By Colby Cosh - Thursday, May 23, 2013 - 0 Comments
The provincial election in British Columbia, with its surprise outcome and its cornucopia of subplots, was a pundit’s delight. There was an explosive failure of public pre-election polling, complete with “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”-level humiliations for local newspapers. (This was bad for pundits, you say? Like hell: Look how much material it gave them.) There was an awkward defeat of a standing premier in her own riding at a moment in which she bestrode the province like Lady Colossus. And there were the complex effects of smaller parties on what was otherwise a two-horse race. Specifically, there was what the B.C. Green party did to the New Democrats. Whatever that was, exactly.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 5:43 AM - 0 Comments
Goodbye, genital warts! Can’t say you’ll be missed! A new study of Australian visitors to sexual health clinics reveals that vaccines against the most dangerous forms of the human papilloma virus (HPV) are turning out to be very effective at eliminating genital warts—so much so that it is actually a bit mysterious. In 2007 Australia introduced a program of free(-as-in-beer) HPV vaccination for schoolgirls aged 12-13, with optional free “catch-up” programs available to older girls and women. This effectively created the conditions for a controlled experiment: Australia now has an under-21 age cohort in which there was near-total vaccine coverage in the populace, a 21-30 cohort that is somewhere around 50% covered, and a 30-plus group among which almost nobody has had the jab.
The clinics, which are all over Australia, were instructed to record incidence rates of genital warts among patients visiting for the first time. As you can see if you peek at the tables, the rates have stayed the same amongst the unvaccinated oldies and have plunged in the younger populations. It’s not just the women who benefit in this regard (while receiving hypothetical protection from future cervical cancer); the incidence rates dropped among younger men, thanks to herd immunity, and even declined significantly among gay men. It is not as though Australians have stopped having sex, as the matching incidence figures for chlamydia suggest. In fact, they suggest that they’re probably at it a bit more. (And why wouldn’t they be, what with everybody having much tidier genitalia and all?)
Most remarkable is the finding (see Figure 2) that genital warts have disappeared altogether among those in the youngest group of women, those almost universally vaccinated in early or pre-adolescence. For the year 2011 there were 235 patients; 235 were wart-free. In the words of the authors, “We were surprised by this finding, as some of these women probably had only one or two doses of vaccine, and false positive diagnoses are always possible.” The vaccine is designed to suppress only strains of HPV thought to cause most genital warts; the docs speculate that either “most” was actually “all” all along, or that the vaccine is knocking out other strains it wasn’t engineered to fight. Either way, this is probably an auspicious leading indicator when it comes to the ongoing cancer-prevention powers of these “quadrivalent” HPV vaccines.
If you check the footnotes of the study, you can see that these researchers are probably quite delighted to have arrived at these conclusions, since some of them are cozy with Merck, makers of the Gardasil HPV vaccine. No doubt this study has been spun to create the greatest possible sensation, but there are plenty of urogenital specialists in Australia; an “absolutely no young people anywhere are turning up with warts anymore” finding is the sort of thing that wouldn’t be accepted if it weren’t close to the truth. Big Pharma is obnoxious in many ways, but we must give the monster its due when warranted.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, May 10, 2013 at 10:01 AM - 0 Comments
All righty. Since Mark Warawa has finally kicked off that grand national conversation about sex-selective abortion we needed so badly, I’ll start by asking a question: exactly which sex-selective abortions should we outlaw? I think we know how Warawa would answer, given his druthers: “All of them, along with all the other abortions.” It is odd, though, how many of the people who are eager for a “conversation” have failed to supply their own answer. We hear that there must be some law—the truly civilized places, the superior polities, all have one!—but no one ever explains with any precision what that law should capture. Let’s imagine some possible cases:
1. An East Indian woman in a traditionalist marriage is found to be carrying a female fetus, and wants to abort it owing to her preference for having a boy.
2. A Toronto feminist in a radical same-sex life arrangement is found to be carrying a male fetus, and wants to abort it owing to her preference for a male-free household.
3. A mother of three boys is found to be carrying a fourth male fetus, and opts for an abortion and an attempt at a fifth pregnancy with a different outcome in the hope of “balancing” her family.
4. A mother who knows she is a carrier of red-green colour blindness, generally an X-chromosome-linked genetic defect, prefers to carry only girls to term because she selfishly prefers to have a more perfect child.
5. A mother who knows she is a carrier of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, always an X-chromosome-linked genetic defect, prefers to carry only girls to term because she selfishly prefers to have a more perfect child.
6. A mother, living in the imminent near future in which fetuses can be gene-sequenced almost immediately after implantation, who has no actual preference concerning the sex of her child, but makes an a priori decision to abort any fetus that displays some level—perhaps trivial, perhaps only the most staggeringly serious—of known genetic defect. The result, since God has arranged matters such that recessive X-chromosome-linked defects affecting only boys vastly outnumber any other kind, is a set of abortions that are collectively and strongly “sex-selective” in favour of girls, even though the mothers are indifferent. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 6:25 AM - 0 Comments
Happy Kentucky Derby Day! Post time for the 139th edition of the Super Bowl For The Super-Wealthy is 6:24 p.m. Eastern time this afternoon, and the big Canadian angle this year is the equine duo owned by the diamond king of the Northwest Territories, Edmonton-born Charles Fipke. Fipke’s Golden Soul was 31-to-1 to win in late Friday betting; Golden Soul backed into qualifying for the Derby field only after a few horses higher in the points system got hurt, and his only win so far has been a “maiden” race against other first-timers. So the one to watch might be Fipke’s other entry, Java’s War.
Like Golden Soul, Java’s War is said to have a pedigree that predicts a propensity for turf tracks, and the results of his two-year-old season reflected that. But Java’s War, who stood at 22-to-1 in Derby betting late Friday, earned an impressive calling card April 13 by winning the Blue Grass Stakes, a traditional Derby warm-up held on synthetic dirt. (Synthetic dirt is pretty much the same chemically as real dirt, but with a certain industrial uniformity that supposedly makes it a very different experience for your proverbially touchy thoroughbred.) Java’s War won in a way that may bode well for the mile-and-a-quarter race distance that he, and everyhorse else in the field, will be competing at for the first time. In the old-school phrasing of NYT racing reporter Tom Pedulla,
…it can be difficult to find him at all as other horses bolt from the gate. He is not one to hurry. His way is to hesitate when the gate snaps open, spot the rest of the field many lengths, and gradually pick them off when it is time to grow serious.
I know nothing about racing, but I like the sound of that! Since 1945, just nine out of 67 Blue Grass Stakes winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, but 24 of them, including 2012 winner Dullahan, have ended up in the top three. And while we’re playing the CanCon game, CBC News has another Canadian angle, more tenuous and certainly a bit more dismal, that involves stronger 5-1 contender Goldencents.
By Colby Cosh - Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8:10 AM - 0 Comments
“Liberation therapy” for multiple sclerosis is dead; yet long will it live, not only in the hearts of desperate MS patients, but in their bank balances too. In 2009 an Italian physician named Paolo Zamboni issued a study claiming that MS sufferers had poor rates of blood outflow from their brains. He proposed a complex new etiological theory of MS on this basis, proclaiming the existence of a new syndrome: “chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency,” or CCSVI.
Zamboni’s study made bold, almost patently insupportable claims about differences between the blood vessels of MS sufferers and healthy persons. His theory of CCSVI seemed to contradict much that is known about MS and failed to account for obvious features like the midlife age of typical onset. The research got little attention outside Canada, a country hit hard by the global north-south gradient of MS rates. Inside Canada, it only took one round of zingy, insufficiently critical news stories by CTV and the Globe and Mail to make Zamboni a hero.
Hundreds of patients, perhaps thousands, have travelled the globe seeking venous angioplasty for MS symptoms, usually against doctors’ advice, and millions of dollars have been invested in CCSVI and “liberation therapy” surveillance after pressure was applied by shouting patients and opportunistic backbench politicians. But after years of empirical setbacks for the whole notion of CCSVI, it is all looking like money down the drain.
The first question to be answered about CCSVI ought to have been, “Is there actually any such thing?” Attempts to reproduce Zamboni’s results have met with mass consternation; researchers cannot even get to the point of determining whether CCSVI is treatable because they cannot detect it as promised. Radiological imaging does not seem to exhibit consistent relevant differences between MS sufferers and healthy patients, and Zamboni’s original criteria for a CCSVI diagnosis are hardly even coherent or well-specified enough for practical use.
The April issue of the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Radiology, for example, contains a report of a Texas study of 276 MS patients and 70 healthy controls: ultrasounds of their necks produced “findings consistent with CCSVI” in four per cent of the MS group—and in seven per cent of the non-MS group. Examples of results like this could be compounded ad nauseam: the Texas paper is not even the only negative CCSVI-Zamboni result in that issue of that journal.
What went wrong? For those seeking an answer, I would recommend a paper open-published in late February by the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism. Conveniently, its title is: “What went wrong? The flawed concept of cerebrospinal venous insufficiency.” This paper is important because the doctors who wrote it are among the leaders in using ultrasound and other means to study normal venous blood flow. Zamboni depended on their research for background when he was trying to devise diagnostic criteria for CCSVI. If CCSVI were real, they might be expected to be the first to applaud.
They’re not applauding. The authors go point by point through Zamboni’s proposed criteria, showing how he repeatedly misinterpreted earlier literature on vein behaviour and confused abnormal blood flow events with harmless typical ones. They emphasize the basic implausibility of Zamboni’s theory and show that it conflicts with non-Zambonian findings on MS and venous drainage. And they criticize the “open-label” nature of early CCSVI studies and patient registries assembled on the fly for political reasons. The best-designed of these, the authors note, was probably one paid for by the government of Newfoundland; a brusque June 2012 press release announced no evidence of objective benefit, but no peer-reviewed publication of the results has followed.
The “What went wrong?” paper concludes unequivocally that “only a complete halt to [liberation] therapy seems sensible.” The story of CCSVI will not be over until the last frustrated Canadian pays the last Bulgarian or Bengali doctor to be “liberated” for the last time; but from a scientific standpoint, the proverbial fat lady is about halfway between the main performance and the encore. On web forums for MS patients, liberation therapy is already receding into the shadow world of I’ll-try-anything curatives, there to linger with cobra venom and upper-cervical chiropractic.
It would be nice to be able to ladle out guilt for this ignoble episode in medical history, but it is not clear that even Zamboni, whose wife has MS, did anything consciously wrong. On the other hand, the doctor is not likely to miss any meals because he messed up. A Canadian MS patient who forked over for repeated unnecessary angioplasties might.
For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh
By Colby Cosh - Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 8:00 PM - 0 Comments
“Organized religion” hasn’t enjoyed very good press for the last 50 years. People only use the phrase when they mean to speak ill, as with “organized crime.” A lot of people remain quite keen on religion, or even unbelievingly convinced there are benefits from its existence; they are not so happy with the hint of menace and control that comes with the “organization” part.
But what if the “organized” bit in “organized religion” is actually the useful half? What if, as the philosopher Alain de Botton has been arguing lately, we would be better off dispensing with supernatural or mystical ideas but keeping the activities, the buildings, and the other external forms?
A weird but important new study out of the University of Saskatchewan’s psychiatry shop may serve to endorse this Bottonite impulse. The research on religion and mental health is a vast, contradictory mess that you can ransack for evidence of almost any hypothetical relationship. But doctors Lloyd Balbuena, Marilyn Baetz and Rudy Bowen have extracted new longitudinal data from a huge sample. They used repeated interviews of 12,583 people in the National Population Health Survey (NPHS), made over a period of 14 years, to check whether religion had any effect on the future incidence of major depression.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, April 19, 2013 at 7:03 AM - 0 Comments
It has been a night of extraordinary scenes from Boston as the late shift gawps at an unfolding true-crime story as extraordinary as any since the O.J. Simpson saga. Earlier in the day the FBI published photos of two suspects in Tuesday’s bombing attack on the Boston Marathon. Men closely matching the description of those individuals knocked over a 7-Eleven in the city Thursday night, then are alleged to have slain a campus cop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and briefly taken a hostage. They were tracked to the suburb of Watertown, where they engaged in a spectacular firefight with at least a dozen different police forces. One man, the suspected marathon bomber depicted wearing a black cap in the FBI photos, seems to have rushed the police with an explosive attached to his chest; he was dead on arrival at hospital and doctors said he presented with “blast injuries to the trunk” along with an uncountable number of bullet holes. The other man, the one supposedly spotted at the marathon wearing a white cap, clambered into a vehicle, drove through the police cordon, and remains at large.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 6:11 AM - 0 Comments
The town of West, Texas, population 2,849, awoke to a scene of horror after a large explosion at a fertilizer plant containing as much as 27 tons of anhydrous ammonia. The farm community near the city of Waco was built by Czech immigrants in the late 19th century and is still renowned for its kolaches and its smazeny syr. A fire started at the West Fertilizer Co. at around 7:29 p.m. local time Wednesday night, and what happened next is a mystery. Ammonia is typically stored as a refrigerated liquid, and material-safety sheets do not describe it a source of extreme explosion danger, but at ordinary atmospheric temperatures it boils and becomes a gas that can combust explosively in certain concentrations. It also seems possible that other fertilizers, more dangerous in the presence of fire, were stored at the site.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, April 12, 2013 at 10:45 AM - 0 Comments
It’s official: Ted Byﬁeld, Alberta’s legendary conservative media entrepreneur, has completed the latest in the series of audacious, contrarian, financially tenuous projects that has defined his life. In the early ’60s, the Old Man, as he likes to be called, dropped out of newspapering to help found a series of traditionalist Anglican private schools. In the early ’70s, he started to miss journalism the way old soldiers hanker for combat, so he founded the newsmagazine that would become Alberta Report, the notorious but inﬂuential voice of Western dissent and orthodox Christian values.
He spent much of the ’90s editing and compiling an enormous, popular, illustrated history of Alberta, with the idea of providing the province’s overlapping, restless demographic waves with a shared narrative spine, a structure of story within which even those who arrived last week can find a niche. (That’s assuming they can find the books.) And now he has applied those lessons to the most ambitious task of all: a 12-volume history of the Christian faith from the Pentecost to the present, covering everything from the Crusades to Calvinism to the Cathars.
The series bears Ted’s personal stamp, partly because, as with many of his projects, Ted came to find that every bit of editing and writing he did himself was one less bit he had to budget for someone else to do. But he has been careful not to make it too polemical or idiosyncratic. Himself a member of an Eastern Orthodox denomination nowadays—capital-O Orthodoxy being an attractive refuge for high-churchish intellectuals who cannot swallow the notion of a Pope—he took advice throughout the production of the series from Catholic and Protestant scholars. Offshoots of the faith, from the Jesuits to Jehovah’s Witnesses, get a fair but frank hearing, and the books are at times startlingly candid about issues like slavery (a “brutal business” upon which Jesus remained mysteriously silent) and the early American republic (chapter heading: “The America that won independence could not be considered Christian”).
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 3:31 PM - 0 Comments
No one dies anymore without leaving a little of themselves behind—in this case, on Twitter. The picture Rehtaeh left of herself in the last few months of her life (which includes a snapshot of a report card) may not be the one her parents or her self-appointed postmortem defenders would make, and who knows how faithful it might be to the broad sweep of her life. Probably not very. But it is a picture she assembled for the consumption of others, piece by piece; and her desperate deflection of darkening spirits by means of gangsta bravado, humour, and idealism is heartbreaking. I will leave it to the reader to treat this as forensic data and imagine possible implications for some revenge project or other. Such a thing might or might not be warranted; she hasn’t left us any clues here.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 6:48 AM - 0 Comments
The Globe reported late Tuesday, on the basis of six home games, that “Rogers Centre has become a home run haven”, claiming that extra-long gophers are being hit under the don’t-call-it-Skydome at “a record-setting rate”.
Through the first homestand last week that saw Toronto win two of six games, the home side and their opponents combined for 23 homers, the most in the majors, and at 3.83 home runs per game, second in the 30-team league. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington saw four home runs per game.
The home run average across the majors the first week was 2.14 per game, so what has transpired at Rogers Centre so far represents a huge increase. Should the trend continue–a big if, considering 75 regular-season home games remain–upwards of 310 home runs stand to be clubbed at the Rogers Centre, which would set a major-league record.
That last part, of course, is sheer foolishness: almost every ballpark will have some six-game stretches in which a “record-setting rate” of home runs is achieved. This particular streak is being noticed because it came at the start of the season, a reporter took notice, and the phenomenon can be tenuously pegged to some hypothetical or downright imaginary changes in airflow and other conditions at Rogers. Fans love home runs, though, so I’d like to express the Rogers empire’s appreciation to the Globe for whipping up interest.
What I wondered, as a journalist wary of the Sin of Small Sample Size, was how much of this home-run phenomenon we can attribute to the park, as opposed to the team. The Jays, after all, went bananas with trades and free-agent signings in the offseason, and they were already a power-heavy team. The road teams visiting Rogers hit 12 home runs over the six games in 254 plate appearances. That’s a rate of 5.3%. Overall this season, non-Jays teams have hit 250 in 8,771 plate appearances outside Rogers Centre: a rate of 2.9%. The difference looks impressive, but how significant is it statistically?
By the conventional standard, the answer is “just barely”. If you run what’s called a “chi-squared test for equality of proportions”, you find that a difference of that magnitude would arise by chance only 4.875% of the time; in the sciences the usual habit is to set the significance cutoff at 5% or less. And this goes to illustrate one of the big problems with classical hypothesis testing in the sciences. If we checked all thirty big-league teams through early-season samples of similar size, and the teams all actually hit home runs at the same rate in the long run, we would still expect 5% of the 30, or one-and-a-half, to have a “significantly” unusual apparent home-run rate.
The issue is illustrated well by a famous web cartoon about green jellybeans. And that’s exactly what we have here: a big pile of green jellybeans. Unsurprisingly, it is too soon to start telling just-so stories about how balls are travelling further because of the mojito fumes from the centre-field bar at Rogers. How pleasant to think so, though.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, March 29, 2013 at 5:45 PM - 0 Comments
Ralph Klein, the former premier of Alberta, has died at 70. He shall not now ever be able to collect on the vast debt of apologies he is owed by calumniators, false chroniclers, lazy pundits, and political enemies. The misunderstandings of Ralph have been copious and mostly deliberate. He is still routinely characterized as an anti-gay social conservative in league with sinister theocratic forces, even though he was personally about as churchy as an alley cat. More importantly, he took a diamond-hard line against the use of the “notwithstanding” clause after the Supreme Court wrote sexual orientation into Alberta’s discrimination law in the Vriend decision; and he insisted the public accept the court’s verdict.
He is accused of failing to maximize the public benefits of Alberta’s resource wealth and “save” oil and gas funds for the future, although government resource revenues grew more than fourfold in his 14 years as premier and the net financial position of the province improved by $43 billion. Both promptly collapsed under his bamboozled successor Ed Stelmach, and have not yet recovered to Ralphian levels. Klein is also charged with failing to pay enough conscious attention to economic diversification, a concept that served as the pretext for a hundred costly boondoggles under earlier Conservative regimes; yet somehow he succeeded in presiding over an Alberta economy whose GDP moved sharply away from energy-dependence, and which saw the emergence of previously unimaginable non-energy businesses like software maker Matrikon and game manufacturer BioWare. Whether or not you care to give an iota of credit to Klein, his rule coincided with Alberta becoming a place young technicians and entrepreneurs don’t have to be stupid not to leave.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 7:12 AM - 0 Comments
In Sunday’s Montreal Gazette, Don Macpherson offers a convincing argument that Quebec’s pasta-police scandal has been deliberately obfuscated by the Parti Québécois ministry. The Office Québécois de la Langue Française, he suggests, did not misinterpret the law in a fit of “overzealousness”: he figures they probably interpreted it correctly, as written. The main text of Bill 101 specifically insists that menus must be written in French; there are exemptions in the regulations for packaging of “exotic product[s] or foreign specialt[ies]”, but the exemptions don’t make any mention of menus.
Macpherson suggests that, in the great tradition of Westminsterian democracy, some anonymous uncivil servant is being thrown under the proverbial autobus for following through on both the letter and the actual intention of the law. “The point here,” he says, “is not that the names should be illegal, but that in Quebec, they are”—along with, as other reporting has revealed, English-language knick-knacks on restaurant walls and English-language buttons on their telephones and microwave ovens. “Zealous” surveillance of businesses for linguistic purity, after all, isn’t some wacky unintended consequence of Bill 101. It’s the essence of the thing.
But couldn’t this analysis be carried up to another level? The original flashpoint of the scandal was the OQLF’s orders to a restaurant that had the word “pasta” on the menu. Given the premise of cultural protection that justifies the existence of an Office of the French Language, shouldn’t the real objection be to the presence of… the stuff itself? Isn’t Italian cuisine just as much of a homogenizing, globalist cultural intrusion as the English language? Montreal is famous for just about every kind of cooking that’s not authentically Québécois, from French-French food to bagels and smoked meat to Joe Beef’s spaghetti homard. Doesn’t this represent a definitive failure of the PQ’s cultural immune system?
This is perhaps the real tension behind the Pasta Affair. The purpose of Quebec language law is to reinforce the permanent “just visiting” status of every ethnic and cultural group other than French-Canadians, including Montreal Anglos who are hardly less indigenous to the province than its francophones. It is thought unseemly to make this explicit; how much less so to point out that when it comes to a hundred non-language aspects of culture, Montreal is a resplendent machine, possibly unique in the world, of cultural remixing and appropriation and innovation.
One might even say it’s the English language of cities. And, of course, it’s precisely the lack of engineered cultural defence that made the English language so dominant on the globe. (It was carried abroad on a vast military empire, but then, so were Dutch and Mongolian.) But the minute the Parti Québécois accepted that premise, it would have to, in the words of Douglas Adams, vanish in a puff of logic.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 11:34 AM - 0 Comments
The Liberal Party of Canada held its third leadership debate over the weekend; you probably heard about how it led to an argument about the terrible things Martha said to Justin and what Marc said about what Martha said to Justin and whether or not there is actually anything in what Martha said to Justin… well, the news-cycle hivemind cannot help making things personal.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:47 AM - 0 Comments
I have a joke I’ve been cracking about the controversy over the Clarity Act. “It’s simple! I’m with the New Democrats: fifty percent plus one is totally fine as a standard. But I also say this: let’s make it a contest of three out of five falls. And, remember, the federalists are already up two-zip.”
It’s not a very funny joke. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a good joke in at least the sense of having a kernel of truth within it. The expectation for a “clear majority” on a vote authorizing secession negotiations is usually presented by federalists as a sort of mystical axiom. Even in the Supreme Court reference on the subject the idea is not really broken down logically, perhaps because it won’t do to point out that the popular will is a very slippery abstraction, an awful shuddery foundation for any notion predicated on it.
Awkwardly, these notions include, in our system of government, elections and referendums. A government seeking a democratic mandate “goes to the country” and “consults” the populace, whose conflicting interests, goals, and ambitions are smooshed together by various clumsy formulae to produce the appearance of a single consensus. Democracy cannot bear too much purely deductive analysis, though its empirical underpinnings are mighty.
One notices that our metaphors for democratic testing, our ways of choosing between candidates or policy ideas, are competitive. Did Yes “beat” No? A mathematician might say there is a strong isomorphism, an analogy of form, between democracy and sport. There is certainly an obvious analogy between a referendum and, say, a hockey game; and when we place particular emphasis on finding out whether one hockey team is better than another, we don’t usually allow the matter to be settled with a single game, in one team’s building, at a time chosen by the home team, with rules selected and enforced exclusively by the home team. It’s a question of removing signal from noise, of excluding transitory or illegitimate influence from the competition.
Those who support national unity are keen to prevent Quebec separatists from pulling off a swindle of the sort they came close to in 1995: choosing a fleeting moment of advantageous sentiment to accomplish the permanent destruction of the Canadian state, which most Quebeckers have, through many generations, supported most of the time. But the extreme opinions on neither side are tenable. Strong unitarians embed assumptions in their language to “demonstrate” that Canada is sacred and indivisible, pretending that a historical conquest somehow has the irresistible logical force of Euclidean geometry. (Which even Euclidean geometry didn’t turn out to have.) At the same time, as Colleague Wells has pointed out, Quebec would practically need much more than a one-vote margin in one referendum to earn the necessary global assent to its independence project. It would need a majority that was “clear” in the sense, not necessarily of meeting a particular arbitrary bright-line standard, but of being able to endure a difficult political struggle—i.e., a “negotiation phase” in which an appeal to force was always possible—and to still appear irreversible and convincing at the end of it. If such a situation existed, there can be no question that to permit secession would be right.
So why not a “three out of five falls” rule? The applicability of the sports metaphor is quite real: ascertaining which hockey team is essentially “better” under never-existing neutral conditions is very much like extracting a “popular will” from an opinion sample of a population. Recognize, I say, the reality that fifty percent plus one is a “majority”; sidestep the fundamentally irresolvable arguments between three-fifths and two-thirds and three-quarters as a standard. But require that 50%+1 be achieved several times over a period of years, with a slightly different electorate being consulted each time. Even the voter-eligibility criteria can vary; the case for giving minor children a vote on a question of permanent future import is, after all, particularly sound. Let the government of Quebec frame the question in one vote and Parliament do it in another. Count noses in one and ridings in another. If the moral conditions for secession exist, it should not be hard to extract not just a “Oui” from Quebec, but a resounding “Oui, oui, oui” that would convince English Canada as Slovakia convinced the Czechs.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 3:46 AM - 0 Comments
Sometime last year I found myself wondering about the effects of residential schools on the younger generations of aboriginal Canadians. The schools have more supporters than you might think, more than almost anyone likes to admit, amongst former attendees; the resentment felt toward them by those who had terrible experiences is matched by the ferocity with which Indian families agitated to keep the better ones alive late in their existence. We have chosen to take a monolithic view of the residential schools as a bad idea, full stop—to the point at which any educational intervention into Indian welfare that smacks of paternalism will now be run from as if it were a rabid grizzly. (Just for starters, the scale of the residential schools was obviously one of the problems; if there had been four, instead of 80 or more, they could perhaps have been run with some professionalism and accountability.)
It is hard to be sure that this is fortunate. And it is hard to be sure that it is helpful, for if there are other systematic explanations for Indian poverty and social issues, the “it’s all because of those hellish residential schools” explanation might cause us to overlook them. The schools have been shut down for a long time now; they can’t be blamed for the remainder of eternity, any more than I can attribute my incompetence with money to the Highland Clearances. Though maybe I should give it some thought.
Anyway, it turns out that there are surprisingly detailed data concerning Indian social welfare. The federal Aboriginal Affairs department collects and calculates a “community well-being index” for all Canadian communities, and has used the numbers to identify top-performing Indian bands, in order that policy lessons might be extracted from them. The latest index data are old, dating to the 2006 census, but visualizing them still teaches useful things about Indian societal health.
The tool I used is called a “box-and-whisker plot”, or, for short, a “boxplot”. The Great Tukey (peace be upon him) gave the boxplot to us, describing it as a “microscope” for data analysis. But presenters of statistical information for public consumption don’t show boxplots very often, because their features are not too intuitive. It lets you put series of numbers side-by-side and eyeball them for differences in the distributions. The parts of a boxplot are thus: (1) a box around the “interquartile range”, or the middle half of the data; (2) a line through the box at the median; (3) a “whisker” usually extending outward from the box up to 1.5 times the interquartile range from the median (but no further than the furthest actual data); (4) individual dots for outlying data points beyond the whisker. The length of the whisker was chosen by Tukey so that data matching a normal, symmetrical bell curve would have few outlying points, no more than 1% of the sample; many dots are thus a convenient quick indication that a data set is non-normal. (That’s important for statisticians because it rules out further analysis techniques that assume normality.)
I’m not going to quiz you on all that: a boxplot is not too intuitive, but it’s intuitive enough that you can just look and feel. So here’s a picture of First Nations well-being (as of 2006) broken down by province, with tiny P.E.I., largely FN-free Newfoundland, and Inuit communities set aside:
Why did I want to look at this information this way? Because Canada actually performed an inadvertent natural experiment with residential schools: in New Brunswick (and in Prince Edward Island) they did not exist. If the schools had major negative effects on social welfare flowing forward into the future we now inhabit, New Brunswick’s Indians would be expected to do better than those in other provinces. And that does turn out to be the case. You can see that the top three-quarters of New Brunswick Indian communities would all be above the median even in neighbouring Nova Scotia, whose FN communities might otherwise be expected to be quite comparable. (Remember that each community, however large, is just one point in these data. Toronto’s one point, with an index value of 84. So is Kasabonika Lake, estimated 2006 population 680, index value 47.)
On the other hand, and this is exactly the kind of thing boxplots are meant to help one notice, the big between-provinces difference between First Nations communities isn’t the difference between New Brunswick and everybody else. It’s the difference between the Prairie Provinces and everybody else including New Brunswick—to such a degree, in fact, that Canada probably should not be conceptually broken down into “settler” and “aboriginal” tiers, but into three tiers, with prairie Indians enjoying a distinct species of misery. (This shows up in other, less obvious ways in the boxplot diagram. You notice how many lower-side outliers there are in Saskatchewan? That dangling trail of dots turns out to consist of Indian and Métis towns in the province’s north—communities that are significantly or even mostly aboriginal, but that aren’t coded as “FN” in the dataset.)
I fear that the First Nations data for Alberta are of particular note here: on the right half of the diagram we can see that Alberta’s resource wealth (in 2006, remember) helped nudge the province ahead of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in overall social-development measures, but it doesn’t seem to have paid off very well for Indians. This isn’t a surprising outcome, mind you, if you live in Alberta; we have rich Indian bands and plenty of highly visible band-owned businesses, but the universities are not yet full of high-achieving members of those bands, and the downtown shelters in Edmonton, sad to say, still are.
These little boxes go some way toward explaining why the Harper government’s focus on Indian-band accountability may make less sense to Ontarians than it does to Albertans—or why Harper’s prairie base might have had a different reaction to the conditions and the controversy in Attawapiskat than Eastern voters did. It is data of which everyone should be aware, and I wish there were an easier, more natural way to depict it. I’m also curious about how the same data will look once they’re compiled from the 2011 census, heaven knows when.
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 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, 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…