The joys of the cinema

I frequently go to movies with a certain group of people, and these evenings occasionally go a little sideways – a noisy couple sitting near us, problem with the theater’s equipment, whatever. Go to enough movies and you’ll see it all.

Last night’s viewing of Kingsman, however, was a unique and hopefully singular experience.

Five minutes into the start of the movie proper, a couple arrived and sat directly in front of me. The theater was maybe 2/3 empty, but whatever, they can sit where they want. They struggle, half-crouched, to shed their heavy winter garb and sit down.

Out comes the guy’s cell phone, held just below his head level, white screen of his messaging app blazing in the dark theater.

My reaction was unplanned. A swift kick to the back of his chair startled the guy, who’s head quickly turned my way – I was already leaned in, waiting for him. “Can you put that away now, please?” I asked evenly. He turned away, discreetly fiddled with the phone, and threw a comment over his shoulder along the lines of  “That’s what I was doing, sheesh”. That was all I heard from him for the rest of the night.

A few minutes later, from the back of the room, a male voice moans. Just loud enough that it probably wasn’t part of the movie. Moments later, it happens again, this time much more loudly and completely incoherent.

The source of the sounds was apparent – a person with a developmental disorder. Throughout the movie, he was heard maybe 30 more times.

A few minutes after the sounds began, I notice a small child jumping down the theater steps to my left, who then proceeds to run alone an empty row of seats further below me. This happened a few more times during the movie.

I’ll take moment to describe Kingsman for anyone fortunate enough to have not seen it. Predictable yet amusing, strong start, weak finish, laden with the use of strong profanity. Indeed, it seems Kingsman’s creators had set out to use “fuck” in every form and context imaginable, as many times as possible, then got bored and decided to balance out every use of “fuck” in the movie with a person’s head exploding, and film was just the medium they chose to use in so doing. The movie worked hard to earn it’s MPAA R-rating.

Bad movie aside, the people issues of the night ultimately required the most reflection.

Cell phone guy was an idiot. It’s not hard to show up on time for movies, but it happens. If you’re going to be late, be discreet. Take off your coat and turn your bloody phone off BEFORE coming in.

The parents of the kid running around are also idiots. A theater isn’t your personal living room. Why on earth would you bring your small child to an R-rated movie, let alone allow him to run amok in a dark room full of strangers?

As for the person with the disability, easily the most distracting person of the evening? Moan on, brother. You were distracting, but that really pales in comparison to the difficulties and persecution you no doubt face every day.

I wonder how many others feel the same? What were the parents of the kid running around thinking? They clearly have no regard for others, does their selfishness extend to their own experience? What about cell phone guy? He evidently has no concept of being discreet, so does he take the indiscretions of others in stride?

Wanted – Senior Flood Forecaster

‎Each spring, the waters rise and flooding threatens many parts of Manitoba. During this time, our flood forecast department uses elevation data, precipitation amounts, maps, historical flood data and witchcraft to figure out how high the water will rise, when, and where.

Needless to say this is an imprecise endeavor‎, and because property and even human lives hang in the balance, one that carries no small amount of pressure.

For 40 years, Alf Warkentin carried this mantle for our province, a job that earned him a great deal of respect, along with a bit of criticism from time to time, but there was never any doubt – Alf was clearly the best, in a place that regularly needs the best. In 2011 Alf retired and was replaced by Philip Mutulu.

It’s safe to say Philip’s time with us wasn’t easy, as he left this past summer. In fact, his team struggled to the point that Alf was brought in to assist them with their estimates, which did not go down well with some, and resulted in Alf being escorted from the building. For a highly respected 40 year employee, that suggests a serious disagreement. Given the flood team’s utter failures in recent years,  I envision Alf coming in and picking their work apart, revealing many problems and making enough senior people feel inadequate that they booted him to protect their egos.

Except egos shouldn’t ever come into the picture here – too many lives and too much property depends on Manitoba receiving the best flood forecasts possible. But they did, and the end result was poor forecasting, and Philip’s departure says enough about how his time here went. ‎

Forecasting floods successfully takes experience with the region you’re working in – seeing the same year year after year gives one an almost intuitive feel for how the water will behave, and that’s what Alf brought to the table, and that what Philip never developed.

Now we need a new Senior Flood Forecaster. ‎

If we had one right now, they would already be making long term projections based on the abnormally large snowfall volumes we’ve already seen this year. 

Not having one in place means we’ve already fallen behind on this Spring’s flood forecast. ‎

But fear not, Greg Selinger’s government assures us that we will have someone in place before the spring flood season. 

The fact is, a day, a week, or a month before flood season is already too late. The experience needed to be a successful flood forecaster in Manitoba ‎takes years spent flood forecasting IN MANITOBA. 

Hiring a Senior Forecaster after Alf left was a failure, they should have been in place a year or two before Alf left, so knowledge could have been transferred at a leisurely pace, not in a panicked scramble during a flood. Good management means setting people up to succeed – and Phili‎p was clearly set up for failure. 

Right now, the only thing between us and a disastrous flood is Mother Nature – who we know can be a bit of a bitch. Lots of snow and a fast melt is going to bring a serious flood, and whoever winds up as Senior Flood Forecaster will be playing catchup from the moment they arrive until after the waters have receeded. 

In a serious flood, good, timely information is critical. Our government has ensured through a tragic series of errors that we won’t be getting that anytime soon. ‎

I’m going shopping for hip waders…

What UMFA Wants, and Why

In recent years, the University of Manitoba has been under increasing pressure to try and cut costs.  I’ve previously estimated the province, through COPSE, to have disbursed around $230 million to the U of M annually.  Despite that, in 2010-2011, the province needed to chip in another $72.3 million to cover operating expenses.  Tuition simply can’t be raised the 60% needed to cover that amount, and while cost cutting measures are undertaken, the province has had to step in, but that can’t be expected to go on forever.

So the U of M has subcontracted many of it’s vital services, allowed a professional football stadium to be built on it’s land, and undertaken many other cost cutting measures.

One such measure is sharing nonacademic support staff between faculties.  Take two secretarial type people, let them duke it out in the octagon, the loser is fired, and the winner gets to do both their jobs.

Take the PR/outreach position for the Marcel A. Desautels Faculty of Music.  From what I’ve been told, this was a fairly busy position – multiple press releases each day, website updates, and a great deal of nuanced content – names, concerto numbers, B major, F minor – details a generic staffer wouldn’t necessarily be good with.  Nevertheless, the University saw fit to combine this position with another, so the experienced staffer was let go. It’s to be expected there would be bumps in the road as a result, especially at first, but this really takes the cake. Marcel A. Desautels’ name is in front of “Faculty of Music” because he wrote them a private cheque with a 20, and then six more zeros. Followed by a decimal and two more zeros.  So you’d hope they could at least spell his name right on the school website.  Nope.  Generic shared replacement staffer got it wrong.  Mistakes happen, right?  Sure.  But they shouldn’t take 3 days to fix.

Ideas to save money are all well and good, but the execution is what matters. Now, how does this connect to the current contract dispute?

An excerpt from an open email to all students from the U of M, dated September 30, 2013:

We have listened to and understand UMFA’s position on recent University of Manitoba administrative initiatives such as Concur and print management, though we do not agree these matters belong in a collective agreement.  We continue to believe that these new programs and processes are in the best interests of the University community and we will continue to consult with faculty and other members of the University of Manitoba community, listening and acting on their constructive input to make these initiatives a success.  The savings generated by the innovations have helped put the University in a position to make the scale of offer it has for salaries.

Translation: We forced Concur and print management on UMFA,despite their objections, because our old contract let us,and we wish to continue doing this sort of thing in the future, because were saving the university money.  We’ll keep consulting after the fact with UMFA on new forced initiatives, and somehow we hope they’ll find ways to make our ideas even better.  Because money.


In the traditional sense, parties acting in good faith consult each other prior to making decisions that will impact the other, to gain new perspective on the idea and potentially discover “gee, maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all”.  The U of M seems to have gotten it wrong, and now consults with UMFA after the decisions are made, to give them an opportunity to gladly accept the edict being handed down to them, and find ways to make it even better.

The potential for this sort of thing has always existed in the wording of the contract, but seldom has the U of M been this willing to abuse it to this extent.

“Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”UMFA doesn’t wish to fall for the “consultation” ruse again. Can’t blame them, either.

When Negotiations Go Wrong

Negotiations usually happen between people with very different interests, but at the end of the day, there is a common goal that has brought the two parties together and forces them to put up with each other’s shit.  The parties I’m focused on these days is the University of Manitoba, and their faculty association, UMFA.  Think of them as a married couple who have lost all attraction to one another, but for income tax purposes and for the sake of the kids, they put on a brave face and keep going through the motions.

Sometimes, they disagree.  Badly.  Communications break down.  One threatens to walk out on the other.  The kids are scared.  The common goal seems less important than the individual parties’ needs.

So is the case of @Umanitoba and @UMFA-FAUM.  Both exist for one reason – higher education – but at the moment that doesn’t seem quite so important, as both are teetering on the brink of mommy is going to stay at Aunt Julie’s for the weekend. 

How bad is it?  Threats are never a good thing. 

A far worse thing is getting the kids involved – or even worse – the neighbors. 

The kids became involved September 30, when the University of Manitoba emailed the entire student body, summing the whole thing up with 3 paragraphs on money, and a few on “academic freedom”, “tenure”, “consultation” and so forth – nebulous terms, poorly explained, but dismissed with “It’s been this way for 40 years, we’re not changing anything”

If you want to anger a person you’re disagreeing with, mischaracterizing their position is a great start.  Philosophers call that a straw man fallacy – distorting your opponent’s position so it’s easier to attack. If you really want to get the person you’re disagreeing with pissed off, involve a third party, and be sure you make their demands seem particularly petty and ridiculous. Better yet, don’t just get the kids involved, bring in the media, too!

But don’t be surprised when the other side bites back.

Negotiations and Unions

Negotiations are a part of human life.  Person X has something Person Y wants, so Person Y has to find a way of convincing Person X to give it to them.  Once upon a time, and even now for some of the less sophisticated among us, beating Person X over the head with a club was the go-to negotiation method.

Along the way we learned there was strength in numbers, and teamed up, leading to a practical answer to the age old question, “You and what army?”

Currency helped things a lot.  As Homer Simpson’s brain once told himself, “Money can be exchanged for goods and services”

This is a fairly straightforward thing in small organizations, where the market dictates the value of skilled employees.  Larger organizations, and particularly government funded ones, usually find their workers form Unions – a more modern answer to “You and what army?”

The power of the union is leverage, and the benefit is parity – you won’t find two first year professors earning vastly different sums of money.  The leverage comes in handy when it’s time to negotiate a contract – no one is indispensable to an organization, but an entire work force certainly can make a business grind to a halt if they so choose.

Unions and their employers negotiate contracts, allowing for predictable hiring and firing practises, wages, and employment standards for the workers, while the employer gets cost certainty over the length of the contract, and labor certainty – half the workers won’t skip town to work elsewhere on a whim. Its a mostly peaceful relationship as long as the contract is in effect.

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, @Umanitoba and @UMFA-FAUM saw their contract expire, and they set about to negotiating a new one.  I won’t get into the nitty gritty, but suffice it to say, after 4 months, there is no contract.  Sometimes, that can be fine, as a union can choose to continue indefinitely without a contract for the same terms that were in place at the end of the contract.  At their core, however, both unions and their employers crave the security of a contract, so they find themselves in two states; either with a contract, or negotiating a new contract.  One of those two things is always happening, with the exception of the odd breakdown in communication.

Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

Universities are money gobbling monsters – power, water, maintenance and construction, and let’s not forget the talent, better known as the faculty – some 1,200 members of @UMFA-FAUM , plus several hundred others who aren’t members of UMFA.  All these things add up to make the University of Manitoba a truly wondrous cash-vanishing machine.

So how much does it cost to run a University? The newest figures I could find are from 2010-2011, so let’s pretend things haven’t changed much since then.  In 2010-2011, the general operating budget of the U of M was $514.3 million. Let’s put that in perspective.  It cost $170 million to buy the Atlanta Thrashers and turn them into the Jets.  The new football stadium allegedly cost $204 million. You could buy both and STILL be able to fund Charlie Sheen AND Amanda Bynes’ drug habits for at least two or three weeks with that kinda cash.

Where does it come from?

We pay tuition!  Yeah we do. ’10-’11 raked in just over $117 million – less than 1/4 of the actual cost of our education.  Take a minute and let that sink in. So where did the other $400-ish million come from?

There’s a little group called the Council on Post-Secondary Education (COPSE) in Manitoba that allocates money to the U of M, U of W, Brandon U, St. Boniface University, College University of the North, and a few others.  In 2010-2011, they allocated just over $400 million dollars to the abovementioned institutions.  Using student populations as a splitting guide, It’s reasonable to assume the U of M received the lion’s share of that money – since 60% of the province’s university students attend the U of M, let’s say they receive $230 million of that.

So there’s our provincial Uncle Greg, and his more powerful federal counterpart, Uncle Stephen.  They’re kinda dicks from time to time, but in 2010-2011 they kicked in $72.3 and $93.8 million, respectively.

Now here’s the thing – if Manitoba has this COPSE organization giving money to the University, why did they give us another $72.3 million on top of that?

I think it’s safe to say the province would rather NOT have given that extra money to the University, and would probably prefer to have COPSE be able to fund it all – but our share of the $400 million is established through time honored bureaucratic processes, and that shan’t be changed.  We needed to go back to Uncle Greg and ask for $72.3 million MORE.  As a thought exercise, imagine if that money were recouped in tuitions instead – that would be tuition hike of 60%, thank you very much.  Maybe Uncle Greg isn’t such a bad guy.  But then again, he undid a law requiring a referendum on PST increases, just so he could bump the PST without voter consent.

What are some other signs a University is tight for cash?  Charging poor people vast sums of money for services that cost next to nothing would be a start.  $560 as I recall for 2013-2014.  The increases in casual parking are even worse – when I started at the U of M, the far west parking lot was known as the loonie lot, for obvious reasons – now it’s $5 a day.  500% increases don’t happen because things are going hunky-dory.

Subcontracting services out to third parties is another example – when you employ large quantities of staff, and ESPECIALLY when you’re funded by the government, staff tend to unionize, and want pesky things like medical and dental benefits, pension plans, and so forth.  Subcontracting takes many of these liabilities off the books, making them someone else’s problem.

Another sign might be branching out – attracting other industries to the University facilities.  A new stadium for a professional football stadium would certainly qualify.  Potential for future property income, plus the opportunity to sell evening parking for games and concerts is certainly an upside…

…But there are always downsides.  Consider the size of those downsides , and you get an idea of just how desperate someone may have been for the upsides.  Chasing students away two hours before game time, potentially impacting exam scheduling, significantly increasing traffic loads … then there’s increased road wear, more potential for litter and vandalism, and naturally, increased security requirements…

…Just how beneficial IS Investor’s Group Field?

I suspect the long-term goal is to eliminate the need for Uncle Greg’s extra cheque, and IGF is a major part of that plan.

When 140 just isn’t enough…

Twitter is great – lots of content in delicious bite-sized morsels, minimal commitment, and the oh-so-handy block button to keep the  eleventy billion “White girl problem” and painfully not funny parody accounts at bay.

Sometimes, 140 characters just isn’t enough space to share a rant, thought, or rebuke. While @pmharper feels perfectly entitled to blow up the timelines of his followers with 39 consecutive tweets, I have standards, so unlike our dear Prime Minister did today, I’ll be bringing my longer messages here. Because really, 39 tweets in 11 minutes is a dick move.

So hang onto your head coverings, ladies and gents, keep your appendages inside the bus, and don’t spare the feelings when it comes to commenting.  You won’t hurt me, it’s the internet.