Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Let's hope somebody is blushing in the United Church and at BC Housing after learning that their spokespeople are making insulting and poorly considered comments about the risks to women at some of the co-ed shelters in the Downtown Eastside.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Just recently back from two wonderful weeks in one of my favourite countries, Mexico. Various acquaintances asked me many times before I left whether I felt safe there, and I've heard the same question many times since my return.
I find that so very strange - that the same weird and tragic things that happen in all the countries of the world happen every day in Canada, too,  yet we interpret them to mean that those other countries are wildly unpredictable and dangerous places to travel compared to Canada.
OK, Ciudad de Juarez isn't on my travel itinerary for the near future, but I've never felt in danger anywhere in Mexico after 16 years of travelling to various towns and cities there, including Mexico City. It's a lovely country full of gentle, family-oriented people, and they're a heck of a lot friendlier to strangers passing through than most of the population in Greater Victoria. I've had to readjust my public smiley face now that I'm home, as I'd forgotten that here in the capital region, nobody smiles back.
A few items from today's Google News headlines just to underline my ongoing position that murder, explosions and violence routinely happen right here in Canada. Gee, what'll happen if the tourists find out? 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Families First - sloganeering or something real?

As the pundits have already noted, the new premier’s “Families First” platform is wide open to interpretation at this point.
So we’ll see where things go in the months ahead. But let’s at least take a moment to celebrate that a B.C. premier even thought families were important enough to be the focus of her leadership.
It’s a cliché that it has to be a woman premier making the point, and a shame that we don't yet know whether she could win an election on the same platform. But it’s still a good sign when the most prominent message coming out of the new premier’s office is about putting families first.
Families were never something Gordon Campbell talked about much. Search the Hansard debates and you’ll see that. I always got the feeling that they just didn’t cross his mind; he loves his own family, of course, but it never seemed to me that he saw any role for the province in building stronger families overall.
That’s a cliché in itself - what does it really mean to build strong families? Everybody’s got a different take on that. As Christy Clark has reminded us with her own “Families First” catch phrase, there are a lot of different meanings you can attach to the promise of helping families.
But hey, at least this premier actually said the words. At least she put together a new legislative committee on families that actually has some clout in cabinet, even if it’s too soon to say whether it will get used.
It doesn’t mean that hard times are over. But it’s quite an improvement over complete disregard.
We expect miracles from the Children and Family Development Ministry. The bazillionth revamp of that benighted ministry - now under a new deputy minister with a speciality in organizational change - comes with no guarantees.
But at least it’s underway, after years of bitter management issues inside the ministry and a toxic relationship at the top with B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth. MCFD simply has to be made to function better if Clark is serious about families, because its work has a massive impact on tens of thousands of British Columbian children and families every year.
The minimum wage is finally going up, also essential. Yes, it will be hard on some businesses initially. But blame that on the foolish and mean-spirited position of the Campbell government to hold the line for 10 long years as the ranks of the working poor swelled. I hope Clark also recognizes that welfare rates have to rise, and that earning exemptions are desperately needed.
The previous government had already committed to reducing that “vulnerability rate” to 15 per cent by 2015. But while the Campbell government talked a good game about “15 by 15,” the reality was cuts and more cuts across all services to B.C. children and families.
Cuts are inevitable sometimes, but it’s disrespectful and disastrous when every government ministry just blithely goes about its reductions with no thought to overall impact. Will a family-friendly premier finally see the wisdom in planning reductions more carefully so that fewer struggling families are left high and dry in the aftermath?
Gaming revenue has almost doubled since 2002 in B.C. But charities now get less of that money than they did in 2002, even with the $15 million boost Clark announced Thursday. A families-first agenda will hopefully return gaming to its roots as a funder of charitable works. The government will get no bigger bang from its gaming buck than by investing the $1 billion in annual net revenues into community services for B.c. families.
Affordable housing is the foundation for sound family policy.  Campbell did put more effort into homelessness late in his reign after several years of making things worse, but Clark now needs to build and expand on that momentum. Our province has more citizens living below the low-income cutoff (11.4 per cent) than anywhere else in the country, and they need real help around housing.
It goes without saying that putting families first also means paying attention to the economy, the deficit and the tax structure. They aren’t mutually exclusive goals.
We’ll know soon enough whether Christy Clark really is the kind of premier who means what she says about families. But here we are, talking about it. And that’s a start.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I've been wanting to read more about what life is like for people in northern Japan now that we're a week and a half into the post-earthquake period. I managed to find a half-decent blog that at least has some current news, but it's striking how quickly the world news has turned into stories either solely about the nuclear facilities, or country-centric stories about "what this means to us" (radiation drifting across the sea, food shipments from Japan, are our own nuclear plants safe, etc.)
We earthquake-zone dwellers should take a particular interest in the daily lives of people who are 12 days into being homeless, out in the cold, probably hungry and thirsty, possibly quite injured, and still unable to connect with family members lost in the chaos. As this story notes, things will not be normal for people for a very long time post-quake even if the actual quake and tsunami didn't affect them.  
What can we learn from this paucity of meaningful news about life post-quake? That when it's our turn, we better make the most of the early days to get the world's attention - after that, they're moving on.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A scarier world, or just more connected?

These are apocalyptic times. My youngest daughter and I were talking the other day about whether this nightmare series of international disasters is a harbinger of the end of days, or if it just feels that way now that everybody has a video camera.
She's 26, and asked me if the world felt like this -like it was coming apart at the seams -when I was her age. If it was, I wasn't aware of it.
Then again, there was no Internet pouring out a steady stream of horrifying images from around the world back then. Not many citizens had video capability, unlike today when almost anyone with a cellphone can capture catastrophes as they happen. Nor were there global platforms like YouTube, or the video appetites of 24hour TV news channels.
I'm as captivated by it as anyone, and grateful for the truths that unedited, amateur video can bring to the human conversation. Would Robert Dziekanski's death in the Vancouver airport even be public knowledge had it not been for the video footage of passerby Paul Pritchard?
But I do suspect that the sheer volume of on-the-spot video footage that now pours out after every global disaster, every terrible event, ramps up apocalypse anxiety.
My generation's apocalypse anxiety centred on the imminent threat of nuclear war. I remember listening in horror to news stories about how we were now one minute to midnight on some metaphorical nuclear-risk clock they were always talking about in those years, and feeling so powerless to do anything but worry.
The threat of nuclear war was a pretty intangible fear for a 20-something Courtenay girl, and that intangibility was probably part of what made it so frightening.
But there's nothing intangible about what's going on in Japan right now. It's all there, from whatever angle you'd care to look at it -tens of thousands of video minutes documenting everything about the terrible series of events hammering the people of Japan.
It's no use wondering whether all that video is a good or bad thing. It is what it is, for better or worse. There's no turning back from this global reality TV show we now all star in.
On the upside, we're moved more deeply by video imagery. It puts us more directly in the moment. It makes you feel a distant country's heartwrenching disaster much more personally, in ways that I'm sure must be very helpful in mobilizing an international response and raising funds for disaster relief.
But the horror is that much more personal, as well, now that video is the tool of the common people.
In days gone by, the chance was slim to none that a news crew would happen to be on hand at the very moment that a tsunami struck. Today, there are "news crews" anywhere there's a person with a cellphone -and there are five billion cellphones out there.
It certainly makes the world a more connected place. Unfortunately, it can also make it feel as if more and more really bad things are happening.
I read an interview the other day with a scientist who was trying to soothe the collective psyche by noting there's really nothing exceptional going on in the world right now. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, floods -they're just part of the way things work here on Earth.
I'll leave the experts to debate that. But whether this is end of days or just a bumpy patch, we've never before had such real-time, round-the-clock access to the intimate details of the world's natural disasters -to its wars, its uprisings, its suffering and triumphs. These days, you know it's all on video somewhere.
I don't know what it means. But it changes the experience. I feel for the young people, living in a time when there's simply no escaping the brutal truths of the world.
I hope they come out of it as better global citizens. At this stage, it's too soon to tell how the video age will actually shape us, or whether it will take us to new heights of empathy or merely chronic anxiety.
The truth hurts. And with cameras trained on virtually every misery of the world and footage online minutes later, there's just so much more of it to see.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Great event coming up April 30 - Family Connect, a version of the Project Connect event I've done for the street community these past three years, but this time with a focus on the region's poorest families.
Family Connect co-ordinator Mary Gidney could really use some help collecting donations of family items to be handed out to participants that day (they're expecting to see 700 people there, and kids of all ages). 

So if you and your co-workers, book-club friends, running group or whoever would like to take on a little side-project, how about a little collection drive for some of the following items?
If you can help out in any way, contact Mary at The event is sponsored by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness in conjunction with Burnside Gorge Community Association and the Victoria Native Friendship Centre.
  • 400 packages of diapers, all sizes
  •  100 packages of baby wipes
  •   100 diaper cream
  •  600 tubes of toothpaste
  •  400 toothbrushes (all ages)
  •  300 tubes of sunscreen
  •   200 boxes of band aids
  •   500 bars of soap
  •   500 bottles hand-sanitizer
  •   700 deodorant
  •   600 razors
  •   300 boxes of feminine hygiene products
  •   100 packages of adult bladder control products
  •   300 small toys (cars, yoyos, jump ropes, stuffed animals, playing cards
  •   300 school supply items (crayons, markers, notebooks, art supplies)
  •    700 bottles of shampoo
  •    400 bottles of conditioner
  •    200 bottles of dish soap
  •   400 packages of toilet paper (individually wrapped if possible)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Just in case you haven't had enough of the Japanese quake/tsunami images yet, here's an amazing video clip from  the moment the tsunami hit. Grim reminder of the power of the ocean. 
Who will you trust in the wild-west information age?

I’ve been doing bits of some work over the last year for a tough little on-line taskmaster called Demand Media. It’s kind of like working at a digital factory, with writers labouring for a few bucks per piece doing what Demand calls “service journalism.”
The work has been enlightening.
The role of a Demand writer is to find answers on-line for the many strange questions people ask in Internet searches.  I figured I’d be a natural fit for the work after all these years in journalism.
But it’s been much more challenging than I anticipated. In particular, I’ve come to see how difficult it is to assess your sources of information when the only place you can look is on-line.
I suspect that’s something we all need to think about more.
Traditional media are no longer the dominant source for news. A 2010 survey on the CNN Tech site found 61 per cent of Americans report getting at least some of their news on-line, compared to just 54 per  cent who cite newspaper and radio as their regular sources.
Demand Media is rightly picky about sources. The company gets paid to provide answers for sites like eHow, so it’s pretty firm with its writers on the need to get things right.
You don’t want writers taking a best-guess approach when writing about how to import moose antlers to the U.S. from Canada, for instance. You don’t want them relying on user blogs or company advertising for assessing the effectiveness of armillatox as a cure for honey fungus. (Be prepared to research many obscure topics if you’re writing for Demand.)
What Demand needs - and really, what we all need - are legitimate, unbiased sources of information. The Internet is an amazing place, and a skilled on-line searcher can get much closer to “truth” now than has ever been the case before. But it truly is the Wild West out there.
If this is the future, we’re going to need new ways to gauge who to trust for the things that matter. With the Demand experience fresh in my mind, here’s what I’ve found to be important:
 Find the original source. When you come across a report being cited or an excerpt quoted, do another search using more specific terms and make your way back to the site where the original material is posted. Second-hand sources (including the traditional media) can miss context and nuance, not to mention get the facts wrong.
Know whose views are being presented. Most Web sites will have some version of “About Us” on their home page. Read it. If you can find an annual report, read that, too.
To take the measure of a source, you need to know who’s talking and what kind of a stake they’ve got in the issue.  You need to know who sits on the board of directors, who pays the bills, who calls the shots. It all matters.
Know your personal criteria for a “trustworthy” Web site. You don’t want to have to second-guess everything you find on-line. What sources do you think you can generally trust?
For the most part, I trust government sites for basic information (like rules around moose-antler importation). I trust their statistics but not always their conclusions, and take with a grain of salt any press release quoting a politician. I trust industry sites for basic product information and sector reports. 
I rely on the sites of traditional media for much of my day-to-day news. But when I’m doing the Demand Media work or research for my column, I view them more as a jumping-off point and look for secondary sources as well.
Trust the wisdom of crowds - to a point. Wikipedia is verboten as a Demand source, but for the most part the “people’s encyclopedia” is strikingly accurate for everyday use. Still, I’d recommend a secondary source. And while I love user-review sites like TripAdvisor and the Internet Movie Database, that’s not to say I’d plan a travel holiday or a movie night solely on the information I find there.
As for blogs, treat them like the random musings that they are unless you absolutely know otherwise.
Keep an open mind. The dangerously seductive quality of the Internet is that it channels you toward information and viewpoints that fit with your own beliefs. For the sake of personal growth, societal tolerance and rational decision-making, watch out for that. Make a point of visiting some credible sites that challenge your thinking.