Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On Cinema

I saw two great movies last week: I'm Not There and No Country For Old Men. The first is the fictionalization of Bob Dylan's life from the time of his emergence to his motorcycle crash in 1966. Dylan is portrayed by six different characters, none of whom actually go by Dylan's name. The best moments are provided by Cate Blanchett - she captures all of Dylan's posturing, nervousness, deceit and brilliance - and by Jim James and Calexico's rendition of Going to Acapulco. The rest of the movie is merely great.

No Country For Old Men is something different entirely. I did not enjoy a minute of it. I cannot wait to see it again. The brothers Coen have not made their best movie, but they have set a recent standard for faithful adaptation of a novel and for unremitting tension. If you want to get a sense of what happens when a man takes on a task and a landscape bigger then himself, unaware of its danger and sure of his ability, watch this movie and consider how ignoble and plain is the protagonist's end.

That shall likely be it until the New Year, so best of the season to my three readers.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Romney goes half way

Here are excerpts from Mitt Romney's speech tonight. They include nothing on how he justified belonging to and proselytizing for an officially racist organization. I guess he's saving that explanation for the full speech.

If you think I am being hard on Romney, you're wrong. Any man who follows a religion which believed just thirty years ago that blacks lacked souls and denied them the sacrements should be made to explain if he was at least uncomfortable with this doctrine. If his response was that it took a "revelation" to church elders to correct his view, then you have to wonder whether he'll look to similar revelations when he's in the White House.

There should be, of course, no religious test for the presidency. But we should be willing to expect a candidate to explain his adherence to a racist doctrine, just as he should be made to explain whether he believes the commandements of elders in his church take precedence over the US constitution and its laws.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A question for the RCMP Commissioner

What exactly is the purpose of the RCMP going to Poland to look into Robert Dziekanski's "medical history as well as his criminal history in Poland." I can understand the need to investigate the first, indeed it is relevant to figuring out whether he died because of some precondition or because the officers electrocuted* him and then proceeded to kneel on his chest and throat, entirely contrary to the RCMP's own guidelines. But why the second? It must be because police officers can somehow smell a criminal and thus don't have to ask any questions before using lethal force. We know just need to confirm their intuitions.

A criminal history is entirely irrelevant to police action in this case. A man in distress was killed by the RCMP despite posing no lethal threat to them. Whether he was a criminal in Poland or not is irrelevant.

Let's just hope that when the RCMP officers get off the plane and try to clear customs in Warsaw that they don't smell like criminals to the officers there.

In other news related to the RCMP, apparently you can fear for your life even when you have a gun stuck in the nape of someone's neck. Strange.

* Can we stop using Taser as a verb? We have a suitable word already: electrocution.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The genetics of voter turnout

A little more than a year after this, Fowler and Dawes have released another working paper demonstrating a genetic component to the decision to vote. Rather than relying on twin studies, however, this time they have obtained genetic mappings from subjects in a multi-wave, long-term study of adolescents in the United States. The results are extremely interesting, especially because they identify two genes which play a role in the decision to vote, and because these genes interact with religiosity. This at least partially answers the question of why the religious are more likely to vote without relying on an argument about the skills gained through religious observance.

This, I should think, is the future of political science.

My favourite line, by the way, is "Genes are the institutions of the human body."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is Paul Pritchard a hero?

Hardly. Paul Pritchard, you probably know, is the 25 year old man who filmed Robert Dziekanski being electrocuted and then pinned on the chest and throat by the RCMP. He was one of many witnesses not only to Dziekanski's death, but also his confusion, delerium, panic, fear, breakdown, unravelling, distress, and helplessness.

Let me be entirely clear: Pritchard is a hero only because the RCMP killed someone in whose distress he was taking great pleasure and entertainment. Indeed, in an interview with CBC Radio, Pritchard said he thought he could use one man's distress for entertainment and perhaps some noteriety. Lucky for him, the RCMP proceeded to kill the man he merely mocked. Had they not, he would have been just another person uploading someone else's shame onto YouTube.

If you want to find a hero in this, it's Sima Ashrafinia, the only bystander with the courage and compassion to try to help Dziekanski. Let's not glorify Pritchard any more than we have. His 15 minutes were up as soon as the media obtained his tape.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

To William Elliott, An Open Letter

Dear Commissioner,

I understand you are concerned that "growing misperceptions are eroding the public's confidence in the RCMP." Une petit suggestion: I would be more concerned about proper perceptions. For example, that the RCMP actively covered-up its role in the extradition of a Canadian to face torture in Syria. Or, par example, that an RCMP officer recently got off shooting a captive citizen in the back of the head. Or, that four officers, in seeing a man in distress, thought the best course of action was not to ask those around what had happened, not to seek a translater, or not to take more than a minute to assess the situation, but rather to run him through with 50,000 volts of electricity. It strikes me that you might want to be concerned with these perceptions. Then move on to the misperceptions.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Presidential Politics Get Nasty, but Maybe Not Enough

The Times Online has a nice summary story on the latest controversies in the presidential primaries. Despite the fact that the nominating conventions are still 8 or 9 months away, things are already getting nasty. Two things are going on. First, the Clinton folks are suggesting on background that they have some nasty business on Obama, but are refusing to share it. Who knows if they do. Either way it's hardball politics.

The second story is that in the last week someone was calling around Iowa doing some message testing on Mitt Romney, most of which turns on his Mormonism. The basic story is that some firm is calling households asking them, after 20 or so questions, whether they'd be more or less likely to vote for Romney for the nomination if they knew about some of the features of his relgion. Many, including Romney, have been mistakenly calling this is a "push poll". It's not. Push polls don't waste 20 questions before imparting negative information. They get right to it, because they are meant to reach several multiples more people than a poll which is message testing.

Nomenclature aside, what I think these stories are missing is a more central question. Namely, should voters be less likely to vote for Romney since he is a Mormon? Now, I for one don't really care if Romney follows the Mormon god or Zeus, but I would like him to answer the following question: Did he believe before 1978 that black males should be full participants in his church's sacrements? Because his Church certainly did not. No, they had to wait for a "revelation" before they realized that skin colour shouldn't preclude full participation. Religion is a private matter, perhaps, until it calls into question a politician's commitment to equal rights. So, let's take these questions out of polls and put them into a larger public space. I wonder which journalist will be the first to ask Romney when it dawned on him that his Church's doctrine was racist.

UPDATE: I guess this must be the reason why Romney doesn't want to talk about his religion. You don't want to give youth the idea that you could be an active leader in a church which had a fundamentally racist doctrine and then still become President.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dear X Grad:

Nice Ring. Don't let the door get you on your way out.

Mount A is Number #1 again. As it always should be.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Harper in a Jam

Clearly, this promises to be a sticky situation for Harper. One can only hope he is able to preserve his spread in the polls in the face of this. Otherwise, questions may begin to be raised about whether he is lacking the royal jelly. In other words, he may be toast.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Think MMP could have won? Think again.

Daniel Rubenson and I cooked up the following op-ed. It didn't get picked up, so I've posted it here.

Advocates of electoral reform suffered a great blow with the defeat of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system in the Ontario referendum earlier this month. Recommended by a non-partisan Citizens’ Assembly, this new system was endorsed by prominent Canadians of every partisan stripe. It was, they claimed, a more democratic electoral system. Yet the reform still lost, almost two-to-one.

Like an athlete after losing the season’s last match, advocates of MMP look to place blame. They argue that the proposal was little understood, and Elections Ontario’s education efforts fell short of the mark. They assert that holding the referendum during an election drowned out any real debate on the reform. Had the referendum stood alone, Ontarians would have paid attention to the issue and understood the proposal. Under those conditions they surely would have voted for reform.

They argue, in essence, that the result did not accurately reflect the public will.

These claims are probably impossible to prove. They are also likely wrong.

Reformers wag an accusatory finger at Elections Ontario, claiming that the organization did not educate or inform voters enough. They say: The campaign was too neutral and failed to communicate the values supporting MMP.

We say: Casting aside the questionable idea that a neutral government agency should play a role in promoting some democratic values over others, their objection still rings hollow. Why? Because voters don’t need to know the details of a policy to know whether or not they should throw their support behind it.

In-depth knowledge of electoral systems may thrill many-a-political scientist. And many of them think this knowledge is crucial to being a good citizen.

But this view is both elitist and wrong.

Modern political science demonstrates that voters effectively use a number of short cuts, or heuristics, to make the same decisions they would make if fully informed. They talk to their neighbours and friends. They look to their political leaders. They even look to the opinion pages of newspapers.

Citizens find these shortcuts in countless places. And with even a minimal amount of information, voters make choices consistent with the decisions they would make under different conditions.

What if the referendum wasn’t held during an election? Would it have had a better chance? If voters were more exposed to the arguments for electoral reform, would they be more likely to give it their support?

In short: Were the arguments for electoral reform winning arguments?

As scholars of public opinion, we wanted to know which side had the most convincing arguments in the electoral reform debate. We conducted an experiment during the last week of the referendum campaign using the Innovative Research Group’s online survey panel.

We presented participants with one of six arguments for MMP and one of six for the status quo. For example, “A first past the post system is better because it creates strong majority governments that can implement their policies” vs “A mixed member proportional system is better because parties should get the same share of seats as their share of the vote.” We had participants in the survey choose between them.

Our results are clear. The argument that every Member of Provincial Parliament should be locally elected overpowers every argument for MMP. In head-to-head match-ups, no argument from advocates of MMP convinces a sufficient number of voters to prefer the new system.

The arguments do not favour MMP. Even if voters paid sustained attention to the referendum, it is not clear that they would have been convinced by what they heard.

Even though the MMP loss was a blow to electoral reformers, it was not a blow for democracy. “Losers’ consent” is among the most important features of a proper democracy, where those on the short end of an outcome accept it as fair.

No doubt, this is difficult. But the idea of electoral reform has its own persuasive force and will not die with this loss. However, it's crucial that those who claim to be great democrats begin to act less like sore losers looking for someone to blame, and more like a team determined to do better next time around.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Into the Wild

On Friday, I headed to the Parc with three great friends to see Into the Wild. The film is everything the critics have claimed: beautifully shot, elegantly and sparsely scored by Eddie Vedder, and terribly well-written. This is much to Sean Penn's credit, however great the original accounts by John Krakauer.

For those who don’t know the story, the movie recounts the real life journey of Chris McCandless, a young, idealistic, ram-rod righteous, and driven man. A fresh graduate of Emory University, he gives away his remaining college fund to Oxfam, intentionally ends contact with his family, and decides to tramp across America. After two years, he makes his way to Alaska, heading alone into the bush in April. He soon finds an abandoned-bus-turned-hunt camp. He is terribly unprepared, carrying a meagre 10 lb bag of rice, a rifle, a pad and sleeping bag, and other sundries, including a guide to local flaura and fauna. He has no proper map, and thus no firm knowledge of the topography of his surroundings.

He has, apparently, little knowledge of the local wildlife, either. In June, McCandless' journal records the shooting of a large moose, which Krakauer claims was a large caribou. These are not similar animals. If Krakauer’s account is correct, and if Penn’s portrayal is wrong, then this suggests the McCandless was quite distinctly unprepared for his adventure.

Despite this unpreparedness, McCandless survives until July. He decides then that he has proven his point, tested his resilience, and that the time has come either for an end to adventures or for a new one. But as he leaves his camp and makes his trek back to the road, he finds that the waist deep finger of a river he crossed on his way out is now a chest-deep and raging arm of water. Writing "DISASTER" in his journal that night, he is left to again scratch out an existence from the abandoned bus. What the movie does not reveal is that the river could be easily crossed just a few miles upstream. With no map, McCandless could not know this. He is instead left again to his devices.

McCandless eventually starves to death, probably because he was eating a poisonous root, misidentified in his field guide, which prevented his body from absorbing any nutrients. His body is found some weeks later, alone in a blue sleeping bag his mother had knit for him many years earlier.

The scene of McCandless’ death, if the metaphor is not too crude, is simply breathtaking. It is some strange mix of horror and stoicism. It is also likely wrong. If Krakauer is to be believed, McCandless’ death was not welcome. Rather, those who found his body first found the following note on the outside of his bus:

"S.O.S I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you. Chris McCandless. August ?”

This was no welcomed death. There was no evidence of courage. There were no signs of a stoic passing. Instead, there were just signs that a young man’s luck had finally run out, that his righteousness had gotten him no where, and that he knew it.

There is no question: this is a breathtaking movie. And it is angering. There is no undue compassion invoked for McCandless. But, still, I cannot understand why Penn does not go the extra step and tell the story with extreme accuracy. Why does he omit, for example, that McCandless was an afternoon’s walk up the river from safety? Why does he not reveal McCandless’ ignorance of ungulates? And why, even at the end, does he omit the trip of his half-brother, one of six-half siblings of which Penn only reveals one, to retrieve his ashes? Why does he say it was only his sister who made the journey?

This is a breathtaking movie because it tells a true story and tells it well. But it was a story which needed no embellishment, and it’s for shame that Penn chose to ignore some fundamental truths.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Team Player

Denis Coderre has turned down Stephane Dion's offer to make him Quebec lieutenant. I guess he should quit now. He does have an MBA, after all. He could open a restaurant called Team Player.

A Personal Note

I just had the most positive customer service experience of my life with Bell Mobility. Not just with Bell Mobility either. And I am not being sarcastic. Honestly.

Magna and the CAW

I worked for Frank Stronach and Magna Int. for two summers. Watching the executive operations of a company was one of the luckier opportunities in my life. The highlight of both of these summers was occassionally bumping into Stronach, or listening to him wax to summer students in the boardroom, or watching him at the head of an employee meeting in a plant. He is strangely charismatic and so consistently unpredictable. This "Frank Factor" has, at times, probably discounted the stock of Magna. But it's hard to imagine what Magna would be without him. So, when this was announced today, I was greatly suprised. But I wouldn't bet against its long-term success.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

On the MMP Referendum

There is a lot of grumbling in the media today about the failure of MMP to win the referendum. A lot of it is coming from academics. Here's a nice example.

I don't have much to add to this debate, save the following three points:

i) There is absolutely no evidence right now that the Elections Ontario education campaign was ineffective. There are some rather esoteric statistical reasons for why this can be said with confidence, but it's true.
ii) There is little evidence that I know of which suggests that the arguments for MMP are more convincing than those for FPTP, when they are pitted head-to-head.
iii) We don't know if the YES side's campaign was effective or not. Indeed, their materials may very well have turned voters off electoral reform.

This is an admittedly very self-serving post. I have no horse in this race, but I am in the process of completing a study on the referendum with Daniel Rubenson. We are both pretty ambivalent about electoral reform, but we are curious about the reasons for the reform campaign's failure or success. To that end, during the election we conducted a series of experiments -- both in the field and in surveys -- to try to answer the questions above. And we now have a survey in the field which will also help to answer them. We'll have no quick answers, but they'll likely be alright and plausible when they do come out, and they certainly won't be as self-serving as those proferred up in the article cited above. It's time that advocates for electoral reform - those great democrats - at least acknowledge the possibility that other citizens may not share their views. Academics should be at the forefront of that.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The case for Dion forcing an election

This is almost certainly a mistake. Advisors to Stephane Dion, presumably the new ones which he has brought in, are counselling him to take on the Tories case by case after the Throne Speech, rather than opposing the speech and triggering an election.

By being outfoxed by Duceppe and Layton, Dion's strategic judgement could be called into question. That is, by allowing them to set their terms of negotiation, he was put against the wall and forced to either accept the government's agenda or call an election. Instead, he appears ready to take a third route, which is to oppose the government on legislation as it comes. This calls his strategic judgement - or that of his advisors - into even greater question. Here is why: this scenario only plays out in two ways. First, Harper gets all the legislation he wants. Second, Dion forces Harper's hand on some obscure piece of legislation and suddenly we're having an election over amendments to the wheat board, or minimum sentences for drug trafficking, or some other small issue. Dion will be seen to have forced the election, and Harper will be able to ask him why he would call Canadians back to the polls over such a small issue.

There is an alternative to this. It is to roll the dice. Oppose the speech from the throne in vigorous terms on the grounds that it is entirely contrary to the Liberal program. Then put it to the people. This is Dion's best course of action. Here's why. First, the opposition within his own party is not going to die down. If they get a clear signal that there will be no election for a year or 18 months they will continue to undermine him. So, the worst case scenario for Dion is that he is eventually forced to step down after a long, Fabian battle. Second, the best he can be in a year from now if he doesn't trigger an election is Leader of the Opposition with 90-some seats. However, if Dion triggers an election, the downside doesn't change. He could still get thrown overboard. But the upside is potentially larger: he could become prime minister if several things fall into place and Harper makes a few mistakes. It seems highly unlikely at this point, but it is not zero-probability. So the downside is the same, but the upside is higher. The only conditions under which waiting make sense are if Dion can force an election under more favourable terms. This seems highly unlikely. Instead, he will have to force it over some small issue, or wait until Harper has pushed through one or two more budgets. The stars are hardly aligned for Mr Dion - and it makes a lot of us honestly sad, because we've had high hopes - but the time to go is now.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that this whole case with Dion after the Throne Speech is a nice illustration of the struggle between leaders and local members. From Dion's perspective, he cares principally about his leadership and advancing his party (with him at the helm). He is as capable of backward induction as anyone else (that is, working backwards from likely outcomes to determine actions), and he certainly must have sensed that now was the time to go. But many media reports suggested the view was not shared by his MPs. This is fair enough: they do not want to lose their jobs either, and probably a third to half of them view themselves as being in marginal ridings. Dion likely doesn't care which MPs win, so long as he has the same number more or less after the election. But those losing MPs do, as their interests are put before those of the party. It's a thought for another post, perhaps.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Oral Roberts "University" scandal

I guess when God tells your father to build a university to God's glory but to name it after himself that something like this is the logical result.

UPDATE: Oral Roberts has assured the OR"U" community that the devil won't steal their university. I imagine the devil already checked the bank balance and figured it wasn't worth the effort. He may want to look into Richard Roberts' account, though. What's the phrase? Ah yes, Chaucerian fraud.

Hitchens Cut Open

Daniel sent me this article. It is Christopher Hitchens' account of finding out that a soldier who he inspired to enlist in the war in Iraq was killed by an IED. Hitchens goes on to meet the solider's family. It's a pretty amazing story of a man coming to terms with the consequences of his words, all the while not using that reckoning to make himself any bigger or proud.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, a member of the Commons standing committee on procedure and affairs, wants Mark Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, to read between the lines of Bill C-31. You see, even though the law actually says nothing about Muslim women reveiling their faces, and even though everything Mayrand has mandated accords strictly with the law, Mayrand is in the wrong for not reading into the law so see what it actually meant. You know, like judges do...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Craig Chandler

Craig Chandler must be the single most comical guy in Canadian politics. Just two weeks ago he was suggesting that those who don't vote Conservative should leave Alberta. Now, Craig doesn't care which conservative party you vote for. Heck, he's run for all of them! But if you want to be Albertan, you must vote conservative. I guess the sad thing is that it's not the most absurd thing he's ever said.

I had an email exchange with Craig today which ended with him claiming that Stephen Harper asked him to run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003 (a run which he did in fact make). This seems like quite an explosive claim. Chandler is asserting that he was put up for a leadership run by the leader of another party. It would actually be quite newsworthy, I should think, if it were to be believed.

PS Check out the sweet advertising on his website!

Monday, September 10, 2007

On a silly bike...

Mark Richardson has an article on Harleys in today's Star. Now, he's just returned from riding out to Sturgis on an HD, so I guess it's to be expected that his brain wouldn't be working terribly well. Mine often doesn't after a few days in the saddle. Nonetheless, for those of you unacquainted with the world of motorcycles, let me state my point up front: Harley Davidsons are not good motorcycles, if they ever were.

Richardson starts out the article by stating that a Harley can't really be compared with other motorcycles. This is true enough. It is worse than all of its competitors on every practical dimension. But then he somehow draws the conclusion that Harley's still (if they ever) provide value for the money and are still respectable motorcycles. Let me put this as clearly as possible. From every objective standard, Harley Davidson motorcycles are overpriced and provide incredibly poor performance. They can rarely reach even moderately high speeds, they do not handle well in corners, and they have quite substandard pick-up. They are comfortable, but so is a chesterfield. Then again, chesterfields only get about 1000 miles less riding each year than the average Harley.

For the money you pay for a Harley you could generally spend 75% as much and get a Japanese bike which did everything just as well. Now, it wouldn't be a Harley, and it wouldn't have that unique sound which indicates that you are riding on decades-old and antiquated technology. But it will do everything a motorcycle should do better.

This is admittedly just a rant a day after seeing about 1000 Harleys this weekend and probably not a good rider among them. But seriously, if I have to see another middle-aged man buy a bike which he spends more time polishing than riding, totally blissful in his ignorance of what a poor machine he owns, I am going to cry. Or I am going to ride away somewhere that he can't come, or would never think to try.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

On a bike...

I passed my 25,000th km on a motorcycle yesterday. My father came across from North Bay on Friday, and yesterday we rode down to Smugglers Notch and Stowe, then across the White Mountain forest and up Mount Washington. This was the single most enjoyable 8 miles of motorcycling I ever completed, beginning in thick forest and ending above the trees in clouds with 25 feet of visibilty.

All in all, it's been a wonderful first bit of motorcycling, of which I should hope for many more bits. I have been meaning for months to write up my trip reports - including the week my father and I took across Spain in March, the loop around Le Gaspesie and down to Halifax that Sam and I did in May, and the 9-day loop Sam and I just completed across the Trans-Labrador Highway, down Newfoundland, back through Sackville and then home. I shall write these soon, I promise. I've been put off only by the difficulty of trying to capture what it is I love so much about being on a bike, away from home and the grind of school. In short, I think it's two things. First, it's a time when I do some of my best and most clear thinking. And it's also time when I do less thinking that any other time. I think it's good for the mind. And I think, to cop Burt Munro, a man lives more in 5 minutes on a motorcycle than some men live in their whole lives. Anyways, more to come...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cynics Without Borders

With the creation of this blog, I have more or less lost my purpose. Everyone, meet Danistan. Danistan, meet my three readers.

More to be posted soon, but perhaps not until I return from a bike trip to Labrador at the end of the week.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Godwin's Law and Ellison's Dishonesty

Rep. Keith Ellison, the first moslem Congressman in the US House of Representatives suggested yesterday that the Bush administration may have been complicit in 9/11. He also compared Bush to Hitler. But that seems old hat by now. We all know Godwin's law is as true as the rising sun.

I want to try out an argument on you, fair readers. Can we believe that Rep. Ellison actually believes it possible that the American government was involved in 9/11? Put more precisely, would someone who actually and honestly believed that a democratic government was so capricious and brutal that it would kill 3000 of its own citizens actually feel comfortable stating that in public? Consider this thought experiment. If you were to go to the Congo, how loudly and comfortably would you declare that the government is guilty of human rights abuses? How about in Khartoum? How about, to use Mr. Ellison's example, in Nazi Germany. Clearly, Mr. Ellison is either dishonest or he is crazy and suicidal. Surely it's not the latter.


I saw SiCKO tonight. I was affected. And I was pleased that Michael Moore has finally made a movie which appeals not to smugness, distaste for the less intelligent, or intellectual superiority. Instead, he gets right down to the crux of the question: why hasn't American solved the collective action problem of universal health coverage the way everyone else has? Put more bluntly, why is America the only developed country in the world which subjects so many citizens to so much hassle, trouble, trial and effort to get what is their due as humans?

I generally dislike Moore's docs, though I appreciate their quality. But he has overcome my most fundamental objections. He finally seems genuinely caring and shocked by what he sees and makes us see. It's a film worth watching. For all its exaggerations, it gets the central story right and puts the challenge to those who revere American health care.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Bush-league RCMP

Wouldn't it be just as wise to recommend that RCMP officers make it a policy to not shoot those they arrest in the back of the head? Or that they not treat a body any differently even if its theresult of a killing by a fellow officer?

I wish William Elliot all the luck in the world. And I wish Paul Koester a lifetime of sleepless nights.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hand it to Layton, at least he's linguistically consistent when he betrays his internationalism.

Watch the second and third questions in this press conference and then ask yourself whether Jack Layton's internationalism has ever meant a thing.

UPDATE: J Kay says everything I wanted to here.

UPDATE2: If you want to see the heroes who were killed today, go here. You can go here if you want to see people who don't understand for a minute why these heroes served - probably with chests full of pride.

UPDATE3: I am reminded of this hilarious post.

UdeM denounces boycott of Israeli universities

I am a proud student of the political science department at the Universite de Montreal. I am also a constantly annoyed customer of the institution. But, I must say that this makes me very proud. It is the right thing to do.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Speeding in Ontario

As a social scientist, I found this article very interesting. The article overviews an emerging debate about whether to reintroduce photo radar in Canada. I think it nicely illustrates how poor public policy can be made. The basic story is that there have been a number of recent highway deaths in Ontario related to excessive speed. Obviously, then, speed needs to be reduced. So the minister of transportation has suggested limiting the speed of truckers to 105 km/h. And the Canada Safety Council and the Hamiton Chief of Police have suggested reintroducing photoradar. It's all justified, as the minister of transportation observes, because ""There's no question that there is a correlation between speed and crashes and collisions."" This seems quite obvious. What is not obvious is that introducing video cameras on the highway will break this connection or reduce speed more generally. And it's also not obvious that restricting the speed of transports is in the public interest.

For me, some questions still remain. First, is there actually an appreciable increase in street racing and related deaths ? I mean, aside from the increased media attention on it? In other words, are we really facing an epidemic? And, if we're not, then why is now the time to focus resources on addressing this? Second, does photo radar work? In the cited article, at least, advocates present no evidence that it actually works. Quite the contrary, the article presents evidence that it only slows down drivers when there is an obvious radar van around, and then it does so because drivers (and radio stations, too) don't mind warning one another that there is a van near by. Unless one parks these vans on every street, then there is unlikely to be an appreciable general decrease in speeding. Third, Emile Therien notes that it was politics and not safety that lead to the abolishment of photo radar in 1995. This seems correct. But is it relevant? And, if it is, isn't it relevant that it's politics and not safety which is allowing his calls for a reintroduction?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

I can drink to that....

Apparently, people attempting to bring liquids and gels onto planes is delaying air traffic. Of course, it's the fault of passengers, not the fault of either stupid regulations or arbitrary enforcement which just encourages people to push the rules. I wonder what a solution to this might be? Getting rid of the assinine regulation, perhaps?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Prime Minister's Question Time

I do believe I will be spending a lot of time here in the future. Blair is unmatched on his feet. If for no other reason - and make no mistake, I think there are many reasons - it's a shame he's gone.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Political Futures Markets

Slate is running a political futures market, which is an aggregator of four different presidential prediction markets. Political stock markets allow individuals to buy a future which typically pays off $100 for the predicted outcome, i.e. you can pay $20 to bet Obama will win the nomination, and it pays off $100 if he does. By comparing current prices, one can get a sense of the wisdom of crowds on which candidates are favoured.

This has been similarly applied in Canada at the UBC Election Stock Market to great success. They outperformed every pollster in 2006 save SES. A betting person would suggest they will in the future.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Not my job...

And once again a Quebec union leader shows himself to be of unimpeachable judgment. Who honestly uses the "it's not my job" excuse when a man is beating a woman about the head? Apparently we'll have to bargain for basic humanity among STM guards in their next contract.

Crosbie and Martin on the Atlantic Accords

There is a lot wrong with John Crosbie and Roland Martin's opinion piece on the Atlantic Accords in today's Globe. I will limit myself to two short objections.

First, they claim that the Atlantic Accord is an "economic development" deal, like the auto industry in Ontario or aerospace in Quebec. This is a faulty analogy. In both of those cases, there is an argument that these industries would not exist if they were not subsidized. In the case of Nova Scotia, the offshore industry already exists. It doesn't require a subsidy to thrive. Indeed, nothing in the Atlantic Accord is about supporting an offshore industry, it is merely about letting NS keep all of the spoils. When Ontario is allowed to deduct auto industry revenues from its fiscal capacity, then the analogy will hold.

Second, they tell the reader not to worry, because if NS is not an equalization receiving province in 2011-12, then the Accord will run out. But honestly, who among us believes that if you don't count resource revenues, that NS won't be receiving equalization in four years? The obviously will. Despite the claims of Rodney and Co. that the federal government wishes to consign them to permanent have not status, it is in fact the opposite that is true. NS wants to be equalization receiving for as long as possible, which it will be as long as resource revenue is kept out of the equation.

Update: Jason Hickman, in his fair and reasonable comments to my post, notes that Alberta was allowed to receive both the benefits of its oil revenues as well as equalization payments in the beginnings of the equalization formula. One often hears this stated, but with little explanation. After doing a modicum of reading, this is the reality (which is not far off Jason's point, except in its implication). When equalization was formally introduced in 1957, a national average was used and fiscal capacity was calculated using personal, corporate and inheritence taxes. This changed five years later when natural resource revenues were added. Alberta was then dropped from equalization.

The implications of this are clear: it is not true that Alberta was given exceptional treatment. Instead, it was given the same treatment as every other province under the equalization formula of the day. When that formula was changed, Alberta no longer received equalization. Whether it did so with or without kicking and screaming is besides the point. The empirical reality is that no exceptions were made. It seems fair enough to ask that those who invoke Alberta's first experience with equalization as instructive would also embrace the second.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Am I going to cheer for McLaren?

If Lewis Hamilton wins one more race and/or does one more thing like this, I think I am going to start cheering for McLaren (though I should admit I was rooting for him at Montreal). This guy appears to be the real deal: an exceptionally talented driver and a true sportsman. Let's hope this is enough to goad the Rain King out of retirement.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Three Non-Random Thoughts

1.) I've just returned from a couple of days in Wisconsin. I gave a little talk on collective action problems and global health at the World Affairs Seminar. Ten years ago, I attended the Seminar as a high school student. It was a great and important experience then, and returning now was equally important. It easily borders on cliché to suggest that today's youth are the hope of tomorrow and then to assert that the future is in good hands. But, after a couple of days around whip-smart high school kids, all of whom have their hearts in the right place, I am closer to believing the cliché is true.

2.) This is an extremely counter-intuitive but convincing paper. It argues that to maintain trade openness in the United States - to defeat the protectionist racket - greater wealth distribution is required. There is an easy knee-jerk reaction to this argument, but I encourage you to read the paper. It's thought-provoking if nothing else.

3.) Dan Leger has more courage than ninety-nine percent of other journalists. He sets aside some serious myths in today's Chronicle-Herald regarding the current debates over equalization. I've avoided blogging on the topic, though I've had some great back and forth with some of my smarter friends in Nova Scotia. For the time being, let me say that Leger captures my sentiments, as does this piece by Coyne.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Party Switching in Malawi

I am neither here nor there on the proper etiquette of floor-crossing. If forced to choose, I'd say MPs are free to sit in whichever caucus they want; their voters can pass judgment at the next election. So, I merely note with interest that Malawi's Supreme Court disagrees, and has empowered the speaker of that parliament to expel MPs who switch parties. This ruling could effectively topple the Malawian government. It kind of puts Garth Turner and Peter Van Loan's ongoing spat into perspective.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The final episode

I just finished watching the final episode of the Sopranos. I am not sure I will ever see another television show of this calibre. It was simply breathtaking.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hey Jeff Watson...

Hey Jeff Watson, how does this sound? When you learn to speak French, however badly accented, then you can make fun of Stephane Dion's accent by mimicking it in members' statements, just before Question Period. But, how about until then you just stick to making statements in your normal voice?

Monday, May 14, 2007

For the Driver

I have been jammed up with writing (and riding) over the last couple of weeks, so posting has obviously been sporadic. However, I really wanted to note this news story. I think it's one of compassion and remarkable empathy. I should hope that I would have the grace to act equally in such a situation. I also note how much it reminds me of this great song.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Why read Tim Shipman when you can read Wikipedia?

The Sunday Telegraph ran an interesting piece yesterday on Fred Thompson, the former Senator and current Law and Order actor who is quite likely to contest for the Republican presidential nomination. After reading the piece, written by Tim Shipman, I looked up Thompson on Wikipedia to get a little more background on him. Then I wondered if I was reading the same article again.

Of Thompson's first foray into acting, Shipman writes:

"He was then asked to play himself in a 1985 film about a real-life judicial corruption scandal in Tennessee, supposedly because the producers could not find a professional actor who could portray him plausibly."

The wiki say:

"The 1977 Ray Blanton-Tennessee Parole Board scandal later became the subject of a book and a movie titled Marie (1985) in which Thompson played himself, supposedly because the producers were unable to find a professional actor who could play him plausibly."

That's a very close crib.

The next paragraph is an even more intentional lifting. While Shipman leaves the quotes in context, he does nothing to indicate that the preceding sentence is basically directly from Wikipedia. Thompson writes:

"He has been a popular choice for on-screen authority figures, playing variously a White House chief of staff, a CIA boss, a highly placed FBI agent, and a senator. As one New York Times critic noted: "When Hollywood directors need someone who can personify governmental power, they often turn to him.""

The wiki is:

Thompson would go on to appear as the amoral demagogue "Dr. Knox Pooley" in a five episode story arc of the TV series Wiseguy (1988), and has also been in subsequent feature films, including No Way Out (1987), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Cape Fear (1991), and In the Line of Fire (1993). A 1994 New York Times profile described his authoritative character roles as such: "The glowering, hulking Mr. Thompson has played a White House chief of staff, a director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a highly placed F.B.I. agent, a rear admiral, even a senator. When Hollywood directors need someone who can personify governmental power, they often turn to him."

I've checked the history on the wiki, and there is nothing indicating that it was rewritten to reflect the Shipman article. So it seems pretty clear that Shipman used Wikipedia, which is great. The problem is that he plagiarized it, which isn't great.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Advance voting in Ontario

The Ontario government is proposing extending voting hours and doubling the number of days for advance voting in the October election. They think this will stem declining turnout. It won't and it comes at the risk of making election outcomes less coherent. I have a paper which tries to show why, but you'd be even better to read this paper.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

On the Greens and the Liberals...

Having just returned from a great day of academic meetings in Chicago, here are my quick two-cents on the May-Dion deal:

i) May has just torpedoed the chances of every other Green candidate save her. Suppose a voter wants to support environmental action. Why in the world would they waste their vote on the Green candidate when they can vote for a Liberal candidate who comes with Ms May's seal of approval.
ii) There is nothing unseemly or untoward about this. At worst, it is awkward. The logic of a plurality system is that the number of parties is always being winnowed. This is why the Progressive Conservatives and the Alliance merged (and, by the way Monte, that happened in a backroom as well). That May has recognized that she cannot win and achieve her objectives on her own and has essentially merged with the Liberals is to her credit. As for Dion, not running a candidate in Central Nova is a small price to pay.
iii) It will be extremely hard to estimate and demonstrate after the election, but I think this is worth 2 points for the Liberals.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Belinda...

What exactly do you call someone who entered politics with so much promise but then left after just three years as an MP with a reputation for speaking out against their party's leadership, doing their own thing, and generally finding the role of an MP unstimulating? A dilletante? A flake? A self-serving ambition-driven shell? Well, today you call him the Prime Minister.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Thanks, Barry.

Haven't the Bee Gees done enough to wreck music already? Now, this?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

On private schools and "tax breaks"

Today, the Sun has a fairly good article by Joan Bryden under a ridiculous headline. You can find it here. Here's the jist of the story: in the past when parents receive scholarships to reduce the private school tuition of their children they also had to count that scholarship as income. So, despite also paying property taxes and provincial taxes, these parents also had to pay taxes on money which never actually passed through their wallet. The federal government decided to stop taxing these scholarships in this year's budget (just as they decided to stop taxing my university scholarships in last year's, though the subject of Mr. Flaherty buying me a motorcycle is for another post).

Now, the Liberals think this is unfair. Gerard Kennedy is calling it the subsidy of private schools or something like that. And Ted over at Cerberus, who in my mind is the best Liberal blogger, is also all over this. Is this really a battle the Liberals want to fight? They want to stand for taking more money from parents who want the best education for their kids and are willing to pay for it in addition to paying taxes for schools they don't use? Oh, did I forget to mention that Kennedy also informed us that this measure is meant to appeal to the party's "social conservative base"? What say the experts? I'll leave it to Alex Usher: ""If it's speaking to their base, it's speaking in semaphore with postage-sized flags."

I just don't understand some of the battles this party is trying to fight.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Une petite question, version 112

I agree with Wells, Coyne, Cherniak, the lot. Calling Stephane Dion a vendu is really cheap. It's an insult that some folks here in Quebec like to use for those who stand up for Canada and for the reality that Quebecers are better off in the federation. In the case of Mr. Dion, it's usually been deployed against him after he has exhausted separatist/sovereignist logic. It's been used against him often, so I can't imagine he gets too hurt by it now. His skin is pretty thick. But still, he certainly doesn't deserve it.

But let's run with the argument that it is an unforgivable insult. What say backers of former Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose campaign deployed it against Chretien in 1990? If he can be forgiven for it, why not Harper?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A good question.

The Globe and Mail's Jeff Shallot raised a great question on CTV's Question Period this morning. Why, when the government has made so much of greater citizen input on judicial appointment committees do they not have a single civilian on the search committee to find a new RCMP commissioner? (The committee, if I recall, is composed of a former RCMP commissioner, the PM's security advisor, and two former Supreme Court Justices. All qualifed people, I should like to say).

I, for one, do not have strong objections to the Conservatives' method for judicial appointments. Especially when judicial appointments have hardly been non-partisan in the past. But, why not extend the principal of greater citizen involvement to the RCMP? Especially when the top brass of the RCMP are bringing themselves into such disrepute? And especially when the RCMP has no civilian oversight as it now stands. This seems like a great beachhead to take in the reform of the organization.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Is Air Canada double ticketing?

I actually like Air Canada. I've taken twenty flights since January, all of them on Air Canada (or a SA partner). They've all been pleasant, and their staff have been helpful (for instance, when I missed a connection mostly because of absentmindedness).

But today I was booking a flight to Chicago in two weeks. Air Canada offers the cheapest direct flight from Montreal. The indicated price with taxes and fees was $511. But then, just as I was about to hit click the price jumped to $554. I don't understand why, and I don't understand how this is different from double ticketing, a fraudulent practice in which stores "mistakenly" put two prices on an item but insist on charging the higher price at the register.

It's hard to know what to do in this case. Do I wait until I can talk to someone at AC, or do I book and then complain and hope to get the difference. If I do the first, I risk a higher price. If I do the second, I risk no refund of the difference. Damned if you do...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Three thoughts on the Quebec election

I provide these without links (and with apologies):

1.) It is unclear to me exactly why this outcome advantages Harper. The argument being advanced this morning is that this shows that there is a stronger conservative sentiment in Quebec than we knew about a day ago. And this sentiment is particularly tied to social values, concerns about the family, and concerns about immigration. But can Harper really hit hard on those issues in Quebec (especially reasonable accomodation) and not pay an electoral cost in the rest of the country, especially among the visible minorities he is so assiduously courting?
2.) You can call Dumont Le Pen if you like, but what last night's result shows is that when mainstream parties fail to address the concerns of a large part of the population - that is, when they fail to lead on those concerns and to set the agenda - then more marginal forces can grab a hold and make them a winning issue. It's a heresthetic (look it up), and it worked masterfully for Dumont, particularly because the other parties were not proactive.
3.) Boisclair is obviously done. And this hurts Charest. While I think he can hold on, it is made marginally more difficult by the fact that the PQ will soon be without a leader. If disgruntled Liberals can throw Charest over the side fast enough they can elect a new leader and premier - perhaps finding him at a Jean Talon market - while the new PQ leader is still finding his feet (or his way back from Ottawa).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Back from Spain

I am back from Spain. I spent two days in meetings with some great academics, including this guy and this guy. I am really lucky to be involved in a project with them and others examining public opinion towards immigration in Western Europe.

After two days in Barcelona, my father - who flew in a day after me - and I mounted a couple of motorcycles and headed across the country for six days. We rode past Valencia the first day, down to Grenada the second, up Gibraltar (to the very top) and off to Seville the next day. On Thursday we headed to Albacete and on Friday we stayed in Tureul. Saturday we returned to Barcelona, 3000 kms wiser and no younger from all of the coffee we drank. There can be little doubt that Spain is a first class bike country. Pictures are soon to follow. (For those interested, this is a first-rate outfit from which to rent bikes).

In the meantime, I am back to experimenting on students and writing about the effectiveness of direct mail.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Freedom lovers mourn...

... but this is a good ruling if you, like me, believe in the independence of voting. If you don't believe in it, one read of this guy should change your mind.

Who would you be more surprised to see at Harvard?

Apparently, Andre Boisclair was surprised to see so many people with "slanted eyes" at Harvard. As a friend said, I am sure they were surprised to see a university drop-out there. What a dick.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The logic of political survival hits one about the head

Unfortunately, this is what the logic of political survival looks like in Zimbabwe. May Mugabe ride into the syphillis-sunset before this gets any worse. And maybe those who still celebrate him as a hero could saddle up with him.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Halifax Taxis

Halifax taxis are absurd. For some reason, cab drivers there are legally obligated to keep their lights on even when they have a fare. If you've ever tried to flag a taxi there on a cold night then you'll know the frequent dissapointment of full-but-lit cabs passing you by. But this isn't the greatest absurdity. If you read David Rhodenheiser's column today in the Daily News, he points out that taxi licenses - i.e. the right to possess a taxi number - sell for just $50 a year. And they are owned for life. Yet, taxis are being leased for as much as $500 a month. Now, in a bout of economic illiteracy, Rhodenheiser suggests that this is leading to the exploitation of cab drivers who are paying the $500 a month to lease the licenses. Of course it is no such thing, as these drivers are neither compelled nor coerced into leasing the licenses. Rather, the travesty is that the Halifax council would price so meagerly a commodity which is obviously of much greater value. What should be occurring, of course, is that Halifax taxpayers should be receiving the market rate for every cab which is on the road, which is apparently about 120 times what they are receiving now. But what do you expect from a city that goes so far as to force cab lights to stay on when the cab is taken?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On compelled testimony and preventative arrests

I have to admit, I am actually baffled as to who is right in today's debate over two controversial provisions of Canadian anti-terrorism legislation. On the one hand, the Conservatives are claiming that the ability to compel testimony and perform preventative arrests is crucial in the prevention of terrorism. On the other hand, the Liberals are saying that these provisions endanger civil liberties. But they've never once been used in the five years they've been on the books in Canada. So both positions seem a little empty to me. I am open to comments, but I'd like to hear especially why we should keep/repeal a law which doesn't seem to do any harm or any good.

Of Yellow Knives and Kicking Horses

Two Friday's ago I had a great birthday party. Early the next morning I headed out on a flight to Calgary. It was too early and clearly wasn't booked with much foresight. I was heading to Yellowknife to hang out with some old friends. I arrived later than expected on account of a missed connection in Calgary.

With the illustrious Loren

I spent three days there, and did the whole circuit - the Gold Range, Bullock's (where I had the best fish of my life), and some hiking on a lake. The political scientist in my couldn't pass up on a visit to the Legislature, which to my knowledge is the only non-partisan Westminster system in the world. It's arguable if it functions well, but it sure is interesting.

On Tuesday I flew to Calgary and travelled to Kicking Horse to ski with some old and new friends. In all, it was a good enough week to forget about all the troubles of getting older. Now I am back to work and the new troubles of executing an experiment. But I shan't complain; I could be a fish on someone's plate or some other fate.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Logic of Political Survival

Among the great books recently written in political science, Bueno de Mesquita et al's The Logic of Political Survival must make the list. It basically tackles a fundamental question of political science: why is it that bad governments (particularly undemocratic ones) can survive for so long? To make the long story short, they argue that governments with medium-sized selectorates (which is a generalization of electorates to include non-democratic selection processes) are able to survive by enriching their selectorates at the cost of the larger public. This works best for selectorates which aren't too small, because when they are too small it's easier for someone else to put together an opposing and winning coalition (think of military coups). And in selectorates which are too large it becomes more efficient to allocate goods on more fair grounds. In medium-sized selectorates a bad leader can stay in power for a long time. For the case of Zimbabwe, that seems to be what this article is demonstrating.

Mugabe is basically allowing his presidential guard to thoroughly pillage Zimbabwe by taking advantage of things only available to those in the selectorate: favourable and contrived exchange rates on US dollars, cheap gasoline, and (until recently) productive and well-kept farms. This hardly proves Bueno de Mesquita et al's argument (indeed, it is open to some real criticism). But it does a nice job of illustrating it.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Garth Turner and a by-election

As most know, Garth Turner joined the Liberal caucus yesterday. No complaints from me on that. I think MPs are free to sit in whatever caucus they please and whenever they want. And I don't think that they should have to run in by-elections to do it.

That said, Turner's position is too cute by half. After taking Emerson out to the Blogshed in January for not running in a byelection after he joined the Tory caucus, he now says that he'd be willing to run in a byelection in Halton if Stephen Harper called it. But obviously Stephen Harper can't call it, as Turner has not resigned. Now, Turner claims that were he to resign he doesn't trust that Harper would call a prompt byelection (it can effectively be delayed for a year) . And that's fair enough. It's Harper's prerogative and I am not sure I would call one either. But that is totally beside the point that Turner could at least hold up his end of the bargain: he could resign and put Harper's feet to the fire to call the byelection. But he is unwilling. And by his standards do you know what that makes him? It makes him just another heart-breaking politician. And to think that a lot of us thought this guy was different.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

From this morning's Chronicle-Herald

Don't kill yourself about makin' it
Be takin' it easy, but be takin' it
There's enough out there who are fakin' it
Don't let 'em take the joy that you make on your own

- Old Man Luedecke

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Five Thoughts

I have been coming up against deadlines for the last seven days or so, so I shall share five (more or less random) thoughts:

1.) If I were a politician or a person engaged in politics, I would be quite concerned about the incivility involved in suggesting that the Auditor General is in the backpocket of the federal Tories. Or in suggesting that Stephane Dion's campaign may have been funded by illegal money (a likely liable to which I won't link). I am always puzzled about why people who are upright, pure as the driven snow even, get involved politics when they believe it is otherwise full of bad, corrupt, crooked and manipulable people. I realize that it may be a dominant strategy to always slag your opponent as incompetent or unethical or worse, but in the end everyone loses when politics is debased. It kind of reminds me of two prisoners in separate interogation rooms...

2.) I have an abiding interest in immigration and asylum and how these issues sometimes affect politics and public opinion. As a tangent to this tangent, I ocassionally read literature on migrants or refugees. Like books by this guy. And of what I've read Zagajewski's Refugees is among the best (and I found it on a great blog).

3.) Speaking of literature, this is quite a good short story. And here is the movie.

4.) What of my motorbike, you ask? Safely stored away for winter? Alas, it is true. But the stars are aligning for a week's riding in Spain avec mon pere. I'll be riding a sport-touring bike for the first time, though about half displacement of my father's normal ride. But at least we'll both be renting the same bikes for this trip. Pictures shall be sure to follow. As will, I am sure, yawning from the crowd uninterested in bikes.

5.) The Jerdon's Courser is an amazing bird, though not because of its rather distinct if modest markings. Rather, it was long believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1986. But, even today there likely less than 200 in the world, so ornothologists still know very little about it's behaviour. This relates to nothing but the truth that for many things there is a light that never goes out, even when we're certain it has.

And thus end my meagre offerings.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Once more through the Northwest Passage

One of the pleasant surprises of this blog is that it's reconnected me with old friends. It's also occasioned the crossing of paths with people I may not otherwise have met. This happened with this post. If you read the comments, you'll see that Peter Brock's daughter wondered if I had known her father. I had not, but I had been taken by his obituary in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. He was a man who had lived quite a life, topped perhaps by his sail through the Northwest Passage (a journey, I should think, which at once makes him perfectly Canadian and perfectly heroic). Unfortunately, the article to which I linked is no longer on the CH site. So I've retrieved it, and reprint it here in full. May we all have adventures a tenth the measure of Peter Brock's.

Man who conquered North West Passage dies in bike-car crash; Victim was also an award-winning author and environmental activist

Peter Brock, whose journey through the Northwest Passage earned him distinction as 2006 Nova Scotia Sailor of the Year, died Tuesday when he was struck by a pickup truck while cycling in Bayswater.

The 73-year-old sailor, author, artist and musician was remembered Wednesday as an exceptional man with a passion for the ocean and the solitude it provided.

"He was one of these people who didn't like to be in the spotlight," his wife Margaret Archibald said in an interview from their home in Blandford.

"He had a good year. He got his boat through the Passage, won this award . . . and he was feeling good," she said. "Things were going well for him."

In 1996, Mr. Brock and his wife began a five-year journey onboard their 42-foot sailboat, Minke, the second boat Mr. Brock had built himself.

They left Nova Scotia, sailed down the east coast of the United States, past Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and through the Panama Canal, eventually ending their voyage at Vancouver Island.

In 2003, Mr. Brock set out to sail through the North West Passage, going as far as he could each summer, before leaving the boat behind to return home. This summer, he completed the adventure and sailed to Labrador, where Minke is expected to remain until next year.

Brother-in-law David Archibald, one of two people who accompanied him on the last leg of his trip, called it "a wonderful experience." "He was only the third person, I think, to ever sail a boat he built himself through the North West Passage."

Barbara Pike, past-president of the Nova Scotia Yachting Association, said Mr. Brock is well respected in the sailing community.

"He was just an amazing person . . . who took on this adventure and shows the sport of sailing is for all ages," she said.

"There have been very few people who have actually sailed through the North West Passage, particularly in the size of boat he sailed. To attempt to do it, then to accomplish it, is just a major feat."

Mr. Archibald said Mr. Brock was also an accomplished pianist, and a "tremendously warm" person, with an interest in many things.

He authored two books, including Variations on a Planet, which won the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia's Evelyn Richardson Memorial Literary Award for best non-fiction book in 1994.

Mr. Brock was also an environmentalist, particularly troubled by clearcutting, who had once worked with the CBC and was involved in the development of the Discovery Centre when it opened at Scotia Square, Mr. Archibald said.

"He's never been an individual to be involved in anything mainstream, 9-5. He was very much an individual who struck his own way in life and did what his passion led him to do."

Mr. Brock was struck from behind by a half-ton truck while cycling along Highway 329 in Bayswater. The accident happened at 4:10 p.m. RCMP believe the 44-year-old driver was blinded by the sun and did not see him.

The case remains under investigation but police do not believe alcohol was a factor. The road was clear at the time, police said.

Mr. Brock is survived by his wife, Margaret Archibald, children Jeff and Laura, and stepdaughter, Janice. ( 'He had a good year. He got his boat through the Passage, won this award . . . and he was feeling good. Things were going well for him.'

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Rabble Babble or down with math

My roommate has suggested to me on occassion that is, shall we say, a little out there. And it generally comes up in the context of some rant I have about some site on the right. But, for all the faults of, for example, Small Dead Animals, I could not ever imagine a post this inane appearing. This thing stretches the mind.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Now that Nova Scotia has benefited from having its natural resources excluded from equalization it wants everyone else's natural resources counted at 100% so that it can reap a bigger windfall. That sounds like a campaign for fairness if I've ever heard of one. It's like demanding higher tax rates on everyone else after receiving a tax amnesty.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

In the Beach, Out of the Cold

I wrote earlier about a group of people in the Beach (or the Beaches) who seemed to think that it was their right to tell a church it could not house twelve homeless people one night a week for twelve weeks. It seems their objections have been overcome, and the Church now has the go ahead.

Of course, all of this was absurd from the start, for the following three reasons:

i) A church shouldn't have to ask anyone for permission to undertake its duties, provided they are within the law.
ii) The total lack of evidence that such programs increase crime rates and reduce property values aside, there are already homeless people in the Beach. That they go unnoticed is just one more reason to support the program.
iii) If you think that government alone is going to solve the problems of homelessness than you are hoping against hope. Objecting to those organizations who are trying to step into the breach is to take an active role in worsening the conditions of those on the street.

Thankfully better senses have prevailed. Now, I wonder what are this person's views now. Someone should ask her, and someone should remind voters that she tried to stop this.

UPDATE: I've recieved quite a good comment about this post, which I shall reprint in it's entirety. I am happy to strikethrough the last paragraph of my original post, though I shall leave it up for the purposes of transparency. Thanks, Sean.

I live in the area, and I appreciate your attention to this issue. My neighbours who have opposed this project have dishonoured themselves and embarassed our community.That said, I'm not sure that Sandra Bussin ever actually opposed the project, her rather tortured comments on the matter notwithstanding. In discussion the other night with a fellow trying to whip up opposition to the Church's proposal, he saved his fiercest criticisms for Bussin, accusing her of fixing the consultation process in order to ensure that the proposal would succeed. In addition, she has been quoted in other local media as supporting project. I'm no supporter of hers, and she's certainly made a hash of things, but I don't think that she can fairly be described as an opponent of the project.Sadly, the real opponents continue to hide behind their lawyer, refusing to publicly identify themselves or even indicate their number. We have no way of knowing whether the protest was organized by a small or large number of protesters. I gather there were a number of mildly concerned residents who were glad to attend the meeting and obtain more information, but each of these people I spoke with was at pains to distance themselves from the people who hired the lawyer, claiming not to know how those homeowners were. The Church made a tactical error, I think, in not challenging the opponents to identify themselves, allowing them to delay this worthy initiative in the most cowardly possible, besmirching the whole community without putting their personal reputations on the line.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Liberals/NDP/Conservatives/Everyone buys headlines at Bourque!!

There is a growing story over the sale of headlines at Bourque Newswatch, the popular news aggregator. I must say that I can't blame Bourque for selling headlines - it's his prerogative. But it does seem a little like payola.

Anyways, some have their knickers in a knot because they claim Bourque has a secret plot to sell space to Conservatives. The problem is, it's not terribly secret. The second problem is, he seems to sell space to everyone. One need only to click on his pitch page to find this list of "clients who count on us to get their message seen, heard, and actioned":

Air Canada, Liberal Party Of Canada, New Democratic Party of Canada, Conservative Party of Canada, Ontario Chamber of Commerce, BMO, Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, PC Party of Ontario, Glaxo Smithkline, Canwest-Global, Canadian Payday Loan Association, Canadian Medical Association, Friends of the CBC, Rick Mercer's Report on CBC, Canadian Chemical Producers Association, Canadian Labour Congress, Canadian Medical Association, Labatt's, IPEX Thermoplastic Piping, Rx&D, Forest Products Association of Canada, Canadian Alliance, Fitness Industry Canada, Canadian Tire, Canadian Labour and Business Centre, Rittenhouse, TDBank, Liberal Party of Ontario, Belinda Stronach Leadership Campaign, John Tory Mayoralty Campaign, Marijuana Party, Saskatchewan NDP, Canadians For Equal Marriage, Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, Vancouver Film School, Summa Strategies, Pollara, SES Research, Biotech.Ca, Prospectus Associates, BC Liberal Party, Canadian Foundation for Innovation, Riley Information Services, Compaq, CIBC, Cadillac, CasinoAcura.Com, SportsBetting.Com…and many, many more!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Time capsule found at Mount A

Given that it was found in Trueman House it's probably just full of dirty underwear.

UPDATE: Glenford sends this link to a great Argosy story with a couple dozen pictures of what has been found. And it actually does include a letter to Scooter.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cree opposition to Eastmain 1-A

I've now written and lost two post on this topic. The new Blogger is crap, apparently. Here's the short version: The Globe has a story this afternoon on emerging Cree opposition to the Eastmain 1-A hydro project. The project will need to the diversion of the Rupert River and the flooding of 400 sq/km of land (which is a lot or a little depending on perspective).

The Chief of Chisasibi is opposed (though his community is about 400 kms from the Rupert). I for one am torn, and my feelings are captured by a quote from Chief Mukash of the Grand Council of Crees: “When you lose something, when you lose a loved one, you go through a phase of grief. But in the end there's always light at the end of the tunnel.” Or a bay at the end of the river, so to speak.

UPDATE: And for a great example of uninformed but passionate opinion, check out the Globe discussion. It's like SDA on steroids.

UPDATE2: I've shamelessly copied and pasted a pretty breathtaking photo of the Rupert. You can see a whole slideshow of these here.

Update3(more or less unrelated): Speaking of SDA and great photos, I recommend you check out these. McCormick is a hell of a photographer.

I am guessing this happened in the hot tub

I can't believe I am wasting my 100th post on this.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Just a thought

A little inside baseball: If I was going to write a long post about how Conservatives engage in character assassination and unreasonable attacks - say, like this - then I would probably erase a post just four down which suggests that ministers of the crown support terrorist organizations - say, like this.

I, like a lot of people, think that questioning Dion's patriotism and loyalty because he has French citizenship is pretty lazy, insipid, and obstinate. Even if this guy is doing it. But it's well within every citizen's rights to be lazy, insipid, and obstinate, so we shouldn't shed tears over it.

UPDATE: Coyne sends on the following (available in its entirety here):

"Anyone who questions Stéphane Dion’s patriotism is either a fool or a scoundrel. After the service he has done this country, after the abuse he has suffered in its name, to cast even the slightest doubt on his loyalty to Canada shames those who would try."

So, as in a lot of things, Coyne is right and I am wrong. He did not question Dion's patriotism and loyalty. He's no Ezra Levant. Though I must say that the rest of the linked column isn't his most convincing piece.

What if no one voted?

Political scientists have spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why and when people vote. This book is a great overview of the research, this article is rather pathbreaking, and this argument is quite compelling.

Common to all of these arguments is something of a paradox: why vote when your vote is rarely if ever decisive? Well, there appears to be at least case when it's pretty close. Nova Scotia held a special by-election yesterday for the African-Nova Scotian seat on the South Shore regional school board. No one voted. This shouldn't be terribly surprising. School board elections are low participation affairs; by-elections are even more so. And I don't think the African Nova Scotian population on the South Shore is very high, so the electorate is small. But still, file this one away as the exception which proves the rule.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Rodney MacDonald: The Scene of the Accident

What is going on in Nova Scotia? And what is Rodney MacDonald thinking? The Herald is announcing that Ernie Fage is resigning for the second time in a year. The first time it was for lobbying the business development outfit in Nova Scotia to give a loan to a company which rents some of his extensive land holdings in Cumberland County. This time it's for leaving the scene of an accident. In November. And it appears he was intoxicated.

From my perspective what is most damaging in the long-term is the following snippet:

Joe Gillis, the premier’s spokesman, said earlier Thursday that Mr. Fage told the premier about the crash before Christmas.

“Mr. Fage told him there was a minor accident and that it was reported to the police as well as the insurance,” Mr. Gillis said.

When asked if the minister told Mr. MacDonald he had left the scene of the accident, Mr. Gillis said no.

“But the premier had no reason to think otherwise or think anything else but what the minister had told him,” he said.

Earlier Thursday, the premier told reporters the crash was minor and proper procedures were followed in reporting it to police.

This just does not seem probable. Either the Premier (and his staff) were totally incompetent in questioning Mr Fage on the incident, or they thought they could wait it out, or he didn't tell them and someone is lying. Whichever one it is, this is outrageous. Add it up to another poor decisions by an immature and unready Premier.

UPDATE: The CBC reports that Fage reported the accident December 1st, a full week after it occurred. It would be rank incompetence to not ask when an accident occurred and when it was reported. And it would be incompetence of another order of magnitude to not fire a minister who waited a week to report a potential crime.

UPDATE2: Canoe is reporting that Fage only told MacDonald just before Christmas. Apparently it just came up in a conversation. It strikes me that withholding this information from your leader for a month is just another cause for firing.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Malcolm Gladwell, Mysteries and Puzzles, and General Tao

A lot of people like Malcolm Gladwell. He's written a couple of interesting books, as well as a mountain of magazine pieces. This is a good example. It's an interesting article, ostensibly about Enron but also about some sort of distinction between mysteries and puzzles. It's pretty entertaining, and chocked full of interesting anecdotes. But I think it just confirms what I suspected when I read Blink last spring (I read it cover to cover on a flight from Liverpool to Seville, so thankfully I didn't invest too much in it). Gladwell is taken by interesting theories from the social and physical sciences (in Blink it was the idea of heuristics and preconscious information processing), but not seriously enough to actually test them. Rather, he just fits evidence to them, and when that doesn't work, he just plays around with the definitions. It's actually quite unsatisfying. Unfortunately, his anecdotes are interesting enough that I get sucked in. It's like General Tao chicken: it's always a better idea at the start than at the end.

The empirical effects of minimum wage increases

There is a pretty lively if not totally well-informed debate occurring on a couple of blogs. As with a lot of things, Cherniak got it started with a post on the Ontario NDP's proposal to increase Ontario's minimum wage to $10 (it is currently at $7.75, but is moving to $8 soon). He's added a couple of other posts, and he has seen responses from MyBlahg and Plawiuk.

The problem with these posts - and especially the comments which follow them - is that none of them seem to know or at least acknowledge that there really isn't a consensus on what the effects of minimum wage increases are. And to the degree that a consensus is emerging, it's that any measurable effects are negative, but quite slight. The Economist summed up the shift in thinking quite nicely in an article last October:

The academic argument—and there has been plenty of it in recent years—has focused on the employment effects. Elementary economics would suggest that if you raise the cost of employing the lowest-skilled workers by increasing the minimum wage, employers will demand fewer of them. This used to be the consensus view. But a series of studies in the 1990s—including a famous analysis of fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania by David Card at Berkeley and Alan Krueger of Princeton University—challenged that consensus, finding evidence that employment in fast-food restaurants actually rose after a minimum-wage hike. Other studies though, particularly those by David Neumark of the University of California at Irvine and William Wascher at the Federal Reserve, consistently found the opposite. Today's consensus, insofar as there is one, seems to be that raising minimum wages has minor negative effects at worst. Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University and signatory of the EPI's letter, agrees that “most reasonably well-done estimates show small negative effects on employment among teenagers”. **

I know some folks will insist that what works in theory (or in their conception of economic theory) should work in practice. Others will reject conventional economics as biased in its approach. But these objections just won't cut the empirical mustard. So, before someone of whatever political orientation starts telling you what the consequences of minimum wage increases will be, remember that the people who actually get paid to study this stuff don't really know themselves.

** (I note and particularly like the Card and Krueger article cited, because it used a natural experiment to call into question years of wisdom based on more conventional observational studies).

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

On Cabinet Shuffles

Wells lays bear how useless is all this speculation of cabinet shuffles in Ottawa. So, rather than read another two or three stories written on the thinnest of information, why not read two papers on the comparative politics of cabinet shuffles? The papers, found here and here, are by Chris Kam and Indridi Indridason, both great young political scientists.

UPDATE: Varnson points out three other great papers on cabinet shuffles, all written by the equally young and estimable Torun Dewan. They are here, here, and here. This is what proper political science looks like.

Shiraz Dossa meet William Riker

I am quite late to be commenting on the case of Shiraz Dossa of St. FX. For those who have not followed the case, Prof. Dossa found himself in a world of trouble when he accepted an invitation to present a paper this fall at a government-sponsored conference on the Holocaust in Iran.

The good professor, if you can believe it, suggested that he was not aware that the conference would be attended by Holocaust deniers. Funny, given that the government of Iran has basically taken the denial of the holocaust as the highest truth. Anyways, Prof. Dossa was called to the carpet by the Riley administration at X.

Prof. Dossa responded by arguing that the best way to address hate is by confronting it, rather than running away. So, I am sure he can let us all know exactly how he called down the holocaust deniers in his midst. What did he say? When did he say it (surely not during the tour of Iran which he patrons also gave him)? And to whom did he say it?

While we are waiting for this - for a long, long time, I suspect - I thought I might share what is a real example of courage and denunciation. William Riker - on the two or three most important political scientists of the 20th century - travelled to Moscow in 1979 for the International Political Science Association meetings. When he presented his famous paper, "Implications from the Disequilibrium of Majority Rule for the Study of Institutions" (APSR Vol 74: 432-446), he concluded with the following:

Given the location of the platform for the presentation of this paper, I should conclude with the observation that political science can exist only in an open society, that is, a society with unfettered freedom of speech. Insofar as the science involves a study of values and tastes, scientists can be acurate in their predictions only if they are able to ignore official doctrine (as for example in Marxism) about the preferences and interests of groups and classes. Official doctrine may be right or wrong, but whether it is or is not right is a subject not for offical decree but rather for empirical investigation, which is possible only in an open society. Moreover, insofar as the science of politics involves the study of institutions, scientists must be able to examine critically the way governmental institutions operate at the highest as well as the lowest levels of government. Only thus can they study the way institutions systematically bias the selection among preferences. Of course, this means that governmental secrecy, if it exists, prohibits scientific investigation of political structures.

Which of the two - official doctrine about preferences or governmental secrecy - is the more inhibiting for scientific inquiry probably varies from place to place. But I believe secrecy is more often a barrier. The scientist can often guess fairly well about tastes and preferences, but the way institutions work is extremely difficult to guess about. Consequently, if I am correct in believing that the study of tastes is not enough and that one must study institutions as well, then it follows that the new emphasis on institutions as a necessary part of the science of politics probably precludes this science in any society governed secretly.

Finally, there is another way in which the conclusions of this paper imply that political science can exist only in an open society. One important conclusion, indeed the most important conclusions, of the line of reasoning set forth in this paper is that, in the long run, nearly anything can happen in politics. Naturally this conclusion is a sharp contradiction of all philosophies of history (such as Marxism) that necessitate a belief in the existence of a determined course for the future. This belief is precisely what the discoveries recounted in this paper deny. So, if these discoveries are true - and mathematically they appear to be irrefutable - then a science of politics is incompatible with Marxism.

Prof. Dossa meet Prof. Riker. He was nobody's stooge.