Thursday, June 21, 2007

This Week in Trains

This week, a rant of personal greed and selfishness.

Passenger train service needs to cheaper. Think about it. Trains are, by far, the most efficient way to move large numbers of people. Less fuel is consumed. Less pollution is produced. Yes, it will take longer than using an airplane for cross-country hops, but for most short hops it's actually shorter after you factor in all of the nonsense that goes with getting to an airport, checking your baggage, yada yada yada.

Still, train fare for two people is generally more expensive than taking a car, even if you account for wear and tear on the car, insurance, gas and everything.

If the train is such an efficient method of transportation, why is this so?

It's because you don't, up front, pay the true cost of driving your car.

You see, in order to drive a car, you need a series of smooth surfaces over which to drive it. These are often referred to as "roads" or "highways". Highways have overpasses, true marvels of engineering, and cloverleafs, on-ramps, off-ramps, girders, embankments, ditches, lights, digital signs, traffic cops, accidents, ambulances. In fact, a whole lot of the cost of driving your car is hidden away from you and kept quite indirect.

Your taxes dollars are subsidizing the driving of your car.

Imagine if your tax dollars equally subsidized efficient public transportation. How many billions of dollars would be involved there? Some astronomical figure, for certain. Now buses still need roads, but they wouldn't have nearly as many accidents, nor put as much mass on the road. Trains have tracks that need maintenance and have their own digital signs, but those they use quite efficiently and are easier to maintain than a giant network of highways. People would also have to spend at least some their days walking around, which would likely save us some health care dollars.

So, in summary, we ought to be subsidizing public transportation a lot more than we do. As well, we should stop complaining that VIA Rail and other outfits like it "aren't profitable". Neither is the highway system, so what's your point?

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

God vs. Religion

I recently watched a debate between the Reverend Al Sharpton and the journalist Christopher Hitchens. They were (quite politely, actually) discussing the issue of the existence of god and religion.

It's important, in a way, to separate those two issues. It is possible for a non-religious person to believe that the universe was created by some intelligence. This begs the question of where this intelligence came from, but that is beside the point. It is one thing to argue against a religion, to point out the contradictions of a system of belief, or to showcase its benefits or cruelties.

But god? Can you argue against the existence of god? Not really. Nor can you argue for it. It's not really an arguing sort of thing. The non-believer asks, "Why would you believe that?" and the believer responds simply that he does. Either you have this vague feeling that such an entity exists, or you don't. A lot of this has to do with what you've been taught, especially in your childhood. Muslims tend to have Muslim children. Christians have Christian children. Hindus have Hindu children.

You may have been frightened in to your belief. You may have been bribed. You may have had a miraculous or mind-numbing experience that you simply couldn't chalk up to coincidence or explain logically. Maybe you get that tingling feeling like I get when the Millennium Falcon shows up at then end of Episode IV. Maybe you've just heard the same thing over and over again so many times that you just started believing it.

If you believe in a god, then there's no logical argument that can change your mind. I've seen many religious people turn non-religious. It's very rarely logic that does it, because religion is not a logical binding. Religion is an emotional, social binding created in a community (go ahead, look up the etymology). We can talk about the infeasibility of Noah's Ark all we want. That won't convince anyone of anything they didn't already believe. Religion is left behind when it no longer satisfies one's emotions. Some change religions, others leave it altogether. Our society, we can plainly see from statistics, is generally trending toward the latter.

This doesn't stop atheists, especially the recently dereligionized, from making long lists of logical problems with their former systems of belief. They seek reassurance and demonstrate shock at their former states just like anyone else going through a sudden change of emotional balance. How could I have stayed with that girl/guy so long? How could I have believed in astrology? Why was I smoking cigarettes all my life? Look how foolish I was!

So religions can be argued, point by point. But god? You can't really argue about it. You won't be able to prove it one way or another. You either feel it or you don't.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Stalled Feminism

I feel like writing about feminism today.

When I was growing up, I remember hating the feminist movement. There was a counteracting movement which said that feminism had gone so far that men were being victimized. It was helped along by the few ridiculous women who would scold men for holding doors open (there was a teacher in my high school who did that) or write articles in newspapers which opened with "Hey, men! Rape is wrong!".

If you were to look around now, you would be hard pressed to find any sign of any feminist movement at all. If you don't believe me, take a walk around Bayshore and look in the "La Senza girl" store (but don't look too long, you perv). Yeah. Part of the feminist ideal was that women would not have to turn themselves in to objects. That clearly isn't working as our society is now encouraging twelve year old girls to
tart themselves up like 19 year olds in bars.

Women still aren't paid as much as men. They still get laid off more easily. And if they're of child bearing age, they still have difficulty finding jobs.

With all that in mind, one might argue that the feminist movement has failed.

Stalled, perhaps, but I don't think it has really failed.

To demonstrate this, you only have to look at the differences in the way that we will raise our children relative to how we were raised. How many of us are going to be telling our sons and daughters that women don't have mathematical and spatial skills? A lot fewer, I think. Fewer of us are taking religion seriously, so we may soon see the end of that "man is the head of woman" nonsense that the church has been spewing for centuries. We've pretty much stopped telling our sons that "only girls cry" when they're hurt.

If I wanted to go on, I'm sure I could. There are probably dozens, or hundreds, of tiny little changes that have been brought in to our society by the feminist movement. It was unfortunate that so many women went overboard, providing such excellent fodder for the guns of the established boys club that runs the conservative media. Regardless of all that, however, our awareness of our own biases has increased, and the feminist movement has changed all of our perceptions.

This isn't to say that more can't be done. As mentioned above, the workplace is still not the equal opportunity place it could be. Nor, I'm sure, is the classroom. But today there is no vocal feminist movement. There are no protests, no one leading the struggle. The girls who ought to be at the forefront are too busy being told that the most important thing they can do is dress like Britney Spears. And
they're listening.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Sexual Correlations

I have always enjoyed finding studies that demonstrate the fallacy of assuming causality from correlation.

A correlation is simply a mathematical dependency between two trends or tendencies. For example: young males tend to get in more car accidents; people who smoke are more likely to get lung cancer.

Causality is always harder to prove. Not only should there be a correlation, but it must then be demonstrated that one of the factors is actually responsible for the other. What is it about young males that causes them to get in more car accidents? Is it bad driving habits or just that they do more driving? What is the biological underpinning that connects smoking and cancer?

To which I add the following, a study showing that intelligent people tend to lose their virginities later in life:

Besides the amusing bar graph which indicates that the Studio Art Department at Wellesley apparently includes an Orgy class, the author's first conclusion in explaining this causality is the following:

"One reason we might guess that smarter people in high school, or in more challenging colleges or majors, delay their sexual debuts is because they are delaying gratification in expectation of future reward. Sexual behaviour (or at least the investment needed to procure a partner or sustain one) may compete with time/resources required for other goals, and intelligent people may have more demanding goals."

He goes on to say:
"Another idea is that smarter people are more risk averse, and delaying these activities is a byproduct of enhanced concerns about unwanted pregnancy and disease."

That's cute, really, and it's very sweet of him to think that. Either he wasn't very intelligent in high school and university, or he's very embarrassed about the lateness of his own "sexual debut".

But seriously. Is this guy nuts? Is he actually suggesting that all of the smart virgins in the world are doing it on purpose?

No. No, that wasn't it. Trust me.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Canadian War Crimes

The truth is finally coming out.

Detainee Allegations

Technically, we're only seeing allegations. What matter, however, is that the media is taking the allegations seriously.

It begins with a report gathered from interviews with detainees in Afghanistan - prisoners who were captured by Canadian Forces and turned over to the local Afghan authorities. By the Geneva Convention, it is the responsibility of the capturing party to ensure that the prisoners are treated humanely. This includes the disposition of such prisoners when they are transferred to other parties.

The detainees describe extensive, months-long beatings. Electrocution is apparently acceptable, as is whipping, caning and a variety of other methods of torture. One Afghan police officer confides that one simply can't get answers out of prisoners without at least a little torture.


At first, our Minister of Defense was adamant that if any kind of torture was going on, the Red Cross would have told us. That lasted up until the Red Cross explained that, in fact, they would do no such thing. How embarrassing for the Rt. Hon. Gordon O'Connor. The government's defense is now changed. Stephen Harper flails away, stalling, saying that these are only "allegations". Stockwell Day says, hey, take it easy, human rights are new to Afghanistan. I was listening to the evening news and heard a government spokesman say that, according to reports received from Afghanistan, no torture has ever taken place.

Let's take those in order.

We've long gone by the "just allegations" phase. The stories coming out are numerous and credible. On top of that, we have word that Afghanistan's own governmental body for monitoring human rights is actually prevented from observing the prisoners. Mr. Harper, it's not that we have "allegations", it's that the people who could confirm or deny these allegations are intentionally locked out. What does that tell you?

Stockwell Day's assertion that we should cut the Afghans some slack because human rights are "new to this part of the world" is ridiculous and beside the point. If our government knows that there's so little respect for human rights, that makes them *more* culpable for blindly handing over prisoners, not less.

And lastly ... "no torture" has ever taken place? That defies explanation. In what world would anyone even dream of telling such an obvious lie. Do you expect me to beleive that any agency or human rights body would ever make such a claim about any prison? No torture has ever taken place. Indeed.

I said it before .... weeks ago, in fact ... these are war crimes. And these war crimes fall on our heads.

They're calling for the resignation of the Minister of Defense, Gordon O'Connor, both for initially misleading Parliament and for allowing this all to happen. But it can't stop there. The culpability goes far beyond one man. Why are we in Afghanistan? If we have to torture people to get our way, who is to say that we're the good guys? What's our real motivation for being there? This isn't just Gordon O'Connor. This is Stephen Harper and the Conservatives and Paul Martin and the Liberals and anyone else who has ever voted in favour of it.

Why are we there? Why do we have to torture people to "win"?

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Religious door-knockers

First read the story of how, in early 2001, the French government had warned the CIA and the American government that Al Qaeda had given the go ahead to hijack planes in the U.S.

You'll notice this quote: “You have to remember that up until 2001, hijacking an airplane did not have the same meaning as after Sept. 11. At the time, that meant forcing an airplane to land in an airport to carry out negotiations. We were used to handling that.”

Patently untrue, of course, and the French knew this because Algerian terrorists had tried to do exactly the same thing to the Eiffel Tower in 1994 as was done to the WTCs in 2001.

On a completely different topic, connected in no way with September 11, I had a pair of religious fundamentalists knocking at my door Saturday trying to convert me to their religion. How far away from the city do you have to move before these people will leave you alone?

"Aren't you worried about the cruelty and misery in the world?", one of the two well dressed women asked me by way of introduction.

This was a tough one for me, because the first response that pops to mind is: "Yes, and it's generally people trying to push their religion on each other that causes most of the misery... or at least provides really good excuses and motivation so the wealthy and powerful can manipulate the poor in to killing each other."

Believe me you, I thought long and hard, but finally said, with utmost courtesy and the idea in mind that we nonbelievers probably need to improve our reputation, "We're all atheists here, so we're really not interested, thank you."

"Can I leave you with a few pamphlets?" she asked, extending her unwelcome presence as I tried to close the door.

As entertaining as those might have been, I wanted to make sure to crush all aspirations and hope of conversion and said simply, "No, thank you."

"Oh, what a cute boy!" she remarked.

With a sigh at this further extension of the intrusion in to my Saturday morning, I turned to see my 16 month old son standing behind me, examining these guests.

He put it to them as simply as I should have put it to them. With a madly flapping hand, he called out, "Bye bye, bye bye."

And I closed the door.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Muslim Integration

For those who are interested in hearing about what we, the French and the U.S. did to the people of Haiti, here's the story as told by the president whom we were responsible for kidnapping and exiling.

ZMag interview with Aristide

On to other matters.

Multiculturalism is all the rage these days.

We have people who would ban Muslims from immigrating to Canada because they don't seem to want to "blend in" or because they want to take over our culture.

The argument seems to have some logical support. Look at those halal butcheries. Look at the women in the chadors and hijabs. Look at that weird praying thing they do five times a day. They're weird! They're crazy! Get them out of our country now, before it's too late! Force them to conform! Don't let them change our country! They want to make us all in to muslims!

Alright. Take a deep breath.

Let's look at this rationally. The Muslims show up in our country, mostly educated and prepared to work. They have some unexpected beliefs that don't line up with "our" Christian ones. They don't seem to speak English very well. All of these things are true.

Ultimately, however, I also believe that all of these things are temporary. You know how I can tell?

My grandparents arrived in Canada after WWII. My maternal grandmother spoke Slovak and only halting English. My mother speaks only English. I barely know a word of Slovak. My paternal grandfather, already saddled with four or five languages, never really caught on to English. His wife still has a better mastery of German (German! Egads, the enemy! Send her home!) than of English. Her sons spoke only dialect German. Of her seven grandchildren, only one of them can make sentences in German. Of the ten great-grandchildren, how many will know any German?

What I'm saying is that it's only a matter of time. New immigrants, finding themselves in an unfamiliar place, will stick together by their cultural background. My hometown had a German club, a Slovak Hall, a Croatian Home as well as Halls for Italians, Poles and you name it. Muslims are doing the same thing, but a generation later. Their children will grow up with ours, as our parents grew up with each other, and will add their diversity to our culture.

Muslims are no more likely to destroy Canadian culture than Germans and Italians were two generations ago.

Right now, I have no doubt that there are Muslims in this country who want to turn our country in to a place of Islamic and sharia law. For all I know, there might even be a large number of such people. But their children, like all children, think their parents are nuts. Their children will wear blue jeans, watch CBC, listen to infidel music, and become a part of our society.

Will they change our society? Of course they will. Every person who arrives from anywhere in the world will change our country. I'm not afraid of change, though, nor of absurd things like half-breed children and race-mixing. The only way to achieve stasis is through death, and I'm just not that dedicated to the notion, thank you.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Kyoto, CN Strike, Attack Ads

So many things are happening.

I've overjoyed at the sudden swing the Conservatives have taken toward environmental concerns. It's not something that they wanted to do, but rather something we forced them to do with strong public opinion. Suddenly, they discover, cutting emissions in half by 2050 doesn't seem to be satisfying enough. Of course, we'll have to continue to keep an eye on them to make sure they follow through. Rest assured that this is not a desirable outcome for the party of the rich, wealthy and oil-invested.

On another note, there is a strike going on of all the CN rail workers. If you were to read only the news, you would think that the cause for this strike is that workers, who earn an "average" (look that word up, you don't actually know what it means) of $75k, want a 4% raise. However, if you look more closely, the 4% is only a response to the management's offer of 3%. The problem? Management's offer also includes clauses which allow them to overwork their employees. Would you want to ride a train operated by a guy who works 12 hours, gets 8 hours off, then is required to work 12 more hours? Not I.

I caught a couple of the Conservative attack ads on television. Mostly they're highlighting how the Liberals never really did anything for the environment. I suppose we're supposed to believe that the Conservatives will.

I don't believe any of them. As a citizen, I believe that I have a duty to avoid believing them, just as I have a duty to keep an eye on them.

They are politicians. They care about looking good, raising funds and getting reelected. They do not care about any of the actual issues in their platforms. If you start your analysis of politics from this angle, it makes much more sense. When did the Conservatives suddenly become environmentalists? When we forced the issue. Politicians will only do what we want if he hammer it down their throats and, even then, they will try to get out of it. They'll make laws with loopholes. They'll underfund programs.

NAFTA is probably the best example. The PCs implied that it meant duty-free cross border shopping, when it really meant forcing Canadian workers to compete with sweatshops in third world countries. The plan went ahead, the corporate field were sown with our money, and our elected officials reaped the rewards when they left office.

That's their plan - sneak in to office with some "platform", rig the financial game for their friends, escape to a life of luxury. The only way to stop them is to pay more attention.

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Public Buildings

I bring you a story of a huge rip off about to happen and I only hope that it can be prevented.

The minority Conservative government is beginning to play the same games that Mike Harris, Ernie Eves and their PC brothers played in Ontario. The first step is to convince you that you pay too much in taxes. They will give you a small tax break and then give huge tax breaks to corporations. At this point they have a problem: how can they balance the budget? In Ontario, the answer came easy. They simply lied about being financially responsible and let the provincial debt balloon out of control. To make it less than completely obvious that they were bankrupting us and our children, however, they also sold off a lot of our property.

Yes, you heard me say it: our property.

You see, the government doesn't actually own anything. If you think about it for a moment, whenever we say that the government owns something, we really mean that it owned by we, the people. Communally, it belongs to all of us. The parks, the buildings, the police cars and the hospitals are all owned by all of us. What the PCs did in Ontario was to sell off our assets - highways, crown corporations, you name it - in order to give the appearance that the budget wasn't grossly underfunded. Of course, they never once balanced a budget anyway, but somehow the supposedly left-wing media failed to mention this to us.

Moving along, Harper's federal Conservatives (no "Progressive" prefix here), are going to do the same thing with our federal buildings. Should this succeed, be ready for more. They're going to sell off $1.5B worth of buildings to private companies and then lease the buildings back using 10 to 25 year contracts. Now riddle me this: how are these private companies going to make money? Well, they're going to have to maintain the buildings and make a profit. The profit, of course, is locked in by the lease agreement. Somehow, I should believe that a private company is so efficient that it can do all of the maintenance, make a profit and have the total cost come out cheaper than if the government did the maintenance itself.

I've worked for private companies. I've never found any of them to be miraculously efficient. What they are good at, though, is giving people lower pay, breaking unions, cutting benefits and such. Is that where our savings comes from? A race to the bottom in quality of life?

Why else is this a rip off? The Conservative government will report this $1.5B sale in the budget as part of the "surplus", thus looking like good stewards of our treasury. The real cost won't be realized until the leases we're paying on these buildings vastly exceed the maintenance costs. By then the Conservatives will be out of government and someone will look bad raising taxes to cover the lease.

Anything else? Well, there's this trick you can play while you're in government. You give a sweet, cherry, no-bid contract to some company that will make tens or hundreds of millions from it. Then, when you leave government, you get a nice 6-figure "consultant's job" for the rest of your life. You can probably ask the Right Honourable Gordon O'Connor, our current Minister of Defence, about it. He used to be a lobbyist for several aerospace and defence companies.

So, yeah, this is a big rip off. They're selling our property, mortgaging our future, and lining their own beds with our ill-gotten gains. Meanwhile, they'll try to bill it all as prudent fiscal management when they show us the temporary "surplus" in the budget.


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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Acupuncture and TCM

The Ontario government is now taking steps to "regulate" the practises of "Traditional Chinese Medicine" and "Acupuncture". I can't say I'm overjoyed. If there were any kind of evidence that these practises were in some way functional, we would have studies showing such. As it is, all of the studies I can find on Acupuncture clearly demonstrate that a "real" acupuncturist poking you with needles is no better than a placebo consisting of a convincing charlatan poking you with needles.

The defenders of "TCM" and Acupuncture are more than willing to regale you with stories of people who were miraculously cured of various aches and pains by needle poking and herbs. What they aren't willing to tell you is how many people have tried acupuncture and failed to get any satisfactory result. They won't tell you that because they can't. They have no idea. The pro-acupuncture crowd simply repeats the stories of the people who had their pain reduced. What about the people whose pain would have gone away all by itself? What about the people who ended dying of the actual disease that was causing the pain?

Just because B happened after A doesn't mean that B was caused by A. We have scientific methods involving rigorous application of statistics that will tell us if there really is a correlation. One-off stories are irrelevant.

There's also the argument that TCM and Acupuncture have been around for "5000 years" and therefore there must be something to them. Let's think of some other ideas that have been around for 5000 years: tree worship; flat earth; earth-centred universe; dragons; unicorns; women as chattel. "5000 years" isn't an argument, it's a rationalization. If your belief has merit, then that merit can certainly be shown in a properly conducted study. You shouldn't have to reach for "lots of people think so" or "people have thought so for a long time."

The real danger is that people with serious problems will take those problems to these practitioners. Those people will be deluded in to thinking that their very real problems have gone away while they actually get worse. Then the scientifically based medical system will have to deal with the problem much later ... perhaps much too late.

A last, and most regrettable argument, is that a treatment is effective as long as it makes the patient feel better. Sadly, no. While this may apply to stomach aches or minor headaches, it doesn't apply to real problems. You expanding tumour, metastasising cancer and your kidney stone will kill you just as dead, regardless to your sunny disposition.

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