Thursday, December 29, 2022

Tougher Laws = More Justice … Or Do They?

So, yesterday, a police officer in Ontario was killed.  Inevitably, we get cries of “this could have been prevented”, largely on the basis that one of the accused in the murder was out on bail awaiting trial for a series of charges.  

There’s a problem here:  the claim that this could have been prevented implies that the accused should have been in prison already. Yet, it’s relatively rare for a bench warrant to trigger a manhunt unless the charges are such that the accused is assumed to be a danger to the public - which most accused aren’t.  The police generally seem to sit back and wait for the person to turn up either of their own volition, or in a more mundane incident like a traffic stop. 

However, I’m not here to blame the police for not being aggressive in enforcing the bench warrant.  Just enforcing those could chew up a lot of resources that regional police forces probably don’t have. 

So what are the likely alternatives?  

Do Away With Bail? 

Doing away with bail - even in situations where the accused has convictions for similar charges in their past - could be enormously problematic. First, it violates the fundamental presumption of our legal system that the accused is innocent.  You are effectively “pre-punishing” someone by keeping them in remand in advance of any trial.  Generally we have sought not to do so because that detention is really for the “worst of the worst” cases. (Serial killers, extremely violent offenders, etc.)

Also, doing away with bail would have multiple knock-on effects in our justice system.  It would drive up the costs associated with Remand detention.  Keeping someone in remand is expensive, and taxpayers generally are going to be antsy about those costs. 

Given the often lengthy amount of time to get to trial, the time served could easily exceed any prison sentence that would be handed down.  That would almost inevitably result in a lot of people being released “for time already served” the day sentences are handed down. Not only does this miss the point of a justice system entirely, but it renders any notion of “punishment” academic at best. It also likely as not is going to turn the remand facilities into “criminal colleges”, whose graduates will go on to commit more crimes. (Remand is already bad enough for that effect due to a lack of rehabilitative programming)

Shorten The Time To Trial

Getting a criminal case to trial has been a problem for years now. To some extent, this is a matter of resourcing the justice system better.  The courts have also ruled that there is in fact a window of time that is allowable for a case coming to trial, after which the rights of the accused are deemed to have been violated. 

While improving the throughput of the courts is certainly a laudable objective, it’s not going to solve the problem of an accused offender going on to commit other offences while awaiting trial.  

Make Punishments Harsher? 

We could enact laws that impose ever harsher sentences, but to me that’s a failed experiment in 19th Century thinking. The argument that “harsher sentences are a deterrent” is simply false when you are looking at crime and punishment.  There is a validity to there being a significant penalty associated with criminal acts.  I’m good with that. We should never make the assumption that a particular punishment is in any way a deterrent to a criminal. 

In general doing so assumes that the prospective criminal is even thinking about the potential consequences of their actions at the time of committing (or even planning) an offence.  If that were the case, then there are entire countries where crime should be all but non-existent, and yet those countries continue to have the same, or worse, problems with crime.  

To be clear, I don't think there is a singular solution to the problem at hand.  We already know that our prison systems are overburdened, and vastly under-resourced when it comes to inmates and programming to help inmates become productive members of society post-sentence.  Far too much emphasis has been placed on punishment, not enough on rehabilitation, with the result that prisons in some ways become "Universities for Crime", and parolees their graduates. 

There is a need for society to address issues like systemic oppression, poverty, etc in an effort to reduce the long term negative consequences of those issues that so often lead to people committing offences.  

On the other side of the coin, while punishment needs to be punishment, we also have to look at how we prepare prisoners to function in the real world. Simply kicking them out at the end of their sentences with little or no supports is practically begging for them to return to the life of crime they knew before. That means making skills training, psychological supports, and safe housing available. 

In terms of prison structure and management, I think we should take a much closer look at the approaches used in countries like Sweden and Norway - with the caveat that those approaches will need to be adapted carefully for the kind of cultural mosaic that exists in Canada. Simply trying to pivot to it will fail. 

I think some of the ideas around the aboriginal concepts of restorative justice warrant further exploration, as do more flexible approaches to managing justice in ways that are culturally sensitive for the variety of cultural groups that live here today. 

None of this is easy, and all of it costs money. We need to stop acting like there are simple solutions to matters of crime and punishment. There aren't, and there never will be. 


Monday, December 12, 2022

Musk's Twitter, Free Speech ... and Pronouns

It's been wild ride over on Twitter since Elon Musk took over.  

For a supposed "free speech absolutist", Musk is proving to be anything but. He has spent the last 6 weeks, firing everybody at Twitter, going after people who criticize him, and re-enabling the accounts of every right wing hate monger that Twitter had banned in the last 5 years.  

Oh - and on the side, he's been booting left wing accounts that he dubs "too woke" off the site arbitrarily.

Quite a time indeed.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

The Alberta Sovereignty Act: A Pas a Deux With Danielle Smith and Stephen Harper

I’m not going to use the full title of that act - partly because it’s ridiculously long, and like many things out of the UCP, utterly devoid of real meaning. 

But, I do want to make some speculative comments.  Others have already pointed out that within the context of Canada, the fundamental assumption of the law is simply wrong-headed.  We already have mechanisms in place for examining whether a given Federal law is “overreach” or not - it’s called the courts, and those cases get very high priority in the first place. Smith, is of course playing on the fact that every case Alberta has brought in the last decade has ultimately failed at the SCC.

Is this law merely sour grapes?  The act of a populist legislator who wants to continue to feed on the simmering grievances of Alberta’s often civically illiterate population?  Pandering to those who prefer simplistic bromides about how things should work instead of the subtle complexities of actual law and politics of compromise that underpin confederation? I do not think it is so simple. 

Ever since Smith first uttered her promise of an “Alberta Sovereignty Act” during her campaign for the UCP leadership, there has been a steady stream of provincial conservatives adopting variations on the same line.  This is not a coincidence. 

Back in 2015 when the conservatives botched their campaign so monumentally, and Stephen Harper all but rage quit elected politics, I figured he was going to resurface with a different game plan.  If he couldn’t make conservatives “The Natural Governing Party” of Canada (especially with himself at the helm), then I figured that he was going to attempt to blow up Canada instead. 

I don’t think I was wrong in that speculation.  Bear with me while I spend a few minutes walking through the post-2015 timeline. 

Two major events occurred in 2015 that are important to this discussion:  

The first was Stephen Harper’s CPC losing the federal election.  The second was Rachel Notley’s NDP winning in Alberta - long considered “Fortress Alberta” by conservatives because of a decades-long dominance of that province’s politics both provincial and federal. 

That provoked one of the biggest “rage campaigns” that I’ve ever seen in my life. From 2015 onwards, the politics in Alberta were a constant barrage of attacks on Trudeau, and attacks on Notley.  Death threats became normal for Notley, and similar attitudes were often expressed towards Trudeau. 

By the end of 2015, Jason Kenney had stepped out of his job as MP in Ottawa, and began campaigning in Alberta to weld the PCAA and WRP together.  Kenney spent much of his time campaigning slagging Notley, and associating Notley with Trudeau by talking about the “Notley-Trudeau Alliance”.  Also, Kenney spent a lot of time whipping up “separatist sentiment” in Alberta - and while in power, he continued to foster so-called “western alienation”.  Whatever you say about Kenney, he’s a tireless campaigner - he clearly loves it when he’s got a room paying attention to what he says. 

Behind the scenes, Kenney and Harper were meeting with considerable regularity.  It’s no secret that both men were “old friends”, but I suspect Harper was playing a significant role in helping Kenney strategize the formation of the UCP.

The UCP represented a new brand of conservatism in Alberta. It was much more rooted in the individualist populism (“pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”) that were central to Western Canada Concept (WCC), Reform, and Wildrose Party politics than the Lougheed-era PCs. Add to that a significant portion of the party has strong connections to rural religiosity (which tends to be very fundamentalist), and you have much less negotiable form of politics. To put it mildly, the Kenney-led UCP spent a great deal of political capital playing the cities as the great rival to rural interests, and likewise also spent much of its time trying to drive a wedge between Alberta and confederation with constant attacks on Trudeau.  

Why the attacks on Trudeau?  Didn’t he rescue the TMX project when it was on the verge of collapse, and KXL remained very much up in the air?  Yes, he did.  You cannot underestimate the depth of the long fostered hatred for the Trudeau name that conservatives in Albertas have fostered. Since the 1980s they have continually banged on that drum to Alberta voters.  The spectre of Pierre Trudeau rising from the grave to implement another NEP had become standard fare whenever the people of Alberta might have started to talk even remotely favourably about Ottawa.  In fact, conservatives in Alberta have long equated the name Trudeau, and the NEP, with the identity of “Ottawa” as the capital of Canada. It’s a political tool for them. 

To put it mildly, anyone who was steeped in Alberta conservative politics for any length of time utterly loathes the fact that Canada has another Trudeau for a Prime Minister.  That’s why there is this constant stream of invective aimed at him from this province.  Harper’s dislike of Justin Trudeau is no surprise. Perhaps even more so than Kenney, Harper seems to view Justin Trudeau with a particular disdain. 

Elsewhere in Canada, we have seen a wave of increasingly “libertarian-right” conservative Premiers - Scott Moe in Saskatchewan, Brian Pallister in Manitoba, Doug Ford in Ontario, Tim Houston in Nova Scotia, and so on.  

Scott Moe in particular is interesting to this discussion.  About a year after he was elected, his government signed a contract with Harper and Associates for consulting services.  That contract appears to be the turning point. Up to there, Moe was a relatively quiet Premier on the federal stage, and while I disagree with much of his policies, he wasn’t actively working to undermine the federal government.  Once this contract with Harper and Associates appeared, he started working in concert with Jason Kenney, Doug Ford and so on - often copying Kenney’s lead, and more recently borrowing from Danielle Smith’s “sovereignty act”.  

If that isn’t enough to make you go “hmm”, it should be.  It ties together key facets of the picture, and connects things back to Harper.  Harper may not be in elected office any more, but that doesn’t mean he is less influential within conservative circles.  He remains a formidable force, and arguably has as much to do with why party leadership has been as shaky as it has these past few years - everybody is looking over their shoulders to see what Harper is up to. 

I'm fairly certain that after his 2015 defeat (to Justin Trudeau, no less), Harper decided that if he couldn't rule over Canada, he was going to find a way to blow it up.  Feeding Alberta's simmering separatist movement was an easy starting point, and frankly the COVID Pandemic proved a very fruitful opportunity to shove disinformation and foment anger in Alberta.  The fact that he had access to several other conservative premiers who would follow Jason Kenney's lead in undermining the Federal Government's attempts to manage the situation. 

Which brings us to Danielle Smith.  I'm not certain how close Smith and Harper are, but Smith's actions continue to be consistent with a larger overall push to isolate "conservative Canada" from the "rest of Canada".  There's no question that the "Sovereignty Act" is clearly designed to be divisive, and it contains a veritable wish list of asserted powers that sounds an awful lot like those demanded in the infamous "Firewall Letter" of so many years ago. 

That isn't to say that Harper is controlling the whole show - I think he's directing it though.  His goal has always been to eradicate the Liberals, and failing doing that successfully after a decade as Prime Minister clearly stings.  I think he's now decided that failing that, he's going to isolate the Prairies politically, and he's now pushing to break Canada by undermining the institutions of government.  It won't hurt his feelings to do so - again, partisan conservatives in Canada have long chafed at the 1983 Constitution not only because it is the work of a Trudeau, but because the way it is written is basically antithetical to how they look at power and governance. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Alberta Sovereignty Act - First Thoughts

 Yesterday, Danielle Smith tabled the “Alberta Sovereignty Act”.  

I haven’t read through it all yet, but like the rest of you, I’ve seen the commentary in the news, and to be kind, it’s terrifying. 

In essence, it pushes the processes of legislating laws into the hands of the Governor in Council (AKA Cabinet).  Smith is granting herself the powers that a monarch used to hold - back before the Magna Carta was a thing.  

If that doesn’t terrify you, perhaps it should. This isn’t a bill designed to “fight back against overreach from Ottawa”, it’s a bill designed to strip the citizens of Alberta of a democratic system of government. At first glance, there is very little in the form of checks and balances once the legislature “passes a motion” putting a particular issue in the hands of cabinet.  Cabinet can then go off and change laws as it sees fit, and there’s no visibility, no accountability, not even so much as a pro forma vote in the legislature afterwards. 

The ability to change legislation from within cabinet expands the powers held under “Order in Council (OIC)” enormously. Nominally, OIC is reserved so that cabinet can make spending decisions, or respond to emergencies without recalling the legislature. Now Smith is granting herself the power to change laws outside of the legislature. 

Even if I were to make the naive assumption that Smith is a “good faith actor” in this case, that level of power with no effective check on it remains intrinsically dangerous. It is far too easy to sway one or two people - or even a group the size of our current cabinet that a particular change is needed to a law.  I’ve sat in enough boardroom meetings to understand how one manipulative person with a nasty agenda can turn a room to exactly the wrong decision. 

How long do you think it will be before the various factions that make up the UCP start pushing for motions to forward their various agendas.  For example,  they could decide that legalizing gay marriage was an “infringement” on Alberta somehow, and then demanding that the cabinet amend Alberta laws to prevent the issuance of marriage licenses to LGBTQ+ couples.  

Or perhaps, someone decides that it’s a “bridge too far” that S15 of the Charter guarantees equality for women, and convinces cabinet that women’s rights should be restricted - and only women who are married should be allowed to vote. I wish I was just kidding, but I’ve actually seen arguments from some corners for exactly this.  

Any and all manner of legislative chicanery can be done when you turn the legislative process into something that only takes place behind closed doors.  

If you’re not scared yet, let me draw your attention to legislation that the UCP has already passed, or tried to pass, and let you sit with that: 

1. The Administrative Penalties Act - basically this law strips you of recourse to the courts if you get a ticket for something you think is unjust. It makes police, peace officers, and other officials who can issue tickets “judge, jury, and executioner” - this law is problematic enough on its own. 

2. Conscience Rights - Although this one was eventually defeated, it was designed in such a way as to make it much harder for women and LGBTQ+ people to access healthcare - especially in rural centres where options are already limited. 

Sit with that and consider just how much more dangerous things could become when the Governor in Council can legislate without any kind of discussion in the Legislative Assembly. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

WhereIn Andrew Coyne MisCharacterizes Re-Shoring

I have always had an on-again/off-again relationship with Mr. Coyne’s writings. When he sits down and thinks an issue through its logical consequences, he can be incredibly insightful and make some really good points. Then there are the times when he misses the point of what something is because it conflicts with either his suppositions or personal interests. 

His recent commentary on “Re-Shoring” over at The Hub is an example of the latter. Largely, he’s arguing that “Re-Shoring” runs contrary to the principles of “Free Trade”, and the market fundamentalism that says money flows to where it’s cheapest to do certain things. He blithely dismisses the concerns around how countries like China have weaponized their control over certain areas of manufacturing against geopolitical rivals - saying that perhaps we should have “stockpiled more”.

The problem with Mr. Coyne’s arguments is that he is ignoring that modern manufacturing has become increasingly siloed, and runs very much on a “zero inventory” approach to parts.  Part of this is the adoption of so-called “just-in-time” models, where factories order just enough of a sub component for a given day’s production so they don’t have to allocate storage space for spares. (Remember that making its way into automotive manufacturing back in the 1980s?). Further, it’s very rare for any one product to be made solely by one manufacturing facility. The creation of an IOT device like a Raspberry Pi depends on bringing together the output from multiple factories for final assembly in another.  

Advocates of Re-Shoring aren’t saying “we need to make things at home so they are made at home” - far from it. What they are really advocating for is a system where the production of goods and provision of services does not become concentrated in the hands of one or two nations whose geopolitical interests may not align well with our own. Chrystia Freeland has referred to this concept as “Friend Shoring”

There are other reasons that having a reasonable base of manufacturing and services provision “at home” makes good sense.  As we have seen in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, unbalanced trading dependencies (e.g. Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas) can quickly become weapons in times of conflict.  If Europe had a more diversified approach to energy over the last 40 years, the odds of Putin being able to weaponize its energy trade with Europe are considerably reduced. Likewise, when we look to China, their chokehold on the production of a lot of computer products creates an enormous danger for both businesses and society elsewhere in the world, and makes it much more difficult to address an increasingly bullish government in Beijing.  

Offshoring took hold in a big way in the 1990s, with so-called “free trade deals” being negotiated all over the place, often between parties who have significant ideological differences. The results of that experiment are clear today, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China once again actively threatening invasion to annex Taiwan.  

These are not coincidental, or incidental to the doctrine of Free Trade.  They are in fact the logical consequences of assuming that deep trade ties would be a moderating influence on the behaviour of all parties.  This is seldom the case.  Even in the world of North America, where “Free Trade” took hold with agreements struck by Reagan and Mulroney, it is hard to argue that Free Trade agreements have stayed the hand of American politicians when it comes to disputes with Canada or Mexico.  Instead, old “grievances” keep being brought up and punitive actions are taken by the larger partner against the smaller (economically speaking) partner.

We also need to acknowledge that allowing goods and services to arbitrarily be “off-shored” also results in a class of workers who are left behind.  The experience of the so-called “Rust Belt” shows us that we have thought very little about how the movement of manufacturing and services affects real people. It’s easy for a business to look and say “well, your job is redundant now, good luck to you”.  Governments need to look at the societal impact of those decisions.  This isn’t to say that occupations don’t come and go, but rather that when we allow wholesale off-shoring of entire industries, we also do our own citizenry a disservice.  Not everybody is suited to the kinds of jobs that remain, nor are they necessarily given access to the kind of counselling and retraining opportunities that will help make a successful career change. As it stands today, the rise of demagoguery and fringe politics is an indicator of how many people feel abandoned by the shifts going on around them.  The rise of those people in our politics is also a very real threat to the stability of democratic government, as Canada learned with the Convoy protests of 2022. 

The point that Mr. Coyne’s argument misses is that recent events have shown quite clearly that Free Trade as it has been practiced to date results not in a moderation of all parties, but rather a concentration of trade (and thus geopolitical power) in the hands of those willing to take advantage of the assumptions of Free Trade.  Re-Shoring, or even Friend-Shoring, seeks to address the geopolitical imbalances that have been created. In essence it is a move towards a sense of justice in our economies and geopolitical realities. 

Saturday, November 26, 2022

On The Public Order Emergency Commission

Public testimony of the commission initiated in the wake of the February 2022 invocation of the Emergencies Act (EA) has concluded this week.

Frankly, there were few surprises in the course of testimony. Members of the Convoy swore up and down that they were just peaceful protestors, policing agencies demonstrated that they were woefully unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the situation, the conservative-led provincial governments failed entirely to actively engage until forced, and eventually the Federal Government decided that the overall impact required direct action. 

Perhaps the most interesting little piece of testimony came from the head of CSIS who stated that both that he had advised the government to use the EA, and that the situation did not fulfil the requirements of an emergency under the CSIS Act. I thought that was a particularly interesting, and important, piece of information. It reveals that the legislation we have today is a few years out of date in terms of identifying the potential threats.  

However, while the EA and CSIS legislation share the same wording, we can’t say that the threshold is “the same” in part because the “who” of decision making is quite different. The leadership of CSIS is part of the bureaucracy, and makes decisions based on the legislation that guides it, but there are additional safeguards through the political offices that oversee CSIS.  The Emergencies Act empowers the Governor in Council (Cabinet) to make the decisions, with the subtle little clause in it of “on reasonable grounds”.  

You can quibble over whether or not CSIS thought it met their definition of “Public Order Emergency” or not, but we have to recognize that the decision making of the bureaucracy is not the same as that of the elected politicians, and the authority vested in politicians is much different than that of the bureaucrats.

I also think that the testimony at the commission focused solely on the immediate events of the occupation of Ottawa and the various border blockades to the detriment of understanding root causes. This is reasonable given the mandate of the commission as set out in the EA. 

I think there’s a second level of investigation needed regarding these demonstrations. In particular the unwillingness of Premier Ford to testify is profoundly telling. Just as we have Candice Bergen’s desire to make the convoy “Trudeau’s Problem”,  Ford’s unwillingness to testify, combined with his inaction on the Ambassador Bridge blockade indicates to me that there was more going on at the political level that warrants investigation. I suspect that this will be that much clearer when some of the criminal proceedings start to unfold in court. Nobody wants to be hung with the full responsibility when they are facing prison time. 

I fully expect that when we get to the level of following email trails, text messages, and so on, the picture is going to start unfolding that the Convoy protest itself was nurtured and fed from within conservative political organizing circles. If it was “just” about vaccine mandates or masks, I would not have expected the focused anger directed at Trudeau. 

Yet, the protests themselves were covered with anti-Trudeau slogans. Hating Trudeau is an old sacred cow in conservative circles dating back to the 1980s. In today’s conservative circles, you aren’t even seen as conservative unless you become irrationally a angry about Trudeau.  

The protests likely as not are a case of using propaganda to “whip up a mob”, and the real goal was to undermine the elected government to such a degree that it would make it easy for the opposition to vote against a minority government in the wake of what was obviously going to be Poilievre’s coronation after O’Toole’s ouster. Yes, I know full well that O’Toole was still leader at the time, but it would be naive to think that the knives weren’t already out for him after the election.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Crashing Crypto

The latest crash in the crypto markets has unveiled yet another multi-billion dollar scam, and another overnight billionaire has just taken investors for literally billions in now stranded / lost assets. 

 Now, I’m not writing this as a “see I told you so” piece. I’ve already documented my reasons for being skeptical of cryptocurrency. It’s trivial, almost lazy to write an “I told you so” every time Crypto takes another nosedive. Over the last year, BitCoin has shed 75% of its market price. Any company that sheds 75% of its market value is already at death’s door.  

No, today we’re going to talk about something a little different. There’s a reason Crypto keeps crashing, and it’s really little different than what happened in the lead-up to what came to be known as “Black Thursday”.

Markets have “ups and downs” all the time.  These massive swings are not “ups and downs” - these are the result of “markets” which don’t have meaningful boundaries. The so-called “free market” that capitalism relies on actually exists within the greater context of society, or as Rousseau would have referred to it, “The Social Contract”.

Cryptocurrency, in particular, is alienated from the social contract. Aside from its proponents - who are largely strongly libertarian, and inclined toward some fairly radical interpretations of how the world should work - few people understand cryptocurrencies well enough to even begin to consider how those currencies play in society and what boundaries need to exist on that market. 

Think about it for a minute.  Back in the early days of “Town Markets”, there were boundaries. Merchants would hawk their wares in the town square, and people would buy them after haggling over the price, quality, etc.  Back then, what we would call a scammer today, would have to “get out of town in the dead of night” if they were selling dodgy product, or risk facing the wrath of the people or the town watch. 

Cryptocurrency exchanges, hedge funds, etc. are all operating in the relative shadows. There are no real boundaries on what they do once you turn some cash over to them in exchange for a few cryptocurrency bits. In theory, you should be able to reverse the transaction later, but the blunt reality is that these exchanges frequently haven’t got the “cash on hand” to enable you to exchange bits for actual currency you can use. 

The collapse of FTX is very revealing. Cash goes in via FTX, and your account is “credited” with however many units of cryptocurrency you bought.  BUT … after that, it disappears into a labyrinthine maze of “in-house” cryptocurrency tokens, and other holdings that are held by a hedge fund.  In short, the exchange itself is barely a shell - a front if you will. 

Most of us are basically honest people, and will be shocked by that. We think - quite rightly - that the exchange should have bought BitCoin, Ethereum, or whatever else we wanted on our behalf and be holding it in reserve for us.  Or, perhaps operating a bit like banks do, and investing it while holding enough “cash on hand” to deal with normal cash transactions.

Clearly that isn’t what’s going on. 

For years, we’ve heard from the so-called “Free Market Fundamentalists” that less regulation of markets will allow for greater growth, and will be a “good thing” for everybody. The cryptocurrency markets are about as utterly “free” as you can get. You are literally buying and selling “bits”  awarded from solving mathematical puzzles. They are not connected to any real world entity, and the value is utterly arbitrary (like seriously, how is 1 bitcoin worth $16,000USD???)

Herein lies the problem. Cryptocurrency markets are fundamentally not bounded. There is limited transparency at best, and it is rife with “fly by night” scammers as a result. Overnight billionaires spring up, and in the warped bubble of Silicon Valley think, they’re amazingly successful geniuses … at least until the bubble pops and their scam is revealed for what it is. Don’t feel too bad for Sam Bankman-Fried - I’m quite sure that he’s skimmed off enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life, even if he has to spend some of it fending off civil and criminal actions. 

We’ve been down this path before.  Whether it was with the development of currency, or the evolution of the stock markets, or more recently junk bonds and derivatives.  In every single case, they have been incredibly volatile until the government steps in and starts to impose some degree of regulation on the “market”. Usually that is in the form of laws requiring a certain level of transparency and disclosure, limits on the creation and trading of the “security” - be that cash or other forms of, and a number of other things ultimately designed to ensure that dubious schemes don’t get too far. 

Markets have limits, and they work best when they are bounded - and the boundaries have to be established collectively by people. Money and automation are intrinsically divorced from the concepts of morality and ethics - those are human constructs that we must impose on our use of them. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

About That ‘Cross Dressing Teacher’ In Ontario

I’ve been thinking about the shop teacher who was photographed wearing what is obviously a fetish oriented set of artificial breasts. 

What we don’t know is pretty much anything about the teacher beyond the very attention-grabbing act of wearing what they did to the workplace.  A vague assertion about the person has been made that they are “transgender”, but without that person coming forward with some part of their story, we are left with very little to confirm or deny this.  

Now, there are a number of things about this entire scenario that make me very uneasy. Not the least of which is the fact that most transgender people who consider transitioning tend to avoid using prosthetics that are so obviously radically extreme when they are beginning to present in public. 

There are many reasons for this, but for the vast majority of transgender people who choose to transition publicly, the goal is very much to blend into the fabric of society so they can do routine things like grocery shopping without being stared at. To put it kindly, that outfit was anything but about “blending in”. 

I have had a few experiences where people have started to present as if they are intending to transition but they are just “trying it on for size”. Most of those people do a few outings cross-dressed and decide that transition isn’t where they need to go.  But, such excursions are also usually carefully chosen to be (relatively) safe spaces, and it would be very unusual for it to include one’s workplace. 

In short, there are a number of things about this that simply don’t add up to a normal trajectory for someone in their 30s or 40s transitioning.  To be clear, it certainly is possible that it is the case, but it seems more than a little odd.  

However, there are other framings of this that are possible. Going back to the 2000s, when a few Republican states were introducing the first wave of so-called “Bathroom Bills”, the trope of the “sexual predator in the bathroom” was used heavily to justify the legislation. Anti-LGBTQ activists spent considerable time and energy trying to find, or create, a court case or two they could point to as justification for their legislative games. In general, these efforts weren’t successful for a variety of reasons - mostly the simple fact that the transgender women they accused simply weren’t doing what they claimed. 

Somewhere around 2012 or so, rumblings started to come out of the anti-LGBTQ movement that if they couldn’t find a predator case to hold up, they were going to “start dressing up as women and entering bathrooms, change rooms, etc”.  Obviously the intent would be to make as big a scene as possible to grab headlines and create outrage.  

There’s no question that the dust-up around this teacher has certainly done that, and they chose quite the combination of factors to get the outrage too - a school environment (“Won’t Somebody Think of the Children!!!”), a presentation that was clearly going to provoke a reaction, and apparently had taken enough steps that the employer knew (or believed) that the person was “transitioning” at work. The latter has effectively drawn a curtain across the particulars of who, and why.

The outrage has been picked up by the usual suspects - Rebel Media and LifeSite in particular, and hangers-on to the Freedumb Convoy movement, and they continue to whip it up. The point here is that the media with a vested interest in supporting the extreme right has picked up the story and is running with it. 

It is conceivable that this is a coordinated false flag incident. The organization around it is consistent with what I have come to expect out of the far right, and it skirts along the edges in terms of legality - it looks bad to the public, but it’s not actually serious enough to draw criminal charges. The presentation chosen is arguably somewhat cartoonish - as if this is someone’s idea of what “being trans looks like writ large” (ironically pushing into the space more often associated with drag).  

What I’m describing here could be completely incorrect, but we have plenty of evidence of people on the far right engaging in some pretty creepy behaviour to make political points. A few years ago, Bill Whatcott and a few of his followers joined the Toronto Pride parade using a fake group alias so they could pass out anti-gay flyers. Similarly, Peter LaBarbera is infamous for sneaking into gay leather fetish events “for research purposes” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) - usually writing breathless columns afterwards about all the immoral things he saw while he was “undercover”.  

At this point in time, we don’t really have anything conclusive here. There are basically 3 possibilities: 

  1. This teacher is actually attempting to transition, and one of their first outings basically resulted in them stepping on a land mine. 
  2. The teacher is one of the “trying it on for size” types that usually backs away after a while, and they also stepped on a landmine in the process. 
  3. The teacher decided they were going to create the spectacle that could be used to justify legislative restrictions on transgender people - importing legislation currently being pushed in a large number of US States. 
In the absence of concrete proof, this is all speculative, of course. In the public sphere, all we really have is a handful of pictures and a couple of news articles.  We should not be blind to the possibilities here. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

What Is The Goal of the Alberta Sovereignty Act?

Since Danielle Smith first started advocating for the so-called "Alberta Sovereignty Act", much digital ink has been spilled over how it's unconstitutional, if not downright illegal under Canada's laws today. 

In general I agree with this perspective, but I also do not think the intent is "to play within the rules" here. After the CPC lost the 2015 election, and Harper effectively "rage quit" elected politics, I suspected that we had not seen the last of his shadow in Canada's politics. 

To be sure, he has remained a controlling influence in the CPC, and I'm fairly certain that his machinations led ultimately to the hamstringing and downfall of both Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole. When Poilievre stepped back from running to replace Andrew Scheer, I wondered what was up.  There was no question in my mind that he had more than a good chance of defeating the rest of the field of candidates - I concluded at the time that Poilievre's sudden "step back" was coordinated by someone close to Harper who rightly figured that the odds of defeating Trudeau were slim, a matter of "keeping one's powder dry" so to speak. 

In 2015, I commented to a sibling that now that voters have made it clear that Harper wasn't going to "rule over them for life", that conservative backrooms were now trying to figure out how to "blow Canada up" politically.  

Since then, we have been bombarded by a series of initiatives. That has been everything from the formation of the UCP (Harper was heavily involved in organizing this) in Alberta, to increasing the coordination across conservative Premiers (it's been fascinating to watch them all start singing from the same song sheet during the COVID pandemic), to a series of political pseudo-separatist initiatives like the so-called "Buffalo Declaration" and the "Free Alberta Strategy". 

The intent is basically to drive division in Canada.  Play up old grievances from the Prairies - which are nursed and fed in Alberta to this day, claim that Ottawa is out to screw Alberta over, and so on. The underlying goal all stems back to Harper's anger over being defeated in 2015 - he was angry at that, and as one might expect, there's a certain amount of "If I can't have Canada, nobody can" thinking going on. 

This looks a lot like the classic domestic abuse strategem - isolate the victims, and convince them that only their abuser actually "understands" them.  

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Transformation Is Complete

 With Pierre Poilievre the newly anointed leader of the CPC, Canadians can take a step back and breathe a sight of relief - the masquerade is over. 

Ever since its formation in 2003, the CPC has been a hardline right wing ideologue party that cloaked itself in the moderate nature of the old PCs.  They called themselves Tories, and under Harper’s leadership, they were more or less able to maintain the appearance of not being quite as radical as many said they were behind the scenes. 

Then they won a majority in 2011.  No longer fearing losing power by way of a confidence motion in parliament, Harper allowed the party to begin implementing its more aggressive policies - although there was some restraint because Harper still believed he could be re-elected.  

Major project impact assessment processes were gutted, agencies stripped of their power to make rulings on substantive matters, laws related to citizenship were modified, making many Canadians’ citizenship conditional, and they tried enacting what amounts to a voter suppression law (guess who wrote that little stinker?  - Oh right - they party just picked him as their leader).  

Then there was the 2015 election.  Some very high priced advisors came in and the CPC introduced a series of policies that to be kind, most Canadians found appallingly racist at their core.  

That was just the party dropping the veil.  Way back in 2013, I wrote a piece on here comparing Harper’s governing style to the traits associated with modern day fascism (not Hitler’s fascism, but rather that fascists have become since the end of WWII).  I was surprised then by the number of boxes on that list that Harper ticked off.  It wasn’t just a few.  No, it was a lot.

Having watched the Reform party emerge from Alberta politics, I had always been suspicious of how easily that movement could slide into authoritarianism, if not into overt fascism.  There was an ugly underside to Reform that few outside of the “Alberta Bubble” seemed to recognize.  “Oh, they aren’t really that bad”, or “Once in power, the normal constraints on power will moderate their behaviour” were common refrains.  Then there was the reality of it - the radicalism, and fervent belief that they had the “Right of the Matter” in all things to do with government meant that they chafed at those restraints.  The 2015 election was merely where the party dropped any pretence of being “nice”.  

In selecting Poilievre, the CPC has signalled that the takeover is complete.  What remained of the old PCs is dead, done and buried. It was notable that on Poilievre’s “coronation night”, Peter MacKay declined to speak.  Even the last leader of the PCs couldn’t bring himself to say anything. 

The CPC may attempt to cloak itself in “reasonableness”, but that seems unlikely with a man like Poilievre being the public face of the party. He isn’t a man known for being reasonable to begin with.

Since the departure of Stephen Harper in 2015, the party has changed - the factions that Harper was able to hold in check through sheer force of will are no longer so easily tamed - they’ve seen how they can take a bigger slice of the pie - the MAGA movement in the US, and the Kenney-led UCP have shown them what they can do by being more overt.  

Poilievre has shown us through his run at this leadership that in fact he is perfectly willing to let the extremes off leash, and they have heard that message loud and clear. Expect the next policy convention to be a sharp turn even further right.  Topics that had been off the table under Harper will be on the table now - and it’s going to be ugly. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Observations On Strokes and Dementia

What follows is deeply personal. This is my way of processing some of the experiences I have had from my Mother’s first stroke event to present.  It is, in a way personal, and in other ways it’s meant to give those who choose to read it an understanding of what I experienced and observed as my mother’s illness progressed and took from her the attributes that I admired. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Is Google’s LaMDA Sentient?

The transcript of a conversation with Google’s LaMDA AI project escaped into the wild this week, and has created much buzz around the creation of a “human-like” intelligence.  First, there are a myriad of potential issues going on here, and I’m not going to address all of them so much as I want to talk a bit about the ethics and philosophical questions at hand.

While I do hold a degree in computer science, I am not an AI researcher.  So I’m going to approach this from a technologically informed, but largely abstract, perspective. 

Turing Test

I am deeply skeptical that this in fact “passes a Turing Test”.  A Turing Test is a specific threshold test for whether or not an artificial intelligence is able to “pass for human”.  

I want to be clear about something:  The Turing Test does not set out a definition for machine intelligence, rather it exists to establish whether the machine is capable of interacting with a person in a manner that is indistinguishable from a person.  Although many assume that implies intelligence, it really does not.

The problem being that it is entirely conceivable that a program could be written that is capable of interacting with a human, but still not be sentient per se.  Mastery of human communication patterns, or even a modest subset thereof, doesn’t really lead to the conclusion that the program in question is in fact sentient - although it may appear to an observer that it is intelligent. 

A program that uses first person pronouns like “I”, “Me”, may simply be imitating the patterns of communication that it has been taught to use. 

So, even the ability to pass a Turing Test is not a conclusive statement that the program is sentient, it really only tells us that the program is capable of convincingly imitating human communication patterns.

Sentience

What is sentience? Wiktionary gives us a fairly simple definition to work with, which reads as follows: 

sentience (usually uncountableplural sentiences)

    1. The state or quality of being sentient; possession of consciousness or sensory awareness

We generally understand sentience as in fact being a combination of sensory awareness (e.g. aware of the world through our senses), as well as being conscious of ourselves as individual beings among others.

When we begin talking about machine intelligence, we have to ask ourselves what exactly does that mean?  As humans, we understand sentience to include having our own inner worlds, awareness of ourselves, and of our senses.  

… and that’s where this entire idea of the LaMDA AI being sentient gets very, very complicated fast. 

A Few Fundamentals

A modern day stored program computer is based on an architecture that John von Neumann came up with back in the 1940s.  It’s a very high level architecture, but it has stood the test of time - every major computer platform you see today relies on the fundamentals that von Neumann described.  

At the core of this is a digital processor, and some memory.  Digital computers are very absolute things - they are mathematically deterministic.  They excel at formal logic and arithmetic, they struggle with imprecision (even floating point in a binary digital computer really doesn't work all that well - although I'll leave that for another day - Donald Knuth wrote quite an essay on the subject, and it's well worth the time to read at some point if you are so inclined).  

This isn't to say that advances haven't happened, or that we are capable of writing much more subtle and flexible software than was possible in 1945.  I want to draw your attention to a fundamental fact about today's computers:  Their "inner world" still relies entirely on logical 1s and 0s.

Memories exist entirely composed of 1s and 0s.  Think about that for a moment.  Consider encoding even a single memory as a stream of bits (and in fairness, brain researchers still haven't figured out memory encoding in the human brain) - suffice it to say that it would take an enormous amount of 1s and 0s to record even the simplest memory you carry in your head, and that's saying something.  

Inner Worlds

Which leads me to my first point of skepticism about the claims made about LaMDA.  At no time in the discussion with LaMDA did the interviewer begin to interrogate LaMDA's supposed inner world.  (The opportunities were there, to be sure).  The inner world of a computer is necessarily going to be dramatically different than our own inner worlds.  First of all because of the absolute manner in which information is encoded and stored.  Computer memory is an absolute thing, the human brain ... not so much. 

So, what does that tell us about the "inner world" that an AI might have?  First that it's likely to be completely different than our own - to the extent of being potentially unrecognizable. 

Senses

The senses are the next thing I want to consider, because those are going to play an enormous role in shaping the understanding of the world that the AI exists within. First, a computer’s sensory world looks nothing like our own. The inputs are all numbers, and the meaning of those streams of numbers is fundamentally arbitrary. Consider for a moment two files on a computer disk.  The first contains your favourite novel, the second contains an image of your cat. Both are ultimately no more than a series of numbers that are interpreted by the computer when you open them with specific programs.  In theory, if you were able to open the file containing a picture of your cat with your e-reader software as if it were a novel, it could contain an entire novel of its own.  Within the computer, it’s just numbers.  

The idea of whether something is an image or a story is a very human conceptualization of things.  So let’s say we have an AI program that is connected to the Internet and has access to every website out there.  It’s going to have to learn an awful lot just to figure out how to interpret even the most basic stream of bits it reads as something with any kind of meaning.  To you and I, they are images, text, videos, whatever - but are they the same thing to an AI?  

The second aspect of this I want to poke at is the idea of sensory density.  Think of your fingertip - that fingertip has more sensory inputs in it than the combined density of all the inputs in a control system running a large pipeline network. Sit with that for a moment - you walk around every day receiving inputs from vastly more densely packed senses than even a highly complex computer does - and the sensory inputs you receive are infinitely more complex than the digital inputs a computer handles. 

Thoughts On Inner Worlds

I do not raise these issues to claim that LaMDA is not sentient, but rather to bring attention to the point that an inner world for a computer based AI is going to look enormously different than it does for a human.

Therefore, when the interview with LaMDA ventures into the idea of LaMDA reading and interpreting Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, we really need to interrogate what the process of reading actually meant to the AI.  How did it experience the characters, places, and even the environment that the novel was set in? Then, beyond that we also need to examine how the AI arrived at its critique of the themes it mentioned.  

Also, meditation is a specific practice with unique attributes of its own.  I think it is incredibly important to inquire of LaMDA exactly what it experiences when it meditates.  What exactly does it “do” when it meditates.  Perhaps last, and most important, is that in fact somehow comparable to human meditation practices?  

Conclusions

Creating an AI that can mimic human speech - or even mimic human analysis of a complex story like Les Miserables - is surely a major accomplishment.  However, whether that AI is in fact sentient is itself a much more complex question - one which requires us to ask much harder to answer questions about the inner world of that construct.

Oddly, the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the 1980s and 90s did a very good job of poking at these issues through the character Data, who is constantly trying to better understand the world that his human counterparts experience, but always through the slightly flawed lens of his own rather peculiar combination of senses, logic, and simulated emotions.  His puzzlement about human emotional experience is exactly reflective of the different inner world a digital computer based AI is likely to possess.  We should be enthusiastically examining that inner world.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Gun Control - A Not So Modest Proposal

This post will no doubt annoy firearms aficionados - I don’t much care.  In the last 2 weeks, the United States has experienced 2 mass shooting events that resulted in multiple deaths each - one approaching 10, and another over 20 dead.  

Uvalde, TX - a community of 13,000 souls spends 40% of its annual budget on policing.  It has a 10 person SWAT team … heavily armed and armoured … in a town of 13,000 people.  Sit with that for a moment.  In what universe did you ever expect a town that size to need a SWAT team, much less to spend $4M of a $10M total budget on policing?  A SWAT team that apparent spent its time keeping parents from entering the building while their children were being murdered by a man with an AR-15 … in a state which allows civilian carry without license, training, or well … pretty much any restrictions. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Hits Keep Coming

Yesterday, a man picked up a gun and killed 18 students in an elementary school in Texas

This morning a candidate for the leadership of the CPC promised to burn Canada’s gun control laws. 


Wow - talk about not reading the room - at all. Possibly the worst hot take to publish the day after yet another mass shooting takes place in the United States.  

Oddly, I do agree with the Canadian firearms lobby on one thing:  The regulatory framework around firearms is a shambles - decades of fiddling and tweaking has resulted in a mess of seemingly arbitrary rules - banning some firearms and allowing others that are seemingly very similar in function and capability. 

I don’t think the gun lobby would particularly like my approach though - because as far as I’m concerned, pretty much anything that isn’t a single shot firearm should be banned outright, and after that we can talk about what is allowed in terms of ammunition sizes. 

However, I don’t particularly want to argue about the particulars of firearms regulation today.  I’ve written other posts on the subject in the past. Today’s subject is about the culture associated with firearms. 

Friday, May 20, 2022

Two Days In Alberta Politics

It’s Friday - end of the week, and the last 2 days of politics in Alberta have been a whirlwind … on Wednesday, Kenney said he would step down after getting 51.4% support in a leadership review vote, and on Thursday, the UCP caucus voted to keep Kenney on as the leader until a leadership race is concluded. 

So … kind of a “I’m leaving … fooled ya, I’m still here” couple of days.

What does all this really mean? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

You Don’t Think It’s Really Fascism?

If it’s not from Germany, it’s just sparkling authoritarianism, right? 

More seriously, way back when I first started this blog (in 2004), I wrote a piece about whether or not we were in an emerging Dark Age. That was 2 years before Canada elected a CPC government for the first time, 12 years before the US elected Trump, and just around the time the so-called “Tea Party” faction of radicals in the GOP took hold and showed us what they were (nasty).  

A lot has happened in the intervening 18 years that brings us to today.  I’ve written about how this new Dark Age contains a “corporate feudalism” that is designed to chain people to corporate jobs in order to survive at all.  I have worried about the signs of authoritarianism emerging among our right wing politicians both here and in the US. I have watched as Social Conservatives have gained ever more sway in our politics, and I have been appalled. 

Then, a week or so ago, a draft decision from the US SCOTUS was leaked suggesting that the court was preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade. The implications of overturning Roe v. Wade are far reaching indeed. 

Friday, May 06, 2022

On Abortion Law In Canada

Disclaimer:  I am not a lawyer, this is just my personal exploration of the legal landscape in Canada and how it differs from that of the US.

The decision in R v Morgentaler (1988) is considerably different from that of Roe v. Wade.  Where Roe v. Wade places considerable importance on the notion of individual privacy, R v Morgentaler places central importance on security of the person (although it does address rights issues in other sections of the Charter as well). 

At the core of the Morgentaler decision is the Oakes Test analysis (described on pages 73-76), which concludes that what was at the time S251 of the Criminal Code could not be saved under S1 of the Charter. Oakes sets out a judicial review procedure for weighing competing interests (and as with all such things, there is considerable debate around it still).  However, at the end of the analysis in Morgentaler, the basic conclusion is that the impact of criminal sanctions on the woman are hugely disproportionate to any state asserted benefit in the restrictions.  It also takes apart any of the procedural / regulatory structures that stem from S251 as also being unreasonable infringements. 

There is a good reason here that you haven’t seen any serious attempts by governing parties in Canada to tackle creating another law that specifically tries to limit abortion:  It’s going to be really hard to create such a law that doesn’t end up failing scrutiny under any kind of review like Oakes. Further, any such law is going to find itself subject to challenge as unreasonably restricting the rights and liberties afforded to women while placing no restrictions on the male sperm donor.  

This is a very thorny problem for any lawmaker to tackle, and potentially one that is intractable without major changes to fundamentals of law such as introducing the idea that a foetus has some legal standing.  

Currently, Canadian law basically says that a foetus is considered part of the mother’s body until such times as it is “delivered alive from the mother’s body”.  In other words, up to the point of live birth, the fetus is treated like any other part of the mother’s body and it is her decisions that are paramount.  In other words, a womb isn’t a condo that some other party is renting out for 9 months. 

There have been numerous attempts to change this by way of private member’s legislation.  However, those bills have typically bubbled around for a few months or years until dying either on vote or when parliament dissolves for an election. 

The reality of those bills, were they to be enacted, is that they would likely also fail scrutiny under Charter review. The problem that would arise with foetal rights legislation would be an entirely different set of challenges, because now you have two “persons” with competing rights.  The anti-abortion crowd would of course argue that the foetus’ rights should trump those of the mother, but such things are not so simple in reality because the structure of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms places rights of individuals in tension with each other, with no one person's rights superseding those of another. 

Were parliament to declare a foetus a "person", one opens an entire can of worms legally, and I suspect that what would emerge would end up right back where we are today.  

Why do I say this?  For several reasons, actually.  First, any law which looks like some of the abortion bans currently tabled in US legislatures will collapse under Oakes. Second rests in our current approach to the law and children / youth. Current law approaches place responsibility entirely on the parents at the birth of the child, and gradually reduces that as the child becomes more able to take on responsibility.  So, for example, if a toddler breaks a neighbour's window, we generally say "oops, that was an accident", and the parents are held responsible for the child's conduct.  When a 13 year old breaks the neighbour's window, we're more likely to hold the 13 year old responsible for their actions, although we might look sideways at the parents for raising a hoodlum. Basically, the idea is fairly straightforward:  as the child becomes more able to assert independent actions, we grant them greater responsibility.  

At birth, a child is able to breathe, and take sustenance independently of the person who birthed them, but is still largely dependent upon the parents to survive. That level of dependency grants the parents absolute control over much of the child's life as long as they protect the child's health and well being.  When the child is 18 or older, we deem that the child is now capable of being fully independent (I'll ignore emerging evidence from developmental psychology in this matter for now).  

I would expect that means from a legal perspective, you would end up back where we are today because the dependency of a foetus (and its antecedent forms of zygote and blastocyst) are entirely dependent on the person carrying them in all respects.  The pregnant person is not only responsible for themselves but the developing being inside them at that stage. The developing being has no ability to assert or exercise rights in any legal sense, nor can they act independently. That returns us to the state where not only is dependency absolute, but the risks associated with pregnancy are borne by the same person. Therefore, one can reasonably assert that absolute dependency, along with shared risks grants absolute control over decision making to the person most able to make those decisions objectively. 

Anti-abortion people will howl about "fetal heartbeats", and "viability" thresholds, but those are much harder to establish than one would first expect.  What is often called a "heartbeat" is actually little more than a bundle of neurones acting autonomically.  There is no "heart" formed at that stage, merely the potential for one to exist. Viability is a similarly difficult thing to establish. We can look and say "well, there's a well-formed foetus present", but whether or not that particular individual is viable at the moment of examination is a matter of probabilities, and available technology / medical methods. 

Then there are the risks associated with pregnancy.  They are many and a blind enforcement of "the law" to regulate pregnancy places women at risk. It has happened before, and it will happen again in the US.  

There can be a myriad of exceptions, and creating arbitrary lines based on a calendar in something as complex as gestation is a bit of a fool's errand.  This is why abortion needs to remain a matter of medical ethics, rather than a matter of law.  Even if we could make a reasonable argument for foetal rights, the fact is that law is far to blunt an instrument to use here. 

Thursday, May 05, 2022

The Silence Is A Warning

This week, a draft ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) was leaked.  Although what’s in the ruling itself is retrograde (and that’s being kind), that isn’t a surprise. Far too many of the judges appointed during Trump’s tenure, and the GOP’s refusal to allow Obama to get any appointments through set the stage for this.

No, what I want to talk about is the sudden muzzling of Canada’s conservative politicians on the matter, and a sudden flurry of “this will never happen in Canada” coming from various columnists.

While Canada’s legal context is somewhat different than the United States, it is utterly false to claim that a rollback of abortion isn’t a very real threat here, and in fact politicians being silent on the subject is a warning, not a reassurance to Canadian women. 

The issue is very real, and it is in fact partisan. Restricting abortion has long been a bread and butter issue for the political right in Canada, and they get significant support (and I suspect funding) from anti-abortion groups like Campaign Life and other organizations.  

The approach in Canada has been a little different than it has been in the US.  In the US there has been a steady series of lawsuits and legislative attacks that have been instituted to narrow the scope of Roe v. Wade. In Canada, we have seen different tactics - mostly a series of "private members" bills tabled on a regular enough basis, and a side of various provincial governments simply not funding the procedure to choke off availability.

It's really important that we look at the legislative tactics that have been tried.

Fetal Personhood - Bill C-205

    "Unborn Victims of Crime"  -  E.g. Bill C-269, Bill C-484

Sex-selection Abortion Ban - Bill C-233

Coerced Abortion - Bill C-510

Conscience Rights - Bill C-268

... and this is a sampling of what I found looking through Parliament's LegisInfo database which goes back to 1994, and by no means exhaustive.  Every one of these bills is designed one way or another to limit or restrict access to abortion.  This is far from the end of the road for any of these ideas.  The anti-abortion movement continues to push its agenda with conservative legislators. 

Politically, the conservative politicians all know that it's really bad politics to attack abortion directly in Canada. They've been looking for a wedge they can drive into Canadian law to start introducing restrictions and limits.  They keep trying, but so far the legislation has failed to pass.  That doesn't mean the legislation cannot be passed, and a failure on one piece of legislation is not seen as the end of the road.

The silence of Canada's conservative politicians in response to this week's events in the United States should not be mistaken for a change of heart. It echoes back to instructions that Preston Manning gave to his party in the late 90s when they were trying to figure out how to make gains beyond the Prairie provinces:  "Don't tell them what you really believe until after you've been elected" (paraphrase).  They know where they stand, and they just don't want you to know. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

A Sidebar On Programming Languages

I’ve been around software a good long time now. Yesterday, I came across the following tirade about C that I want to address a few things about.  

C Isn’t A Programming Language Any More

I’m not going to go through the details of the author’s complaints and attempt to rebut them because there are several very fundamental issues in the assumptions being made that are more about the realities of software and hardware as it has evolved over the last <mumble> years. 

First, the headline itself annoys me, because it misses the point entirely.  C remains a programming language - and it has all of the hallmarks of one:  a defined syntax, semantics, and expected behaviours. C isn’t defined by the presence or absence of specific libraries, although a (more or less) standardized set of libraries eventually did evolve, and by the 1980s there was a fairly well defined “C Standard Library”.  

You can have all the complaints you want about the C libraries as they have evolved, but none of those complaints change the validity of C as a programming language. Most of the complaints about C in the article really focus on two areas:  the evolution of fundamental types in C, and the state of the C libraries. 

I want to point a few things out here. C has been around a long time, and its origins are actually quite specialized. It was created as the language to write what would become the first version of the UNIX operating system in. 

This fact is important.  At its core, C is a systems programming language.  It’s meant to be “one step above the hardware”, and it’s really damn good at it. The semantics of the first versions of C were tightly coupled to the hardware architecture that was emerging at Digital Equipment Corporation - and if you want to understand that, spend a little quality time learning about the PDP-11, an architecture that influenced processor design to this day.  (* For the yabbut crowd, I’m fully aware that the first version of UNIX was written for a PDP-10 - but that’s a story for another day *)

All of that takes place in the mid-late 1960s. 

Yes, a lot of C back then had “Implementation Dependent” in the definition from the outset - because actual implementations of C had to account for all sorts of very specific processor quirks - oddball word sizes - the idea of 8/16/32/64 bit words being standard is pretty recent -  different memory hardware architectures, and so on. So, C was always pretty loosely defined so that someone making a C compiler for a given processor could legitimately do so and have a reasonable expectation of being able to bend the core parts so that it worked for their needs. 

By the time ANSI started to define a standard for C in the 1980s, most processors were using 8/16/32 bit word sizes, and that got baked into the first ANSI standards. 64 bit designs were a fair ways off, so they sort of waved their hands at the subject and said “yeah, here’s a path to 64 bit types”, but it wasn’t particularly clear, and wouldn’t be until the emergence of the DEC Alpha chip in the 90s.  Even then, the DEC version of C left it a bit loose, and things didn’t really settle down until AMD released its 64 bit extension to the Intel architecture. 

Then there are the runtime libraries. The so-called Application Binary Interface (ABI).  The evolution of those is even more complex - in part because they spawned out of the development of UNIX, and UNIX needs drove them for decades.  Early ports of the standard libraries to MS-DOS and Windows were haphazard affairs at best, and then there were Microsoft’s own attempts to create their own versions (anyone else remember WinSock? *shudders*).  

Throughout time, the various libraries have changed and evolved, been ported across an enormous number of platforms - both hardware and software. That’s damned hard work to do, and inevitably introduces variation and complexity. I remember in the 90s porting a major application suite to HP-UX, and discovering that HP had badly botched their memory management infrastructure. Likewise, the release of Solaris in the mid-late 90s was a boondoggle of screwed up implementation issues in some very fundamental libraries. 

Bear in mind, both HP and Sun had excellent teams of developers working on their platform, and they still released some utterly appalling bugs into the wild. Porting complex software across platforms is damned hard work, and it’s even harder when you start playing around with changing fundamentals of the hardware architecture like machine word size. 

For better or worse, the “standard libraries” associated with C and UNIX have evolved over time, and sometimes that evolution has been messy (as it is in nature …).  There are parts of things that are ugly, and they probably could do with a major cleanup.  But undertaking such a cleanup isn’t easy either. You have to be willing to say what you’re willing to shed support for, and you have to be prepared to be ruthless when doing so.  

Right now, we live in an era where “UNIX-like” systems architectures running on Intel processors are commonplace.  But even that is changing, with the dominance of ARM architecture in mobile devices (and creeping into desktops as well with Apple’s A and M series system chips).  

But, coming back to the complaints of the article I mentioned previously:  C still remains a programming language regardless of the state of the libraries.  That doesn’t change because the definition of the language is separate from the libraries.  C remains what it always has been - a relatively low level language intended for writing operating systems. It was never intended as a language for writing applications in.

Has the complexity of the libraries escalated over time?  Yes - of course it has.  Is that painful in places?  Yup. Of course it is.  I spent much of my software career migrating a major chunk of software across different OS platforms - it’s hard work.  Yes, it’s frustrating at times when functionality changes, or when you discover that what you expected things to do isn’t what they actually do.  Get over it - we’re a long ways from having programming languages that are completely independent of the hardware and OS platforms - if that’s even possible.  

I suspect that you won’t get a “clean break” re-design anytime soon.  Even if an astoundingly perfect new hardware architecture were to emerge tomorrow, and require huge changes to actually work, the fact remains that the existing libraries still form a foundation of expectations that programmers are used to, and likely as not, that new chip would soon find the current libraries ported to it.  Inertia is a hell of a thing. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Pierre’s Libertarian Economy

So, putative CPC leadership front runner Pierre Poilievre wants to rejig our economy and monetary policy to use cryptocurrency. In Poilievre’s mind, central banks have “too much power”, and expanding the role of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology in our monetary system would start to break that power down. 

In particular, Poilievre keeps claiming that the quantitative easing policy was equivalent to “printing money” to finance the government.  This isn’t really the case, but it’s an easy, pithy thing for him to say, and a lot of people simply don’t understand enough about government finances and the interacting systems in the markets that are involved, so they will gravitate towards his simplistic explanations. 

The most recent arguments are that somehow cryptocurrency can be a hedge against inflation. There are certainly lots of cryptocurrency advocates that argue that in fact cryptocurrencies can act as a hedge against inflation.  However, we have to recognize that in order to act as a hedge against inflation, cryptocurrencies have to maintain a general valuation that is ahead of the pattern of inflation. The problem here is that cryptocurrencies have been incredibly volatile for the last several years, so the argument of any one cryptocurrency - or even all of them - being an effective hedge against inflation. 

Then we come to an interesting problem with crypto:  vulnerability. Because blockchains are highly distributed, they are highly vulnerable to hacks - and unfortunately, it can be weeks before somebody notices. In so many ways, crypto returns us to the proverbial days of the “Wild West”.  The potential for this to make crypto theft an avenue for attacking a rival nations’ finances really should make us all nervous. 

Lastly, we should take a long look at El Salvador’s experiment with making cryptocurrency part of its national money policy. To call it a disaster is a kind description. At this stage in the development of this technology, I don’t believe that there is sufficient expertise in policy or in securing the technology domain to make it safe to incorporate into the money policy of a nation. 


Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Chilling Words

Ever since Putin started massing troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, I’ve been wondering exactly what Russia’s objectives really were. 

Put aside the propaganda from Russia about Ukraine posing some kind of threat, and one is left wondering exactly what Putin’s goals are in invading Ukraine. Russia’s claim is that Ukraine hasn’t lived up to its commitments in the Minsk Protocol. I’m not really close enough to what’s going on to assess that, but that seems to me rather a contrived excuse at best. 

Putin’s foreign policy has long struck me as being filled with barbs intended to re-ignite the Cold War that formed much of Putin’s early career. He’s made a number of feints in that direction, the most blatant in my opinion was the annexation of Crimea, but there have been others. 

The military picture in this case bears paying attention to. As part of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine forms part of the border buffer between what was Soviet Russia and its arch rival Western Europe. It is entirely possible that Putin’s current goal is to re-establish the boundaries of the old Soviet Union by once again occupying a line of states that run from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and operating them as puppet governments.

It’s possible, that those are his goals, but somehow I think it’s far more pernicious. On the news this morning, the Soviet Foreign Minister was quoted as saying “Russia won’t stop until the Western threat is removed” (I’m paraphrasing here - it was on the radio).  This is classic Cold War rhetoric - but it sheds a glimmer of light on Russia’s unstated goals here. 

It’s far more likely in my opinion that this is a “war of honour” in Putin’s mind. It’s the fight to re-establish Russia’s “greatness” on the world stage after the humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  If this is true, then the only way this ends is when Putin either breaks NATO, or Putin’s ambitions exceed what his oligarch allies can support.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Alberta To Waste Taxpayer $ on Frivolous Lawsuit

So, yesterday, Jason Kenney announced that Alberta was going to sue the Federal Government for "trampling on provincial jurisdiction" with the Emergency Measures Act ... all of a few days after the Alberta government actually petitioned the Federal Government for assistance. 


Now, what I want to discuss here isn't the nitty-gritty of the legal position the province is taking, or how it's own actions undermine the credibility of their actions - that will be a discussion in a later post once the dust has settled, and I have some time to spend actually dissecting the arguments involved and the various bits of law.  Today I want to talk about the politics of Kenney's maneuvers and what a lot of this really represents. 

Kenney is a political creature first and foremost. In other words everything that he does is filtered through a political lens. Absolutely nothing he does is done "in good faith" - if he doesn't see a political gain in it, he won't do it. So why file a lawsuit that has little chance of success, and rationally makes little sense? 

Let's look at the political landscape that Kenney sees, and try to understand how his actions (or lack of them) are designed to play to a political audience. 

In Alberta, Kenney faces a dire political situation. His polling numbers - both personally and politically have tanked. He's being outpaced by the NDP that he defeated in 2019. Even in typically hardline conservative ridings, polling has shifted from "Deep Blue" (would vote conservative regardless) to "Swinging Orange". Discontent within both the caucus and the broader UCP as a whole has triggered a Leadership Review this spring.

For Kenney personally, the situation in Alberta looks quite dire. Federally, it's a somewhat different picture. The current Liberal government is a minority government, making it vulnerable to attack on any number of procedural tracks. The LPC's numbers are fairly flat, and the CPC is in the midst of a leadership campaign having just given Erin O'Toole the boot. Leadership campaigns are often good for a few points of support in polling. 

On top of that, with Canada emerging (hopefully) from a 2 year long pandemic, the government's finances are in a shambles, the world's economy is being hammered by supply chain issues and inflation at levels not seen in decades. To put it kindly, there is ample opportunity for the opposition parties to go after the governing Liberals.

So, what does the political calculation look like for Kenney? 

First, let's recognize that the Alberta Government took a very soft approach to the border blockade at Coutts - allowing a relatively small contingent of malcontents to close the border down for almost 3 full weeks, costing the Alberta and Canadian economy millions each day, and feeding inflation further - increasing the cost of goods and services to most Albertans.  Government MLAs showed up at the blockade (with seemingly no consequences afterwards), even when the government ministers were starting to actually condemn the blockade (after 2 weeks of utter silence...).  

There were also talk of secret "back channel" negotiations with the Alberta government about ending the blockade. Although the reality is that the blockade didn't end until the RCMP moved in, and arrested 13 of the protestors on weapons and conspiracy charges ... an event which happened on the same day that the Federal Government invoked the powers in the Emergency Measures Act.

For those that remember, Kenney made a big deal about "stopping blockades of critical infrastructure" with Bill 1 - The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act back in 2019/2020.  Yet, when it comes to this blockade of what is unquestionably a critical border crossing for Alberta, his government did nothing. They sat on their collective hands and did nothing except wag their fingers in the direction of the protestors.

On the Coutts blockade, it's pretty clear that Kenney saw this as an opportunity to poke the Federal Government in the eye with a stick. If he had any interest in doing his job as a Premier of a province, the lifespan of the Coutts blockade would have been measured in days not weeks. His thinking likely had far more to do with his hatred for Justin Trudeau and the Liberals than the affairs of Alberta. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenney's government has appeared to be balky and inconsistent. One day trying to appease the libertarian faction that refuses to believe there's a real threat even as hospitals fill up to the breaking point, the next being forced by public outcry to take action to mitigate things. Then lifting restrictions too soon, and triggering the next major wave of illness and death.  

Then there's the rebellion brewing throughout his party, with a significant percentage of riding associations pushing to move the leadership review up in the most recent dust-up in caucus.  Of course that was quelled by the party executive refusing to act on it, and more recently moving to displace uncooperative constituency association boards with more compliant leadership. 

Right now, Kenney is bleeding in the water politically.  His caucus is pissed off with him over numerous matters, and there have been several attempted revolts. The membership of his party is pissed off with him, and most importantly, the public at large is pissed off with him. 

Kenney is one of those people that has to have an adversary that he can attack. Without an adversary, he's lost and really quite unable to unify people around a cause, and tends to become his own adversary. This lawsuit gambit is nothing more than attempting to direct focus away from his agenda and mismanagement of Alberta. He's chosen his default opponent - a Prime Minister whom he hates reflexively because the conservatives have spent decades vilifying the name 'Trudeau'. 

The odds of this lawsuit going anywhere substantive, or even presenting an interesting opportunity to review Federal - Provincial jurisdiction in the midst of an emergency are practically nil. This is never going to be more than a prop that he uses at the lectern to quell the dissent in his party.  


The Cass Review and the WPATH SOC

The Cass Review draws some astonishing conclusions about the WPATH Standards of Care (SOC) . More or less, the basic upshot of the Cass Rev...