Sunday, 22 March 2015

It's Not the Cold That Gets You

It's the wind!

March 22,2015. Minus two degrees Celsius and sunny. Feeling pent up and decided to take the dog for a walk. Head out the front door, and it's not too bad. But when I turned the corner and started heading north...

Holy fuck, why does it feel like a Frost Giant is flaying my face with an ice whip? Within steps the bridge of my nose froze and my eyes started watering like I witnessed the death of Gandalf all over again, "Fly! You fool!" West and North, the wind rips and tears at me, turning an outing into a chore. I want nothing more then to turn around (heed Gandalf's advice) and hide in my home until July.

And it's impossible to avoid. One cannot go for a walk, and hope to return home, without facing North or West at some point. You can't walk in a circle only going South and East. And while this past winter has driven this point home stronger than most, this has been a worsening trend we have noticed for the last decade or so.

The wind. Remember calm days and gentle breezes? I think I do. But I'm not so sure any more. 29 days out of 30, there is wind to contend with and plan for. And no we can't get a gentle warm breeze. I think I know where the Arctic Ice Sheet is disappearing to. The North Wind is carrying it south to torture us with. "So it looks sunny and warm out eh? Here's some ice to the face to make you cower and hide from my wrath!"

So am I imagining things? Off to Google I go. Oh what's this?

"The projected results clearly show that Canada could possibly receive more wind gust events late this century than has been historically experienced."
Possible Impacts of Climate Change on Wind Gusts under Downscaled Future Climate Conditions: Updated for Canada. Journal of Climate, Volume 27, Issue 3 (February 2014)

You know what? Time to say "Fuck it" and just build a bunker to live out the rest of my life in. I might know a guy to help me too.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

All About Those Values

"This isn’t about the right to choose a burka over a bikini. It’s about a country’s values." So says National Post columnist Tasha Kheiriddin. This point of view has been expressed by multiple individuals, so it is a worthwhile endeavor to attempt to understand the logic and reasoning behind it.

According to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his supporters "This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal, and I think we find [wearing a niqab] offensive."

This line of reasoning is being used to justify the banning of a woman wearing a veil covering her face while swearing the oath of citizenship. While her face is covered, she is not being transparent and open about her intent to become a Canadian citizen. If we accept that logic, why do we wait until the Oath of Citizenship to enforce this rule? Becoming a Canadian citizen involves multiple steps where the Oath of Citizenship is the last step. If we truly value openness, transparency and honesty, a woman wearing a veil for religious or cultural reasons would be banned from the process entirely. A woman that wears a veil, specifically a niqab, would be doing so at all times as an expression of her culture and/or religion. This part of her identity would be honestly and openly conveyed to Canadian officials at all stages of the citizenship application process. Since she is being open and transparent with us, do we not owe her openness and transparency in return? Or are those values conditional, subject to our whim and only used when convenient? Denying a woman her citizenship at the very end of the process amounts to a cruel joke, perpetrated by the Government of Canada.

The thing about values is, either you believe and hold to them, or you don't.

And that leads to another problem with the values argument. Asking a woman to suspend her values for the time required to take the oath is not consistent with the values requiring her to do so. If Canadian society finds the niqab offensive, it should find it offensive at all times. Allowing a women to wear a niqab anytime except the 15 minutes required to recite an oath is turning this strongly held value of Canadian identity into a value of convenience. If the niqab is truly offensive to Canadian values such that no Canadian citizen would ever accept wearing one, then it should be banned at all times. Banning it for 15 minutes accomplishes nothing.

Correction. Banning it for 15 minutes accomplishes one thing. It degrades and embarrasses the very woman we are trying to free from oppression. If a husband and wife were to take an oath of citizenship where both of them strongly believe women must be veiled in public, the woman would be denied citizenship, but her husband would not. Because a woman expresses her belief that women must be veiled, she is punished for it. But we do not punish those that hold the belief. Even more importantly, we do not punish the misogynistic, paternalistic men that propagate this belief.

Quite frankly, banning veils during the Oath of Citizenship punishes the victim, the very person we are supposedly championing the rights of. If the niqab is so offensive to the Canadian Government that it must act through law, why are we not stripping the citizenship from and deporting the very men that preach, teach, promote, encourage and enforce the wearing of a niqab? Why do we let the offenders in and grant them citizenship, but punish the victim?

I can only conclude that banning women from wearing a veil during the Oath of Citizenship is not about protecting or helping them. It is about appeasing Canadians that don't want to be offended by "others." It is a bandage solution that harms more than it heals, and does nothing to address the root of the problem of misogynistic beliefs.

As Steph C. said on Twitter, "Last I checked, it was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, not the Charter of Values." This gets to the heart of the matter. The Charter defines everyone's rights, even the rights of people we may see as victims of oppression. We can't stop someone from choosing oppression. What we can do is grant them citizenship and equality before the law, so that they now have the opportunity to throw off that oppression.

If they so choose to do so. Let's give them that opportunity, instead of punishing them. They are oppressed enough, we shouldn't be adding to their burden.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Network Neutrality. Conceptually Wrong. Time For it to Die.

"Network neutrality is the idea that all web content, regardless of its form or who provides it, should be treated equally by internet providers."

Network Neutrality, like so many things, is a high-minded concept that aspires to a wonderful ideal, but an impractical reality.

But it's biggest challenge is that its advocates often make incoherent contradictory arguments like: "If they're saying I can watch all the TV I want through their internet network, but I can't go browsing Facebook on this, as much as I want, is that legal through net neutrality?"

If you are an advocate for an open, transparent and accessible Internet, Facebook is the last platform you use as an example. It is entirely conceivable that Mark Zuckerberg goes to sleep each night masturbating to his ideal version of the Internet where every single piece of content is provided through a .facebook.com (or internet.org) address. Facebook's business model is to drive as much Internet traffic as possible through it's closed ecosystem. And this is just one example of how consumers choosing to lock-in with commercial organizations online flies in the face of the stated goals of an open, neutral and equal Internet.

It is also striking that most of the outrage (covered by the press I will grant) over the so-called violations of Network Neutrality start from a cost or billing perspective. Take this new Telus charge for exceeding arbitrary bandwidth caps. Nothing about Network Neutrality states that Internet Service Providers cannot charge for the service they provide. And quite frankly, in a capitalist economy, what the market will bear applies as much to Internet access as it does to luxury watches or $900 smart phones. "But the Telus Optik TV works through the same fibre optic network as the internet!" Oy vey. If Telus wants to provide Telus content over Telus owned infrastructure to Telus customers at a price of its own choosing, it has that right. Network Neutrality is a concept, not a law. By the logic presented, if Telus provided Optik TV over a private IP network, or through traditional cable TV infrastructure, then "Network Neutrality" wouldn't apply because it isn't on "The Internet." Which is bullshit logic. A company should not have to build parallel infrastructure to provide an IP network based service because it violates strongly held ideals of misguided Internet denizens. If Telus owns IP infrastructure, it has a right to sell service over it how it sees fit, regardless if that infrastructure is connected to the Internet or not. Telus' customers do not own their Internet circuits. Telus owns them. (I can already hear the But! But! screams, and I know what you're going to say, I'll get to that in a bit.)

And quite frankly, the "internet traffic should be treated equally" concept is a technical none-starter. As the Internet has evolved, the services provided over it have challenged the concept of "equal." The problem with any network is that it is a complete technical impossibility to provide all of the bandwidth needed to everyone all of the time. Every Internet circuit is over-subscribed.

Consider the following simple three node network:

In this example, N1 is a server that provides content, and N2 and N3 are clients that interact with that server. Let's assume that N1, N2 and N3 each have a network link of 1 Mbps. That means that if N3 is using all of it's 1 Mbps connection interacting with N1, then N1 has no available bandwidth to provide to N2. N2 will get the equivalent of "Page not Found error." This is an equal network design, and it relies on a principle of FIFO (First In, First Out. "Or he who asks first, gets answered first.") On this network, N1 is "over-subscribed." It is hoping that neither N2 or N3 will take full advantage of their network speed that often, when they do, the connection to N1 is congested.

The simple solution is to give N1 a 2 Mbps circuit so that it can equally provide content to N2 and N3. Of course, if N4 is added to the network, N1 will be oversubscribed again. But at least the calculation here is simple. The network bandwidth N1 needs is expressed in the formula N1=N2+N3+....N99. There is only one node that needs to have enough capacity to interact with every other node.

But what if everyone is a server? Like participants on a BitTorrent network, sharing data with each other.


Here we have a problem. Because any one node can be providing data to any other node, it becomes impossible to avoid congestion. The formula for this is N=N+N(+N+...N). Solve for N. The math doesn't lie. It's impossible.

BitTorrent use is a great example. Because if you use BitTorrent, and you're a "Network Neutrality" proponent, you are likely a hypocrite. Why? Well many BitTorrent users deny or limit the amount of bandwidth they are willing to share with others. This is to avoid having their circuits congested by other Torrenters downloading content from them. That is not being neutral, you are degrading quality of service for others to limit the impact on you. Granted it is you, not the ISP making that decision, but from the perspective of the other Torrenters, what difference does that make?

Enter streaming services, particularly live-streaming services like IP Phones, Video Chats, and live broadcasts. These services cannot withstand any congestion at all. Network bandwidth has to be "guaranteed" in order for these services to work. Neutrality in this circumstance essentially means that more congestion tolerant services get downgraded network access because they can handle it better. Is that a neutral choice though? Those tolerant services will experience slower access. They still work, just not as fast.

This is where the reality of networking limitations run into the idealism of network neutrality. Limitations means we have to make choices. And depending on who is affected by those choices, not everyone will see it through the same neutral lens.

But let's look at it through a commercial lens. If the option was there to pay a little bit more to guarantee NetFlix, would you? If no, but someone else is willing to, can they? If not, why not? Why do you get to choose whether someone else can purchase better service? In a commercial marketplace, if someone is willing to provide a legal service, I'm allowed to choose if I want to pay for it. We have already accepted this model for television services. That's how Rogers Cable got started in Canada. Everyone had equal free access to broadcast VHF/UHF signals, but paying for cable provided more reliable service and more channels. Why can't that ideal extend to IP enabled services over the Internet?

Because the Internet is a public good. Right? It is an essential service required to live in a modern society.

Wrong.

That "essential service" isn't as essential as people say it is, or at least the way they mean it. Essential doesn't mean being able to download gigs and gigs of copyright content for free. Essential doesn't mean being able to play massive online video games without lag or jitter. Essential doesn't mean interruption free NetFlix binge watching.

Essential, at most, means access to e-mail and to Google and Wikipedia (yes I am being a little bit sarcastic). Those services do not require anything more than a 4 or 5 Mb internet circuit. People are not being entirely honest when they shout about "public good" and "neutral networks." What they really want is cheap fast access that allows them to get as much content online for as little money as possible. Preferably free, without ads or commercials. We have greedy consumers yelling about greedy Internet companies. Excuse me if I can't take that argument very seriously.

There are compelling arguments to be made for more transparency, and better competition (I've had some thoughts on that.) But as long as Internet access is a commercial enterprise, the rule "What the market will bear" will always apply. As consumers it's perfectly fine to bitch about costs, but if you're going to turn it into a moral argument, you better make sure your own shit don't stink.

And "Network Neutrality" is a dead idea. Choices will always have to made, and others will not like those choices. It's a reality. Deal with it.

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.
1

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