Wednesday, November 09, 2016

OK everybody, that sucked. Now, back to work

I confess to despair watching the U.S. election results last night. I turned off the television before 9:30 p.m., knowing Donald Trump would win but thinking I'd sleep better if there was the faint hope of a different outcome. (I didn't.) My partner refused to watch any of the coverage, choosing to work and play accordion while instructing me not to share any information.

I'm not usually deeply invested in election results, beyond a desire to see governments punished for bad, corrupt or insulting behaviour. There are important differences between parties but, broadly, the country or province won't generally be dramatically transformed in four years no matter who governs.

The U.S. election was different. And the results were profoundly troubling. Especially as I've spent a long time working as a journalist based on the belief that people, given good information, would make good decisions. That didn't happen.

I reflect on all that in my Tyee piece here.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Sorry, have we met? Adventures in face blindness

Have we met? You look familiar
The New Yorker ran a fascinating story about “super-recognizers,” focusing on a small Scotland Yard team whose skills let them identify suspects among hundreds of faces in the murkiest surveillance videos.

And it included a link to the Cambridge Face Memory Test, one of the tools used to assess officers’ ability to recognize faces. 

The test is about 20 minutes. At the end, you get your result, and this message. “The average score on this test is around 80 per cent correct responses for adult participants. A score of 60 per cent or below may indicate face blindness."

I scored 57 per cent. 

That’s hardly a surprise. I once spotted an acquaintance, a movie reviewer, at a repertory cinema. “Surprising to find you here in the evening, when it’s so similar to your work.” I said. “At least you won’t have to write about it.” I asked about the movie, him being an expert and all, and the entire conversation was based on his work and knowledge of film.

Except he wasn’t the movie critic, but one of his co-workers who looked vaguely like him and and must have struggled tremendously to follow my misdirected comments.

Bumping into another acquaintance at an art opening, I exchanged pleasantries while wondering why he seemed to be cowering in fear. My partner reminded me that I had berated him — with uncharacteristic venom — for an ethical failing a few months earlier. 

And too many times, in my corporate days, I introduced myself to someone at a schmoozing event, only to have him say “yes, I know, you introduced yourself to me 10 minutes ago.”

And those ignore the countless social blunders I never even recognized, and the ones too embarrassing to share.

I was relieved to learn six years ago that I wasn’t just inattentive or indifferent to others when Oliver Sacks wrote about his much more extreme case of prosopagnosia, as it is called, also in the New Yorker.

And it was useful to know that my earlier efforts to learn how to become better at remembering people’s names were doomed. If you don’t remember faces, you certainly can’t put names to them.

I can recognize people if they are part of my life, of course. Context helps tremendously, and so does distinctive appearance or clues like clothing or voices.

And name tags. I wish everyone had to wear name tags, or even better have their names tattooed on their foreheads. That would be a double win, as I could pretend to make eye contact while figuring out who they are.

On the positive side, I’m friendly. When introduced to someone with the common “Do you two know each other?,” I always nod enthusiastically, just in case. I smile at strangers, because they generally look vaguely familiar and might be someone I know. (And because I do believe greeting everyone cheerfully - common in Central America - is preferable to Victorians’ fierce determination to avoid all contact with anyone they encounter. My cheery greetings while walking just seem to alarm people here.)

Some cases of prosopagnosia, following a brain injury or stroke, are fairly easily understood. But the much more common developmental form continues to be mostly a mystery.

It’s hardly a giant disability, especially if you can develop skills to cope.

But our world does value social relationships, those networks of acquaintances and business associates and friends that ease the way through life. And people who can’t recognize people have a much harder time maintaining those loose relationships. And their - our - inability to recognize an acquaintance can seem rude or arrogant.

Sacks notes that up to 10 per cent of people are affected to some degree by face blindness, a rate similar to dyslexia. But, he adds, while we’re aware of the challenges facing dyslexic children, and their strengths, and providing supports, the problems of people with prosopagnosia are ignored.  

It’s not that a big deal for me. (Though, as the researchers note, I have no idea how other people see faces, so maybe it is and I just don't know it.) 

But I’m pretty smart and educated. I had the chance to develop all sorts of coping skills. I’ve figured out how to pretend I recognize people who seem entirely unfamiliar, and decipher identity clues. 

What about people without those advantages? Are they just bewildered and weirdly awkward, with all of the consequences that brings?

Maybe we can talk about this when next we meet. If I recognize you.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Postmedia's strange $50-million bet on Mogo

I wrote about information inequality for The Tyee this week, looking at what's happening as traditional news media fade to black and new business models emerge based on providing high-value information to people and organizations that can pay high prices.

You can read it here.

As part of the research I went through Postmedia's financial report on the last fiscal year, released last week.

It was grim, which is unsurprising given Postmedia's five years of failure to find a solution to the collapse of its business. Revenue down, no positive news and a strategy based on "aggressive and accelerated cost-cutting" and transforming the business model from "selling audience to selling performance marketing solutions and outcomes."

Which could apply to thousands of businesses, from one-person marketing firms to giant media companies, in all sorts of fields.

Postmedia's deal this year with Mogo Finance Technology represents an early attempt to sell "outcomes." In January, Postmedia announced it would provide $50 million worth of "media value" to Mogo over three years — $15 million this year. That's a big boost for a company that spent less than $11 million on marketing last year, but has dreams of becoming the Uber of consumer loans and personal finance.

If the ads and marketing works, Postmedia hopes to benefit from a revenue-sharing deal and a chance to buy Mogo shares at a fixed price.

But the revenue sharing, based on the information available, is likely to provide about $3.5 million to Postmedia this year — less than one-quarter of the value of the services it's providing to Mogo.

And any chance to cash in on an increase in the value of Mogo shares looks remote. Postmedia negotiated a deal that gave it the right to purchase 1.2 million Mogo shares at a price of $2.96, their value at the time of the deal.

Since then, Mogo's share price has fallen by more than 50 per cent, to $1.36. Postmedia's share options are worthless.

On one hand, at least Postmedia is trying something new.

But it is a little puzzling that a company that couldn't figure out its own business has decided it has the expertise to pick winners in entirely unrelated fields.

And while there is no cash at risk, Postmedia's commitment of $50 million in ads and services does involve both real costs and its reputation.

Combine Mogo's ad budget and the contribution from Postmedia and the small company has a marketing budget equal to BC Lotteries, which spent $26 million on advertising and marketing last year. That was enough to encourage British Columbians to lose $2.4 billion - $6.6 million a day - gambling.

If Postmedia's giant marketing contribution doesn't produce results — if you haven't heard of Mogo by now, for example — that undermines the corporation's claims of effectiveness.

Postmedia has already been slashing print advertising rates, down 16 per cent in the last two years, reflecting both its falling circulation and fierce competition from giants like Facebook and Google. If the $50-million boost for Mogo doesn't produce real results, it will be even harder to convince other companies Postmedia should be part of their marketing budget.

But what do I know? Postmedia's board extended CEO Paul Godfrey's contract Tuesday. It was to expire in 2018; now he's to stay on to the end of 2020. Despite five years of decline, an inability to deliver on plans to revitalize the business and massive losses in shareholder value, somebody thinks Godfrey remains the person to lead Postmedia into what is likely its brief future.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Coca in Peru and Colombia, and the stupidity of the war on drugs

"Why are Peru, Colombia Coca Numbers Going in Opposite Directions?"
That was the headline on a recent Insight Crime report. I am a fan of the site, which focuses on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, offering valuable reporting and analysis.
But the answer to the question posed in that headline seems obvious.
Cocaine demand isn't going down. Market forces mean suppliers will find ways to meet the demand.
So if Peru is producing less coca, the leaves that end up as cocaine, Colombia or some other country will be producing more.
And Peru is producing less, thanks to government eradication campaigns. "Peru has reduced coca cultivation by almost one-third in the last five years, according to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and in 2015 the country registered the lowest amount of coca sown in the last 15 years," the website reports.
But across the border in Colombia, things are different. Colombia went through its own eradication campaigns, cutting coca cultivation in half between 2007 and 2012.
The graph with the article shows the result. As Peru's cultivation went down, Colombia's increased to help meet the global demand for cocaine.
In 2011, the two countries had about the same number of hectares under coca cultivation, for a combined total of 126,200.
Last year, Peru's cultivation had been reduced by about 22,000 hectares and Colombia's had increased by 32,000 hectares. The combined total was 136,300.
The article offers some explanations for the trends, including community resistance to eradication efforts in Colombia and the involvement of FARC's left-wing guerrillas in production.
But the underlying reality has been established through almost a century of failed, wildly expensive efforts to deal with drug issues by limiting supply.
Cut production in one area, and another country will increase production to fill the gap. Make it harder to get heroin, and users will turn to prescription opiates. Crack down on the availability of those drugs, and fentanyl emerges as a more deadly alternative.
Attacking the supply side of the drug equation didn't work when the U.S. introduced Prohibition to end alcohol sales in 1920. It hasn't worked in the 45 years since U.S. president Richard Nixon announced a war on drugs.
Yet governments, including Canada, continue the costly, futile and ultimately destructive efforts, ignoring the obvious evidence of their failure, and the terrible damage that has been done.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The sad story of the little railway that couldn't

I wrote about the Island Corridor Foundation and the E&N rail line for The Tyee.
You can read the piece here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Letter from Managua: The working life

Our house has a room for a servant.
Well, not a room really. More like a cell. Nine feet long, less than six feet wide. There’s a single bed and sink, toilet and shower. A small window high up on one wall, three hooks to hang clothes.
We don’t have a ‘chica,’ the term generally used for the woman - usually young - who cleans the house, cooks meals and looks after the children.
Better a bad job than no job
In Honduras, Rosa came once a week to clean. Often, she brought her children. On cleaning days, I tidied the house before they got there and then went to buy soft drinks for her and any children who showed up. (I’m not using her real name.)
We didn’t need anyone to clean our small house. But Rosa was a single mom. Her husband, her charming nine-year-old daughter told me soon after we met, drank too many beers, dove into the river near their tiny house, hit his head on a rock and died. We visited their house just before we left - two rooms, dirt floor, concrete block walls, wood cooking fire, water from a tap just down the hill, broken treadle sewing machine out the back. Rosa had taken a sewing course and invited us to her graduation, where she wore a pale blue satin dress she had made. 
Here in Nicaragua, house cleaners are entitled to a minimum wage of $235 a month Canadian. That’s for a six-day work week, 12 hours a day. About 75 cents an hour. And employers can deduct up to 50 per cent for room and board.
We don’t need, or want a cleaner. I’d feel guilty about paying too little, foolish paying too much for a service I didn’t even want and hate the idea of sharing our house. But I know the job, poorly paid or not, would have been welcomed by someone.
A Cuso International placement plunks you into the middle of life in another country. You move beyond the statistics about GDP per capita ($42,000 in Canada and $4,500 here) and begin to understand what it means to live in a poor country. 
The Nicaraguan government sets minimum wages for different types of jobs. They increased eight or nine per cent this year, a jump that met the business community’s desire to avoid double-digit raises, but reflected the need to increase incomes, a six-per-cent inflation rate and the fact this is an election year.
The highest paid category - people who work in construction or financial institutions - has a minimum salary of $335 a month. Agricultural workers have a minimum wage of $150, government workers about $190. 
Some people are paid above the minimum wage, of course. But most are paid less. About 70 per cent of Nicaraguans work in the informal economy and minimum wages and other labour rules don’t apply. 
It’s a poor country. Second poorest in the hemisphere, according to the World Bank, ahead of perpetually lowest-ranked Haiti. And I have seen really poor people, living in houses of sticks and mud, sometimes worse.
But there are people with money here. We can walk to a mall and see a movie in a theatre nicer than any in Victoria. People line up for $4 lattes, and restaurants with prices in American dollars do well. Another mall has just completed a $36 million expansion with some flashy clothes stores. I’m going to buy a few shirts from Pull and Bear before we head to Canada. 
Partly, the issue is inequality. In Canada, the people in the top 20 per cent have an average income about six times as great as the people in the bottom 20 per cent. In Nicaragua, they have an average income 11 times higher. 
All of which makes development work interesting. A focus on getting people into the labour market isn’t necessarily productive, given low wages and limited opportunity. CATIE, my organization, is working on increasing incomes and food security for rural agricultural families. That makes sense.
More than one-third of Nicaraguans have a different solution in mind. A survey last month found 36 per cent of Nicaraguans were interested in emigrating. (Down from 52 per cent a year ago.) But they don’t want to stay away - more than 60 per cent of those interested in emigrating saw it as a way to make enough money to come home and start a business (38 per cent), pay debts or buy a house, or as an opportunity to study and improve their skills before returning to Nicaragua.
Which suggests Canada’s biggest development contribution could be opening the door a bit wider for people just looking for a chance to get ahead.

Friday, February 26, 2016

All in all, I'd rather have cheap, bad buses

I've begun to treat my bus ride to work as a sign of how the day is going to go.
If I have an OK seat, not too crunched, and arrive not limping, I bounce away from the bus singing. Nod cheerily to the man with the wire cages full of puppies and the two guys who spend their days turning pallets into furniture by the side of the road.
It's an easy commute. I walk about 10 minutes to the Carreterra Masaya, the main road south out of Managua. Cross to a bus stop and wait.
A lot of buses are going my way, heading to towns in the south and passing my office about five km down the road. I rarely wait more than five minutes.
About a quarter of the time I'm on "la famosa banquita," as a newspaper described the little bench on the right in the photo above. It's less than ideal. The roof is often so low my chin is resting on my chest, and we passengers intertwine knees in an intimate way.
Those little benches are apparently illegal, the newspaper revealed this week.
The real surprise to me was that there are are rules. I thought it was a free-for-all. Buses cram in as many people as they can, stack freight on the roof or in the aisle. Seats are always ripped out and replaced with smaller versions, closer together. In Canada, I'm average size. On the buses, I am Andre the Giant. And the only gringo.
La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario reported this week that bus drivers in the north are angry they are being fined for having passengers standing in the aisle or sitting on that little bench, and for carrying too much freight or speeding.
I had no idea standing was prohibited. I can choose between three bus types most days. Minivans of varying sizes. Aged school buses. And those airport-shuttle-sized minibuses.
The shuttle buses are the worst. The aisles are about 10 inches wide, literally, and the ayudantes - the conductors who collect the money and encourage people into the bus at each stop - cram them with people. The process of fighting my way off, brushing bums and stepping on feet, begins to worry me long before my stop.
The minivans, if you wait for one with some space, are fine. Less so if people, doubled over under the low roof, are standing in every available spaces.
The aged school buses are slow and wrecked, but cheaper - 35 cents compared to 50 cents for the other two options - and they aren't crowded. A status thing, I think. Though they too have been reworked, seats replaced to allow more rows.
None of them have ever seemed to operate under any rules. People are jammed in relentlessly and even if you have a seat someone's sweaty stomach - or worse - will be resting on you shoulder, a baby balanced on your head, a satchel in your face.
In Belize, a somewhat more orderly country with rules against standing passengers, we were on a bus approaching a police checkpoint. The driver called out "Down." Everyone standing in the aisle crouched in a choreographed movement worth of Busby Berkeley and we sped through looking like a bus full of seated people.
That wouldn't work here. It is often impossible to move, let alone pretend to be seated.
The bus drivers say that if the police are going to start enforcing the rules, bus fares are going to have to increase 35 per cent
That seems reasonable. Bus prices are cheap, less than $3 Canadian for the 90-km trip to Leon. That's partly because they carry a lot of people and speed sometimes. Take that away, and prices will go up.
It's hard to criticize the government for working on bus safety. The boat disaster brought attention to the whole transportation issue.
And there have been a few bad bus crashes too. This week, Pedro GarcĂ­a Urbina was sentenced to one to four years in jail. His bus ran off the road Jan. 21. Eight people died, 66 were hurt and the court found he was speeding and the bus was overcrowded and badly maintained. (I don't know how fair the justice system is, but it's quick. Crash Jan. 21, guilty verdict less than six weeks later.)
I've had a few bad drivers, and obviously bad buses. It's very unpleasant to stand for four hours.
But mostly, the service is fast and acceptable.
And affordable.
All in, my stipend as a volunteer is about 10 per cent below B.C. minimum wage. My daily commute this month will me cost me less than $20. Somebody being paid minimum wage will pay $85 to take the bus to work in Victoria.
Today, I crossed the highway from work and was on a minibus in about three minutes. The interior was full, and I ended up in the front, arm out the window, watching to try and catch volcano Momotombo exploding.
Not today.
Postscript: Managua has a city bus system too, 12 cents with an electronic pass card, 25 cents if you're paying cash. My partner Jody Paterson wrote about her commute here.