By Colby Cosh - Thursday, February 7, 2013 - 0 Comments
Colby Cosh on spending Alberta’s oil cash
Alberta premier Alison Redford has put her government in national headlines with news that the province, at a time of high oil prices and outstanding labour-market conditions, is going to finish with an enormous deficit for 2012-13. The actual shortfall for the first half of the year came to $1.3 billion, and the 12-month total might be more than $4 billion. Redford blames what she calls the “bitumen bubble.” Alberta has sometimes gotten into ﬁscal trouble because of the unpredictability of benchmark prices for oil, but this time it is getting crushed by poor regional prices as the U.S. Midwest transforms from needy buyer to massive seller.
Economists and pundits inside and outside Alberta have used the opportunity to repeat long-standing pleas for the province to make its public revenue less oil-dependent. Since oil is a “non-renewable resource” that can only be sold once, goes the theory, the province’s share shouldn’t be used to meet ongoing government expenses; the worthy thing to do is to set it aside and invest it.
I find aspects of this argument amusing. In the early ’70s everyone agreed that Alberta’s “non-renewable” conventional oil would be gone in a decade or so. Yet the trend was for the amount remaining to keep getting larger. Meanwhile, how’s Newfoundland making out with its hypothetically “renewable” cod biz? Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 6:16 AM - 0 Comments
Paul Gascoigne, probably the most beloved English footballer now alive whose name is not found on the roster of the 1966 World Cup side, is in a bad way, according to the UK newspapers. “Gazza” made a horrifying appearance at a hundred-quid charity dinner last weekend, bursting into tears repeatedly after being helped onto the dais and eventually shouting obscenities at the audience. Celebrity friends have since bundled him off to a rehab centre in Arizona, where it is hoped he will tie the proverbial knot at the end of his rope. Unfortunately, it seems the first thing he did when he disembarked the plane was to look for a drink.
Broke, estranged from his family, and visibly ill, Gascoigne appears to be enacting a slow public suicide with resemblances to the fate of Northern Ireland great George Best. But where Best remained happy-go-lucky well into his second liver, Gascoigne gives an impression of constant struggle. He seems to want to get well and has spent long periods sober.
It is a reminder, as contact sports such as football and hockey come under greater scientific and ethical scrutiny, that it can be hard to separate the sinister neurological effects of chronic trauma from the purely psychological effects of having a sporting career come to an end. If Gazza had been a linebacker in American football, people would make bleak jokes about how blows to the head were responsible for his dismal state. Since his game was soccer, it’s hard to assign his condition to anything but the horrors of being philosophically unprepared, or just innately unsuited, for the difficult role of ex-athlete.
By Colby Cosh - Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 9:28 AM - 0 Comments
Phil Birnbaum, who along with “Tom Tango” is probably one of Canada’s two great gifts to quantitative analysis in sports, has been studying the NHL over the past few weeks. It was only after a second or third reading of his series breaking down luck versus skill in the NHL standings that I was able to really grasp what he was saying. I’m a fluent speaker of basic stats-ese, but not a native. Phil is a pretty approachable explainer of things (including some of the things devised by Tango), so usually I don’t have to bash myself over the head too hard with his findings. But I didn’t see how interesting the message was until now.
Probably all hockey fans know instinctively that the introduction of the shootout has injected a fair amount of randomness into the year-end NHL standings. Birnbaum, looking at the shootout-era data, has now shown just how much. In the old NHL that still had ties, it took an average of 36 NHL games for a team’s actual talent to become as important to its standings position as sheer randomness. “Talent” is defined here as repeatable ability, ability relevant to prediction: after 36 games, your team’s distance in the standings from .500 would be about half luck and half “talent”, and that would be reflected in your guess as to how they would do in the next 36 games (assuming nothing else about the team had changed). Over a full season, we could be confident that there was little randomness left in the ordering of the teams in the league table.
But in the new post-ties NHL, Birnbaum notes, the standard deviation of standings points has shrunk from about .2 per game to .15. Continue…
By Bookmarked and Colby Cosh - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
A British journalist, Garfield had a 2010 hit with Just My Type, a book about typefaces. (Before his big break he wrote good books about William Huskisson, the British politician remembered chiefly as the first person ever killed in a railway accident, and William Perkin, the dyemaker who accidentally revolutionized synthetic colour and became the first individual to get rich from chemistry.) On the Map, a compendium of anecdotes and reporting about the history of cartography, makes for a natural and satisfying follow-up. The illustrations, as one would expect, are especially delightful.
Garfield observes that his book arrives at a strange moment in the story of the map. We can now pull our location out of the ether at will, and look at made-to-order electronic maps of any place, asking for whatever degree of detail and abstractness we like. Google has, as one of its hundred little-noticed alterations of our neurology, integrated street-level photography with the traditional map. It might not be long before the two-dimensional map is altogether displaced from our consciousness. Perhaps modern “scientific” maps will become unfamiliar, like the allegorical maps of the medieval world with their dragons and sea monsters and religious symbols. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 7:42 AM - 0 Comments
It is my duty pursuant to section 21 of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act to lay upon the table a certified copy of the reports of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commissions for the provinces of New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. These reports are referred permanently to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, Andrew Scheer, uttered these words Monday. As it happens, one of the reports he plopped down before the House touches closely upon the interests of his other (secret?) identity as Member for Regina-Qu’Appelle. The proposed riding map for Saskatchewan is by far the most controversial of the 10 now approaching finalization. It’s so controversial that one of the three commissioners appointed to draw the map refused to sign off on it, filing a minority report instead.
This is thought to be the first time that a Canadian boundaries commission has split irreconcilably in this way. It’s a nasty failure, since the whole point of a boundaries commission is to use logic to arrive at a broadly acceptable nonpartisan consensus. A conscientious government would be careful to avoid trouble of this sort from the outset, but apparently nobody saw it coming.
The problem isn’t partisanship as such. For the past few decades Saskatchewan’s federal riding map has had a unique “pie-slice” nature whereby there are no constituencies wholly within either of the two major cities. The good folks in southwest Regina, for example, have voted in the Palliser riding, alongside residents of Moose Jaw, since 1996. Voters in the northeast of the city are in the Regina-Qu’Appelle riding, mixing their votes with those of a half-dozen small towns like Indian Head and Wynyard—the latter being almost 200 kilometres away by road.
This arrangement was originally tolerated on the premise that in Saskatchewan there are no meaningful differences of culture or interest between the city and the country. All are one under the sign of the wheat sheaf. This seems to have become a perverse point of provincial pride, much like the lack of a sales tax in Alberta; the boundary commissioners were told often at public hearings that there is no such thing as “urban Saskatchewan” for political purposes. Two of the panelists dismissed this argument, snortingly, and created five new all-urban ridings, three in Saskatoon and two in Regina. The third member of the commission, David Marit, feels so strongly about the truth of the argument that he is willing to jeopardize the whole mapmaking exercise by refusing to sign a unanimous report.
What the people making this argument really mean, naturally, is that the “pie-slice” system has allowed rural Saskatchewan and the satellite cities to dominate or at least counterbalance Regina and Saskatoon in federal elections. Dissenter Marit is the president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities; I suppose he would have us believe he wants the big cities to remain divided for some other purpose than “divide and conquer.” But, of course, anybody who followed the 2011 election knows how the rural tail ends up wagging the urban dog under the existing system. The New Democrats picked up 32.3% of the vote provincewide, but this translated to zero seats in Parliament; the Liberals, with 8.6%, recaptured Ralph Goodale’s Wascana seat quite comfortably.
I took a look at the poll-by-poll results from the election, counting only the Regina and Saskatoon votes within the mixed ridings. These totals exclude advance and mobile polls.
As you can see, within the major cities the New Democrats are very competitive indeed with the Conservatives. (Though it’s also worth noting, lest any myths of extreme injustice and skulduggery flourish, that the Conservatives do seem to have “won” both metropolises.) Palliser MP Ray Boughen, a former mayor of Moose Jaw, would have gotten his clock cleaned if not for the Moose Javian votes. Farmer Nettie Wiebe, the NDP candidate in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, won a majority in the city and got beaten narrowly (for the third time in a row) on the strength of rural votes. And, sure enough, Speaker Scheer got fewer votes within Regina than the NDP’s Fred Clipsham.
It remains to be seen how well Thomas Mulcair’s “Western strategy” will ultimately work out, but in essence the Conservatives will start the 2015 campaign a couple seats down in Saskatchewan by virtue of the new electoral map alone. That is assuming the Conservatives in the Procedure Committee don’t use David Marit’s dissent as a pretext to go after the new map with a fat blue pencil. Vigilance is urged.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 11:07 PM - 0 Comments
The National Farmers Union looks at an ad based on a classic pin-up, and its interpretation is that the new, competitive Canadian Wheat Board must be struggling in a liberalized agricultural market:
Glenn Tait, NFU board member, says: “We’ve heard that the CWB is having problems filling its pools. This ad seems to show the desperation that would suggest evidence of just that. Farmers have also reported that the agreements that the CWB made with other grain companies are being pushed to the back of the line. Elevators are favouring their own delivery contracts first, and only accept CWB deliveries if there is excess capacity.”
Tait says “Many long-time CWB supporters are deliberately marketing outside of the CWB as a statement of principle rather than a lack of loyalty. The choice signifies their rejection of the undemocratic process used to dismantle the CWB and the Harper government’s appropriation of our resources—farmers’ resources.”
I guess the “appropriation of resources” phrasing refers to the legal theory that the Liberals placed the old monopoly Wheat Board permanently beyond the reach of statute, making its powers a “resource” that was supposed to be the inviolable property of permit-book holders. At least I think that’s what Tait is getting at here. One of the NFU’s mandates is to fight stereotypes about farmers, so it’s not really too cool for him to be spreading goofy notions of precisely the sort one would expect to hear from an angry yokel in a cartoon.
My own interpretation of the ad, if I may dare advance one, is that the CWB, having been obliged by the government to compete for farmer business, is going out and competing for it. They had a “Still on the fence?” message to convey, and someone found an image to go with it—one that happens to work pretty well with an old-school brand. And while I wouldn’t expect an irony-phobic socialist to understand, any normal farmer is perfectly capable of grasping that objects originally considered merely functional or ephemeral can graduate with time into the category of fine art. (I assume, anyway, that farmers’ universal habit of collecting and restoring old farming equipment has something to do with this instinct.)
Heavens, what sort of literalist doofus cavils at the sauciness of a Gil Elvgren painting in the year 2013? Even in their original setting the point of these pin-ups was innocent flirtatiousness, as opposed to pornographic frankness; now, unexpectedly, the NFU finds an Elvgren classic to be a disgraceful departure from the ordinary standards of advertising. “They must be in dire straits to stoop so low,” huffs the Women’s Vice President of the union. Couldn’t the same be said of the NFU itself?
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 2:41 AM - 0 Comments
Another year, another “Banished Words List” from the comedians at Lake Superior State University. (See here for my comments on the 2010 version.)
While the U.S. Congress has been kicking the can down the road and inching closer to the fiscal cliff, the word gurus at Lake Superior State University have doubled-down on their passion for the language and have released their 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.
The press release doesn’t say that the list is cooked up by usage experts (and a university is the last place on earth one should look for them), but the whole thing is, as always, cleverly disguised as an English-usage exercise, with the usual correspondence from grouchy 96-year-old newspaper readers.
Fiscal cliff: “Tends to be used however the speaker wishes to use it, as in falling off the fiscal cliff, climbing the fiscal cliff, challenged by the fiscal cliff, etc. Just once, I would like to hear it referred to as a financial crisis.” -Barbara Cliff, Johnstown, PA
Just once, I would like to hear Barbara Cliff referred to as “an idiot.” The “fiscal cliff” was essentially a one-off proper noun for a particular crisis, one that, by the way, was not in any meaningful way “financial.” Congress essentially planned for a bunch of bad things to happen on a particular date if it didn’t arrive at a long-term spending plan for the U.S. government. We could all have decided to call it the Doomsday Device or the Poison Pill or the Fiscal Flood (maybe Johnstown would favour that); the one option that certainly couldn’t have been pursued was everybody calling it something different, because then that’s not language.
Individual historical events always have distinct names chosen for them. There cannot be any usage-based objection to that. In this case a “cliff” was a perfectly good metaphor. We got tired of hearing it, not because the language was inappropriate but because the absurdity of the crisis itself was vexing to Americans, the poor dears. Fine. It doesn’t need to go onto a Banned Words list, because the U.S. is now past the fiscal cliff and the next one will be the Supercliff or the Grand Fiscal Canyon or something.
Double down: “This blackjack term is now used as a verb in place of ‘repeat’ or ‘reaffirm’ or ‘reiterate.’ Yet, it adds nothing. It’s not even colorful. Hit me!” Allan Ryan, Boston, MA
Someone should hit you, Al. What is “colourful” if the language of gambling isn’t? The term “double down” does not actually mean just “repeat” or “reiterate”; it refers specifically to the reaffirmation of a particular position coupled with an increasing of stakes. A person “doubles down” when they respond to the possibility of an embarrassment or a defeat not by retreating in a dignified manner, but by increasing their commitment. Again, it is a perfectly good metaphor that is well understood. Even somebody who has never played cards can figure out what it probably means in a sentence, which is a major advantage for novel or popular verbiage. There is no equally good way to replace “He doubled down on his support for the F-35” with another phrase.
YOLO: “Used by teens everywhere to describe an action that is risky or unconventional, yet acceptable because ‘you only live once.’ Who lives more than once?” P.P., Los Angeles, CA
Hell yes I’m gonna defend it! You only live once!
Dear “P.P.”: forgive me if I’m confusing you here, but everybody knows that everybody knows you only live once. Even teenagers! Turning the time-encrusted maxim “you only live once” into an acronym indicates that you are making an actual guiding philosophy of it, the fact being (as everybody also knows) that people do tend to forget that you only live once and that they do have a tendency to circumscribe their lives according to phobias and imaginary responsibilities and laziness and habit. Saying “YOLO” is the conscious taking of a side in favour of hedonism and varied experience.
It’s probably convenient to young people to have one word for this—to be able to say “My approach to life is pretty YOLO.” Eventually we might start calling it YOLOism or yolosity, as something we naturally possess in greater or lesser increment. After all, you can’t oppose or argue against a yelp of “YOLO” on the grounds that you don’t only live once. “Sorry, I’m a little less yoloite than Jaden. I don’t think I want to drop acid in a hot-air balloon.”
In other words, like the previously banned “bromance”, “YOLO” helps us pinpoint a phenomenon of human personality that we would otherwise have to use technical lingo to specify. “Subject Jaden is keenly aware of mortality and that steady employment and the requirements of family formation will one day limit his life choices. Subject responds by dismissing thoughts of the future and dropping acid in hot-air balloons.” Remember, “word gurus,” teenagers are clever devils; they make up words sometimes because no one previously existing has done the job for them, and they are usually onto something when they do it.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 10:15 AM - 0 Comments
Congratulations! If you are thinking of conducting a hunger strike to advance some very important cause, this guide is for you. Think of it as a sort of Anarchist’s Cookbook for those who intend to stop eating for political purposes. The hunger strike is very nearly the greatest weapon of protest available to the truly powerless. In its potential for non-violently multiplying the revolutionary leverage of a single dedicated person, it is perhaps exceeded only by the act of setting oneself on fire in the public square–a tactic which, it must be admitted, does have a slightly better record of influencing the course of history.
The formal hunger strike is made prestigious by its association with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who (probably uniquely) applied it several times with devastating effect in various contexts. Because hunger strikes have often failed, however, it is worth considering the reasons Gandhi was able to make it work–implicit conditions you should, before you proceed, make sure of your ability to satisfy.
1. Gandhi had enemies who were vulnerable. The hunger strike is a tactic which appeals inherently to an audience, consisting of the institution one hopes to defeat and the public to which that institution is responsible. The imperial government Gandhi opposed was democratic in character at home; even if its officialdom did not care whether some particular little brown man lived or died, they had to answer to those who could not withstand the spectacle he choreographed in the mass media of his day. Gandhi also turned the weapon of the hunger strike on Indian institutions, which were answerable to the masses who revered him, and even on offenders within his own circle. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Monday, January 7, 2013 at 8:56 AM - 0 Comments
The conventional wisdom on the NHL lockout, usually delivered with a sneer, is that Canadian hockey fans will belly-crawl back to the league uncritically now that all the bickering and all the tantrums have ended. Like all conventional wisdom, it is conventional because it is quite a safe bet. I know I’ll crawl with everyone else: I’m capable of intellectually segregating my fondness for the game of hockey from my loathing of the existing institutions of hockey. (It’s not all that difficult! Nor is it shameful!) What’s different about this lockout is that in the meantime I took the bait of regular-season NBA basketball with enthusiasm for the first time ever. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 4:00 PM - 0 Comments
Colby Cosh on the Constitutional problem of a female heir
Is there perhaps a silent prayer sweeping stealthily across the ranks of Canada’s constitutional experts? “Please, Lord, let the duchess of Cambridge be delivered of a fine, healthy heir. And if you could see to it, let it be a boy. Or, if it’s a girl, make sure she only has younger sisters.”
When St. James’s Palace announced on Dec. 3 that the wife of HRH Prince William was great with child, the machinery of the Commonwealth was ready. The heads of government in the Queen’s various realms had, in October 2011, already agreed to a co-ordinated change in their statutes that will allow the Prince’s children to succeed in order of seniority, irrespective of sex. The necessary changes to British law, which affect acts as far back as 1351, are ready for parliamentary approval and scheduled to go through as early as possible in the new year, with the Canadian ones to follow. There is nary a whisper of dissent from any quarter. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 3:41 PM - 0 Comments
A surprising item appears on the official Facebook site of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike near Parliament Hill.
A hunger strike with a bank account?
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 11:39 AM - 0 Comments
When I hear of people panicking over tomorrow’s “Mayan apocalypse”, I like to imagine future archaeologists reassuring people that the quirks of the long-abandoned and poorly understood “Gregorian calendar” are nothing to be alarmed about.
“You see, the ancients had not yet realized the superiority of an octal base for numerals; they used base-10 counting because at that time the recognized ‘humans’ still had a total of ten fingers each. (Please, don’t laugh; you must remember that they had not yet admitted non-primates to the Circle of Sentience.) This naturally led them to ascribe special numerological significance to periods of 100 and 1,000 years. But their calendar doesn’t in any sense ‘end’ tomorrow, on what they would have called the first of January, 6000.” Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 9:29 AM - 0 Comments
The aftereffects in Alberta of the Nov. 26 Calgary-Centre federal byelection, carried off by Conservative Joan Crockatt with just 37 per cent of the vote, have officially become super hilarious. The reader will recall that the two main challengers for a Conservative seat in a relatively liberal-friendly part of Calgary were the capital-L Liberal Harvey Locke, who has spent decades as a top wilderness preservation advocate and all-around Nature Boy, and the Green Party’s Chris Turner, an urbanist author and magazine writer who uses the word “sustainable” with a frequency best characterized as “intolerable”. In short, the two parties both nominated professional environmentalists, neither of whom have done a whole lot else with their lives. We could all probably have anticipated a problem here.
How does a Green candidate run against a Harvey Locke? Turner was shrewd and cynical enough to find an answer: berate the older guy as an out-of-touch Seventies green who, as Locke had admitted in an interview, didn’t even move to Calgary from Banff until it looked like there might be a Commons seat available amid Cowtown’s dark Sanatic mills. (Asked by your correspondent if she approved of this campaigning style, Elizabeth May observed that the GPC is not one of those old-fashioned “top-down parties” in which the leader orders candidates about.) Locke, for his part, spluttered that his young rival was a “twerp”. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 6:58 AM - 0 Comments
The CBC provided us with an interesting case study in science reporting on Monday as its “community team” blog trumpeted “UN climate change projections made in 1990 ‘coming true.’”
Climate change projections made over two decades ago have stood the test of time, according to a new report published Monday in the journal Nature.
The world is warming at a rate that is consistent with forecasts made by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 22 years ago.
Climate scientists from around the world forecasted the global mean temperature trend for a 40-year period, from 1990 to 2030—and at this halfway point the report authors have found the projections “seem accurate” after accounting for natural fluctuations.
These are absolutely all the numbers you are going to get out of this news item. And if you peruse the new assessment of the 1990 IPCC predictions, which was actually published on the Nature Climate Change website, what you find is a more nuanced picture than the CBC’s “They nailed it, no worries” interpretation implies.
David Frame and Dáithí Stone write that the 1990 IPCC report predicted a rise in global mean temperatures of between 0.7 degrees C and 1.5 degrees C by the year 2030; on a linear interpolation, we might have expected half the increase to have occurred by now. The actual observed warming during the past 20 years (almost all of it taking place in the first ten) has been in the vicinity of 0.35 degrees C to 0.39 degrees C, “on the borderline” of the range given in 1990. In other words, the IPCC’s point estimate was high, and the overall warming has been consistent with the outer confidence bounds of their stated prediction, but barely.
Frame and Stone think, with some justification, that this is a pretty good performance given the simplicity of the climate models available at the time. It’s especially good, they think, because the models could not predict what would happen in the economy, or below the planet’s crust. Their story is that the Earth caught a series of lucky breaks despite the substantive failure of greenhouse gas reduction efforts.
The highlighted [IPCC] prediction assumed a business-as-usual scenario of GHG emissions; three other scenarios were considered and in fact Scenario B (which assumed a shift to natural gas, a decrease in the deforestation rate, and implementation of the Montreal Protocol, all independent of global climate negotiations) was closer to the mark as of 2010, especially with respect to methane emissions… Of course, [even these Scenario B] predictions were based on idealized future scenarios that did not foresee the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc industry, or the growth of some Asian economies, so one could argue that the prediction is right for the wrong reasons.
The authors conclude by noting that predicting the future is a lot harder than predicting the past—and, unfortunately, the resolving power of crystal balls has not improved much since 1990.
…the 1990 prediction following [the IPCC's] business-as-usual scenario covered a full 0.4ºC range due solely to uncertainty in the climate sensitivity that has not narrowed substantially so far, whereas a larger range was implied by the examination of further scenarios of emissions and a larger range still should have been considered owing to uncertainty in the evolution of natural forcings and internally generated variability.
Believers in and skeptics of the threat from anthropogenic climate change will both find promising fodder in this paper for conversion into mountains of delicious hay. (Mind the carbon emissions, though.) I’ll resist the temptation to join in that exercise, but it is very clear that the authors’ “Well done” message to the IPCC carries a sizable asterisk. If the CBC is going to report on a scientific paper, why not show some indication somebody has read it?
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 7:48 PM - 0 Comments
The town of Hanna, Alberta—best known as the hometown of Lanny McDonald and of Alberta’s ambassadors to terrible music, Nickelback—is in the news for an anti-bullying bylaw passed last month that is definitely not at all “a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to the tragic suicide of teenager Amanda Todd”. Glad we got that out of the way. Coverage of the town’s new law has focused on its conventional libertarian aspects: i.e., can we really quasi-criminalize calling somebody a bad name? Examination of the actual text, however, reveals that the law itself is so garbled that it might collapse irrespective of its own intentions.
This is a pretty bad piece of legislation even by the standards of a province whose Justice Minister can’t figure out that tricky Charter of Rights. It sets out to define bullying as an action, throwing about a dozen different kinds of conduct into one bulging conceptual basket:
“Bullied” means the harassment of others by the real or threatened infliction of physical violence and attacks, racially or ethnically-based verbal abuse and gender-based putdowns, verbal taunts, name calling and putdowns, written or electronically transmitted, or emotional abuse, extortion or stealing of money and possessions and social out-casting.
One is surprised to discover that Hanna felt it needed to outlaw theft and assault, and also amused to contemplate the idea of a court trying to define “social out-casting”. But it turns out, anyway, that the law does not actually outlaw bullying! It instead does a bizarre half-gainer and prohibits the making-of-someone-feel-as-though-they-are-being-bullied.
1. No person shall, in any public place:
a. Communicate either directly or indirectly, with any person in a way that causes the person, reasonably in all the circumstances, to feel bullied.
To prove an offence under this scheme, one apparently only needs to show that one felt taunted, put down, or outcast. (Felt “reasonably”, that is. I would have thought the salient characteristic of feelings is that they are not reason, but there you go.) The Hanna Herald has said the bylaw is “based on similar laws passed around Alberta.” One hopes that this is not the case, but readers are invited to submit local intelligence. If we can call it that. (See also the National Post‘s Q&A with Hanna mayor Mark Nikota.)
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 6:53 AM - 0 Comments
Just about my favourite thing in the world is when someone comes up with an idea for a policy move that (a) seems completely ludicrous but (b) is completely legal and (c) would probably work. With the U.S. headed for the so-called “fiscal cliff,” there is renewed discussion of a weird jiujitsu move that President Obama could conceivably use to elude the congressional debt ceiling.
The executive branch is, as a general rule, not allowed to incur debt in defiance of Congress, and the U.S. Mint’s printing of money is strongly circumscribed by statute. But last year a blogger named Carlos “Beowulf” Mucha noticed an oddity in the U.S. Code: the Treasury does have an explicit unrestricted right to order the mint to create collectible platinum coins of arbitrary face value. They can’t be gold or copper or aluminum; they have to be platinum. Under this theory, the President could tell the mint to strike a couple of platinum coins with denominations of $1 trillion each. He would then deposit them with the Federal Reserve, in what is actually the ordinary fashion, and the Fed would in turn issue the Treasury a credit of $2 trillion; since the physical specie is there at the bank, no “debt” is technically created at all.
This would be an executive branch intrusion on the Fed’s acknowledged privilege of controlling the money supply. It’s probably the kind of loophole Americans probably do not want to establish a precedent for exploiting. (Insert “Pretty soon you’re talking real money” joke here.) But amidst controversy over the Fed’s management of monetary aggregates, the platinum fantasy is finding enthusiasts in surprising places: not only in the left blogosphere where it originated, but amongst “market monetarist” critics of the Fed (who believe that the central bank should be targeting nominal GDP growth instead of inflation).
Among leading econopundits, Felix Salmon charged that magic platinum coins would represent “the utter failure of the U.S. political system and civil society.” Matt Yglesias questioned whether it was really possible but admitted that the idea “highlights a very accurate point”—that the U.S. controls the unit of account in which its debts are denominated, and so has (finite) room to manoeuvre in ways other countries don’t. Market monetarist Scott Sumner asked whether it was a “brilliant masterstroke” or a “loony idea” and decided “I can confidently answer ‘both’.” A man after my own heart.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 6:50 PM - 0 Comments
Police today are solving fewer homicides than they did in the 1960s
If one were to choose a single core responsibility of the state, it would probably be the prevention of violence. Protecting people from homicide could not be more intimately related to the origins of, and the justification for, government. So how come we don’t talk much about how poorly or well we are doing at it? In the early 1960s, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, it was typical for Canadian police to solve 90 to 95 per cent of all murders. The figures for recent years, after a long and steady decline, are generally below 80 per cent; in one year, 2008, the clearance rate dipped to slightly below 70 per cent.
Numbers released in June by the CCJS show that Canadian investigators enjoyed a good performance in 2010 by recent standards, clearing 75.3 per cent of homicides. A homicide is normally “cleared” by laying a charge against a perpetrator, or by the mere identification of one for cases in which no arrest is possible (murder-suicides or self-defence killings, for example). An odd feature of the decline in homicide clearances is that it does not appear to bear any relationship to overall homicide rates, which peaked in the mid-1970s and have been dropping ever since. Police are simply solving slightly fewer of the homicides they are presented with every year, irrespective of how violent the social environment is. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 9:20 AM - 0 Comments
Last night’s Calgary Centre by-election, won by media personality and former newspaper editor Joan Crockatt, was held in the most pro-Naheed Nenshi part of what is now a very pro-Nenshi city. Like Crockatt last night, Nenshi exploited a split opposition to win the Calgary mayoralty in 2010. But Calgary’s civic Ward 8, which makes up about two-thirds of the Calgary Centre riding, is a place where the mayor dominated all other contestants combined, taking 58% of the vote. The Green Party’s Chris Turner has close ties to Nenshi (though the mayor didn’t endorse anybody), and Turner was clearly hoping to capitalize on that success, employing Nenshi campaign staffers and Nenshian social-media tactics.
It earned him 26% of the vote. That’s still an amazing figure for a Green Party-labelled candidate in Calgary—especially an unknown one with essentially no pre-existing local political apparatus to exploit. From a standing start, Turner earned 20 votes for every three cast for the NDP’s Dan Meades.
The more meaningful pre-election data, however, may have come not from 2010 but from this year’s provincial election, in which Calgary Centre covers about the same area as three downtown constituencies: Calgary-Elbow, home base of both Ralph Klein and Alison Redford; Calgary-Buffalo, the city’s Liberal stronghold; and Calgary-Currie. The right-wing Wildrose Party got 12,694 votes there in April, and one would have to think that many of them were among the 10,201 who made it out to vote for Conservative Crockatt last night. (Her campaign was as Wildrose-heavy as Turner’s was Nenshi-heavy.) The Liberals had 8,449 provincial votes in the zone, and federal Liberal Harvey Locke got 9,034 last night.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 11:11 PM - 0 Comments
Tim Tebow. Say what you want about the man, and you will, but he is good copy. I got into a Tebow discussion the other day on Twitter after I started wishing aloud that he would come to Edmonton and save our CFL Eskimos from the wretched, dare I say almost Rider-like, state into which they have fallen. I was not really being serious. Well, OK: maybe ten percent serious.
About a year ago our genius general manager Eric Tillman decided to risk all on one turn of pitch-and-toss and trade our longtime quarterback, Ricky Ray, for magic beans from a passing pedlar. This decision was second-, third-, and nth-guessed at the time, and it was, we now know, rabidly opposed by head coach Kavis Reed. Ray does not throw the ball very far, or in an especially conventional way, but he has supreme accuracy statistics and had won two Grey Cups in Edmonton with pretty underwhelming teams. (The once-proud Eskies have not had a 12-win season yet in this century.)
Ray was divisive, though, Lordy, not Tebow divisive. But the trade united the city in agreement that the return was disappointing, and the unfolding of the Esks’ 7-11 season emphasized this in an especially brutal way. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 7:36 PM - 0 Comments
After almost 50 years in political life, Preston Manning still delights in winning an audience
There is something curiously ageless about Preston Manning at 70.
Preston—who, like any other celebrity, has no need of a second name west of the Lakehead—was just 44 when the Western Assembly consented to make him the political captain of a regional reform movement. His colleagues in the quest to rebalance Canada, men like Stan Roberts, Ted Byfield and Stan Waters, were mostly a good 10 to 20 years older. Now, as founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, he trains and plays political mentor to conservative shock troops nearly a half-century his junior.
And the one thing you can be sure of is that he treats them all the same. What has always mattered with Preston Manning is the quality of your argument; he has never cared much about how many degrees you have or whether your denim overalls are untidy. This explains why the West still admires him, and may help explain why the East has never been able to wholly relent in its suspicion of him. What darker motives are concealed by that overwhelming fixation on ideas, that almost pathological relentlessness in seeking new avenues for procedural innovation and political uplift?
After almost 50 years of political life—his first, forgotten run for Parliament dating back to 1965—surely we can finally agree that there is no great secret to Preston Manning, no hidden key to the man. He sought political power as a means of gaining a hearing for ideas; now, though out of explicit power, he devotes all his time to them—keeping in mind that the Manning Centre is as much about salesmanship of ideas as the ideas themselves.
Maclean’s is giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award as a parliamentarian, but, as Manning says himself, his greatest pleasure in politics has always been trying to win over an audience, whether that audience is a roomful of voters or just one person. You may have noticed that there is not much of that sort of thing in the House of Commons. Manning always found the House, with its party disciplines and traditions, frustratingly inimical to sincere debate. It vexed him, for example, that he was generally not allowed to even mention Senate reform on the floor under the rules of the House—and he beams when reminded of how the 1998 debate on the Nunavut Act, which involved a slight change in the composition of the Senate, gave him a loophole through which he could deliver a coruscating hour-long speech.
It is still common to hear Manning and the old Reformers blamed for inculcating harmful “cynicism” about Parliament, with their rough talk of Ottawa as a foetid swamp. But Manning was the main reason angry westerners kept faith with Parliament at a time when Confederation seemed, rightly or wrongly, like a rigged game. It is not so important that he helped create a Western- dominated Conservative government; what is important is that he helped create the mere possibility that the West’s growing demographic and economic influence would be recognized and reflected in Ottawa’s institutions. The West wanted in, to use the famous phrase, and it was Manning’s foot that found its way into the door.
He remains a fertile generator of ideas around political change, even as the one he is most closely associated with, Senate reform, inches ahead painfully. (Manning still speaks of Senate reform optimistically, but as a task that will require decades rather than months.) His latest passion is for the creation of a non- partisan model Parliament—a toy apparatus with a curriculum of training courses—that could be used to prepare young private cit- izens for the forest of rules, tricks and traps they will encounter should they run successfully for the House of Commons, or go to work for someone therein. The idea is to teach the ambitious and the curious everything from the intricacies of the Marleau-Montpetit guide to the best way of running a press conference.
The classy new downtown Calgary office of the Manning Centre, which has its grand opening Jan. 23, bears an enormous sign on the interior with the Ciceronian admonition “Intrate parati” (“Enter prepared”). The old Romans made sure that citizens entered their assembly prepared by putting them through a long “cursus” of ascending public responsibilities: we, Manning observes, have no analogue. He would like to help make one. And we know better by now than to underestimate what is possible when Preston Manning happens upon a notion.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 6:20 AM - 0 Comments
The Oilers’ owner faces a probe over his gift to the Alberta Tories
The public-relations problems continue to pile up for Daryl Katz, the drugstore magnate who wants a new downtown arena in Edmonton for his NHL Oilers to play in. It has been more than a year since Katz Group and the city’s council arrived at a “framework” for an arena funding deal, with Katz relenting on his insistence that the existing Rexall Place be pushed out of the concert business. That framework fell apart Oct. 18 after Katz made new demands and a previously sympathetic council ran out of patience, calling off negotiations and flinging the arena into limbo.
The city had made major concessions to get Katz to back off on the demand for a non-compete agreement with Northlands, the powerful non-profit that operates Rexall Place (i.e., the old Northlands Coliseum, which now bears the name of Katz’s main pharmaceutical brand). But the two sides remained $100 million short of the full amount for the new building—money that both insisted, despite an endless series of fairly strident refusals from the province and Ottawa, would eventually arrive courtesy of “another level of government.” Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 3:44 AM - 0 Comments
New York magazine’s Adam Pasick has put together a charming collection of electoral vote forecasts from American political notables. Because most of these people have some known prior commitment to one side or the other, the table makes for an interesting diorama of America’s political camps: the Republicans and conservatives are all over the map, with as many predicting massive triumph for Mitt Romney as there are imagining disaster, and the Democrats and liberals/leftists are united behind a party line of certain victory, though nobody thinks it will be too impressive. Most of the latter are in a band between 285 Obama electoral votes and 305—keeping in mind that the president got 365 last time out. The most pessimistic Romney backer of the bunch, who I guess would have to be Buzz Bissinger, has a higher number for Obama than any of the overt Obama voters I can identify. Granted, he’s called Buzz for a reason (and that reason is that he is approximately three-quarters crazy on a good day).
If you throw out Jim Cramer’s prediction, which he made explicitly to set himself apart from the crowd and give himself a longshot chance of looking like a lone genius 24 hours from now (good luck with that), the mean of all guesses is 274½ electoral votes for Obama. The Republicans are running about 20 below that on average, the Democrats about 20 above. It may be noteworthy that absolutely none of the Democrats and liberals is willing to place Obama as high as FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver, whose mean EV estimate for the incumbent at this hour is 315 and rising.
Screening Pasick’s “pundits” for general cool-headedness, insider knowledge, or just having strong incentives to get the call right doesn’t seem to help extract a signal from the noise. Bowtied eminence George F. Will, who is a conservative but hardly the model of a death-or-glory demagogue, submitted exactly the same numbers as Glenn Beck. Slate’s Dave Weigel, perhaps the only person on the list who has officially declared He Is Not Voting For Either Of These Bozos, is predicting a narrow 276-262 Romney win.
In lieu of a prediction, because I am short on insights into this particular election and there’s no reason you should care either way, I would offer one warning from this spring’s Alberta vote: it is dangerous to attempt to infer the true state of a political race from the last-minute behaviour of the candidates. The Progressive Conservatives, widely perceived to be behind on the final weekend, appeared to be defending what ought to have been relatively safe ridings in Calgary and the province’s northeast. Although I was cautious and emerged from the election only lightly bespattered with facial egg, watching Premier Redford move about encouraged me to think the PCs really were in serious danger.
In fact, if you think about it, the ridings—or states—where a candidate can do the most marginal good with a late appearance are not necessarily the ones closest to parity or 50-50 overall. If a candidate is blitzing a state with TV ads, that may just mean the TV audience in that state is especially promising in some respect. If a candidate is visiting in person, he may be forsaking a closer but less tractable state race for one in which a weak organization needs the personal touch, or the youth vote has an unusual quantity of undecideds, or… well, you can imagine an infinity of scenarios yourself.
It is tempting to regard late candidate activity as a form of revealed preference, a Fool Killer that smashes through verbiage to the truth. Sometimes, though, it is not telling you what you might think. In this election, a late rush by both sides toward Pennsylvania, a vote-rich state that Obama won by 10 points in 2008, has people wondering if Romney really might be ahead nationally and putting the president on the ropes. Well, for all I know he might be. But the real signal is probably simpler than that: “Hey, Pennsylvania doesn’t have early voting.“
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 4:19 AM - 0 Comments
The whole world is suddenly talking about election pundit Nate Silver, and as a longtime heckler of Silver I find myself at a bit of a loss. These days, Silver is saying all the right things about statistical methodology and epistemological humility; he has written what looks like a very solid popular book about statistical forecasting; he has copped to being somewhat uncomfortable with his status as an all-seeing political guru, which tends to defuse efforts to make a nickname like “Mr. Overrated” stick; and he has, by challenging a blowhard to a cash bet, also damaged one of my major criticisms of his probabilistic presidential-election forecasts. That last move even earned Silver some prissy, ill-founded criticism from the public editor of the New York Times, which could hardly be better calculated to make me appreciate the man more.
The situation is that many of Nate Silver’s attackers don’t really know what the hell they are talking about. Unfortunately, this gives them something in common with many of Nate Silver’s defenders, who greet any objection to his standing or methods with cries of “Are you against SCIENCE? Are you against MAAATH?” If science and math are things you do appreciate and favour, I would ask you to resist the temptation to embody them in some particular person. Silver has had more than enough embarrassing faceplants in his life as an analyst that this should be obvious. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 11:47 AM - 0 Comments
The Globe and Mail, by means of outstanding spadework, has accounted for the particulars of all of the $430,000 donated to the Alberta Progressive Conservative party in its hour of electoral need by Edmonton Oilers owner and pharmacy magnate Daryl Katz. Actually, David Ebner and Dawn Walton traced the $430,000 and then some—others with close business relationships to Katz, it turns out, contributed to the PC kitty. But even the $430,000 donated this spring, supposedly in the form of a single cheque, represents more than a quarter of the cash raised by the Tories during the 2012 election period. The party managed to raise just $1.6 million—while spending almost $4.7 million protecting its flanks from the upstart Wildrose Party.
Alberta’s chief electoral officer has promised an investigation into the splitting up of Katz’s hefty donation. (And the opposition parties are calling for Katz to step down from the board of AIMCo, the corporation that manages investment funds for the province, its public pension plans, and some institutional endowments.) But there might be another problem. Step into the time machine with me as we travel back to September 13, 2011 and open the Edmonton Journal:
Has Oilers owner Daryl Katz quietly shifted his home base to Vancouver? That’s the rumour that has circulated in local business circles for months. And while several sources tell The Journal the reclusive drugstore tycoon now spends most of his time on the West Coast, where his children attend school, it’s unclear how much time he still spends in Edmonton.
…Several sources told The Journal that Katz purchased the penthouse condo at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel in Vancouver, and has lived there for much of this year.
“What I’ve been able to confirm from several sources is that Katz has moved to Vancouver and he’s been there since the beginning of April,” said one well-connected Edmonton businessman.
One city councillor interviewed by the Journal’s Gary Lamphier was not troubled to hear that Katz had moved:
Coun. Bryan Anderson sees the location of Katz’s primary residence as a non-issue, however.
“It doesn’t concern me. There’s a lot of big players in the world who have homes in several places,” he said.
There is one person, however, who might care a little about the location of Daryl Katz’s primary residence: Alberta’s chief electoral officer. A couple of entertaining morsels from the province’s Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act:
16. No prohibited corporation, person ordinarily resident outside Alberta or trade union or employee organization other than a trade union or employee organization as defined in this Act shall make any contributions to a registered party, registered constituency association or registered candidate.
…35(1). No registered party, registered constituency association or registered candidate shall, directly or indirectly, (a) knowingly solicit or accept contributions from any person ordinarily resident outside Alberta…
Despite the Journal’s revelations from last fall, I imagine that, all things being equal, Daryl Katz would arrange his affairs so as to qualify as an Alberta resident for tax purposes. It’s hard to say whether those are relevant here, however. The election law doesn’t offer an explicit definition of “ordinarily resident”. (“The place where you send your kids to school” would seem to provide a pretty decent first approximation.) And in the event the definition needs to be explicitly made now, I’m afraid I expect it to be exactly as generous as necessary to prevent an embarrassing refund here.
Nonetheless, the investigation into Katz’s personal $30,000 donation—and perhaps the entire $430,000 he is said to have actually presented—will obviously require a close study of his comings and goings.
By Colby Cosh - Monday, October 29, 2012 at 11:05 AM - 0 Comments
Over the weekend, the estimable David Akin was talking U.S. politics with Ipsos’s Darrell Bricker on Twitter when he noticed an unfamiliar verbal oddity in a Reuters report on the polling firm’s recent survey of early voters.
Obama leads Romney 54 per cent to 39 per cent among voters who already have cast ballots, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling data compiled in recent weeks. The sample size of early voters is 960 people, with a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Huh, what’s this “credibility interval” business? Sounds like a different name for the good old margin of error! But why would we need a different name for that? This question, it turns out, is the pop-top on a can of worms.
The polling business has a problem: when most households had a single land-line telephone, it was relatively easy to sample the population cheaply and well—to estimate quantities like voter intentions in a clean, mathematically uncomplicated way, as one might draw different-coloured balls from a single urn to estimate the amounts of each colour amongst the balls on the inside. That happy state of affairs has, of course, been reduced to chaos by the cell phone.
The cell phone, increasingly, does not just divide the population into two hypothetical urns—which is basically how pollsters originally went about solving the problem. Its overall effect (including the demise of the telephone directory) has affected the math of polling in several ways, all of them constantly intensifying; declining response rates to public surveys (“Get lost, pal, you’re eating up my minutes”) are the most obvious example. Put simply, individual members of the public are no longer necessarily accessible for polite questioning by means of a single randomizable number that everybody pretty much has one of. The problem of sampling from the urn has thus become infinitely more complicated. Pollsters can no longer assume that the balls are more or less evenly distributed inside the urn, and it is getting harder and harder to reach into the urn and rummage around.
So how are they handling this obstacle? Their job, at least when it comes to pre-election polling, is becoming a lot less like drawing balls from an urn and more like flying an aircraft in zero-visibility conditions. The boffins are becoming increasingly reliant on “non-probability samples” like internet panel groups, which give only narrow pictures of biased subsets of the overall population. The good news is that they can take many such pictures and use modern computational techniques to combine them and make pretty decent population inferences. “Obama is at 90 per cent with black voters in Shelbyville; 54 per cent among auto workers; 48 per cent among California epileptics; 62 per cent with people whose surnames start with the letter Z…” Pile up enough subsets of this sort, combined with knowledge of their relative sizes and other characteristics, and you can build models which let you guess at the characteristics of the entire electorate (or, if you’re doing market research, the consumerate).
As a matter of truth in advertising, however, pollsters have concluded that they shouldn’t report the uncertainty of these guesses by using the traditional term “margin of error.” There is an extra layer of inference involved in the new techniques: they offer what one might call a “margin of error, given that the modelling assumptions are correct.” And there’s a philosophical problem, too. The new techniques are founded on what is called a “Bayesian” basis, meaning that sample data must be combined explicitly with a prior state of knowledge to derive both estimates of particular quantities and the uncertainty surrounding them.
A classical pre-election voter survey would neither require nor benefit from ordinary knowledge of the likely range of President Obama’s vote share: such surveys start only with the purely mathematical specification that the share must definitely be somewhere between 0 per cent and 100 per cent. A Bayesian approach might start by specifying that in the real world Obama, for no other reason than that he is a major-party candidate, is overwhelmingly likely to land somewhere between 35 per cent and 65 per cent. And this range would be tightened up gradually, using Bayes’ Law, as new survey information came in.
This is probably the best way, in principle, to make intelligent election forecasts. But you can see the issues with it. Bayesianism explicitly invites some subjectivity into the art of the pollster. (Whose “priors” do we use, and why?) And in making the step from estimating the current disposition of the populace to making positive election forecasts, one has to have a method of letting the influence of old information gradually attenuate as it gets less relevant. Even nifty Bayesian techniques, by themselves, don’t solve that problem.
Pollsters are trying very hard to appear as transparent and up-front about their methods as they were in the landline era. When it comes to communicating with journalists, who are by and large a gang of rampaging innumerates, I don’t really see much hope for this; polling firms may not want their methods to be some sort of mysterious “black box,” but the nuances of Bayesian multilevel modelling, even to fairly intense stat hobbyists, might as well be buried in about a mile of cognitive concrete. Our best hope is likely to be the advent of meta-analysts like (he said through tightly gritted teeth) Nate Silver, who are watching and evaluating polling agencies according to their past performance. That is, pretty much exactly as if they were “black boxes.” In the meantime, you will want to be on the lookout for that phrase “credibility interval.” As the American Association for Public Opinion Research says, it is, in effect, a “[news] consumer beware” reminder.