The Gift of Time

No, this isn’t a post about one of the greatest movies of 2011, In Time starring Justin Timberlake, which totally should’ve been called Justin Time starring Justin Timberlake, by the way. This post is about holiday giving.

The other day, my Superphone shared with me this video from The Project For Awesome 2011′s “How to Give Back” campaign on the YouTube:

I didn’t really get the “breasts on the homepage” comment because I’m not a regular follower of this initiative, but I very much enjoyed and appreciated the meaningful message of giving time instead of money and/or things as we give back during the holiday season.

Sure, “psychologists” and “professors” and “experts” will tell you that spending money the right way can make you happier, at least that’s an argument recently posed by the The Age’s Ross Gittins. Further, over the last month I’ve been engaged by no fewer than 20 of my Facebook friends as they crowdsource their projected holiday donations with questions like “Which charity should get my donation this Christmas?” or “What organization do you give to during the holidays?”

We know that holiday consumption and the spending that feeds it is addictive. While happiness is also addictive, I’ll argue that spending as giving is not the most efficient, rewarding or meaningful way to give back in our neighbourhoods, cities and regions. Giving time to your community makes a positive difference in these much more impactful ways:

1. Experiential Learning – you see the results of your work as it unfolds before you and supports/inspires the people who you’re helping.

2. Fiscal Responsibility – we spend more financial capital than we have while spending very little of our collective and individual social capital; giving time instead of cash addresses both of these challenges.

3. Volunteering is addictive – the biggest problem with holiday giving (whether it’s money or time) is that it only happens during the holidays; unfortunately, poverty, addiction, abuse, displacement, and many other anti-community problems happen year-round. Yes, giving time is, in many ways, harder than cutting a check; however, once you spend time on the front lines of community problem-solving and difference-making it’s much harder to stop doing it.

So there it is. Thank you for your time (during this holiday season and beyond).

Masthead photo courtesy of Lester Public Library

Harper Makes Shipbuiliding History

Some might say B.C. came out with the shorter end of the stick after the results of Canada’s $33 billion Shipbuilding bidding process were announced earlier this month. While Nova Scotia scored $25 billion to build snazzy warships, Vancouver’s Seaspan Yards only got $8 billion to knock together a few tugs and boats with nerdy names like “Channel Survey and Sounding Vessels,” or “Near-Shore Fishery Research Vessels.” But who really cares.  While these don’t make headlines like destroyers do, such a huge cash injection into B.C.’s ailing shipbuilding industry means a lot of jobs for tradespeople across the province – up to 4,000 over the next decade.

Premier Christy Clark tours Seaspan prior to announcement

I hate to admit it, but the Harper regime kind of got it right on this one. After Mulroney let domestic shipbuilding activity melt away post NAFTA, Harper is scoring major political points by revitalizing this proud part of our heritage, and injecting new stimulus into the  economy.  And don’t forget: the prime minister also lies awake at night fretting that Russia, Denmark, China, the U.S. (the list goes on) are cheekily sticking their flags on our arctic sea bed. 15 new frigates and a sexy icebreaker called Diefenbaker are meant to prevent that. Good thing too – those embarrassingly crappy, second-hand submarines we got from the Brits can barely float let alone do their job patrolling the “true north strong and free.”

 

Need a Penny, Take a Penny…Please

Demonization.  What a word.  When I read it first I thought it was some kind of exorcism term.  But after perusing the Currency Act of Canada (did you know we had an Act about currency?  Bet you didn’t.) and some of its associated literature I became quite familiar with the word.  For those slower folks out there, it means to take money out of circulation…forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but probably forever.

I have long hated pennies. Even as I write I have a few stacks of pennies on my desk, refusing to use them for exact change.  Sure, looking at them all here I feel like Scrooge McDuck, but is that why we still have the little coins?  Is it to keep relevance to those dozen or so clinches and sayings?  I want pennies gone.  Forever.

In a recent study, by me, just now, I found that the Canadian mint made a bunch of pennies in 2009.  Any guesses how many?  C’mon.  Just guess.  Bet you have no idea how many they made.  Because no one cares about pennies, right?  For a country that probably doesn’t care about the little copperheads, our government minted 455,800,000.  In.  One.  Year.  With a little more digging by my research team (me), I calculated that they have minted approximately 32,000,000,000 pennies since 1908.  Yes, you read that number right.  32 billion.  Pennies.  Why are we doing this?

The Desjardin Financial Group published a report in 2007 saying that the cost to keep pennies in circulation cost $130,000,000 per year.  Or about 13,000,000,000 pennies.  Yes, that’s just under half of the number we’ve ever minted.

Where, or where are the pennies going?  Swear jars, wishing wells, candy, and people’s thoughts.  It costs 1.8¢ to make a penny these days.  When is the last time you bought anything for a penny?  I’ll tell you when: a long, goddamn time ago.  So why are these almost worthless pieces of copper (it’s composition is actually 94% steel, 1.5% nickel, 4.5% copper plating or copper plated zinc) still in circulation?

There are some people out there, and I’m not fingering the elderly here, who think they’re going to lose money without pennies.  And I suppose that with billions of dollars of pennies in the country (or somewhere else, according to the law of conservation of mass) there’s lots of money that would be “lost” if we just melted the bloody things.  The most ever saved by one person was only $13,084.59.  That’s the most someone could lose if we got rid of them…today.

Some smart money people say that we should adopt the Australian coin system, which uses the Swedish rounding system.  The Aussies don’t have a “quarter,” never beat our Bluenose, and don’t have any beavers either, so I reckon that we can keep our 25¢, 10¢ and 5¢ pieces fine.  If we have to.  I hate change in my pocket, going jing-a-ling-a-ling.  Yes, we’ll have to get used to it.  Of course it’ll be strange at first, like fingering the elderly.  But we’ll have to only have amounts ending in a .05, which is awesome.  Five fingers, right?

So waddya say, guys?  Can we get rid of the pesky pieces and save something more valuable for rainy days?

Reflections after a trip back home

I just came back to Argentina, where I live, after a month and a half trip to Quebec, where I’m from. Every time I have to opportunity to go back home, enjoy friends and family, speak my language and feel my culture, all of this fills me with renew energy. Thus, on a personal level, it was a great trip. On the other hand, every visit up north makes me feel uneasy about Quebec and Canada cultural evolution. In Argentina, I pride myself in explaining how Canada and Quebec are different from the US, stretching our collective desire to build a lesser unequal society and protect our cultural distinctiveness. I now feel uneasy defending theses ideas and perceptions about my own country. Obviously, these are merely personal impressions, but I would like to share a few observations/feelings I got while visiting friends and family in Quebec.

First and most striking, politics have made a huge shift on the right. I am not only referring to Harper’s conservative, 19th century governing, but even more so to our collective incapacity to reject and denounce it. I will spare you my list of grievances against his government, let’s only mention his great symbolic gesture of reintroducing the “royal” appellation in the army and Canadian Embassies’ obligation to have a portrait of the Queen. Maybe we should also replace our dollar with the pound and sing God Save the Queen before hockey games… Talking with friends, I was shocked to see how right wing’s arguments/myths have now been integrated and interiorized as to become something banal. A few examples of things I heard/read as if they were simple truths we ought to accept: we pay too many taxes, we are broke, collective transportation is too expensive, we have to create more wealth if one day we want to distribute it (I’m guessing 2075…). The same shift is observable in the Media. Both the Journal de Montreal and Journal de Quebec have always been populist newspapers, however, together with the other main media controlled by Quebecor, TVA (the most watched television network), they now defend a clearly right wing agenda. All of this gave me the impression that left wing individuals do not even define themselves as such and seem to try to temper right wing politics instead of confronting it. Of course, this shift might seem dramatic to me, while other applause it. However, I think our very moderate social-democrat political culture has played an important role in defining both Quebec and Canadian identities, its actual disintegration might have great political and cultural impacts.

The other thing that has upset me while in Quebec concerns the quality of the French language. My parents’ generation has fought to defend and preserve it. Politically, by implementing controversial laws such as Bill 101, but also in their day to day lives. For example, they have “franciser” English words and resist the temptation to incorporate more and more words from the language spoken by 300 millions in North America. Every time I visit, this collective will seems to weaken. I got the impression that we are back to my grand-parents’ time when English words were used to qualify new things or as is happening in France, anything that is cool. For example, since I left “week-end” has replaced “fin de semaine” or “fucking” has appeared in French sentences to design something extreme. The biggest symbolic and linguistic aberration for me resides in the movement created to bring back an NHL team to Quebec City. They call themselves “Nordiques Nation”, nation being pronounced in English… A French name should be something like “la nation Nordiques”. This is breathtaking to me since the Nordiques used to take advantage of all of Quebec nationalist heritage to sell hockey: blue colors, fleur de lys etc. Basically, I feel that Quebec culture shows signs of falling apart, not because of foreign oppression, as it was the case under British rule, but for our incapacity to preserve our own language and culture. Injustices can always be fought and denounced, but what can you do against apathy and insouciance?

One might think I am being overreacting here. It might be the case that these impressions of fast Americanization of my culture say more about my own transformation living abroad or about my idealization of my collective “home”. Anyhow, just as it is depressing to observe a growing cultural uniformity all over the world, it makes me uneasy to see my own little culture getting slowly swept away from within.

 

Vacations and Canada’s Work Ethic

Courtesy of Vinay Shivakumar and Flickr's Creative Commons

Congratulations, Canada! Your people take fewer holidays than folks in any other nation on Earth. Even China. That’s right, we here in the Great White North work more hours than people in a country that is in possession of a socio-political ideology that fuses hyper-capitalism and neo-communism.

Wow. Just writing that paragraph made me tired. I need a vacation.

Recently in up-and-coming “newspaper” the The Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson wrote a piece called “We work hard, they enjoy life” – the columnist not only showcases how far behind Canadians are from the global average of vacation days (which is just under 30), but Ibbitson also outlines that, according to a 2010 Ipsos/Reuters poll, less than 60% of Canadians actually make full use of our paltry number of vacation days. A study by the human capital consulting firm Mercer found that, on average, Canadian employers offer a meager minimum of 10 vacation days and just nine statutory holidays. China offers up two more holidays, the Americans are given about 15 days of vacation, and nearly 90% of the French use up all of their 40 days of vacation per year.

Unreal.

This got me thinking about productivity. There are quite literally millions of opinions and thousands of articles and blog posts on the subject and, as a hopefully productive leader of Canada’s experiential learning community, I felt it was important to explore this topic further.

Courtesy of Woodleywonderworks and Flickr's Creative Commons

I love the rumour/fact that the French are in possession of the most productive economy on the planet. The argument that the French get the most done while spending the least amount of time at work was recently put forward by Business Insider‘s John Carney and Vincent Fernando. The Wall Street Journal and MSNBC, however, counter with some solid arguments about American productivity – not only do Americans spend more time at work, but they also produce more wealth-per-person than anywhere else.

Look.

Whether true productivity comes from France or America it is pretty darn clear that it does not come from Canada. In fact, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada has been on a bit of a productivity slide lately. This idea has been more recently affirmed by the The Star. We collectively contribute to billions of dollars in lost productivity each year because of illness (coming to work when we’re sick and/or hurting ourselves by working too much), mental health (burning out from the stress of what we do for a living), and not being able to clone Kurt Heinrich.

The logic of Spock is not needed to determine that our vacation days – or lack thereof – have something to do with our could-be-a-heckuvalot-better levels of productivity.

On my own I can’t change Canada’s number of statutory holidays. Only you writing to the most powerful man in the country, Steve Nash, can begin to solve this problem. What I can offer are some peer-reviewed and experientially proven strategies for making people happy. Because happy workers are productive workers. Here are some options to explore.

Let the record show that any idea must jive with the values, mission and service standards of the company (e.g. if your clients are on site at nine o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night for seven days a week then it doesn’t make sense to arrive at eleven o’clock in the morning and work until six o’clock, right?) and the fairness of any decision should apply across all units. And, let’s face it, ideas like these are way more applicable for nimble organizations, as the scalability of “dogs in the office” at, say, the University of British Columbia is pretty darn unrealistic and, if poorly rolled out, could quite possibly result in over 12,000 canines on campus at the same time. Such a thing could take the adorableness of puppies at work down a few notches.

So there it is. Simple ideas can make people happy. And if people are happy we’ll be more productive. And if we’re more productive then maybe – just maybe – Canada will earn one or two more vacation days!

Youth Literacy Day!

There are few organizations that I like more than 826 National (and all of their regional affiliates, for that matter). The organization combines writing, community and pirates. Few places/people/things/nouns have established such an utterly perfect Venn Diagram.

In honor of National Youth Literacy Day on August 26, 2011, 826 National invites you to try your hand at writing projects like those offered to students at 826 centers nationwide. Founded in 2002 by award-winning author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, 826 centers provide under-resourced students, ages 6-18, with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills. The organization marks National Youth Literacy Day on August 26 as a way to celebrate the power of reading, writing, and self-expression.

826 National will be publishing entries beginning August 22, 2011 in their online Writing Gallery. Authors of the organization’s favorite entries will receive a gift bag full of 826 National merchandise. Projects include writing a haiku with 8-2-6 syllable lines, a short comprised of 82.6 words, and an 826 character news story.

For more information and to submit your poem or story, please visit  http://www.826on826.org/
ABOUT 826 NATIONAL

826 National is a nonprofit organization that provides strategic leadership, administration, and other resources to ensure the success of its network of eight writing and tutoring centers whose goal is to assist students ages six to eighteen with their writing skills. Our work is rooted in the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. Last year, with the help of 5,000 dedicated volunteers, our centers—which are located in Ann Arbor, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.— served 24,000 students.

And if you’re interested in the 826 Vancouver movement please let me know, as powerful people are doing powerful things as you read this. It’s time to get inspired, folks!

Remembering Jack Layton

[Editor's Note: in 2006 I hosted an event that was playfully called "Mervillemania" - in a nutshell, a few dozen friends camped-out on my parents' estate/compound in Merville, British Columbia during the August Long Weekend. One of my friends brought an orange tent to the celebration. He borrowed it from, as he called them, "Jack and Olivia" - they were his neighbours at the time - who happily offered up the shelter for their, and my, very urban friend. This simple, thoughtful and necessary gesture provides, I think, a wonderful window into Mr. Layton's sense of community. Speaking of community, his letter below offers some prompts and encouragement regarding how we can work together to make Canada's better].

August 20, 2011
Toronto, Ontario

Dear Friends,

Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.

Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.

I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.

I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.

A few additional thoughts:

To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

To the members of my party: we’ve done remarkable things together in the past eight years. It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind. Let’s continue to move forward. Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.

To the members of our parliamentary caucus: I have been privileged to work with each and every one of you. Our caucus meetings were always the highlight of my week. It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again. Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.

To my fellow Quebecers: On May 2nd, you made an historic decision. You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together in partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country. You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together. You have elected a superb team of New Democrats to Parliament. They are going to be doing remarkable things in the years to come to make this country better for us all.

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

All my very best,

Jack Layton.

Jack Layton

The Magical US Budget

We’ve all heard a lot about it these days. It really is doom and gloom as critics point out that the cuts just won’t go deep enough to avert an economic Apocalypse. Raise taxes some say. Cut spending others say. Don’t raise the debt ceiling, said a few angry and hardcore Tea Partiers.

But where is all the money going? What’s being spent and how much can really be cut? Is there a gravy train that requires Washington to dial up the “Brothers Ford” . Well, the New York Times, in their clever and innovative way, have sought to break it all down with this amazing interactive graphic.

Below I’ve clipped an image. Click on it and go to the Time’s site. There you’ll be able to interact with Obama’s 2011 budget. It’s pretty damn nifty. Couple initial observations:

1) They’re spending as much on National Defense ($738 billion) as they are on Social Security

2) Education (ie preparing the young for their bright futures – where they’ll continue to pay the elderly’s medicare, medicaid and social insurance bills) gets $122 billion – that’s like 16% of defense funding and that’s with a Democratic president.

3) They cut Space funding by 20%! What the hell – how are we ever going to accomplish George W Bush’s goal of getting to Mars now?

 

I´ve read that book!

A few years ago, I taught history in a Cegep (for those not familiar with the concept, Cegeps are Québec educational institutions that regroup technical formations with pre-university ones, more or less the equivalent of 12th grade and first year of university put together). Even though I met very interesting and dynamic students, I perceived a few major flaws in their formation and interests that would make their university studies and their capacity to be informed citizens compromised, to say the least. One of them was their inability to read effectively and their simple lack of interest to do so. Obviously, many could and did read, however they did not represent a majority of my students. In my own modest opinion, it helps explain that their writing and critical thinking abilities were “limited”. I am not referring to writing complex dissertations about Nietzsche’s conception of God here. More in the lines of backing an opinion with clear arguments, making full sentences or conjugate properly. Many teachers tend to blame laziness and partying to explain poor student performances. Of course, that was common too, however many students were indeed trying hard to write papers or exams but could not do it. They did not possess basic abilities necessary to write a coherent text. Reading might not be the only they lacked, but it would definitely have helped. Briefly put, I am deeply convinced reading is an essential part of academic formation, but more than that, it represents a crucial mean to open our mind and broaden our culture.

That brings me to a great citizen project that was created a few years ago in Argentina and that spread to other Hispanic countries (Spain, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and others). Yo leí este libro (I have read that book) leaves books in public spaces – bus stops, parks, etc.- so random people can pick it up and read it. Each book contains directions asking to read the book o leave it there so someone else can read it. In the case a stranger wants to read it, he or she is asked to sign it on the last page and leave it again in a public space. Yo leí este libro intent is to create a solidarity chain of books. This way they hope to stimulate curiosity toward reading, give an opportunity to a person that normally does not read and make people feel part of something bigger, knowing that others want him or her to read.

The fact this initiative emerged in Argentina is not accidental. Argentineans are great readers, at least some sectors of the population. Writers are well known and presented as public figures. Buenos Aires is filled with book stores, often opened until late at night. I am not idealizing Argentina’s reading culture, since my teaching experience here did not show a much better situation than what I saw in Quebec a few years ago. However, I appreciate the idea that many Argentineans perceive reading as a social cause and want to do something about it. I never felt this urgency to preserve and promote reading when I was living in Canada, even working in education…

As for the project Yo leí este libro, I doubt it can ever have a notable impact. After all we are talking about a small project within funding, competing with playstations, internet, cable TV and the rest. Nonetheless, I am impressed with the effort…