Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is Calgary Doomed To Collapse?

The doom of a nation can be averted only by a storm of flowing passion, but only those who are passionate themselves can arouse passion in others. - Adolf Hitler

You can calm down now.  I like the quote because it speaks many truths even though the person to whom the quote is attributed to was a monster.

When Joe Arvai (@DecisionLab) suggested in a Globe and Mail piece that data points to the possibility that Calgary could follow the path of Detroit into oblivion, he upset a lot of people also.

I agree they should be upset but not in the revengeful, caustic way some of them have been towards him.

It’s because his data should be a wakeup call, a call to use data to either prove him wrong OR to prove him right, the latter being followed by a strategic plan to create a stronger future.

It’s like getting upset with your car because the brake light has come on.  The sensors are merely using the data available to suggest that there may be a problem if corrective action is not taken and a warning light comes on as a result.  Yelling at the light itself serves no valuable purpose whatsoever.

We live in a curious world where realities and rationalized myths compete for our attention.

Politicians, diplomats and corporate leaders sell us the mantra that the world continues to get better and better and that anyone who would say anything to the contrary is a pessimist. 

I posit that many pessimists are in fact realists who acknowledge that the world is a beautiful place but who also recognize that such beauty could be interrupted or lost if we don’t choose to fix things that threaten it.

They are optimistic realists (or realistic optimists).

Consider these items ….

1. Airline security keeps the amateur from doing something stupid to us.  However, there are plenty of opportunities for the professional terrorist (or idiot) to take down a plane or gain access to the “impenetrable cockpit”.  We know that acknowledging this will severely hamper the aviation industry (and thus the economy overall) and so we don’t talk about it.

2. As long as nuclear and bio weapons exist in the world, there is the potential for us to wipe ourselves out either accidentally, purposefully or through the acts of a third party (e.g. a cyber attack that deploys the weapons).  We invent useless things like duck-and-cover to help people feel safe in the meantime.

3. Our national and international infrastructure (including the distribution of food, water, energy and other critical services) is at high risk  for compromise for a number of reasons.  Talking about it makes people too nervous … and so we don’t.

4. We cannot protect ourselves from terrorist attacks (including on a large scale) unless we are prepared to give up 100% of our freedom.  We insist on having both our freedom and our safety, a mutual exclusivity that is impossible to create and so the results are predictable.  However, we reserve the right to act surprised / affronted when an event occurs.

5. Wall St. and our government financial models remain a ticking time bomb, filled with unsustainable practices that benefit the minority while punishing the majority when the occasional hiccup (artificial, accidental or intentional) occurs.  Sooner or later, the hiccup will be really big but we dismiss such talk as gloom and doom – we are told to be grateful to “live for today”.

6. Built-in obsolescence, while driving our economy quite nicely, is ultimately unsustainable for the economy or the planet.  We do a little recycling to show how this small act has somehow saved the planet.

7. There is no emergency preparedness plan for the masses should a large-scale emergency take place.  There are many ideas that will be tested during an event and there will be political rhetoric during and after an event about “how we rose to the occasion” but so far we have been lucky. A Life built entirely around luck eventually encounters a patch of bad luck.

8. 80+% of the IT systems being built today are garbage, being overcomplicated by over zealous architects, being little understood by developers who rely more on their tools than their brains, are too lightly tested “because we’re in a hurry”, etc.  People who refute such suggestions point to the great frameworks, architecture and processes they embrace while being silent about how their projects run way over budget, extend well past their implementation deadlines, are largely untested, are routinely compromised, etc.  Since much of our society runs on these systems, this also a fundamental problem that we choose not to talk about.

Examples such as these aren’t examples of pessimism.  They are examples of reality.

There is also no irony lost in the fact that people who bring these things up with the intention of making the nation stronger end up on the same watch lists as those who would seek to tear our nation down. 

Paranoia under the guise of preparedness doesn’t discriminate. :-)

We can choose to ignore examples such as these, knowing that statistics, stupidity, greed or Murphy’s Law will eventually catch up to us.  We can also label people who discuss such things as pessimists like those who criticized Prime Minister Chamberlain’s famous “Peace for our time” quote only to be proven right a year later when World War 2 erupted.

Voltaire noted the problem of ignoring reality when he said:

Everything's fine today, that is our illusion.

When someone appears with data that suggests that something needs to be fixed, it is ok to get passionate about such warnings.

In fact, getting passionate about them is often a good thing as long as we use our passion to objectively verify the existence of the problem, validate a solution if necessary and take action where appropriate instead of engaging in a game of “shoot the messenger” just because the messenger’s data has created a sense of unease that we would rather turn our back on.

Data offered in theory requires data to challenge it.

Only then will we know if the person who proposed the original theory is wrong, insane or an absolute pessimist or if that person is a realist who is merely trying to save us.

When the “brake light of society” comes on, we must have experts examine the data that illuminated it to determine if it is merely a “faulty sensor” or if something actually needs to be corrected.

Because merely yelling at the warning light doesn’t solve anything and could produce a result that, while potentially fatal, could or should have been prevented.

In service and servanthood,


Addendum – December 10, 2013

Edmund Burke once said:

Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

Hegel more pragmatically / critically said (roughly translated):

History teaches us that history teaches us nothing.

I’d like to add my own variation:

History teaches us that we choose to learn nothing until forced to and then we relive history. Unfortunately, relearning history is like the pendulum in "The Pit and the Pendulum"- every swing gets a little lower and a little closer to producing finality.

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