Monday, 31 December 2012

Passions and Legacies

Lately, I seem to be reading or seeing on television stories about people with abiding and intense interests; one might even say passions.  I'm not talking about romantic interests but rather in subjects.  One book I read recently is the Night Villa by Carol Goodman, where the protagonist, a university professor of Classics, talks about one of her students having an unusual passion for the material she studies.  Okay, I don't get how anyone can have a passion for dry ancient texts, but I appreciate that people do.  Another, The Art of Detection by Laurie R. King is about an investigation into the death of Sherlockian - a person who lived and breathed Arthur Conan Doyle's most celebrated fictional character.  In the area of non-fiction, I have read books by Nicholas Basbanes who has written extensively about bibliophilia or the love of books, particularly in his A Gentle Madness and Among the Gently Mad.

Our local cable provider has been giving its subscribers a free preview of the HIFI Channel.  A number of shows on this channel deal with people's passions.  Collector Showdown is a low-budget game show that pits single-minded collectors of various things (e.g. shoes, breweryana, trains, quilts to name but a few) against each other in tests of knowledge and skill with the victor winning something related to his or her collecting field.  Without exception, the people on the shows spend most of their free time and disposable income on their hobbies.  Another show on the same channel is Style in Steel, a show that often features people who restore and collect cars.  Yet another show is Guitar Picks, a show that deals with various aspects of guitars, but often has stories on obsessive guitar collectors and luthiers.

I kind of envy the types of people portrayed in these books and shows - people who can lose themselves in a particular subject or activity, whose devotion is almost single-minded and who relentlessly seek to improve their knowledge and mastery of their field of interest.  Outside of my family, I have no true passion that occupies my time and attention.  I have myriad interests, some of which I have sustained over a longer period of time, and many more that are fleeting and transient.  I guess my interest in hand crafts, especially woodworking comes close, but even then, I spend more time reading about them than actually doing them.  Hockey is another that comes close, particularly my home team, the Ottawa Senators, but even then, I am not so enthralled that I study team statistics or the team's history.  I watch the games, follow the team and keep track of the standings in the paper and buy the occasional piece of merchandise, but that's about it.  Even that, though, has been tainted by the current NHL strike where a bunch of angry rich people are arguing over huge sums of money without a thought to the people that provide that money, namely us, the fans.

I'm not sure why I envy these people, but I do.  I guess I feel a little directionless, like I'm floundering.  Maybe my depression and anxiety account for part of it.  I've also found myself somewhat preoccupied over the last few years about leaving some kind of legacy - a body of work that will outlive me.  Make no mistake, I am proud of my little girl and am aware that I will be leaving a remarkable and good human being to the world.  In fact, she is my single greatest source of pride.  However, she's in school or with friends or asleep for a lot of time and it's what I do with that time that I want to mean something and something lasting.

So, I guess, the struggle continues.

Friday, 28 December 2012

American Opinion on Guns

The shootings in Newton, Connecticut have raised again the issue of gun control in the United States. I have grown somewhat tired of hashing this out in various on-line forums, so I am not going to restate what I have already said.  Instead, I am going to share a link to another blog.  Written by Arkansas woodworker and educator Doug Stowe, "Wisdom of the Hands" focuses on the importance of learning by doing, by working with your hands.  Mr. Stowe has written about the tragedy in Newton through this lens.  I encourage you to read both his blog and the published comments of his recent posts to get a flavour for the differing views of this debate.

I would also encourage you to read his pre-Newton posts - a really thought provoking commentary on the the direction of education (and work) in North America in the 20th century.

Monday, 24 December 2012

The Christmas Season (a not entirely cheerful reflection, though it ends on a happier note than it starts on.)

I have to admit, I am a bit glum this Christmas season.  For reasons big and small, the weeks leading up to the big day have been fraught with more than the usual amount of pre-Yule stress and I don't cope well with stress these days.  I also find myself reflecting on the season in a not entirely happy way.  For some, the holiday season is tied to tragedy.  My own mother was admitted to the hospital during the first week of December, 1998, where she would die later that month on New Year's Eve.  My dad passed away almost three years ago and my siblings all live far away, so really, I haven't a Christmas with my side of the family in many, many years. I miss that.

Earlier this week, I learned that a teenager that lives a little further down the street died a couple of weeks ago.  A parent's worst nightmare is losing their child.  At any time the loss must just be crushing, but the tragedy just seems compounded because it happened during what is supposed to a happy time of year spent with family.  My sympathy for them is at times almost unbearable.

Still, I am managing to find some enjoyment amidst all of this.  Our nine-year-old daughter's excitement is so unbelievably sweet and infectious, I can't help but feel all that's good about the season bubbling up through the murk.  I can't wait to see what Santa brought her and for my wife to open her presents.  And, at the risk of sounding greedy, I really am looking forward to opening my own presents, too.

Also, after knowing my wife for 20 years and being married for 13 I certainly consider her family as my own.  My brother-in-law and his wife have two small beautiful girls - the eldest is three and the youngest 6 months - and they are here for Christmas and let's face it:  the more kids around at Christmastime, the better it is.

Though I miss my Burrows family, I also have a lot of good memories of Christmases past and, for the most part, I reflect on them fondly.  Plus, I like that Kate and Lena and I are building our own memories and traditions together.  The two of them, more than anything, keep Christmas special even during the odd year when maybe things haven't gone as well as hoped.  I love them both more than they can ever know.

Actually, I am feeling much better having written this.  I just hope that nobody feels worse for having read it.  I hope whatever your circumstances are this season that you manage to find at least a little, well, comfort and joy.

A Merry Christmas to all of you who stopped by and read this.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada

So, Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer has come out with a report suggesting that the average cost of employing a federal public servant currently sits at $114,100 dollars.  This amount is comprised of salaries and wages, employer pension contributions, health benefits, employment insurance, disability claims, etc.

I am not saying the taxpaying public doesn't have a legitimate gripe, but I wonder how big the gripe should be.  I should say at the outset I haven't read the actual report (my powers of concentration and analysis being a shadow of what they once were), but am basing my comments on media reports, in particular the Ottawa Citizen's coverage, for what that's worth.  I should also say that I like oversight bodies in general - the public sector afterall uses the public's money to provide goods and services to the public, so scrutiny and the attendent transparency and accountability it provides is vital in a relatively democratic society (though as an aside, public expenditures are already monitored and reported on by the Auditor General and though I understand there are probably differences in mandate, the current study seems just the kind of thing the AG could look at - how much money is being wasted by duplicating efforts?)

The following are some random thoughts and questions that have bubbled in my mind (and to be fair, others, such as the Government itself and various public service union leader have raised similar questions):

What's so special about the private sector, anyway?  Invariably, comparisons with the private sector are what spark the most public outrage in these types of situations.  I really don't understand why this is the case.  Setting aside the fundamentally different nature and objectives of the two sectors, many seem to think the private sector is the standard that the public sector should aim to match, rather than the opposite.  Because public servants cost more to employ than the private sector, then the public sector should pay it's employees less, rather than holding the view that the private sector should compensate it's employees more equitably.

And speaking of equity...  One of the reasons critics of the Budget Officer's report have indicated that the average cost is greater in the federal public service is because the federal public service is further ahead than the private sector in pay equity.  The disparity between salaries for women and men doing the same type of job is far less than in the private sector.   Add in the admittedly byzantine "equal pay for work of equal value" where compensation is balanced between types of work and you get less disparity between different occupational groups that are nonetheless (in theorym at least) doing work of equal value.  And though the public service still has work to do, do we really want to set women back to bring the average cost down?

Remember that it is only recently that the federal public sector jumped ahead of the private sector in terms of the average cost to employ someone.  I believe prior to 2003-04, the trend was the opposite - employing someone in the private sector cost more on average than employing someone in the public sector.

How do the private and federal public sector workforces differ?  At least one union leader has pointed out that public sector recruitment has focussed on hiring high-skill and high-knowledge workers at the same time as it has been shedding support positions.  University and college graduates cost more.

The law of averages:  Of course, one of the problems that arises from using averages is that you don't get a sense of the variability within the data being studied both within and between groups.  For example, a political science graduate working in the public service may be better paid than her private sector counterpart on average, but I can guarantee that the Deputy Minister of Finance is paid way, way less than the president of, say, the Royal Bank.  I would further argue that a non-commissioned member of the Canadian forces is probably less well compensated than a comparably employed person in the private sector.  And don't even get me started on the plight of the Canadian soldier, especially when millionaire hockey players are arguing about how many millions they will make for playing a kid's game.

The Price of Bilingualism:  For better or for worse, a lot of positions in the federal public service require its employees to have a level of proficiency in both official languages, including its entry-level positions.  This puts a premium on already bilingual candidates.

The Rodney Dangerfield of Occupations:  This may sound a little whiny to some, and to a degree it is, but being a public servant is not without its drawbacks.  As a group, public servants are held in roughly the same esteem as lawyers, which is to say they are not well regarded at all.  The Government itself clearly has little regard for the public service.  In short, public servants get almost no respect from those they serve most directly, rightly or wrongly.  Also, I would argue that as a whole, the public service is a fairly toxic place to work, notwithstanding the decent pay and benefits.  My job is at least part of the reason I have such a hard time concentrating, formulating thoughts, planning things and generally making me feel stupid.  And no amount of compensation can help me with that.

I also wonder how the public sector compares to the private sector in terms of unpaid overtime.

Why does $100,000 set people off anyway?  People just seem to react badly to public sector compensation numbers that tread in six-figure territory.  But, really, accounting for cost of living increases, $100,000 is merely the new $60,000.  I guess the same psychology that explains why retailer sell their goo at $1.99 rather than $2.00 is at work.

As I say, some random thoughts that I hope try to add some balance to the debate.  I look forward to your views one way or the other.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A Shop Reno

My shop is a little disorganized.  Too many tools and not enough places to put them so I end up tripping over a lot of them.  Another consequence is that I often have a hard time finding the tool that I need.  So I am undertaking a remodel of my shop.  Fine Woodworking magazine puts out an annual "Tools and Shops" issue around Christmastime devoted to - you guessed it - tools and shops.  A number of good ideas to consider. 

My first project will be putting up a tool wall.  I will fasten some horizontal battens to the wall and then hang a sheet of plywood off the battens and build custom tool hangars and racks to hold my tools.  Next I will build a workstation for my drill press with a cabinet underneath to hold my drilling-related paraphenalia.  Another quick project will be to build tool storage under my bench.  That will be a good start and hopefully I can achieve some results in the next few months.

Below are some pictures of my shop as it is now.  Stay tuned for some "after" shots as I complete some of the projects.