Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lured into the Facebook vortex
July 20, 2007

I try to be discerning in my choice of trends, and certainly didn’t expect to like Facebook. The idea of becoming somebody’s on-line “friend” was just a little too high-school for me.
But the e-mails kept coming, most often from people who I hadn’t heard from in ages. They’d invite me to be their “friend” and post happy little pictures of themselves to lure me in.
The requests piled up unanswered in my inbox. But then my cousin’s wife in Kuwait sent me an invitation. With all that distance between us, it just seemed downright rude to refuse to be her Facebook friend.
And things just kind of went crazy from there.
For those unfamiliar with Facebook, it’s the invention of California computer programmer Mark Zuckerberg, who was just 19 when he launched the “social utility” Web site in February 2004.
He and a group of Harvard classmates (some of whom are now suing Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their idea) took a few stabs at different kinds of on-line networking before finding one that really clicked.
First came Coursematch, which let Harvard students see who else was taking the same classes. Then came Facemash, one of those “hot or not” Web sites.
That last idea got Zuckerberg in big trouble with Harvard’s administration, as he’d taken student images from the university’s Web site without seeking permission. He quit Harvard shortly after and launched Facebook.
Membership was initially restricted to Harvard students. But within months, it opened up to include the seven other “Ivy League” post-secondaries in the northeastern U.S.
Soon after, anyone with a college or university connection was eligible. By 2006, all you needed to qualify for Facebook membership was an e-mail address.
The Web site is essentially an electronic meet-and-greet - a combination of blog, chatroom and electronic photo album. Given that I can barely make it through all the electronic communications I’m already getting in a typical day, I wasn’t planning on finding anything about Facebook enjoyable.
But it got to me. I started out a skeptic just trying to be nice to a relative living abroad, and in no time at all had transformed into an enthusiastic Facebook user. I still don’t really know how that happened.
I suspect it started with the picture.
Posting a photo isn’t a Facebook requirement or anything like that. But once you give in to that first invitation to be somebody’s “friend,” how long are you going to be content with having a big question mark come up instead of your picture every time you send them a message?
So you upload. And then you go to your site to see how the picture looks and discover that somebody you went to junior high with has written a message on your “wall.” Somebody else has sent you a “gift” - some teeny little electronic image of a birthday cake or a cheery glass of bubbly (Choose gifts with care - a puppy in a basket will set you back $1 US).
Next, your eyes stray to the status section of your page, where various Facebook friends have posted brief comments about their activities of the moment. “Rebecca is hung over,” says one, which tells you all you need to know about whether the birthday bash you’d heard about earlier had gone off successfully.
Further down the page, a new friend - who’s in fact a long-lost one, from grade school - posts a dozen photos from Calgary of a party she was at, and writes nice comments beside your own photos. Pretty soon, you’re sharing memories that you forgot you even had in common.
The young have embraced Facebook most fervently. Of the almost 350,000 Facebook users who belong to the Vancouver network (which includes the Island), only 500 of us are ages 48-55. The numbers only get skimpier from there.
Older people will love the concept once they give it a try, and I’m already cooking up plans to lure a few Web-savvy seniors out for a Facebook test drive. In the short term, however, membership does skew a little young.
But there are benefits to that, too. I’m now hearing from some of my kids’ friends, who were regulars at our house back in the days before everybody grew up and set off to see the world. I’m stumbling onto people who I’d completely forgotten about, sharing life’s small details with people I didn’t even conceive of ever talking to again.
It’s not all happiness and light, of course. I haven’t yet fully grasped the very public nature of Facebook for those who choose to leave their sites open to all Facebook members, and am occasionally indiscreet.
Last week, I inadvertently broadcast to the Facebook masses that my daughter was sick with terrible diarrhea and camping out on our couch. A few days later, I loudly proclaimed that my mother looks much better for having lost some weight. (Note to self: The Wall is public. The Wall is public.)
But hey, we’re all friends here. And as it turns out, I’m not minding that at all.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Victoria street issues are everybody's problem to deal with
July 13, 2007

Being part of the mayor’s task force that’s trying to figure out the street problems in Victoria’s downtown has given me the opportunity to hear about the issues from every viewpoint.
I’ve been heartened to learn that virtually everybody is worried. We need to be.
But it’s also been discouraging to realize how many of us feel powerless to do anything about it.
My most recent conversation as a member of the task force steering committee was with a group of downtown landlords. They gave me one disturbing anecdote after another when asked about the problems they were experiencing.
One had recently seen a woman raped in an alley off Johnson Street, on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon. The woman was screaming as her attacker beat her with a hammer.
Police were called. The woman, who lived on the streets, refused to press charges, fearing “street justice” if word got out she’d brought charges against her attacker. End of story.
Other landlords chimed in with more disturbing tales - stories about installing yet another iron gate across yet another entry way, and of the relentless accumulation of discarded needles around their property.
Once blessedly rare events, hunting for needles and hosing down urine puddles are now just part of the daily routine for merchants on some blocks.
Prime commercial leasing space in a few critical areas is sitting empty for months - even years - because potential tenants don’t want to risk doing business amid the street problems, say the landlords.
They talked of parking lots where a car break-in is now virtually a given, and how the sight of sick, crazy people setting up camp on your building roof has grown so common that it’s lost its shock power.
And of course, they all had a story about some baffled, angry customer wondering what the hell was going on. It’s tough to sign up a new leaseholder for the empty building down the way when she has to step over used needles and a big splash of reeking urine just to view the place.
For those who don’t live, work or shop in the downtown, it probably all seems a little theoretical.
Indeed, that’s a major reason for the problem. With only a small percentage of the region’s population experiencing the misery, most people seem quite content to sit back and wait for the City of Victoria to sort things out. Their mayors and councils are more than happy to do the same.
But what we’re seeing in the downtown is the ugly face of 20-plus years of flawed decision-making at the provincial and federal level, with a little globalization and international drug trafficking thrown in. Victoria simply can’t set all of that right on its own.
We have a growing street problem in our urban centres because we unthinkingly created the conditions for an underclass. Blame a deadly combination of policy paralysis, social-welfare cuts and ideologically driven health-care “strategy,” and a world that changed too fast for some people to ever catch up.
Even if the City of Victoria could find the money to fix such massive challenges by itself, it doesn’t have the authority. Issues of health, social welfare, crime and child protection are all responsibilities of the provincial and federal governments.
Righting the many wrongs that have created the problems in the downtown won’t be easy, or fast. It will take significant amounts of planning, strategizing, innovation, political action and luck. It will require that we put aside political differences once and for all around social health, and embark on a well-considered strategy that spans at least the next decade.
A big job. But if everyone in this fractured region of ours would engage, it’s possible. Because as powerless as we tend to feel, the fact is that we have all the power we need to make a difference.
The mayor’s task force is an excellent beginning. The people sitting around that table are thinkers, movers and shakers - powerful folks in their own right. Put them in the same room with the people who know what’s happening on the front lines, and you’ve got a 360-degree view of the problems and all the knowledge you need to figure them out.
But the task force doesn’t have the money to fund whatever solutions are identified. Nor does it have the authority to override political stances - for instance, the federal government’s objection to a supervised site for street-level drug addicts to inject - or the ability to reshape provincial and federal policy.
Fortunately, we citizens have that power. Our political process is far from perfect, but it still responds well to pressure.
Money must be found. Flawed policy must be addressed. Sick people bouncing around our streets deserve to get the help they need, and landlords deserve to be spared bearing grim witness to violent rapes on otherwise sunny Saturdays in the region’s most popular shopping district.
Make it happen, people. We’re the only ones who can.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Love the work. Hate the money-grubbing
July 6, 2007

Three years ago, I stepped into the unknown on the work front. I went from being a full-time newspaper columnist to the executive director of a grassroots social agency that helps sex workers.
It’s been hard, good work. But the time has come to pass the torch. PEERS Victoria will soon be in the hands of a new executive director, Chris Leischner, and I’m glad to feel in her the heart, energy and experience for the challenges ahead.
When I tell people I’m leaving PEERS, they generally assume it’s the problems of the people we help that has worn me out.
Yes, it’s fairly stressful to work with people struggling to keep it together. Their problems are ultimately the problems of PEERS if we’re the ones trying to help them figure things out.
But on all but the worst days, I didn’t mind any of that. The far more stressful aspect of the job was the constant need to look for money to do the work.
I hadn’t thought much about the nature of non-profit work before I took the job at PEERS in the summer of 2004. Believe me, it was a steep learning curve.
A non-profit agency shares much in common with private business.
Revenues and expenses. Marketing plans. Human-resource issues. Government regulation. We both grapple with customers and competitors, and better ways to maximize profit while minimizing cost.
But there are significant differences, too.
Joe’s Shoe Store, for instance, succeeds because Joe runs the kind of business that customers love. Once he’s figured out how to please customers, all is well.
The typical non-profit, however, is doing the equivalent of handing out free shoes to anyone who needs them. It can’t count on revenue from its customers, and instead must find another way to cover the cost of all those shoes.
My five previous years in management at the Times-Colonist stood me in good stead at PEERS. The basic management functions are the same.
The endless search for money, however - that was new. I just had no idea that the work of non-profit was funded so precariously.
I understand the dilemma. The taxpayers and donors whose funds fuel the work of non-profits dislike being tied up for the long term, and there are thousands of worthwhile, hungry agencies out there.
But the constant trolling for money is soul-destroying. And to then see people trapped in miserable circumstance because the services aren’t there - well, that gets pretty hard to take.
Non-profits aren’t the only ones living with uncertainty, of course. Back at the shoe shop, Joe may not know whether his store will be around next year any more than a non-profit knows whether its funding will continue.
Joe, however, has the option of trying to be the best darn shoe shop on the block. For a non-profit, doing good work doesn’t guarantee anything.
You could have plenty of satisfied customers walking through your door in the non-profit sector. But that’s not the same thing as having the money to help them.
I found that awfully discouraging.
What could be done about it? A shift to contracts, perhaps.
Whoever is putting up the money for social services deserves to know what they’re paying for, and what societal changes to expect at the end of the day. Contracts provide an opportunity to map out such goals.
More importantly for non-profits, contracts offer stability - five years, maybe even 10 in some distant dream world. For agencies that for the most part live year-to-year, that would be a wonderful thing.
Helping people to their feet is a slow, hard process. It takes time, and no amount of wishing that it were otherwise is going to change that. Oh, the hours I could have given to other PEERS pursuits had I had the luxury of relaxing even for a moment around whether the money for the work would continue to be there.
Granted, a stabilized non-profit sector would require putting an end to using social issues as political fodder. A 10-year contract could conceivably span two or even three governments.
Fortunately, nothing but good would come from moving social issues out of the political realm.
No government ever contemplates eliminating cancer services, or leaving people with broken bones to tough it out. Such matters are by and large beyond the scope of politics.
Extend the same courtesy to health issues like addiction, mental illness, sexual abuse and brain injury, and life will get a whole lot easier for non-profits and the people they serve. Meanwhile, the community would benefit from having problems dealt with rather than merely pushed from one neighbourhood to another.
But we’re a long way from anything like that, and it’s time for me to step aside before I get frustrated to the point of forgetting the many good parts of my time at PEERS.
I’ve loved the work, and will really miss the people. But looking for money all the time just kind of wears a person down.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Kieran King: My Kind of Canadian
June 29, 2007

Presumably there are people out there who agree that Saskatchewan teen Kieran King deserved a school suspension for daring to talk about marijuana. I’m not one of them.
In fact, I’m hoping the kid sues somebody over the whole misadventure, and wins. What happened to the 15-year-old boy was a flagrant abuse of power.
The news in brief: A Grade 10 student at Wawota Parkland School feels unconvinced after an anti-drug presentation at his school. He decides to do some research of his own before making up his mind.
He goes deep. His mom says King loves a good research project. The boy eventually reaches the conclusion that compared to both alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is less harmful.
He’s right, but let’s leave that debate for a moment. For now, let’s just focus on the actual series of events that then unfolded for Kieran King.
Having finished up his research, the teen tells a few friends what he’s learned. One complains to the principal that King is advocating marijuana use.
The principal tells him to keep a lid on it. She calls his mom and tells her that if King talks about marijuana again, “I’m calling the police.”
King organizes a small and peaceful protest outside the school in the name of free speech. True to her word, the principal calls the police.
RCMP and school counsellors gather soon after to do a “threat assessment” on the teenager, finding that he has talked about marijuana at least four or five times in the past. (He’s never actually used it however.)
King gets a three-day suspension that shuts him out of school just as final exams are beginning. That destroys his year-end marks, as he gets zero on the exams that the ban prevented him from writing.
You can imagine the lessons the teenager will likely take away from the whole sorry experience.
That it’s wrong to seek insight, for one, or to share new knowledge with others. That it’s wrong to question what you’re being told, even when you don’t feel convinced.
And of course, that it’s wrong to question authority.
That point is underlined nicely in this particular case by the fact that for no other reason than he organized a little free-speech protest, King ended up the subject of an RCMP “threat assessment.”
Anyone who cherishes the right to challenge prevailing wisdom without having the police called out to arrest them will recognize this turn of events for the truly alarming development that it is. Sure, it’s just one kid and a tiny school in Wawota that we’re talking about at the moment, but we can’t take any infringement lightly.
As for the subject being marijuana, that has barely a thing to do with anything. The subject that day could have been abortion, religious belief, euthanasia - any number of things we’re loath to acknowledge yet do all the time. The subject isn’t the point.
What matters is that Kieran King got curious. He looked into a subject more thoroughly, and along the way reached an informed conclusion that was different than what the school was telling him. He told a few classmates what he’d learned, and the response of one of them was to report him to the school authorities.
But even when you do factor in the subject, none of it makes sense.
Is talking about marijuana at school really something that warrants a three-day suspension?
And if marijuana’s on the no-speak list, what other subjects are considered taboo for students to raise? Who decides what’s on the list - and where can I get a copy?
Like any drug, marijuana has its downsides. And yes, it’s illegal, although King’s interest was confined to its potential health risks.
What he concluded at the end of his research was that marijuana use didn’t have as many health risks as did alcohol or tobacco use.
He’s got a fair amount of science on his side. No drug can be considered safe, but alcohol and tobacco are particularly damaging to people’s health. That doesn’t change just because they’re legal and other drugs aren’t.
King also has a lot of potential converts to his way of thinking. In B.C. alone, 1.8 million B.C. adults report having used marijuana at some point in their lives. A third of that group used it in the past year.
But for King’s sake, I hope people don’t get too caught up in turning his story into one about marijuana. We can’t be getting sidetracked with more marijuana debate when what’s actually on the line in the King case is a valued Canadian right.
King questioned what he heard. He was reluctant to just accept what he was being told. When his school tried to silence him because it didn’t like what he had to say, he didn’t go along with it. He fought back, because he knew it mattered.
Good on you, kid. That’s exactly what I like to see in a good Canadian.