Friday, August 5, 2016

Three Psychological Thrillers

Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review section, recently wrote "In my future life, I will spend entire weekends lying in a hammock by some idyllic lakeside, cooly reading thriller after thriller".  Pamela, for me, the future is here. The idyllic lake is Six Mile Lake in the Muskokas north of Toronto, the hammock is from Lee Valley and the thrillers are many and varied. I've recommended many thrillers that I've enjoyed in past book reviews (you can find the complete list of my book reviews here).

It seems like yesterday, but the blockbuster psychological thriller Gone Girl erupted onto the scene fully six years ago with the movie following a couple of years later. The Girl on the Train followed three years later, was again a blockbuster success with a similar formula, and is soon to be a movie. This year's contribution to the genre is I Let You Go. How much do you want to bet there's a movie coming about this too?

I would recommend all these books for lakeside hammock reading. They all have engrossing plots guaranteed to keep you from snoozing off in that oh-so-comfy hammock!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Panama Papers - the back story

A deluge of 40 years' worth of records - emails, account records, spreadsheets - about offshore companies from around the globe, leaked by an anonymous John Doe. They described the financial machinations, some legal some not, orchestrated by Mossack Fonesta, a law firm in Panama. Mossack Fonesta set up secretive offshore companies in a system that at the very least represented aggressive tax sheltering just within the law, to shadow companies to hide the fruits of crime and corruption.

The leak comprised 11.5 million documents including 4.8M emails, 2M PDFs, and 1M images. 2.6 terabytes* of data in all. Put that up against a newspaper industry ravaged by the onslaught of online advertising with investigative journalism resources in radical decline because of those financial pressures. In such an environment, how could one possibly investigate these documents fully?

Gerard Ryle
The German newspaper German Süddeutsche Zeitung initially received all this material. Faced with a task far beyond their own resources, they contacted International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for help. What happened next is a remarkable story.  At the recent TED Summit Gerald Ryle, head of the ICIJ, told us that story. A marvel of collaboration unfolded. The handful of journalists at the ICIJ were joined by 350 journalists from over 100 media companies in 80 different countries who brought 'native eyes to bear on native names'. The data was stored in a huge database and sophisticated software helped uncover links and cross references, based on nationality, industry, or themes such as sports or blood diamonds. Nobody met in person and communication was through online encrypted messages. It was a monumental task and 'a milestone in the use of data journalism software tools and mobile collaboration'**.

What makes this story even more remarkable is the fact this disparate group of media players, whose corporate DNA was based on 'getting the scoop', did this work in total secrecy. The worked for over a year, without pay, without breaking ranks. Ryle described the constant persuasion required to maintain secrecy. As Ryle put it, "the greatest noise had to be preceded by the greatest silence"As other events were unfolding - in Brazil or around FIFA for instance - whose coverage could have been bolstered by reference to the Panama Papers, journalists begged to release the news. But the confidentiality agreements held. The news was published simultaneously in 76 countries on April 3 2016, along with many of the original documents. We all know the story of the fallout of these papers, up to the resignation of Iceland's prime minister. The back story is almost as interesting.

It was a wonderful heartwarming story told by a quiet man clearly more comfortable with writing words than in speaking them (watch his talk here). He was encouraged with applause from the audience during several stumbles in his talk; that was a great habit started by the TED Fellows (see more about the TED Fellow here).

* 1 terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes. That's a lot of data!
** quoted from Wikipedia

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Julia Bracha

Make conflicts less violent; have more women in public life. This was the thought-provoking thesis of Julia Bracha in her TED Summit talk.

Her contention runs like this. Since it's futile to try to eliminate all conflicts, what we should be trying to do is to make them less violent. Nonviolent campaigns have two big advantages.  Fewer people are hurt or killed and less infrastructure is destroyed, infrastructure that might be key to recovery after conflict. They also tend to be more successful. And the best predictor of which tactics will prevail (violent or non-violent) is the ideology regarding women in public life. In her research, movements with women in leadership roles have succeeded more often: 53-27*.

It's not that women are less involved in conflicts. It's that they are talented in exercising power and influence nonviolently in the background. Because men are the public face of resistance, we often miss women's quieter, and highly effective, role in the background. Bracha pointed to influential women like Septima Clark in the US civil rights movement who emphasized literacy and education.

The media often underestimates the influence of women in Arab and Muslim communities. Consider the 1st Intifada, where media coverage focused on rocks being thrown at tanks. However 97% of the activities in that Intifada were non-violent tactics (like strikes for instance), and the women were calling the shots in those efforts.

Bracha's film wonderful Budrus, which I saw and loved at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival (reviewed here) highlighted the efforts of the women of the town of Budrus. Budrus was fighting the Israeli security fence, which was slated to go into Palestinian territory and bulldoze olive trees which were their livelihood. The 15-year-old girl who was an inspiration in the battle ultimately planted herself in front of a bulldozer. With the help of Israeli liberals, the Israelis relented and moved the wall to the boundary between Israeli and Palestinian territory instead of its planned incursion into Palestinian territory.

* not sure of the source of this statistic

Friday, July 15, 2016

Tepperman and the Fix

Jonathon Tepperman, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, exhorted us to temper our pessimism over the doom and gloom induced by our daily media diet. In his upcoming book, The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline, he describes countries with good news stories.  Tepperman feels these countries offer lessons that could be extrapolated elsewhere. This talk followed right on the heels of the uplifting talk by Monica Araya (described here), in this roundly optimistic session. 

Instead of cramming too many examples into his talk, Tepperman chose three to focus on. (Bravo for this approach.)


Tepperman started by describing Canada’s immigration policy as brave and successful. In the late 60s, Pierre Trudeau, the current prime minister’s father, pulled off a great coup of progressive transformation. Unlike many countries, Canada, a vast land with a small population, actually needed more people to thrive. Past race-based immigration policy had only admitted white Europeans and this wasn’t working any more because those waves of immigrants were drying up as recovery after the war took hold in Europe.

The new immigration policy established admission requirements based on education, skills and language, plus a small number of refugees. Canada has an enviable track record of immigrants integrating and contributing to Canadian society. In fact, Tepperman told us that surveys show multiculturalism, the Canadian cultural mosaic as it’s known, ranks second as the thing Canadians are most proud of  -  before hockey!!! In fact, one of the campaign promises of the recently elected Justin Trudeau was to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees, fully ten times as many as the US*. And with this platform, he won a resounding majority.

Tepperman concluded by saying Canada was greatly admired internationally as a tolerant, accepting nation. The audience greeted this with thunderous applause**.


Suharto had been a brutal dictator in Indonesia for thirty years when he was overthrown in 1998. One of the few positive attributes of his reign was that he had kept religion out of politics and had held together - by force - the interest of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands and 1,000 languages. With his overthrow, most people feared a surge of religious intrusion into Indonesian politics, and an increase in intolerance and perhaps even terrorism in the world’s largest Muslim country. The pot might boil over without Suharto's tight lid.

For a while, that was exactly what happened. Islamic extremists garnered 36% of the vote. Yet, since then, while individuals have become more deeply religious, politics  has become less so, with the Islamic vote declining to 25% in 2014. Tepperman described some of Indonesia's successful approaches used to combat terrorism, including reducing inequality to dampen enthusiasm for terrorism, using of police rather than army for enforcement, and making trials public. One metric of their success is the extremely small proportion of ISIS fighters coming from the world’s largest Islamic nation, a tiny fraction of Belgium’s for instance.


Tepperman’s third example was Mexico, which suffered such a chaotic, hostile political atmosphere after becoming a democracy in 2000 that it seemed that the country might simply implode.

Then along came Pena. Pena was a member of the corrupt PRI party. He looked like a lightweight dilettante – indeed Tepperman's  slide of Pena flashing a big smile would make you think he was a handsome airhead toothpaste model. Yet this unlikely man hammered out three-party agreements which brought Mexico back from the brink. Immediately after election, he initiated conversations with the opposition parties (in private), actually listened to their issues, and passed some of their priority legislation before his own party’s. When asked how he achieved this progress, his response was ‘compromise, compromise and compromise’.

Lessons Learned

This talk was again one of the hits of the conference, another proudly Canadian speaker, Suzanne Simard (described here) being the first. Gosh it was a nice introduction to Canada Day!

*(As an aside, one of the TED Summit attendees I met was involved in the integration efforts for these refugees. She is deeply impressed with the job Canada is doing, undertaking strict triage in the origin territories, pairing all refugees with sponsor organizations, and quickly getting them integrated into Canadian social structure). The Globe and Mail has been running good-news stories about refugee families getting established. Not surprisingly, others have complained about shortage of resources, particularly language training resources.

** This was truly a global audience, with folks from 73 countries, many of whom had lived in more than one country, so their applause was based on a broad knowledge. Several attendees joked about their growing interest in emigrating to Canada, particularly Americans with the most pessimistic view that Trump might be elected. The Economist ran a Daily Chart tracking the number of searches for ‘moving to Canada’. Many of these were searches from the US, sparked by horror at the prospect of a Trump presidency, while a roughly equal number arose after Brexit.