently applied. Don't fault the system for a human failing. Businesses who are dealing with money, personal information, or attractive assets, must have more stringent checks and balances.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Beyond "The Customer is Always Right"

Last week I had an errand day where I had the opportunity to check out six counter services and two phone desks. As I walked the blocks between two of them (I had gone to the wrong counter) I pondered again the customer experience. I did not mind being redirected so much, as if I had been given no option at all. Papers in hand, time and energy marshalled for my day, I did not want to hit a wall.

At the City Hall counter (the wrong counter), I was impressed again by the angular architecture, the zebra terazzo floors, the imposing ranks of stairs reaching two stories, all intended to impress and hush. The counter is tucked in behind and to the left. There was just one gentleman ahead of me, shifting gently from foot to foot. As I have become more aware of mobility, I realized he is likely nursing some pains as he waits. He was gently advised that they no longer accept utility payments at that location, and was told where he can go to pay. I imagine his disappointment as he decides his next action. I realized that barriers become critical as mobility becomes an issue.

At my turn, I too find out that I am at the wrong location. The counter clerk helpfully supplies me with a map and describes how to get there. As I make my way out of City Hall, I wonder if administration has reduced counter service there in order to preserve the atmosphere. There's nothing like a long line of sweaty, noisy, impatient petitioners to ruin the classic lines of a building.

So there I am, walking between the buildings, and I ponder again the core needs of the customer. Like I said before, I did not want to hit a wall. I wanted to get my errands done in the time and energy I had. I thought of unreasonable customers I'd seen, who wanted full refunds without a receipt, or other demands outside of what the counter staff could do. They also had come with plans, and were frustrated when they were not met. The counter staff used what skills they had to calm the customer while standing their ground. So is the "customer always right"? Not quite so. If a worker has no recourse to stand their ground in the face of unreasonableness, how can they maintain their dignity and self-respect?

The answer, I believe, is to build a better relationship between petitioner and receiver. Seek to build win-win opportunities (Covey's fourth habit). Foremost on the customer's mind, is if their request is going to be met. They don't want barriers. If there will be one, they at least need to know that they have been heard, and what options are left open to them (where do I go now?). In the face of disappointment, the petitioner may resort to aggression or emotion in order to push their way through (Dinosaur Brains). Bernstein helpfully provides tips to calm the dinosaur and bring the conversation back on a cognitive level. Those tips just happen to be the same as those Covey describes. Which makes me think we are dealing with some fundamentals in human interaction.

The person first needs to be heard, acknowledged. They need a new course of action. But then, once calm has been achieved and the petitioner's core needs are met, follow up on how they can better meet the needs of the service provider, such as bringing the necessary documents. If the encounter is too short, take the lessons learned to improve the next experience.

I believe if counter staff are trained and empowered to create winning opportunities, they can stay strong and confident while providing great service.

P.S. The service counters I visited that day included Alberta Health Services, City Hall, City Planning Department, Scotiabank, Future Shop, and the YMCA. I also spent some time on the phone with the ever energetic Shaw desk service and my Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Christophe Serdakowski graciously gave permission to show off his interior shot of City Hall.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Selling the Hole

First Ethernet Cable

Starting my own consulting business had led me to view my services in a different light, as a marketer. On one of my business courses I was asked, “are you selling drill bits or the hole?”
After spending some time in deep thought about my profession, I believe businesses want to find what they need, quickly. If my profession fails them on this critical need, the rest is moot.

I admit to some reservations about the Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles (GARP) ©. I worry we are missing the boat (or the hole) by focusing on documentation. I continue to worry that we will not engage our customers enough in its design. If we only consult with ourselves, we will end up with a beautiful product, elegant, complete and only valued within our own community.

One of my strengths is a habit of “jumping the fence” and talking to people in other disciplines. I have my Information Technology (IT) buddies, my librarian friends, purchasers, facility managers, dentists, and entrepreneurs. They broaden my perspective on what information should be doing for them. I feel the pain of their unexpressed guilt if they are behind in their filing. Not that they can hide it. Just as a dentist reads the roadmap of inattention in a person’s mouth, I can gauge the state of a records program with a quick glance around the office and on the shared drives.

One of my IT buddies tells me that we (as Information Management professionals) need to de-mystify the process. Business managers do not have the time to absorb our terminology and methodologies. They need quick, one-page guides to get them to where they need to go. So I set about drafting some tip sheets. I quickly realized that it takes ten times as long to write something simply as it does to go the long way around. I also acknowledged that before there can be a simple process there needs to be some fundamental principles on how the whole system works. Like documenting who is responsible. Which led me back to GARP©

Now that I’ve come full circle, I figure the trick might be to treat GARP© as a necessary means to an end – secure management and fast finding of information for the business user. If the ultimate goal is kept in sight, this could be a valuable tool for the Information Manager and business.

I’ve included a picture of the world’s first Ethernet cable to show how demand forces simplicity. The first cable was engineered (over-engineered) to protect signals from all interference. However, the cable was nearly an inch thick! It could not be run for long distances, and it did not take corners very well. The new standard (Cat 5) compromises shielding to take care of these other factors. When building the fundamental principles that information management stands on, let’s be sure we engineer it for what is fundamentally needed and no more.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Launching Plato's Gnat Ltd.

That's it; I've done it. I've created my own corporation, "Plato's Gnat Ltd." If I can say the name without blushing, I might just have myself a winner.

The focus of my Plato's Gnat Ltd. will be to help businesses develop lean information systems. I am an expert on the content and management of the information, rather than the technology that supports it. This is the chief difference between Information Management (IM) and Information Technology (IT). I love working alongside my IT buddies and the work they do to keep businesses running. They typically want to work with the tools of the business, rather than retooling the businesses themselves. This is where I step in.

Why Plato's Gnat Ltd? I had help with the name from Wordlab, a wonderful - and free - naming group. If you want to be entertained by words, check them out some time. You might see my friend sigi wandering about the place. The talents at Wordlab made a very convincing argument that my company's name should be unique to stand above the crowd.

So what does Plato's gnat stand for? There was an ancient greek philosopher who was nicknamed the "Gnat of Athens" for his persistent questioning of the heads of state.

"I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you."[Apology (Plato)]

I also believe that persistent - and kind - questioning can help businesses and organizations challenge their routines. Is there a better way to get the job done that empowers the worker, humanizes the experience, and offers a better result?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Not Knowing Where's the Next Paycheque

It's been about two months since I left the public service, and I've barely taken the time to record what it has been like. It's been a very interesting time. As uncertainty has grown, so has my confidence. It took a while to figure out why.

What have I been up to? It turns out I am task driven, and that has followed me right in to my new life. I'm incorporating the principles of Getting Things Done (C) (GTD), and making myself a model office. My first job was to send out feelers to every employer and company I've wanted to work for. Then I took a week's break in Banff with hubby, not knowing if I would have any calls waiting for me when I got back. I became a member of ARMA, after I realized that my work relationships just won't "happen" any more. The local records folk have been unfailingly welcoming and supportive.

I signed up for classes I've always wanted to take. You are now looking at a certified instructor for NAIT. I've taken a series of workshops at BusinessLink. I'm following wherever my nose leads, and I am writing.

AND I've become more active in my community, on the boards for the Clareview Crime Council and Clareview Youth, and volunteering to instruct art to a gaggle of lively children through ArtStart. I am also more physically active, signing up for Live Better Every Day (Stanford) and the local health club.

As for job prospects, there have been very few. Mine is a specialty field with a defined industry. This can be both good and bad. My expertise can be afforded in large companies such as government, petroleum, educational, health, and financial institutions. I've concluded that I may have to sell myself as a consultant. The prospect of short-term projects, with no certainty where the next job comes from, is more and more attractive. It affords me the flexibility and variety I've craved. When presenting myself to prospects, their positive reactions confirms that I am an established expert in my field, with real solutions to offer.

I am reminded of the reflections of a farmer's wife, whose husband grew Timothy for the Japanese market. The quality of the grain and their consequent prosperity was utterly dependent on the weather. They needed rain to make it grow, and then they needed the rain to stop for the crop to mature. My friend the wife talked about faith, and how her prayers used to tumble from hope through despair depending on the depth of cloud in the sky (reminds me of the despair of lottery and bingo players). Then she had a revelation that faith is the confidence that all would work out, regardless of the weather. She found a new calm.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Leaving Alone

I'm reflecting further on some techniques I learned from the course, "Becoming a Master Instructor". One particular module discusses conflict resolution, and how to deal with disruptive students. I've struggled like most of us have, both in the classroom and in the office, on when to confront and how hard or soft to come down on the receiver. I agonize beforehand and regret afterwards, sometimes for years. Could I have handled it better? I worry almost as much if I let the behavior slide. Am I a walkover, a chump, a patsy?

Some of the worry comes from wondering if I am doing more harm than good. Perhaps I would worry less if I reminded myself that confrontation can lead to great outcomes. The best outcome, of course, is improved behavior, restored relationship, or a smarter, kinder human being.

A new relief is the first action as described in a five step process in my course. The five steps, LEAST, are:

  1. Leave things alone

  2. End action indirectly

  3. Attend more fully

  4. Spell out directions

  5. Track participant progress

My revelation is that it is often appropriate to leave alone mildly disruptive behavior the first time I see it. It may very well be that the person had a minor slip-up or has simply had a bad day. It is fine to give people the grace to recover on their own.

This first step also gives me permission to listen to my first instincts, without feeling like a pushover. I was reminded of my daughter's dog, Ariel, a sweet tempered Afghan. Ariel is now in her senior years. She's also a big dog and as an Afghan, alarmingly fast when she wants to be. It's a pleasure to walk this beautiful animal. I might as well be walking a cloud, she floats along so easily beside me.

On our walks we sometimes come across less disciplined dogs. Ariel and I don't always know, with these little wild dogs, if the outcome will be good or bad. They've sometimes run circles around us, snapping, yipping, and dodging. I've watched with interest Ariel's response. Her first action is to quietly run away. If that doesn't work, she swiftly moves in, much faster than the little dog expects, and gives a warning snap. The little dog leaves or submits. That's all this sweet, old, arthritic Afghan has had to do.

During her long doggy life, I think Ariel has figured out a thing or two. There's no use looking for a fight, especially when an old girl has enough aches and pains to worry about. But if that doesn't work, give the ignorant a swift lesson. But make it as fast and as painless as possible.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Soggy Potato Chips

This past weekend I completed a facilitator training course called, "Becoming a Master Instructor (BMI 100). At one point in the course I'd moaned about those people who refuse to budge from a job they hate, making themselves and their bosses miserable. My instructor, Dan Jelinski from Wisdom Speaks, told me about the soggy potato chip theory. Give a child a choice between crisp potato chips and soggy, and he will take the crisp every time. Give him a choice between a soggy potato chip and none at all and he goes for the soggy. (I've found the source, How to Discipline, With Love: From Crib to College by Fitzhugh Dodson).

It's like a light bulb went off in my head; of course! This ties in also with my thoughts about selective observation, how some people miss obvious opportunities. If we aren't primed to find the good in situations, we'll miss our chance altogether.

I'm very lucky that way. My mother taught me to be a bird watcher, and I see more birds in the bush by the chirps and rustles and flashes of brown and red. My art teacher taught me to see the complex play of light, shadow and color that brings objects to life. My deaf friend taught me to catch flashed hand signals, the language of emotion that plays across the face. My dad taught me by patient sanding, to find the play of grain glowing across fine wood. The world is a much richer place if one is taught to see.
For a person who has allowed the job to grind them down, who are convinced that their leadership is at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile, they can't see the opportunities presented them. In that sort of compromised existence, a paycheque is better than nothing at all. I am reminded also of an old preacher who said to try and take a dirty old bone away from the dog and he might just bite you. Throw down a big, juicy steak and he will be happy to drop the bone. (Remembered from The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson). For those who are blinded to the opportunities around them, they first need to find new ways of seeing the world around them.

We spend far too much of our lives at work to put it all to waste. Make sure you love what you do.

I borrowed the picture from Granny's Old Fashioned Common Sense blog.

Taking Care

Well, with the changes these past few weeks; unemployment, changes in benefits and services, and my son finally discharged from the hospital today, I've had an avalanche of intake experiences. I am living in uncertainty. I am not sure what the future holds, I don't know which applications will succeed, and who will get back to me. Most of the time I keep my sense of balance, but it is awfully easy to be pushed over the edge. This happens very quickly if a service representative is cool, or if I sense the crushing gears of bureaucracy grinding ever closer....
So far, no calls from potential employers. The pleasant strangers I have been talking to are all bureaucrats. It's a sad state of affairs, isn't it, when the bureacracy is a well-oiled and efficient machine, quick to snap me up? In the past couple weeks, I've talked to two insurance representatives, Blue Cross, Shaw, nurses and physiotherapists at the University of Alberta Hospital and the General, and Service Canada.
Most of the service representatives were sensitive that I was in some degree of anxiety, and behaved accordingly. Their tone was kind and they gave me their full attention for our short time together. A notable exception was one of a pair of counter clerks at Service Canada Northgate location here in Edmonton. I headed for the kind looking one. His bouncy, pimply-faced partner, however, still managed to distract. The other one bounced in and out of his chair, up and around the counter several times. During my sixty minute stay as I worked through the online form, he bounded down the row of terminals...checking...on our progress...I guess. I wondered how a hyperactive like him could have been so mismatched.
I received a mildly disturbing call from Service Canada within a day. They found a mismatch on my last name. Not surprising as I haven't accessed their services in over two decades. The operator would not say what the mismatch was - I understand why - they want to take care that no fraud is taking place. I explained my change in name and I was advised to get it updated, in person, at the local Service Alberta counter. Be sure to bring two pieces of ID, my birth and wedding certificates. So I get another opportunity to observe pimple boy. I wonder if I will get him to "help" me next time, just to see how he holds up.
The Shaw support technician could not have been nicer. I'd struggled to re-establish internet service for over an hour and the technician guided me through the steps in short order. What struck me most of all is he sounded genuinely happy to help me, that he was having a great day, and he was glad to help me have one, too.
What is the moral in all this? These service encounters are critical, both for the peace of mind of the people seeking help, and to the image of the organization. Do they care? Do they show that they care? The service representative must be empowered and motivated to provide the kindest, most helpful service possible.
The picture comes from a YouTube clip, "Bureaucracy" by dudayadna.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Best Women's Fashion Store

Imagine a women's fashion store where every taste and every size is accommodated. Imagine racks and racks of clothing to choose from. Imagine the feeling as you slip on a great dress for the first time and it fits.
I was reminded of this shopper's paradise as I reconnected with an old friend last night. It really does exist, and it is centrally located in downtown....Stettler.
Lou’s Fashions Ltd. Stettler
4811 50th St
Stettler AB, T0C 2L0
Lou's does not have much of a web presence. It doesn't have to. It's the place to go for women's fashions for a good part of central Alberta. I credit Lou's success to location. Stettler is just far enough away from the major centres to be competitive. Combine that with a fine sense of it's market - providing a variety and range of sizes and styles to accommodate the entire community - and you have a hit.
Stettler is best known for it's railway tours in the summertime. If you happen to be in town, ladies, take a tip from me and check out Lou's.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cork on the Ocean

I resolve to blog a little more often, now that I am at home looking for work. Today I thought I would record one of my frequent illustrations on life. The cork on the ocean.

Too many people go through life as victims of the winds of circumstance. Like a cork on the ocean, they bob up and down, happy or sad, based on whatever life throws at them. Down in the trough of the wave, they are sad. Raised to the peak, they are happy. Then sad again. When asked how they got where they are, they can't tell you. Life is something that happened to them. These people could write fantastic autobiographies of all the things that have happened to them.

Compare the movement of the cork to a small boat. I sailed as a teenager, and I vividly remember how a light boat responds with the lowering of the keel. Instead of floating wherever the winds pushes it, the keel gives the boat force and direction. Combined with the sail and the rudder, the sailor now has control. If the wind pushes harder, the boat surges forward. If it pushes in the direction you want to go, you may tack in to the wind, back and forth, and slowly make headway. Combine your little boat with intent, and you may go wherever you want to go on the high seas. You respond to the winds and storms that come our way. People with intent and purpose treat life as an opportunity.
We all have storms. Circumstances change. The world economy rises and falls in big waves. The difference between success and victimhood may be as simple as the choices we make in how we respond. At the very least, paying attention to the winds and waves, and responding in kind, will push is in the way we want to go.
Take, care, however, not to blame all victims as corks. Even the best built boats can be overwhelmed.
I borrow the picture from Euphoria sailing.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Transit Nightmare

This is a story of my late night attempt to use Edmonton Public Transit (ETS). I am a fan of public transit, comfortable with the system, but during the day as a rush hour commuter. This is a story of missed signals that is so painfully funny that if it happened on daytime television, we'd all be rolling on the floor laughing.

I must give some context for this story. Two weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon my son was hit by a car when riding his bike. His shoulder was seriously damaged and he underwent surgery that night at the University of Alberta hospital. I am happy to say he is now at a rehabilitation facility and well on his way of recovering use of his arm. I am now relieved enough to write lightly of my trials as a mom visiting her son.

I live in northeast Edmonton close to the Belvedere Light Rail Transit (LRT) station, and the University of Alberta hospital has a convenient station on the same line. When I got news of my son's injury, hubby and I rushed down to the hospital on the LRT. No use, we thought, of making the tangled journey by car, or worry about parking. The trip on transit was fast and efficient. When we got to the hospital, my son was already wheeled in to surgery, and was expected to be there for some time. I decided to stay, and I sent hubby home. He promised to pick me up from the Belvedere station when I was ready.

I was still dressed in my Sunday best, including girly-girl shoes not meant for much travel; but then I didn't have very far to walk, did I? I found the visitor's pod with a stiff couch and a television with no cable. I settled in and made calls to family on my blackberry until it ran out of juice.

I now had three strikes against me for a late night Canadian winter; light clothing, dead blackberry, and wobbly shoes.

The surgery took longer than expected, lasting seven hours. It was 1:30 in the morning when I came out of rumpled slumber and got a good first look at my son as they wheeled him back to his room. The orderlies gave me a moment to hold my son's hand. I looked him deep in the eyes and told him it would be all right. After they got him settled in his room, I bustled with the necessary things. I asked what he needed. His chief concern were his clothes, blood spattered. The hospital would burn them unless someone took them home. I offered to wash them and I told him I would see him the next day. He asked if hubby would be taking me home. I told a white lie. Yes, of course he is picking me up (from Belvedere station). We said our last endearments, and I picked up the two hospital bags of clothing. I called hubby at a phone booth and asked him to meet me at Belvedere, and I made my way to the hospital entrance closest to the transit.

Are you keeping track? I am now a sleepy bag lady, in light clothing, a dead blackberry, and wobbly shoes.

The first entrance I tried was locked for the night, so I made my way to the doors farther south. I crossed the now barren street and made my way to the empty station. I bought a ticket. And I waited. I read the poetry etched in the glass panels of the shelter. A cold wind blew through the cracks between the delightfully etched panes of glass. I huddled under the cattle heater. I shivered. And I waited.

It must have been about twenty minutes when I realized something must be wrong. I went to the free transit phone to ask about late night travel times. The reception was so bad, we couldn't hear each other. As I huddled closer to the mic, I noticed posted travel times over the phone. Uh, oh. LRT service ends after 1:30. I needed a new plan. I thanked the fuzzy lady for her inability to help, hung up, and headed back to the hospital.

Phone. Must find a pay phone. Call a cab.

I tried one set of doors back in to the hospital. Locked. So is the second set. There is no pay phone on the exterior of the hospital. The only open entrance, declares a sign, is on the other side of the huge building. And I am in my girly-girl shoes. I look back over at the transit station, at the only pay phone in shoe distance. I make my way back to the station.

I call directory assistance to get the number for a cab, and murmer the number under my breath so I don't forget. I put my last change in to the phone, and the machine eats my change. No call.

I am now desperate. I call 411 and ask for help. The phone has eaten my last quarters and I need to call a cab. The operator patiently explains their policy; no free calls. If I give her a number she can charge the call to, she will gladly reimburse me for my lost quarters. I tell her I can't charge it to my home number; there is no-one there to confirm the charges. Hubby is waiting at Belvedere station. I give the only other number I have memorized. I ask the operator to charge the call to my daughter. I make the call.

I hobble back across the street with my bags. In short order a cab is at the hospital entrance. I have a pleasant late night conversation with the cabbie and he takes me to my patient hubby waiting at the Belvedere station. Twenty dollars and twenty minutes later, I am back in my warm bed, rubbing my sore feet.

The next morning, my daughter checks in with me. What happened? Uh, oh. She had feared the worst from that late-night call, and worried all night if everything was OK. Well, sort of. I have a flash of role reversal. I get these flashes more and more these days.

To add insult to injury to my intimate relationship with the University of Albert LRT station that night, ETS was testing the system. I watched three trains pass through without stopping, my lonely shivering bag-lady self having no effect on the drivers.

This city is becoming more cosmopolitan by the day, no longer a rural outpost. Surely it is time to offer round the clock LRT service. Ridership may not pay at first, but surely to save a stranded passenger or two, it is worth it?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

3, 2, 10...Takeoff!

Yesterday, March 2, '10, was my last day of work with my employer after twenty-five years of service. The timing was impeccable, and the decision was mutual - the company must downsize, and I must follow my life's path. As I cleaned out my office, I came across a bundle of quotes on change.

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave
behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter
another - Anatole France

There has been deep emotion threading through past week, as my friends and colleagues come to terms with the enormity of this change. This is twenty-five years of relationships! I know myself; the full impact of this decision has not hit home yet, because I am too busy readying myself for the road ahead. We'll have ourselves a good cry later.

This blog is in to it's third year, now, isn't it? Though the audience is not large, it has given me an opportunity to sharpen my vision and share my thoughts. In the past few months, I have been engaged with my community as never before. I see new opportunities for improvement, to make life better for the whole neighbourhood. I must see what is possible with what I am able to give.

We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance -
Harrison Ford

I'll never forget the story of Harrison working as a carpenter when work as an actor did not pay. To have a strong sense of self, to know what I am good at and what I can do is a gift. I'll do my best to put it to good use.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Elevators from Hell

Before I launch my light-hearted rant about elevator vagaries, I better give some context for this story. A week ago my son was hit by a car when riding his bike. His shoulder was seriously damaged and he underwent seven hours of surgery that night. He now has donated bone and a metal plate in his shoulder. I am happy to say that every day he is stronger and we expect him to be discharged for rehabilitation soon. He has been at the University of Alberta Hospital and the care and professionalism of the staff is top-notch. I have less kind words for the elevators.

There's a bank of four of them, the glass "north glass elevators" centrally located within the complex. Those that are in operation hum quietly with seeming efficiency, weights and cables bobbing up and down industriously, the overhead arrows pinging their arrival.

On the main level is a small crowd of visitors. It takes a few minutes for the newcomer (me) to realize that only one of the four elevators is working. The two to the east are "resting" with no explanation. The west elevator is stuck in the parkade with a blinking "P". The remaining elevator passes the main floor to take care of the mysterious parkade, then skips us altogether on it's return. Some of my fellow lobby waiters curse softly. Others exclaim loudly. There is irritation and impatience on all our faces. A small joke is murmured to break the tension. The hospital wants us to make healthy choices; where are the stairs?

A staffer pops by and presses both up and down button. She comments on passing that we will have a better chance of catching one that way.

When the elevator finally arrives, we pile in, arranging ourselves carefully, considering the impairment of some of our riders. The crowd follows a tacit courtesy, to make the ride more bearable. We're almost there.

Later on in the day, one of the northeaseast elevators is pressed in to service. It buzzes constantly through it's trip.

Urban dwellers must have a sixth sense how long it should take to wait for an elevator, for a building seven stories high. The wait at the "north bank" is interminable.

Not a good start for visiting family and friends already stressed and uncertain. I'll emphasize again that the staff are unfailingly helpful and polite. It's the elevators I hate.

For an organization as competent as the University of Alberta Hospital, the elevators are an anomaly. I bet they were an expensive purchase, highly touted. It would take a brave bureaucrat indeed to admit to their failure and to expend even more to make it right.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A little out of step

Pop quiz, what do the following have in common:

(Picture from Omar Gallaga's blog, All Tech Considered.)

I'll start with Farm Town. As I became more involved in my little plot, building a pleasing design, I found that regular patterns and shapes are calming. One plot abuts directly on to the other in a reliable, predictable pattern. The eye and the mind is reassured and knows what to expect. There are a few exceptions. Too much regularity is boring, like entire farm made up of a single crop. If a regular pattern is broken up to a few focal points, using compostional rules about big, medium, and small and following diagonal paths that lead the eye, the entire design provides movement.

But no irregularities. Irregularities disturb.

People like their farms to be regular, predictable. They like their food to stay that way, too. I am reminded of an old pastor coming back from one of his trips - he did not travel well - who missed the McDonald's burgers back home. The Japanese Big Mac, he claimed, tasted "fishy". I'd heard a similar anecdote from the first Vietnamese boat people, who were first fed American chinese food. The refugees couldn't eat it. The food was alien to their experience, but just close enough to be disturbing. The American workers found it was better to serve regular dinners to the new refugees than to try and imitate what they did not fully understand. I read similar accounts of the fascinating African Jewish refugess of Ethiopia, Beta Isreal. The first meal they were served in their host country they found hopelessly bland. Used to the spicy food back home, they covered their meals with a thick coating of black pepper - to the astonishment of their hosts.

Which got me to thinking about my life, and how I've often felt a little out of step with my world. I am not so very different, but perhaps out of sync in small, indefinable ways that makes the observer work a little harder. The differences are small, indefinable. They are just possibly different enought to disturb. I vividly remember a moment in Junior High, in the busy hallway between classes, where I stepped left to pass instead of right. The school jock grumpily did the "pass dance" with me. How could I explain in that short exchange that I was only doing what was natural for me, and not for him? I vowed ever afterward to be patient with the awkward. I also take a second to think before I pass.

The other sense where I feel out of step is where I fit between the generations. I am technically a boomer, born in '60. But I was too young for Woodstock, so my early teen angst was definitely polyester "hippie wannabe". The next big generation were the Gen X'ers, which on many levels I relate to, but I am less cynical than marks their age. I am generation Jones. Haven't heard of generation Jones? That's not surprising. We struggle to be heard over the roar of the big generations, who dominate by population. I am an unfailing optimist, winding my way through an uncertainty, bobbing and weaving and surviving. Me and Michael J. Fox. But as Michael has demonstrated so well, spunk can be very appealing. Don't stop paddling or you might drown.

So how do I get heard when my attitude, reference, history is different than those around me? I provide reference points, illustrations that will be understood by my audience. I adjust. I weave right instead of left. I do what does not come naturally, in order that others can relate. As a result I have become comfortable with uncertaintanty, more than most.

Which brings me finally to "Outliers". This "is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience" (Gladwell). When it snows in Paris in August, the event is worth studying. In Gladwell's book, he studies outstandingly successful people. It turns out the common factors that bind are not what our society has subscribed to them (such as "rugged individualism", "grit", "determination"). What these successful people had in common was an oustandingly supportive community, great timing, and ten thousand hours of practice. That's what I remember. There may be more.

Which brings me back to those people who may be just a little out of step from their generation. Where they succeed, ask yourself how they did it. Learn a little from their perspective, their observations, and you may learn a little more about yourself.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Urban Chicken Farmer

I had another great idea the other day; raise chickens! In this rapidly changing recessionary world, I cast my mind back to stories of the depression. Farmers fared better than urban dwellers. In a pinch they could eat from their land (if their dirt didn't turn to dust). Those of us in an urban setting have a harder time of it, that is for sure. This last year I planted a few more vegetables in my little yard. Obviously pigs are out. And then it struck me; chickens! Even if I haven't the heart to eat them, I can gather their eggs. When I googled my great idea, it turns out I'm not the first to think of it. Check out these popular pages:

Why has urban chicken farming taken off? Well, likely the very reasons I am considering it. Also, there's the local eating trend inspired by the desire to know more about what we eat, eating organic, to reduce stress on food animals in transit, reduce our carbon footprint, and as a reaction to the highly networked, industrialized, and interdependent society that we live in. You can't get better control on the food you eat than if you raise it yourself.

From the National Geographic blog: "The current recession and farm-to-table movement have taken the trend further still. 'Just get a few chickens and you can feed yourself,' says AbuTalib of the Bronx’s Taqwa Community Farm. 'He who controls your breadbasket controls your destiny.' "

This magazine tells us how to be an urban chicken farmer in five easy steps, or read Chicken Rearing 101 for the real poop.

I'm not so sure I'm ready to dig in to the chicken business, now that I find out I'm a rather late follower on a trendy trend. On the other hand, it looks like there are lots of blogs and "experts" around to help me, if I do decide to take it on.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Heroes in Haiti

As the news rolls in on the devastation in Haiti, it is great to hear the stories of professionals rushing in to provide support. One of my favorite bloggers, Paul Levy, provides reports from doctors on the scene at

Could the aid be faster, more coordinated? Paul Sullivan, contributor to the Metro, asks the same question. He challenges the legitimacy of the stars at the Golden Globes displaying ribbons when they are robed in luxury. I disagree on that point. Everyone does what they do best, and celebrities are good at encouraging fans to care and give. Many of the starlets donated their gowns, and other big donations were announced.

But back to the questions; could the aid be faster, more coordinated? I watched with horror the molasses-slow response in the New Orleans disaster, until, finally, the military were invited in. Armies go where they are called, and there is a clear line of command. There is focus in their actions, and they know the job is to get-er-done. They are prepared to handle chaos, broken communication, and broken infrasture. They have their own corps of engineers to build roads and bridges where their are none, and to do it quickly.

Paul Sullivan asks, "Haven't we learned anything about nature's capacity to kick the poor of the world in the teeth, and can't we get there with food, water and rescue faster? Why does it always seem that the governments of the world have been taken by surprise, and it's up to you and me to bail them out? Isn't it time to challenge the script?"

I agree. And in the developed world at least, there are domestic government departments dedicated to handling disaster. These are the disaster preparadeness folks, and they have gone to considerable effort to develop plans in case of disaster. The idea is that the assigned people can open their manual, follow the chain of command, and swiftly respond to any emergency that may emerge.

These departments emerged after World War II first as a response the threat of nuclear strike, and gradually expanded to handle all possible threats. These days there are plans for pandemics, plans for terrorist threats, floods, fire, and others. The H1N1 provided a test to these plans, and natural disasters such as the Quebec ice storm. Bureaucrats will do that. When their original purpose begins to fade, they create new reasons to keep their jobs.

When I considered the origins and makeup of these disaster preparadness groups, I worried that their very design has a fatal flaw. The leaders and committee members of these agencies by nature and career are not risk-takers. They are meeting mavens and manual makers. When disaster hits, response by their very nature is cautious, slow. What we need people who know how to get-er-done when the job is not orderly. Right now these are the people of the Red Cross and the army. Why? They routinely work in chaotic conditions. The job attracts a whole different kind of person. They are experienced and ready.

I've always thought that developed countries should have disaster response teams geared to help anywhere in the world they are needed. Then, if disaster should strike at home, these same experienced teams are ready to provide swift response. Right now we have the army and the red cross, doctors without borders, and others. When Haiti is restored to some sort of order, perhaps we should ask them what such a team should look like.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Janet's Proverbs

I'm having one of my morning brainwaves, and I'm catching here some of my home-made proverbs. I'll explain in a later post.

In doing, don't delay.

Taking longer than I expect is not failure. Sometimes the journey is just as important.

Habits are easier to make than to break. Build great new habits.

Puppies, Kittens, Dolphins and Wolves

Puppies, kittens, dolphins and wolves. Cutness is charming. Cuteness sells. Well, wolves aren't cute per se, but they do have a wild beauty that is mesmerizing. Wolves are in the same category as soaring eagles. Dolphins, too, for their apparent freedom, their charm, intelligence, and friendliness. It can't hurt that their mouths are frozen in a permanent grin. Puppies and kittens, well. They elicit that strong urge to mother and protect. Their large brown eyes gaze in to ours, trusting, secure.

From these obsessions, it would seem perhaps that our daily life has a deficit of opportunities to nurture, to be free in our individualism, to be strong yet caring too. City life, with it's crowded streets of humanity, paradoxically removes us from our brother. Since there is no way to develop a significant relationship with everyone we see in a day, we retreat within ourselves. There are our spouses, our children, perhaps some extended family. A little farther removed, there are our co-workers. Life is routine with few opportunities to break out in to caring. How often in a day or week to we gaze deeply in to the eyes of our neighbours? Do we have opportunities to genuinely connect?

I suggest that the puppies, kittens, dolphins and wolves provide a sham substitute for our yearnings. Besides that, I have the snob's prejudice against bad art. If one poor puppy's eye is off kilter, or a wolf's cheek is missing, the discordance is disturbing rather than warming.

Then we have the huge back-market of mass produced statuary - cutness sprayed on in a sweatshop in some nameless part of the third world.

Let's not even get started on puppy mills. Removed from their shady origins, the puppies and kittens frolic in a pet store enclosure, selling themselves. The puppy mills would close tomorrow if the market died. But too many of us respond viscerally to their charm, putting aside for a moment any qualms about origins.

Am I an insensitive boob, or so attuned that exploitation makes me shudder?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Making Do When You Don't Have Enough

This is a baseball story that pleases me. It illustrates the challenge of putting together an organization when there are not many options available; with spunk we can make it through. Perhaps the joke will be lost in the explaining, but here it is.

It was 1933, and Casey Stengel was a rookie manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were low on the list for Rule 5 draft picks that year, and Casey picked Ray Berres, a 170 pound light hitting catcher. When asked why he picked the lightweight Berres, Casey replied,

“You have to have a catcher because if you don't you're likely to have a lot of passed balls.”

Think about it. If no-one is there to catch the ball, you don't have much of a game.

When faced with tough choices, ask yourself what sort of business you are in. What is it that you absolutely must do, or shut your doors?

Casey's Dodgers only won four games that year, and the Dodgers failed to make the playoffs. Casey's career as a manager was a spotted one. He won some and he lost some. What he never lost was his sense of humor, and his ability to warm the crowd. He loved what he did and he made sure people loved playing his game. A plaque dedicated to him at the Yankee Stadium's monument park reads in part,

" for over 50 years; with spirit of eternal youth."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Rising Tide of Dementia

The Canadian Alzheimer Society has released a report called "Rising Tide", estimating that there will be a new diagnosis of dementia once every two minutes by 2038. Right now a new diagnosis of dementia happens once every five minutes. The reasons for this prediction are the increased life expectancy of the population, and ageing baby boomers. The implications of this prediction is that there will be an ever increasing burden on the health care system and caregivers as our population ages.

My gut reaction to this news was, "Well, cure it then!" It's about time we knew more about our brains. We have new imaging techniques, stronger analysis tools, and a greater understanding of the finest structures in our bodies. Consider how computing power and technological advances dramatically reduced the time required to decode the human genome.

I am reminded also of Michael J. Fox's ambition to find a cure and better treatments for patients with Parkinson's disease. His ambitious goal was to set up a foundation intent on finding a cure. This foundation has enjoyed spectacular success. I'm reminded also of a recent article about the Brain Observatory where a donated brain has been dissected, slice by slice, to better understand it's operation "Building a Search Engine of the Brain, Slice by Slice".

Do I really want another reason to dread the future, where an overburdened caregiving system sees me as yet another lump to be carried through the system? Wouldn't our time and money be best spent looking for causes, prevention, and cures? I wish all success to the Alzheimer's society. I hope our society sees this wake-up call as an opportunity to change our future, rather than with passivity.