3rd September

A long week-end of string quartets in Banff – the Banff International String Quartets Competition (BISQC). Held every three years, ten string quartets (whose members have to be under 35 years old) compete for one of the biggest prizes in the string quartet world. We get to listen to wonderful music. They get to play alongside their peers and to connect with some of the great players, like David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet, one of the judges. They also have access to best educated audiences in the world – which includes many former players, many serious concert management people, instrument makers and just well informed concert goers. They also get to play a great repertoire, including a new piece commissioned by the competition – this year by Matthew Whittall, a Canadian who lives in Finland.

Quartets by Haydn, Bartok, Ligeti, Ravel, Mendelsohn, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Dvorak, Franck, Tchaikovsky, Purcell, Stravinsky, Schubert, Shostakovich, Prokoviev, Haas, Ades, Aurebach, Sciarrino, Schnittke, Rihm, Webern, Kurtag, Dutilleux filled the room with lush, rich and challenging sounds (especially the Sciarrino).

The audience spends breakfast, lunch and dinner discussing what they heave heard and their choices for winning quartets. Most of us got the top three – Marmen, Callisto and Viano – but none none of us anticipated that the judges would award two of them the top prize. For the firs time in the history of the competition (the first run was in 1983) the judges chose Marmen and Viano to share that prize. Callisto won the prize for second place. My friend and colleague Bill Ranking explains what they win here.

Musical competitions are difficult things. How do you make the choice from ten world-class quartets – all of them had won prizes and awards before Banff – who play different pieces of music in different ways? Even when they play the exact same piece – the Mark Whittall String Quartet Number 2 “Bright Ferment” – it is interpreted differently by each quartet. My own strategy, despite enthusiastic conversations with fellow BISQC’ers over meals and wine, is to simply hear the music. It’s moving, inspirational and emotional. The finalists playing of Beethoven was simply magnificent.

If you get a chance to hear Marmen or Viano near you – GO!

6th Septemeber

Shortly after being elected Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney asked a panel of people to find ways of reducing expenditure in Alberta so that Alberta could “balance its books” and become debt free. He did this: (a) after giving away $4.5 billion in tax cuts to already profitable corporations; and (b) eliminating Alberta’s carbon levy – an essential ingredient for the social license to operate asked for by the major oil and gas companies.

The “blue ribbon” panel, known as the MacKinnon panel after its chairperson, was asked to examine and make recommendations on:

  • department and agency trends and cost drivers
  • the governments fiscal outlook
  • a plan to balance the budget by 2022-23 without raising taxes
  • a new fiscal framework that requires future balanced budgets
  • a plan to retire the accumulated debt
  • an approach to government’s operating and capital budgeting, fiscal planning and reporting processes

The panel was heavily influenced by the fact that several members have ties to the Fraser Institute – a conservative think-tank, in part funded by the Koch brothers, which routinely trashes the idea of public good and public service and distorts data so as to make their case. The chair of the blue ribbon panel is a Fraser Institute associate.

The very premise of the panels work – do not look at revenue only at expenditure and balance the budget quickly and permanently – are flawed. No sensible organization would develop a financial strategy which did not look at revenues and the value of debt, especially with interest rates as low as they are now.

A profitable Canadian company has debt. They use it to create assets and future-focused investments to produce wealth. Air Canada does not but its aircraft with cash, it uses debt. Companies rarely buy property outright, they use debt.

Governments use debt to invest in the future – building schools, funding education, enabling public health, supporting infrastructure projects like roads, water systems, broadband. Debt is not a bad thing and the idea of being debt free is one of those nonsense ideas that Jason Kenney has been a proponent of for sometime. He sees debt as a sign of weakness, rather than seeing it as one of the tools of the job.

The issue is how much debt is manageable. Alberta’s net debt (debt-assets) per capita is the lowest in Canada and our net debt to GDP ratio is the lowest in Canada and amongst the lowest of any jurisdiction in the developed world.

The analysis by the panel is also deeply flawed. They compared expenditures of the Alberta government with those of other provinces without considering: (a) the revenues of these provinces and their taxation strategy; (b) the debt levels of these provinces; and (c) the GDP per capita and wage rates in these provinces.

Alberta has the lowest program expenditure relative to GDP of any province in Canada. While the absolute number looks higher than in other Provinces, our GDP per capita is also much higher. One telling number – our government revenues as a % of GDP are the lowest in Canada.

I am all for efficiency, but privatization and public:private partnerships do not lead to efficiencies.

There will be more on this later, but the first read of the MacKinnon report tells me that this is not an evidence based analysis, but a purely political document with clear political intentions.

7th September

Lets take a stroll through the UK and see what has been happening.

Pupils at a school in Lewes protested against having to wear gender neutral school uniforms, where boys and girls both have to wear trousers. The student protested on the grounds of individuation, climate change and cost (not necessarily in that order). The police were called – all of them wearing trousers – and tried to reason with the students and their parents. The school sent girls wearing skirts home to change and boys wearing kilts to do the same. No one asked why uniforms were being worn at all.

The Duchess of Sussex, who has refused to go to Balmoral to spend time with the Queen, has gone to Queens in New York to watch her friend, Serena Williams, try to beat a nineteen year old Canadian at the US Open Tennis final. She flew on a commercial airline which was over an hour late. Her refusal to go to Balmoral was said to be because she thought that her son Archie was too young to travel – this despite just having taken him to Ibiza to spend time with Elton John and David Furnish. The real reason she didn’t go is because the Duke of Edinburgh had offered to take her on a drive around the estate – we all know that he is such a good driver.

Borish Johnson will, however, be spending time at Balmoral. The Queen intends to ask him “What the F*@! Are You Doing to My Country?”.  We all await his reply. It is suspected he will be found dead in ditch, since she will sign the Bill requiring him to look like a complete idiot on Monday. (The Bill compels him to ask for an extension of Article 50 if he cannot secure a new Brexit deal by October 19th. Borish said “I would rather be found dead in a ditch than be forced to ask for an extension to Article 50”).

Boris Johnson’s brother Jo – the sensible one – resigned both as an MP and as a member of his brothers administration. In doing so, he made clear that he put his own sanity before country and family. Boris’s father, Stanley, used to be a Member of the European parliament and worked for the EU Commission and the world bank. Like his eldest son Boris, Stanley is basically bonkers. Boris’s sister, Rachel, is a journalist with the Mail on Sunday and is a smart, intelligent woman with a New College Oxford degree in classics. She has also written several novels, one of which (Shire Hell) won the much sought after Bad Sex in Fiction Prize in 2008 which, she said, was “an absolute honour”.

Jeremy Corbyn, sometimes leader of the Labour Party, has said that he will not support calls for an election before mid-November. His strategy (sic) is based on the idea that Borish will by then either have secured a deal or will have broken the law which requires him to seek an extension of Article 50, making him vulnerable. Corbyn, also known as the dithering Marx-like allotment owner, would make a worse Prime Minister that Borish Johnson, but then Britain seems to be in the Big Brother House mode – with Downing Street the new Big Brother House where PM’s can be voted in and out with glee.

As parliament loses the plot and the Prime Minister loses his mind, the good news is that QI is back on the BBC. A comedy show masquerading as a quiz, it features the very sharp and fast thinking Sandi Toksvig and the not so fast thinking but very funny Alan Davis just being themselves. Good solid lesbian humour – just what Friday night needs.

The other good news is that the worst “comedy” show the BBC has shown in fifty years – Hold the Sunset – has ended. Despite having John Cleese, Alison Steadman, Jason Watkins, Sue Johnston, Rosie Cavaliero, Peter Egan and (the ubiquitous) Ann Reid in the cast, the writing was as dull as a Brexit memorandum from William Rees Mogg. Written by Charles McKeown (he cowrote The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with Terry Gilliam) the number of laughs per episode is a negative number. In fact, there are more jokes per half hour in any tennis game played by Serena Williams. This is probably why the Duchess of Sussex has flown to New York so as to avoid having to watch this rubbish.

8th September

The proposition that school funding should be linked to simple indicators of student success as defined by high stakes testing assumes that teachers and administrators can make a real difference to learning outcomes across a number of students in sustained ways over time. This also assumes that high stakes testing are good indicators of what it is that students are learning and reflect fully the purpose of schools.

None of these assumptions are correct. Wealth, parental education and health are stronger indicators of outcomes on standardized tests. While teachers can make a difference to some students in a class, they cannot overcome the powerful effects of poverty, hunger, lack of educational experience within the family and social class for a cohort of students.Testing measures a narrow range of abilities on a specific day at a specific time. They are poor indicators of what students are capable of. The tests do not measure creativity, problem solving, teamwork, compassion, emotional intelligence, fun, play, artistic ability, musicality, communication, the sense of social responsibility and the passion that students demonstrate for a specific interest or ability. These are the things that teachers, students and schools focus on. Teaching is a creative, adaptive activity and is based on the needs of the students in the room. Teaching is not a delivery system for a governments ideology or the needs of a specific industry.

There is good evidence that when school resources depend on test results – especially when teachers are rewarded (or penalized) by these data – teachers teach to the test. This is not why we send students to school. We send students to school so that they can find their talents, build their skills, knowledge and understanding and engage in the collective enterprise of collaborative learning. Testing gets in the way – an evil that disrupts the work of learning. If we are to test students, let the student call the test when they are ready and when they feel it would be helpful to them.

This policy thrust has nothing to do with learning, students and improving teaching. It is about money. About reducing spending, transferring public funds to private interest and enabling commercial interests to profit. It has been pursued in other jurisdictions. It has not led to significant gains in learning outcomes, but has led to a fall in performance and increased teacher stress and burn out.

Alberta has one of the most successful school systems in the world. This policy will lead its standing in the world to fall and to strife within school systems and between schools. We should simply say “no thanks”. We will have to eventually if the policy is implemented. It is a policy that will create more problems than it solves.

9th September

As many will know, I am a psychologist by both training and disposition. I have written several books focused on psychological questions and work, including my most recent book with Sarajane Aris Beyond Resilience: From Mastery to Mystery – A Workbook for Personal Mastery and Change. I am bound by some professional ethics as a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and as a Chartered Psychologist. One of which inhibits my ability to “diagnose” someone without having undertaken a specific set of evaluations.

Nonetheless, I am able to comment on an analysis offered by others. In The Atlantic magazine, Peter Wehner suggest that Donald Trump is not well. His basic proposition is that, by temperament and disposition, Trump is unfit to be President of the United States. Peter worked in the White House for three US Presidents (both Bush’s and Ronald Raegan) . The two key paragraphs in his analysis are these:

Donald Trump’s disordered personality—his unhealthy patterns of thinking, functioning, and behaving—has become the defining characteristic of his presidency. It manifests itself in multiple ways: his extreme narcissism; his addiction to lying about things large and small, including his finances and bullying and silencing those who could expose them; his detachment from reality, including denying things he said even when there is video evidence to the contrary; his affinity for conspiracy theories; his demand for total loyalty from others while showing none to others; and his self-aggrandizement and petty cheating.

It manifests itself in Trump’s impulsiveness and vindictiveness; his craving for adulation; his misogynypredatory sexual behavior, and sexualization of his daughters; his open admiration for brutal dictators; his remorselessness; and his lack of empathy and sympathy, including attacking a family whose son died while fighting for this countrymocking a reporter with a disability, and ridiculing a former POW. (When asked about Trump’s feelings for his fellow human beings, Trump’s mentor, the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn, reportedly said, “He pisses ice water.”)

He makes other points. I made some observations on my other blog site some time ago. I observed what the definition of narcissistic personality disorder is:

“A mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. Behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism. If you have NPD, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious, you often monopolize conversations, you may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior, and you may feel a sense of entitlement (when you don’t receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry). At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior.”  (The Mayo Clinic).

The Diagnostic State Manual version 5 (DSM-5) criteria for NPD includes these features:

  • Expecting to be recognized as superior.
  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents.
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people.
  • Requiring constant admiration.
  • Having a sense of entitlement.
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations.
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want.
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you.
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.

Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others. Witness, in Trump’s claims, his constant boast that “I know more than anyone about [fill in the blank]”.

I think most observers would agree that, by any measure, NPD is part of the Trump illness. But there is more. His recent attempts to pursue in vindictive ways those who disagree with him, his claims about Alabama and the Hurricane Dorian and his pursuit of scientists who disagree with his weather forecast (including those who made the original forecast) are all examples of what I called elsewhere “the eternal sunset of the thoughtless mind”.

The fact that his illness and NPD are being enabled and encouraged by members of his family and the GOP is what worries me more than his own behaviour (which is bad enough). In any “normal” family, treatment would be sought and his ability to make major decisions (like where to go for dinner, whether or not he should be allowed to drive, whether or not he would be allowed access to a Twitter account) would all by now have been managed by an intelligent wife, son, daughter. Instead, possibly out of fear of consequences, they are all encouraging him not only to persist but to seek permission to persist beyond 2020.

What should happen is the use of the clause in the Constitution of the United States that enables his removal from office. Section 4 of the 25th amendment says:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.[5]

Clearly, this is not going to happen. Mike Pence has no spine and no support for such an action, and congress (in the process of ensuring the legal basis for impeachment) would not act fast enough or decisively enough to make it happen. The Senate, still in the hands of the GOP, would be a block to this too.

So the world watches a specific form on mental illness impact us all.

10th September

Let’s take a walk around the world and see what is happening.

In London, John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons) has indicated that he will leave his role on October 31st as another birthday gift for me. Very nice. He has probably been the worst speaker of the House for some considerable time, showing his bias and making decisions that favoured Remainers over Brexiters. But he is going and should, if tradition is anything to go by, become Lord Bercow of No Fixed Abode.

In the US, continuing their destruction of democracy, the GOP has cancelled primaries and caucuses in four States despite the fact that Trump has challengers for the nomination. Trump calls the three people running against him “The Three Stooges”, but I think he’s just being a Groucho. The good news for the rest of us is that his popularity is falling as the economy shows signs of significant distress.

Meantime, Trump has fired John Bolton, who was his National Security Advisor until just a few hours ago. Suggested names for his replacement include Sarah Palin’s husband Todd, who will shortly be available as he has now filed for divorce from his wife on the grounds of her “difficult temperament”. Another option is Sean Hannity of Fox news, who is a fawning gullible dork – he would fit right in.

Borish Johnson has lost six straight votes in the House of Commons in a single week – more than any Prime Minister since the second world war. He has also lost his majority as well as his mind.  No one can see a way out of the fine mess he has got us all into, made worse by the Fixed Elections Act, which David Cameron steered through parliament. This removes the right of the Prime Minister to call an election and the right of the Queen to order a dissolution of parliament. So he’s stuck in a time-warp. Not even Dr. Who would like to deal with this situation.

Canada has a new Ambassador for China – Dominic Barton, the former Head of McKinsey. Good choice. Smart man. Tough job. China continues its political rise and the US continues its fall. In a news release today, it has opened its investment market to foreign trade without limits – its needs cash. The new overall cap on inward investment in China is now $300 billion, two thirds of which is now available. It is suffering from the trade war with the US, but it is seen by many to be a “victim” not the aggressor. Exports to the US are down 16%, but the US consumer and industry are paying twice for the tariffs (the tariffs and the subsidies Trump is gifting to help farmers and others “cope”).

“Flipper” Trudeau – also known as Mr. Dressup – is gearing up for the upcoming Canadian election. Andrew Scheer (also known as a former insurance salesman and a lightweight) will face off on October 21st. It looks like being a tight race, with many predicting a well hung parliament. This would be a first for some time. A little girl told me when I taught elementary school “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in” – in this case she could be right. The bookmakers have Scheer with a slight lead over Trudeau (1.83:1 versus 1.87:1), but there are a few weeks to go. Maxine Bernier – a cross between a Rottweiler and a buffoon –  stands no chance, according to the bookies (201:1), thank goodness. He is about as smart as the button that fell off my trousers in 1957.