PolyWogg

May 212013
 

personal_experiences

The next panel I attended was Michael Shanks. He’s starring currently in Saving Hope, just renewed for a second or third season, but most of the people at the panel are fans because he played Daniel Jackson on Stargate for 10 seasons. I thought Shanks was fantastic. Again, I was struck by how different it was from what I expected — I expected moderated “panels”, and what I got was one-man stand-up Q&As. I love the Stargate show, not a big enough fan to watch every week but I do have a bunch of seasons on DVD. Some highlights from his session:

  • He was asked if he ever studied archaeology before playing Daniel, and he told an amusing story that he had a month to prepare for his audition. During that time, he went to the ROM to look at their ancient Egypt section, watched the movie several times, etc. thinking it might help. Of course, it didn’t, and it wouldn’t have anyway since they bastardized the history of Egypt anyway;
  • He was asked if he didn’t play Daniel, who he might have wanted to play (I think the question was supposed to be other characters on the show), and his answer was a very obvious “Indiana Jones”;
  • Asked if there were any things he hated (more or less) about the show or some of the things he had to do, and his least favorite scene for dialogue was from Season 1 with Hathor (a Goauld who wants to impregnate all the males to create a new race) and who uses pheremones to capture them (okay, even typing that seems stupid), but his dialogue line at one point was to look at her like a puppy dog and say, “It’s like she’s a Queen bee”. He tried to get it dropped from the episode but the producers wanted it to explain to the audience the metaphor of what was happening…he did the line, but he said you can almost see the pain on his face doing it;
  • Someone asked if he liked working with Amanda Tapping again (he cameoed on Sanctuary), even though she’s long haired, brunette and with an accent now, but he said it was just Amanda, and he sees her everyday anyway (their kids go to the same school and they see each other at drop off);
  • It was noted that in all of his shows, he’s in constant peril of dying (SG, Burn Notice, Saving Hope) and he joked at least on SH he hadn’t died … yet!;
  • A woman asked him the geekiest question of the session, about whether his character was a jerk in the first season, since Daniel had had romances despite being married to Shar’e, who had been kidnapped by the Goauld. Shanks responded that Daniel wasn’t being a jerk, it was like they were on a “break”;
  • Given that Shanks apparently is a Canucks fan, and they were out of the playoffs, someone asked him if he would cheer for the Sens now. His response was that he had been in Toronto earlier that week when the Leafs had won a game (just a game, not a series or the cup!), and he said, “There’s nothing more obnoxious than a happy Leafs fan.” So, yes, he was willing to cheer for the Sens now;
  • In terms of things or gadgets he liked, he said he loved firing the guns. He used to call his buddies on days when they were doing huge gun firefights and ask them how their office jobs were going, cuz he was being paid to fire guns all day (which he noted gave him wood, so to speak);
  • Someone asked him about who he thought was the baddest villains (Baal and Hadria) and best race (Asgard). However, I never knew he had done the voice of Thor, the main Asgard they meet regularly. He noted that when he started doing the voice, it came out more like Hal from 2001 and ended up near the end like Stewie from Family Guy. Great impressions of all three included;
  • Someone asked him about working on Stargate: Unleashed (video game) and how he liked working with the cast again, but he noted that they actually didn’t work together — they all go into the studio and record their bits separately, which is why some of the dialogue doesn’t seem to line up completely in the game (some scenes apparently don’t flow for dialogue as well as others because they changed the wording slightly as they did it); and,
  • A person asked him about acting and if he missed doing more “respected” acting like Stratford etc. but Shanks noted that his decisions these days are all about how long he’ll be away from his family when he’s on set. A friend had asked him about doing Stratford, but it would have been a 9 month commitment. Even SH is costing him six months-ish per year and he finds it hard. On the other hand, while he doesn’t have an Emmy or an Oscar, he does have a Leo award and the Daniel Jackson action figure, which his wife (also an actress — Lexa Doig, formerly on Andromeda where he met her and now on the kick-ass show Continuum) is jealous of (i.e. him having an action figure of himself). He calls it his nerd oscar.

Overall, I thought we got a pretty polished session, with some glimpses into the real Shanks. Funny, upbeat, comfortable in his skin without “putting on a show” (as Filion seemed to be doing). As noted earlier, there are some pics attached to Part I. Next up — Wil Wheaton!

 

May 212013
 

personal_experiencesA “big” draw this year was the cast from Batman 1966. Unfortunately, Adam West hurt his back recently and was unable to travel, so it was down to Burt Ward (Robin) and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). Burt Ward was a youthful 20 year old when Batman was taped, so he’s still in pretty good shape 45+ years later. Julie Newmar, however, was 33 when she filmed, and she turns 80 this year. Remember her Catwoman? A femme fatale for the 60s. And hard to believe she was only in 6 episodes given her impact on the genre. She exuded sex appeal and has even written several books about her experiences as well as published collections of stories about young boys first “crushes” (not all about her, but probably most of them). I only ever saw the show in reruns, and don’t remember having much of a reaction to her, but she was attractive and pretty “sexy” for a family-oriented show. I was a bit worried about her appearance as I heard an interview with her on the radio, and she wasn’t very quick on the draw in her responses. More trying to play a sultry old Catwoman, and it was cute, but a little disturbing too. Fortunately, despite needing help getting on and off the stage, she was perfectly charming. And while not “quick” to respond to questions, she did a great job in the Q&A. Some of the highlights from their panel:

  • When the show was cast, Burt was taking acting, but in the short term was selling real estate…he sold a house to a producer who referred him to an agent, and he went for the Robin audition. Out of 1100 actors, Burt was chosen because they figured he was closest to the Robin character and the producers told him he shouldn’t “act” but just be himself;
  • When they filmed the show, Burt found it odd to do little pieces of the script here and there and there was no “screening” of the final version, so the cast saw it the way everyone else did — when it was broadcast in January ’66 at which time they all thought “Wow, that was pretty good after all”;
  • Burt noted that when he fought Bruce Lee as Cato, it was the first fight scene that Bruce Lee ever filmed, but what was also interesting was that Bruce Lee and Burt lived in the same apartment building and used to spar together (Burt had a black belt in karate);
  • One of the big actors they had on the show was Vincent Price, who played Egghead…in one scene, he was cracking eggs over the head of Burt, and Batman was supposed to burst in and rescue him. However, Vincent and Adam West kept mixing up their timings, so they kept reshooting the scene — in total, 34 eggs were broken over Burt’s head and it started to hurt. So, in the final scene, Burt was supposed to throw an egg at Vincent, but because he was mad, he threw a whole carton at him;
  • Burt and Julie were asked what they thought of the new shows (The Dark Knight), and Burt hasn’t seen the last one, but they both agreed that they are much much darker than the show they did. Their show was supposed to be for families to watch, very “fun” and “light” whereas the new ones go for the R-rated adult audience mostly. Burt doesn’t really like them, but Julie liked Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Catwoman, particularly as the costumes are similar. Julie thought though there should have been more Anne in the film;
  • Burt recorded two songs about Robin, one of them with Frank Zappa, which he described as a very odd experience (including meeting the Mothers of Invention);
  • Burt told everyone that the scenes of them walking up buildings were not quite filmed horizontally — the capes didn’t hang right so they had to do them on an angle; and,
  • Burt got hurt several times as his stunt double didn’t look much like Burt, and they didn’t like using him. In the first scene with the Batmobile, they drove out of the cave at 55 mph, turned a corner, his door popped open, and he fell out!

I was a little surprised by Burt in the panel. Although there was very little chemistry with Julie, there might not have ever been, so that wasn’t it, but he seemed a bit, umm, defensive. He said repeatedly that B&R was a family show, they were doing something different. Nobody in the room was mocking it in any way, but he kept saying that like someone was. Very odd. Equally odd was that they noted that his big passion in life is animal rescue, specifically dogs. He got asked a question early on about it, and he ducked it and changed the subject. I don’t know if there’s some contractual conflict, but he very clearly did NOT want to talk about dog rescues at the panel. Again, as with Nathan Filion, you almost got the impression he was willing to share his “public” persona, but not his personal life. This panel was moderated however, so accessibility was a bit less direct.

As with the rest of the panels, Part I has some photos of the session plus signings, compliments of the Comic Con FB page. Next up? Michael Shanks.

 

May 202013
 

personal_experiences

Saturday morning, I was there bright and early. The “big” guest of this year was Nathan Filion. He would have been the official guest-of-honor but he confirmed late in the process (only a few weeks before). While I enjoy his work on Castle (and was disappointed before that when the show Drive was cancelled after only a few episodes), most of his fans are from the Joss Whedon universe — seeing him originally playing the villain Caleb on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then the more memorable Captain in Firefly (TV series) and Serenity (movie). The show only lasted part of one season (15 episodes, I think?) but it is by far the largest fan base per capita at geek conventions. I’ve watched the show, it was okay, I really never saw the huge appeal…which by itself is weird, since there is space travel involved, and it’s not a horror flick, so I’d usually be watching. But Nathan is attractive, and it has been suggested that many of the female fans of sci-fi got their feet wet worshipping at the feet of Captain Hotpants.

The opening session was him on a Firefly panel. In addition to Nathan, there was also supposed to be Jewel Staite (from Firefly obviously, but also from Stargate: Atlantis which I had watched) and Summer Glau (Firefly, cameo on Big Bang Theory, and as a terminator in the TV version called The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Unfortunately, Summer was a no-show — she apparently was getting ready to go and realized she has lost her passport somehow. She sent a video message to apologize profusely and did join briefly by Skype (her first time using the program), but Jewel and Nathan carried on bravely without her. Some highlights of the panel:

  • They were asked if there would be a second movie, to which they basically replied “not their department” to answer, i.e. not up to them;
  • Nathan was asked a nerdy question about which of the women in his on-screen life were his ranked choice to spend his life with, to which he replied #1 would be his spaceship (because it would get him chicks) and #4 would be Kate Beckett from Castle (since he kisses her all the time already);
  • They were asked what ringtones they had on their phones currently (????) and Nathan told a funny (!) story about his brother and him having the same ringtone for each other that sounds like a banjo followed by a voice singing “your brother is calling”…apparently they also do this weird “hehehehe/hahahaha” routine where they laugh at each other to say hello, so one time Nathan’s brother was house-sitting, called him and so phone rings, ringtone goes off, they do their routine for several laughs each and then his brother inappropriately said, “Your cat died”;
  • A guest noted that he identified with Nathan’s character and his wife liked Jewel’s character, so did they think the two would ever have hooked up on the show…to which they both responded an uncomfortable-ish “no” since Nathan’s character had been Jewel’s guardian on the show (insert sound of crickets chirping);
  • Someone asked if Castle would ever have “grumpy cat” on Castle, which Jewel vetoed until she gets to be on the show first; and,
  • Nathan answered a question about “on-screen contributions to his real life” experiences by noting that people told him gyno stories after playing a gynecologist, and concluded with telling a joke (that has gone around the net about a woman who goes to gyno after accidentally putting glitter on her private parts), pretending it happened to Dana Delaney’s best friend (which was weird), but Jewel was laughing at the end, not because of the story, but because the guy asked a simple question and ended up “discussing vaginas with Nathan Filion”.

Overall, I enjoyed the panel, despite not being a Firefly fan, but I found Nathan’s way of answering questions very off-putting. I was surprised that the panels were not moderated, it was just them up there like a stand-up routine, but that also is designed to make them more accessible. From a production perspective, that accessibility comes with a risk — they might completely suck at self-hosting the panel. Ever seen actors go on Letterman or Leno and watched them BOMB? I have lots of times, and while I know they do these panels lots of times, it still surprised me they weren’t moderated. Jewel was amazing. Nathan by contrast was very polished, but I never got the impression I was seeing “Nathan” so much as seeing “Nathan playing a role as public Nathan”. Hard to explain, but I didn’t find it as good as I thought it would be. Jewel didn’t have as much to say, but she did seem more like a real person (maybe because she talked about her friend Cindy accompanying her to the show and her reactions to some of the guests). I’ve included some photos from the event in the previous post, and there are a couple from the Comic Con FB page showing Jewel and Nathan doing signings.

Hope you enjoy…next up — Batman 1966!

 

May 192013
 

personal_experiencesBefore I get to reviewing my first Comic Con experience, I have to confess something. I’m not really that into the full Comic Con mindset. Honestly, I probably represent the softest form of the soft-core fan. Generally, I like the TV and movie elements, would never dress up in costume, don’t collect all the fan gear, and am happy to sit in the big hall and listen to the actors tell behind-the-scenes stories. I don’t need to meet them, have a picture taken with them or get their autograph (well, that’s not entirely true — I would, but I’m just not willing to shell out $50 a pop to do it).

For those of you who are not hard-core fans, the conventions are really geared towards a mash-up of several genres. I’ll probably do a poor job of summarizing, but here goes:

  • Science fiction — in written, graphic/comic or video format, this is the overwhelming genre for most of the guests, often linked to the big series (Star Wars, Star Trek) or the big TV shows (Firefly);
  • Comic books — a lot of the smaller breakout discussions, and a LOT of the vendors are comic book writers, animators and collectors, but this goes way beyond the simple collections of superhero comics to include full graphic novels in the Japanese tradition (called manga);
  • Anime — the Japanese abbreviation for animation, this is a genre defined more by look ‘n feel more than anything else — whether animated video stories or on paper, they are always bright, colorful and action-packed;
  • Gaming — at the risk of offending true gamers, this includes role-playing games, video games, and table-top board games;
  • Steampunk — a weird mash-up of sci-fi set in the 1800s, where “sci-fi” was mostly steam-powered machines; and,
  • Other — Horror is big, not sure I’d class it as its own area though, and there are lots of other little miscellaneous areas.

From that list, I’m pretty much only interested in the first one, and part of the second one (when comic book super heroes are made into TV or movies).

So why would I go to Comic Con? Because it is a huge part of geek culture, it was here in Ottawa, and the tickets weren’t that expensive ($55-$75 for three days). I can’t imagine going to one of the huge ones in San Diego, but the one in Ottawa is small enough in size to still be manageable (this was only it’s second year).

Never having been to such an event before, I had no idea what to expect for line-ups to get into see certain guests. I didn’t think it was worth it to shell out close to $200 to get the VIP front-of-the-line tickets (more on that later), so I was part of the masses when lining up for individual sessions. Prior to the weekend, I assumed I would go early each day, sit through as many of the panels as I could, grab some food there, and basically hang out for the day. Not quite what happened though.

I thought Friday was going to be a wash — it opened at 2:00, but I work until 5:00, figured I would miss most of the guests that day. Which was a bit annoying, as they had panels scheduled with Levar Burton (Geordi from Star Trek and host of The Reading Rainbow, although non-geeks probably know him from Roots), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian from Star Wars, although non-geeks might have spotted him recently doing cameos on NCIS and White Collar), and Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, of course, but also Captain of the Andromeda). I was pleasantly surprised that all three were actually scheduled late in the day (i.e. most > 5:00). However, by the time I got there, Billy Dee Williams had been rescheduled earlier in the day (so I had missed him), the lines were insane and since all of them were more “Tier II priorities” for me, I decided to spend the night enjoying wandering around the convention hall, checking out vendors and various guests’ costumes. You’ll see in the link at the bottom that there are pictures of a landspeeder model (from Star Wars) and the original batmobile (from Batman which debuted on TV in ’66). I also have a few photos of various costumes — Star Wars ones were the most interesting to me, although I though the ones from Sailor Moon were really well done (and thanks to the Comic Con organizers who put lots of photos up on their FB site for sharing!). Mostly I just wandered around and got my bearings.

Saturday morning, I was there bright and early though. And I’m going to digress here with a small note about logistics and line-ups. I’ve done logistics for conferences (never on this public scale though), and so I’m pretty comfortable with some of the challenges. Rule #1 of any convention is to eliminate any confusion with anyone about where they’re supposed to go or how they are supposed to get there. The opening morning setup in that regard was a disaster.

The main hall holds 2500 people on chairs, another 500 or so probably standing. The first 10-12 rows were for VIPs — if you shelled out the $200 for a ticket, you could go to the VIP line and snag one of those seats up until 10 minutes before the panel — at ten minutes before, they open those seats to anyone and the regular masses (already sitting in rows 13++) rush forward to get close. Even for Firefly, I would estimate only about 60% full for the VIPs before they got to move forward. Now, aside from VIPs, the regular masses (i.e. 2000++ people) have to line up in advance to get into the hall, get seated, watch for an hour, get their butts out, and get the next group in for the next panel. About 30 minutes between each panel. That’s a challenge, and with limited space for 2000+ people to line up, there’s really only one solution — have them line up outside in a tent. Think of a theme park ride, same deal. You line up, then the previous group goes through, you move forward x number of spaces, and wait again. The only difference is that each “90 minutes” they clear out the entire line at one go for different panels.

Here’s the problem — the people lining up for Firefly were being told to go stand at the end of a line that also included all the general admission people looking to pick up their tickets. In other words, the fans who already had their passes and badges were going through the same line they had already gone through just to be told which line they were supposed to go to for the Firefly panel. Note that this is the only time this would be a problem for two groups at the same time i.e. early on Saturday morning while people were arriving to get their badges (for many, their first day) at the same time the first panel was lining up. All at the same initial entrance to the tent. Now, the admissions ones were directed into what would later be a VIP line for other panels (they had a separate spot for VIPs for this panel, just temporarily), and to the left of that small line was a snaking line for Firefly.

But the woman doing directing had no idea what to do with people coming out of the convention centre asking where to go — she didn’t want them to immediately butt-in line ahead of the mixed admissions/Firefly fans nor did she want to send them to the end of the line AGAIN, but she was anyway. It made no sense. So I flagged it for the coordinator for the lines (a tall guy on roller skates). He basically shrugged, didn’t care.

Now, as both a conference organizer and a patron, that kind of attitude just ticks me off. So I went and found his boss. Took me about 10 minutes of asking for directions, finally found the guy, and very politely said, “You should know…”. He immediately said, “Okay, thanks, let’s go solve this.” Good response, and by the time we walked back to the location, the tall guy was apparently fixing it after multiple complaints. Sounds great, right? No, because when I got back over to the Firefly line, the woman still had the same problem — let them butt in or send them to the back of the line. A bunch of us finally just ignored her shouts and directions, walked past her and went to the Firefly line. Later, of course, the “second group” (i.e. the admissions group) were gone, so it was only panel people lining up each time, but for that one, I really felt sorry for the girl directing traffic — her bosses did her no favours, that’s for sure, and a lot of people were royally ticked.

Now, here’s the second thing as a “general guest”. Outside of Firefly, everybody wanting to go to the main events in the plenary hall could get in. The only point to lining up is how close to the front you would be. There are big huge video screens, so seeing wasn’t much of an issue, but if you wanted to be close, you had to be near the front of the line. For Firefly, that line up started — STARTED — 90 minutes before the event. It was not a warm weekend in the end, and the wind by the airport was freezing cold. I was wearing jeans and a polo shirt, with a spring jacket, and I was COLD. I only lined up about an hour before to ensure I got in (and because I didn’t really know any better). The tent had a wall down one side, the other three were open, and the wind was killer. Look to the last photo in my gallery below, and you’ll see two girls in Sailor Moon costumes (they looked awesome by the way, very anime-like, perfect colouring, etc.). But look at the costumes — short skirts, thin tops, lots of skin. Outside in May with a cold wind blowing. There were LOTS of people in costumes like that (particularly superhero shticks). Brrrr…I have no idea how they survived the line-ups. If any anime babies are born in the fall, 9 mths after Comic Con, I’m going to attribute them to some people’s cuddling going a little far.

For the big draws of Saturday, I caught Firefly, Batman, and Michael Shanks. On Sunday, I caught Wil Wheaton. I’ll cover those sessions in Parts II, III, and IV. In the meantime, I have photos below. Click on any of them to switch to a pop-up slide show version.

May 192013
 

personal_experiencesSunday was a slow start for me. I figured I would be late for Gillian Anderson, so I went shopping for a Mother’s Day gift instead. Gillian (X-Files) had been the official “guest of honour” for the Show, but I’ll maybe catch her panel on the ComicCon’s Youtube channel later (they were all digitally recorded). I somehow completely missed the scheduling of a celebrity Q&A with Nathan Filion by himself for the Sunday (I must have been using a out-of-date schedule since he confirmed late), so missed that. James Marsters was up at lunch time but the wait time and the cold were too much for me to see his Buffy/Smallville discussions, he was Tier III for me, and I’ll catch him on Youtube. Nicholas Brendan (Buffy’s Xander) had been the same for me. Same with David Prowse (Darth Vader).

Which left the big draw for me for Sunday being Wil Wheaton. Yep, I watched ST:TNG and while he wasn’t my favorite character, I didn’t join the wesleycrusherdiediedie fanclub either. I also really like him on The Big Bang Theory. So I lined up nice and early, just in case. And froze my ass off. Seriously, it might be worth it for the VIP seats just to avoid the line-ups outside. If I go again in a future year, I’m definitely springing for VIP seats.

Wil’s session was definitely the best one, and here are some highlights:

  • Wil opened with a bunch of little stories that he wanted to share, and one of them was about going out for dinner the night before…There was him, his wife, Jewel Staite, her friends, Nathan Filion, Kevin Sorbo, etc. After dinner, a man came over to the table and said to Wil, “You know, I’m a big fan of The Big Bang Theory. My wife likes it too. Would you mind if we took a picture with you so we can show our kids?”. Wil was happy to oblige, and the man turned and handed his phone to the guy next to Wil and asked him if he would take the picture. The impromptu photographer? Captain Hotpants himself, Nathan Filion. Wil said a few minutes later he was laughing about it, and said, “Hey, everyone, remember that time we all went out for dinner and I upstaged Nathan when the guy asked for my picture”? Apparently Nathan Filion told the same story that morning at his session too;
  • Another story he told (kind of like a stand-up routine) was about how he had a secret admirer who had sent him CD boxsets, toys, etc. until his wife figured out it was “drunk Wil”…Wil said he was breaking up with drunk Wil, but not until the new PS4 came out;
  • In the Q&A, Wil really shone. You really got the impression you were seeing the “real” Wil behind the scenes as he responded to a question about whether he felt separated from the cast of ST:TNG being the young one on the show. He said he totally did — on the set, they were peers, shooting scenes, etc. But then the cameras stopped and they were the adults and he was the kid. When he was 14, he said it was like he had 9 parents on the bridge, and it sucked; later, when he was older, it was great as he had 9 people to ask for advice. However, he said there were times where he really wanted to be funny like Levar, or cool like Jonathan Frakes, or as accomplished as Brent Spiner, but he couldn’t “get there” yet and it was really frustrating;
  • For Big Bang Theory, he was asked how he liked playing a (hopefully) fictionalized evil Wil Wheaton as Sheldon’s nemesis. He said it was a lot of fun, and he didn’t see it so much as “evil”, as just being a troll to bait Sheldon and watch him go batshit crazy in response;
  • Wil was asked about what it was like filming Stand By Me. He said it was very interesting, really, because it was the summer of ’85, in Oregon, the year Back to the Future came out. And Wil used a “curling” story to tell how Rob Reiner filmed the movie — he said Rob was the skip trying to get them into the house, but really he just told them to play themselves and he would “gently” sweep them back on track if they got too far off the line. So he said the characters played by himself, Jerry O’Connell, River Phoenix, and Corey Feldman were all pretty much all of them playing themselves;
  • Someone complimented Wil on his “Fun With Flags” episode of The Big Bang Theory, and asked him if he did another one, could he use a Canadian flag? Wil said he was more than willing and told a great double-story about filming the scene. He said, first of all, when he walked in the door, the audience made a big “whoo” sound. And in his head, he was like “Woohoo” before he thought “Hey, brain, trying to work here!”. So at the end of the scene, he said to Jim Parsons, “Was that okay? Cuz I had a total brain freeze when I walked in and they cheered.” Then the director said “Great scene, we’re going to shoot it again, oh, and this time audience, we had a small problem with the audio when Wil walked in, can we do it this time without cheering?”. The second story was how amazing Mayim Bialik is as an actor. He noted that during the scene, she’s supposedly filming it as a first-time director. And while it is not seen on camera, the whole scene she is “in character” as Amy, including mouthing the words as Sheldon says them to the fake video camera. So the whole time Wil and Sheldon are doing their scene, Amy is looking at them (with her back to the audience) and acting like Amy filming the scene, even though none of them can see it. Secondly, he said it is amazing watching her timing because unlike the normal instinct to “milk” a laugh after Sheldon says something, her character has to be serious and come in a “beat and a half” afterwards. The “milking” timing would be a single beat, but Mayim can hit the “beat and a half” every time perfectly. Wil thought she was absolutely amazing;
  • Someone asked Wil if he could explain his uniform from the first season when he’s an acting ensign — it is grey in colour, unlike all the traditional uniforms, and has three colours on it (blue / yellow / red). He called it his rainbow uniform, and he said while it is often referred to as his rainbow uniform or his gay pride uniform, the logic behind it was that he hadn’t yet become a full ensign so he didn’t have a “field” of study yet and thus was “unaligned” and had all three colours. He noted that one of his friends had gotten his action figure and painted it to match the first season colours and he loves it; and,
  • Near the end of the session, Wil stopped the Q&A for a minute and asked a woman sitting in the second row if she was dressed as “Sparks McGee” (cowboy hat, Wesley’s grey three-colour uniform). Since she was, he brought her up on stage to note that “Sparks McGee” is an internet-created non-canonical ST character — what Wesley Crusher would have been if he had been born cool in an alternate universe. He also noted that they show up randomly at various events, and a large percentage of them are also female, so he thinks it’s a really cool creation. She got a big hug for her efforts (she’s shown in the pictures attached to part I).

So that ends my first Comic Con experience. I did enjoy it, different from what I expected in terms of the panels (partly I’m sure because the draw is smaller so fewer panels with multiple-cast-members). I don’t know that I’d be in a big rush to go again next year, depends on who was confirmed I suppose.

If I did go again, I would definitely want to get the VIP tickets…waiting outside in general lines was just a silly waste of time. I didn’t buy any souvenirs this time around (well, okay, I bought a lanyard because my pass wouldn’t stay pinned to my jacket and I didn’t want to lose it), and I didn’t miss out on anything I really wanted, but I might treat myself to a photo or a signing next time if there was some big actor I wanted to meet.

I was really disappointed there was no presence from four of my favorite shows — Arrow (a natural fit for the Convention crowd, and several guests were in Green Arrow costumes); Lost Girl (a strong Canadian show with focus on the fae and the horror side); similarly for Grimm (horror, vessen); and Continuum (my favorite sci-fi show currently, and it includes lots of actors from past big shows, including Lexa Doig married to Michael Shanks (Part IV), and the show has a strong focus on TIME TRAVEL, hello, what says Comic Con / Sci-fi more than TIME TRAVEL????).

I also think I missed out on some of the experience by going by myself. There were lots of people to talk to in line, but most of them are WAY WAY WAY more into the stuff than I am, and I found that extremely off-putting. I’m just not that excited about these shows. Now, if the star of Continuum was there, I would have chatted about the show with anyone and everyone. And my friends are either of the “not interested” fandom (like my wife) or “hardcore” fans, neither of which would add to my experience. I don’t mind going by myself, but a fan of similar level of interest would be a good companion, I think. Of course, it would be hard to convince a friend who was only “moderately interested” to shell out $200 next time for VIP tickets though,  even with a free t-shirt and lanyard, but going by myself wouldn’t deter me. :) It wasn’t the GREATEST EXPERIENCE EVER, but it was fun for a weekend.

 

Apr 192013
 
personal_general

So I need help with a statistical question. It starts off relatively easy, and then I complicate it with two aspects that result in my having no idea how to handle it at all. Let’s start with the easy part. Let’s assume there are two ranked lists, and in the first instance I’ll just do five things in the list:

List One List Two
  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  1. D
  2. E
  3. C
  4. A
  5. B

What I want to know is how much the rankings in list one differ from list two. An easy way to do that (Solution A)  is to compare the differences:

  • A(L1) to A(L2) = three spots lower i.e. -3
  • B = three spots lower i.e. -3
  • C = same spot i.e. 0 change
  • D = three spots higher i.e. +3
  • E = three spots higher i.e. +3

Net result is essentially 0, as it should be…for every displacement in list 1 to list 2, there is a corresponding displacement of another item. In the end, they’ll net out at zero change.

So, the proper statistical technique (Solution B) would be to use nominal values — ignoring the +/- — and ending up with 4 changes of 3 spots and 1 change of 0, for a total of 12 spots of difference over 5 items in the list or an average difference of 2.4. So I could argue that the difference in rankings between list one and list two is about 2.5 spots on average. I’m okay up to that point. Not completely sure what that tells me, but it’s a number. I almost think I’m looking at two separate samples from a pool and calculating their degree of deviation from each other, but not quite since it is a full sample of the whole population (i.e. there are only five items in that example), not a “sample”, so I can’t use sampling methodology to see how different it is from some generic population.

So we come to the two complications…the first complication (call it C1) is of scale. My lists aren’t five items long, they are a 100 items long. I don’t think that complicates it too much, just one of “scope” more or less.

The second complication (C2) is much more insidious…the first list is fully ordered, #1-100. The second list, however, is grouped into five unequally sized tiers. I’ll use a smaller example than 100, just 10 to make it plain, and I’ll reverse them just so it is obvious the lists are different…I’ll also tuck in a third list that is for all intents and purposes identical to List One, just grouped differently:

List One List Two List Three
  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  6. F
  7. G
  8. H
  9. I
  10. J
  1. I,J
  2. F,G,H
  3. D,E
  4. C
  5. A,B
  1. A,B
  2. C,D,E
  3. F,G
  4. H
  5. I,J

The obvious choice would be to convert List One or List Two to “match” each other…I could, for example, rank I vs. J in List Two to get a #1 and #2 slot, then F vs. G vs. H to get #3,4,5 (Solution C). However, that would require a lot of subjectivity on my part that isn’t very functional. In my list two example, I & J are basically “tied”, no way to differentiate them further.

I could however decide that, like in a sports competition:

  • I & J share rank “1″;
  • F,G,H share rank “3″;
  • D,E share rank “6″;
  • C would have rank “8″; and,
  • A & B would have rank “10″.

Seems like a good solution (Solution D), right? It’s the way tournaments do it. The problem is if I apply this technique to List Three, which is virtually identical to List One, just grouped into 5 levels instead of 10, the numbers don’t tell you that (i.e. 1: A,B; 2: C,D,E; 3: F&G; 4: H; 5: I&J). If I do comparisons, I’d end up with a total difference of “A=0, B =1, C=0, D=1, E=2, F=0, G=1, H=0, I=0, J=1″ for a total of 6/10 or .6 difference), even though the lists are basically identical.

A second alternative (Solution E) to converting List Two/Three to List One format is to do “average” and uneven rankings…so from List Three, A&B wouldn’t be in position “1″, they would be between 1&2. So I would give them both the average of 1.5; C,D,E would average out at #4 (i.e. spots 3, 4, and 5, averaging out to spot 4), etc. Nominally this would work, i.e. they would “net out” correctly and not nominally, but I would still be left with calculating a difference not in terms of ranking but in terms of methodology of ranking.

Soooo, I think I need to find a way to convert List One into List Two/Three format. Since List Three shows me whether or not my methodology “works”, I’m going to compare List One and List Three for the next part. One way to convert L1 to L3 format is to just divide L1 into equal chunks (Solution F):

  1. A,B
  2. C,D
  3. E,F
  4. G,H
  5. I,J

This maintains the list format, divides it into equal chunks so not reflecting any bias of methodology in List Three, and preserves the ranking order. But if I then compare this “new” list one with List Three, I would get: A=0,B=0,C=0,D=0,E=1,F=0,G=1,H=0,I=0,J=0 for a net difference of 2 spots out of 10 items. It would show the list was “slightly” different, but not radically so, and would reflect essentially the difference in methodology in this “pure” example. Even if I bump it up to 100 items, those differences should be relatively minor. But again, primarily focusing on methodological differences.

Lastly, I have Solution G — I’ll convert List One into five levels, same as for List Three, but I will make them unequal size i.e. matching the size of the groups from List Three. If I do this for List One, it basically will look identical to List Three and comparing them would give me “net change = 0″ and “nominal change = 0″. Which sounds good, but it basically means that I am “weighting” the results of List One to match the secondary lists’ ranking approach — for example, perhaps the original “weighting” would have been 9 items in Level 1 and 1 item at Level 5, but I wouldn’t know that.  Instead, I’m imposing the ranking / weightings of List Two/Three’s methodology onto the pre-established list in List 1.

Summary

  • Solution A (Net changes, matching lists) — doesn’t work as nets out and lists aren’t matched in my applied example;
  • Solution B (Nominal changes, matching lists) — doesn’t work as lists are matched in my applied example;
  • Solution C (Re-rank List 2) — doesn’t work as no way to differentiate List 2;
  • Solution D (Sports tournament) — doesn’t work on similar lists, adds a methodological problem to a ranking approach;
  • Solution E (Average rankings) — doesn’t work as it eliminate second methodological problem but still leaves measurement of the different approaches to rankings;
  • Solution F (Equal chunks) — semi-works but it would still measure difference in methodology and ranking approach; and,
  • Solution G (Weighted chunks) — semi-works as it reflects nominal change of 0 in matching lists, but adds bias of second ranking approach.

The only other thought I had was to combine the results of Solutions D, E, F, and G and take an average of the four approaches. Not sure if that helps or if I’m just compounding my methodological and ranking problems.

Would love some thoughts if anyone has any to share…FYI, this is for personal use, not a work issue, so it doesn’t have to be entirely statistically pure, but I would like a little more comfort with an approach than I have for Solution G currently.

Happy reading,

PolyWogg

Apr 162013
 
Government

One of my commenters on a previous post noted that it is easy to go into detail and nuance when I have my own blog with posts as long as I want them compared to the limit of 750 words for an Op Ed.  Which seemed like a good challenge to me — can I take the 7500 words I wrote on “What is development?” and crunch it down into something semi-nuanced while staying closer to an OpEd’s word limit? Let’s see.

When I read the various Op Eds about whether the merger of CIDA and DFAIT will skew “development”, I am constantly shocked by how “general” the conversation is, often talking about one aspect of development while ignoring four others. For those worried that the merger will suddenly mean Canada is no longer doing “development”, don’t be. Canadian projects will still have to fall within the OECD’s definitions of development in order to qualify as “official development assistance” (ODA). DFAIT isn’t suddenly going to start paying for embassies with the International Assistance Envelope and calling it development. Development requires five tests to be met.

1. Money has to flow. It can’t be in-kind contributions or cutting tariffs as part of a new trade deal, it has to be an actual flow of resources. No flow, no aid.

2. Only government money counts. The private sector or the public can do aid too, of course, it just doesn’t count toward ODA. Lots of countries want to count the other organizations too, reflecting  a different view of the role of government and the people, but only government assistance counts.

3. A developing country has to be the recipient. This means we can’t suddenly do “aid” in the U.S. or France. However, considering there are 148 countries on the OECD’s list of eligible recipients, including some high-income developing countries, this may give some pause. On the other hand, India, China and Brazil have disparity issues with huge populations living below the poverty line that would dwarf the combined population of the lowest 48 on the list. In other words, you can still do aid in those countries and focus on those who need it most, and still be doing “development”.

4. Benefit of developing countries. This is the big element in CIDA’s favour as you can’t suddenly just do things in Canada’s interest and call them aid. So the OECD has a list of activities that count (health, education, etc.) and a list of those that don’t (military spending, peacekeeping, anti-terrorism). While you may see Canada do some upstream activities like PSD or trade-related technical assistance rather than “basic human needs” type programming, most of the rhetoric focuses on the potential for skewing priorities away from the most vulnerable — like those receiving humanitarian assistance. But DFAIT has always been on board for humanitarian assistance, so no reason to expect that to change.

5. Grant / concessionality. Since most donors don’t do “loans” anymore, this is almost irrelevant because all the Gs&Cs are “grant/concessional” (i.e. the test is if more than 25% of the project is concessional, while in fact CIDA projects are 100% concessional).

So when pundits say that “pure development” will be compromised, I think they’re dancing on the head of a rhetorical pin. While they want to suggest that the money won’t be for development anymore, projects still have to fit the OECD definition of development (however wobbly that definition is). For Canadian aid, of the five elements, 1 (flow), 2 (government money) and 5 (grant) won’t change. The only possibility for change is on 3 (which countries) or 4 (types of projects). It’ll still go to developing countries, it’ll still be development projects.

But if we’re going to have the conversation about how part 3 or 4 will be compromised, can we at least dig down a little deeper? Because there is a lot better debate if one is talking about in which eligible countries the aid will reach the most in need or talking about how one form of development is better/more effective than another, rather than just using ill-defined rhetoric to sayi CIDA’s way is development and DFAIT’s suggestions are not.

 Okay, so I missed a lot of my content. But at just under 600 words, it’s not a bad summary of what I was trying to say.  Thanks for the challenge!

Happy reading,

PolyWogg

 

Apr 122013
 
Government

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging about the merger of FAC and CIDA and some of the implementation issues that I think they’ll face. In the short-term, it’s probably mostly about basic implementation and structural questions. In the medium-term, there’s a larger question about “what does ‘development’ mean in a Canadian context”, how the new DFATD sets priorities, and even how to potentially modify legislation that appears to be narrowly focused on development but is really an almost-meaningless bit of rhetoric that combines apples, oranges and potentially a few truck parts, and calls it “poverty reduction”.

Yet, even as people focus on the short-term (CIDA: We got FACked!, FAC: DFATD, not DeFeATeD!) and medium-term (calling all pundits), it isn’t in my opinion anything close to the greatest threat facing the new DFATD in the long-term.

To borrow a cliché, CIDA and FAC are two unique cultures separated by a common language around Canada, goverment and internationalism.

FAC has culture?

I know, it comes as a shock to most people. But I mean small “c” culture, not Cultural Affairs-type culture, although many of them have that too. So, let’s look at that culture. And, reader beware, I might even say some nice things about them.

Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are a pretty impressive workforce, at least on paper. Highly educated, a lot of lawyers and economists, many with strong international experience before they join, and language skills. With thousands applying every year, and ongoing recruitment almost every year for 100 lucky souls, FAC has a pretty good system and time-honed methodology for recruitment and interviewing. Sure, they tweak it a little bit here and there, sometimes looking for more lawyers here or fewer economists there, this or that language speciality, etc., but they know what they are getting.

That’s just to get in the door. Then they send them all on french training to get their CCC profile in their second language, although many get EEC or EEE. While the rest of the government gets by on English / French essential or BBB profiles, Foreign Affairs needs fully bilingual people to represent our country in our two official languages. The downside of course to full-time language training is two-fold. The obvious one is cost, and the main reason other departments don’t do it. The second, less obvious, downside is that full-time language training is not as much fun as one might think, and you spend up to a year talking about your job, your background and your opinions on anything and everything. Isolated. With other FSOs who look like you, talk like you, and on a bad day in the mirror, are, in fact, you. This may lead to one of two extreme results — you’re either so fed up with talking about yourself that you’re willing to do anything else, or you end up a raging narcissist who firmly believes in the divine right of Kings passing from King/Queen to PM to FSO. That’s not a side-effect for some, but part and parcel of being able to say to someone, “Canada believes…” and not feel the least bit ridiculous doing it.

Then they start actually working at HQ. Fort Pearson. Again, extremely isolated from the rest of Government. So who do they talk to? Diplomats from other countries during working hours, each other at lunchtime and in the halls, and if you’re a baby diplomat, a lot of young politicos on the Hill in your dating life. Many with the same credentials and background. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about blue blood backgrounds, although there are some of those, just that you get a very unique crop of people if everyone has a pretty strong resume just to start work.

But I know what you’re thinking — didn’t I say I was going to say something nice about FSOs? I am. Really. Right now. Between the selection process, early training, and early work experience, plus a very top-down heirarchical organization, you get a very polished product out of all of it. Highly educated people going in, fully bilingual people coming out with knowledge of political relations, trade deals, negotiations, compromise, and building interpersonal (albeit superficial and transient) relationships with partners.

If you take a group of strongly skilled individuals, isolate them from the rest of Government, wave a flag in front of their nose, spend tons of money on training them, get them to the point where they feel comfortable speaking on “behalf” of a country without the pain of an election, and then make them define themselves in basic competition with other diplomats, you get a very strong corporate identity for the Foreign Service Officers who survive the first five year assimilation process.

They become Canadian FSOs. They think corporately, they share information corporately. They respect hierarchy as the saviour from chaos or at least from looking inconsistent. They meet high level foreign diplomats and talk about issues of substance, but they see themselves as part of the machinery that shapes, molds, and delivers Canadian Foreign Policy. They are strong, they are proud, and they operate with a common groupthink mentality. Or at least that is how it seems to a lot of outsiders — indistinguishable widgets. One country desk, one FSO, and if one falls, there’s another lining up to take their place.

Take for example a trip by an FSO. Sorry, I mean a mission. What is the first thing they do when the mission ends? They write a report. They’ll sanitize the crap out of it, make it almost bland by the time they’re done, but it will be tighter than most academic papers at even a graduate level. No mistakes in nuance. Nothing left to interpret unless it’s sensitive. They know the difference between enhance, strengthen and improve, and they care deeply which one they use to convey the perfect description. They live and die by the word, and it will be clear and informative. Then they send it. And they will copy a good chunk of the Department. Anyone who could possibly benefit from that report will get a copy. You do not hoard information from the Collective, unless it’s sensitive. Because heaven forbid that a FSO who works on China desk didn’t get a copy of the latest APEC reporting email (I almost wrote TELEX there, dang I’m old) and doesn’t know what China, Taipei and Hong Kong said at the meeting on trade promotion. In the past, it was also a given that you sent it to “divisions” (i.e. you would send it to the China division), not to named individuals. It was their position in the structure that made them be copied, not just their personality. Plus, with a highly rotational staff, someone else could be doing the job this week. So you copied the division.

If you work in another department, you could read that paragraph above, and think “So what? We copy everybody too.” Except you missed the nuance — they copied people not to cover their own ass, but to share info. It’s expected. You have to do it. Thou shalt not leave someone off the official distribution list. One of the first rules of Fort Pearson. But here’s the real kicker — people actually read the dang reports. And use the info from it. LOTS of people. It’s part of their job. They are super-desk-officers who crave intel from anyone, anytime, anywhere. They are sponges who absorb, never knowing when it might be useful. But they all do it. Both in sending and receiving. Maybe not automatically or by instinct in the first five years, but if you do your first posting, return to the hell that is headquarters, and stay on, you will be assimilated into that culture.

Of course, around town with other departments that do international affairs, most of them think FSOs are all a bunch of giant asses. Arrogant, substance-free, suits with no idea of how real policy or programming is done. Indistinguishable widgets who know nothing about the substance of the OGD’s files, but want to tell them how to do international relations. Of course, from the FSO perspective, most of the OGD’s are not people you want to take to dinner with foreign diplomats, nor trust with “representing Canada”. Heck, most of them aren’t even fluently bilingual let alone the fact that they’re willing to push narrow policy agendas over ensuring lasting bilateral relations.

But FSOs are, as a bunch, extremely impressive. I’m of the view that no matter where you work, what sector or industry, what type of work you do, etc., there is always deadwood somewhere around you. The guy who just phones it in and couldn’t care less, the gal who spends too much time socializing. Usually you can figure out in a few weeks or months at most who are the “strong” players and who are the “weak” members of the herd. When I worked at DFAIT, it took me almost two years to be able to tell “weak” FSOs from “strong” ones, but I would generally say it was more “average ones” from “really strong ones”. They’re professional, they clean up nice, they write and talk well, and they deal with weighty issues. And they represent THEIR COUNTRY! Heck, if they worked for DND, they’d be taking over countries and establishing colonies. Let’s be grateful they only fire words at other people.

CIDA embraces cultures

So imagine going from that environment — strongly hierarchical, strongly corporate, highly professional environment, where most wear suits every day — to CIDA. CIDA is not hierarchical, it is not corporate-minded in its operations, it is highly professional but in a very different way, and most people do not wear suits unless they’re an EX. Culture shock isn’t the word for it.

Let me tell you about how I went from DFAIT to CIDA in the first place. Despite having far more interest in municipal government than international government, I left my academic studies as a law and MPA student to work for DFAIT. I started as a lowly graduate co-op student, then a contractor with larger and larger per diem rates, then a general desk officer, and then a term information officer. I did summits, logistics, wrote reports, attended bilateral meetings, wrote more reports, acted as liaison officer a few times, etc. Lots of junior FS type work, without the formal training. And generally got indoctrinated into the culture.

It really wasn’t a good fit for my blue collar domestic administration leanings, but they are a pretty impressive bunch, so I wrote the exam and made it to the interview stage before bombing out. My bosses told me to reapply the next year, and so I did. Except they had changed the criteria somewhat and one of the academic groups I’d qualified in before wasn’t available that year. So I said that I had 3 years experience working for the Department. In the wonkiness that is DFAIT HR, they decided that experience working for the Department doing junior FS work was not as relevant as having studied abroad, and I got screened out. Apparently they even had to have a meeting to discuss me because a bunch of people on the board disagreed with the screening out — I met one of the Board members almost 10 years later, and he remembered my name enough to ask me if I had been that guy! At least I made an impression. :) The next year they instituted a dual process — one for internal candidates and one for external candidates, but by then I had already made it through the process at CIDA. For me, it was another international department, a way to become indeterminate. I wasn’t a Birkenstock-wearing, dyed in the wool (literally), card carrying development officer. In fact, I apparently shocked CIDA because I requested the Multilateral Branch as my first choice, UN Division if possible. Nobody had ever asked for a non-bilateral branch before.

So my first week at CIDA was that shock I mentioned. One of my first assignments was to comment on a paper from their policy branch. It had been drafted, talked about what was going on internationally on a narrow but emerging area, and they circulated it for comment. As I read it, I realized that they had almost nothing about what the UN had done on the file, nothing from G8, nothing from Commonwealth, APEC, etc. It really just summarized what a couple of key donors had done. It was good, but far from what DFAIT would have considered complete. So I did a bunch of research, even stayed late a couple of nights to drill down on some of the details, added about 6 pages of tight prose to a 10 page document, covered a bunch of multilateral institutions. I was green, so I missed a couple of big ones that I should have known about, but it was pretty good. So I showed it to my supervisor who basically admitted he hadn’t expected that much work so fast, and that level of substance. He read it, our DG read it, and they approved it. With no changes other than a minor edit or two. At DFAIT, it would have gone through at least three edits, and the first one would have been fairly substantial. Nope, I got “Good work. Send it.”

I realized as I was about to press send that it was on behalf of the branch, so I checked to be sure I was copying the VP (ADM level) of our Branch. Yep, there was her divisional acronym. Clicked on it, the computer whirred for a second, and it replaced the link with her name. Did it again, same result. Asked my boss who said, “Oh, right, good idea, let’s copy her. And yes, it goes to her by name, not division.” I gave them a draft of the email, with the distribution list — but only got a puzzled response. They really couldn’t figure out why I was asking who else to copy. First rule of DFAIT — don’t leave anyone off. First rule of CIDA — send first, copy later if you think of it. So I pressed send.

That night, as I was getting ready to go, the ADM stopped by my cubicle. It was before 5:00. She was leaving. I had met her earlier in the week, as part of the general meet and greet tour, but you do that just about anywhere. Remember, this is an ADM level person in charge of $500M in programming per year. She stopped by my cubicle, having to go out of her way to get there, to tell me she appreciated the work I did on the input, and even mentioned a couple of key sections she liked (to show she’d read it). After she left, I went to see our DG and the deputy director and I told them they had to ease me into this culture thing at CIDA — positive feedback, relaxed approach to writing reports, fast approvals, flat hierarchies? That was NOT the government work I was used to! But I liked it!

So, let’s back up a bit and do the same analysis as for FAC. CIDA was not actively recruiting every year like DFAIT — CIDA’s workforce is relatively stable. It doesn’t turn over like DFAIT’s did, people tended to come and stay pretty much for life. There were no front page articles in the Ottawa Citizen saying you could make more money as a roofer than an FSO or that it was more fun in academia. People often got hired through interactions already with the Department. Or straight from NPSIA. Some people hired back in the late 70s, early 80s did so by coming for an interview, and being told to “take any desk”. They hired people with development backgrounds, sure, but it wasn’t based on a tried and true methodology like DFAIT had been using. It was simpler and it worked just fine — like DFAIT’s recruitment base, if you want to work for government and do development, there’s only one real place to go. So when there was an opening, CIDA had no trouble filling it with a bright shiny development wonk.

The other influx of people at CIDA were a strong cadre of former FSOs who were given a choice at one point — convert to being a political FSO or move to CIDA. Those who were unhappy in the DFAIT structure jumped to CIDA where promotions were more likely and less political. Not surprisingly, a lot of women jumped at the time. While it would be hard to say CIDA management has been gender friendly writ large for its staff, it shines in comparison with DFAIT where representation in upper ranks used to be abysmal and if you got pregnant while on posting, you were sent back to Canada, never to return. Your posting was just “done”.

Training at CIDA is, umm, what’s the word…missing. Yeah, missing. As in mostly non-existent. Forget language training to full fluency, it’s not needed. If they need C level french for programming, they use francophones. BBB is encouraged, but getting approved for it is far from automatic. You can however have as much training as you want in how to work the financial systems. That is the bread and butter of bilateral programming — disbursing funds. No money, no development. So you get MAs and Ph.Ds approving contracts and contribution agreements, working computer systems to get project memos going, and generally doing a lot of administration that most departments do on the “back-end” with non-subject-matter-experts. But if you want to do bilateral program design, which requires your development knowledge, you do program operations too. It goes with the job.

When do you start work? The first day. No shipping you off for months of training. Nope, you start pretty much immediately. But unlike FAC where you identify as an CANADIAN FSO, most people at CIDA have a different identity path. They see themselves as part of a global development network. They are aid workers, development officers, humanitarian assistance providers. That is their primary identity card. After that, it varies somewhat. I’ve joked that many of the CIDAites conveniently forget they work for the Government of Canada, but it isn’t untrue either. Many of them like to believe that they work for the largest NGO in Canada, just with better pay and benefits yet fewer chances to “see or do” real development on the ground. Just as some junior FSOs are rudely awakened to the reality that their life won’t be one long diplomatic reception but rather a series of interminable meetings and report writing interspersed with interesting events, many Development Officers (DOs) at CIDA start work there thinking they are going to be “doing” development without realizing that like most government Gs&Cs programs, they will be “funding” others to do the work, not doing it themselves.

The real work of CIDA though is in setting up those funding arrangements. Not the “funding” itself, those are just cheques, but in the development of projects, sequencing of work items, what any other department would call “program and project design”. Working with countries and NGO partners to come up with funding priorities and a “country strategy” that can guide the programming…in short, identifying needs and finding ways together to meet them. It isn’t the short-term and somewhat transient relations of DFAIT, but hopefully deep partnerships on concrete projects that will “do” something, make a change in someone’s life.

How does it work? Pretty dang well, but it’s hard to tell because unlike DFAIT, CIDA has almost no clue how to tell the right stories to toot their own horn. After all, they are part of a global network so the network takes credit, not an individual program or project. But CIDA doesn’t think “corporately” as DFAIT does. Instead, it tends to be flatter in behaviour, yet surprisingly siloed. They share information on best practices by sector — such as horizontal info sharing on education projects — but generally speaking, country programs work in isolation from other country programs. If someone goes on a trip, the only one who cares about the report on Bangladesh is the Bangladesh division. Nobody else is likely even to be copied, certainly not their Policy Branch. Unless there is a para on education projects, that might get forwarded to the education people. But while someone might think of themselves as part of the “Asia” group, there is no sense that they are all part of an Asia branch strategy, working together on a common goal for Asia. The goals are alleviating poverty and facilitating development, not waving a flag. So, going back to the identity thing, they are not CANADIAN DOs, they are GLOBAL AID WORKERS who work for the Canadian government. Some feel patriotic about it, some don’t.

Simple examples

As an example of how things differ between departments, look at Junior Advisor positions at the UN for the yearly General Assembly. At DFAIT, it is an annual bloody battle to be chosen as one of the JAs going to New York for three months. It is DFAIT HR at its worst — old boys networks making calls, pressure from Ambassadors on the decision-makers, backstabbing amongst competitors. And it is not unwarranted bloodsport. There are few temporary duty assignments for political FSOs before their first posting; UNGA is one of them. So everyone wants it. And those who get it have a leg up in their first posting competition — after all, if you have a bunch of indistinguishable widgets, and one of them has good work experience that the others don’t, you might hire them for the best first postings. They come back with better experience than the person who took a tier 3 quality posting, so they get better jobs when they reintegrate. Which snowballs. End result? A disproportionate number of EXs at DFAIT who are former UNGA junior advisors.

Hop over to CIDA. The Agency STOPPED sending people to UNGA for awhile because (a) nobody was interested and (b) it was expensive. DFAIT asked for help a few years later, they reinstated the JA position for a CIDAite, and so the Multilateral Branch chose someone the first year. No real competition, there was only one person in the Branch interested. Year 2, it was me…there might have been other candidates, but I worked in the UN division, so I was an automatic lock (at DFAIT, being in the UN division actually hurt some people in some years competitions!). We ran it the next year as an open competition, mainly at my urging, and we had about 8 candidates apply. Other years it was one or two, some years it went to fifteen, some years it was someone who worked in the right division. No battles, no political process. Relatively open and transparent, and heavily reliant on people from previous years talking up the experience. Not something most people at CIDA would want to do — policy, multilateral, relations work. If it ain’t on the ground, they’re not interested.

Same story for Cabinet Affairs jobs. People at DFAIT have been known to be somewhat, umm, aggressive in seeking those positions; at CIDA, they ran the notices several times trying to solicit interest and finally had to advertise openly across Government. Not a priority for Development Officers.

For me, it was heaven. I love corporate stuff, I love policy work, I think more multilaterally than bilaterally, and I tend to think organizationally anyway. I had lots of opportunity to move up informally while waiting for my substantive level to catch up, and it was great. I even got to work in the DM’s office without a lot of competition to get there at the time. But it’s also really hard doing corporate work in an Agency that does not think corporately. On a good day, you’re pushing string; on a bad day, you’re wondering how the heck someone can work for a government department and think it is okay to go to Quebec City and protest their government’s international policies. On a bus paid for by their union. There is something called a “duty of loyalty” and it is attached to that paycheque they cashed. Not to mention they were partially protesting policies that their own coworkers at CIDA had been part of developing. At DFAIT, you’d be fired, on the spot. At CIDA, nobody batted an eye. Cuz their passion comes from their identity as global aid workers and it goes with the job.

But it doesn’t change the fact that the DOs are a highly professional group with a strong skill set and extensive knowledge in their area. Just not in the way DFAIT expects to see it or operates.

So, what now, Brown Cow?

You have FSOs who are really good at one particular form of strategic policy and generic priority-setting (high on corporate coordination, low on evidence-based analysis). And you have DOs who are really strong and knowledgable about program design and project operations (high on process and results monitoring, low on corporate coordination). For some departments, that would sound like a match made in heaven — a good handoff point. But the problem is they are experts in two different types of internationalism, have two completely different corporate identities and cultures, and require two completely different ways of working.

If DFATD goes for a full integration model, the crap is going to hit the fan as soon as the first competition comes along for an EX job. By standard practices, anyone at the EX minus 1 level would be eligible to compete. Let’s look though at the various components of an EX position:

  • Size of workforce managed — neither group manages large groups of people, too many people reporting only to the Director, so mixed outcome;
  • Complexity of file — relations are usually considered more complex than managing Gs&Cs, so DFAIT gets the edge;
  • Size of budgets — CIDA has smaller operating budgets perhaps but the programming budget of some divisions dwarfs entire branches of DFAIT, so CIDA gets the edge;
  • Visibility of files — Mixed, depends on country files, but DFAIT probably gets the edge since most Canadians can’t spell “development”;

You will have people with very different skill sets all competing for the same EX jobs. Worse still if it is a more senior EX job like an ADM-level position. Whichever way the competition is run, and what weighting is given, neither side is going to be happy.

At the working level, they do have two things in common though, and neither are good from an HR perspective. First, the working level for FSOs is FS2 and 3; for DOs, it is PM5 and 6. Which means if they don’t get an EX position, the likelihood is they could go their entire careers with only one promotion. Sure, they get lateral positions and postings, but no promotions. Second, both groups are represented by what are, for all intents and purposes, extremely dysfunctional unions (PAFSO and PSAC) who have a hard time articulating what the majority of their membership actually wants (both unions have a history of recommending against contracts that they claim are not what their members want, only to have those same members ratify them, plus many of the members view any union as suspicious as they don’t think “professionals” should have or need unions).

Potentially unhappy professional groups, with possibly little chance for promotion, and potentially poor labour representation. What could possibly go wrong?

Which in a nutshell is why I think the long-term challenges for DFATD are enormous. How do you get two such disparate cultures to work together? I live for structural issues, corporate problems, and HR challenges, and I confess, I haven’t got a freakin’ clue where to even start. All I can say is good luck.

Happy reading,

PolyWogg

 

Apr 112013
 
Government

For those who know me in person, you know that I’m pretty much a government-wonk. Not in the “I care deeply about politics”, because I don’t. Generally, I think there are a lot of good people out there who do care about those things, and care deeply about the policy direction of various parties etc., but my policy interests are a lot more narrow. However, I do have very strong views about how things are implemented once a decision is taken as to direction, and most of my posts about government will have that as a running theme.

Take for example two very different articles about government and laws in today’s New York Times. The first, about Latvia of all places, reflects the decision that government works best when it is “by the people”. Political engagement at the grassroots level. In Latvia, because they had low political engagement by its citizens, they launched a rule — if a citizen gets 10K signatures on a proposal for legislators, their Parliament will look at it and consider it. Think of it as the deep deep deep deep backbencher option for a private member’s bill.

The plight of local dogs left tied up alone outdoors has long bothered Mr. Grunte, a soft-spoken father of two and a translator of technical documents. So in January he went online and, using ManaBalss.lv, a Latvian Web site whose name translates to “My Voice,” created a parliamentary bill to make the practice illegal in Latvia. “I’ve never done anything political before,” he said. “But this was very easy.”

With the help of ManaBalss, he has a chance to see his proposal enacted into law by the Latvian Parliament. Thanks to a parliamentary rule passed shortly after the opening of the ManaBalss site in 2011, initiatives that gather 10,000 signatures from citizens 16 or older must be taken up by Parliament. Signatures can be gathered online, where they are verified using the same transaction codes that Latvians use for online banking.

Two more ManaBalss initiatives, one about traffic law and another about who should pay for hepatitis C treatment, are under consideration in Parliament..

via A Web Site Where Latvians’ Ideas Can Become Law – NYTimes.com.

When I read an article like this, my mind starts raising in a bunch of different directions:

  1. Low citizen engagement, a lack of trust in government, so they need to find new ways to engage. I get it.
  2. It took an entrepreneur to set up and run the website? Doesn’t that strike anyone not only as ripe for abuse but also just reinforcing the lack of trust in government?
  3. It’s only 10K signatures to get Parliament to look at it, and e-signatures count? Maybe it’s because Latvia has only 2.5m people, but that seems like a pretty low threshold to tie up Parliament’s time with potentially ill-advised, ill-conceived, poorly-designed proposals;
  4. EC, Finland and Iceland are experimenting with doing the same…none of which are “western-style” democracies with similar views of the role of government as Canadians and Americans have, I wonder how portable it is; and,
  5. It’s hard to argue with results — frivolous ideas fall by the wayside pretty quick, but the support for the e-signature petitions has already passed Parliament as well as transparency regarding off-shore holdings, with consideration pending for how to and who should pay for Hep C treatments and revisions to traffic laws.

I’m doubtful it would work in Canada very well, unless it was equally scalable — perhaps 100K+ signatures, and as with Latvia, verified e-signatures not simply sign up with fake email addresses and home addresses. Wouldn’t be hard to do with Elections Canada or CRA data.

Then I read an article that takes a Western-style democracy and tosses the goals of due process and fair elections out the window, despite lots of legal protections in place. Meet Nelson L. Castro, NY assemblyman and informer on corruption in government. And, oh, yeah, he’s guilty too:

Since 2009, just nine months after he was elected to the Assembly, he had led a double life: simultaneously representing the West Bronx in the Legislature, and informing on his colleagues to state and federal prosecutors investigating public corruption.On Thursday, Mr. Castro abruptly said he would resign under a deal to avoid prosecution himself, after the United States attorney in Manhattan announced that his cooperation had led to bribery charges against Assemblyman Eric A. Stevenson, a fellow Democrat whose district adjoins that of Mr. Castro, as well as four other men.

<snip>

Lawmakers are transfixed — and, in some corners, alarmed — by a situation that seems more Hollywood than Albany: a legislator working for years as a law enforcement mole, all the while introducing bills and casting votes like any other legislator.

<snip>

Mr. Castro, 41, agreed to work with prosecutors after he was secretly indicted on three counts of perjury in the summer of 2009; the government claimed that in 2008, before he was elected, he lied during testimony he gave under oath during a lawsuit brought by a political rival who had accused him of election law violations. Almost immediately after he was notified of the sealed indictment, in August 2009, he began cooperating with the Bronx district attorney’s office; in 2011 he began working with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

<snip>

Mr. Castro’s cooperation was apparently valuable enough that prosecutors kept from the public the fact that he had been indicted, allowing him twice to successfully run for re-election, in 2010 and 2012.

via Assemblyman and Informer, Nelson L. Castro Led Double Life – NYTimes.com.

It is that last paragraph that bothers me horrendously. I get that corruption in government undermines the very fabric of the society that has been created. I get that it is an evil that comes as close to a form of treason as you can without actually endangering the national security of your country. But to combat that corruption by withholding information from the electorate (i.e. that he was indicted on perjury charges) which goes to the very credibility of the candidate for whom that electorate is casting votes, and to do it not only once, but twice? As Machiavelli said, one must always look to the means, and while I admire their end goal, the means in this case do almost as much harm.

But that’s just me apparently.

Happy reading,

PolyWogg

Apr 092013
 
writing_publishing2

I admit that I have developed an almost unhealthy fascination with the publishing industry’s changes over the last five years. Separate from my own vested interest, I am also interested from an analytical perpective. People argue that “self-publishing” or “ebooks” are the changes that are sweeping their way through the publishing world, but I personally feel that it is more about the disentanglement of a previously integrated and controlled business model.

In the past, you had authors who produced content as a raw product, agents who marketed those raw materials to publisher after publisher, or editor by editor at each publisher, and publishers who took the raw product, massaged it, processed it, turned it into a final product, and took the sellable version to market. And there were huge barriers to entry into the market — agents wouldn’t take just anyone, publishers often wanted only agent-repped products, stores and libraries would mainly take books only from the Big Six publishers or their subsidiaries. Breaking into those areas would give you huge leverage, but they were jealously guarded corridors of power.

However, in recent years, the whole business model has been disrupted end to end…authors can get their books on Amazon and in ebook form without an agent or a publisher. They can get their own ISBN numbers, they can form small publishers to hide their “self” status if they want. They can hire copy editors, substantive editors, cover artists, publicists, anybody that the Big Six used to hire for big names. And, shhh, don’t tell anyone, but a lot of those editors and artists and publicists are the same ones the Big Six use, just selling their wares as freelance.

It’s a fascinating time for disruptions in the industry, so I was excited to see what the Guardian published on “Ten Ways Self-Publishing Has Changed the Books World”:

After a boom year in self-publishing the headlines are getting a little predictable. Most feature a doughty author who quickly builds demand for her work and is rewarded with a large contract from the traditional industry.

<snip>

1. There is now a wider understanding of what publishing is…

<snip>

5. The role of the author is changing…

<snip>

7. New business models and opportunities are springing up,

via Ten ways self-publishing has changed the books world | Books | guardian.co.uk.

I don’t agree with most of the conclusions of the author of the article, or at least not the nuances, but I do agree with the general trend. I was surprised though that they didn’t hammer home more on the issue of “time to market”. Overall, that is the largest single change that is disrupting the industry. Within days of the selection of the new Pope, authors were putting up books on Amazon. Some of them quite substantial and high-quality. In traditional publishing, the window would have been 18-24 months normally or super high rush could do it in 6 perhaps. I think too that Indie bookstores who are excited about getting in on Kobo sales should look instead at the POD market — there are printers that you can have in your shop, giant photo copier/printers essentially, that can print and blue-bind a book with a glossy cover in about an hour. Any book, any time, hard copy. That’s disruption.