Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Some pretty famous people believe we are part of a computer simulation

The idea that we are all living in a sophisticated computer simulation, à la Matrix, is not a particularly new one. The modern exposition if the idea can be said to date to the work of British philosopher Nicholas Bostrom back in 2003, and the general idea goes back much further than that. What I hadn't realized, though, is that no lesser mainstream personalities than Elon Musk and Neil DeGrasse-Tyson are believers in this apparently rather outré idea.
The theory goes that, given how far computer gaming technology has progressed in a relatively short time - from Pong in the ealy 1970s to Crysis and Assassin's Creed today, for example - it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the technology, and new technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality, will further progress to the point where it will be essentially impossible to distinguish between reality and simulation. If you accept that, then it is not too much of a stretch to accept that maybe we are part of some advanced future civilization's hyper-real simulation.
But surely this is still a pretty radical and kooky idea, the province of mavericks and crackpots. Well, Elon Musk may be a bit eccentric, but he's probably not a crackpot, and he certainly seems to be sold on the idea. DeGrasse-Tyson is even less of an odd-ball, and he gives the idea a 50-50 chance of turning out to be true.
I guess we will never be able to prove the issue one way or the other, so such a claim may be relatively safe. But I was, nevertheless, a little taken aback that two such established, successful and popular figures were willing to entertain such an extravagant and controversial theory.

Trump ignores his security advisors - again!

Donald Trump has difficulty holding onto national security advisors (it looks like HR McMaster is next for the chop). But it makes you wonder why he even has security advisors. For example, when they explicitly advised Trump not to congratulate Vladimir Putin after his recent sham election victory, of course he did it anyway.
It's amusing to note that the White House National Security Council put "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" in all-caps, kind of like you would remind a schoolkid, "DON'T FORGET YOUR LUNCH-BOX AGAIN!" But, nevertheless - dang-it! - he must have forgotten, and called his buddy up anyway!
Preductably enough, Trump is outraged that a confidential press briefing was leaked to the press, but people are understandably fed up with his antics. Democrats and Republicans alike sighed wearily - again! - and publicly chastized the man. But what difference is that going to make. You just know he's going to forget that lunch-box again tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Death by self-driving Uber car puts all autonomous vehicle research in jeopardy

Uber has called a halt to its driverless car testing after a woman pedestrian was killed by an Uber car operating in autonomous mode in Tempe, Arizona.
Uber had already suspended its self-driving car tests once before, after a crash - coincidentally, also in Tempe, Arizona - about a year ago, in which, miraculously, no-one was hurt. In that case, the Uber car was not able to react to another car unexpectedly failing to yield, despite the presence of a human in the driver's seat who could theoretically take over the controls when needed.
In this latest case, it is not yet clear exactly what the circumstance were, although police have said that the victim had "not been using a pedestrian crossing", i.e. she was probably jay-walking. Nor is it clear why the "driver" was not able to intervene. But it is nevertheless tragic, and also embarrassing for the whole driverless car program, which is being aggressively pursued in several states by several companies including Ford, GM, Tesla and Waymo, among others, as well as Uber. All of these companies are now looking hard at their own programs (Toyota has already suspended its own tests), and the USA is in the process of drawing up national safety guidelines for such cars.
In the meantime, organizations like Consumer Watchdog, which has been warning for years that the technology is being deployed before it is ready, and that such an accident was just waiting to happen, are saying "told you so", and calling for a moratorium of the testing of all self-driving vehicles on public roads. Autonomous cars may seem like a relatively straightforward technology and already well-tested, but it seems it is no match (yet) for the vagaries of human behaviour and the sheer number of possible situations that might arise in the real world.
The Center for Automotive Research is counselling perspective, and saying that this single fatality should be taken in the context of the 37,000 vehicle deaths (including 6,000 pedestrians) that occur in the United States every year. But their voice is a lone one in the wilderness, and this could be enough to drive a final nail into the coffin of autonomous car research.
A death by self-driving car seems somehow qualitatively different from a regular vehicle death (even if it shouldn't). Part of the problem is the hype that has built up around the technology, and the excessive and unrealistic promises that autonomous vehicles will one day eliminate all road fatalities. Even if it is actually a safer mode of transportation, its road to acceptance has just become that bit harder.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The best Trump speech Trump never made

Comedian Candy Palmater offered a wonderful off-the-cuff improvised impression of a Donald Trump speech during this week's edition of the (almost) always-funny Because News quiz on CBC Radio:
"I'll tell you what, some have them, some don't. It's going to be good, or it could be bad, it could be good. I'll tell you what, it's tremendous. Also it could be bad. It's sad, I feel sad. This is good. Thank you."
Well, maybe it doesn't look so funny out of context, but trust me, it was funny. More specifically, it was in response to Trump's recent briefing about that damned wall:
"The problem is, you have to have see-through. You have to know what's on the other side. I mean you could be two feet away from a criminal cartel if you don't even know they're there ... So, we're looking at the walls where you have some see-through capability. If you don't have some see-through, it's a problem ... Who would think? Who would think? These are, like, professional mountain climbers. They're incredible climbers. They can't climb some of these walls. Some of them they can."
So, no, no-one does it quite like Trump, but full marks to Ms. Palmater for at least coming close.

The Cold War in the age of Twitter

The Russian Embassy's Twitter goading of British PM Theresa May in recent days can only be described as Trumpian.
In response to May's expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats over the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, @RussianEmbassy tweeted: "The temperature of Russian-British relations drops to -23, but we are not afraid of cold weather". Oooh!
This, and other jokey and sarcastic tweets in recent days, comes in stark contrast to the official response from the embassy, which, while full of outrage and righteous indignation, was at least serious, terse and measured.
I still can't really believe that governments, embassies and politicians are using Twitter for official and semi-official pronouncements. It may or may not be a reflection of technological progress and the modern Zeitgeist, but that doesn't change the fact that it is a totally inappropriate medium. Donald Trump was not the first politician to use the platform for official business, but he has been almost single-handedly responsible for dragging the tone of worldwide political discourse down into the gutter. Now, everybody feels obliged to slum it down there too. What a state of state affairs!

Checking emails less often will make you a nicer person

Being constantly connected via your phone really does increase your stress levels. It's no longer just anecdotal or commonsense arguments that show that. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior a few years ago now followed the reported stress levels of two groups of office workers, one of which was allowed to check their emails just three times a day, the other group being allowed to check whenever they wanted. The group that only checked emails three times a day was noticeably more relaxed. However, in order to show that it was the phone-checking that was actually causing the stress, and that this was not just a false impression created by a particularly stressy group of people, the two groups then switched over and, sure enough, the previously relaxed group was now the anxious and stressed group.
So, what can be done to ameliorate the problem? A Globe and Mail article today offers five simple practical steps that can be taken to cut down obsessive phone-checking for business people:
  1. Delegate some of the checking to a trusted assistant who can alert you to any urgent messages, but free you up to get on with the rest of your job.
  2. Use a real old-fashioned alarm clock to wake you up in the morning, so that you are less likely to check emails and texts first thing in the morning.
  3. Similarly, and for the same reasons, use a watch to check the time, not your phone (you'd be surprised how often you do it during a day), or leave your phone on airplane mode so that you can check the time without getting caught up in emails and messages.
  4. Set specific times to check emails, say once an hour or even less frequently, and limit the time spent checking to say 15 minutes so that you can at least deal with the urgent issues on a timely basis (trying to keep your inbox empty is likely self-defeating, because every email you answer will probably trigger another response).
  5. Take yourself a bit less seriously: the world will keep on spinning regardless of whether you respond to an email immediately or not.
Sound advice, I'd say, and although it is mainly aimed at the busy business person or entrepreneur, much of it also translates to the regular Joe or to a student.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The coywolf in Toronto

I watched a coyote stroll through the park in front of our Toronto house early this Sunday morning. Really, it was more of an easy trot than a stroll, but it was certainly in no great hurry; seemed perfectly comfortable and at ease in this city park by the beach.
This is the coywolf, or eastern coyote (or just coyote), big cousin to the more common western coyote. First identified in the early 1920s in the southern part of Algonquin Park, this "new" hybrid of the western coyote and the eastern wolf (now extirpated in the area), with a bit of domestic dog DNA thrown into the mix, the wily and adaptable eastern coyote has been extremely successful, and in recent years has started moving into the cities of Southern Ontario, where it can make a good living from the plentiful small mammals in ravine parks (as well as the odd domestic cat or small dog).
So, if you see a scruffy wolf-like large dog in a Toronto park or even on the city streets at night - grey/brown, with erect ears and a bushy, often black tipped tail - it's probably a coywolf, or eastern coyote. Keep Tiddles out of sight, and please don't feed it; just let it go about its business.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Boycotting the Russian election will achieve nothing

For what it's worth, the Russian people go to the polls to vote on March 18th (with a second round three weeks later in the unlikely case of no absolute majority winner). Or at least some of them do - many opposition supporters are calling for a boycott of the election, on the grounds that Putin had stacked the odds in his own favour, and any results will be marred by irregularities and fraud.
As usual, Vladimir Putin holds all the cards. Popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down under suspicious circumstances three of years ago. The current de facto opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been disqualified from taking part in the election due to a 2014 criminal conviction that his supporters say was trumped up by the Kremlin in order to sideline him and his threat to Putin's re-election. A late challenge by society gal Ksenia Sobchak, a popular figures but a political lightweight and family friend of Putin, is widely seen as a Putin-inspired play to split any remaining opposition.
Unfortunately, election boycotts just do not work. Perhaps they are a nice idea in theory: it gives an immediate message to human rights groups and the world at large that there is an unresolved issue, and they may conceivably help the protestors to obtain some minor concession. But in effect, the withdrawal of opposition votes just give the offending party an easy ride - it goes on to win legitimacy with minimal effort.
According to a major 2010 analysis of 171 recent cases, boycotts have just a 4% success rate. Examples across the world, from Egypt to Venezuela to South Africa to Lebanon, have drilled this point home.
Boycottting, the so-called "third option", is no option at all - it just throws away a vote, and voids the collective voice of dissent. How could it be otherwise? I don't have a good solution to the current impasse in Moscow, but I'm pretty sure an election boycott is not it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Redundant phrases in journalism and police work

I was listening to the radio today, when a police spokesman talked about someone incurring a stab wound in a "lower extremity". I had trouble visualizing some being stabbed in the foot, and it was only when there was a mention of a second stab wound to an "upper extremity" that I realized that "lower extremity" actually means "leg", and "upper extremity" means "arm".
So, why don't they say "leg" and "arm"? The use of "extremity" is no more accurate, formal or legal, and it is certainly more confusing. Do they think they sound more intelligent, or that their job somehow sounds more difficult amd technical? Who knows?
This same kind of circumlocution is also rampant in court cases and in newspapers, and I came across this informative list of redundant journalese phrases:
  • fled on foot = ran away 
  • high rate of speed = speeding 
  • physical altercation = fight 
  • verbal altercation = argument 
  • reduce expenditures = cut costs 
  • terminate employment = fire 
  • reduction in service = layoff 
  • blunt force trauma = injury 
  • discharged the weapon = shot 
  • transport the victim = take him/her 
  • lower extremities = legs 
  • officers observed = police saw 
  • at this point in time = now 
  • express concerns = complain 
  • incendiary device = bomb 
  • obtain information = ask or interview
  • deceased = dead 
  • sexual relations = sex 
  • roadway = road 
  • fail to negotiate a curve = missed a curve
  • determine a course of action = consider options 
  • vehicle = car or truck 
  • citizen = person 
  • individual = man or woman 
  • commence = begin 
  • emergency personnel = police, firefighters 
  • utilize = use 
  • complainant = victim 
  • fatally injured = killed 
  • motorist = driver 
  • juvenile male/female = teen boy or girl 
  • respond to the scene = arrive 
  • precipitation = rain, snow 
  • purchase = buy 
  • intoxicated = drunk 
  • controlled substances = drugs 
  • appendages = arms, legs 
  • contusion = bruise 
  • head trauma = head injury 
  • laceration = cut 
  • provide leadership = lead 
  • obstruct = block, get in the way 
  • came to the conclusion that = decided, figured out 
  • arrived at a decision = decided 
  • reside = live
These are phrases we read and hear all the time in newspapers and on the radio and television. And most of them are absolutely indefensible, and mere exercises in official obfuscation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Older generation needs to let go of power and ego

Elizabeth Renzetti is one of my favourite Globe and Mail journalists, a voice of reason and of sharp wit, and I am looking forward to reading her new book of essays, Shrewed, A Wry And Closely Observed Look At The Lives Of Women And Girls.
What I was particularly struck by in her recent interview on CBC was her graciousness. As a proverbial elder stateswoman of Canadian feminism - well, actually, she's only a good-looking 52 years old, several years younger than me, but she was involved in the second wave of feminism, even if not the first - she does not expect the younger generation of feminists to kowtow to her superior years and experience. In fact, she specifically says that she feels that older feminists should actually take a step back and listen to and support younger people, cognizant of the fact that their concerns and their approaches may be different: "I think we need to be quieter as older feminists and listen, promote and amplify their voices ... taking cues from them because they know how the world actually works now".
What a refreshing attitude! And how different from another recent article I read (and which I can't now locate online), this one by the executive director and publisher of The Walrus magazine, Shelley Ambrose. Ms. Ambrose's article annoyed the hell out of me, coming across as whiny, curmudgeonly and entitled. She maintained that younger people did not have enough respect for us older folks, and that they needed to listen to us more and defer to our greater wisdom and experience.
No, absolutely not! Like it or not, we live in a young people's world, and we should not be foisting our outdated attitudes on another generation. We have made (and continue to make) enough of a mess of the world: let someone else have a crack at it - it would be hard to do worse. We should not be resting on our laurels and perpetuating the orthodoxy, but, as Ms. Renzetti suggests, supporting the next generation in their contemporary struggles. This applies to feminism, just as much as to environmentalism and other aspects of progressive thought.

China: all Xi all the time

When it was announced that Xi Jinping had abolished term limits in China, potentially allowing him to lead the country for life, thete was a global sharp intake of breath.
It's not that Xi is necessarily the worst leader China has had, nor that he is necessarily a rogue pariah intent on subjugating the world (although he has established a stronger hold over the country than any leader since Deng Xaoping in the 1980s, who, paradoxically, was the man who introduced term limits into the Chinese political system).
It's mainly that abolishing term limits never bodes well, and usually indicates a strong move towards strong-man dictator tendencies. Look at others who have done the same or similar recently: Vladimir Putin in Russia (technically, just the allowance of a third term, but few people expect him to stand down at the end of it); Hugo Chavez in Venezuela; Evo Morales in Honduras; Rafael Correa in EcuadorRobert Mugabe in Zimbabwe; Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus; etc. It rarely ends well, and it usually results in a clamp-down on dissent, something that is already starting to happen in China.
Anyone who feels the need for more than 8 or 10 years in power, is clearly on a megalomaniac power trip, with no intentions of alllowing political plurality or debate. There has been little political debate in China for some years, but at least under Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao one felt there was some input from a committee. Now, China is going to be all Xi all the time.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Canada's Most Dangerous Places 2018

The 2018 ranking of Canada's Most Dangerous Places is available on Macleans in fully searchable form. It uses something it calls the Crime Severity Index (CSI - coincidence? I think not), which purports to take into account the severity as well as the number of the crimes, which are analyzed under several categories and sub-categories, such as Violent Crime, Homicide, Sexual Assault, Robbery, Impaired Driving, etc.
In overall terms, the big, bad city of Toronto sits at a pretty creditable No. 124 out of 229 Canadian cities, although in Violent Crime it ranks at No. 32 (in the same neck of the woods as fellow large cities Montreal and Vancouver). In Homicides, Toronto is No 44; in Sexual Assaults No. 93; in Assaults in general No. 107. In Firearms Offences, however, Toronto is way up there, the 18th worst in Canada, and in Robberies No. 11, although in Breaking and Entering Offences, it fares much better for some reason, right down at No. 192 out of 229. In Fraud, Toronto is 112th in the list; in Impaired Driving it is the third best in the whole country at No. 226; in Cannabis Trafficking No. 130; in Cocaine Trafficking No. 72; in Other Drug Trafficking No. 175; and in Youth Crime No. 170.
In a word, all over the place, with very little apparent logic or consistency.
What is particularly striking is the prevalence of Western and Prairies cities, particularly northern ones, at the top (i.e. worst) of the lists. North Battleford, Saskatchewan is far and away the worst offender, topping several of the categories as well as the overall ranking, followed by Thompson, Manitoba, then Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and Williams Lake, British Columbia. In fact, cities in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC and Alberta occupy the top (i.e. most dangerous) fifth or so of most of the categories, the bottom (i.e. safest) of the list being dominated by smaller cities in Ontario. Sleepy Woodstock, Ontario surprised me by appearing at No. 2 in Homicides, though, despite hardly featuring in any of the other lists, until I realized that it was due exclusively to nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer, who was convicted of the murders of 8 Woodstock nursing home residents in 2017.
The rankings are of course per capita, and so do not reflect the absolute numbers of crimes. Thus, Thompson, Manitoba, which ranks as the No. 1 city for Violent Crimes and Homicides, actually "only" saw 3 homicides last year, compared to 74 in Toronto, but then it only has a population of 14,264 compared to Toronto's 2.9 million.
All very interesting, if a mite depressing. I guess if you are looking for general recommendations, for retirement for example, you could probably do worse than to aim for small-town Ontario, rather than BC or the Prairies, however, scenic and bucolic those town might appear. Oh, be careful of nursing homes, though.

"White lies" about US trade deficits

So, I'm a bit puzzled (and I know I'm not the only one) as to why Donald Trunp and NAFTA negotiator Robert Lighthizer are still insisting that the USA has a "yuge" trade deficit with Canada, when everybody and their dog is telling them that that is not the case.
Just this last week, Trump, in his inimitable and frankly tedious way, repeated his oft-stated and erroneous belief that Canada runs a large trade deficit with the USA. It is the basis of his whole "renegotiate-NAFTA-worst-trade-deal-in-history" stance with Canada, so I guess he can't really change his tune now, and he has never been one to let the truth get in the way of a good deal anyway.
In fact, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative's own official figures, the USA ran a $12.5 billion trade surplus with Canada in 2016 (the latest full-year figures available), comprised of a $12.1 billion deficit in goods, more than offset by a $24 billion surplus in services. Even that goods deficit is the smallest since 1993, and well down from its 2005 peak of $78.5 billion. Certainly, it pales into insignificance when compared the the US trade deficit with sone other countries, like China ($385 billion), European Union ($92 billion), Mexico ($55 billion), Japan ($57 billion), Vietnam ($32 billion), etc.
Now, whether President Trump and his NAFTA negotiators are just wilfully choosing to ignore the trade in services is hard to know. But it appears that head Trade Rep Lighthizer is incorrectly including in his figures goods that originate in other countries but that happen to pass through Canada en route to the USA (so, if a washing machine, for example, is exported from China, but passes through, say, Vancouver on the way to the United States, Lighthizer's figures include it in both China's trade figures and Canada's, which is clearly double-counting in most people's books). This can add up to a substantial amount, estimated at around $75 billion a year, which is where the rather alarming deficit figure of $87 billion that Lighthizer uses from time to time, comes from. It is difficult to believe that after, what, seven rounds of NAFTA negotiations this has still not been ironed out and corrected. How do you negotiate a deal with someone who insists on using incorrect figures?
In Donald Trump's case, though, I understand he will just say whatever is convenient, regardless of the underlying truth. For example, he has repeatedly claimed that, "We don't have a surplus with anybody". The actual figures, however, indicate otherwise. For example, the US Trade Representatives' own figures show a nearly $29 billion surplus with Hong Kong, a $19 billion surplus with United Arab Emirates, a $28 billion surplus with Australia, a nearly $19 billion surplus with Singapore, etc, etc.
I guess it's all part of the "art of the deal", or what ex-White House Communications Director Hope Hicks calls "white lies".

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Why are our kids stressed out, and what can we do?

After another panicky call from our 22-year old daughter, we dutifully traipse along the 401 to see what we can do to help. We've had a few such calls, and to tell you the truth we are glad she feels that she can still reach out to us (even if there is not much we can actually do to help).
Now in her fifth and final year of a tough university course at a tough university, our daughter is a great kid (well, young woman I suppose, but occasionally still a needy kid). She is smart, serious, thoughtful; it's not clear how she could have turned out any better. But the stress of a coop program with very few recovery periods and no summer holidays, and the ultra-competitive environment in which she studies, mean that she, and many of her friends, are constantly teetering on the edge of being overwhelmed, constantly anxious and/or depressed.
It is so very different from my happy-go-lucky university experience in the late 1970s. But, even then, we had deadlines and stresses, we had jobs to find at the end, we had personal issues and lurid romantic breakups. And we seemed to cope, Certainly, it would not have occurred to my parents to ask about my mental wellbeing, and it would definitely not have occurred to me to ask them for help. I'm sure there were those that didn't cope - such things were not widely discussed then - but there did not seem to be the epidemic of anxiety and panic attacks that we see today.
So, what has changed? Yes, educational expectations and stresses are probably higher. Yes, modern parents are probably over-protective. But are our kids really more fragile, less resilient? Are they actually spoiled, coddled, helicoptered? Well, maybe our parental concern has done them a disservice, taken away some of their independence and their resilience. But, more and more, it is looking as though that is not the main problem. Increasingly, the problem is being diagnosed by psychologists as a function of the climate in which kids today are having to deal with the challenges of being teenagers and young adults.
We live in a time in which terrorist attacks and school shootings have become the norm. But, even more importantly, we live (and young people live to an even greater degree) in a time in which technology and social media have transformed the way we live our lives. School and university students are caught in a "cauldron of stimulus" they can't (or feel they can't) escape. When every personal problem, every fight with a professor, every anxiety about careers, is documented and dissected online, young people turn into little volcanoes of fragile psyches, which occasionally need to blow up to release the pressure. This is not just me, a curmudgeonly old codger, talking; this is the psychology profession, which often finds itself having to pick up the pieces after such blow-outs.
What to do? Not clear. Maybe this is just an evolutionary phase that humans need to work through. My daughter does go through periodic internet purges, where she will give up Facebook for a while, rarely long. And if she feels overwhelmed, and surrounded by many others feeling equally overwhelmed, she (luckily) will call us and we will deliver care packages of decadent but healthy foods, help clean up her cruelly-neglected room, take her to the butterfly conservatory or the cat café for a while, or out to dinner in a restaurant where student discounts don't apply. Maybe that is all we can do. And maybe that is enough.

Ontario Cannabis Store - so uncontroversial it's controversial

The retail arm of the Ontario government's cannabis monopoly is to be known as the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS). Nothing too controversial there. Simple and straight to the point.
The brand logo is equally simple amd straightforward, to the point of boring and unimaginative. It is a simple black-on-white circle with three black-on-white letters (you guessed it - "O", "C" and "S") in the same simple font as you probably write your emails in. This will be used for both the bricks-and-mortar and online stores (the latter to be run through Shopify's online system).
I get that they are looking to remain uncontroversial (the designers' brief was apparently to reflect a "safe simple and approachable environment"). However, what might surprise you is that the design, by top advertising agency Leo Burnett, cost the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (and therefore us, the taxpayers) around $650,000. That's a lot of money for something that your 6-year old could run up on Microsoft Paint (if that still exists).
Personally, I don't really care that much - it's not going to enourage me to run to the pot store (or otherwise). But it just seems ironic that the ultra-safe, ultra-boring design is in fact turning out to be quite controversial, judging by some of the Twitter coverage.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Ontario Conservatives in complete disarray over leadership vote

Would you vote for a political party that can't even organize its own internal leadership election?
Ontario's Progressive Conservatives are supposed to be voting for a new leader after the resignation of Patrick Brown amid sexual harrassment allegations. But a succession of glitches and registration errors have meant that thousands of party members will not be able to vote before the deadline passes later today. That, and the internal bickering that came with it, have left a very bad impresssion of the party.
Some of the candidates are incensed that the deadline was not extended still further; some are saying it should have reverted to an old-style paper ballot system. Doug Ford, if he loses, will almost certainly claim to have been unfairly treated and demand a re-vote, because that's just the kind of person he is. However you look at it, the whole process, from Brown's resignation onwards, has been an embarrassing display of incompetence and ineptitude, and has probably done further damage to the Conservative brand in an Ontario that is desperately looking for a viabke alternative to the scandal-plagues and unpopular Liberals, who have been in power since 2003.
Would you vote for a party this disorganized?

Well. Despite a razor-thin margin, despite his losing the popular vote and a majority of ridings, and despite "serious irregalities" in the online voting process, the PCs have nevertheless seen fit to elect Doug "Mr. Populism" Ford as party leader (Ford won according to the Byzantine system used by the provincial PCs that assigns "points" for each riding.)
Given that Ford is a man with zero provincial political experience, and is a failed mayoral candidate with anger issues, best known as the big brother of Toronto's worst ever mayor, this is something of a Trump moment for Ontario. Let's just hope the analogy does not extend any further.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Should we really have a "right to be forgotten" on the internet?

Back in 2014, the European Union (EU) passed a rather controversial law which has become known as "the right to be forgotten", which gives EU citizens the right to ask Google and other search engines to remove or de-list specific search results that concern them, to remove what the law calls "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" material. Google, which indexes literally trillions of web pages, has been asked to do this some 650,000 million times since the landmark European law was passed, involving the consideration of about 2.4 million links. It now has a whole department devoted to that task, looking at cases in all the various languages of Europe.
Other courts, including those in the USA, Colombia and Chile, have been asked to consider the same problem, and have returned the exact opposite opinion, ruling that freedom of expression and free access to information trumps the rights of individual privacy. Canada is currently considering a similar "right of erasure", and its top court will have to decide whether such a law would be consistent with Canada's Charter rights. (Canada's relevant legal criteria are slightly different from those in Europe, in that it requires companies to use "accurate and up to date information", but the problem is essentially the same.) And, as an interview with Google's Global Privacy Council, Richard Fleisher, makes clear, this is a particularly complex and knotty problem which does not have any one clear solution, the EU decision notwithstanding.
Fleisher begins by describing the case that led to the EU law, which involved a Spanish businessman who failed to pay his taxes and had his assets seized by the state. Fed up with Google searches still bringing up this unfortunate incident many years later, the Spaniard sued Google and, unexpectedly in the view of many, won. The story was not "false news", the incident actually happened, and the newspapers at the time were quite within their rights to cover the story - and are even within their rights to keep that stories in their online archives today - but Google has been handed the responsibility of taking off their links to those sites.
This puts Google in the position of having to act as arbiter, and somehow balancing the individual's right to privacy with the public's right to access to information, an unenviable position if ever there was one. As Mr. Fleisher puts it, the European Court of Justice has effectively outsourced the balancing of these rights to a private company (or, more accurately, several private companies, who might well come to different decisions on individual cases). In practice, Google estimates that, in applying the rules the European court has handed it, it has agreed to "forget" about 43% of the cases it has been asked to consider, and other search engines report similar rates, although Fleisher stresses that Google does not do this lightly, and only does what it must in order to comply with local laws. It should also be noted that exactly the same search in Canada would not de-list the result, only in Europe, where the law is in force: the articles are not erased from the internet, they just do not appear in searches conducted in the region in question.
To me, the law seems ass-backwards. Google, and Bing and all the rest of them, should not have to serve as arbiter in these matters. If someone objects to something about them on the internet, surely it should be their responsibility to take the matter up with the originating websites, whether it be a newspaper site or whatever. There are already procedures in place for just this kind of thing on most social media platforms, YouTube, etc. It seems to me that the Spanish businessman, and many others like him, is happy to have derogatory articles about him floating about the Internet, but just wants to make Google's life a misery, for no good reason.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

How much will universal pharmacare cost Canada?

Since the Liberal government uttered the word "pharmacare" during the recent federal budget, there has been renewed interest in the whole idea of universal pharmacare in Canada, something that has been under discussion since at least the 1940s.
As is noted almost every time the matter is mentioned, every developed country in the world that has a universal healthcare system also has universal drug coverage - except Canada. The 1964 Hall Commission, that led to public healthcare in Canada, also recommended that universal pharmacare be inplemented right after the most pressing needs of universal hospital and medical care, but somehow it just never happened.
Currently, we are left with threadbare patchwork of private and public provincial drug insurance that has been tinkered with ad nauseam over the years (the latest such being the Ontario Liberals' extension of free drug-care for under-25s), but never overhauled in any systematic way. Even the federal Liberals' latest announcement is actually only for the creation of an Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare, i.e. the first step of many, i.e. in a word, studies.
Study after study has already shown that a national pharmacare program could yield significant savings through better bargaining power from a national insurer (the most recent such study, by the Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2017, suggested possible savings of $4.2 billion on the $28.5 billion annual bill for drugs nationwide, but other studies have indicated potential savings of up to $11 billion). Yet another study suggests that some 700,000 Canadians skimp on food in order to pay for drugs - about the same number that have no drug coverage at all, either public or private. So, we are not short of studies.
The main sticking point in introducing pharmacare has always been the reticence of the federal, provincial and territorial governments to absorb the costs (which would require increased taxes), many of which are currently borne by private insurance. But how much would it cost us taxpayers to actually implement universal pharmacare in Canada?
Part of the problem in answering that question lies in the complex nature of the patchwork of public and private plans it would replace. And part of the problem lies in the fact that there are different solutions available, from a simple(!) patching of some of the cracks in the current system (e.g. for low income workers, the self-employed, some seniors, etc), to direct subsidies to those who cannot afford private insurance plans and are not covered by existing plans (this is the approach currently being taken in Quebec, for example), to a complete national plan that covers everyone (which, among other things, would involve a large-scale shift of costs from the private to the public sector). That, and the substantial but still uncertain nature of the possible savings and efficiencies which will/might come with a national pharmacare plan, make the specification of a dollar figure very difficult to achieve.
Hopefully, that is exactly what the grandiosely-titled Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare will tell us. But this will be a huge, multi-year undertaking, so don't hold your breath.

Who's the "weird dude" now, Mr. Nunberg

Ex-Trump aide Sam Nunberg told CNN recently "I believe that Carter Page was colluding with the Russian. That Carter Page is a weird dude". Setting aside the incredibly unprofessional language, and the fact that Carter Page probably IS a weird dude (all Trump aides are probably somewhere along that spectrum), Mr. Nunberg's recent antics single him out as "weird plus".
Nunberg has promised to defy a subpoena from special council Robert Mueller to have him appear in front of  grand jury, saying things like "Arrest me!" and "I'm not co-operating". Just how old is this guy? This is the same kind of attention-grabbing instant-gratification childishness we have seen so often from Mr. Trump himself.
Yet, unlike most of Trump's lackeys, Nunberg also seems perfectly happy to dump on the President himself ("I think he may have done something during the election"), which is at least refreshing. Indeed, he has gone so far as to blame Trump for the whole Russian meddling inquest, "because he is so stupid". (You can kind of see why he is no longer on the team.) He has referred to Trump as "the Manchurian candidate", which gives the impression that he maybe feels himself to be a bit-player in a political movie of some sort.
Mind you, just a short time after expressing his defiance to CNN, Nunberg admitted to the Associated Press that, "I'm going to end up end up co-operating with them". And then the clincher to MSNBC, "I think it would be funny if they arrested me".
It might actually be quite amusing (in a depressing sort of way) to have Nunberg testify in front of a jury. But, frankly, I'm not sure I'd believe a word the guys says, oath or no oath. Weird dude, that Sam Nunberg.

How not to win a trade war

Donald Trump - yes, him again, he of the "trade wars are good, and are easy to win" - just does not seem to have thought through the repercussions of imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium, despite the advice of economists and of many in his own weary party (UPDATE: Mr. Trump's top economic advisor, Gary Cohn has just resigned over his disagreement with imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium). Trump's stance, as one commentator described it, is pretty much: "I'm bigger than you, so give me your lunch money".
In the first instance, increased tariffs on steel and aluminium (sorry, I still can't quite bring myself to use the North American "aluminum") would increase the price of the key industrial metals used by American manufacturers, which can make American steel consumers and manufacturers less competitive. According to some estimates, by directly helping about 140,000 American steel mill employees, it would be hurting about 6.5 million Americans working in steel-consuming industries.
But it doesn't end there. By increasing the cost of US consumer goods, the consumers themselves are poorly served; there will be upward inflationary pressure, which would in turn lead to increased interest rates, which would negatively impact American stocks and bonds; the increased tariffs is also likely to result in trade retaliation from Canada, Europe and China on some American-made goods, making life more difficult for American exporters, and affecting the US balance of trade still further.
Some economists are calling the move "just straight up stupid" ftom an American perspective, and even some of Trump's erstwhile supporters are distinctly worried about it. Don't expect an attack of common-sense from Mr. Trump, though. That boat has already sailed. He has backed himself into a very small corner, but his customary respose to that is merely to hiss and spit, rather than listening to reason.
What's really annoying, though, is that, even if the United States does suffer as a result of this dogmatic , many other countries will suffere alongside it, and in effect no-one wins from a trade war like this.

No less than 107 members of the House of Representatives from Trump's own Republican Party have implored him not to bring in broad-ranging steel and aluminium tariffs and risk triggering a global trade war.
However, under the guidance of protectionist trade advisors like Peter Navarro, who appears to be filling the vacuum left by the resignation of top economic advisor Gary Cohn, he seems to be persisting, although possibly with some exemptions (for "national security" reasons) for some countries like Canada and Mexico. Those countries who do not qualify for exemptions are therefore going to be doubly pissed off.
But Trump cannot be seen to climb down, or even to be persuaded by the evidence. That is not who he is, and not who his dwindling band of supporters expect him to be. The temporary exemptions for Canada and Mexico are nothing more than leverage in the ongoing NAFTA negotiations anyway, and not evidence of a change of heart he doesn't do those either. The best we can hope for is the kind of random flip-flop he DOES do. What a pickle!

Then, just a few days after this, The Washington Post obtained audio of Trump speaking at a fundraising dinner in Missouri, in which he boasts and jokes about basically making up the facts about the Canada-US trade balance, because he "had no idea".
So, you'd think that would be it, that the jig would be up. But what does he do then, just hours later, but tweet, brazenly and unrepentently, "We do have a trade deficit with Canada, as we do with almost all countries (some of them massive). P.M. Justin Trudeau of Canada, a very good guy, doesn't like saying that Canada has a Surplus vs. The U.S. (negotiating) but they do ... they almost all do ... and that's how I know!"
Say, what? You lost me again there. It seems to me that Twitter has done the world a huge disservice by doubling its word count. Trump can now belabour us with twice the nonsense. Furthermore, I now have more and more suspicions that a multiple personality disorder is involved here. It's the only logical way I can explain it, the only way I can deal with it.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Plans for Jumbo Valley Resort in BC make no sense to me

The Ktunaxa people of eastern British Columbia recently lost a court case aimed at preventing the development of a new ski resort in BC's Jumbo Valley, or what the Ktunaxa call Qat'muk, the sacred home of their Grizzly Bear Spirit.
I have a sneaking respect for the Ktunaxa after learning about them from my daughter's Grade 6 school project. I have particular fond memories of my 11-year old child reeling off a tongue-twister of a sentence in Ktunaxa at full speed (something she can still do today, at 22), Ktunaxa being a fascinating language isolate, totally unlike any other language in North America or anywhere else.
Be that as it may, and setting aside whatever logic the Supreme Court of Canada applied in coming to this rather surprising decision (including completely ignoring the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or UNDRIP, which is designed to prevent just this sort of thing), my question is: who would want to be opening a new ski resort in this day and age? With global warming, ski resorts the world over (including those in North America) are hurting badly, and I would have thought that any ski resort opened today would probably have a useful life of, say, 10 years max. How can it possibly be an economic proposition? Developing and scarring a beautiful pristine wilderness for such short-term gains (if any) seems like a poor all-round decision.
Jumbo Valley Resort will still have to go through another legal challenge regarding its environmental assessment certificate, so its future is still not assured, but what a shame it would be for such a development to proceed.

The difference between "catholic" and "Catholic"

"Catholic" is a word I use only occasionally, in both of its senses. I speak of having "catholic tastes" in food and music; I also speak of being a "lapsed Catholic" (usually in explanation, even justification, of my atheist beliefs). But how come a religious denomination known for being particularly conservative, restrictive, exclusionist and dogmatic, ended up being named for a  word meaning liberal, all-embracing and of broad or general interest?
Well, "catholic with a small c" (a phrase you don't hear anything like as much as "conservative with a small c") is derived from two Greek words meaning, roughly, "on the whole" or "according to the whole", so its original meaning was closer to "universal" or "general". Therefore, when the Catholic Creed (which dates back to the 4th century CE) says, "I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church", this utilizes a small "c", and has the sense of universality or generality.
Because this universal scope was a quality that the early Christians were keen to emphasize, Christianity became known as Catholicism, the first recorded use of "Catholic with a capital c" dating back to the 2nd century CE. The fact that the sect has become so restrictive and essentially un-catholic in the intervening centuries is unfortunate and an accident of history (if it can be called an accident), but nothing to do with its etymological roots.

Is Canada's legal system really stacked against indigenous people?

In the aftermath of the Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier acquittals, there are increasing calls to amend the Canadian justice system.
These calls take two main guises: firstly, revise, or even abandon, the "preremptory challenges" rule, which allows lawyers to throw out out up to six potential jurors without any explanation, thus arguably allowing the possibility of a biased jury (this practice really ought to be the basis of the common phrase "jury rigging", but, alas, it is not); and secondly, make changes so that indigenous people are better represented in juries.
I am all in favour of amending the rules on peremptory challenges, which seems like a ridiculous system to me, and one I had no idea even existed until these recent trials brought it into the spotlight. By all means, allow challenges to jurors, but let the judge rule whether the challenge is justifiable, taking into account Canadian Charter rights, not just some overpaid lawyer's perception of whether it might help their own case.
The second part, though, is more problemmatic. For one thing, we should not be amending the legal system just to the benefit of one racial or minority group, but to level the playing field for all. But also, just how would that worthy aspiration be achieved in practice?
I know that many indigenous people in northern areas have complained that they just can't afford to serve on a jury, given the geographic distances involved, and their generally impoverished situations. This poverty argument applies to indigenous and non-indigenous alike, and certainly needs to be addressed. I have never understood why there is not some kind of means-tested subsidization system for jurors. Middle-classed jurors can usually arrange for time off work, and most companies will happily continue to pay their workers who are called on to perform their civic duty. On the other hand, working class people, who may be paid by the hour or have less understanding employers, or who may be self-employed with no financial safety net to speak of, can just not afford to take an unspecified length of time off work for jury duty. This poverty trap probably affects recent inmigrants and women disproportionately, an issue I have also never seen discussed. Surely, the costs of subsidizing these people, in the interests of making juries more representative of the general population, would be negligible among the other costs of our legal system.
As for better representing indigenous populations, well, my understanding is that juries are selected from the local area for each court case. So, I assume that juries in the Toronto area, for example, would reflect - notwithstanding the economic considerations mentioned above - a substantial Asian population, and the various black, brown and other populations more or less in proportion to their numbers in the general population.
According to StatsCan, only about 4.3% of the Canadian population is aboriginal (including about 2.7% from First Nations, 1.4% Métis, and 0.2% Inuit), so statistically one would expect an average of zero indigenous people on any one 12-person jury (or, about one in every two juries). This would, however, theoretically change in those northern regions in which indigenous people are more populous.
In the case of courts in the more remote rural areas of northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, etc, the juror catchment areas are necessarily much larger, due to the sparse and scattered population, but prima facie there is no reason to suppose that the aboriginal population is not being called in relation to their population. Some of these will plead poverty and travel costs (see above); some will be ejected by the iniquitous peremptory challenges system (see above); some will be so cynical of the justice system as not to want to be part of it, although this is indefensible in my view, on a par with complaining about a government but then not trying to change it democratically by not bothering to vote. Having said that, I have no idea of the relative indigenous/non-indigenous populations of areas such as those involved in the trials of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier. Was the indigenous population under-represented in the original jury pool? I have no idea. Among all the virtual ink that has been spilled in discussion of the cases, I have never seen such an analysis, which is perhaps surprising.
So, does the Canadian legal system really discriminate against indigenous people. Well, for some of the reasons discussed above, probably so. But intrinsically, probably not.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Tub-thumping on nuclear weapons? Really?

Er. haven't we been here before? Didn't we decide that this whole nuclear face-off thing was a bad idea? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Hope Hicks resigns from the world most toxic workplace

The sudden resignation of Hope Hicks, Donald Trump's White House latest communications director, throws one thing into sharp relief (well, several things, really, but one thing in particular): the pervasive toxic atmosphere within Trumpland.
Ms. Hicks - 29 years old and a former model, always a political lightweight and little more than a pretty ornament in the view of many, and I don't even want to think about the "surrogate daughter" label that has been bandied around - resigned, according to her account, because she had achieved all she felt she could in that exalted position ("there would never be a perfect moment to leave"), and was just looking to move on career-wise. Coming, as it did, just days after her grilling by the House of Representatives intelligence committee investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, in which she admitted to telling "white lies" on a regular basis in order to protect her wayward boss's brand, this explanation comes across as disingenuous at best. It's also surely no coincidence that it comes hard on the heels of the scandal of her relationship with fellow White House staffer Rob Porter, who was forced to resign recently over spousal abuse charges. Ms. Hicks has also had some rather public differences of late with First Daughter, Ivanka Trump, and with White House chief of staff, John Kelly.
Whether she jumped or whether she was pushed is frankly neither here nor there, but what stands out is that she was regarded as one of Mr. Trump's longest-serving aides, she was his FIFTH communications director in his just-over-a-year in office, and she joins an ever-expanding exodus of prominent White House officials. In fact, Trump's staff turnover in his first year is the highest for any presidency in decades, twice the rate of the next worst offender, Ronald Reagan, and nearly four times that of President Obama.
What can we learn from this? Absolutely nothing, other than that the guy is really difficult to get on with. Which we already knew. Ms. Hicks's replacement is touted to be - no not Twitter - Mercdes Schlapp. God help her.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

MEC's delisting of Vista products a tiny salvo in a huge battle

Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC), the righteous and right-on Canadian outdoor equipment store, is reacting to the latest American school shooting by pulling from its stores products made by Vista Outdoor Inc, an American outdoorsy conglomerate which also makes rapid-fire automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines, the type used to such devastating effect recently in the Florida shooting.
MEC is a consumer cooperative which prides itself on being environmentally, socially and politically responsible. Apparently, "hundreds" of members have contacted the company in the wake of the Florida shootings asking - nay, demanding - that it delist Vista and Vista-owned products (which include Bollé, Bushnell, Camelbak and Jimmy Styks, among others) from its shelves. This covers innocent items like stand-up paddle boards, water bottles and binoculars. MEC does not, of course, actually sell guns, but they clearly feel the need to be seen to be responding to this latest American enormity.
I can kind of see where they are coming from, and it is part and parcel of the minor commercial backlash that is currently going on in the States, with companies like WalMart, Dick's Sporting Goods, Kroger, etc, at least partially clamping down on the sale of automatic and assault weapons. It does make you wonder, though, what practical use such a gesture can be. Losing a few sales in Canada is not going to persuade Vista to stop manufacturing guns, and it does smack of grandstanding to some extent by the Canadian company. But I guess this is how boycotting campaigns begin, and it is difficult to object too strenuously.
As one radio commentator observed, if MEC is so environmentally and socially responsible, maybe they should not be selling items made of plastic, given that the ocean is awash with micro-beads and birds are strangling themselves with plastic packaging. There is so much wrong with the world that it is difficult to know where to start, and how far to go with any kind of protest. But I guess we all pick our battles, and even small gestures can have a small effect.

The difference between "lie" and "falsehood" is, well, nothing

I was intrigued by the part in an interview with The Washington Post's Marty Baron, where he says (in reference to the Post's tracking of Donald Trump's 2,000 false or misleading statements during his first year in office): "We haven't called them lies, first of all. We've called them falsehoods and misleading statements."
A quick look at a dictionary reveals that a lie is in fact (and not surprisingly): "an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood".
As a seasoned newspaper guy, I'm sure that Mr. Baron is just trying to cover himself against libel suits. But how is it less libellous to say "falsehood" instead of "lie"?