Professional Accountability?

I found it more than a little ironic to watch today’s news and see George W. Bush signing corporate responsibility legislation. Could it be that the defender of the free market has realized that corporations, existing only to exact profit, ultimately succumb to their own greed when left to their own devices? While it is hardly surprising that fatcats at the top of the corporate food chain effectively absconded with their investor’s money and employee’s retirement nest egg, what does surprise me is how little was said by the accounting firms, or individual accountants within those firms. What ever happened to professional accountability?

Professions, by their definition, are designed to be self-regulating bodies created by an act of legislation to work in the public interest in a specific area of expertise. This legislation restricts the practice in the field of expertise to those individuals licensed by the professional body, and provides the framework for the basic operation of the professional body. For example, in British Columbia the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists is responsible for regulating the practices of engineering and geoscience, as specified in the province’s Engineers and Geoscientists Act (APEG-BC). Practice in either field is restricted under force of law to those licensed by APEG-BC. Members of the Association are also required to abide by the Code of Ethics, which define basic ethical rules by which the Association’s membership must abide. The Association is also responsible for disciplining those guilty of professional misconduct.

Professional bodies for accountants, such as the Chartered General Accountants or the American Institute of Chartered Professional Accountants, surely have similar rules of discipline. Where was that keenly honed sense of ethics and responsibility to the public interest when Enron execs were shifting money around to make the books look good? Did the little angel on their left shoulder just take that year off?

Of course, in some people’s minds it’s easy to dismiss the obligation to the public interest in matters of accounting, isn’t it? After all, it’s not like a building falls down, a plane falls out of the sky, or a nuclear power plant implodes. Nobody ever died due to an accounting error that I know of, and I’m willing to bet that the tally of spreadsheet-mishap-related fatalities is destined to stay eternally low.

We shouldn’t care about professional misconduct in accounting because nobody dies, is that it? I don’t think so.

To truly remedy this situation, the appropriate professional bodies in the United States should throw the book at those professionals responsible for perpetrating these crimes. Strip them of their professional designations, fine them the maximum amount, and make it widely known that this type of behaviour is unacceptable. While the masterminds behind the corporate shell game may be able to plead the fifth, no such right exists for professionals before their professional body’s discipline committees. If we can’t get the real crooks, then we should make like Elliot Nest and go after the accountants.

The Net Remembers

Every so often, I search the web for my own name. Is it vanity? Of course, but it’s also part paranoia. A simple search for “Brendon Wilson” on Google turns up a treasure trove of results, some expected and others surprising. What information lurks out there on the Internet about me?

Geek!With my book gaining popularity, it’s not surprising that there are a fair number of links and references to the book. That’s to be expected. What’s not expected is the extent of Usenet posting, letters to the SFU student newspaper, mentions in Enscquire, and assorted web sites on which my name, and in some cases, even my own words appear.

But it gets weirder.

Back in 1998 I went to a taping of Rex Murphy‘s Cross Country Checkup, and lo and behold here I am, complete with a picture in all my geeky glory. Here I am again in this overhead shot in a restaurant ad for DV8. There I was, chowing down on chicken curry, and some guy took a picture! Freak. Here’s another obscure reference to me in connection to a project I consulted on for maybe a total of a day or two.

The longevity of the Internet’s memory is astounding, but it only begs the question about what other information is lurking around out there. How many hours of video from security cameras, confidential records (school, police, medical), or other traces of my existence are out there? How many places hold a complete record of my purchases or banking history? How many people know more than they should about me?

Or about you?

The Hard Way

It’s amazing to watch as the RIAA and the MPAA attempt to screw consumers even more than they already do. This week, Congress is set to consider legislation that would allow copyright holders to hack your PC to disable “publicly accessible peer-to-peer networks” with immunity from state and federal laws. Waitaminute. Isn’t this the same administration that made hacking a terrorist offence, punishable by life imprisonment?

This announcement is part of a multi-pronged attack on fair use, complemented by Microsoft’s proposed Palladium technology and proposed legislation to plug the “analog hole”. The part that leaves me dumbstruck is the sheer amount of money that’s being thrown at the problem of content piracy, while little attention is actually being paid to the one thing that might actually make piracy a redundant practice: giving the consumer value for their money!

Let’s examine the reasons that I might pirate content:

  • Price: For about $20 I can buy a CD that cost about two cents to manufacture. True, the manufacturing costs are miniscule compared to the actual production process, but how much of that money actually went to the production of the music? Chances are, most money went to the marketing, the distribution, and buying shelf space (yes, they have to do that) at Virgin. I, as, a consumer, don’t care about that. The only thing I’m interesting in doing is paying the artist for their music.
  • Choice: When I buy that $20 CD, what do I actually get? Probably 1 or 2 worthwhile songs, and 12 songs of “filler”. Why am I paying for filler? It’s like paying for the air in a bag of potato chips. In most cases, I’m interested in a specific song or two, not the album. That said, there have been times that the popular song has turned out to be the worst song on the CD.
  • Convenience: If I want new music right now my choices are: a) Leave work and go find a record store; or b) fire up Kazaa and download the song I want now.

Despite the Internet’s capacity to ruthlessly eliminate middlemen, I believe that media companies still have an important role to play in bringing quality entertainment to the public. However, their ham-fisted attempts to become players in the digital media marketplace has betrayed how little they understand or respect their customers:

  • Subscription-based music services: These services, such as PressPlay and MusicNet, offer the illusion of a product competitive with P2P download services, but fail to deliver. They fail to deliver convenience by using proprietary file formats that can’t be played on popular MP3 players (such as Apple’s iPod), and tie you to the service (once you stop your subscription, you lose access to the downloaded music). They fail to deliver on choice, providing a limited catalogue of artists.
  • DVD region codes: VHS technology suffered from the problem that you couldn’t take a tape from the UK and play it in the US. With the advent of DVD technology, a reasonable consumer would assume that they could now move freely around the world with their DVDs. Guess again. DVDs include a region code that specifies the region in which DVDs can be played, and manufacturers of DVD players are required by the DVD technology license to only play DVDs from their region. The restriction was incorporated to allow the movie industry to continue to release movies at different times in different regions without the risk that foreign DVDs cutting into domestic box office sales. Of course, this restriction means that a laptop DVD player is essentially useless when travelling to other regions.
  • Electronic Newspapers: The clumsiness isn’t limited to the music and movie industries. Newspapers, such as The New York Times, are turning to technology from NewStand Inc. to deliver electronic version of their newspapers. These electronic versions are identical to their paper-based cousins, with the exception that they can only be viewed for 21 days. And despite the fact that the electronic versions are probably produced for near-zero cost, the cost of a subscription is almost identical to that of a paper newspaper. Same price, less convenience.

The common theme here: the media companies are producing the same product, packaging it in a less convenient form, and charging the same price. Of course, these companies aren’t stupid. They realize that digital technology offers them the opportunity to reduce costs while maintaining (or even increasing) revenue. All they need to do is figure out how to make people buy their product instead of pirating it. They have two choices:

  • The Easy Way: First, media companies need to drop their prices in recognition of the cost-effectiveness of digital distribution. Second, they need to adopt standard technology that allows people to use the media they have purchased without restriction. Finally, they need to open their entire catalogue of artists and movies, and license them promiscuously. Taking these steps would allow the media companies to compete with P2P technologies by offering people what they want, at a reasonable price that is competitive with the cost of the time they would spend searching P2P services.
  • The Hard Way: First, restrict the capabilities of digital technology through strategic partnerships with manufactures and technology companies. Second, make it illegal to circumvent copyright protection by pushing through draconian legislation (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act). Third, create solutions that restrict fair use. Finally, lay back and count the cash as it rolls in.

Of course, the industry is choosing The Hard Way because, at the end of the day, they’re sure to make more money. Doing things The Easy Way would require the media industry to be producing a quality product by developing promising artists. Instead, The Hard Way allows them to continue to pump out the flavour of the week and not worry that people might just be deleting the songs as fast as they download them.

What a shame that The Hard Way is a sure way to Easy Money.

Professional Practice Exam

I wrote the Professional Practice Exam on Monday, part of fulfilling the requirements for registration as a PEng (Professional Engineer) with APEGBC. Though the exam went well, I am still concerned with the focus of the Association on the “traditional” fields of engineering, and the lack of action with respect to advancing the state of the software engineering as a profession. Now, more than ever, the Canadian public (and the world in general) needs professional software engineers who are empowered to protect the public’s health and welfare.

Consider the suggested study material for the exam:

Though the books cover the requisite material in excellent detail, most of the case studies leave much to be desired. Legal precedents cited in the first book focus primarily on legal actions related to the construction industry, ignoring most other areas of engineering. Studies of ethical dilemmas in the second book again focus on “traditional” engineering fields. What amazes me is the complete lack of any coverage of the multitude of unique legal and ethical problems faced by Software Engineering, the youngest of the professional engineering streams. Engineers in this field require more, not less, guidance than their colleagues in more traditional fields of engineering where most of the “best practices” have been well established for decades, if not centuries.

When I registered as an EIT, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the Association provided any real benefit to electronic, computer, or software engineers. Every year at my university (SFU) the Association would swing by and declare, “you should go for your PEng!” but would fail to provide any tangible reason to do so, except for members of the “traditional” engineering fields. I entered the EIT program with the hope that the appearance of the Software Engineering stream signalled that the Association was becoming more relevant.

Three years later, I’ve seen little action on the part of the Association for Software Engineering. Sure, the Engineer and Geoscientist’s Act (“the Act”) requires you to be registered to engage in the practice of engineering, but I see little or no enforcement in the fields of software, computer, or software engineering. There are plenty of people operating in the field without certificates or registration, but the Association isn’t stopping them (in fact, the Act doesn’t provide adequate enforcement provisions according to APEGBC). Most employers aren’t looking for registered computer, electronic, or software engineers, and anyone who’s “really into computers” seems to be calling himself or herself a “software engineer”.

Any time I’ve contacted members of the Association, the reply has taken a long time and has done little to reassure me. The CSED (Computer and Software Engineering Division) of APEGBC shows very little activity. Though I’m trying to get involved to help the CSED, I get the sense that members of the CSED have already been deflated by the Association’s lack of action.

You might ask: why is this important? True, most software is destined for applications that don’t have even a remote chance of endangering life, but bad software is costing companies billions in downtime and exposing their confidential corporate data. Isn’t it part of our obligation to protect property, and the general public good? What public good is served by allowing companies to release defective software? In addition, there is a risk to the traditional engineering fields (civil and mechanical engineering in particular) that their increasing reliance on software products (most likely not designed by engineers) to design and build products could endanger life and limb.

Software touches every aspect of our lives. I would suggest that by failing to act appropriately to enforce registration, the Association is failing to fulfill its obligations as described by the Act. My question is: what is the Association currently doing, or (in the near future) going to do about it?

Forgetful Father

The forgetfulness of my father, Rod, is legendary in my family. Though probably a worrying sign of the eventual onset of Alzheimer’s, we choose instead to regard the lapses in memory with humour, adding them to the story of our family. The following story in particular stands out in my mind.

It was a regular weekday morning, and I was at school. My mother, Mae, was at home, asleep after working a night shift in the psychiatric ward, when the phone rang and woke her. It was my father calling from the lab at the hospital where he worked:

Mae: Hello?

Rod: Hi, this is Kimberley Hospital with a blood products request.

Mae: Rod?

Rod: Yeah, this is Rod Wilson. Who is this?

Mae: Mae!

Rod: Oh…Mae who?

Mae: Mae, your wife!

Rod: Oh! Hi Mae!

Mae: Hi…

Rod: What are you doing at the blood clinic?

Needless to say, my mother didn’t ever work at the blood clinic. In a moment of supreme amnesia, my father had picked up the phone and dialled the first number that entered his head. It just so happened that the number was his own home phone number.

Sure, it’s funny. But sometimes I worry: Is this going to happen to me?

Square Watermelon

Those clever Japanese farmers, always coming up with another way to make food aesthetically pleasing as well as practical. While browsing at Urban Fare, I glimpsed the future of fruit, Japanese-style: square watermelon.

Square watermelon!When I first saw the square watermelon, the immediate thought that entered my mind: genetically modified watermelon?! How did that get approved without me hearing about it? As it turns out, the watermelons themselves are entirely natural, their shape a product of the method used to shape the melon while it is still growing.

A farmer in Zentsuji, realizing the value of Japanese refrigerator real-estate, invented a way to create the fruit by growing them in glass boxes until they are 19cm square. The result is a cube-shaped fruit that fits easily on the refrigerator shelves of grocery stores and consumers alike with a minimum of wasted space.

The fruit don’t come cheap, with only 400 fruit available for purchase in the world this year. The Shima Oh variety shown at Urban Fare retail at CDN$ 99, so don’t expect to see it at your next barbeque. That said, it will be interesting to see what other fruit can be cubified using the same technique, if only for the potential to avoid fruit rolling down the grocery aisle.

Of course, the part I dread is the day they can make cubic fruit genetically, without the glass boxes.

Don’t Write, Link!

Now that my book‘s done and available for sale on, I’m starting to consider how much (or how little) I might actually make off the book. Writing the book made me realize just how difficult writing a book can be even if it’s a technical book rather than a work of fiction. But for all my hard work, I was shocked to realize this week that I make more money selling my book through an Amazon Associates link than I make in royalties as author of the book! Whaaaaat?

Let’s examine the terms of my agreement with New Riders:

  • New Riders pays me 10% of net receipts from United States sales or licenses of the work, in English, for the first 10,000 copies, and 12% for any amount over 10,000 copies.
  • New Riders pays me 5% of net receipts on sales in foreign languages.
  • New Riders pays me 5% of net receipts on sales of the book offered at a discount of 55% off the Suggested List or Single Copy Price.

Amazon, on the other hand, offers me the following referral fee percentages when someone buys a book via an Amazon Associates link off my web site:

  • 15% of Qualifying Revenues from the sale of each individually linked book that, on the date of order, is listed at 10% to 30% off the publisher’s list price.
  • 5% of Qualifying Revenues for all other Qualifying Products sold by

Though my book has a retail price of $45.00 (all figures in US Dollars) is currently offering it at a 30% discount ($31.50). This means I make $4.50 on direct sales (10% royalty) as an author, but on sales via Amazon (5% royalty due to discounts offered by New Riders) I make about only $2.25. However, for a copy of my book that I sell via my Amazon Associates link, I make $6.98 ($4.73 referral fee from Amazon + $2.25 royalty from New Riders).

What this means is that I, as an author, make roughly twice as much via a referral link as I make by my royalty from New Riders! Wow. Even if the book isn’t discounted by Amazon, I still make a 5% referral fee…the same amount I make from my royalty! Amazon also has the added advantage that they pay out their referral fees quarterly, whereas New Riders pays royalities biannually in September and March.

The message is clear: if you want to make money in books, stop writing, and start linking!

Canada Day

It’s July 1st, which means it’s time for everyone in Canada to reflect a little on what it means to be Canadian. Though this introspection is a year-round event for Canadians, Canada Day is a special day where we take the job a little more seriously and decide to dedicate 99% of our cultural brainpower instead of the usual 50%.

Coupland's latest CanadianaAnd who better to examine what makes us Canadian than Douglas Coupland? Though many have tried to capture the essence Canadien, from Farley Mowat to Spirit Of The West, none is as qualified as Coupland, a writer whose depressive characters mirror the outlook of most Canadians when examining their own culture, to document our collective malady. With his latest release, Souvenir Of Canada, Coupland examines the imagery that we all grew up with, imagery that takes us back to the romper rooms of our friend’s basements. The images might baffle outsiders, but most Canadians will find them comforting, like little treasures found in the bottom of a junk drawer.

Most Canadians I know (or at least the ones on the news I pretend I know) always complain that Canada has no identity of our own. This attitude permeates Canadian society, so much so that at one time the Government of Canada spent $10 million giving away flags to make Canadians feel more patriotic. Though the 15-watt stereo of Canadian culture is often drowned out by the leaf blower of American media in our back yard, I would argue there are a multitude of cultural gems that Canadians overlook far too easily.

There are the urban myths of Canadian vs. American beer, the flag patch we’ve all worn while traveling overseas, and, of course, the CBC. There’s pretty money, The Goal, and, when all else fails, Joe Canadian. We may not have a lot of people or power but, as Coupland’s book reminds us, we have beautiful memories of times that were ours, and ours alone.

Happy Birthday Canada. We may not always give you the credit you’re due, but there isn’t anywhere else that we’d want to live out our lives.

Ps and Qs

When I was a kid, I was always taught to mind my Ps and Qs. It meant that I should say “please”, “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, not interrupt people when they were speaking, and be as respectful as possible. Of course, “reminding” me sometime required my father to lightly smack my knuckles with a spoon when I interrupted him at the dinner table. Some days that’s a practice I’d dearly like to inflict on some of the people in the city.

It seems that somewhere along the way, we forgot how to be respectful, both in general and to each other. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t push by me and not say “excuse me”. Or walk through a door I’ve held open for them without saying “thank you”. My mother always insisted that people notice these things, but I never really believed it until recently. Maybe I’m getting old.

But if I’m getting old then I’m fully prepared to take on the role of a crotchety old man. I’ve taken to yelling “you’re welcome!” or “no, you’re right, excuse me!” Sometimes I get an embarrassed look or an apology, but more alarming is the number of times that people don’t notice the comment at all, or consciously choose to ignore it.

It might just be that I like to kvetch, or it maybe Binkley was right: the world has gone to hell in a hand basket since David Lee Roth left Van Halen.

Damn Americans

This weekend, my wife and I were eating breakfast at a local cafe and chatting with a couple sitting next to us about the World Cup. At some point, we got around to talking about Team USA, and the general sentiment could only be described as “Thank god they didn’t win. We’d never have heard the end of it.” Later, once we had left the cafe, my wife expressed dismay at the way that Canadians openly show disdain for their American cousins.

My wife is American, and she’s encountered this anti-American sentiment quite often in Canada. I’ll freely admit that, personally, I’m not too fond of the Americans. They’re nice as individuals, but as a society they leave much to be desired. The question is: what drives the Canadian need to sneer at the US?

Where to begin? Well, I suppose the first thing that rubs any Canadian the wrong way is the consistency with which we get the short end of the stick in dealing with Americans. Take the current trade relations between Canada and the US in the areas of softwood lumber and agriculture. The US suspects that Canada is illegally (under WTO rules) subsidizing its softwood lumber industry through the mechanism Canada uses to collect fees from logging companies for the use of public land. The US responds to this injustice by launching a dispute with the WTO and slapping a 30% tariff on any softwood lumber coming from Canada that results in an immediate and serious impact to the industry (BC in particular). Jobs are lost, and Canada’s only option is to fight the dispute through the WTO, a process which could take years, by which time it won’t matter if it wins or not. US 1, Canada 0.

With the tables reversed in the case of US farm subsidies, you’d expect that the same rules that allow the US to beat Canada in softwood lumber would allow Canada to easily fight the US on similar grounds. Nope. Sure Canada can launch a dispute, but it can’t cripple the US agriculture industry in the same way that the US crippled the Canadian softwood lumber industry. After all, how much food does Canada import from the US? US 2, Canada 0.

It’s this continuous pattern of defeat that makes Canadians bitter towards the US. While the US claims to be committed to the highest morals of equality and justice, the actions of the US tell a different story. Whenever the interests of Americans are at stake, the rules of the game change. The Kyoto Protocol? Sounds like a great idea! It’s going to cost the US money? Then forget it! Israel and Palestine fighting? Solve the problem diplomatically! Some terrorists flew some planes into the Twin Towers? Bomb Afghanistan and overthrow the government!

The actions of the US government on behalf of the American people reveal the true soul of the country: a greedy child that takes his ball home when things aren’t going his way. For Canada, a society of people trying to work for the benefit of all to ensure equality and justice, the double standard employed by the US is infuriating.

More frustrating than having to deal with this child are the consequences of not dealing with it. While we may resent the sucking maw that is American consumerism, just about every industry in Canada (and the rest of the world for that matter) is focused on serving the US market. To add insult to injury, the people who receive accolades as Canada’s top talent are usually receiving it not because they became successful in Canada, but rather because they went to the US to gain their fortune. Every band, every author, every enterprise, everyone’s success is chained to this village idiot as it lumbers across the land, taking what it likes, sitting on what it doesn’t.

It’s not just Canada’s reliance on the US market that irks us, it’s the fact that the US is everywhere we look. The US is like the car salesman who’s always “on”, never quite knowing when to shut up and act like a normal person. Regardless of whether it’s movies, music, television, the American influence permeates every corner of the planet. We have no culture of our own.

We are American. Resistance is futile.

The most saddening part of Canada’s desire to put down Americans is that it reveals much about the country’s own insecurities, its sense of inferiority. Even Canada’s perception of our place in history is skewed, as if to make us feel better about ourselves.

Consider Alexander Graham Bell. Though Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps may insist:

“(Bell) is an inspiring example of a Canadian inventor who, by his ingenuity and his perseverance, contributed to the advancement of knowledge and the progress of humanity”

The suggestion that Bell is a Canadian inventor is a slight exaggeration. While it is true that Bell, born in Scotland in 1847, immigrated to Canada in 1870, what often isn’t mentioned is the fact that he immigrated again to the US in 1871. Though the first successful test of the telephone occurred in Brantford, Ontario, Bell’s status as a “Canadian inventor” is tenuous at best. Sadly, Bell’s path seems parallel to every other Canadian success story that followed him. Though Canada’s sons and daughters, both natural-born and immigrant, may find success, it seems inevitable that finding success will always mean leaving Canada for the US.

What about basketball? The game was invented by James Naismith, born in Canada in 1959. Unfortunately, Naismith invented the game in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and spent the majority of his life in the US. Again, we call him a Canadian, but it was in the US that created the game for which he is famous, and there he lived until his death in 1939.

Perhaps this is the reason for our bitterness. All of our achievements have always been varnished by the touch of others, predominantly the US. Nothing is truly ours. While it may seem inevitable at this point that the US is the de facto ruler of the world and Canada may eventually join it, if not formally, then in every way except in law, we feel the need to fight the inevitable.

We are Canadians. We’re not Americans. Not yet. And not if we can help it.