Friday, June 22, 2012

On universities and climate change deniers; mortgages, immigration, and policy-on-the-fly

A few things for today. First, I noticed Michael Coren whining last night about an OSU prof named Nicholas Drapela, who was allegedly fired for denying climate change!!!!!

Nonsense. Drapela's webpage (which is still up as of this writing; see here) lists his academic appointments as follows:
  • Visiting Assistant Professor, Whitman College 1998-99
  • Visiting Assistant Professor, Colorado College 1999-2000
  • Assistant Professor, St. Martin's College, 2000-02
  • Instructor, Oregon State University, 2002-
And his BS and PhD are both from OSU.

Here's how you read this, for the non-academics out there. Drapela got his PhD from OSU and went out into the wilds of the academic job market. He lucked out, and landed a few VAP jobs. A VAP is a long-term contract position. It's term-limited, and there's usually a ceiling on the number of times they will renew the contract. It is quite rare to be hired to a full-time gig -- so, tenure-track, i.e., a straight Assistant Prof -- at the same place where you're doing your VAP. Usually, you have to leave for a bit and come back.

So, after his two VAP's, he lucked out again, and got an Assistant Prof job at St. Martin's College. Which lasted 2 years. Eep. That's not good. Unless this was another limited-term appointment like the VAPs and just had an inflated title, then leaving after 2 years means either he was shitcanned or he failed his tenure review. (Two years is a short time for a tenure review, at least in philosophy, but the timelines may be more truncated in chemistry.) Either way, he was shown the door. I suppose he could have quit, but in this market, no one who wants to be an academic quits a tenure-track gig.

Worth noting, incidentally, that both Whitman and St. Martin's are in WA state, so he didn't really travel far from OSU, except for that Colorado gig. Not usually a good sign; usually, in order to succeed as an academic, you have to be willing to move around quite a bit before you hit that TT job.

Consequently, he winds up as a contract instructor -- which means that the contracts are short-term and course-by-course -- at his alma mater. Probably, he called them up and asked for help, and was given something as a favour. And either it didn't work out particularly well, or (more likely) they didn't have an additional course to give him for next term, so he didn't get another contract. There may be seniority rules in play here -- more senior OSU instructors get first dibs, so nothing was left to give to him -- or there may be some sort of internal thing going on -- e.g., a new TT hire has a trailing spouse (i.e., one academic is hired to the tenure-track, but is married to another academic, and negotiates for contract jobs for his/her spouse). Or they just don't feel like helping him out any more; he may have burned a bridge or two.
The guy wasn't fired, for his views on climate change or anything. He didn't get another contract. Contract work is tenuous -- the (not funny but true) joke is that it's the "tenuous-track" in academia. You may not get hired back. It may be because of something you did or didn't do; it may also be because of broader factors which are not within your control. For anyone to claim there's some sort of conspiracy to get climate change denialists is laughable anyway; to use this sort of case as an example moves the bar from laughable to utterly hysterical. (In both senses of the term "hysterical".)

Anyway. Second point. Deficit Jim tells us that he needs to adjust the mortgage rules to cool off the housing market. And Jason "No Funny Nickname" Kenney tells us that there's hordes of foreign, probably brown, criminals that need to be hurried out of Canada before they blow us up or burn down our churches, and they can't possibly have any sort of appeal or opportunity to explain themselves, dontcha know.

What is with this government and making up policy on cocktail napkins at 2 o'clock in the morning? I'm not even going to say that these are necessarily bad ideas, but there are big, gaping, obvious objections to them. Just off the top of my head, for the mortgage thing:
  1. How does this help those who cannot afford homes due to income not keeping pace with prices?
  2. What impact will this have on those who were hoping to downsize when retiring?
  3. What impact will this have on homes currently on the market?
And for the immigration thing:
  1. What if you plead guilty to a crime because, under the old rules, that would keep you from being deported but, under the new rules, the sentence is enough to get you deported?
  2. What about families where the children are born here, but one (or both) parents is not a citizen and convicted of something?
  3. How many foreign criminals are there in Canada, really, and are they all so bad they need to be removed from the country without any appeal whatsoever?

It's the omnibus budget bill all over again. Everyone jumped up and down as if that, that were the worst example of how Il Duce Harper and his minions run this country. But it never was any such thing; it's typical of the way these guys make policy. They don't think about consequences. They don't consider alternative points of view. They come up with an idea, ram it through the legal channels, and leave everyone else to live in the mess they've made.

2015 can't come soon enough.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pressed for time.

So, no update today. However, there will be an update tomorrow (unusual, as I generally only update Monday to Thursday).

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On preserving the past.

The Conservative Party of Canada talks a really good game about a lot of things. The economy, for example. We've all heard how they are masters of the economy, creating jobs, opening up opportunities, developing new sectors, and so on. It's not working out so great, but they don't really seem to care. After all, for them and their base -- and, for that matter, the idiot media -- it's all about the narrative. It's all about the story. As long as you tell the right story, then reality and all its messy attendants -- suffering, misery, death -- can be airily dismissed.

Speaking of stories, the Conservatives under Il Duce Harper proclaim themselves the guardians and protectors of our great Canadian history. They want us to be proud of being Canadian, to see how glorious our past has been, how great our future can be.

Except, there's certain parts of our history they don't seem to be very big fans of. For example (and I'm working from memory here, so some details may be a tish hazy): last night, watching the news, saw something from, I believe, Brandon, MB about a new memorial wall for WWII pilots. Which is fine. I'm not objecting to this. And the feds ponied up some money for it. Again, still fine.

But I was also watching the news from Winnipeg, only to see that the Louis Riel House has had its federal funding cut. You remember Riel, right? Metis dude, rebelled against the federal government back in the 19th century, helped found Manitoba, ended up getting executed for treason. Anyway, he has a house -- technically, it's the house where he lay in state after being hanged -- in Winnipeg which you could go and see, and have a guided tour. The feds pulled the funding for the tour, which means that you could now only go and look at the outside of the house and look around the grounds.

Isn't that interesting? Money for a monument to pilots, no money for tours about a (disputed) Father of Confederation.

(This one has a somewhat happy ending, as the Metis Foundation has stepped up to fundraise like nuts to keep the house open to the public. But, really, it's part of our history -- why do they have to keep it open to the public?)

Another example. Everybody and their sibling has been flipping out over the Conservatives' austerity budget. And there's lots to hate there. But here's a cut that doesn't make any sense: lighthouses. Not just regular ol' lighthouses which ships navigate by; historic lighthouses, which serve as a physical connection to our maritime history. But, the federal government has decided that it no longer has any money to pay for upkeep, and wants to ditch them. That's over 500 lighthouses.

There is a process to apply to Parks Canada to get them designated as national heritage sites, which would fold them into the Parks Canada budget. (Which is also being cut, in case you hadn't noticed. Reduced hours and reduced staff at national parks this summer, folks. Happy camping!) Parks expects about half of the lighthouses designated for closure to get their applications in on time; there is no indication yet as to how many might get approved. I'm guessing not many, given that Parks doesn't have enough money to handle what it's already trying to run.

The lighthouses scheduled for closure and sale include the well-known Peggy's Cove lighthouse. Fortunately, the government of Nova Scotia is trying to buy that one from the feds. Unfortunately, the feds are refusing to restore it to a decent condition before selling it. The paint is peeling badly, and restoring that would require stripping the paint back to concrete and starting over, which could cost about $500K. The NS government is saying, reasonably enough, that since the paint degraded when the feds were in control, it's their problem to fix. The feds are saying, effectively, that they'll cheerfully let the lighthouse rot before they spend a dime on it.

Isn't that interesting? There's money for military history, lots of money, apparently; and lots of government attention, too. (Heritage Minister James Moore was in TO at Fort York for the bicentennial of the War of 1812.) But there's no money for maritime history. Unless there's warships or submarines involved or something, I suppose.

The Conservatives say that they want to preserve our history and make sure we remember our glorious past. That's what you'd expect conservatives to say. But what they're actually doing is quite radical -- they are rewriting our past, obliterating elements they don't like, overemphasizing the elements they do.

And since this government is clearly not willing to listen to anybody but sycophants and ideologues, the best bet for all concerned is to start leaning on the provinces and the cities and towns. If the Government of Canada isn't concerned with Canada's past, then there's no other way that I can see to preserve it.

(On an unrelated note: Ottawa, you lucky bastards. I watched Rogers' Talk Ottawa last night, and they had an actual, serious, informed debate about building light rail lines and public transit generally. You lucky, lucky bastards. Not sure it makes up for having to live in Ottawa, though. I kid... mostly.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Apparently, the BC Supreme Court has legalized physician-assisted suicide, leading inevitably to a mass slaughter of everyone over the age of -- let's say -- 50.

Yeah, there's a lot of bullshit being tossed around about the decision. Without going into the nitty-gritty -- because I really don't have time or inclination to read a lengthy legal document -- here are some useful distinctions which might actually inform the debate. Although, gods forbid we have an informed debate about an important issue; let's just be partisan and sling mud!

(Too much Sun News is really, really bad for you, BTW.)

So, first point: physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is not equivalent to euthanasia. It's a form of euthanasia, but not the only one. Euthanasia, strictly, is the killing of a person who is otherwise going to die from some progressive illness. (Some folks want to expand the definition beyond that, but I tend to think that's just garden-variety suicide or murder. Possibly justifiable in both cases, but not euthanasia.) Euthanasia is usually divided into active and passive forms (there are some other distinctions, but this one is crucial). Active euthanasia involves actually doing something in order to hasten someone's death. Passive euthanasia involves refraining from doing something in order to hasten someone's death. So, administering a fatal overdose of a drug is active euthanasia; allowing someone to refuse nutrition is passive euthanasia.

I think most people don't object to active or passive euthanasia, when they're administered by the person who is dying. That is, when they are strictly suicide. We can all sort of understand being in terrible pain and seeing little point to prolonging it; even if we might decide differently for ourselves, it seems reasonable to allow people to make this decision on their own, without interference from others.

The sticky point comes when you get someone else involved. That's where PAS comes in. PAS, and other forms of assisted euthanasia, involve a third-party helping a dying person to kill themselves. So, when the dying person can't, because of physical or cognitive limitations, actually go through with euthanasia, the physician -- or whomever -- gets involved, and helps carry out the person's wishes. This could be passive, technically -- by ensuring that the dying person is not provided with treatment or nutrition, for example -- but is usually active.

Now, again, I don't really see any serious objections to this. I quite understand if individual physicians, or whomever, may not want to assist someone in dying. (Although, that said, maybe they should go and talk to vets, who do it all the time, about whether it's kinder to let someone suffer or to ease them on their way.) I wouldn't suggest that anyone be forced to assist in euthanasia. However, if the assistant is okay with it, and it's a clearly-expressed wish of the person being euthanized (so, no coercion, clear mind, etc., etc., the standard set of conditions for determining if someone really wants something or not), I see no important objections to assisted active euthanasia.

What I'm noticing, though, is that people who object to the court's decision have failed to distinguish the above form of assisted active euthanasia, where an assistant, often a physician, helps a dying person fulfill a clear request, with a slightly different form of euthanasia, which is much more problematic. This is active, assisted euthanasia where the dying person's wishes are unclear, coerced, or simply unexpressed; in other words, where the physician, or whomever, substitutes his or her judgement for that of the dying person.

Often, we are okay with this, legally and, I think, ethically. When someone is not capable of making important medical decisions for themselves, we expect those who are close to them -- or officially-appointed delegates -- to take on the burden of making those decisions. So, I don't see the problem if that's the case: if the physician, or other assistant, has been given the power to make medical decisions for the dying person, and decides that now is the time for euthanasia, either active or passive in form.

If we're dealing with a case where a person has clearly stated they do not wish to be euthanized, then there is equally no problem. This person should not be euthanized, at least not actively. Passively is a different story; given that medical resources are always scarce, there comes a point where it is, I think, legitimate to remove scarce resources from a dying person and provide only palliative care.

The only problematic case that I see is where the decision-making power is ambiguous or not delegated, and/or where the person's expressed wishes are unclear.

But. It's nonsense to say that all cases of euthanasia are like this one. Not all cases are active. Not all cases are assisted. Not all assisted cases are cases where the dying person's wishes are unclear.

It's nonsense to say that we should make broad, sweeping laws in order to deal with narrowly-defined cases. This is a general point, but it's worth repeating: laws can be crafted more carefully; trying to deal with difficult issues requires precision, not brute force.

It's nonsense to say that seniors will be butchered by uncaring physicians, because in most case of euthanasia, we're dealing with people who have clearly expressed a wish to die (or, equivalently, have given the power to decide that to someone else, who expresses such a wish). This one's actually very bad, as it's a general slander on physicians who work with the dying; I've yet to run into even one who wants a patient, even a difficult one, to die.

And it's nonsense to say that it is clearly wrong to euthanize someone where it's not clear that they wish to be euthanized and/or it's not clear who has the power to make that decision. The point of such a case is that it's not clear. There's no general principle to appeal to here; nothing you can use to make the decision easier. This is the hardest of hard cases, where you have to collect as much information as possible and make the best decision on that basis that you can, allowing that you might get it wrong. For laws to get in the way and dictate that decision one way or the other strikes me as frankly juvenile.

(Oh, and, the less said about Margaret Somerville's recent nonsense the better. I now know that she is philosophically informed, so the fact that she spouts such foolishness is clearly a result of inclination, not ignorance.)

Monday, June 18, 2012

On the glories of politics.

Anybody who thinks they can explain how an anti-austerity, pro-stimulus party won in France, a pro-austerity, anti-citizen group of parties won in Greece, and a religious radical won in Egypt -- all in about 24 hours -- is either lying or crazy or both.

Oh, and, apparently Justin Trudeau will save the Liberal Party of Canada. No, really, some people think that.

Some nights, you've just gotta laugh at politics. It doesn't make sense, because people don't make sense.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On "Tax Freedom Day"

Well, that was two rather unpleasant weeks.

I've decided to do away with the Sun Talk thing. The joke was getting old, I think. There's only so many ways to call lying imbeciles lying imbeciles before it gets boring.

However, I do have the advantage of watching a metric shit-tonne of news and news-related talk every night, so that does give me some grist for the mill.

For example: did you know that the haven of old right-wing white men, the Fraser Institute, has put out a trendy music video on how taxes are evil and we should all celebrate "Tax Freedom Day"? Such hipsters they are; so cool and with-it, as the kids say.

The whole concept is ridiculous, really. Rousseau and Locke both argue persuasively that the sort of freedom you have outside of a society is a freedom appropriate to brutes; the sort of freedom which is worth having only comes as part of forming a social unit with others. And that freedom comes with a price tag, namely, taxes.

Yes, I know: the Fraserites always say that they're just putting out information and you can't make a decision about what level of taxation is good or bad unless you know what taxes are actually being paid. And that's fine, except it's total bullshit.

It's true that you need to know what a situation is before you can begin to evaluate it. However, it's false that the Fraser Institute doesn't evaluate the situation. It's in the name, after all: "Tax Freedom Day". The day when you are liberated from the horrible chains of taxation. They've already decided that we are "overtaxed" (which is term that means anything, hence nothing), and are cherry-picking data in order to prop up that claim.

It's dishonest, and transparently so.

I don't know -- and don't care -- about the details of how the Fraserites calculate the amount of taxes paid by the average family. I suspect it's a mean number, which is misleading to begin with; and I also suspect there's some double-counting involved, as well as some totally arbitrary exclusion of tax credits and refunds. I have no evidence really for these claims, except to say: I know the type of people who think they are "overtaxed", and this is how they think.

Generally, I find it a poor argument to complain that someone doesn't deal with thus-and-so when they are clearly trying to address such-and-such, only tangentially related to thus-and-so. "Men's rights" advocates do this when they complain that campaigns to end violence against women and children don't talk about men; and hardline Israeli supporters do this when they complain that groups against Israeli apartheid aren't condemning the actions of the Iranian regime. It's a complete non sequitur. If someone is trying to talk about topic x, it's irrelevant to say that they aren't talking about topic y.

Unless the reason that they are talking about x is because they really what to talk about z, which is also related to y. In other words, you've gotta connect the dots a little. "You didn't talk about this!" is nothing; "you said you were going to talk about this, but you've completely ignored this other aspect" is pretty damning.

The Fraser Institute claims it supports "greater choice, less government intervention, and more personal responsibility". Forget, for a moment, that it's a nonsensical grab-bag of glibertarian buzzwords. Just focus on that first bit: "greater choice".

You know who really limits individual choice? It isn't the government. It's massive corporations, whose influence on the market is so dominant that they can crowd out new entrants, buy up (and squelch) new technologies and delivery models, and prevent consumers from getting what they clearly demonstrate they want. Where is the Fraser Institute's annual report on that? Where is the Fraser Institute's annual "Corporate Freedom Day", the day where we stop working for corporate interests? Where is the concern with the ability of gigantic multinationals to come into our country, dig up our resources, pocket the profits, and leave us to clean up the mess?

The Fraser Institute is yet another one of those groups that proclaims itself a believer in freedom, but really believes in feudalism. The lords -- of industry, of capital -- can do as they like, and the peasants -- the peons and workhorses -- will have to like what they are given.

Friday, June 01, 2012

On Sun Talk for May 31, 2012.

Quick one, as I'm pressed for time.

The Magnotta obsession continues! Standing by what I said yesterday, BTW. Giving the guy too much attention is exactly he wants. Report on the situation, then move on to other news. Giving him hours and hours of airtime is letting him win (and scaring people for no reason).

Daily Brief

Yeah, I got nothing. Mostly Magnotta last night. A bit on Mulcair and the oilsands, but I've already talked about that: Mulcair is right, and the fact that execs are starting to try to sell the oilsands to provinces other than Alberta proves that they think he has a point. And then some malarkey on the US Presidential election; their politics is so screwed up that, were I to ever live there, I'd probably have to put blocks on the web and TV to avoid reading news about it.

The Arena

Oh, dear. Coren was in fine form last night, pretending to be some sort of moderate intellectual who is bullied by the devious left -- while shouting people down, talking over them, substituting rhetoric for logic, and lying his ass off.

It's hard to pick on just one of the topics he covered -- media bias (it's left-wing, doncha know, despite most major media outlets endorsing the Cons in the last election), atheists (who are all angry and dishonest, totally unlike certain Catholics I could name), same-sex marriage (which is a violation of natural laws, where "natural laws" are whatever the celibate Pope says they are), and abortion (there's a right to life, y'know, unless you're Iranian).

Let me just say, then, that I'm still waiting for the day when Coren grows up and realizes how empty and detached from reality his ideology really is. Last night's show was a perfect example of how deluded he really is.

Oh, and, Dave Silverman's ability to retain his sense of humour is superhuman.


There was a profoundly bullshit segment here trying to excuse the failure of Baby Boomers -- as a generation -- to build a society which would leave their children better off than they are. The facts really speak for themselves, and the failure of Bonokoski to even mention them shows how dishonest he is.

Generation X on down will, clearly and objectively, have worse lives than the generations before them. And it's not the post-WW2 generation who's to blame here. Either the Boomers can realize, finally, that the world doesn't revolve around them and they have to start giving back. Or, the rest of us can stop taking their shit and make 'em.

Or we can do what Gen X has always been good at, and the Millennials are learning how to do, and whine pointlessly rather than do something constructive.

News Update

Magnotta, Magnotta, Magnotta. Whatever.


I loved the "Hunt for a Killer" graphic Lilley was using here. Dark background, metallic lettering, a splash of blood (literally, an animated splash of blood spattering on the letters), a slab-of-meat sound effect -- glorious.

Unfortunately, he meant it seriously, not as parody.

The death penalty discussion came up again, this time in relation to Magnotta. I'm very tired of how dishonest the arguments about capital punishment are amongst those who are in favour of it.

Here's the thing. The moral arguments against capital punishment don't work. They either turn on implausible general principles -- pacifism, anti-violence -- or deliberately misrepresent the intentions of capital punishment -- e.g., the intent to execute is the same as the intent to murder.

However. That doesn't mean we should reinstitute a policy of capital punishment. The moral principle is only part of the issue; the other part is whether we can make that principle work in our world. And I think Lilley realizes we can't, at least dimly, hence why he kept referring to needing to have "incontrovertible proof" of someone's guilt before executing them.

The problem is that such proof doesn't exist -- unless we're doing certain kinds of mathematical or formal logical problems. Even in the sciences, "proof" is always provisional, always at least in theory subject to refutation. In law, it's even less likely that our proof is actually incontrovertible -- it might be very strong, but it's never going to be perfect.

Which means that any policy of capital punishment will, inevitably, lead to executing someone who was proven to be guilty, but who was actually innocent. (And, indeed, someone proven guilty who is, post-execution, proved innocent.) That's the question that has to be focused on: can we justify a policy which is intended to punish the guilty but ends up killing the innocent?

In my calculation, killing the innocent is worse than not punishing the guilty. Perhaps Brian Lilley adds things up differently; if so, he should be honest about it, tell us so, and offer what justification he has. Otherwise, this is all just air.