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Archive for March, 2012

If the cause is good, people tend to believe that the charity is, too. Without any investigation, we usually accept a charity at its word, glad to hand over our money in exchange for the feeling that we are making a difference.

In practice, though, some charities or non-profit organizations are less worthy of support than others. Few are outright criminal, but some are incompetent. Many, too, are less interested in achieving a specific goal than they are in keeping themselves going to provide careers and a sense of accomplishment for their executives and employees.

So how can you tell whether a charity deserves your support? There are no firm guidelines, but here are eleven indications that you might want to investigate further and reconsider where your donations go:

  • The charity lacks detailed views or policies: the charity has a general cause, but information about its exact positions or goals is unavailable. If the organization releases information that is supposed to explain its positions or statements, the information is so overly generalized that it tells nothing.
  • The organization lacks transparency: little information is available about what the organization is doing, and why. Reports on the group’s activities are either not made, or else full of generalizations and obviously selected specifics. When someone requests more details, they may be refused or delayed, or receive information that tells nothing.
  • The charity is always fund-raising: most charities gladly accept donations at any time. However, if a charity is always starting a campaign every few months, that may be a sign that its cause is not viable or that it is being inefficiently run, either because its basic expenses are too high or because its ambitions are too grandiose.
  • The lines of authority are blurred: a well-run non-profit follows standard business practices to help ensure that it is above-board. For instance, the treasurer should not be the same person who has the main responsibility for spending decisions or benefits from them. Similarly, the executive director is the senior employee, and should not control the board of directors or serve on the board.
  • Governing bodies seem to have little power: Either advisors and directors are not consulted at all, or else their input is confined to specific questions or trivial matters. For example, they might be asked what thank-you gifts will be given donors in a fund-raising campaign, but not for ideas about how the campaign will be run.
  • Achievements are slight or exaggerated: minor successes are exaggerated to create the impression of activity. Blogs, news releases, or year end reports are full of non-news, or the same news endlessly repackaged.
  • The creation of a community is ignored: a non-profit may rely on the public or target corporations for income. Either way, it needs a community to accomplish its goals. Indifference to the need of community-building might suggest that the group is more concerned with perpetuating itself than accomplishing anything.
  • The charity presents two different faces: to donors, the charity may be friendly and seemingly open. However, to employees, its executives may be dictatorial and overbearing. Such dichotomies suggest a charity that is not going away in a hurry, and that may have settled down to acting much like a corporation.
  • No opposition is tolerated: instead, opposing views are discouraged along with discussion. Rather than a group working towards a common goal, the organization’s lead employees and volunteers resemble corporate types engaged in a power struggle.
  • The charity is built around a cult of personality: One or two people, usually the founders, feature prominently in all publicity. If not generally famous, they are at least well-known in the circles in which the charity operates. They may talk a good talk about the cause. They may even declare themselves against cults of personality. Yet, somehow, publicity for the charity is all about them, and they expect deference from everyone else.
  • The charity’s expenses are excessive for their activities: How much a non-profit spends on salaries, office space, and travel is by far the most common way to evaluate a charity. A widely accepted general rule is that a well-run charity spends 20-35% of its income on these basics, and that a charity that spends over 60% should not be supported. Alternatively, compare the ratio of expenses to income to get a figure that shows how much a company spends to get $100, and read the results using the same percentages as for general expenses. Be sure to look over several years if possible to avoid making decisions based on a year with unusual, but justified expenses.

Except in the most obvious cases, one or even two or three of these signs is probably not enough to make you stop supporting a charity or non-profit. If nothing else, you need to judge by results. Even a group that spends 70% of its income on overhead might be worth supporting if it is hugely successful in accomplishing its aims. By contrast, a group whose overhead is 10% of its income might reduce costs by placing unrealistic demands on volunteers.

However, if a number of these signs occur – certainly over half – the odds are high that something is wrong and you need to reconsider your support.

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When I was a teenager, the norms of swearing changed. Even now, the conflicting messages leave me firmly in neither camp.

On the one hand, according to the old standard, swearing was something no decent man did in front of women and children, but was essential for membership in some aspects of masculine culture. Women weren’t supposed to swear at all, and the most feisty woman looked embarrassed if she did.

On the other hand, with publication standards being relaxed and the rise of the counter-culture, everyone was starting to swear. In fact, to swear was to be modern and unbound by convention.

Today, this time of transition feels so remote as to be incomprehensible. What, anybody under forty-five might ask, was the fuss about? Yet knowing when you could swear and when you couldn’t was an important social skill, and swearing inappropriately said more than anyone today can imagine about your class and personality.

For example, to my father, who had been in the army and was employed in working class positions for most of his life, an atmosphere of casual swearing was a normal part of his week day. Yet perhaps because he was upwardly mobile or because my mother would never approve, he was careful about his swearing outside work.

Until I was fifteen and worked my first summer in the Canadian Telephone and Supply shops where he was a front-line supervisor, I was under the impression that he hardly swore at all. He might use “bloody” or “hell and damnation” if he was frustrated with one of his house-building projects in the basement, of “hell’s bells” if he was seriously fed up, but never when any of the family were in the same room. These mild swear words were as much as I ever heard, and my impression was their English-flavored colorfulness made them almost acceptable.

Laboring under this illusion, I was surprised when, after I made a mistake in the shops, he loudly asked, “What the heck you were doing?” and was greeted by howls of uncontrollable laughter by the workers he supervised. For weeks afterward, they would exclaim, “Heck!” around him in a good-natured way, and he would respond with a burst of ordinary profanity and mock-anger. A few times, I joined in myself.

More than anything else, this episode drummed into me that, for years, my father had been restraining his normal vocabulary around me. But that was what men of his generation did, living with a double-standard for expression. Any man who didn’t swear at all was considered effeminate or snobbish, but any man who swore in what was called “mixed company” was uncouth and boorish.

In such a complex atmosphere, I went through a period when when I was eight or nine when I prudishly avoided swearing. When my best friend took up the habit of saying “shit” at every opportunity, after a couple of months, I shocked his younger sister by telling her what he was saying. A few days later, he shamefacedly promised me he would change his language.

I was not going to be “one of those teenagers,” I repeated told my mother, referring to those who accepted modern standards (and were no doubt unruly because they didn’t speak properly). I believed firmly in the old standard’s last line of defense: swearing showed a lack of imagination and vocabulary, and I could prove that I had both by not swearing.

I still find that condemnation of swearing true. Now, however, I have to add that the whole point of swearing is to have some forceful words available when you have no time to be imaginative. When you want to swear, being original isn’t your priority (although I do envy some of the medieval kings, who, according to T. H. White, had such oaths as “By the head, teeth, and the splendor of God.”).

However, the times were changing, as I said. By cultural and personal necessity, in adolescence I found I could no more do without swearing than anyone else. I knew better than to swear in front of my parents; strangely enough, my father wouldn’t have approved any more than my mother. But I started using some of my father’s milder and more colorful expressions, like “bloody.” At the time, I still had a residual Christianity, so “God” seemed a suitable addition to my vocabulary as well. Both remain with me – although the religion does not. “Bloody” in particular seems to delight some American women when spoken with an English accent.

For several years, I held out against the more popular words like “fuck” or “shit.” I even winced when someone used them. They just weren’t words I could bring myself to use.

However, by the time I started university, the change in standards was complete. Swearing or not swearing was no longer an indicator of anything. Almost everybody was swearing, and there was something wonderfully liberating about hearing women swearing as freely as men – both to my ears and, so far as I could observe, to the women themselves. It seemed part of the march towards equality that such superficial gender differences had disappeared overnight, and that men no longer needed the double-standard of my father’s generation, except when talking to the old.

Now, of course, swearing is not even remotely a political act. A generation, if not two, no longer think twice about swearing as the mood hits them. It’s just another means of expression, and I no longer react to it. In a hard-swearing company, I usually notice myself swearing freely myself as I unconsciously try to fit in.

Still, childhood habits persist. Left to myself, I remain an infrequent swearer, a habit that gives me a reputation for politeness. Even today, I’m most likely to use “fucking” when reporting what someone else says, or in fiction because it’s part of how a character would talk. If you listen carefully, when I do swear, a small catch in my voice reveals the last trace of my first conditioning.

Mostly, though, I just consider swearing a matter of personal style – and that’s how such words should be viewed. They’re just words among words. They never were worth the worry they used to cause.

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One benefit of digitalizing my music is the rediscovery of artists. Thanks to the digitalizing, I’ve tracked down at least a dozen artists and found what they’ve been doing since I first heard their music, including The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Michelle Shocked, Kirsty McColl, and Mark Graham. My latest re-discovery is Sam Weis, a twelve-string guitar player and writer of original songs from Washington State.

I don’t remember the first time I heard Weis, but it must have been at a Rogue Folk concert at the WISE Hall in East Vancouver. Possibly, I’d run across her previously at regional science fiction conventions; if not, it was someone remarkably similar. She had a vaguely punk sensibility that appealed to the front-row lesbians who seemed to attend every local folk concert in those days, and a twelve-string guitar that seemed almost too big for her and with which she could do almost anything. I especially remember the audience joining on the “Ride, ride, ride” chorus of “Til We’ve Seen It All,” and many of those around me crying at the longing expressed in the song.

At some point, we bought her Restless album, and over the years I played it often. But the CD lost its cover, and Weis seemed to be performing less, perhaps concentrating on her painting, which she also does professionally. Occasionally, I searched the Internet for her, but never found anything.

It was only last week, as I searched through my digital collection, that I realized that I had been looking for “Weiss,” adding an erroneous “s” to the end of her name. Having grabbed a clue, I located and downloaded her other three albums, and have been enjoying them for the past six days.

Finding an analogy for Sam Weis’ work isn’t easy, because it appeals in a number of different ways. Listening to her cover of “Dancing Barefoot,” I might compare her to Patti Smith with a stronger voice and better guitar work. Listening to “’55 Ford,” you might mistake her for a rocker. Her instrumental “Helix” is reminiscent of the Scottish harp duo Sileas. Another instrumental, “Train to Blue Sky” sounds like something the Allman Brothers might have recorded in their heyday, while “Breakfast with Bob” has an acoustic quietness. Philosophical pieces like “Why Not Utopia?” are reminiscent of Tori Amos in expression, while “Seven Sisters Road” suggests Michelle Shocked feeling nostalgic. Some critics have compared her to Joan Armatrading because of her probing relationship songs.

All these comparisons have a grain of insight, and none is accurate by itself, if only because Weis’ versatility is always supported by her strong guitar skills and a voice that, while ordinary in range, has a husky vibrato that suggests ambiguity and repressed emotion, making it second to very few in expression.

At times, her lyrics teeter at the edge of triteness, often as she finds herself boxed in by a scarcity of non-cliched rhymes. Such low points are especially likely to happen when she waxes philosophical in songs like “Why Not Utopia?” or “Shape of Time.” Not that such songs aren’t redeemed by the arrangements, but tackling such topics in a three or four minute song is only slightly easier than doing so on Twitter.

By contrast, Weis’ lyrics are at their height when she deals with personal emotions, whose complexities and ambiguities she expresses better than almost anyone. For instance, in “Seven Sisters Road,” she talks about youthful sessions with friends “where we invented destiny / And traded rage for poetry.”

Her lyrics are at their best when describing the intricacies of love in plain language. In “Restless Heart,” for example, she pleads, “Open up and let me come in / My lessons have been learned and I want to try again” and invites her lover to “slow dance on the back porch.” Similarly, in “Moment to Moment,” she expresses the obsessiveness of love with:

I don’t want to spend one more night
With you on my mind,
I’m going to be so tough when I pretend
I can leave this love behind.

However, my personal favorite remains “Til We’ve Seen It All.” I suppose you might argue that, in modern times, a song about cruising the highways with a lover isn’t environmentally correct. All the same, the poignancy remains despite such quibbles:

This is how I see
The golden American Dream,
Three thousand miles of asphalt,
Four wheels and a holy machine;
I’ve been chasing the illusion
Like an astronaut running down a star,
The dream to go fast, go hard,
Go now and go far.

I’m sure that the only way that any listener can fail to be moved by the longing is if they’ve completely given up their own ambitions and dreams.

None of this is to dismiss Weis’ instrumentals – just to say that I’m more qualified to discuss her words. Instrumentals like “Cosmo and Peanut” and “Helix” from her just-released album Paradox have already kept me sane while riding public transit, and I plan on them doing the same many times in the future. The fact is, all Weis’ albums have a permanent place on my music player, and I”ll happily listen to whatever other music she releases.

The only question I have is: Why isn’t this artist better known?

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To my distinct displeasure, I am now the owner of a credit card and a smart phone.

To anybody else, these possessions may seem trivial, such a regular part of daily life that they aren’t worth talking about. However, to me, they represent major compromises between how I would prefer to live and modern culture.

You see, all my adult life, I have been wary of manufactured needs. I never bothered with a mobile phone because I mostly work from home, where a landline is available. When I’m away from home, I’m on my own time, and didn’t want to be accessible to business colleagues. As for friends and family, they never had business so urgent that they couldn’t wait for a few hours to get in touch. By not carrying a phone, I removed unnecessary stress from my life.

Similarly, I didn’t carry a credit card because I worried about plunging into debt, and because I am scornful of demands for instant gratification. Instead, I used a debit card and PayPal, paying as I went and resting much easier as a result.

The trouble is, personal phones and credit cards are so convenient that modern life no longer leaves room for those like me who would prefer to be without them. Oh, I suppose I could live an Amish-like existence, but, for all my stubbornness, I’m not prepared to do that. In the last few years, the inconvenience of not using these artifacts of modern life have simply become too great.

I started carrying a phone because Trish’s illness meant that I needed to be accessible in case of an emergency. Ironically, I bought my first phone two weeks before her death, but I kept it because around the same time pay phones started to disappear. You can still find them at Skytrain stations, but elsewhere in greater Vancouver, they are almost extinct. When you do find them, they are in dark corners where nobody sensible ventures, and using them means standing knee-high in garbage and trying not to gag on the smell of urine that’s all around.

Also, many bus stops no longer post schedules. Schedules are usually a case of wishful thinking at the best of times, but if I want any indication of when the next bus might come, my only alternative is to use the phone.

In the same way, credit cards have become equally unavoidable. I can do without them from day to day, but the book and music stores that I used to frequent have slowly disappeared. For that matter, so has the large Virgin and later HMV store downtown. I can order in one or two stores, but have to wait three to six weeks for delivery, and then only if I don’t want an e-book. By contrast, an online order saves me money, and, in the case of music and ebooks, is often immediately downloadable. Usually, the sites I order from won’t take PayPal, or online debit from my credit union. Under the circumstances, I can be perversely stubborn and penalize myself or else get a credit card. I chose not to penalize myself.

I have to admit, the credit card is convenient and the smart phone I bought yesterday is a marvelous piece of technology (there was a sale on; otherwise, I’d have stuck with a basic phone). And I do keep within reason. The credit card has a low limit that’s paid off monthly, and I’m not going to be doing much searching of the web on the new phone.

But I still feel like I’ve lost my integrity. More importantly, I feel angry that I can’t live the way I prefer unless I do without and suffer inconvenience.

I didn’t ask much – just to pay as I go, and not be tied to a piece of technology that keeps me always accessible. To me, these seem both modest and sane goals, and I suppose that I could have denied myself a few things to have the satisfaction of standing on principle.

Yet after a while, such rearguard actions become futile. Peevishly, and with a good bit of grumbling, I’ve been dragged along with everybody else — and feel lesser because I’ve given in.

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In a joke that circulated on the Internet some years ago, a man in a hot air balloon is lost. He asks a person on the ground for help, and is told he is fifty feet off the ground, and at such and such a longitude and latitude. “You must be an engineer,” he replies. “Everything you told me is technically true, but besides the point.”

The joke goes on to compare the balloonist to management, since he doesn’t know where he’s going but now he blames the person on the ground. Both comments strike me as all too true, but, since I spend my working life with developers without being one myself, I appreciate the first one the most.

Not that all developers are so literal-minded, or even most. If anything, many free software and open source developers are not only fiercely intelligent, but formidably well-rounded, their brains roaming all over the contents of Wikipedia. If, like me, your idea of a good time is a wide ranging discussion over a couple of drinks, you couldn’t ask for better company. Personally, I am happy to call such programmers friends and friendly acquaintances.

Occasionally, though, you come across one who is so literal-minded that talking to them is not only frustrating, but also an exercise in keeping your temper. Some are lacking entirely in perspective, and will fix on a point that is minor or irrelevant.

Often, they fix entirely on denotation (the meaning you find in a dictionary), ignoring entirely all connotation (meanings and implications that come to be associated culturally with a word or concept).

Recently, for example, I came across a person who became fixated on the meaning of “innovation.” Although the topic was at best secondary to the discussion, they insisted that “to innovate” was not necessarily synonymous with “to improve,” and, although no one was arguing, quoted a dictionary definition as proof. They were right, and had we been living a few centuries ago, they would have been even more correct, because, before the Industrial Revolution, “innovator” was very nearly synonymous with “meddler” or “trouble-maker.”

However, had they looked at a thesaurus, they would have found that the word has always meant both “to change” and “to improve.” Had they looked at the Oxford English Dictionary, they would also have found that “to improve” has been the dominant meaning for decades.

For that matter, they could have looked to the context of the discussion, which left no doubt how “innovate” was being used. But they were so literal-minded that they were utterly unable to judge the relevance, let alone the correctness of their point.

Similarly, another developer recently suggested that free speech was really a reference to the American First Amendment, and that free speech was only concerned with government censorship. The argument is ethnocentric, free speech having been an issue long before the existence of the United States, but, like the reply to the balloonist, is only technically correct.

Because of legal rights like those granted by the American constitution, “free speech” has been expanded culturally into what might be more accurately called “free discussion.” From a completely literal perspective, there is no reason why free speech should be used to argue equal time for opposing views on television and radio. However, in modern industrial culture, making sure that all voices are heard has become an important value, so the concept of free speech has been extended beyond basic human rights. You are not going to silence those who throw about accusations of censorship by insisting as the developer does that the concept applies only to actions by the government. In our modern sensibilities, it applies to anyone.

What these two examples have in common is that they assume that connotations are not part of meaning. Probably, the people making this mistake had no idea of what they were doing, but the result was that they invalidated what they had to say because their arguments were incomplete.

I have no idea why such people believe that they can argue without taking connotation. I can only guess. Maybe because sticking to denotation is simpler and more definite? Or are they unable to perceive connotation, and not willfully ignoring it, as I sometimes conclude in my frustration with their limited viewpoints? I have no idea, but either way, their viewpoint seems both unusually cramped and often beside the point. Probably, they are endlessly frustrated because so few others are will to concede what to them seems a straightforward point.

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“There’re no atheists in foxholes,” religious people like to say. What they mean, of course, is that when you’re in trouble, the idea of a deity becomes more inviting. I’ve always thought the comment smug, to say nothing of beside the point, since belief does nothing to prove that a deity actually exists. So, while I can’t speak for atheists, I’m proud to say that I’m one agnostic who hasn’t found religion in the foxhole.

Mind you, I can see the attraction. Twenty months ago, I was abruptly widowed, and everything I expected about the rest of my life changed when I was still relatively young. Then, five months ago, just when I thought I found a group to identify with and maybe give me new direction, that was snatched from me, too. Under the circumstances, it would be reassuring to think that all the loneliness and existential angst had some purpose and that all had happened for the best.

The trouble is, I can’t reconcile these ideas with the senselessness of what I’ve lived through. If anything, my recent life seems evidence of randomness, of the stark fact that the only purpose is what I choose to adopt, and that even self-chosen purposes can be punctured by chance. To insist on an external purpose in the face of such evidence seems nothing more than wish-fulfillment.

Anyway, assuming that a deity exists, what would she/he/it/they think of my new-found belief? It wouldn’t be based on a sincere faith; it would be based on being frightened. Nor do I think much of a deity that used fear to gain followers.

The situation all comes down the familiar problem of pain. Endless pages have been written on this subject, but it amounts to one simple, unanswerable question: how can you reconcile the idea of a loving deity with all the hurt that’s in the world?

Suggesting everything is part of a larger plan doesn’t answer the question. Nor does the suggestion that, without suffering we could never appreciate happiness.

No matter what you answer, you’re still left with one of two situations, assuming that a deity exists. Either that deity has no control over how things operate, or that deity is amoral. In both cases, that deity is by definition unworthy of worship.

Instead of wrestling with such problems, it’s simpler – more logical, and more in accordance with my observations – to believe no one’s in charge. Far from encouraging me to find religion, if anything the last two years have nudged me from neutrality closer to outright atheism.

And if you suggest that the last two years were intended to teach me a lesson, all I can say is that I have more pride than to acquiesce to the machinations of a bully, no matter how powerful and no matter how badly I’ve been mugged.

You might call that perverse. Personally, I call it self-respect.

So, please, no smug talk about what happens in foxholes – especially if you’ve never been in one.

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Slide shows have done more to reduce the quality of speeches than anything else. They encourage presenters to peak too soon by writing out their entire talk in detail. They chop logic into a series of small bullet points, none of which seem more important than the other. They tempt presenters to read their speech and ignore the audience. But probably their worst offense is that they encourage the tendency of presenters not to move, as though the soles of their shoes were crazy-glued to the spot.

Not that the average presenter needs much encouragement to be motionless. For as many as two-thirds, the purpose of a podium is to give them something to hide behind. For the other third, having found a spot to stand, they barely shift their weight from one leg to another, much less use the space around them effectively.

Why does being motionless matter? Because public speaking is performance. It’s not only performance – obviously, you need something worth saying, too. But unless you can entertain as well, what you have to say is going to be as flat as wine left uncorked in the back of the fridge of a couple of weeks. When you speak in front of an audience, you almost always have space to move, whether a stage or the front of the classroom, so you might as well use it to get your point across.

If you want proof of the importance of movement in speaking, go find a video of Bill Hicks on YouTube. Listen to him first without looking at the video. You’ll probably smile, maybe grin, and think he’s an okay comedian. Then listen while watching the video, and you’ll be wishing you spent more time building up your abs at the gym because you’re laughing so hard. The difference is the way he moves. As funny and as wise as his routines are, they’re not half as funny as the way he moves through the space around him, sometimes with exaggeration, and at others times with the economy of motion of a martial artist.

Very likely, your subject and tone are more serious than Bill Hicks’. But you still have opportunities to use your movement to bring your points across.

The trouble with standing still is that nothing changes. With you rooted on the spot, the audience relaxes, and sinks back in their seats, getting into the routine, and gradually – unless you have more animation in your gestures and voice than the whole of Hayao Miyazaki’s production studio – they stop listening.

By contrast, if you move from the podium to somewhere else, suddenly your audience shifts and pays attention. Chances are, that means they pay more attention to the point you start to make from your new position.

Similarly, when you are impersonal or logical, move to the back of the stage. When you want to connect with your audience on a personal level, move to the front, even down into the aisles (why do you think so many musicians do it?).

Or if there’s a table, sit on top of it when you want to be casual and intimate. When the time comes to be serious, or to emphasize your point, get up. If you are recounting a problem and how you solved it, pace and stop at random spots so that your movements mirror the confusion you are describing, then dart to the white board to jot down a keyword of the solution. You don’t have to move quickly – just move at all. So few speakers do that you’ll automatically have another way of connecting to the audience.

In fact, once you start being aware of the concept, you’ll soon find all sorts of ways you can use movement while you speak. Once, for example, I turned the fact that a college class wanted to be on the other side of the windows on a hot summer morning by moving up and down in front of the windows for much of my lesson, forcing the class to look at me as much as the window. Think a while, and you’ll find other impromptu possibilities.

In the same way, consider how a little choreography can discourage both you and your audience from spending the entire talk looking up at your slides. Leave the stage and face the screen, and you can read it without being obvious. You should also entice some of your audience to watch you instead of staring at your slides.

Sometimes, of course, you won’t have much space. Or, as happened to me when I spoke in Calgary a few years ago with a swollen foot, you might need the podium to keep yourself upright, and going across the stage just isn’t a possibility. Yet even when you can’t move very far, you can still suggest movement by shifts in your posture. In such cases, even a little movement is an improvement over the immobilization that reading your slides to the audience usually encourages.

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