Archive for: October 2011

For my fellow banjo pickers

From the New Yorker’s Cartoon Issue.

How a sensible country teaches sex ed


Remember the kerfuffle when the Province of Nova Scotia’s official sex guide for seventh graders, called Sex? A Healthy Sexuality Resource, was unveiled in 2004? Some school boards refused to distribute the guide because, of course, knowledge encourages teen sex and ignorance prevent it. That’s the guide’s chaste cover, at right.

Want to know how a sensible country does sex education? Check out this sex ed kit for kids of comparable age in a European country. From the outside, the kit looks like this:

And inside:


The sensible country is Finland. Click here for a translation of the news story describing it. The paper expected a huge backlash, but as a subsequent story reported, of the 6,500 comments they received, 75 percent were favorable.

H/T: James Fallows


Chisholm for Prime Minister?

A failed Nova Scotia NDP leader for leader of the national NDP?

Hasn’t that been tried before?

I don’t know what he’s up to. Certainly not hoping to become leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada. Raising his personal profile? For what? Consolidating regional delegates in case of a brokered convention? To what end? The whole thing strikes me as an exercise in misplaced vanity.

On addressing cabinet ministers – feedback

Bill Turpin, one of the few Nova Scotians who has both edited a daily newspaper editor and worked as a civil servant, disagrees with my criticism of Evan Solomon for addressing cabinet ministers as “Minister.”

The use of “Minister” by bureaucrats is not deferential. It’s good form used for good reason. The term is a reminder to both parties that they are engaged in a special relationship. It reminds the Minister that she is not merely a politician, but also someone whose job is to direct the civil service in the best interests of the people. It reminds bureaucrats their jobs are to provide their best advice on how the elected government can achieve its policy objectives, whether or not it suits the minister politically, and whether or not it suits the civil service. It’s known as speaking truth to power. The principle is highly valued by good civil servants, but it can be hard to live up to. The use of a seemingly archaic form in addressing elected officials makes it easier by establishing the right context before the conversation begins. Being on first-name basis with a minister is great for a bureaucrat’s ego, but that’s all.

For similar reasons, I cringe when I hear journalists addressing cabinet ministers by their first names. Reporters know they should keep a distance between themselves and the people they are covering. This is especially true in a legislature, where they report on the same cast of characters every day and where, in the long run, chummy relations work to the detriment of good reporting. So, a little formality is useful in this situation, too.

Evan Solomon’s got it right.

I have no problem with civil servants addressing cabinet ministers as ‘Minister.” Bill explains the basis for the convention well, and when I do work for a ministry, i adopt the habit myself. But journalists are a different matter. They do not work for ministers, and they should not don the mannerisms of those who do. It sounds obsequious, and obsequiousness is just as dangerous as chumminess. “Mr. Fast” and “Mr. MacKay” convey the appropriate level of formality and distance, without the odor of grovelling.

Animation and the non-epidemic of ADHD

I don’t normally post videos that already have five million hits, but this animated version of a talk by educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson underscores a point made by Sunni Brown in her TED talk about the merits of doodling. There is something about the combination of speech and visual note-taking that enhances comprehension, especially comprehension of irony and ideas in conflict.

Robinson’s talk is about education, but the animated nature of the talk the talk is as arresting as the content.

[Educators] are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past, and along the way they are alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school.

When we went to school, we were kept there with a story, which was that of you worked hard and did wel and got a college degree, you would have a job. Our kids don’t believe that, and they’re right not to, by the way. You’re better having a degree than not, but it’s not a guarantee any more, and particularly not if the route to it marginalizes most of the things you think are important about yourself….

[ADHD] is not an epidemic. These kids are being medicated as routinely as we had our tonsils taken out, and on the same whimsical basis, and for the same reason: medical fashion.

Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the Earth. They are being besieged with information and calls for their attention from every platform: Computers, from iPhones, from advertising hoardings, from hundreds of channels. And we’re penalizing them for getting distracted. From what? Boring stuff, at school, for the most part.

RSA Animate, produced by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, has a series of similar animated exhortational videos.

H/T: Doug MacKay

Why pols use talking points

Professors of journalism or public relations would do well to save a copy of today’s episode of CBC Radio’s “The House” for a classic example of how a politician can use talking points to hornswoggle an overly deferential interviewer.

At about 14 minutes into the program, Evan Solomon asks International Trade Minister Ed Fast an obvious question about the recent spate of US protectionist measures aimed at Canada:

Why are you being caught off guard by these sudden protectionist measures coming out of the US?

Fast responded with a set of talking points so scripted, you can almost hear him rhyming off the bullets:

  • We’re focused on removing trade barriers rather than erecting new ones.
  • Canada and the US have a strong, mature, longstanding trade relationship.
  • It’s the biggest trade success story in the world.
  • And when we see our cousins to the south introducing new barriers to trade, obviously that raises concerns with us.
  • That’s why I’ve been engaging with my counterpart in the US, US trade representative Ron Kirk. I’ve spoken to him on a number of occasions. I’ve spoken to his deputy on a number of occasions.
  • My colleagues in the house of commons have also been engaging with their counterparts in the house of representatives and the senate.
  • We are impressing upon the Americans that trade barriers actually hurt both Canadian businesses and American businesses because out economies and our supply channels are so integrated.

The heavy-handed messaging couldn’t quite obscure one obvious fact: Fast never answered the question. So what did Solomon do? He ignored the omission and moved on to the next question. A better response would have been:

Excuse me but, I didn’t hear why you are being caught off guard by these sudden protectionist measures?

I don’t mean to gang up on Solomon, but I wish he and other press gallery habitues would curb their recent habit of addressing cabinet ministers as “Minister.” We expect this formal obsequiousness from the tribe of ministerial aides who populate The Hill, but when reporters adopt this style, it contributes to the deferential atmosphere that lets responsible cabinet ministers dodge questions and escape obvious follow-ups.

J-school profs will get a bonus from today’s House episode. In the show opener, Solomon questions Defence Minister Peter MacKay about the seemingly endless increases in the cost of those second-hand submarines Canada bought from Britain. Current estimates stand at $1 billion, and could triple before the subs are fully operational. In response, to his credit, MacKay passed up a chance to slang his Liberal predecessors for the buying the subs in the first place, but he couldn’t resist exploiting the recent death of a Canadian soldier for rhetorical effect.

Let’s not forget one important fact, and that is, we have men and women in uniform who literally put their lives on the line in service of Canada to protect our citizens. Men like the gentleman who gave his life, Janick Gilbert, who was a SAR-tech, who gave his life on a rescue mission this week near Hall Bay, Nunavut. These are exceptional citizens, to say the least, and they require extremely sophisticated and, yes, expensive equipment to do that work. When it comes to putting people in harm’s way, but giving them world class protection, and that’s the calculation and that is the measure that we have to make.

This time Solomon did not disappoint:

Well you mentioned, speaking of world class equipment, that the ideal piece of equipment would be a nuclear submarine, not the diesel-electric submarine. Therefore if you want to be committed to the best equipment for the men and women serving, are you considering purchasing nuclear submarines?


No we’re not….We don’t live in an ideal world. My grandmother had a saying that, “If wishes were horses, beggars could ride.” We don’t have unlimited resources and we’re not contemplating nuclear submarines.

Ah, so it turns out that protecting men and women in uniform who “literally put their lives on the line in service of Canada to protect our citizens” is, like everything else in life and government, subject to financial limits and budgetary constraints.

Lastly, points to Solomon for knowing how to pronounce the word “nuclear,” unlike the Minister of National Defence.

Coolest statistics question ever

From the wonderful FlowingData blog by Nathan Yao, who advises, “Try not to think too hard.”

Coolest business card ever

The format of a standard business card is so inherently boring, it cries out for creative embellishment. In place of the usual 2×3-inch card, games inventer Will Wright (SimCity) hands out worthless paper currency stamped with his contact information.

This bill, which Wright recently gave The Atlantic’s technical editor Alexis Madrigal, happens to be from Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. Fittingly, it features electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla. (That’s the blurred-out stamp on the right-hand side.)

Why didn’t we think of that, dear reader?

H/T: Alexis Madrigal

Silver Donald Cameron hearts Bhutan

A great little TED talk by a Nova Scotia apostle of Gross National Happiness.


Canada’s equivalent of “real Americans” — #gag #spoon

I won’t presume that Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner, poster child for the Harper government’s plan to kill the long gun registry, was purposely being nasty when she referred to citizens who oppose the registry as “good salt-of-the-earth people,” “upstanding citizens who work hard,” and parents whose children “probably aren’t involved in gangs in the streets.” But I wish she would take a moment to consider how offensive her characterizations are.

They’re upstanding citizens who work hard. They take their kids and grandkids out hunting and shooting and those kids, by the way, probably aren’t involved in gangs in the streets.

These are good salt-of-the-earth people and for so long they have had really nobody in government who has been able to make any changes on their behalf. So it really was very gratifying to know how thankful they were and how much it meant to them to have someone who was going to be promoting good policy, policy that was fair and wasn’t targeting them.

By dividing Canadians into “good salt-of-the-earth people” vs. unnamed others, the Harperites are borrowing yet another unwelcome page from the US Republican Party’s noisome playbook.

Personally, I find guns creepy, and I believe the danger of having them around far outweighs the good some people see in them. But I feel no great stake in the long gun registry, which was a badly conceived and atrociously implemented indirect attack at a problem politicians lacked the gumption to tackle head on. I’m ambivalent about ending it, but it’s a repulsive lie to suggest that one side of the debate has a lock on worthy citizenship — or even that some citizens are intrinsically more worthy than others.

There are plenty of good people, and no shortage of arseholes, on both sides of this issue.

By the same token I won’t be joining the chorus of indignation that has greeted the “it gets better” video cobbled together, somewhat ineptly, by a group of Conservative MPs in response to the suicide of a gay Ottawa teen.

Yes, some Conservatives have been slow to shed bigoted ideas about homosexuality that were the norm in Canada only a few short years ago. Yes, as MP Scott Brison pointed out, the Conservative caucus has fought against such advancements in gay rights in Canada as pension benefits and the right to marry.

But the fact they are now climbing aboard the “it gets better” bandwagon marks a remarkable political watershed. The generous interpretation would be that the MPs were simply moved by the human tragedy of a promising teenager taking his own life because of the cruel treatment he faced as a gay boy. In the cynical view, this was a cold Conservative Party calculation that Canadian public opinion has fetched up firmly on one side of this issue, and the party had best get on board.

I incline to the former, but either way, it shows that those least inclined to accept equal treatment for people of all sexual orientation have now realized the debate is over in Canada. Tolerance won.

It’s about time.

(The National Post’s Chris Selley goes overboard with the argument, and lets his CPC partisanship show, but on the basic point, I find myself in rare agreement: “The fact its supporters cut across political lines is a benefit, not a drawback.”)


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