Saturday, October 24, 2020

Doug Ford interferes again in municipal elections

In between sounding all concerned and empathetic and being largely ineffectual, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has decided, out of nowhere, to ban ranked ballot voting in Ontario municipal elections

No-one seems to understand why, and Ford has certainly not offered any explanation. In fact, he has gone out of his way to hide his actions, by burying the amendment in a bill largely concerned with pandemic recovery. He himself benefited from the ranked ballot system, which was used in the leadership race for the provincial Conservative party, but he seems to want to deny it to the province's  cities, for reasons unknown.

Ranked ballot voting is where voters rank their preferences, and the second- and third-ranked votes of the last-placed contenders are allocated to the remaining candidates until one ends up with a majority. This is arguably a better, and more democratic, system than the usual first-past-the-post system, which can result in a winner that actually has the vote of just a small minority of voters. For example, in the 2014 Toronto municipal vote, one councillor won with just 17% of the populat vote. The ranked ballot system is also touted as discouraging strategic voting, resulting in a more diverse array of candidates, and a more civilized debate.

Ranked balloting is widely used throughout the world, but very few Ontario municipalities actually use it (it was only recently enabled by the previous Liberal government). London, Ontario, used it in 2018, and the election proceeded without any hitches (the city estimates that it added about $24,500 to the fixed costs of the election, less than 10 cents per taxpayer). Kingston had agreed to use it for its next election, and Toronto has also been seriously considering it. As things stand, though, none of these cities will now be able to take advantage of its benefits.

When pressed for an explanation, Ford merely quipped, "We've been voting this way since 1867", and, "We don't need any nore complications". Hardly compelling arguments. Why does Ford feel the need to keep interfering in local elections?

Friday, October 23, 2020

Appointing Justice Barrett is "ground-breaking and historic" alright

As the Republican-majority Senate Judiciary Committee rubber-stamped Amy Coney-Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, which will now go to a full Senate vote, Senator Lindsay Graham said it best: "This is a ground-breaking, historical moment".

"Ground-breaking and historical" is right. Never before has the Senate confirmed a Supreme Court nominee so close to a presidential election. 'Nuff said.

Cats kill 10,000 times as many birds as wind turbines

I didn't watch the Trump-Biden debate last night - couldn't face it - but apparently one of the few exchanges that actually elicited a laugh from the audience was when Mr. Trump burst out, "I know more about wind than you do. It's extremely expensive, kills all the birds".

Setting aside the fact that he came across sounding like a seven-year old, this is obviously not true. For one, wind power is now substantially cheaper than fossil fuels pretty much everywhere. And secondly, the bird-killing capacity of wind turbines has been hugely overblown(!), and pales in comparison with other bird killers like pwer lines (130 times as many as wind turbines), poison (300 times), vehicle collisions (900 times), building collisions (2,500 times), and, the No. 1 culprit, cats (over 10,000 times as many). 

These numbers are based on figures from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, so I have no reason to disbelieve them, but the number of 2.4 billion bird deaths, in the USA alone, at the hands (paws) of cats boggled my mind a bit. Let's think about this. There are 128 million households in the United States, and there are an estimated 95.6 million cats living in those households (some of which host more than one cat). This suggests that each cat kills on average about 25 birds a year. This could be possible (just). But consider also that about 70% of American cats are indoor-only cats that never get to venture outside (a mind-boggling statistic all on its own), the 29 million or so that do go outdoors must be responsible for killing about 84 birds each. Each year. If we take out those cats that are obese, very old or very young, or just plain lazy and incapable of catching a bird or a mouse or anything at all - and I have no stats on this, but from my anecdotal experience I think it is substantial - then the numbers of bird deaths per cat just keep going up, and we are looking at well over hundred per cat, probably more than one a day during the summer season.

My point is that the 2.4 billion bird deaths due to American cats just seems really improbable. I don't deny that cats do kill birds, and some cats kill many birds, and I understand that this is a problem. I just can't believe it's THAT big a problem. Looking at this another way though, there are about 60,000 wind turbines in the USA at the moment, which, if they kill a total of 234,000 birds a year, means under 4 per turbine, compared to over a hundred a year per cat. "Killing all the birds", Mr. Trump?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Surely, racism is about context as well as words

Well, I'm going to go there again. I have touched on similar matters several times in the past, and I am always conscious that I am skating on thin ice and risking censure and trolling (were anyone to actually read this blog). But I think these things are important and, despite attempts to make them completely out-of-bounds for discussion, they do need to be aired and not just left to fester.

A University of Ottawa arts professor, Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, has been has been put on temporary "administrative suspension" after one student complained that she was "uncomfortable" with the prof's use of the N-word in a class discussion. For context - and, yes, context IS important - the word was used is an academic discussion of the concept of reappropriation, the way that marginalized communities have started to reclaim words that used to be used against them as pejorative slurs, e.g. "queer", "dyke", and the "word-that-shall-not-be-mentioned".

So, this was not someone bad-mouthing a vulnerable minority. It was not, "Hey, you, n_____!" It was a respectful discussion about language. After the professor received the complaint, the class discussed the issue the next week. And there it all might have rested had not the student newspaper caught wind of it, and campaigned to get the professor suspended.

The lecturer herself, a part-time professor working in her second language, who had given the same lecture in French in the past, was mortified, and had no idea that some words should not be spoken even in an academic context. She has always been very supportive of equality issues, and had attended a Black Lives Matter just two weeks earlier. She is now worried that she will be blacklisted (sic!) and branded a racist. In short, cancelled.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a letter to the university supporting the professor, on the grounds that the word was used in the context of a class, was germane to the subject, and had pedagogical intent, and should therefore be protected by academic freedom. An open letter from over 30 professors also supported Prof. Lieutenant-Duval, arguing that the university had overreached by trying to regulate the contents of a lecture that happened to touch on a sensitive subject.

Right back fired a group of 25 Black, Indigenous and racial-minority professors and staff condemning any use of the N-word, academic or not, and expressing outrage that they were not consulted before framing the issue as one of academic freedom. Well, whatever else is it? They further argued that the outright banning of certain words, even in an academic context, does not constitute a violation of academic freedom. Er, beg to differ.

Professor Lieutenant-Duval returned to work after two weeks of administrative suspension. But I just bet her career, and her self-confidence, never recover.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Dark series is challenging, frustrating and mysteriously enjoyable

I have been trying to get my poor old head around the German supernatural series The Dark on Netflix. If you haven't seen it, think of a cross between Lost and Stranger Things (and if you haven't seen either of those, then you probably won't be interested in the rest of this post).

Lost was complicated, not to mention counter-intuitive, frustrating and inexplicable. The Dark is all that too, but multiplied by a factor of n, where n is, let's say 33, for reasons that will become apparent. It's also produced in German but dubbed into English (not subtitled), probably the first dubbed film I have seen in decades, and I don't really like that aspect of it, although arguably it is a minor quibble.

How to describe the series in very few words? The fictional German town of Winden is set deep in what looks like the Black Forest, unremarkable except for its exceptional ordinariness. Oh, and the nuclear power station that dominates it and its residents. The series mainly follows various generations of four interlinked families. 

And I say generations advisedly, because deep in the caves below the power station is a portal, or perhaps series of portals, to other time periods separated by 33 years. So, when children start disappearing in 2019, the events are suspiciously similar to disappearances 33 years earlier, in 1986.

When we follow the disappeared kids back to 1986, it becomes apparent that people and events from 1953 are also implicated (and, later 1920 and even 2052). The adults from 2019 are in their teens in 1986, and backstories are filled in, with some surpises and shocks. It becomes something of an intellectual game to figure out who is who in the different time periods. When characters from 2019 start interacting with 1986 (and 1953 and 1920 and 2052!), things start to become pretty complex. I confess to having looked up online explainers, plot summaries and family trees (like this one and this one), but they only help so far.

There are also a whole load of time paradoxes involved too, with the future influencing the past, characters meeting their past or future selves, young children becoming fathers to their old playmates, etc. Time machines and black holes pop up (well, of course they do!), and strange coincidences abound. There is a fair bit of philosophizing about the nature of time and human nature and religion and free will and families and who knows what else.

Early in Season 2 (as far as I have ventured thus far), a shadowy organization of Travellers is revealed, which is probably nefarious, but who knows? And I'm sure that later upon layer of complexity, false leads and dead ends are bound to multiply as the series goes on.

And am I enjoying it? Ye-es... Part of it is the challenge of figuring out connections, and fitting the jigsaw pieces together. But it is not a passive process, and if you just try and watch it as pure entertainment, you will probably end up pretty frustrated and disappointed. Will I finish all three seasons? Only time will tell...

Liberals go beyond the pale with their threat of a snap election

I, like so many other Canadians, used to be almost completely indifferent to the so-called WE "scandal" in which Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government embroiled themselves this summer. It was a very Canadian scandal, i.e. not very scandalous, and frankly we have much bigger fish to fry at the moment. The opposition Conservtives seemed to be largely going through the motions of expressing outrage and characterizing the issue as way more important than it really was (that's what opposition parties are expected to do). It would all have blown over in time, just like the SNC Lavalin "scandal".

But then came the Liberals' prorogation of parliament for several weeks, ostensibly to "reset the approach of this government for a recovery to build back better", but effectively to close down the finance and ethics committees that were investigating the whole WE contract. Then, when parliament was finally allowed to reconvene, the investigating committees faced Liberal stonewalling and filibustering, hugely redacted documents, and a general unwillngness to help.

And now, unprecedentedly, the Liberals are making the Conservatives' attempt to set up a new "anti-corruption committee" with less Liberal control to study "allegations of misuse of public funds by the government" into a confidence vote, giving the opposition the choice of a snap election that neither they nor the coutry as a whole want at the moment, or the status quo (i.e. no special ethics probe). The official line is that the government is just way too busy doing big things and saving the country to be messing with nit-picky, tin-pot committee hearings, and that any such investigation would effectively paralyze the government at a time when the country can least afford it. Unspoken, is the fact that the Liberals have a healthy lead in opinion polls and would actually quite like an election to consolidate their power, and perhaps extend it into a majority.

With the help of the NDP, Greens Md Independents (who REALLY don't want an election at the moment), the Liberals managed to win the vote and stave off an election, just today, so status quo it is. In a game of election chicken, Trudeau stared down the opposition, but he does not look any more trustworthy than he did before; the opposition Conservatives look petty and ineffectual, and are probably breathing a sigh of relief that their own little exercise in brinkmanship failed; the NDP look, well, like a third party with no real options; and we will probably never get to know any more details about the WE controversy (which I'm OK with).

But all this leaves a really bitter taste in the mouths of we, the people, and I'm sure that a lot of people who might once have been sympthetic (or at least apathetic) towards the Liberals are no longer. I know I fall into that category. A party that goes to such lengths to prevent scrutiny MUST have something pretty horrible to hide. And, whatever that might be, I'm just tired of the Liberals' (and Trudeau's in particular) secretive nature, and their apparent willingness to transgress against rules and norms, in the knowledge that they do so with impunity. 

Trudeau has overstayed his welcome. Then again, the alternatives are either improbable (NDP and Greens) or unthinkable (Conservatives), so in reality we are stuck with the Liberals, at least for now. And with the Liberals leading in the polls, we can probably expect them to force the hand of the opposition again, and soon, and this time the NDP may not feel obliged to prop them up or hold them back. All we can do is tell ourselves, with a shudder, that at least we are not America.

Ontario's Halloween and dance class announcements offer more mixed messages

The Ontario government's decision to "cancel" Halloween this year in the hard-hit Toronto area has met with general disbelief and resentment. Obviously, they can't actually cancel it, but they are strongly advising that people do not go out trick or treating for health and safety reasons during this ongoing pandemic thing. The reaction of most people was: a) they can't do that, and b) that makes no sense. After all, as André Picard opines in this article, what could be healthier than getting kids outside in small groups, wearing masks, and improving their fragile mental health?

My first reaction was equally dismissive: government overreach, poorly though out health policy, confusing mixed messages, etc. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that they may have a point. That image of well-behaved masked kids out in the fresh air is similar to my own middle-class experience of Canadian Halloween in a reasonably well-to-do area of the city.

Then, I saw an archival news clip of huge groups of clearly recent immigrant children doing Halloween in high-rise apartment blocks. There was no possibility of social distancing there, and definitely no fresh air. It is the type of Halloween celebrated by a large number of low-income Canadian kids, and I can see that that is something you might want to avoid. Banning indoor Halloweens would disproportionately hit poorer, racialized communities, while allowing more middle-class to carry on as normal, and that is clearly a non-starter. I don't know that these were the thought processes of the Ford administration, which has lurched from one bad decision to another over the last couple of years, and is not noted for its concern for the disadvantaged, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

Part of the problem with the Halloween announcement is that it came on the same day as another COVID-related announcement: that dance classes were, for some reason, now being allowed to resume in Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and York regions, after previously having been closed down along with gyms and other fitness facilities. To be clear, ballet, hip-hop, jazz and ballroom dance classes are now allowed, subject toa ten student maximum and two metres social distancing, but not Zumba classes, which is presumably too close to a gym class. Presumably it is about how much sweat and how much heavy breathing is generated by the different classes, but some dance classes are most definitely sweaty. Small gyms are complaining about double standards, and once again dance classes are much more associated with middle class areas than gyms so there is an added social tightrope being walked there (speakimg of which, where do circus arts fit in on this spectrum?)

It all demonstrates how tricky the balancing act is that governments are having to negotiate. There have been confusing, inconsistent and contradictory messages since Day One. Whether this particular government have dealt with the challenges well, though, is far from certain.

Canadian educational establishments re-evaluate their involvement with Confucius Institute

Many Canadian educational institutions are currently going through some heart-searching over their use of the Chinese government-backed Confucius Institute to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture and history in extra-curricular classes.

The Confucius Institute (CI) has been under suspicion for years - really, since it began, in 2004 - for its somewhat blinkered approach to Chinese "culture", and certain touchy subjects (like the Tianenmen Square massacre, Falun Gong, Taiwan and Tibet) are prohibited territory under the Institute's Communist Party-dictated rules. Some of its other practices, like flying school board trustees to China on all-expenses-paid trips, have been criticized as suspicious, and some opponents claim it is nothing more than an arm of the Chinese Comnunist Party's propaganda department. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has even warned in the past that the Institutes could be operating as spy satellite offices, and the USA has recently labelled CI as a foreign diplomatic mission involved in political propaganda.

The Confucius Institute organization currently has 541 institutes worldwide, including 12 in Canada. In addition to language and cultural programming for the educational establishment involved, they also typically offer some classes to the general public, sponsor educational exchanges, and hold public events and lectures on all things Chinese. Some argue that they are just a cultural and language institute like many others, including the British Council, the Alliance Française, the Goethe-Institut, etc. But the difference is that the Confucius Institute operates directly on school and university campuses, giving them preferential access to students and staff, and they appear to be under stricter controls over the content of their offerings.

Many Canadian school boards and universities that did use the Confucius Institute have since thought better of it and cancelled their programs with the Confucius Institute, including the Toronto District School Board, the whole of New Brunswick, McMaster University, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Several more are currenly in the process of re-evaluating the programs. Some institutions, like the University of Manitoba, were approached but chose not to sign up in the first place. Other boards and schools, however, particularly in the Prairies for some reason, appear quite comfortable with the way it operates. A similar process of reappraisal is taking place across the world, and many institutions are choosing to sever links with CI, while others are choosing to continue.

What I hadn't appreciated about it all is that the Confucius Institute does not actually provide language instructors, and that the schools and universities involved retain "control over the hiring, curriculum and academic practices of the Institute". What, then, do they provide? What is the point of them? Do they just provide money, books and the odd tai chi class? And is that money tied in some way to some sort of restrictive content agreement with the Chinese language instructors that are hired? Couldn't schools and universities just offer Mandarin classes without Confucius Institute involvement at all (in the same way as they offer German and Italian classes)?

It's all a bit mysterious. Which is perhaps in itself a good reason to avoid it like the plague.