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 St├ęphane 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.