Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Moving Beyond The Partisan

A couple of years ago, I expressed my disgust with partisan politics and proposed a model that is intended to break the connection between party discipline, insularity, and policy platforms. 

One of the first things Danielle Smith has proposed in the wake of the UCP being shut out in Edmonton is literally creating a partisan committee of failed Edmonton UCP candidates from Edmonton to “advise” the government about matters pertaining to Edmonton. 

I want to point something out here about how wrong this is within a parliamentary system. Edmonton has duly elected representatives in the legislature. Those are the people that Smith should be consulting with about matters regarding Edmonton, or the impact of government legislation or policy on Edmonton. However, because they belong to “The Other Party”, she seems to have decided that rather than consult with them, she’ll form up a committee from within the UCP. 

The Problem

Not only is this grossly disrespectful of the voters of Edmonton, it effectively imposes on them a group of partisan “representatives” that they did not elect in the first place. At its core, this is fundamentally undermining the purpose of representative democracy in the first place. Edmonton elected those people as their MLAs, it is incumbent upon the governing party to find ways to work with them. 

However, in today’s world, the party comes first, the riding and the people second. This is backwards. 

We see the same thing federally as well. When a Liberal government is elected, very often they have scant or even no representation from the Prairie provinces. The government then struggles to consult adequately to understand how their policies might impact that region (which, of course the conservatives play up because … well, party first!). 

One of the guiding principles of any parliamentary system is the idea of collegiality. That is to say, your fellow MLAs/MPs (whatever the title) are in fact your peers, and you should be able to engage with them as needed, in the most appropriate way. This notion of collegiality is also a moderator of partisan behaviour because it puts representation ahead of partisanship. 

In essence, the thinking should be “I need your input on this matter because you represent this other region or perspective, and the fact you belong to another party shouldn’t matter”.  Instead, what has happened over the last 30+ years is that the notion of party as primary has created a wall that inhibits that collegial relationship, and instead enforces a “don’t talk to the other guy because they’re from the other camp” mentality. 

Party As An Artifact

The political party of today is largely an artifact of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. In theory, they provide a means to present to the people a coherent political platform that is grounded in some stream of political theory as to how best run a nation. 

That was then, this is now. The political musings of philosophers in the 19th century only provide the barest fig leaf of theory that informs today’s political parties. Today’s “Liberals” are not particularly reflective of what was deemed “liberalism”, the “Conservatives” have minimal connections to the thinkers they often refer to as well. The NDP (Canada’s equivalent of “Social Democrats” elsewhere) are a puzzling mishmash of ideas and tropes with only the barest of connections to the concepts of social democracy.  

In so many ways, today’s political parties exist as an artifact of a time long past. 

What Parties Have Become

Instead, political parties have become sorting hats for those who seek political power. Party executives sit behind closed doors, but exert enormous influence over elected MLAs, and the decisions about who gets a seat at the cabinet table; Party discipline is used to ensure that Cabinet gets its legislation passed; Party discipline dictates which MLAs get to speak out on issues, with some being designated “disruptors”, others being told (more or less) to keep their mouths shut. Above all else, party discipline gets used to prevent elected representatives from interacting with each other, and thereby moderating their party’s worst instincts. 

The UCP embodies this so clearly. Formed in 2016/17, it was always a vehicle for one person to ride to power - Jason Kenney. An examination of the Party Constitution and other governing documents shows how much power over the party is placed in the hands of the leader and the party executive. This is no accident, but it is also a fatal weakness. In fall of 2022, Take Back Alberta (TBA) exploited that weakness to effectively stage a coup and take control of the UCP board

If you don’t think that’s significant, consider the fact that TBA and Danielle Smith decided to “shelve” the most controversial aspects of their platforms until _AFTER_ the provincial election. That should have sent shockwaves of discomfort through the electorate - a party literally saying “we won’t talk about the big parts of our platform until after you elect us” should have been a death sentence to their campaign. It wasn’t for a number of reasons, but what it did demonstrate is that it is now possible for a party to lie entirely about what it represents and believes in order to get elected, and once in power, well, then you find out what they really believe. 

Impact On Parliamentary Democracy

The impact of these changes on parliamentary democracy are significant and should not be ignored. First, it undermines the notion of your MP / MLA as your representative in the government. Instead, they are representing the party to you, and are beholden to the structure of party discipline in terms of how they vote in the legislature. This is backwards. 

Second, the rise of partisanship-first politics has meant that suddenly the member from the adjacent riding who belongs to another party is seen as a rival rather than as a colleague. This automatically causes MLAs to discount the commentary from that other member, and ultimately results in discussions being limited, and debates in the legislature itself have become a matter of “scoring points”. This mentality really took hold when Stephen Harper gave his MPs a “How To Disrupt Parliament” manual.  That manual was literally no less than a deliberate effort to undermine the effectiveness of parliamentary structures that all rely on the presence of a fundamentally collegial relationship between MPs. 

Today, debates on matters of substance are replaced with designated MPs trying to “score hits”, and Question Period has become a farce. This isn’t a hockey game, people. It’s not about “outfoxing the other guy”, it’s about governing the country for all of us.

The Role Of Collegiality

The concept of collegiality in parliament is important because it serves to act as a moderator of the actions of those in power. By undermining it to the degree that we have seen over the last 30 years, political parties have become ever more extreme and strident in their pursuit of some kind of ideological perfection to the detriment of many who may otherwise agree with some portion of those ideas. 

Having to reach out to colleagues you don’t agree with ideologically is a moderator. It means that parties and party leadership actually hear what the “other side” is thinking and the reasoning behind it. When was the last time you think that parties were able to do that? For me, it was sometime in the 1980s, possibly earlier than that. 

Today? It’s hard to imagine a member of the conservative caucuses reaching out to a peer in another party and engaging in sincere, reciprocal conversation. I just don’t think it happens now - the constant drone of attacks, even on matters that are relatively trivial tells me that we have become far too focused on power for its own sake. 


The next 4 years in Alberta are going to be horrific. David Parker and TBA are not a “collegial” organization, and neither is the UCP.  Although the UCP has a slim majority, it’s enough that they can get away with a lot, and I do not expect them to moderate their tendencies towards authoritarianism, if not outright fascism. 

Democracy in Canada is at a crossroads, and if we do not take dramatic steps to change course, it will fall apart in my lifetime. I don’t know what would replace it, but I do know that the path we are on leads to some very dark places. 

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Professional Use of AI

 Not so long ago, I wrote a piece on some of the ethical question marks that Large Language Model (LLM) Artificial Intelligence (AI) raises.  In the last week not one, but two, topics were brought to my attention that I consider to be examples of the dangers of naive application of AI.  

First up is an experienced lawyer who used ChatGPT to supplement his legal research for a case. I’m not going to slam the lawyer too hard for this - this is clearly a case of a “naive user” making some very dangerous assumptions about how the technology operates. He basically assumed that ChatGPT wouldn’t lie to him - largely because he seems to have thought that it was like a natural language front end to a search engine. It isn’t, and never was. 

What ChatGPT did was literally make things up. It fabricated entire cases out of thin air and then assured the user that it all came from credible (but unnamed) sources.

Now, if this work had been done by an articling student, or by a legal assistant, the lawyer would have an ethical duty to verify the work adequately before submitting it to the courts. One would assume that an articling student who simply fabricated an entire story from whole cloth would find themselves dismissed immediately.  

What do we do with a lawyer who used an AI in a similar manner?  In the most basic of ethical analysis, the lawyer had a duty to verify the work of the AI fully and thoroughly before incorporating it into the submission to the court. But at the same time, the lawyer is also unlikely to do more than he did with a student - take a handful of references and verify them.  If you have a lengthy list of references, you’re probably going to do a sampling and move on.  If your student fabricated an entire case out of thin air, you might miss it, but then again, so might the courts. 

I’ll come back to this shortly - I want to introduce the second item. A colleague brought to my attention the existence of a Psychiatric testing/diagnosis service called Clinicom.  Clinicom is not merely a Clinical Records Management system.  It purports to be an AI powered assessment and tracking system. 

My first “yikes” around this is the idea of an AI being used for diagnosis - especially in mental health, where diagnosis is complex on a good day. The risk in here of clinicians coming to rely on the AI’s opinion as a second to consultation is huge and very worrisome. If the AI produces “reasonable” diagnoses most of the time, it’s very easy (and human) to fall into the pattern of relying on its opinion over both your own assessment as well as that of your peers.  

Clinicom does have a single paper published demonstrating that the tool itself has been subjected to some degree of validation. To be clear, I do not believe that this is anywhere near meeting the level of scrutiny that needs to be applied to the development of a novel approach to mental health assessment.  In fact the paper itself does not address a number of significant aspects that need to be considered. 

( *for clarity, I will not be doing a detailed analysis of this paper here - that would be a substantial task in its own right, worthy of its own post )

In both of these cases, existing professional practice ethics place the burden on the practitioner to appropriately validate the use of any such technology. That is to say, that whether one is making a diagnostic assessment of a patient, or formulating a brief to put before the courts, it’s ultimately the practitioner’s responsibility to ensure that the resulting document is accurate and objective. 

You might look at that and say “well, we’re all good here, move along”.  But we aren’t “all good”. Not even close to “good” at this moment. 

Consider the lawyer in the first case for a moment. Here we have an experienced lawyer with decades in the field, and yet using the technology inappropriately led him to create a submission that is riddled not only with errors, but outright fiction. We can legitimately argue that his error is purely on him, and from certain perspectives, that’s completely true. Can we ignore the fact that the ChatGPT AI not only fabricated rulings and quotations from thin air, but then assured the user that they came from “reputable databases”?  

This is one of the first points where we have to talk about the difference between human intelligence and an AI. Humans have emotions. There are all sorts of cues when someone is lying, reactions to telling lies when we are growing up help form an understanding of when it is appropriate to invent facts (e.g. we’re writing songs, poetry or fiction), and when it’s very, very wrong (in a court of law, for example). At this stage of development, AI most certainly lacks that characteristic in any meaningful sense. 

In other words, with ChatGPT and its relatives, we have created an AI that is quite capable of generating its own fictions, but it lacks entirely any kind of moral and ethical framework from which to understand whether or not that is appropriate. 

Humans are very good at working with approximate information. We aren’t so good at dealing with large amounts of highly detailed information.  Think about the situation when a group of you go out for a meal at a restaurant, and you split the bill.  You look at the bill, divide it by the number of people and it comes out to $20 a person (roughly), so you throw in $25 to cover your portion and the tip. Do the same exercise with a calculator, and it comes out to $18 + $3.60 for the tip. We approximate - it’s easy to overwhelm us with details, and an AI can easily produce a deluge of both information and misinformation that it would be next to impossible for any one human to sort through it all and pick out the useful bits. 

In a field such as healthcare, the issues become even more difficult for a number of reasons.  First, matters of patient confidentiality suddenly come to the foreground. Legally speaking, you can sign all of the waivers, agreements, and so on you like, but that doesn’t do much to change the fact that your confidentiality must be guaranteed by the practitioner. 

“Oh, but just strip the names and other identifying information off the data fed to the AI, right?  Not so fast. Sure, you can remove the name, address and phone number fairly easily, but what about date of birth - age plays a significant factor in a lot of health care contexts. Similarly, because CliniCom is using some kind of “adaptive” approach to assessment, the combination of questions that a client answers may well be a form of identifying information in its own right. 

The other aspect of ClinicCom that I am deeply concerned about is cultural bias in the questions as well as in the AI dataset as well as in the questions it uses for assessment purposes. Testing construct validity in instruments across cultural lines is a large, and very complex task. Meaningful questions in middle income America may mean nothing at all to someone whose cultural background is rural China. Closer to home, even between Canada and the US, there can be significant differences, and then we get into discussions of how aboriginal peoples may view those same matters. 

When we come to examine the datasets used to train the AI, those same issues of bias and cultural awareness come to the surface. Guess what? That can significantly impact how the AI interprets the responses from a patient. 

As an example, many North American aboriginal peoples have a tradition around what are called Vision Quests. A properly trained professional will understand what those are and the degree of reality that the patient may ascribe to the experiences involved, but an AI not trained properly to understand that (or worse, failing to understand it at all), may in fact arrive at the conclusion that the patient is hallucinating and possibly in the throes of psychosis. 

The consequences from a diagnostic and treatment perspective are enormous. An improperly trained AI may well draw conclusions that … well … are horribly incorrect. 

To be clear, I am not privy to the inner workings of CliniCom’s platform here, but these are considerations that came to mind as I reviewed their website and some of the topics that it failed to address. I am not saying that these problems exist, but rather that the possibility of them existing is very real, and that from a societal perspective, they should be viewed as topics worthy of further exploration and consideration as we develop this technology. Practitioners in the field should be doubly cautious, and use CliniCom in conjunction with other tools to verify its appropriateness. 

Likewise, in other domains such as law, academic works, etc., we need to be clear that a lot more work is needed before AI can be used reliably to assist in those domains. Simply assuming that the AI is benign is not adequate. Even if the AI is not acting out of malice, the ability of AI like ChatGPT to simply make things up is enormously problematic.

Creators of LLM AI like ChatGPT now have an additional set of tasks to consider.  Yes, ChatGPT is capable of generating new content that looks a lot like existing content.  (E.g. One can ask ChatGPT to write “The Night Before Christmas” in the style of Terry Pratchett, and get a disturbingly real seeming result). That is no small accomplishment. Now we need to teach these AI constructs the idea of when it is appropriate to “invent” and when doing so is an absolute no-go.

Users of AI also need to become more proficient in validating the results that an AI does produce.  If we thought misinformation was already a problem on the Internet, when it has been mostly people producing content, can you imagine how quickly even the most useful of sites could be overrun with real-looking, but absolute nonsense? 

None of this is to say that AI should not be developed. Not at all. But, it is vital that both creators and users of AI take steps to ensure that the technology is in fact used appropriately. If you are a lawyer, doctor, engineer, or other professional, it is incumbent upon you to ensure that you appropriately validate anything that you use an AI for in the course of your work. 

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Of Campaigns, Bigotry, and Dog Whistles

So, with UCP leader Danielle Smith regularly playing dodge-em with her own statements in the past, it shouldn't come as any big surprise that something would come bubbling to the surface from one of the UCP candidates.  

This week's entry into the bigot olympics comes via the UCP candidate for Lacombe-Ponoka, Jennifer Johnson, who thought it would be "clever" to compare having transgender kids in schools to adding fecal matter to cookie dough. I'm not going to go into dismantling the rancid stupidity of her comments beyond borrowing from Lily Allen, and saying "Fuck You Very, Very Much", Ms Johnson

I've listened to the recording, and it was offensive to say the least, and the other people in the room are all giving her laughs and knowing chuckles. Every last person in that room should be ashamed of themselves. 

After bubbling around for a couple of days, today, on the day of the leader's debate, Danielle Smith issued the following as a statement on the matter:  

This thing is one giant dog whistle from start to finish. There are a number of things about it I want to highlight. 

First, it doesn't eject Ms. Johnson from the UCP candidate pool, it just says "well, when government first sits, you won't be part of caucus.  But it also clearly leaves open the door for her to join caucus later.  It doesn't stipulate any conditions around that return. 

The message here is clear enough: "What you said is bad, but we're going to give you a nudge and a wink as punishment". The intent is simple:  wait for the ruckus to die down, and we'll quietly bring you into caucus then. 

There is an underlying dog whistle here, and I suspect it comes from the Take Back Alberta crowd: "To the base:  Shut up about trans issues, they're political dynamite".  They're not wrong about this, but we also know that TBA organizers are in full agreement with Ms. Johnson - as can be seen carefully coded in the following message promoting one of their events: 

Lurking in there are not-so-subtly worded comments aimed at transgender people living normal lives (and doing things like say ... swimming - a reference to an alleged, and disproven, indecent exposure event at a pool in Calgary), and drag queen story time events at public libraries. 

The second part is that "there are valid discussions to be had" - this is a carefully worded dog whistle that is little different to the 2019 issue around GSAs.  "Oh, we're protecting the children!".  No, you're not. The only meaningful discussion related to transgender children is to be had between the children, their parents, and their doctors. The only public policy matter is the one that says "how do we support these families so that we don't end up traumatizing the children with our bullshit as adults?".

Smith's comments "encouraging" candidates to become more informed are, at best, a limp attempt to paper over the unbridled hatred racing around inside her party. I can't help but think of it as little different than her attempts to defend Hunsperger in 2012 by saying "well, he's entitled to hold those opinions".  

Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Conceit That Is Being “Centrist”

I’m seeing a fair number of former Progressive Conservative (PC) supporters in Alberta yammering away about being “centrists” now, and it’s actually making me quite angry. 

This particular brand of “centrist” isn’t working from a starting point of a “centre” per se, so much as starting from a presupposition that the NDP is “too far left”.  They’re positioning themselves as “centre” relative to a United Conservative Party (UCP) that has come under the thrall of a far right group calling itself “Take Back Alberta” (TBA).  That isn’t “centre”, that’s a relative position that still puts you firmly in the far right - because the Notley-led NDP policy platforms are consistent with Peter Lougheed! (remember that name, we’ll come back to it)

I see a number of complaints about the NDP from these people:  

1.  “Oh, they are influenced too much by the unions” 

2.  “Their economic policies are unrealistic” 

3.  “The provincial party is subservient to the Federal Party - look it’s in their constitution” 

Let’s take a look these in more detail, shall we? 

“They are influenced too much by the unions”

In order for this to make any sense, you have to assume that there is something inherently bad about trade unions. There is no question that in Alberta politics, conservatives have spent decades demonizing unions. This is mostly an outgrowth of the period in the 1970s when some unions really did overplay their hand, and of course, who can forget the tale of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, where the union fell under the sway of organized crime? 

But that isn’t the situation today, and frankly from a political organizing standpoint, why shouldn’t workers have a political voice?  Let’s face it, other groups do - businesses exert enormous political influence through everything from donations to organizations like Chambers of Commerce.  Religious groups form coalitions all the time to influence political parties.  Community organizations with specific issues they want addressed form and attempt to engage in political lobbying / influence all the time.

It’s not secret that conservative parties in particular are influenced, if not controlled outright, by combinations of these various groups.  The NDP is, in this regard, more transparent than most about it. They have long said they are the party of workers, and they walk that by specifically engaging with organized labour. 

If you have a problem with this, then perhaps you have a problem understanding the role of unions, and the importance of workers organizing both at the workplace and political levels. Businesses do it all the time, why shouldn’t workers? 

“Their Economic Policies are unrealistic”

They are? Frankly today’s Alberta NDP policies aren’t that far removed from what the PCs were advocating when Peter Lougheed was running the show. Yes, that’s a good long time ago now, but since Lougheed continues to cast a long shadow in Alberta politics, it’s worth pointing out that many in Alberta still point to him as a high point in our governments. 

If their economic policies are now so unrealistic, the NDP’s critics are shockingly unwilling to say the same of those policies under Lougheed. Frankly, most policies are a matter of political will. If investing in healthcare, public education, and post secondary education mean that we have to raise government revenues by doing things like setting tax rates at reasonable levels, or *gasp* impliementing a Provincial Sales Tax (PST), so what? We would be doing what every other province in the country does. 

It seems to me on this front, the so-called centrists are far too often those who are “fat dumb and happy” in the course of their own lives, and have little or no insight into the importance of investing in the lives of others for the future of all. 

“The Provincial Party Is Linked To The Federal Party”

This one gets a “so what?”.  Until the 1990s, most political parties in Canada were hierarchical, with the provincial parties openly affiliated with their federal counterparts. Rachel Notley showed us quite clearly in her time from 2015 to 2019 that she was perfectly willing to tell the Federal NDP to take a hike if their policy direction was detrimental to Alberta.  The idea that Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh could “order” a provincial Premier to do anything is laughable.  

But, let’s be clear, there are connections between the Federal and Provincial wings of any political party movement. They might be “on the table”, as they are with the NDP, or they may be more indirect.  It’s perfectly clear that the conservative parties in Canada all collaborate with each other, sharing people, strategies, and tactics. We would be foolish to think that anything less is going on right now.  I don’t believe Poilievre is dictating to Danielle Smith, Scott Moe, or Doug Ford per se, but it’s perfectly clear that they are coordinating their efforts through more than happenstance. 

The Conceit

Far too often the so-called “centrist” sits there and tries to make it look as if they are somehow above the fray. “Oh, but there are good policies on both sides, I just happen to think the left is too extreme”, they’ll say.  

The problem is that they refuse to acknowledge that the right has moved ever further right over the last 30 years. The centrist tries to claim that they are “critical thinkers”, and they see “merit” in conservative policies, while quietly ignoring the impact of conservative policies on social issues.  

Policy - whether it is economic or social in its focus - always has impacts both ways. Yes, increasing taxes has direct impacts on individuals, but when those monies are used for education or health care, or even to repair roads, there are social impacts that we should not ignore. Similarly social policies such as non-discrimination laws result in greater economic activity because more people feel like they have a legitimate right to participate in society. 

Especially as conservatism in Canada has drifted from being “hard right” under Harper into a much more extreme form today, it is a position of privilege to sit there and say “oh, but we’re good, we can criticize both sides”. No, actually what you’re really doing is reinforcing your existing biases and endorsing the increasing extremism of the conservatives by decrying “the left”.

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

The Darker Side of UCP Policy

Welcome to Alberta's 2023 election cycle. Campaigning has effectively been going on for some time now, but the writ was issued yesterday and now it's official. We're in an election cycle. 

This is basically a two horse race. Alberta either elects the UCP, now led by Danielle Smith, or it elects the NDP.  There are a handful of other parties, but frankly between them they might be lucky to pull one or two seats - such is the nature of Alberta politics. 

But, voters need to be absolutely clear:  The UCP is not the PCAA - not even close. The PCAA had drifted a long ways away from where it was when the venerated Peter Lougheed was leading it, but the UCP is even more extreme. Under Klein, the PCAA went strongly towards the 'market fundamentalist' politics of the 90s, the frankenparty that Kenney mashed together is even further to the right with strong roots in rural social conservatism. 

The UCP under Danielle Smith is a much different creature again. Smith herself is a libertarian, but Take Back Alberta (TBA) is something else again, holding much stronger views on a variety of topics and they see Smith as a convenient puppet. 

Let's explore what a TBA controlled UCP seems to actually believe: 

Letting Your Biases Get In Front Of You

Yesterday, I ran across this essay on X(itter), and it annoyed me because the author makes all kinds of errors of both fact and reason.  Si...