This weekend the National Post made a claim – after 40 years, Quebec separatism is finally dead.

Quebec’s election campaign — and what a volatile, nasty, mud-splattered affair it has been — is all but over. But the sense of impending national doom that animated the first days has passed. That’s because the threat of Quebec separatism itself, the great existential conundrum that has gripped this country these past 40 years, has once again receded. It happened rather suddenly, mid-way through the campaign, as polls showed the Parti Québécois cratering in public support as the likelihood of yet another sovereignty referendum — the third since 1980 — hit home.

So this will be the enduring message of the past four weeks, after the signs are put away and the resignations tendered: C’est fini, cette affaire. And this time, because of the blessings of demographics, age and time, it’s not likely coming back. Some will try — led by Pierre Karl Peladeau, perhaps — to reanimate the un-dearly departed. They will fail. This was their shot; the unprecedented ferocity of the campaign just ending indicates all sides understood this. What remains is for the funeral arrangements to be made, the embalming completed, and the mourning to be done by those who will mourn. The rest of us? We can raise a glass, and move on.

In speaking with friends in Quebec, it would seem the Post’s demographic observation might be correct. The problem for the PQ is that the next generation is not passionate about separatism. In an always on, socially connected world the old borders and even neighborhoods of our childhood are less and less relevant. Today’s children live globally, connecting with people of every nationality, language and belief. They are becoming children of the world – not children of a province, state or country.

On Steam, it is not uncommon to hear the speakers of my son’s computer belting out many different languages from the players online; Russian, Korean, North American, European. All time zones, all languages with an internet connection.

For myself, the last decade has meant several international stints and while living away, I have become more and more appreciative of the culture that is Canada.

When I explain what Canada is to people – I always start with the diversity. The diversity of the land from the rocky mountains of the west, the open plains, the deep forests and wide lakes of Quebec and Ontario, the winds and oceans of the east. And of course, the diversity of the people. To be Canadian is to be from everywhere; Native Canadian, European, Asian.

Separatists might not be happy after losing the election but I am. A Canada without Quebec is not Canada.


There is a famous Japanese saying:


Deru kugi wa utareru or in English: the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. In other words, follow the rules and in Japan, there is a big rule book.


Rules are an interesting thing with cultures treating them very differently. I have come to believe that rules are like our legal system – precedent based. Over time, precedent changes as culture and thinking changes. No better example is what you see happening in North and South American around marijuana with some contemporary thought leaders like Bill Gates coming out with opinions you would not have expected. Our world is changing and will keep changing as views, economies, politics and opinions change. That is why slavery is banned and women can vote.

In Japan it is encouraging to see Prime Minister Abe taking the cultural challenges head on with plans such as his push to get women into the workforce, but there is a long road ahead. This is a very old culture with 3000 years of history (unlike my home country).

In the same article on Abe’s efforts, the Prime Minister makes an interesting observation on Japan which explains the conservative mindset:

Japan, he said, had been like a golfer, stuck in a bunker for 15 years, but reluctant to reach for the sand wedge, in case they over-hit the ball and shoot out-of-bounds. Now, he said, Japan had finally had the courage to use the sand-wedge.

The rules centric culture of Japan has benefits. Orderly, clean, safe and if you can figure out how it works – efficient. There is no city in the world that runs like Tokyo. You simply need to take a train in Japan and then compare the experience to a train in India to understand the power of structure and rules.

But it also has interesting drawbacks in the form of risk aversion and the creation of some very odd situations. My recent experience at Haneda is a good example of the danger of rules, in this case at the taxi stand.

The "rule" for the taxi stand is that the attendant must take the next taxi in line for passengers – no exceptions. That means that if you are in line with a family that will not fit into a small sedan, he is not allowed to call a van out of line or from where they queue to assist you.

I learned this after a very difficult conversation with an attendant around why he would not call up a van.

After the back and forth (due to my lack of Japanese language skills), he also figured out how to communicate to me that there is another rule; “the customer is always right”.

In other words, he could not call up a van. but if I decided to walk down the line and call a van to the front, he could do nothing about it.

I wonder how many years will go by before someone decides to fix this rule? Or will the nail just get pounded down every time serving the status quo?


And on a related note with regard to precedent, the evolution of rules often has unintended consequences. This one caught my attention and made me laugh.

Kicking habit


After our tour of Siem Reap, Cambodia we headed to Ho Chi Minh city. I have always wanted to visit Vietnam and this was our first time.

I think this shot best describes the city. A large city with roughly 9M people and according to different sources, 5-6M scooters. I was warned, keep your camera on your neck because thieves on scooters love to whip by tourists and take their cameras.

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Crazy. Scooters were everywhere. According to one of our guides, they put heavy taxes on cars (doubling the cost) where the price of a scooter is much more affordable for the people.

The country suffers the same ills as Cambodia – lots of corruption, no real social net to catch people and a low average income. According to this article, the average wage has “risen” to $185 per month. Ironically, it seems like Canada and many European countries are closer to the ideals of Marxism than most communist countries with regard to social balance and fairness. In these counties, it seems like it is survival of the fittest -  far from the ideals of communism.

All of this starts with leadership and unfortunately, many of these country’s leaders only know the survival to grab power mentality. One guide told me that his family was forced to relocate from their multi-generational home to make way for a canal. His family was given $1200 for their home – their neighbor, the police chief, was given $10,000. Interesting observation from the BBC:

But the disparity in wealth between urban and rural Vietnam is wide and some Communist Party leaders worry that too much economic liberalization will weaken their power base.

Despite pursuing economic reform, the ruling Communist Party shows little willingness to give up its monopoly on political power.

In the end, these countries are only held back by one thing: their leaders.

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To make the point, look at the Vietnam war museum in Ho Chi Minh. It is a tribute to the terrible and well known war torn history of the country. The contents of the museum were very familiar to me as I have read a lot about the Vietnamese wars. What struck me most about the museum is that it stands in stark contrast to the current political system in Vietnam – the museum is a voice of freedom in a not-so-free country.

How so? Inside the museum is a section dedicated to American photographers who stood against the war and is sponsored by a US organization from Kentucky, USA. It was also published by Random House, USA.

It is the ultimate testimony to the strength of a democracy to see such a public display of criticism not only tolerated but existing as a key part of the political system.

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Now compare and contrast the political situation in Vietnam (again from the BBC):

The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International says in a 2011 report that ”more than a dozen activists were convicted in faulty trials simply because they had peacefully voiced criticism of government policies”. A new wave of subversion trials began in 2013.

Do any sites exist to criticize the Vietnam government? Apparently not. Criticize too loudly and you go to jail. I am sure that in this type of political system Jon Stewart would be behind bars.

The War Museum in Ho Chi Minh city stands as an ironic testimony to the greatness of democracy. In the US (or other solid democracy) a leader’s quest for monopolistic power is thwarted by process and the strength of a political system that empowers the people to constantly rebalance the system.


Make no mistake that the photos are a stark reminder of the terrible impact of war on a country that should never have happened. But in the end I left thinking that it also stands as a testimony to true democracy, strength of political process and openness; flaws and all. I say “flaws and all” because no one in the US is tearing this museum down and the political system saw those who supported the war removed, and the US pulled out – but after it happened, not before it happened.

Interesting experience.

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A few final shots of the War Remnants museum.

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Love when a place leaves me pondering.


Whether you live in Japan or somewhere else, many people are talking about Japan’s economy. I get a lot of articles forwarded on the topic and you cannot open a local paper without something on the topic of Abeconimics.

Many foreigners are excited about the decline of the Yen, a hot stock market and media news about the revitalization of the economy. But unfortunately, revitalizing an economy that has been flat or deflating for 20 years is turning out to be not as simple as driving inflation and driving down the Yen to increase exports.

As I “re-learned” in the spring while supporting my son on a project, economies are fickle things that governments can manipulate over the short term, but over the long run it is the consumer and business owner that decides the fate of the country.

In our North American, consumer driven economies this isn’t as big an issue. People buy bigger houses when rates come down and load up on debt. The same isn’t true in Japan. In the article Japanese husbands get allowances—and they’re at a 31-year low, in a bad sign for Abenomics, the author explains a very different reality in the Japanese culture:

In at least half of Japanese married households, the wife controls the budget and allocates a proportion of her husband’s salary for spending money known as “okozukai”—which covers mobile phone bills, drinks, cigarettes, and entertainment. The average allowance has slipped to $386 per month, according toa new survey by Shinsei Bank (pdf), down 3% from last year and to the lowest level since 1982.

Last year the BBC interviewed one 47-year-old Japanese man who had been receiving an unchanged allowance from his wife for 15 years. He tried to negotiate a raise, but “she [drew] a pie chart of our household budget to explain why I cannot get more pocket money,” he said, defeated.

The okozukai system is part of a broader Japanese financial culture where families often save huge amounts, particularly when times are bad. The result has been an economic disaster, which is why a key part of the government’s “Abenomics” suite of economic reforms is encouraging savers to spend.

Now overlay that notion with the demographics: the Japanese population is aging rapidly and every year the population declines significantly as young people are not getting married and having children. This means that the strain on the government social system is going to increase as time goes by and in one estimate I read the population is on a trajectory which may see it hit 100M people by 2040 (down from the current 127M).

Japan needs young people to pay for the upcoming social system burden, replenish the workforce and create that next wave of naive, exuberant, consumerism to drive demand. But many are rebelling at the notion as the young males do not want to enter the okuzukai system like their dads (neither would I) or the salaryman culture that is pervasive in Japan: (Via A Geek in Japan):

Salarymen wake up at around eight o’clock in the morning, have breakfast, put on their suits, take up their briefcases, and get on the train for a commute of approximately an hour. They work, have lunch with their coworkers, and usually work overtime, arriving home very late at night. Often, before going home, they will go out for a drink with their workmates and pass the time at an izakaya.

From a simple logistics point of view, how do you get the population to spend more and jump start the economy when they spend 5 or 6 days a week in the office till late at night when the promise of lifetime employment is no longer on the table? (read Japan’s Lost Generation).

Now add the cultural conundrum of immigration which seems to be the only way that Japan can maintain their population, a strong workforce and base of consumers. Japan is one of the last homogenous societies in the world. 99% of Japan is Japanese, bolstered by the last earthquake which lead to a max exodus of foreigners (Flyjin). That homogeneity is one of the fundamental underpinnings of Japanese society; it means shared values, group minded thinking, true social consciousness, safety as a group, and the most orderly society in the world. But when the population is aging and declining rapidly what other choice is there? Japan is heading to this cliff and rightly recognize that this one topic will change the very fabric of their 3,000 year old society – which is why they so actively resist it.

On the business side, the stock market is up and exports have swung upwards due to the weakened Yen. But for Abenomics to work, Japanese companies need to start hiring more people (which creates more consumers) and start building factories (which drives jobs). One of the best articles to articulate this is Will Abenomics Work?

We think the current economic upsurge is mainly due to: i) exporters
enjoying a temporary respite until either China and Korea react with
devaluations of their own or there is a repeat of the Eurozone
meltdown, and ii) the spending habits of exporters wealthier
shareholders and suppliers. But since exporters only account for 16%
of the economy, and just 15% of Japan’s households hold any shares at
all, these very visible players should not be mistaken as representing
the Japanese economy as a whole. Rather, we think that while the top
1% might indeed be feeling wealthier, and 1m people can certainly buy
a noticeable amount of high-end goods, but there’s another 126m who
are not seeing anything other than rising prices and instead are
wondering just when things will get better.

Add into that an inflated labour market where companies will struggle to add to their workforce when they are not allowed to remove low performers or surplus workers:

Near the top of the reforms list, just under deregulation and lowering corporate tax, is the need by employers for more “labor flexibility” — code for the ability to fire people they no longer need. Economists reckon that 10% of employees (about 4.5m people) in Japanese companies are redundant, and if they could companies would let that many go in order to increase productivity.

When you add all these up it makes a simple point: this isn’t as simple as driving inflation, this is about culture and the question of deep change.

The challenge with that is that if you start changing the cultural foundations of the society, the downstream impact is that you reshape the very fabric of what it is to be Japan.

In a 3,000 year old society, that is not to be taken lightly and one needs to beware the rabbits as the consequences are significant.

Japan is a fascinating place with many big questions looming. It is a privilege to be here at this point in time, listening, learning and observing.


As an aside, a few of my favourites on Japan:

  • One Obstacle Won’t Budge in Japan’s Fight With Deflation   Fascinating read on the economy and Japanese vending machines (there is a vending machine for every 33 people)
  • A Geek in Japan    A great read on Japan culture, and what it means to be a gaijin working in a Japanese company.
  • The Japan Times.    I find the “local” papers are a great insight into what it means to be part of the culture. I still read the Guardian out of the UK.


I received this the other day:


I would sign a petition to privatize the CBC. It is an out-dated institution where tax funding produces primarily low grade content in an inefficient manner … just like where the idea came from.

$1B better spent elsewhere.



The Japanese economy is in trouble (which economy isn’t?). You never hear about it unless you seek the information for a few reasons; the Japanese like to keep their problems to themselves, the lack of immigrants means that no one abroad pays close attention as they don’t have family trying to carve out a new life in Japan and Japanese debt is held by Japanese.

So why is it in trouble? I reflected on that as I exited Costco a few weekends ago with my son’s English paper top of mind (He is writing on the economic crisis and we had been discussing supply/demand, the impact of consumer confidence on the economy and the downward spiral that leads to a recession).

In North America you exit a Costco with your fellow shoppers sharing a common concern: how the heck am I going to fit all of this stuff in my vehicle?

In Japan, there are a few of us with a full trolley, but many others are exiting with half a trolley full or more commonly only a few items. How many times in North America do you see someone exit a Costco with 4 items? Almost never …

Also, I have yet to see a single person wrestling out one of those impulses items that stock the middle of the floor of Costco. You know, the items you see couples “discussing” all the time in North America. It goes something like this:

“But we came in here for a brick of cheese and milk. Nothing else.”

“I know. I know. It sounds crazy. But at that price, how can we not buy the trampoline?”

In North America you enter a Costco thinking that you will spend $50 and leave spending $900.

The new Prime Minister is keen on kick starting the economy and getting out of deflation. He has launched another huge debt incurring public works program after a big debt year and is pushing the bank of Japan to weaken the Yen to encourage exports.

But it might not be enough. Economies are fuelled by consumer confidence and spending. If Costco is an indicator … Japanese consumers need to spend more. The question is, can they afford it when living in the most expensive city in the world?




Colliders and the “god particle” are all over the news. I always detested physics in school. In fact, first year honours physics is the reason why I changed studies in University; I loved to code, but detested mathematics and physics so I left computer science. Plus, I couldn’t see myself behind a screen coding for the next 40 years.

But I am interested in what they are doing with the large Hadron Collider so I watched a video that does a pretty good job of explaining what is going on. You can watch hit here.

Thank you NASA.