Monday, February 25, 2013

How Christy Could Have Won

{This was submitted as a column to the Anahim-Nimpo Messenger last month.--MC}

Christy Clark could have won the May 2013 B.C. provincial election. I know that sounds strange—both because it refers to a future event as if it has already happened, and because it is hard to imagine her ever winning.  Either way, the “past unreal conditional” is the only grammatical tense in which a Liberal victory can be imagined.

The Liberals’ demise was chiefly because of the HST.  When Gordon  Campbell saw that the deficit looked much bigger than expected, he began to panic. He looked at the money that the federal government was putting on the table for the conversion to the HST, and he went for it.  This was suspiciously soon after the 2009 election, and was bound to produce a strong public reaction, but Campbell figured that he could weather the storm.  But the HST was different:  small business-owners saw the HST repel customers and hated the costs of repeated conversion; British Columbians didn’t have an appetite for another big, regressive tax.  By 2011, Campbell could see the writing on the wall, and got out.

It is always difficult for a new leader of a party that has been in power for a decade or more to convincingly portray himself or herself as “the change”.  In Clark’s case, she could have done so first and foremost by cancelling the HST and the referendum. Such a move likely would have produced a bump in the polls. She could then have consolidated this lead by announcing a wide-ranging policy renewal process, and perhaps even have recruited a couple of star candidates . Instead, she merely tinkered with the HST, and  pussy-footed the Gateway pipeline while the NDP was given full latitude to identify itself with popular resistance to both of those issues.  Environmental  and First Nations constituencies that Campbell had masterfully pried away from the NDP have been alienated from the government by issues like Gateway and Taseko Lake.  Otherwise, the main impression Clark has given has been one of vacillation and drift, a politics of personality rather than policy.

To be sure, the recent budget goes some distance to remedy this impression: it is balanced, sensible (apart from its neglect of forestry funding), and praiseworthy.  The corporate tax rate increase from 10 to 11 percent and a two-year increase in personal tax rates on incomes over $150,000 represents a long-overdue fiscal correction to Gordon Campbell’s regressive policies. 

But all of this strikes me as too little, too late.  In order for  Christy Clark to win the May 2013 election, she needed to bravely jettison the HST,  and to follow that first master-stroke with  a comprehensive policy review to reinforce the impression of genuine change.  That did not happen, and it is too late to do it now.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Stephen Harper's Very, Very , Very Revealing Comments About Europe

 "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it." - Stephen Harper to a conservative American lobby group, in 1997.

When Canadian  Stephen Harper set out to become Prime Minister, he justified his heroic quest with reference to a stereotypical enemy: the dreaded 27-toed sloth known as the European welfare state, which, according to Harper, Canada was beginning to resemble.  Conservatism to the rescue!  (In order to make such obese generalizations, it helped  that Harper had never been to Europe in 1997, and had only left Canada once before becoming PM).  

Notice the gigantic irony: the Conservative revolution was supposed to happen because  Canada was suffering from socialism and the people were looking for an escape from stagnation.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  The Tories came to power in 2006 because of a couple of spending scandals (the most prominent being the Quebec Sponsorship Scandal) and because of the deal made between Harper as leader of the  Canadian Alliance and  Progressive Conservative leader Peter McKay to unify the right. There was virtually no shift to the right whatsoever  in the realm of public opinion about political values. Furthermore, the Conservatives' first budget betrayed an interest in financial deregulation and things like sub-prime mortgages--a clear indication that if anything, their ideological predilections were leading us into trouble, not out of it. After all, conservatism was the root cause of the financial crisis, and not the solution.  

Such  ignorance also came in handy when came to interpreting the meaning of the euro crisis. (An underlying  construction flaw of the EU is a monetary union which lacks the requisite political regulatory political capacities at federal level. It seems that one can't have it both ways--i.e. one can't have monetary union without fiscal union.)    Notice that Harper likes to blame the European welfare state--not the way blind faith in market integration raced ahead of the European welfare state--for the crisis.   European leaders have sharply--and correctly-- replied  that if it had been the debt incurred by high tax-and-spend welfare state that were to blame, Germany and Sweden would be in crisis and the less taxed and less regulated economies of Greece and Ireland would be bailing them out!  Harper and Flaherty like to pretend that  their fiscal austerity saved the day in Canada and serves as the model for the world.  The truth is very different. What the world needs is more of the stability of the banking system, to which conservatives in Canada constituted the biggest existential threat.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

NPR's "API" -- and why it matters

 When asked what explained National Public Radio's successful growth of over 80% in viewership of its web page over the last year, Zach Brand,  the organization's Senior Technology Director,  credited this spectacular growth to "our API"--i.e. NPR's application programming interface.  This baby has enabled their mobile strategy, by giving the content owners greater ability to design their own apps.  Apps for IPad and IPhone, a new mobile app and Android site, could  now all be built in weeks instead of months. How?   API provides a base of structured content to work with.When one no longer needs custom development to access the content and transfer it onto other platforms and devices, it can be done much more quickly and easily.

Getting content out onto a wide variety of apps and platforms and screen sizes requires a "COPE" strategy--i.e. make Content Once, and Publish Everywhere..  This strategy of multi-channel publishing has been called  been called "adaptive content"--a clean base of presentation free content that you know will have to live in a wide variety of devices and screen sizes.  We need our content to live on each and every one of these platforms.

 NPR , The Boston Globe and The Guardian have been leaders  in this sort of innovation. Why? Because news organizations already have structured content. They are taught to write ahead, to write the "lead" , to write summaries, captions and cut-lines.  These basic structures give news organizations the flexibility  and the freedom they need to do lots of different things with presentation.  Magazines have been somewhat slower to do this because they tie content to form in their self-concept. Un-couple your content management systems!   This tight connection that is presumed to exist between content and form can be a roadblock to clear and effective communication, and to timely and flexible content creation itself.

A de-coupled system separates authorship from display and content storage from publishing. That means that you can create semantically-rich chunks of content that can be sent wherever it needs to be sent. The fundamental hang-up is the notion of a "real" place where the content is published--and that that platform is print.  It then needs to be put on the web.  Instead, we need organizations that view all of their platforms as equal, and their content as something that can live everywhere.  Adaptive content does not view a print model that can be re-purposed. Instead  it imagines a clean base of adaptive content  that  (1) can live in multiple sizes; (2) to which  meaningful meta-data can be attached; and (3) in which we write things for re-use.

As a result, we need to write for the chunk and not for the page.   Well-defined chunks of subject-matter, not blobs of highly formatted page-matter.  NPR's content management system (CMS) works well because it encourages content strategists and authors to write chunks, not blobs. those chunks can then be flexibly structured to fit different platforms.  "Metadata is the new art direction" that will structure pages and prioritize content, support design for different contexts (i.e. customized personalized reader experience).  From a project management perspective, this will yield a better CMS workflow that is designed to help the users instead of just fitting the work flow to fit the data set.  We should be liberated to create content, not fighting with our technology. That means fixing our content-management tools so that they actually  facilitate work flow and content creation by the users of our systems. We should treat the CMS as an iterative ongoing process, not a big expensive project to which we must conform.

Mobile technology is the wedge (catalyst) that we can use to change  the way we make content, and to change this content management infrastructure. Viz., clean, presentation-independent ways of creating content that can then be presented in an infinite variety of ways. Investing in this kind of structured content will create more freedom and more flexibility, not less, for producers and consumers of content alike.

                        "The happier  people are, the better their content will be,
                          the  more content they'll produce."
                                                                        ----Patrick Cooper, NPR.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wrestling Not an Olympic Sport?

A scant 25 years ago, commercial considerations were viewed as "contaminating" the Olympic ideal. Now, they are viewed as being more important than 28 centuries of  Olympic history.

Consider this a Coda to my review of Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy.  Should ticket sales and TV ratings be the only "neutral" criteria for judging what sports deserve the appellation  'Olympic'? Until a couple of decades ago, the Olympic mission was considered to be the modern version of an ancient tradition. and a model of  athletic virtue and excellence.

Opening the Olympics to professionals was one thing: completely displacing all-non-commercial criteria for what constitutes an Olympic sport is another. Golf, beach volleyball, baseball and softball, apparently all have higher TV ratings and ticket sales than does Olympic-style  wrestling. Understood.  But history, hallowed ancient history at that--and the notion that the Olympics is different from commercial sport-as-entertainment--matters.  The history and ideals of the Olympics matters. The sporting and cultural universe will surely be the weaker for  this horrid capitulation to, and homogenization of, popular taste.

Many people will not understand this, but most can and should be made to reflect upon it. Part of the mission of the Olympics is to educate us about Olympic history and the Olympic ideal, with its origins in Ancient Greece and Rome and its classical focus on individual sports that were deemed relevant to the development of  complete warriors and citizens.  Wrestling continues to be lauded not only for this historical background but for its status as a  sport that demands complete, all-round mental and physical development.

In part, the Olympics is a legacy bequeathed by the Ancient classical civilization to our own. Golf is more popular with the affluent and middle-aged denizens of  North America and Asia.   But their market power should not be given exclusive licence to define the Olympian ideal.