Sunday, March 23, 2014

Getting on the Bestseller List

Always Writing: Getting on the bestseller list: captures a modern dilemma, one we could paraphrase as the 'Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger (and most other sorts of author)', the central problem that confronts those of us who write - how to get noticed. With writer sites like and its ilk there today are many more ways to get your writing out in front of a few people, but it remains devilishly hard to get sufficient people to find and read your stuff that you can truly feel 'successful', let alone make serious money.

Perhaps, as this blogger Neil Ostroff suggests, the thrill of being a creative artist is enough for many writers. I however tend to feel that if your are not getting widely read then (a) you are not being effective in promotion, (b) speaking to a tiny constituency, and/or (c) have nothing interesting to say to society. We now live in a Long Tail world where  messaging to a tightly defined group where we are accepted as a guru seems the only option for that vast majority of authors who do not have blockbuster potential. A generalist commentator like myself has only a slight chance of being picked up by the diminishing number of print and online journals that go beyond news gathering to informed and fluent comment  on the broader social and political issues of our time.

Yet interpreters of this age of explosively accumulating data are needed more than ever. In this information explosion the days of the well-rounded individual who can converse sensibly in company about most of the topics that affect our daily existence are coming quickly to a close. Schools nowadays at college and university level aim to produce specialists not intellectual generalists. They have no choice. There are so many new academic disciplines, and each has a knowledge base expanding by the minute.

As a result the ability to aggregate knowledge from different spheres into a broadly coherent thesis that can be understood by everyone with a secondary or at least post-secondary education, a capacity that has always been rare, is today much more so. Yet some of us do need to try, or all hope is lost for achieving a consensus of opinion on the key issues that affect how we live our lives on this planet. Topics such as global warming, managing the rights of minorities, appropriate use of armed force, genetic engineering, and prudent fiscal management of a nation's resources all have such a mass of available data that, without commentators who have the ability and the courage to suggest what that data may mean for us, the 'Common Man (and Woman)', our society is doomed to an ever widening gap between experts and those who are not, with potentially dire social consequences.

As a career entrepreneur in the bio-science and medical arenas I experienced first hand the rapidly increasing inability of those of us seeking to commercialize scientific discoveries to explain them effectively to society so that the population at large understands their utility. The witch-hunt against any product that might be or contain a GMO, i.e. a product of genetic engineering, a campaign pursued especially aggressively in Europe, is just one example of seriously counter-productive general ignorance. Yet without some scientific training to really appreciate manipulation of genes for social benefit, a discipline with a very long history stretching back to the first domestication of plants and animals, is no easy task. It is essential that some of us try to write to foster that understanding in a world where large numbers of people still have a medieval view of causation, one that is faith-based rather than data-based. The problem we have is how do we get noticed in the raging torrent of new writing on all things trivial and non-trivial? That is the central question for those of us who try. I suspect there is no ready answer for the likes of me.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Throw Out What Reminds Us of Blighty

A local paper recently ran an article that illustrates an odd phenomenon that has puzzled me since I came to Canada more than forty years ago.  Ever since Pierre Trudeau was our Prime Minister, as a nation we have been spending lots of taxpayer dollars on helping every ethno-cultural group we welcome here stay connected with their origins. Yet this columnist would have us throw away even more of the remaining visible evidence of our British origins when many of us still derive from that root. It is surprisingly frequent to find those who descend from our founding pioneer communities in English Canada demanding we forget all about what we once were. This is in marked contrast to French Canadians who actually value the visible tokens of their ancestry ('je me souviens'). Are those with demonstrable Anglo-Saxon and Celtic origins feeling these days that they are just not cool anymore?

Over the long years since I arrived on these shores many of the most directly anti-British remarks I have been subjected to have come from folk of United Empire Loyalist stock. The UELs, the only immigrant group entitled by law to display their origin by putting letters after their names (UE), like take pains to distinguish themselves from us more recent DPs (Displaced Persons) by dismissing this era's Britain as a shadow power.  On their houses and on some of the town halls of the many settlements they founded and still inhabit, flies the first Union Jack, the one lacks the cross of Saint Patrick and the British flag at the time when their ancestors arrived from the American colonies after the Revolution.  Nothing we British have done since then seems to impress them much and they feel fine about saying so to our faces. I rather doubt they would be doing the same for the other immigrant groups who came here after them.

It seems loss of interest in the history of emigration from those two tight little islands responsible for spreading parliamentary democracy and the rule of law across the globe has even spread to the (now former?) Mother Country itself. In a chat I had last summer with an American professorial expert on the War of 1812 that is currently the subject of bicentennial celebrations, he noted that mine is the last generation of Britons educated to believe that the British Empire had its good points. On his trips to Britain he has noticed that the Colonial era, long as it was, is increasingly taught with embarrassment or even swept under the rug in school history syllabuses.

Efforts by the current Canadian Federal Government to reinforce a sense of British heritage in our society are usually met with ridicule in the urban press. Multiculturalism is cool. Hide your origins, except perhaps on special folk festival occasions, and we will all get along just fine. While it is common to bemoan the general decline in comprehension of the social and legal underpinnings of our society, especially among the young, we do little to help newcomers feel proud of those who first settled our fields and villages, and to understand that it was where they came from that bequeathed us the gentle and civil country we live in today.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Rights of The Gerontological Community

Social gerontology is an academic discipline whose day is coming. Prof Jill Quadagno, adviser to US presidents and senators, is in the right discipline to be sure of future funding and a continuing high public profile. Although it may sound odd to give a medical term a sociological slant, what the NYT calls "deteriorating conditions for retirees and older Americans in general" is giving new impetus to the movement to develop social policies that better address the issues faced by a population living longer than ever before in history.

The Gray Panthers are only a ghost of what they once were and both AARP and our Canadian version, CARP, do not make waves any more. This is hardly surprising for CARP, which is now part of Moses Znaimer's media empire and seems now to be little more than a marketing vehicle to sell services and stuff to us old'uns.  I feel a major cause of their decline in followership is that we live these days in an increasingly single-issue advocacy environment. It is one where, what Web guru Seth Godin calls 'tribes', form and reform around highly specific raw spots under the broader social umbrella.

Godin defines a tribe as a group of people, who are connected to one another, a leader and an idea. The idea around which each such tribe gels is increasingly tightly defined, e.g. raising or removing a mandatory retirement age. The wider issues of say, de facto age discrimination or the insulting portrayals of seniors widespread in advertising and the media, tend to lack leadership focus and ongoing traction. People today are not oriented on a lifetime basis to worthy causes, whether they be like Greenpeace or like the Lions, in the way of the past. We flounder with our loyalties through a sea of special issues, only sometimes stopping to help out before a new injustice catches our eye.

It is so much easier to register our objections online in places that will have little or no impact than to confront in person those whose behaviour towards us is unfair or unjust. As we have seen recently on the Maidan in Kiev, personal action is still what gets truly widespread media coverage. How we seniors, we who have reduced physical stamina and can be injured so easily, can best personally confront those who manage or personify social policies that prejudice our well-being, is still a work-in-progress. Until we figure it out, 'senior rights advocacy' remains only at a very early stage as a crusade.

There are more than enough of us caring about creating a world in which the new old have a firm place, but we are not concentrating on how best collectively to use modern tools like social media to effectively mobilize to create newsworthy action. Our tendency is to act individually by phone or in writing to object about conditions which our younger peers often feel we Boomers and pre-Boomers have little to complain about.

We are a large tribe that has no historical precedents to follow, since many people living past 65 is such a new phenomenon. It is a brand new assignment to design a world that is senior-friendly. We have made a start with the disabled. Now is the time to extend that to include the large cohort that is increasingly disadvantaged by an ever noisier, speedier, complicated and often hostile day-to-day environment.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Promise of Blogging

Blogging as an online form of diarising and journaling is now 20 years old. I have been at it for the last five of them and find there is still a lot for me to learn about how to make online journalism deliver thought-provoking alternative perspectives to our subscribers. Excellence in blogging is not easy: “The reality is that most blogs are poorly managed, attract dismal readership numbers and are soon abandoned. Does this mean that blogging is dead? Of course not! It just means it’s not easy. Like most things in business, the blogging market is subject to the basic principles of supply and demand” - Heather Baker of the B2B PR Blog.  

If more of us understood that,
to hold onto their followers, blogs must deliver a lot more to readers than unformed opinions and ignorant rants, we bloggers could have a better chance of becoming a part of more people’s daily reading diet. Another Heather, Heather Yaxley of Greenbanana, says it well: “In an increasingly competitive world for individuals and organisations, it is not enough to simply be able to ‘do’ things or even to do them well. You need to be able to know why something is the right thing to do – and be able to explain this to others”.  
In this blog we strive to bring you a varied diet of perspectives on life and world events as seen from a mature 'First World' English-speaker's viewpoint. In this era of sociopolitical all-inclusiveness, we believe there is too much reluctance to proselytize our pride in Western values and viewpoints as developed over many hundreds of years of slow democratization and declining injustice. If our sometimes whimsical and sometimes hard-nosed take on standing up for such values generally intrigues you, do please let your friends and contacts know about us! And follow us regularly yourself by using 'Join this site' or the 'Follow by Email -> Submit' link, or by connecting via Google+, all in the right side column. If you like to subscribe to blogs via feeds, look for the RSS symbol in the header bar to click on. See you next post!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Great Loathing Resurfaces

It looks like the Russian state has completely lost any global credibility by first bullying and now invading the Ukraine. The Paralympics are (were?) due to start in a week. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is using terms like 'kleptocracy' and 'tyrant' to describe Putin and his government - hostile words that cannot readily be recalled.

As a citizen of two British Commonwealth countries, I can feel some guilt around China - the Opium Wars were not the West's finest hour in the 19th century. Along with the later Boer War and the Easter Rising, these warlike responses reflected an attitude we have thankfully long left behind. But clearly these instincts are still alive and well amongst the ruling class in the Russian Federation. We can look back to over nearly two centuries of grief from Russia, with little to feel ashamed about other than we could not help the Whites enough against the Reds after the October Revolution. Indeed the resources involved, and the number of Allied merchant sailors who died,  in supplying Stalin's Russia during the Second World War means they owe us one in a big way.

My parents served in the ambulance corps and home guard in London, England during that war, and so were appointed officers in the domestic Civil Defence organization set up in the 1950s to deal with the consequences of a Soviet nuclear attack. Their ICBMs would take four minutes to reach us, so our 'guaranteed' family spot in the shelters under our County Hall (at least 15 minutes away by car) would not have saved me. It was a frightening time to be a child. In the end the Russian Soviet empire never did attack us, but it is hard for my generation to forget how much we feared and loathed them.

The spectre of the antagonistic Russian Bear was something we absorbed from school history lessons about the Great Game the British 'played' with them during the C19th imperial conflicts from the Crimean War onward. When I arrived at university in the mid-1960s, a time when John le Carré started publishing his great Cold War spy novels, I was handed a leaflet (on reflection probably from a CIA front organization) that pictured and described Nazi war criminals then co-opted into the Soviet war machine. The Americans of course were doing the same, but I can still recall the paranoia it induced. It certainly helped dissuade me from giving the Ban-The-Bomb crowd the time of day.

It saddens me that Ukraine should become the spark that finally convinces us in the West that not much has changed in two centuries when it comes to how pally we can afford to become with Mother Russia. The one and a quarter million Ukrainians in Canada have made a fine contribution to civil society and scholarship. Since the Soviet Union dismantled, Russian immigration to the West has increased dramatically. It remains to be seen whether the contribution they will make will be in any way equivalent.