By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - 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 - 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 - 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.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 2:42 PM - 0 Comments
OTTAWA — An anti-abortion activist who is currently in jail in Toronto has received one of the Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee medals intended to mark “significant achievements” by Canadians. Mary Wagner, 38, who has been repeatedly charged with mischief and violating court orders at abortion clinics, was nominated for the medal by Saskatchewan Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott.
Vellacott told LifeSiteNews that he had arranged to have Wagner given a medal for “using civil disobedience to further a just cause.” I’m afraid this reflects the intellectual calibre of the pro-life movement very accurately. “Civil disobedience” implies a passive or negative resistance to the state, a non-violent refusal to comply with a law: the seminal example was Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes to a warmongering government. When a pro-life protester invades a “bubble zone” around a private abortion clinic to express an anti-abortion message, that might, by a generous extension of principles, be considered an act of civil disobedience. I’m afraid Mary Wagner went just a little further than the phrase will allow.
…the appellant appeared at the Bloor West Village Women’s Clinic mid-morning on November 8, 2011, and somehow gained entry to the electronically controlled, secure waiting room of the Clinic. It is common ground that she was not welcome. Abortions are performed at the Clinic and the appellant is opposed to abortion. Once inside, she began talking to the patients who were in the waiting room. While no one testified as to what the appellant said to these patients, it is safe to assume that, as some of them ended up distressed and crying, the appellant was speaking to them about abortion.
Patricia Hasen, part-owner and employee of the Women’s Clinic, summoned the police and asked the appellant to leave the premises. She did not leave. The trial judge concluded, based on this evidence, that the appellant became, at least at that point, a trespasser on the premises. When Ms. Hasen tried to ameliorate the situation by moving her patients into a secure interior area of the Clinic, the appellant tried to follow. This led to something of a struggle at the doorway, with Ms. Hasen trying to close the door leading to this interior area, and the appellant trying to keep the door open so she too could enter this area. During this struggle, Ms. Hasen demanded several times that the appellant release the door. Eventually, Ms. Hasen was able to shut and secure the door.
“Civil disobedience” that involves invading a private premises and tussling with the people therein? Hey, why not steal the flat-screen TV and the good drugs while you’re in there? Thoreau would puke. Whenever I have a go at the pro-life movement I always get e-mails and comments from pro-lifers who insist that most of them are sane, sensible, and peaceful. I’m sure it’s true. In fact, I know it is. It’s also sort of irrelevant: if the pro-life movement cannot distinguish crazy people from sane ones, to the point of suffering from an irresistible propensity for making hero-martyrs out of the former, then it can expect to be treated as a social blight.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, October 19, 2012 at 6:29 AM - 0 Comments
The Alberta Court of Appeal tumbled another grenade into the thicket of Alberta human-rights law Wednesday, delivering its two cents’ worth on the case of Stephen Boissoin [PDF]. Boissoin, you may recall, was a Red Deer preacher who made use of the letters column of the local Advocate back in 2002 to declare his opposition to the “homosexual machine that has been mercilessly gaining ground in our society since the 1960s”.
As a piece of comedy, Boissoin’s letter has held up surprisingly well, with its asides to “Mr. and Mrs. Heterosexual” and its defiant warning that your child may be “the next victim that tests homosexuality-positive”. The epistle takes a disconcertingly militant tone, but it is also careful not to show contempt for homosexuals as a class, directing its fire instead at pro-gay “educators” and “activists” who “spread their psychological disease into every area of our lives”. After a decade, it’s still not quite clear whether the disease in question is tolerance, or homosexuality itself, or even just a civilized indifference to the domestic arrangements of one’s neighbour.
Anyway, in 2007 the Alberta Human Rights Commission ordered Boissoin to “cease publishing disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals” and to pay $7,000 in damages and costs. In 2009 I wrote about a Queen’s Bench review of the finding that went about as badly for the Commission as can be imagined. Interestingly, the Court of Appeal has now reversed the reviewing judge, E.C. Wilson, on a few points.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 10:12 AM - 0 Comments
The Globe and Mail has offered a threefold response today to the critics who have been raising a stir about Carol Wainio’s prosecution brief against Margaret Wente for the crime of plagiarism. Wente has written her own apologia; the Globe has made public an internal memo on the issue, written by editor-in-chief John Stackhouse; and Stackhouse has also used the paper’s media reporter, Steve Ladurantaye, as a ventriloquist’s doll for a short news item on the scandal.
Wente’s column does go through the motions of contrition, while leaving the distinct impression that she regards herself more as victim than perpetrator.
A blogger has accused me of substantively plagiarizing the column, and much else. The allegations have exploded in the Twitterverse and prompted harsh commentary from other writers, some of whom are characterizing me as a serial plagiarist. …I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.
Imagine that: a columnist who is a target for people who don’t like what she writes! This may come as a shock to Margaret Wente, but the difference between her and other columnists is not that other columnists don’t have haters. The difference is that other columnists don’t keep handing their haters ethical ammunition by the crateload.
She may find, unhappily, that “I’m not a serial plagiarist” goes down in history as an example of this. Carol Wainio is slightly more free with the word “plagiarism” than most reporters and columnists would be, but Wainio caught Wente in what look like pretty clear, if minor, examples here, here, here (at the end, where Michael Barone’s words appear as her own), here (Joel Kotkin), and here (Steven Pinker). That’s just since late 2011. Having made the fast shuffle from “I’m not a plagiarist” to “I’m not a serial plagiarist,” where might Wente go next? “OK, I am a serial plagiarist, but I’ve never borrowed an entire column?” “I am a serial plagiarist but I bake a damn fine tollhouse cookie?”
Our collective instinct as a trade may have been to give Wente the benefit of the doubt up until now—her occasional difficulties with quotation marks being no secret—but when she says “There was no intent to deceive”, we must recall that last week she told Globe Public Editor Sylvia Stead that she didn’t remember reading the Dan Gardner column she stood accused of borrowing from. Hadn’t seen it, couldn’t pick Gardner out of a lineup, couldn’t see what the fuss was, etc., etc. Stead, as part of a supposed “investigation”, chose to accept this. Today, the party line has undergone a sudden change:
Columnists often write about the same subjects and often reach similar conclusions. That isn’t plagiarism. But there is a sentence from Mr. Gardner’s column that also appears in my column. The only explanation is that I put it in my notes, then put it in my column. That was extremely careless and, for that, I apologize.
One would think it was awkward for Stead that the cock-and-bull story she believed, and gave the stamp of moral authority to, held up for about 48 hours before collapsing in a wave of well-deserved internet ridicule which required the intervention of Stackhouse. Or the appearance of intervention, anyway. The obvious problems still left are twofold.
1) Stackhouse won’t tell us how he is sanctioning Wente, though he will say what he is not doing, i.e., letting her go. I don’t know that I would fire Wente for plagiarism in his place, though I am near-certain I would fire her for being pathologically unable to tell her own prose apart from quotations scribbled into her notes. (What say we give the real estate to someone who doesn’t have a tin ear and a crappy attitude?) The real point is that the Globe is giving us no practical indication whatsoever of how seriously it takes plagiarism, or of how Stackhouse proposes to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. It is literally all talk.
2) Stackhouse has dealt not at all with Sylvia Stead’s failure to detect obvious plagiarism when someone came up with overwhelming evidence against an old crony. His response, incredibly, was to make Stead fully independent of the person who had to bail out her behind and uphold some standards—namely himself. How is this supposed to solve the problem the Globe created by making a lifer the public editor? Have we got this straight…after that absurd display, he has decided to give her even more power?
Perhaps Stackhouse, by taking Stead out from under him in the chain of command, is offering some kind of tacit admission that he influenced her investigation. I cannot see any other reason to do it, but he is very welcome to give us a fuller explanation.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 8:10 AM - 0 Comments
In January, the Globe and Mail appointed longtime editor and correspondent Sylvia Stead its first “public editor”. What say we pause right there, before we go any further? The job of “public editor” is one most closely associated with the New York Times, which has had five different people doing the job since it created a post with that title in 2003—soon after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal. The function of the public editor at the Times, as the title suggests, is to advocate for journalism ethics, fairness, and proper practice on behalf of the paper’s readership, dealing with concerns and challenges as they arise.
To that end, the Times—quite naturally, one would think—has always recruited people for the job who haven’t been associated with the Times for their entire adult lives, but who do have some knowledge of journalism and non-fiction practice. The first Times public editor was Daniel Okrent, a legendary book and magazine editor. The new one, Margaret Sullivan, has been associated with the Warren Buffett-owned Buffalo News since 1980.
The Times is probably careful about this because it created the “public editor” job in the wake of a serious credibility crisis. It could ill afford to choose somebody who had grown up in the Times cocoon and was an irrecoverable permanent hostage to old friendships, work relationships, and office politics. In fact, it would be fair for you, dear reader, to ask the question “Why would you?” Why wouldn’t you hire someone with some independent standing to represent the public, if you were serious about it?
Well: those last six words bring us to Ms. Stead’s remarkable papal bull, published Friday, concerning Globe columnist Margaret Wente. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Friday, September 14, 2012 at 7:57 AM - 0 Comments
The leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives was Peter Lougheed’s for the asking from about 1973 onwards. Bob Stanfield approached him almost immediately after his 1974 election defeat, and Joe Clark, who had started political life as a gopher for Lougheed’s election team, made sure to get his all-clear before launching his own campaign. Later, after Clark’s vote-counting powers failed him at a 1983 leadership review, Lougheed was drafted again. That time, he thought about it a little longer.
He concluded—and notice how little self-delusion the man exhibited, compared to many who came after him—that his lack of French was a dealbreaker. Even a man who had once been well-organized enough to combine professional football with law school was unlikely to be able to remedy that in his fifties.
In truth, he could sincerely see no more satisfying use of his abilities than to be Premier of Alberta. That probably still sounds ridiculous to some. It sounded half-crazy to everybody, when Lougheed was a young man. But his political comrades remember him talking about it when he was still nothing but a bundle of ambition—before he had even decided what the particular vehicle for his political ascendancy was going to be.
Look at our constitution, he would tell them. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Friday, September 7, 2012 at 4:37 AM - 0 Comments
There is a natural law operating in Canadian media whereby the more knowledge you have of firearms, the more hilarious you find the press and TV reports that follow any prominent incident with guns. Sun News, for example, was quick to tell us after Tuesday night’s attack on the Parti Québécois victory party in Montreal that suspect Richard Henry Bain had been caught with “an automatic weapon.” Global News doubled down, arming Bain with a nonexistent “machine-gun.”
The Montreal Gazette thus deserves special credit for establishing the truth, and describing it in a fairly straightforward way: the weapon used by Bain was a Czech-made semiautomatic rifle, the CZ 858, specifically designed to be legal for sale and possession in Canada. It bears a superficial resemblance to the outlawed AK-47, making it popular with military hobbyists and wannabes who do tactical “sport” shooting at gun ranges. But, as the Gazette established, it is no different in principle from any semiautomatic hunting rifle. It conforms to Canadian law if it’s used with the required five-round magazine, and hundreds of Canadians own one.
Although online gun aficionadoes raised the possibility that Bain’s gun was a CZ 858 even as CBC and Radio-Canada still had their cameras rolling on the scene, the teevee news could be forgiven for mistaking the weapon for an AK-47. (General familiarity with small arms might actually make this error more likely, not less. Reporters with foreign experience are more likely to have seen an AK carried in the wild, and perhaps even fired in anger, than they are to have seen some nerd showing off a Czech simulacrum at a range in Prince Albert.) But it’s less easy to account for the statement made Wednesday by a Montreal police spokesman, who waved off questions about the gun by saying “It’s a prohibited or restricted weapon” and adding “A gun like that doesn’t go in the register.” The gun not only could go in the register; turns out it was in the register. Which is small comfort.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 4:02 PM - 0 Comments
When the National Hockey League locked out its players for the entirety of the 2004-05 season, there was no competition held for the Stanley Cup. To this day, almost nobody ever talks about how bizarre this was—how bizarre, I mean, that the Canadian people and their officialdom stood for it. The precise legal status of the Stanley Cup is a lot like an unobserved particle in quantum physics: it is an unknowable, an existential question that has absolutely no good answer until and unless somebody with judicial authority chooses an arbitrary criterion and applies it. But as for moral ownership of the Stanley Cup… there cannot be any reasonable doubt about this, can there?
The Cup was originally a gift of the viceroy to the people of Canada. It is sacred to the people of Canada, and only to them. As the National Hockey League came to be recognized as the world’s supreme hockey competition in the 1920s, the people of Canada came to accept that the NHL’s champion, even when it was an American team, should receive the Cup. We have forgotten that this was a matter of generosity on our part: that the NHL does not own the Stanley Cup, but is suffered to award it only in exchange for operating the best continuing hockey competition for Canadian audiences.
It is astonishing that we should tolerate the use of our Stanley Cup as a hostage to one side in a labour negotiation. This happened once, and we regretted it passively, snivellingly, instead of demanding action. We can manage a half-decent riot when a Canadian team loses the Stanley Cup in a fair fight. But for some reason, when the Cup is openly confiscated by billionaires, dangled in front of young Canadian hockey players and mothballed when they refuse to give back a piece of their paycheques, we do nothing but mope.
And now it might happen again, you say? Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 11:37 AM - 0 Comments
The hot story in U.S. politics this week is a Republican Senate nominee’s folk belief, expressed in a television interview, that women rarely get pregnant from “legitimate rape”. Missouri Congressman Todd Akin told a TV interviewer:
First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
Akin’s use of the phrase “legitimate rape” is attracting a lot of catcalls; maybe he ought to have used Whoopi Goldberg’s famous formulation “rape rape” in order to be better understood. The funny thing is, if Akin meant “violent rape” when he referred to the “legitimate” kind, his weird legend is probably slightly higher on the ostensive believability scale than, say, “Organically grown vegetables are better for the environment”. It’s quite demonstrable that plenty of mammals undergo spontaneous abortion under stress; when it comes to sheep, rabbits, and rodents, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” is a 100% accurate statement.
Unfortunately for Akin, we belong to none of those species, and the evidence from medicine says that thousands upon thousands of human pregnancies result from rape. I don’t advise you to take it to the bank, but it may even be the case that rape is more likely than consensual sex to induce pregnancy in humans.
Everybody in the media thinks it is interesting that a Republican candidate got tripped up in being challenged on the abortion issue by means of a philosophical edge case. No one seems to take much notice of how big a deal we make of these cases themselves. It is fine that Akin got humiliated and may lose his political career, since a political campaign is, in part, an IQ test. He failed the test by letting it slip that he may think some species of sexual assault are less “legitimate” than others. He might as well have added a “heh heh heh” and waggled his eyebrows salaciously while he was at it.
In some contexts there are valid reasons to distinguish violent rape from other kinds, just as we distinguish murder from manslaughter. But the officiousness with which Akin is being belaboured is appropriate to our time in history: we have only lately blown up the methods of social control once used to protect women from non-consensual sex, and a few generations of men are having to have it drummed into them that sex without consent always has the essential nature of rape, whether you paid for dinner or not. This awkwardness is part of the price for the transition from an ancient social regime of patria potestas to one of ultra-individualism and contractual relationships.
Still, it’s interesting that we have made the poor little rape-baby so central to the debate over abortion—that this is the test we apply to men like Akin, even though Akin had already made his extreme pro-life position clear many times over. He thinks that abortion is wrong, and while rape is also wrong, two wrongs don’t make a right. This position has an attractive consistency when contrasted with the fudges some people come up with in confronting abortion. If you want to make an exception for rape because in that case the woman did not choose to get pregnant, will you make one for the broken condom and the forgotten birth-control pill? For a “natural family planning” calendar calculation gone awry? For a makeout session that gets out of hand?
To the degree that a “pro-life” position respects a woman’s choice, it becomes a “pro-choice” position very quickly in practice, as the “exceptions” naturally expand to cover nearly every conceivable situation in which a woman will want to seek an abortion. Women don’t get abortions because they’re laugh-a-minute thrill rides. They get them, and pardon me if I’ve buried the lede here, because they’re pregnant and they don’t want to be pregnant anymore.
The real function of the rape hypothetical is to force the Todd Akins of the world to make their premises explicit. The fertilized ovum being sacred, and having all the entitlements and endowments of a fully formed human being, its mother must inevitably be assigned the attributes of a heifer and made to carry the child to term at all hazards. (Indeed, her conduct could conceivably be policed to ensure that the fetus survives to term in good health.) The pain, inconvenience, danger, and expense to be experienced by the mere vessel count for nothing; the principle that the child’s existence is in no sense subservient or incomplete must be upheld, even if we never in any other way behave as though this principle were true, and even if no one really thought it was true until about 1965, and even if the implications are somewhat ridiculous.
That is the pro-life proposition, and the details of the child’s origin are ultimately tangential. But it’s not a coincidence that pro-lifers have, within their cultural cocoon, concocted a myth that deflects the rape issue—the edgiest of all the edge cases.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, August 17, 2012 at 3:57 AM - 0 Comments
The verdict in Russia’s trial of feminist punk group Pussy Riot is expected this morning; it will probably have been announced by the time you read this. The group was arrested after staging a brief impromptu performance at the famous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, rebuilt in 2000 after being demolished to make way for the never-built Palace of the Soviets in 1931. The performers have been formally charged with khuliganstvo (“hooliganism”), the old catchall term that meant in Soviet days, and means now, that one has done something not otherwise criminal of which the Organs do not approve.
The trial is rightly regarded as an outrage. There’s no indication or suggestion that Pussy Riot did any physical damage to the church; their appearance lasted mere seconds before they were escorted out. And Russian Orthodoxy’s grovelling support for Putinism has certainly made it a valid target of protest. Pussy Riot are nothing less than old-fashioned political prisoners, and they deserve the exterior moral support that Russian political prisoners have always received from Europe and the West—whether a Tsar, a Central Committee, or an outdoorsy populist President is running the show.
It has come to the attention of Canadians that Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova may be a permanent resident of Canada. Indeed, Lisa Kirbie, who seems to have been first in Canada to notice the possibility, is waxing wroth about being bigfooted on the story by the Toronto Star. (No, reporting the same facts as somebody else isn’t plagiarism, by any definition. But it’s certainly poor form.) “Is Nadezhda Tolokonnikova a Canadian?” Kirbie asks. “Why won’t the Harper government step up and help her?”
Lisa Kirbie can have the glory if she wants it, but I don’t know that I’d be so eager, under the same circumstances, to be seen as a catspaw of Putin’s government. Nadezhda T.’s alleged permanent-resident card was shown in this Russian state news broadcast. If you watch, you’ll see it’s a 60 Minutes-style “gotcha” story, clearly arranged with the help of the local prosecutor: Tolokonnikova tells the reporter specifically that she did not get a Canadian residency permit, and there’s a quick cut to the office of one of Putin’s heavies, who lets the camera linger lovingly over Tolokonnikova’s Canadian residency documents.
Now, if a Russian prosecutor from absolutely any era of history informed me that I have two testicles, I’d reach down and give them a real quick count. But Tolokonnikova’s husband has apparently confirmed that the docs are legit. It is still curious that it’s the friends of Pussy Riot who are hyping her status—in the name of trying to establish that Tolokonnikova might be a “Canadian”, even though it is precisely the point of “permanent resident” status that holders are not Canadian citizens and have no claim on Canadian consular assistance in their home countries. In exchange for that dubious benefit, they’ve helped Putin’s regime trap Tolokonnikova in a televised fib and made her look, to xenophobic Russians, like a troublemaking tourist who got in over her head. Heckuva job, guys!
The Canadian government should advocate for Tolokonnikova—and for the other members of her group, too: not because of some connection to Canada, but in the name of ushering thoughtcrime and classic authoritarianism off the stage of history. A rally for Pussy Riot is planned for Toronto and other world cities today. I trust none of the attendees will be Canadians who have availed themselves in the past of the cheap sensual delights of Cuba.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, August 1, 2012 at 5:42 AM - 0 Comments
Aug. 4 will be the 30th anniversary of the double murder that put Albertan Ronald Smith on Death Row at Montana’s state prison near the city of Deer Lodge. “Death Row” is just a metaphor in this instance: Montana still has only two inmates awaiting execution, and they live among other maximum-security inmates at the prison. Smith has been, at times, mere weeks from his execution date. In my Alberta Report days, I remember discussing plans with other editors to have someone report on, and if possible, stand witness to, Smith’s demise.
Smith has long outlived that magazine now, and a few of the people who worked for it, too. But I am beginning to sense for the first time that Smith has a pretty good chance of dying in his prison bunk, rather than on a gurney. I know I’ll be pretty p.o.’ed if he outlasts me.
Smith has managed to attract increasing international interest in his professions of contrition==during the past few years, perhaps in part because of the controversy over the Canadian government’s refusal to help him with his clemency application. It would be amusing if the Conservative government had actually helped Smith’s cause, even slightly, by turning a deaf ear to his pleas. But what’s probably more important is the aid Smith is now getting from the American Civil Liberties Union’s Montana office. As Smith’s family goes to work on a popular Democratic state governor, the ACLU is presenting a strong challenge to the constitutionality of capital punishment in Montana.
If you have a morbid bent like mine, you may wish to peruse that challenge [PDF], which takes the bold form of a motion for summary judgment against the state’s execution protocol. The ACLU’s lawyers note that the state updated the protocol last year, but the technical manual continues to call for murderers to be put to death using the bizarre “triple cocktail”—a formula whose origins and rationale nobody really understands, and which is gradually being abandoned by other states in favour of the simpler one-drug method used by veterinarians to euthanize animals.
The actual statutes of Montana mention only two drugs, but that seems like a picky legal technicality. More important to Smith’s fate is the absence of humanitarian safeguards in the execution guidelines, an absence that persists in the new manual. The training and credentialing requirements for the people who would be killing Smith are specified very feebly. As the ACLU observes, the Supreme Court has set a fairly high procedural bar in death penalty cases. If Montana cannot afford to have a well-drilled and medically knowledgeable staff on call for executions, the motion suggests, then maybe it shouldn’t be doing them at all.
The real threat, of course, is not that Montana will have to recruit and develop an entire Death Squad for its two capital offenders. What’s more likely, even if the motion for summary judgment fails, is that the ACLU will win the right to a full and expensive hearing of its constitutional arguments, complete with expert testimony and lots of courtroom time. There’s a further risk, nay, a strong likelihood, that this hearing would probably end with a demand for an even more expensive rewrite of the state’s execution procedures book. (As a bonus, not one but two constitutions are involved here, and the state constitution of Montana has a different standard for “cruel and unusual punishment” than the federal law does.) The ACLU’s Ron Waterman more or less openly admits to CP’s Bill Graveland that he hopes Gov. Brian Schweitzer will take Smith’s age, maturation, and good behaviour into account and walk away from this potentially very obnoxious game.
It might provide the governor an additional reason to say at least there’s been litigation raised that questions the protocol, and this litigation is going to extend out for years and years, and it’s time to put this to bed.
On the other hand, Montana won’t be able to execute anybody at all until its execution manual is put to the judicial test. And there are still people around who very, very much want to see Ronald Smith die on that gurney.
By Colby Cosh - Monday, July 30, 2012 at 12:17 AM - 0 Comments
The New York Times ran a deeply contrarian editorial Saturday about math education in the United States. In it, political scientist Andrew Hacker argues that the youth of America is being crucified on a cross of higher math.
A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 1:32 AM - 0 Comments
“Learning about Enbridge’s poor handling of the rupture, you can’t help but think of the Keystone Kops,” said Deborah Hersman, chair of the NTSB. “Why didn’t they recognize what was happening? What took so long?” she said in a statement. She said that despite alarms and pressure differentials, Enbridge staff twice pumped more oil, about 81 per cent of the total release, into the ruptured pipeline. Hersman said that oil gushed from the rupture for more than 17 hours before the leak was discovered.
This is a fair bottom line when it comes to Enbridge’s Line 6B leak, which poured about a million gallons of diluted bitumen into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River on July 26, 2010. As an Albertan, with all the prejudices and interests that implies, I’ve been reading primary documents in the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the spill. What I slowly came to understand, to my considerable horror, is that the leak may physically have happened to a bunch of poor bastards in Michigan, but the real problem was here, in Edmonton. This is where pipeline controllers—tired, young, inexperienced pipeline controllers working in a somewhat dysfunctional environment—struggled for long hours to interpret pressure readings as anything but the unthinkable. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 6:07 AM - 0 Comments
Lennox is dead. The black “pit bull type” canine became an internet sensation over the past few weeks as authorities in Belfast prepared to execute him under the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1992, which outlaws such animals. Lennox was euthanized early Wednesday despite worldwide appeals from celebrities, including Americans who offered to find a new home for him in the U.S. The family was not allowed to visit the dog before his death, or to be present for it; they learned first from a radio interviewer that the council order had been carried out. They haven’t been given their pet’s body, either; they have instead been told by city council that his ashes will be mailed to them.
The council has handled the whole affair about as poorly as it could have, from a public-relations standpoint. The mistrust that body has accumulated will be lasting, and one supposes that any institution of government in Northern Ireland starts with two strikes against it. But it would be hard to argue that Lennox wasn’t given at least a slim chance. Born long after the laws against pit bulls were passed, Lennox was the subject of three legal appeals, including one entertained by the Court of Appeal for Northern Ireland, the UK exclave’s highest. More than two full years lapsed between the seizure of the dog and his death.
In the end, the family was snagged in a Catch-22; the city council would probably have preferred to resolve matters by letting the dog be re-homed, especially since angry cynophiles have been churning out everything from e-mail spam to gasoline-soaked threat letters, but the letter of the law provides only for the destruction of dogs once they are found dangerous. There are no provisions for putting them on a boat in the dead of night and letting them slip quietly off into exile under less dog-o-cidal regimes.
The longstanding questions about the subjectivity and humanity of legislation banning particular breeds of dog are being renewed by Lennox’s case. He was adjudged to be a pit bull after a brief physical inspection with a tape measure. A DNA test apparently indicated that Lennox is a mix of American bulldog and Labrador retriever, but the standard under the law is physical conformation, not genetics, and doggie-DNA testing may still contain quite a large component of bushwa anyway. Lennox’s owner, Caroline Barnes, had complied scrupulously with all of the city’s licensing and health laws respecting the dog—except, of course, for the one making his existence inherently illegal. There have never been any complaints from neighbours about Lennox, and there is no evidence he has ever succeeded in nipping anyone.
Most news items about poor Lennox, however, naturally left out a few details that are present in the Court of Appeal’s judgment. (Is the recognition of complicated truths bad for the web stats, do you suppose?) When dog wardens returned to the Barnes residence after seeing Lennox and wondering why an illegal pit bull was living there, they “spoke to a male on the premises who refused to permit the examination of the dog and told them that if they attempted to measure the dog it would ‘rip their head off’.” Indeed, Lennox seems to have done his best; he lunged at one of the wardens who originally measured him, and at a dog handler brought in to assess his demeanour, and even at one of the family’s own trial witnesses. Barnes herself told the court “that the dog had changed since an incident where she and her child were threatened by a group of youths” and “that the dog did not deal well with strangers who forced themselves upon him.”
Around the world this week, thousands of dogs will be turned over to shelters or put down immediately because of difficult or intractable personalities. This one, at least, will be mourned.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 4:43 PM - 0 Comments
Alberta made a cameo on the justly popular Language Log linguistics website last week. U of Calgary prof Julie Sedivy signed in to discuss some survey evidence from Louisiana that public resistance to “fracking” (i.e., hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting oil and gas more efficiently by injecting high-pressure sand, water, and sometimes other chemicals into wells) may result, in part, just from the unpleasantness of the word. The industry tends to use “frac” as an adjective; “fracking” as a verb is a media creation, though, it must be said, not really an unsuitable one. Hydraulic fracturing is intended in part to crack up petroleum-bearing rock strata, so there’s an onomatopoeic appropriateness there.
The Louisiana study [PDF] did find significant differences in survey responses between people who had “fracking” and “hydraulic fracturing” described to them in those terms and those who were given a more elliptical description that referred to “high-pressure injection”. As Sedivy points out, an experimental control of this nature is necessarily a little loose. But it does raise the ugly possibility that we are going to see further low-level linguistic warfare of the sort that has divided Canada asininely into standard-bearers for the terms “oilsands” and “tarsands”. To which I can only say: oh, for frack’s sake.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 10:53 AM - 0 Comments
Our literary editrix sent me the oddest book to review, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it; I decided not to review it for our print books section, where space is tight, but I thought I’d put on record that I did read Stephen L. Carter’s The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln from front to back.
A lot of respectable pulp-class writers, from Harry Turtledove to whomever ghosts the books sold under Newt Gingrich’s byline, earn good coin from the art of alternate-universe U.S. history. (I think Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is the major inspiration for this genre, but feel free to apply the rod of correction in the comments.) Lincoln being the perennial topic he is, one imagines that Carter’s basic premise—a world in Lincoln survives the wound he receives at Ford’s Theatre—has probably been done a dozen times before. But one expects Carter’s book to be more serious than the general run of this stuff, because he’s a moderately important public intellectual, not to mention the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale. (This is one of the few jobs in the United States whose title practically demands a tympani roll and a trumpet fanfare.)
The book, however, is just plain weird—an action movie, a courtroom drama, and an interracial romance thrown into a big blender. The portrait of an impeachment proceeding turns out to be quite interesting and informative, because even though we have recent experience of a president’s trial in the Senate… well, to be perfectly honest, what I remember most from the trial of President Clinton is Chief Justice Rehnquist’s wacky robe with the striped sleeves. The proceeding itself was a bit perfunctory: by the time the trial commenced the ending was foreordained, the public was exhausted, and neither theoretically-possible outcome was likely to please anyone much. Moreover, the trial was carried out in an odd, slightly confusing order, and no live witnesses were examined in the well of the Senate chamber. As theatre, it was a bust.
Carter’s fictional trial shows us what a real, proper, open-ended presidential impeachment proceeding would look like—yet it, too, fails as theatre. You know how courtroom movies like A Few Good Men always end up letting star witnesses testify uninterrupted and fight exciting verbal duels with cross-examining counsel in ways that would never be tolerated in real life? Just to refresh your memory: the lawyer for the baddie will usually explode to his feet once and demand that the good guy’s Hail-Mary line of questioning be shut down, but the judge, who has been crushing the hero’s huevos throughout the movie, suffers a mysterious and unexplained attack of leniency and says “I’ll allow it—but this had better be going somewhere fast, mister!”
Carter is too much the law professor to let a “real” courtroom drama like that develop: his portrait of an obstructionist, cranky 19th-century Senate is so accurate that the witnesses are barely allowed to breathe, and Lincoln’s impeachment trial turns out to be kind of boring. (And, by the way, the actual impeachment of Lincoln by the House technically happens off-camera in a short passage on page 34, so the title’s a little misleading, too.)
There are other credibility problems with the plot to balance the too-much-credibility issue with the courtroom scenes, but my big problem with this book is that its portrait of Lincoln is unrecognizable and unattractive. I can’t help thinking that this is a decisive, unmitigable flaw in a Lincoln book. Carter seems to have thought it was important that Lincoln not be portrayed as a plaster saint, so he overemphasizes the cynicism, the backwoods cunning, and the borderline-megalomaniac sense of sacred mission that contemporary detractors saw in Lincoln. This is certainly fair. What we don’t get is any sense of Lincoln’s mind, which was one of the finest of its era.
Certainly we get no taste of his gift for English, which only a trivial handful of individuals have shared in equal measure since our alphabet included the yogh. I think literally every single bit of Lincoln dialogue we get in the book is prefaced by one of Lincoln’s countrified stories about travelling salesmen with ferrets in their trousers or what-have-you. The anecdotes all supposedly authentic, but they are laid on much too thick. In real life, when the President deployed these stories, they were charming and inevitably to the point. By contrast, Carter’s Lincoln seems cryptic and distracted, even a mite demented. Maybe it’s the head wound?
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 9:11 AM - 0 Comments
The British physician Ben Goldacre, whose 2008 book Bad Science pushed him into the global front rank of science popularizers, has collaborated with a UK government thingie called the “Behavioural Insights Team” on an important paper whose title alone captures a significant amount of its importance. It’s called “Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials”. Goldacre refers to the paper as an attempt at writing a “Ladybird Book” on public-policy RCTs. I am not quite sure how to translate this for the New World audience: “Public Policy RCTs for Dummies” would be in the ballpark, though possibly in the left-field bleachers.
The randomized controlled trial is a model for knowledge-acquisition, a particular kind of scientific activity, that has progressed slowly upward in generality and power throughout modern times. It started in late 19th-century psychology and agriculture, took over medicine after the Second World War, and has recently (as Goldacre et al. point out) taken root in web design. Its history is a bit like the histories of Darwinian evolution or Turing machines or the equal-temperament keyboard: it’s an idea, created to address very particular situations or questions, that seems more and more fundamental the more people play with it.
Nobody would now think of introducing an important health intervention, whether it be a drug, a surgical procedure, or a piece of equipment, without subjecting it to an RCT. Heck, the Pepsi Challenge is a crude form of randomized controlled trial. The basic idea isn’t that complicated. So the question the Behavioural Insights people have been asking is, how come we almost never do this with public-policy interventions? Bureaucrats are deeply devoted to testing new ideas and programs by means of the “pilot project”, but rarely do they make sure such projects have the key elements of an RCT: (1) truly random assignment of the intervention being considered, (2) test criteria selected and announced in advance; (3) the existence of a matching control group that receives a different intervention or none at all; and (4) safeguards designed to limit the possibility of experimenter manipulation of results, whether conscious or unconscious.
One can imagine Sir Humphrey Appleby flinching at all this brute objectivity designed to deliver cold yes/no decision guidelines to the ruling class. Items 1, 2, and 4 supra deprive him of a lot of the power to get the result he wants in advance. And that is probably one reason why the RCT model has not been terribly influential in policy circles. Yet RCTs, as the UK paper notes, were embraced quickly in medicine despite being, in that setting, very expensive and sometimes fraught with ethical intricacies. When it comes to a question such as whether it is worthwhile for courts to follow up on parking tickets with text messages, RCTs can be absurdly cheap, and nobody could possibly find some other good argument for not doing one.
It’s easy to overstate the novelty of the public-policy RCT: the famous and still much-discussed RAND Health Insurance Experiment, for example, began more than 40 years ago. And entire fields of public policy are impossible to capture in an RCT lens. It would be nice if we could settle the macroeconomists’ intergenerational wrangling over the appropriate target for monetary policy by means of a controlled experiment, for example; but it is hard to see how you could pull that off. There are, however, fields of statecraft that are very open to RCTs, and that are in desperate need of the epistemic discipline they impose. The best example might be foreign aid, and the RCT model has caught fire amazingly quickly in that realm, thanks to scholars like Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee.
Pepsi Challenge-ing economic-development interventions in the Third World has already won Duflo a Macarthur genius grant and the John Bates Clark Medal. There’s pretty much no top honour left for her to nab except the quasi-Nobel they give to economists, and she is a lock for that if she lives long enough. It also seems inevitable that some careers will be made preaching the RCT gospel here, in Canada; all that is needed is for a few good policy professionals to take up the torch. And look: Goldacre’s just handed it to you! He is, I think, a tremendously key figure in this development. For the past decade or so he has been doing for RCT methodology what pulp science fiction writers of the ’40s and ’50s did for physics, taking up the cause of Bradford Hill and Archie Cochrane and our own David Sackett to make lay converts for gold-standard evidence-gathering.
Maybe it’s even possible RCTs will turn up as an element in electoral politics, as a way of finessing ideological questions for post-Cold War voters who (I notice) don’t like labels and won’t take them. There have been a lot of jokes floating around about a post-ideological “Economists Party” devoted to accepted principles of free trade, public choice, and mainstream welfare economics. Perhaps it should be an “Evidence Party” instead?
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 5:42 PM - 0 Comments
It’s the cleverest promotional idea in big-league baseball this year. And baseball, by the way, is the hardest sport in which to win that title. On June 30 the Tampa Bay Rays are having a “Turn Back the Clock” game in which the players will wear the uniforms of the 1979 version of the Rays. I hear some of you saying that the Rays were created almost twenty years after that date. Pshaw! A bagatelle! A mere detail, as this photo of Rays manager Joe Maddon modelling the throwback uniform proves!
It’s in the nature of baseball that everyone believes the version of the sport played on television when they were young is the ideal version. For us Gen-Xers, though, this is objectively, inarguably true. (What, you prefer steroid-altered baseball? 1960s no-scoring, no-.300-hitters baseball? Racially segregated baseball?) The Rays’ alternate-history throwback doesn’t have a colour scheme you would wear in a boardroom. What this uniform has going for it, like the real ’70s uniforms it’s imitating, is that it is at least consciously designed. It clearly wasn’t created by having a computer algorithm pick a basic shade of red and pass it to a focus group. In a brilliant fake-historic touch, the trite mean-animal name that the real team was born with, in the world-run-by-idiots era of the “Toronto Raptors”, has been reinterpreted as denoting the Rays of a lemony ’70s sun. It’s too good to last just one game!