Saturday, 24 January 2015

Science VS. GMOs

"Scientists design GMOs that can't escape into the wild." Peak irony. A scientific discovery that plays into the hands of the anti-science crowd.

This should be celebrated as a scientific milestone for what it means about life and our understanding of it. Scientists have managed to create a living organism that uses synthetic amino acids. This is the manipulation of the building blocks of life (as we know it) itself. Its implications for research about how life evolved and other advancements are yet to be discovered and appreciated.

So how does the story play out? Almost every media report is about how they could "extend [this] technique to genetically modified crops. That could ease concerns about spreading outside their designated fields."

Ah yes. The naturalistic fallacy. GMO crops are taking over the world, wreaking havoc with ecosystems, etc. etc. Except when they're not. Which is all of the time.

Every single crop mankind cultivates is a GMO crop. We have cross-bred, selectively bred, and used mutation breeding to create desirable traits in every single food crop we cultivate. (As a child of the 70s/80s I am amused and surprised that using radiation on our crops didn't provoke this much of an outcry. Mutation by radiation was the cause of every scary monster imaginable.) We have genetically modified cattle, sheep, dogs and numerous other animals for our advantage. But modify genes in a lab? That ain't natural! This must be stopped. (Seriously. If you are dead set against Genetically Modified Organisms, give-up your dog or cat right now. They're not "natural" creatures.)

We didn't fear "contaminating the natural environment" when Canadian farmers created multiple strains of GMO Wheat for over 100 years. These man-made strains of wheat have not taken over our wild environments. But it is these man-made strains that are seen as vulnerable to cross-contamination from man-made laboratory wheat. Because when nature cross-breeds two man-made varieties, that's wrong. Or something. There is no naturally occurring food-crop that can be contaminated with a man-made GMO. All of our food crops are already GMOs. Preventing cross-contamination by laboratory derived GMOs is not just closing the gate when the horse has bolted. It's closing the gate when all the horses have bolted, mated and raised generations of horses all hooving their noses at you.

Look, I get that farmers are sued when patented genetic material lands in their fields. I get that they are forced to destroy their own crops because of the action of wind, rain and insects. And for the record, that is 100% bullshit. It is my firm opinion that the patent system stifles innovation, unfairly punishes infringement and is a horribly broken system in need of a rewrite or total abandonment. But GMO technology is not the root problem. The patent system, and its legal protections are the problem.

The irony here is that GMO plants dependent on artificial amino acids are seen as some sort of solution. Let's explore that a bit. Say they do create a variety of wheat or corn that cannot survive without one or more synthetic amino acids. How would a planted field get those amino acids? Through either fortified water or fertilizer that allows the plants to absorb the amino acids through their root systems. As it is impossible for 100% of these synthetic aminos to be absorbed, that means that there will be synthetic amino acids left behind in the soil. Where naturally occurring bacteria, insects, etc. live. Year after year, decade after decade, the farmer seeds the soil with these artificial amino acids. How long before evolutionary processes kick in and wild creatures evolve to use these amino acids? What then?

Following this thought process through, the cure is much worse than the disease. Especially considering the disease is an artificial construct of our minds in the first place.

Food for thought. No?

UPDATE: Carl Zimmer explains why artificial amino acids unlikely to cause the effect I warn about:
there are hundreds of other kinds of amino acids in nature, and scientists have created many others that are never found in nature.

In theory, living things should be able to use these amino acids to build their proteins, too. They don’t, however, because all living things share a nearly identical code for translating the information in their genes into proteins.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

To Punish or Reform, That is the Question

We instinctively look to long sentences to punish offenders, yet the evidence shows
that long periods served in prison increase the chance that the offender will offend
again ... In the end, public security is diminished rather than increased if we "throw
away the key" and then return offenders to the streets at sentence expiry,
unreformed and unsupervised.

Thirteen male students at Dalhousie University made misogynistic and/or violently misogynistic comments about fellow female students. These facts are not in doubt, but what is publicly in doubt is which students made which comments. Furthermore, we do not know the intent behind the comments. Were they of serious intent, or were they jokes?

Regardless of what is known and what is unknown, many individuals have cried out for justice. These male students need to be punished, and the female students need to feel safe. Dalhousie is under immense pressure to outright expel all thirteen students. If they somehow ever get their degrees, they should not be employed.

It is at this point the question needs to be asked, what is the goal of all this punishment? What is it that this powerful mob of vigilantes want? If the point is to only punish these young men, and if suspension and denial of employment happen, point made. But what next for these thirteen young men? Are they allowed to apply back to university for other professions? If yes, then why can't they become dentists, why is it only this one profession denied them? If no, well then what are they allowed to do? These questions need to have answers in advance.

There is a petition online (with over 49,000 signatures so far) urging these students be expelled. As justification it states,

Not one individual, regardless of sex, age or gender that participates in a group that condones violence towards women including rape, the drugging of females and other misogynistic attitudes should ever be placed in a position of trust.

We the signers also believe that all students should have the right to study in a positive environment that is free from the above attitudes; where every student feels safe to learn valued as a member of the School. We do not believe that allowing the members of this group to continue studying [at] the School promotes said environment for the females students, specially the ones named on the Facebook group.

Following the logic as presented, if these students must be expelled for the safety of all female students, it would then follow that these students must never be allowed to enter any educational environment where there are female students present. It is also then logical to assume that these students must never be employed where female co-workers or female members of the public are present, especially if any degree of trust is involved. So what future does that permit for these men?

We can hope that this petition is poorly worded, and that these extensions of logic are not intended. But these extensions of logic do matter. It has already been stated that these thirteen men must never be allowed to work in a profession where sedatives are available. That covers a large number of possible careers. So therefore, what careers are left, and does the matter of trust carry significant weight?

The goals of punishment as expressed, only pertain to the safety of the female students these males may encounter. While that is a laudable goal, that cannot be the only justification for any action taken. Actions have consequences, and yes, the male students involved should face some sort of consequence, but the actions we take against them will have consequences of their own.

And this is where it becomes troubling that there are demands for punishment, for justice, to occur when no breach of criminal law has been committed. A standard of behaviour has been breached. Against this breach of behaviour, justice is being sought, and so principles of justice must apply. The punishment must suit the crime. And this punishment will set precedent.

This is why it is important to define the goals of the punishment. If permanent expulsion from education and from the workforce is desired, then we will have thirteen very angry, depressed and revenge minded individuals. It is not fantastical to predict that one of these young men will seek revenge on campus in a very bloody manner. Even expulsion from Dalhousie carries this risk, especially if their names become public. Will any school accept their application to enter any other program? Will they be able to attend class without threats of protest, public shaming or other acts against their person?

We cannot deny these men participation in society. That would be a greater evil than the actions they took. Their only crime was to use words, on Facebook. That is not an evil that requires full expulsion from society. That is what a life sentence in jail is for, and that criminal punishment does not apply here. We therefore cannot allow a social equivalent of that punishment to occur.

Furthermore, it is critical the punishment not be seen as hypocritical. Because the phrases uttered by these men are not unique to these men alone. Their only sin was to get caught. That is how many will interpret this. The lesson many will learn is If you want to be misogynistic, make sure you do it in private.

I want to be very clear here. I am not endorsing what these young men said and I do agree that it is reflective of a larger social problem. It is commonly seen that these kind of comments are allowed, even encouraged. There is a social attitude of entrenched misogyny that needs to change. And again, it is important to reflect on the goals of the punishment that is sought. If these men are turned into pariahs, the goal of changing society will backfire. The Men's Rights Activists will have their martyrs, and these thirteen young men will become the celebrated heroes of their cause.

While these young men must face some form of punishment, of censure, this punishment must take the principles of reforming their behaviour into its core. We want thirteen valued members of society to result from this. Perhaps all goals can be achieved by requiring the students involved to restart their current year of study from the beginning. This is not a small punishment; it imposes a large financial penalty through tuition and the loss of one year of income. They will be one year behind their peers, their friends. There will still be shame and hopefully atonement. But they will be allowed to participate in society. Hopefully chastised, reformed and wiser. Isn't that what we truly all want?

We definitely do not want thirteen angry, isolated, revenge driven individuals. That will not serve society well.

1 Submission on Bill C-10 Safe Streets and Communities Act, The Canadian Bar Association.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Garbage In, Garbage Out

"Proposal: Real XMas tree retailers be made responsible for used tree pickup and disposal. Pass costs on to consumers, not municipalities."

Why is waste collection a municipal responsibility? Why do our property taxes have to subsidize taking away our neighbour's garbage?

This question starts running through my head every time the waste disposal issue hits the political and social radar. Nothing illustrates the waste in our consumerist society more than the collection of garbage sitting at the curb each week in communities across the western world. It is a cost, and a burden that can result in some bizarre stop-gap solutions. Shipping your garbage out of country? Really?

"Free" curbside pickup has encouraged a use-and-discard society. The costs are hidden in municipal budgets, and the physical waste is hidden from view in remote waste management stations. Recycling and composting are encouraged, but for the most part, that relies on the good-will and co-operation of the home-owner. In Waterloo Region, where I live, there is no real benefit in choosing to recycle. I only hope that I am doing the right thing. But I could be like my none-discerning neighbours and not bother recycling anything and throw out everything in the garbage instead. Out of sight, out of mind impacts how we use products; but it also impacts how and what we purchase.

Real Christmas trees are a real perverse example of this. A living organism is killed, purchased and used in a home for a few weeks as pure decoration only, and then disposed of for the municipality to remove. Over 2.5 million trees are chopped down in Canada each year, to be used as a throw away decoration.

Out of sight, out of mind indeed.

How much we consume, and how much we reuse, recycle, compost or throw away is a personal choice. But how to deal with the waste produced is a collective responsibility, and a collective cost burden. Nuts to that sez I. It's time we put the burden of waste management as much as possible on the end consumer that chooses to generate that waste. A simple solution would be direct waste billing; much like water, electricity or natural gas. Unfortunately that system is hard to bill (how do you price it?) but it also encourages illegal dumping. Especially when larger items need to be disposed of.

So what if we made the producers and the importers responsible? When a product is in its final, ready for delivery mode it's easier to calculate the product's waste/recycling potential and the impact of packaging. Collect a "Waste Management Tax" (based on some sort of calculation) before sale and pool that money for municipalities to draw from to pay for their waste management programs. Ideally municipalities would no longer need to draw from the tax base to cover waste fees. This would free up a large portion of their budget for more practical infrastructure. The cost of the waste part of the consumerist lifecycle would be baked into the product itself. That $2.50 cheap plastic thingy may now cost $5.00 and deter its purchase. (Hopefully entire sections of cheap junk would disappear from dollar store aisles.) Consumers would have no incentive to dump illegally as all items would have their waste cost built in. Disposal would still be free, but acquisition would be higher. Producers would have incentive to improve quality and maintainability of their products. The longer a product's lifespan, the lower its waste cost. Like a carbon tax, a properly designed waste management tax encourages producers to find a way to legally reduce that tax. The "Greener" the product, the lower the tax.

And maybe, just maybe we can start tackling the throwaway mindset that society has adopted.

Friday, 19 December 2014

With Apologies....

Good King Wenceslas went out,
for pizza he was craving.
Homemade fresh rolled dough
deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the oven light,
while the cheese did bubble.
Now his hunger it did bite,
and his stomach gru-um-bled.

O'er the menu he did pore
Meat and cheese and mushrooms
Marked his choices one by one
All his favourites lusting
Now his order's all but done
Gives to cashier waiting
Tries to pay for two full pies,
and Visa says declin-i-ing

So sadly Wenceslas went home
With cravings strong and griping
What to eat he did not know
His larder bare unappealing
And lo his friends, they came by
For a night of gaiety.
They brought beer and games to play
And pizza hot so pi-i-ping

And so the night it was saved
With friends and a party
And good cheer to all it gave
With drinks and food so hearty
Therefore, all men, take this creed
If good friends possessing
When you find yourself in need
Shall yourself find blessing

Monday, 10 November 2014

No. They Didn't Fight for our Freedoms.

On Remembrance Day, Canadians come together to honour our fellow countrymen and women who have sacrificed for the sake of our freedom and way of life. Prince George-Peace River MP Bob Zimmer

This trope that Canadian soldiers have fought and sacrificed for Canadian freedoms is so common we accept it without any thought. It's part of our lore now, and it is regularly trotted out as a reminder to honour our veterans. Well I have thought about it, and I find this sentiment to be misguided and completely wrong. At no time have Canadian freedoms ever been under threat of attack. The only exception being the only war fought on our soil, the War of 1812. But that's not what people think about when they say "they sacrificed their lives for our freedoms."

When we state that members of our military fought for our freedoms, we dishonour the true sacrifice made. The physical and mental scars, the loss of friends and colleagues in battle, the cost of combat; has all occurred on foreign soil. The sacrifices made have all been to free foreign citizens from an oppressive threat to them. These sacrifices were not for us, they were made for something more than that. They were made so that others could escape oppression and have a chance to live in freedom.

By making this sacrifice all about us, it diminishes the true valor and selfless altruism expressed. When we put ourselves central to the story, we create a narrative that becomes partisan and political. It helps to assuage our guilt about sending our sons and daughters overseas to die on foreign soil. Even though it happened over there we claim it was about defending us over here.

But when one follows that logic it quickly breaks down. For the battles fought to have been about defending us would require that there was a threat to our shores; that there was an imminent invasion of our country that needed to be stopped. But we have never been under threat of invasion. Even in World War 2, Germany would have never had the capacity to invade North America; their goal was the European mainland and Russia, a goal that was already beyond their military might. Japan had no ambitions beyond the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even if Germany and Japan had won the war, our democratic freedoms and our territory were safe.

The strength with which we cling to this tenuous link to protecting our freedoms says more about us than it does about those that served. And isn't it supposed to be the other way around? Let's not diminish the altruism and sacrifice of those that have served in our armed forces. For I can think of no greater sacrifice then to lay down ones life for an other, a stranger.

A foreigner.

Why do we work so hard to lessen the meaning of that sacrifice? Perhaps it's time we stopped. Remember and honour the sacrifice made so that others could live free.

Friday, 31 October 2014

"Jian Ghomeshi vs. the Mob" a Rebuttal

My friend Sean Stokholm penned an interesting op-ed in the National Post questioning the value of vigilante mob justice. In principle I agree with his underlying point, that the mob tolerates no dissent, or questioning of its motives. I have made my own argument in this regard.

(Disclosure, in the current Jian Ghomeshi affair, I am probably a member of "the mob" Sean is taking aim at. The shoe as it is said, is on the other foot.)

The online community, at least as I experience it on Twitter, can get very shouty. If you have a contrarian opinion, hordes are willing to shout you down and launch vicious attacks on your personality, your friends, your employer and everyone associated with you. That aspect I cannot stand. I cringe when I see people I respect engage such behavior themselves. I hope I have never done it myself. There is disagreeing with an opinion, and having a discussion (or even an argument) and then there is just shouting insults at each other, which I believe is never useful.

For that part of the argument, I completely agree with Sean.

So I why do I identify with "the mob?"

This Jian Ghomeshi affair is a unique incident. It was precipitated by Jian himself, with his now infamous Facebook post. With that post, Jian asked us to rush to judgement. He demanded that we believe him. If he wasn't a semi-famous celebrity, the resulting uproar would likely not have been as loud. But Jian opened the door to the mob, hoping to attract only the mob of his defenders and well...

If you open the door to the mob, don't be surprised when the wrong mob comes through your door.

Because Jian asked the online world to believe his side of the story, it is natural, it is expected, it is hoped, that the opposing viewpoint would become available. And holy shit did it ever become available. We, the mob that Jian asked our opinion of, now had more information. We had two sides to the argument. We could make a choice. Just as Jian asked us to. An awful lot of us chose not to believe Jian's side. Suck it up loser.

I have seen many people asking that we all choose the third way, "Don't believe either side until we have proof." It is a reasonable request, but in this case it ignores the proof that we have, and the proof that is rapidly becoming more available. This isn't just a "he said, she said" argument, this is a "he said, she said and she said and she said and she said and she said and she said and she said and she said" argument. And a lot of the "she said" stories are remarkably consistent with each other. Which either requires a grand conspiracy, or that it actually happened the way these women are reporting. Even when the Toronto Star (finally!*) broke the story, we had four women that anonymously questioned Jian's version of events.

The fact that these women chose to be anonymous bothers a lot of people. To which I say "Why?" You are currently reading an anonymous bloggers post, I have many people reading my anonymous Twitter account. People regularly engage with my "anonymous" self online all the time and take my personal stories at face value. And I can attest from personal experience and personal belief, that an individual's desire for anonymity can (and most likely) does not impact their ability to impart a truthful statement. If a person you know can lie to your face, an anonymous person can tell the truth. Knowing someone's true identity has little value in determining the truthfulness of their statements. Society wrongly puts huge value in knowing the name behind a statement, and as the online world is really showing, anonymity empowers people to state truths they would otherwise hide for fear of reprisal. (And yes, anonymity does enable trolls to show their nasty side to the world, but I submit they are sharing their true ugly selves. They're not faking it.) Let me put it simply, people have a multitude of reasons to stay anonymous, those reasons are completely independent of the truth behind their statements. Granted you cannot cross-examine them, but you are not a lawyer, and we are not in a court of the law. Those rules don't apply to society at large.

So what we had pretty quickly was one person, Jian, sharing one side of the story and four other people sharing the other side. I submit, if you were fence-sitting, refusing to choose sides and waiting for more evidence, you were engaging in deliberate moral cowardice**.

Now as a member of "the mob" I do have the responsibility to not shout down others with opposing viewpoints. I have the responsibility to engage, with respect, and to listen and to rebut if I can. If we can come to agreement, great. If not, well, if I could convince everyone to always agree with me I would be King of the World. The fact that I am not even close illustrates my rate of success. And I have to be content to live with that.

As should you. Be respectful. Try to make your debates productive.

*   I have quite vocally questioned the Toronto Star for sitting on the story until Jian released his Facebook statement. This story should have been broken earlier. Sitting on it was an irresponsible choice that continued to endanger the safety of women exposed to Jian Ghomeshi.
** I chose to word it that way deliberately, to provoke you the reader, to sit back and ponder the impact of that. You can disagree, but understand that I am not God sitting on his throne casting judgement on you. I am just trying to provoke you.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Slate. Missing the Point

Yesterday a video of woman experiencing street harassment went viral. When I watched it all I saw were men treating a woman like an object. An object they desired and existed for their own pleasure.

And I was disgusted. I had heard about street harassment, but never witnessed it. To say this video opened my eyes is like saying a kick to the nuts is painful. And based on the viral nature of that video, I wasn't the only one.

So what's the reaction Slate went with? The video is racist.

I read it and my bullshit meter redlined.

"But if the point of this video is to teach men about the day-to-day reality of women, then this video doesn’t hit its target. The men who are sitting in their offices or in cafes watching this video will instead be able to comfortably assure themselves that they don’t have time to sit on hydrants in the middle of the day and can’t properly pronounce “mami.”"

I am a white, country-bred, redneck male. And this video reached me. I got it. While sitting in my office.

If a guy is ignoring the point of this video because of race, that guy has TWO problems. If a guy is ignoring the point of this video because he's older, that's just young kids today, that guy has TWO problems. If a guy is ignoring the point of this video because it's an American Big City and he's Canadian small-town, that guy has TWO problems. If a guy is ignoring the point of this video because.... Well you get my point.

The point of the video is Street harrassment is real. It's wrong. And it needs to stop.

And if you find yourself saying "But.." stop right there. YOU have a problem. And you need to deal with that.