Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My hopes for Alberta

leadnow.ca asked its members to send letters to Rachel Notley, the new premier of Alberta. Here's mine.

Hi, my name is David. I have two things I want to say to the new NDP leadership.

First, please consider adding electoral reform to the agenda. It's always been difficult being a small party in a first-past-the-post electoral system. It's an unstable system that gave Wildrose more than double the amount of seats as PC (21-10) with fewer votes (24%-28%). It's a system that unjustly rewards largeness and unjustly penalizes smallness. And it's a system that makes many people (especially me!) feel as if their vote doesn't really matter. Now that you're suddenly the big party, you have a chance to set this right.

The federal NDP has come out in favor of a mixed-member proportional electoral system. While this is not my favorite system, it's a lot better than FPTP and I would support it gladly and eagerly. Now, I don't know if anyone cares what I think, but this blog post describes the voting system I would propose. It's simple, it makes sure every vote counts, and it gives voters a range of real, meaningful choices:

http://qism.blogspot.ca/2015/04/enjoy-true-democracy-with-sdr.html

At the very least, you should simply remove one sentence from the ballot instructions. That's the sentence that says something like "Mark one box only, or your ballot will be spoiled." Remove this sentence, and we will have a (somewhat) superior electoral system called Approval Voting.

My second hope is that the NDP will move forward to combat climate change by supporting alternative forms of energy: wind and, more controversially, but still very important, molten salt nuclear reactors. Old-fashioned boiling water reactors are expensive and although they are statistically safer than oil and coal, they have a bad reputation.

I like to use an analogy with airplanes. Like nuclear energy, people have a fear of flying that is wildly out of proportion with the actual danger (or lack thereof). Yet somehow, people still decide to fly. And more importantly, from the perspective of cost, people don't go out to protest building airports near cities based on "safety concerns". When a plane crashes, people don't say "we need to stop building new and improved planes immediately! Let's just keep using the oldest, least safe ones! Maybe someday we'll stop using airplanes completely!" Yet somehow this is exactly what happens in the nuclear sector.

There are some fantastic nuclear reactor concepts out there, such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). Designs like this are potentially both much cheaper, and much safer, than traditional reactors. And if Alberta is going to stop being a leading cause of climate change, it's going to need to replace the tar sands with something clean. The science is clear: much of the oil (to say nothing of the coal) must be left in the ground. By taking the lead in pursuing LFTR and other new reactor designs, perhaps Alberta can do that without destroying its own economy.

I know this is a hard problem for politicians to tackle. It'll be hard to blame you if you take the easy route and do nothing, or implement a half-hearted policy that steadfastly avoids using the "N" word. But please, this matter has been urgent for years, and only gets worse the longer we wait. I urge you to look for opportunities to lead a shift to cleaner energy.

LFTR in 5 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK367T7h6ZY

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Enjoy True Democracy with SDR

Suppose the government announced that we could choose between only two breakfast cereals: Sugar Jolts and Bran Bombs. Every two years, we would choose by election between a two-year supply of each type. If you and 499,998 others in your district preferred Sugar Jolts, but the other 500,001 preferred Bran Bombs, you would all be stuck with Bran Bombs every morning until the next election.
It's kind of important how we choose our leaders.

Yet, somehow, most people give little or no thought to the election process. Most people don't seem concerned that our current system is awful, and they certainly don't lobby for change. It's certainly not that no one has thought of a better system; many people have thought of many better systems. I for one enjoy reading about them, but amazingly, normal people don't seem to find the topic quite as fascinating.

There are numerous problems with our "First Past The Post" (FPTP) electoral system. Here are two of the biggest:
  • The geographic restriction: this is the rule that you're only allowed to vote for someone who is officially running for office "close to you", in the same district as your house. The district boundaries themselves are chosen undemocratically, and the person running in your district might actually live somewhere else (usually near the legislature). You might love the candidate running in the north side of the city, but if you happen to live in the south side of the city you're out of luck. The geographic restriction is the main limitation on voter choice; drop this restriction and you'll suddenly have hundreds of candidates to choose from.
  • Your vote probably doesn't matter: Of course, there is a much bigger problem. In FPTP, if there are four people running in a district, one of them can win with as little as 26% of the vote, and it common in Canada for winners to have less than 40% of the popular vote. That means more than 60% of the voters basically go unrepresented in the parliament or legislature. There is a different sense in which your vote doesn't matter: most races are won by more than 10% of the vote. That means that the winner could have had 10% fewer votes and still won. So in another sense, even if you voted for the winner, your vote didn't matter because he or she would still have won if you had stayed home. Finally there's a third sense in which your vote doesn't matter: you might not actually like (or know) any of the people running in your district, and if that's true, any vote you cast is kind of meaningless.

Introducing Simple Direct Representation

Of the dozens of proposals I've read, my favorite electoral system is called Direct Representation. This is a fantastic idea which might solve pretty much all the problems with FPTP, but most importantly it will solve the two problems I just mentioned. However, Direct Representation is a radical overhaul that questions everything you assume about how elections should work, so I think it's worth considering if we could have most of the benefits of DR, in a simple system that doesn't feel quite as radical.

So today I'll sketch out a proposal I call Simple Direct Representation (SDR). It consists of six simple rules:
  1. No Geographic Restriction: During an election, you can vote for anyone who is running for the legislature in your state/province. Obviously, some thought will have to be put into how the polling station can gather votes efficiently when there are so many choices available.
  2. Proportional Power: your vote always counts! The voting power of your representative will depend on the amount of "poll votes" they have (votes from the official election polls). A representative that got 10,006 votes will have twice as much power as the one that got 5,003 votes; whenever a legislator votes for or against a bill, that single vote is multiplied by the number of poll votes that he or she got during the election. A simple computer program would be used to tally up votes; in case of power loss or computer trouble, the legislature could agree to allow approximations (e.g. by rounding off each member's power to the nearest thousand poll votes instead of counting individual poll votes).
  3. Two Choices: On the ballot you'll get a first choice and an optional second choice; the second choice will be given your vote if your first choice doesn't get enough votes to win a seat in the legislature. Your first choice should be your favorite candidate, and your second choice should be someone you expect to win a seat.
  4. Fixed Number of Winners: The legislature physically has a fixed number of seats, and those seats are filled with the people who got the most "first choice" votes. For example if there are 100 seats total, the 100 most popular candidates (measured by first-choice votes) get those seats. Then, for every voter whose first choice did not win a seat, their second choice is given an additional vote (provided that the second choice won a seat). If the first and second choice both lost, the vote doesn't count, but a voter can easily avoid this problem by choosing someone they know is popular as their second choice. In case the election concentrates power in the hands of only a few legislators, there will be some legislators that win without getting a large amount of votes; I think this is a good thing, as it can give "the little guy" a voice in the legislature without giving him serious voting power.
  5. Power Sharing Required: Often, people will simply vote for the leader of a party (or the person they think should be the leader). To avoid excessively unbalanced power in the legislature, there is a fixed upper limit on the amount of voting power that one legislator can wield, for example, 4% (or N%) of all votes cast. This limit is calculated on election day and fixed until the next election. For example, if 5,000,000 votes were cast in the election, 4% is 200,000 votes. If 1,000,000 people voted for candidate Smith, then Smith still officially "owns" 1,000,000 votes but is only allowed to use 200,000 of them. Normally, Smith will use the next rule to transfer his excess votes to other trusted members of the legislature (otherwise he would be wasting his votes).
  6. Vote Transfer: A legislator who is above the N% power limit can transfer excess votes to another member of the legislature. The legislator should only transfer votes to someone he or she trusts, because the giver cannot change his mind and take the votes back. That's because revocation power could be used to get around the N% limit by giving one legislator leverage over other legislators; the legislator with 30% of all votes could say "vote the way I tell you, or I'll transfer your votes to someone who will!" A more liberal version of this rule would allow any legislator to transfer any amount of poll votes to any other legislator at any time. In that case, poll votes could be "re-gifted", and the receiver of votes could give those same votes back voluntarily. The transfer system may need a couple of extra rules spelled out, such as a rule against bribery.
That's it. Enjoy True Democracy. We could add a couple of minor extra rules, such as one that allows a legislator to designate an "heir" who will get their seat if he or she quits or dies. But extra rules are optional, and can be added as needed.

One important thing that is often overlooked about elections is that the kind of people that run in elections depends on the rules of the election itself. For example, if election campaigns are 100% funded with private donations, different kinds of people may choose to run, compared with a system where campaigns are 100% funded from a public fund, or tax-deductible small contributions or "democracy vouchers" (Lawrence Lessig's idea to let each citizen redirect the first $50 of income tax they pay toward one or more political candidates).

Likewise, the electoral system itself will change the flavor of politicians who choose to run for office. FPTP is a cutthroat system—it's all or nothing, you win big or you lose big, and if there are four people running per district, 75% of them are guaranteed to lose. What kind of people would enjoy running for office in a system like that? I wouldn't. On the other hand, in an SDR system there may be 100 seats and only 150 people running, and only one third of those running will lose. Minor parties who don't expect to win a lot of votes don't have to run a lot of candidates either, so they won't be scouring college campuses for kids to run "symbolically" in "unwinnable" ridings. Among the "heavyweight" contenders there is a lot less drama, since there is no particular "enemy candidate" that you have to "defeat". An individual candidate no longer has to convince half the voters in a tiny region to vote for him, but instead can pander to a small percentage of voters in a huge region.

Surely all these factors will change the kinds of people who choose to run for office. I, for one, expect that the legislature will enjoy increased diversity of opinion and expertise. For one thing, single-issue candidates may be common--they'll run on a platform of "let's fix this one thing that's wrong with our government". If candidate McFoo wants to, let's say, change the way hospital fees work, or start a municipal broadband network, or improve privacy rights, there's no way to convince half the voters in any specific "district" to care enough about one particular issue to vote for McFoo. However, McFoo could very likely convince 0.5% of all the voters in the entire state/province to vote for him on that issue. Once in the legislature, McFoo can't directly pass any laws with his 0.5%, but he could dedicate his time to lobbying on his issue. Another difference with SDR is that candidates can probably have a thinner skin and lower income than typical winners in FPTP. FPTP candidates often have to be prepared to spend a lot of money campaigning and accept the risk of being attacked by the "opponent", as well as the risk of losing. Winning a seat under SDR should be a more predictable affair; the amount you spend and your chances of winning are no longer tied to whoever happens to run "against" you, and a person can have a chance of winning whenever they have a fan base of some kind—any large group of people, no matter how geographically dispersed, who like that person. It's important that the fan base need not have anything to do with politics; a popular author, or actor, or university professor, could more easily run for office and win under SDR because they don't need a lot of "campaign skills", they don't need to struggle to figure out how to get a large percentage of votes in a small geographic area and they don't have to run "against" anyone, they can simply ask their (geographically dispersed) fans to vote for them. This may mean that we'll end up with fewer "career politicians" in office.

Why don't politicians care enough to change the electoral system? In part, I've already answered this question. Legislatures are filled with career politicians, who might be threatened by a new system that allows new kinds of people to win. A bigger factor is certainly the big-party advantage of FPTP. In Canada it's common for a party that got only 40% of the popular vote (or less!) to get a majority government; big parties win more seats per vote than small parties. It's obviously unfair, and most politicians probably prefer it that way. In America it's worse; Duverger's Law has taken full effect, so that no party outside the big two ever wins a federal seat. When the system favors you or your party, of course you don't want to change the system.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Harper's Copyright Givaway

I was horrified to learn today that the Conservatives are going to retroactively extend copyrights from "entire life of the author plus 50 years" to "entire life of the author plus 70 years". Since most valuable copyrights are owned by corporations (and any human authors are deceased by definition) this is a corporate giveaway designed to make a few extra bucks for the oldest media companies that own a few rare copyrights on music and films that have been selling copies for more than 50 years.

Meanwhile, thousands of works that are not commercially valuable will be locked up by this copyright extension--so many movies and songs and books that weren't in print, that aren't selling copies, could have entered the public domain, but now it will be illegal to copy them. Harper, you are such an asshole.

Copyright in the early 1800s (in Canada, the U.S. and Britain) lasted 14 years with an optional extension to 28 years. We're not talking "life of the author plus 14", we're talking "14 years in total". Since then, every increase to copyright term lengths has been retroactive, demonstrating that lengthy copyright terms are not designed to encourage authors and artists to create new works, but merely to make even more money for the most successful works, to pad the pockets of the rich with payments from the poor, to limit the ability of authors to "remix" old and obscure works from the past, and to limit the public's ability to enjoy older works freely.

It's interesting to wonder what the world would be like if we still had 28-year copyrights. Every hard drive would probably be shipped with a library of thousands of older books and songs (Why not? It would only require 1-10% of the disk space on a 1TB drive); YouTube would let you watch any movie or hear any song made before 1987, for free; Google would search all older books and screenplays whenever you search the internet; filmmakers could create new films on a lower budget because they would be allowed to put any song published before 1987 in the soundtrack, and they could re-use art from older sources too; anyone would be allowed to write translations of older foreign-language works; bloggers could link directly to any paragraph of any old book (because the full text of all old books & movies would be on the internet) and low-budget academic researchers could do large-scale analysis of, let's say, every book written between 1885 and 1985 (or whatever).

Such a world cannot be observed, though, since wealthy interests have made sure that every country in the world adopts a minimum copyright term of "life of the author plus 50 years". This is called the Berne Convention, and almost every country in the world has been forced to adopt it, which means we will probably never find out what life would be like under a 28-year copyright term. Since 1887, powerful organizations like the WTO have forced all poor countries to adopt not only the Berne Convention, but other onerous "Intellectual Property" treaties, notably TRIPS. Now, the U.S. and many other countries are negotiating The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new so-called trade agreement whose text is a secret. The TPP is rumored to contain even more corporate power givaways in the name of intellectual property, and a lot of other garbage that has led to all kinds of opposition across the political spectrum:
Pretty much every identifiable progressive-aligned organization is against it, including human rights groups, environmental groups, faith groups, legal scholars, consumer groups, food-safety groups, LGBT groups and many, many others. ... Polls show that the public is overwhelmingly against it. (Even conservatives are opposed.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Normal People

I haven't had a lot of success in romance. I met a woman who seemed like a really good match for me; so we had a date, walking downtown, and I thought everything was going fine. After 50 minutes she said it was just too cold and she wanted to end the date. I suggested she warm up in my car; she said no. Back online, days later, she let me know that "I don't think we have enough in common. We approach life differently." I asked what she didn't like about me. Eventually she responded that she had an overwhelming sense that I "lacked an appreciation for the inexplicable or ephemeral". I was too "literal" and tried to "quantify everything". I asked her, not impolitely, if she could be more specific, or tell me what I failed to appreciate. She did not respond... which is very typical.

Sometimes I wonder if I was born on the wrong planet. I don't get it... everything about me seems so human, I have all the emotions and the body parts, but it often feels like everybody around me cares about and thinks about such different things. Like sports, or fashion, or manners... normal people care, I do not.

Normal people are more afraid of flying than driving, because statistics? Whatever. Normal people want better government services but lower taxes. Normal people are afraid of nuclear power, but coal power, the greatest cause of global warming, is four times more popular and kills roughly 15 thousand times as many people. Normal people claim to care about democracy, but don't know anything about electoral reform. Normal people say violence and poverty are bad, but they don't look for solutions because these are things that happen to other people—you know, the same people who can't solve anything because they are uneducated because they spend their lives trying to make the rent, or obtain food. Normal people say a methadone clinic is fine, as long as it's not in my neighborhood. Normal people are swayed by "small-potatoes" politics, like the cost of running the Senate or the the cost of a weird government-funded study about sexuality, because "million" and "billion" are only one letter apart. Normal people are glad they make twice as much money as the people across town, so they can spend twice as much on themselves. So normal women look at me, I think, and see someone who is too "intimidating" to love, someone who is undesirable because he doesn't pick up on social cues properly, and hasn't learned to dance yet, and doesn't appreciate the outdoors enough. Yeah, because those are the things that really matter. Right.
"Engineers have a grievance. They think we should think more like them. They are not wrong." - Malcolm Gladwell

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Live a Good Life

Live a good life.

If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.

If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.

If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. - author unclear
I really liked the passage above, but there is one problem with it. It assumes that if there is a God, that there is an afterlife, and that if there is no God, then there is no afterlife. Neither assumption is necessarily true. See also: It's not as bad as you think

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Democratization of Cyberattack

A short piece be well-known security professional Bruce Schneier:
We can't choose a world where the US gets to spy but China doesn't, or even a world where governments get to spy and criminals don't. We need to choose, as a matter of policy, communications systems that are secure for all users, or ones that are vulnerable to all attackers. It's security or surveillance.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Police shoot man talking on cell phone

Considering that cops in America can shoot people with impunity (especially black people), I think it's important that we see and review every police killing and not let this issue die.

Here's a story I heard today (via DailyKos): a man named John Crawford was shot and killed in a Walmart, as he talked on his cell phone, holding a toy gun in the toy section of the store. It's not a new story, but it's new to me, and it is shocking.

I don't have to tell you what color his skin was.

Addendum: How often are unarmed black men gunned down by police? Across the U.S., the government doesn't care enough to count "unjustified killings", and not many independent studies exist.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Beagle

As a lifelong Christian and Mormon, I experienced various difficulties: guilt about my sinful nature, sadness that God wouldn't communicate with me, and the many intellectual questions that the church couldn't answer. I don't talk much about that on my blog; it has often been difficult to focus my thoughts on these issues, and besides, I like to talk about solutions rather than problems. After my long journey, I have found that Christianity offers a lot of problems, but not many reliable, trustworthy solutions.

I can always be thankful that Mormonism (together with the teachings of my father, perhaps just as importantly) gave me my belief system. Even if it turns out there is no God, I still learned many good principles from the Church. I have good reasons, however, to say that I will probably never return. I don't feel like talking about it right now, but I found someone who does...
You said you’re worried that you might discover your mother is intellectually dishonest. I suppose she might be, but it’s more likely that she is just fearful. Fundamentalists believe that life without God has no purpose, that they would have no reason to be good, and no reason to care about anything. Add the threat of eternal torment if you give up your faith, and the Bible passages that say apostates can never come back, and you have a huge load of fear. I don’t think conservative Christians as a group realize how much they are oppressed by fear. It is so woven into the doctrinal clothes they wear every day that they don’t even notice it. They think that if they were to give up their faith their whole world would fall apart and they could never put it back together. This is a powerful disincentive to question honestly and thoroughly. What I observe is that they question just enough that they can assure themselves that they have exercised critical thinking, but not so much that they get to the bottom of things. They accept pat answers that, objectively, are totally inadequate. I’m sure they don’t realize they’re doing this, or that it comes from fear.

Also, cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, are part of the human condition. Your mother has them, you have them, and I have them. That doesn’t make your mother a bad person.

- Snippet of a comment from The Beagle
I'd like to thank a new friend of mine for pointing me to this blog, The Path of the Beagle. While the Beagle's path away from Evangelical Christianity is not the same as my path away from the LDS Church, and I haven't completely rejected my church the way he has, it explains the path and the reasons better than I have time or inclination to.

There are a few reasons I left, one of which is the seeming evil of the God of the Old Testament. The Beagle featured this satirical YouTube video which explains the problem pretty well, complete with many biblical references that you can read for yourself.

I'll just add a couple of thoughts.

Above all, the most important issue is whether or not Christianity is true. If it is true, does it really matter that much if God is unreasonable, has committed genocide repeatedly, doesn't answer our prayers, or makes us feel guilty all the time? After all, we are imperfect. Maybe we deserve all that. After my brother left the church, he told me it was because he was tired of feeling guilty all the time. This argument was not persuasive to me, since the really important thing isn't whether you like the church or its doctrines, but whether they are true. I still believed it was true, so I kept going to church, kept reading scriptures, kept praying—and not without guilt!

I think the issue that affected me the most was not evidence that God didn't exist, but rather evidence that he wasn't Good. If God wasn't good, it makes perfect sense that he would still say that he was good in the Bible. If God existed, but was not good, and not trustworthy, and did not keep his promises, should we really follow him? I wouldn't say I started to believe God was evil. But the mere possibility seemed inescapable. How could we know that God is good? Well, we can't. All we have is his Word, and how can we be sure that his Word is trustworthy? Well, there is little more I could do than assume.

I must admit that I haven't sought out information that calls into question the many testimonies of miracles heard within the church--information that would question the very existence of God. But whether there is a God or not, my trust in a loving God is gone, and that is sufficient. If God exists, and is good, he should prove it. If he is unwilling to prove it, then it would be fundamentally unjust for him to send unbelievers to hell. To elaborate, if the Christian God exists, there are two possibilities:
  1. He is Good, and follows some rational ethical system that mortals could understand, even if that system hasn't been clearly stated in the Bible (and even if the conclusions of that system are not predictable by mere mortals). In that case he will not send earnest unbelievers to hell simply for incorrectly concluding, after careful thought, that he does not exist, for it would be unjust to do so. Therefore, since I am sincere and committed to high ethical standards, I need not fear God merely because I am an agnostic — and there is simply no need to try to "save my soul" by bringing me back to church.
  2. He is not good. In that case, nothing stated in the Bible is trustworthy, and his nature is fundamentally unknowable. In this case it makes little sense to worry about angering him, regardless of what we believe or disbelieve, because we don't really know him, because a God that isn't good isn't obliged to tell the truth, even if he says he is. So we can't know how he will treat us after death or even in this life (although if history is any indication, he will not do anything for us or against us in this life). Why would you follow a God who is fundamentally unjust, even if he exists? In this case the ethical thing is not to follow him, even though he exists.
I still hope for life after death, and I wish there were a loving creator, I just don't expect to meet one. I am an agnostic now. But I still know that I have a soul.

Philosophy is therefore no idle pastime, but a serious business, fundamental to our lives. It should be our first if not our only religion: a religion wherein worship is replaced with curiosity, devotion with diligence, holiness with sincerity, ritual with study, scripture with the whole world of human learning. The philosopher regards it as tantamount to a religious duty to question all things, and to ground her faith in what is well-investigated and well-proved, rather than what is merely asserted or well-liked. … Above all, she commits herself to the constant study of language, logic, and method, and seeks always to perfect, by testing and correcting, her total view of all things. - Sense and Goodness without God, pg 25-26, as quoted by The Beagle

Sunday, January 11, 2015

It's Not as Bad as You Think

There are many cognitive tasks Human beings are not very good at... one of which is discerning the differences between eras. We don't appreciate that life today is a lot different from previous epochs from which we got The Bible, the works of Shakespeare or even The Wealth of Nations.

The church I used to attend likes to look for signs of the second coming of Christ (other churches apparently believe in the Rapture instead), which is said to be preceded by great wickedness, wars, and suffering.
And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. - Daniel 12:1
And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places. - Matthew 24:6–7
I heard people at church saying things like "we don't know when the second coming will be--it could be tomorrow!" But they know the signs — how can they think we're having sufficient famines and wars, let alone earthquakes, for the second coming?

This post is not about religion; it's just a convenient way to illustrate that many people still seem to think the world is filled with wickedness, war, and suffering. Wickedness, conservatives would say, due to phenomena like gay marriage, apathy and atheism — but don't we live in a time with less hatred than ever before? I do think apathy is a serious problem, but it's been a problem throughout all of history. Isn't war and murder far worse than premarital sex? We have much less of the former. Hatred is worse than apathy, and we have less of that. As far as I'm aware, the largest group of hateful people on earth are Muslim extremists, and they are a tiny minority of the world's population. As for war and suffering, it can be shown objectively that there is less war and less suffering today — dramatically less — than during most of human history.

When you read this, does it seem remarkable merely that you can read it? I'm not just talking about the fact that you got it from a fantastic technological medium called the internet, or that I was able to publish it worldwide without having to pay anyone a dime. More basic than that, your brain is able to decode a complicated sequence of glyphs into human thought! The remarkable thing about the modern era is that this ability of yours is so commonplace. It is remarkable, not only that you can stare at a bunch of writing and have an intellectually stimulating experience, but that most of the adults in your country can do the same thing.

Don't take my word for it. Slate has a fantastic article on the subject entitled Why The World Is Not Falling Apart.
It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world.... The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”
This must-read article systematically dismantles the idea that the world is falling apart, mostly with graphs dating from 1945. Before 1945, of course, we had two world wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, in which 50 to 100 million people were killed.

If you look at statistics before 1900 (what few are available) you'll see numbers even worse than during most of the 20th century. Before 1900 there was no penicillin, virtually no blood transfusions, and few reliable surgical procedures. There were no radios, virtually no automobiles, no airplanes, no television, and no computers. Now you can read this article on the internet--from almost any location on Earth! Do you really understand what life was like before 1900, let alone 1800? Before 1800 there were no anaesthetics (and not much in the way of analgesics), almost no vaccines, and doctors didn't know (and had false beliefs about) how diseases were transmitted, which led to many deaths. Before 1800 there was no such thing as refrigeration, no telegraphs, no telephones, no electricity, and no tall buildings except Pyramids and cathedral spires. Forget indoor plumbing; even underground sewers were rare. Since 1800, life expectancy has more than doubled worldwide, and since 1800, rates of literacy and education have skyrocketed around the world (references: medical, inventions, life expectancy, literacy, etc).

In New York in 1915, even an idea as basic as being kind to your infant was revolutionary in some circles:
Though infant mortality had plummeted in the slums thanks to the bureau’s efforts, it hadn’t budged in wealthier neighborhoods.... At the time, medical opinion held that mothers should train their babies early to be independent by feeding them at regular intervals and ignoring their cries and babbles. Doing otherwise was thought to damage them psychologically. We now know the opposite is true. - The Doctor Who Made a Revolution
To sum up, I bet that even a cat has a much higher chance of surviving to age 5 today than a human child did in 1800.

The world could, of course, be a much better place than it is, but it could also be so much worse. The one constant is change, and the price of liberty is eternal vigilance; we must keep fighting for a better world if we are to maintain our quality of life and avoid slipping back to old patterns of war, suffering and ignorance. Thanks to nuclear and biological weapons, another world war could be incomparably disastrous. Thanks to today's severe income inequality, and the shrinkage of the job market, it's possible that average living standards may slip backward soon in some countries. But as we listen to the news and fight for a better world, let us give thanks, and not forget that we are, in fact, living in the most prosperous time in all of human history.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Demand that your vote count!

In past elections, both Liberals and Conservatives in Canada have won over 50% of the seats with less than 40% of the seats, and this difference is caused by our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which is one of the first voting systems ever invented, and is still the law of the land today.

FPTP works in a fairly legitimate way in Canada, unlike in the U.S. where practices like gerrymandering, voter suppression and 3rd-party suppression are rampant. Even so, while FPTP makes some limited sense in individual ridings, when you look across a region or country the results are clearly unfair. In the 1992, for example, the Progressive Conservatives got 16% of the vote across the country but won only two seats. The Quebec-only separatist party Bloc Quebecois, on the other hand, won 54 seats with just 13.5% of the vote, and Alberta's Reform party, got 52 seats with 18.7% of the vote.

Generally more flexible than old-fashioned proportional representation, MMP (Mixed-member proportional) represents the population far better than first-past-the-post.

MMP still defines single-winner electoral districts, and the electoral system for these districts could be decided somewhat independently of MMP itself. One assumes that to avoid "rocking the boat", these districts will keep using FPTP. However, MMP compensates for unfairness of the results by granting extra seats to parties that didn't get as many seats as they should given the amount of votes they got. Thus, your vote is far more likely to matter under MMP. It isn't my favorite system, but I would vote YES quite eagerly!

The NDP is backing MMP, and I would urge everyone to sign their petition about it.