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April 14, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week—The Precarious Future of Voting


Well, cross another one off the bucket list, as last Monday I made my debut as a TV political commentator. (See photo above.)

The occasion was a momentous one—the most recent Quebec election, one which saw the governing PQ swept out by a massive Liberal tidal wave following a most unpleasant and dirty campaign.  My co-commentators were polar opposites—Peter Trent, Mayor of the upscale Montreal-area enclave called Westmount, and Gilles Duceppe, sovereignist hardliner and former head of the Bloc Quebecois—and sitting/bickering in between them was an emotion-filled blast. 

Given my career path and my reputation, the aforementioned gig seems strange and incongruous.  But those who know me know my political passion, especially these days as Quebec and Montreal try to redefine their places in a rapidly-changing world.  A frequent dinner guest is friend Mutsumi Takahashi, CTV’s long-time news anchor here, and after countless political chin-wags, she lobbied for me to take them off the dining room table and onto the airwaves.  We started with a weekly news segment that positioned me as a calmly-blustery businessman, and paid it all off with the election night free-for-all five weeks later. 

Now there were many lessons learned that night; mostly poli-sci macro lessons on the ineffectiveness of divisive, negative, campaigning and the collective want of all Quebecois for a stable government, social peace and increased prosperity.

But what was most fascinating for me was working with CTV’s team of “election experts,” a roving bunch of pollsters and mathematical geniuses who travel from province to province to nation’s capital every time the populace is put to a vote.  Even while I was eating dinner in the newsroom while the polls were still open, the team leader came over to me to show me why, statistically, the PQ couldn’t win.

So follow me on this for a bit, because the point still needs a few paragraphs of set-up. 

Just a few seconds before going to air, the team leader came over to our commentator’s desk, leaned in and said:

“It’s a Liberal win.  We’re going to be calling it in about 45 minutes, but we don’t know if it’s a minority or majority.  Just wanted you to know, but don’t give it away or be obvious about it.”

And then we were live. 

And we didn’t need 45 minutes, either.  A mere 18 minutes after going on air, CTV officially announced a Liberal victory; 19 minutes later, at the 36-minute mark, it was all over. 

Whopping majority, with the only question of “How big?” to be decided.

Given the early outcome, to kill time between our segments, we compared actual riding-by-riding results to a chart of predictions I had printed from the website  Like a Canadian Nate Silver (he of fame, successfully forecasting the result of all 50 states in the last American Presidential race), blogger/statistician Bryan Breguet ran 5,000 simulations and came up with percentage-based positioning of all parties in all 125 ridings.  While he was far from Silver perfect, given the massive upset nature of the night’s vote, his calling 109 correctly was still impressive as hell.

So…here’s where I was going. 

Given the CTV team’s precision, given Breguet’s prognostication prowess, and given the fact that we had 3.5 hours of airtime to fill after the main question was answered (don’t worry, characters and conflict made for great TV all night long), I wondered to myself whether or not the entire voting process was outdated. 

Just before the election, I read an article about how governments are wary of the problems associated with the “next step” of elections, namely e-voting.  But my point goes further—given the accuracy of the simulations, polling and other mathematical tools, is a series of statistically-significant surveys enough to elect our next wave of public leaders?  In other words...

Do we need the laborious

process of voting at all?

Granted, things aren’t perfect yet.  Given the recent "surprise" election results in Alberta and BC, there is always the chance for errors and upsets.  But the “Dewey Defeats Truman”-level miscalculations are less and less likely, and given the rapid advance of computing and that each error only serves to make today’s predictive algorithms smarter, will a few thousand randomly-accessed people be all we need to decide our upcoming elections? 

Not right away, but what I gleaned on Monday night is that the day is not far off.  So this week’s learning, in keeping with this post’s theme, is more of a tomorrow prediction than a yesterday lesson, namely:

Brace yourself 

for a seismic shift 

as polls and simulations 

replace the ballot box 

in a decade-and-a-half. 

Hey Peter, Gilles…ready to regroup and have a go at this one?

April 7, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week—Dogs Are Animals, But People Are Pigs

Shaydee & Rawqui

I just returned from a most interesting walk with my two dogs where I was—or more specifically, they were—assailed for ruining the Spring season.

It happened a mere block away from my residence, near a grimy patch of exhaust-fume-encrusted snow upon which my male dog Rawqui (the caramel-colored one at right) decided to lift his hind leg and relieve himself.

A woman who was waiting for a bus at a stop adjacent to this scene looked at Rawqui with disgust and spit out the following:

“You dogs have ruined Spring for me!  When the snow melts, all I see and smell are piles of dogshit!  It’s disgusting!”

Both my dogs tilted their heads and looked at her most puzzlingly, perhaps not fully understanding her words, but able to at least cpomprehend they were coming from a raving kook.  And before I had a chance to collect my thoughts and respond in the witty, genteel manner for which I am renowned, the woman was saved by the bell by the arrival of her bus. 

Look, I’ve been a dog owner for 10 years, and I can empathize with the unsightly dog-generated mess and fumes that the advent of Spring can bring. 

But in the end, whom do you blame…the dogs, or the people that own and are presumably responsible for them? 

As far as I know, there are very few, if any, packs of wild dogs running loose and wreaking havoc anywhere near to where I live.  And if there are messes left by domesticated pet canine, it’s not the fault of the dogs, but the humans at the other end of the leash.  As smart as my dogs are, they have not mastered the art of toilet training or picking up after themselves.  For that, they rely on people like me. 

Over the decade with Rawqui and his “sister” Shaydee (the black-and-white one at left), I have taken thousands of walks, and I can count on one hand the times I did so without the requisite bags to pick up after them.  On those occasions, I improvised by stealing plastic bags that held advertising flyers, or looked around and used stray pieces of newspaper or Baggies that lay scattered about.

Therein lies my point:

Every time I was unprepared

to clean up a canine mess,

I relied on a human mess

to get me out of my jam. 

I live downtown smack-dab in the middle of Montreal, but I went through the exact same thing when I lived in Westmount, a community atop the city’s famed mountain.  There was never a shortage of garbage within eyesight. 

Let’s take this one step further.  Dog owners know that the two worst days for walking are January 1st and March 18th; New Year’s Day and the day after St. Patrick’s.  That’s when the sidewalks are splattered with puke from over-inebriated partygoers.  And if one man’s steak is another man’s poison, the equation works in reverse when it comes to dogs; I have Popeye-sized forearms from guiding my pets through the minefields of protein spills on those days. 

Even worse are the days

with no excuse…like the other

363 days of the year. 

Maybe this is a Montreal phenomenon—I would venture it’s not—but be they along a major downtown street or up in the residential areas, my dog walk routes are strewn with dog-treat debris like half-eaten slices of pizza, apple cores, banana peels, chicken legs and tons and tons of chewed gum…a buffet of disgust.  It’s astonishing.  Given the fact that there’s a garbage can on just about every street corner near me, or that most people have two hands and pockets, there’s no excuse.

Except that perhaps people don’t care.  Perhaps the concept of civic pride has, shall we say, gone to the dogs. 

So if you’re looking for the lesson of the week, it’s that Dogs may be animals…but people are pigs.

Uh...Happy Spring!

March 31, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--De Dirt on Debates

Given that Quebeckers are facing yet another pivotal election on April 7, over the past couple of weeks, I paid close attention to the two political “debates” held between the leaders of the province’s four main parties.

I bracket the word “debates” by quotation marks, as these two two-hour sessions were debates in name only, and frankly, not much different from most political encounters of the ilk.   There was very little intelligent discourse, no thoughtful exchange of ideas and no rational drive to conclusion or resolution. 

Instead, viewers were subjected to a mish-mash of accusations, threats, lies, and reputation-shielding, all smothered in a tsunami of dizzying, unverified and contradictory statistics. 

So much mud was slung that

I wished I owned the dry cleaners

and industrial disinfectant co.

closest to the TV studio.

If there were truth in labeling, political “debates” would be called “Loud Bloodless Violence,” as that is usually their end result…and perhaps the reason why people choose to watch them instead of another sporting match or a sit-com re-run. 

On one hand, “debates” may not advance the political process, but at their best/worst, can be great television.  After a most genteel start, things always rapidly degenerate into chaos.  Victory usually goes to the one who yells the loudest, interrupts the most, and/or ignores the time limits imposed upon them to continue yelling and interrupting.

And just like people who follow NASCAR waiting for the car crashes, vicious partisans and enemies tune in en masse to see who can land “a knockout punch.”  If the organizers could convince scantily-clad females to periodically parade around the studio holding cards emblazoned with debate topics, I’d bet you could run this on pay-per-view and rival the UFC.

While watching the latest round of “debates,” I couldn’t help bemoaning how perverse our political process had become.  And I wondered why, if the political “debate” has become such a recognized standard, what would happen if its form and spirit carried over to other sectors…like big business.

Imagine then, a televised

debate” between

Ford, Chrysler and GM

Heads of each company would disparage the other’s products, safety record, history and integrity, and follow this up with the usual whitewash of arcane, misleading crunched numbers that would require an army of forensic accountants months to corroborate or deny. 

The chairmen would be grilled for faults of their predecessors or even company founders, forced to defend rumors or totally-invented falsehoods, and if that weren’t enough, have their own personal baggage pried open and ransacked.  To throw off the balance even more, a smaller, niche car company with nothing to lose—say Tesla—would be thrown into the mix and given equal presence and timing.

“Winners” would be decided in both the short and long term; the former by the next morning’s opening stock price, and the latter by upward or downward tick in quarterly sales. 

And why stop

at car companies? 

The political “debate” concept could also work for restaurants (McDonald’s vs. Chipotle vs. Starbucks) consumer electronic manufacturers (Apple vs. Samsung vs. the latest Kickstarter crowdsourced darling), Internet giants (Google vs. Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Yahoo)…even TV networks themselves (HBO vs. FOX vs. CBS vs. A&E).  Remember the “Cola Wars” of the 1980s?  This merely ramps up the concept for the reality TV/last survivor standing/social media age…and dangerously, dramatically ups the stakes between winners and losers.

So is there any great “learning” this week?  Any takeaway lessons like usual? 

Not really…except I learned that I can do anything I want to do here. 

And I’m ready to debate the first dirty scumbag who says otherwise.

March 24, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Here Are The Crayons


Since January, I’ve been teaching a somewhat different type of course at McGill University.  While saddled with the unfortunate standard curriculum name “Marketing and Society,” the class is anything but. 

Given carte blanche, I put together more of a “marketing TO society” approach, and focused on the YouTube platform for students to learn about group dynamics, react to real-time changes, and integrate it in a corporate context.  There are no “papers” per se, no doorstopper textbook and no multiple-choice or essay tests.  The “final exam” is the actual launch of a seven-video-minimum YouTube channel, worth 40% of the overall grade.  You can read more about this experimental and experiential learning experience here and in this student perspective

Now, with the course entering its final two weeks, some of my students are coming to the realization that what once sounded like a utopian fantasy (“Wow!  No tests!  No papers!  No 200-page readings!”) has now morphed into a Faustian bargain of sorts (“Christ!  We have to write a script!  And shoot!  And edit! And optimize for YouTube’s search algorithm!  And incorporate social media! And…”)

My immediate answer to some of the heavier sighs was: “What did you think?  That this was a fluff course?  That there wasn’t going to be any work?” 

But I don’t actually believe that it’s the amount of work that has some of my students in a tizzy.


nature of the work

that's throwing them.

When I first put this course together, I had a discussion with two academics I respect immensely, Prof. Morty Yalofsky of McGill (who used to be MY stats prof in my undergrad years) and Prof. Pete McGraw of the University of Colorado at Boulder (and co-author of the upcoming book “The Humor Code”).  Both told me the same thing:  as much as students have evolved outside the classroom, inside they seem most comfortable with traditional means of teaching and learning within it.

This reminded me of something I experienced many moons ago at summer camp during arts and crafts period, the traditional land of sewn leather wallets, wood burning tools and gimp bracelet weaving.  

Our A&C teacher was this hippie-type named Earl (oh, how I wish I could remember his family name!).  A soft-spoken guy with long ringlets of hair and round John Lennonesque glasses, Earl tried to break away from the tried-and-true, tired ol’ art projects by introducing a group of somewhat spoiled 11-year olds to a long-term project I remember now only as “sand molding.” 

In essence, Earl wanted us to to carve out a design in a dense sand material, heat and color some plastic goo, pour the goo into the sand, and once everything dried, chip and brush away the sand to reveal our hardened plastic masterpieces.

Now the plastic smelled like death, handling it with the sand was tactilely repulsive, which made the whole process haphazard and messy.  Instead of embracing the madness, I whined and complained:  “Ughh!  It’s gross!  And it stinks!  And it’s getting all over me!  I think I’m going to puke!” (Please, please remember that I was only 11…)

Rather than lash out, and realizing he was dealing with some pint-sized rabble-rouser/shit-disturber, Earl gently pulled me aside, and sat me down at a table at the back of the A&C bunk. 

Handing me a Tupperware box filled with broken nubs of colored wax sticks, he calmly, deliberately said:

“Here are the crayons. 

And here’s a coloring book. 

Please stay within the lines. 

And be sure to have fun.”

I forget my actual reaction then, and that of those around me, but I still gulp and feel the sting of the lesson whenever I recall it.

Which is why I resurrected it as part of the response to some of my students’ apprehension. 

And which is why it is the week’s learning.

New anything is hard.  But “institutional new” is harder still.  Trying to change something that has remained the same for decades, maybe a century or two, is a magna-challenge.  

But you have two choices when faced with the new:

1) Go with it.

2) Or go get the crayons.

March 17, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Why Sending Loyal Customers Away Is Great For Business

When I was in my final year of high school, some of the more shall we say “sensitive” types accessorized their graduation bios with a floral quote that went:

“If you love something, set it free. 

If it comes back, it’s yours. 

If it doesn’t, it never was.”

(My friends and I, being slightly more cynical, paraphrased this into “If you REALLY love something, kill it.  If it comes back, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, get a good lawyer”…but I digress.) 

Now that I am older, wiser and obviously way more mature, I think back to that sucky quote and am slightly pained to admit that perhaps the girls (because frankly, no guy in my high school would be strong enough to withstand the onslaught that would come with that quote atop their bio) were right.

Not just right, but when it comes to business in the competitive twenty-tens, strategically prescient.

Case in point is Nota Bene, a wonderful restaurant I frequent often when in Toronto.  Never had anything less than an exquisite experience there, not just because of the food, but also because of a waiter (whose face I know but name I forget) who always seems to serve me.

His recommendations of specials, wines and desserts are always spot on, so I was wide-eyed and all ears when he hit me with the following:

“You looking for a place to eat tomorrow night?”

As the case was, I happened to be staying over, so I said yes…but knew where he was going.  Upon entering that eve, I ran into Nota Bene’s owner Yannick Bigourdan, who told me he opening a sister resto called Carbon Bar“Here comes the big sales pitch,” I sighed to myself.

Well, it came…

but not for Carbon Bar.

To my surprise, the waiter picked up on an off-handed comment about Japanese food I had made to the colleague I was having dinner with, and suggested a tiny, out-of-the-way spot about 20 minutes away that serves “the best Japanese food in the city, perhaps in the country.

At that point, the high esteem I held for the restaurant shot up even higher.  You gotta have a lot of confidence in your offering if you can recommend a competitor to a loyal client.

It may appear counter-intuitive at first—just like setting free something you hold dear—but this type of “Customer-first/Business-second” behavior is refreshing and genuine.  It’s also gutsy, and more often than not pays off exponentially for those self-assured enough to use it.  

Short term, yes...

your dollar goes elsewhere. 

But long term, and more importantly, your loyalty stays.  A good deed, and the positive word of mouth that goes with it, is ultimately more valuable than any one sale. This is what happens when one puts the entire focus on the purchaser, and not the purchase itself. 

We all have stories of both sides of the coin, I suspect.  Stories of going into a store and being curtly told “Sorry, we don’t have what you’re looking for,” and on the flip side, stories of people in the same situation who will send you to places that do…perhaps even call for you, or tell you who to ask for, or suggest an alternative that costs less.

Epic tales of such “do whatever it takes to make the customer happy” have made the Nordstrom chain legendary in the insanely competitive retail space.  And by suggesting a new, special place that I would probably love instead of being a robotic shill for his employer, the Nota Bene waiter has solidified my relationship with his restaurant.  I can’t wait to go back. 

So this week’s lesson hearkens back to the days of high school, and those italicized pearls of wisdom below select grad photos:

The best way to

lock down customers...

is to give them the key