Friday, August 31, 2012

Poor Rob Ford

Rob Ford faces conflict of interest allegations. These allegations have could cost him his job as Mayor. If found to be in breach of conflict of interests guidelines he would face immediate dismissal. A lot of people have weighed in on that outcome. The Sun's Lorrie Goldstein  gave his opinion and so did Rick Salutin of the Toronto Star.

It is clear that Rob Ford broke the rules. He solicited money for a private charity using governed resources. He was found in breach of the rules and ordered to pay the money back. After he became mayor he participated in a vote to over turn that earlier order. That was a conflict of interest. He is now in jeopardy of losing his job.

What came next were the opinions. Then the private citizen and the public pundits chimed in on what poor Mayor Ford did and what should happen to him. If you distill out the the rapid, those screaming "no harm done", "he is guilty", "lefty plot","abuse of power", "abuse of procedure", "the very soul of democracy's a stake"(that said by both extremes), you get to the heart of the matter. Does what he did merit overturning an election result.

The moderates on both side, the place you go to understand an issue, have after deliberating on the facts come down on the side of no.

A conservative arrives at this conclusion by excusing Ford. Making it clear he did wrong(technically), but in comparison to other conflicts of interests this is really not that big and the punishment doesn't fit the crime. The liberal/Left tends to excuse Ford himself, he simply isn't a skilled or knowledgeable politician, he is overwhelmed by the office. The audience gets to chose between and incompetent Mayor or an unjust punishment.

It is not surprising the Liberal/Left chooses, to support the integrity of the electoral system. Maintaining that a  vote should not be overturned without due cause is a Liberal Democrat value. It would be wrong to kick Ford out for what he did. I didn't start there, but it is where I ended up. I favoured the old Rule of Law, at first,as conservative are fond of saying "don't do the crime if you can't do the time". Initial reaction are not always the right ones. It is nice to be able to read cogent arguments, ones that make you think. I can live with the judge informing the Mayor that he acted wrongly, but not knowingly. Incompetence is a heavy burden to carry into a election.

The conservative have been entertaining to watch and read. The conservatives bent over backward defending Rob Ford. Suffice to say that the idea of personal responsibility barely, if ever rears its uncomfortable head. The sort of moderate, conservative,  mostly went for the "this is not Justice" defense.  They are right, but it's still amusing hearing them descend from the mountain to declare it. They almost sound liberal in their arguments.

The end result should be a suitably chastised Ford, who gets to remain Mayor to face the electorate in 2014.

It's Not a Lie if You Believe It.(Yes it Is)

The Republican National Convention ended yesterday with Mitt Romney accepting the nomination for President of the Untied States. No surprises there, he was always the front runner an out lasted his opponents, and it was a foregone conclusion months ago. The convention will probably be remembered more for Clint Eastwood's speech and for the number of lies and half-truths that were uttered during the 4 days in Tampa. Even a Fox News contributor had trouble with Paul Ryan's speech.

I expect conventions to be partisan. It is also assumed that some freedom will be made with the truth, shaded here an exaggeration there. The purpose of a convention is to package and launch the candidates, into the next stage of the election; especially where the there is no doubt on who will win that nomination. They are filled with feel good speeches about your nominee, and take downs of your opponent. 

This particular convention had all the shading and exaggeration expected, and the out right lies. The lies arrived at the convention having already figured into the campaigning that Romney done. I should be clear, these aren't disputed claims, that could either way, they are factual incorrect. All an honest partisan can do is explain that "yes the facts are wrong, but we think that's what he meant" or "sure that's not accurate but it's something he would have done if he could". 

The "We Built It" theme of the convention was drawn from a speech that Obama gave, where he utters the sentence "you didn't build it". The Romney campaign edited several sentences, the effect was the President seeming to say, you didn't build your own business. Red meat to a conservative. This was not the usual exaggeration. It was a lie. The speech, awkward wording aside, did not remotely mean what the republicans were implying. But that was the point. 

It is not unusual, for campaigns to high light sections of speech, remove context, and address only a single thought in a larger speech or action. Everyone does it , sadly. What happen here was a fictionalization of an event. It was different than a lie it was a new truth a crafted and more appealing truth. One that met their needs.That is a problem. If the present is so malleable that it can be made to mean anything, we are bereft of solidity. What was true today can with careful editing be false tomorrow. 

It was amazing to read about the lies and how they flowed without hesitation or self consciousness. As if you couldn't Google them, seconds after being spoken, to see the truth of it. The crowd wants to believe Obama is bad. The speakers deliver. Is this contempt for their audience or understanding of their base, perhaps the Republicans know that their audience isn't interested in the facts;or worse, that the places they go to find the facts, news,radio and Internet, can be counted on to publish the conservative version of the truth. 

The willingness to lie, and to be lied to, can not be good for the election process, or Democracy in general. It erodes trust which is the core of the compact between elected and electorate. 

I often wonder whether the political class wants an informed electorate or an ignorant one. There will be benefits and drawbacks for both. For me there is no choice. It is better to be informed, even if you don't like what you hear. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Canada and Torture

In a CBC story it came to light that Public Safety Minister had authorized CSIS to make use information gained from torture.
In 2010 Public Safety Minister issued a directive to CSIS regarding the use of torture. 

"Public Safety Minister Vic Toews quietly told CSIS the government now expects the spy service to "make the protection of life and property its overriding priority" and may under exceptional circumstances share information based on intelligence that may have been derived from the use of torture. " 
In February of2012 he answered for it in the House of Commons,

"Information obtained by torture is always discounted. But the problem is, can one safely ignore it when Canadian lives and property are at stake?" Toews said in question period"

The policy remained in place despite its questionable value and possible violation of International agreements Canada is signatory of.

In both cases the Harper governments cites the Exceptional Circumstances as the qualifier for use of information gained from torture. There is also this portion which states,

""The objective is to establish a coherent and consistent approach across the government of Canada in deciding whether or not to send information to, or solicit information from, a foreign entity when doing so may give rise to substantial risk of mistreatment of an individual," says the four-page framework.""

This indicates that the Harper government is willing to allow requests for information, under Exceptional Circumstances, that they know will result in torture. The Harper government has made it possible for Canadian agencies to contract out torture. In effect, if they need information on a possible bombing and have a name and a place, they can send a request to that jurisdiction, with the result of detention and torture or if all ready detained just the torture of a foreign citizen. 

It is not a free-for-all. The Harper government has proposed a mechanism for requests, considerations that must be made, chains of responsibility that can if needed end at the Minister of Public safety's desk. The end result with all the precautions and procedures and checks is that Torture has become an investigatory tool of the the Harper Government. It is for both Canada and Harper a low point, that I had never anticipated.

The Harper government is taking the position that the safety of citizens and property, let's not forget property, is paramount. So any Agency that feels danger is imminent, has the incentive to make use of torture. This presupposes that the person who has the information you really need is or can be detained and that through torture, has already divulged the details needs to prevent the danger or can be made to. The ticking time bomb scenario. And so the rot sets in.

This is fiction intruding on real life. Is it possible that the information you need to prevent disaster is a few cigarette burns and broken fingers away? Anything is possible. It is however, highly unlikely. 

Torture has a long history; its use as a tool of oppression on persons, peoples and movements; the use of torture in criminal proceedings to extract confessions, and prove guilt are well documented. As well  is the essential truth, that under torture a person will say whatever you like to make it stop. 

Authoritarian regimes use of  torture as a matter of policy, should be a red flag for us. Until recently we have accepted that being a little less safe is better than allowing men and women to have their bodies broken on our behalf. Let's not forget that, we are told by the Harper government that it is OK under Exceptional circumstances, to abuse others to remain safe. Think about that. Think about how many people will be tortured for information,even then it is not clear that you will even get what you need. It is only in the movies that you hit pay dirt on the first try, and it's only in the movies that you know that guy is a scumbag. In real life it's men; women and children that suffer; shop keepers; labourers; the poor and powerless; mixed among them a few dangerous people for sure

Democracies disowned the use of coercion; violent or otherwise, acknowledging that the cost was too high and the fruits too bitter. We turned instead to investigation and interrogation techniques that don't abuse the suspect or dehumanize the interrogator. Admittedly it is slower, but far more successful in countering criminal acts and uncovering the truth. 

The Harper government is wagering that Canadian citizens will make an accommodation with the idea that torture is OK if it saves lives. We have already accepted a little less freedom for a little more safety haven't we? We wait in lines at airports, we put up more cameras and have given increased powers to police and security agents,though without more oversight of these agents. Integrating torture into the investigators tool bag is only reasonable isn't it? Lives are at stake aren't they? 

There is a limit to pragmatism. Since 911 we have given up the high ground slowly, inexorably, we now find ourselves knee deep in the mud and wondering how we arrived here. This is it. There is and will be a cost to taking a position against torture. The cost will be borne unequally, of this I have no doubt. But what other option do we have? 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I Finally Bought a Bike Helmet

Last month I bought a bike helmet. It is the first bike helmet I have owned. This is unusual because I have cause to acknowledge that helmets reduce the potential for severe damage. I can credit the helmet I was wearing at the time of my motorcycle accident with protecting my head from impact with unyielding pavement and steel. 

So why so long the long delay? I can't say I was uninformed. I have read the reports and studies on bike helmets. In fact their is quite a lot of data out there, a casual search will bring you to proponents and opponents. Bike helmets laws have taken what appears to be a simple safety issue and turned it into a towering controversy. Read as much as you can, as much as is necessary to come to a decision you can be comfortable with. 

I had plenty of excuses for not buying a helmet, none of them credible. They are uncomfortable, they look silly, I will get helmet head, vanity can be dangerous. I thought I'd never get into an accident because I'm a safe cyclist. What finally brought me around to helmet wearing? I credit the Chief Corner with recommending Ontario enact a helmet law. (Though as the article states other jurisdictions are rethinking or removing their own helmet laws.) This had me thinking about my safety and head injuries. The more I thought about traumatic brain injury, the easier it was to dismiss previous excuses against wearing a helmet. When it comes down to it I'll take messy hair over brain damage. 

If i stop here I might get a smattering of applause for deciding to be safe, making a personal decision to be responsible for my own safety. 

I will instead go one more step and say I support mandatory helmet laws, with all the benefits and harms attached o such legislation. 

Helmet Laws are decried as nanny state legislation. It is considered an unwarranted intrusion into the life of the citizen. The citizen is responsible for their own safety and should be allowed to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. While this is primarily a Conservative/Libertarian view it probably has wider support. An entire piece could be written on the theory of personal responsibility, choice and government. I may do that in the future.

The level of intrusion does need to be balanced against the harm. For now i will just submit that a Government, has an interest in the safety of its' citizen. It can be indirect as with mountain climbing sports, ensuring that the equipment used meets a standard necessary for the safe enjoyment of the sport. It can be direct by mandating speed limits and seat belts. 

I don't recommend diving into legislation. Laws made in haste may be repented at leisure to paraphrase poorly a well know proverb. Any proposed Helmet Law needs to be studied and a decision arrived at free of ideology or special interests. 

In the mean time more Ontario should undertake to educate her citizens on the importance of Helmets as necessary biking equipment. Opponents may not like money spent trying to sway citizen to that point of view, but you can't take a position of personal choice without ensuring that choice be fully informed. 

I am left thinking that many will curse the government for making them wear a helmet. On the other hand those saved from permanent brain damage as a result of such legislation will not be among that group.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bank of Canada+Focus Groups= Controversy

Edit: This is a link to Bank of Canada explanation and apology.

 Focus groups are there to help a developer understand how a product, design, or any number of things, may impact on consumer; to avoid damage to the brand, or help them better target the product or service to its intended audience. It generally isn't a bad thing, but you need to be careful what advice you take.

The Bank of Canada designed a 100 dollar bill. They sent that Bill design around to focus groups. Some of the participants thought the women on the bill looked Asian. Some people thought this was a problem; some because it seemed not to reflect what a Canadian is, which is kinda sad. Another group made a point  that it is not right to represent one ethnicity without representing all of them, which is sad in a whole different way. A third group thought the image of an Asian on the 100 dollar bill signified Canadian diversity it that was OK, which for me was OK too.

I don't know if the Bank intended for the person look Asian. The Bank of Canada says "it does have a policy of not highlighting specific ethnicities".  Though I read a comment that made an interesting point. Bank policy on not depicting ethnicity, means the default setting is European. On our money the people depicted are European looking, I won't complain much, when the scene depicted is historical and the participants are actually of European descent. Though if you want you can ask why they don't pick non-european events to depict.

One or two have labeled the Bank racist for alter the image of the 100 dollar bill, an unfair criticism. The Bank is at worst just timid, seeking not to offend one group and by doing so offend more groups. They paid too much attention to too what the focus group said, primarily i think because it dealt with the issue of race. The Bank of Canada was releasing a new bank note, they were not trying to start a dialogue on race. They took the middle path, in this case doing nothing different, hoping to avoid criticism, only to get hit by the train they were trying to avoid. 

What do I expect from institutions like the Bank of Canada? I expect them to lead from the front. No they don't have to be trend setters, it's a bank after all. But when the opportunity arose, in the case of an Asian looking woman on the back of a bank note, they should have embraced it. proudly declared "so what if there is an Asian looking woman doing science on the100 dollar bill. Asian women do work in science don't they?"
I missed opportunity there.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

What is Going on With Julian Assange?

EDIT: I am including this Link  because it provides a reasonable description of of what Assange faces in Sweden and a little about the Swedish Justice system

As I write this Julian Assange is living in the Ecuadorian Embassy. He has been give asylum by Ecuador. Assange took up residence there on June 19, 2012 after losing his appeal to avoid extradition to Sweden.

There is confusion over whether Julian Assange has been charged with rape or accused of rape by Swedish authorities. I found this from the Guardian describing the allegations. Whether he is wanted for questioning or prosecution. BBC news provides a timeline of events surrounding Assange.

At this point what I know is that Julian Assange was accused of rape. He is wanted in Sweden to either answer questions and/or faces charges and prosecution. He refused to return to Sweden and so faced an extradition proceeding. He lost all court challenges and must now surrender to authorities and return to Sweden. He fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy, sought and was granted asylum. The UK government does not recognize the grant of asylum and wants him turned over. Ecuador refused, they now face the potential of having their diplomatic status revoked, allowing the UK government to enter the embassy and apprehend Assange.

Is this case about an accused man fleeing to a foreign country to avoid charges and prosecution? Some have likened the Assange case to that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, he was removed from a plane and charged with rape, later the charges were withdrawn. I guess the comparison suggested is that both men tried to flee the scene one successfully the other not so much. ( Assange was granted leave to exit Sweden,so flight may be to strong a word). DSK had he left on that plane would have faced the same proceedings as Assange, charges proffered and extradition sought. I presume Stauss-Kahn would have opposed extradition. If Stauss-Kahn had then lost his case it is assumed he would have surrendered himself to authorities and been placed on a plane to New York. It is also unlikely that Stauss-Kahn would have high tailed it to an Embassy of any sort and to seek asylum or for that matter found an Embassy willing to grant it. Assange was also entitled to oppose extradition, had his day in court, lost and now must obey he law. His flight to the Ecuadorian Embassy and them granting of asylum is therefore untenable as it subverts the ruling of a fair legal proceeding.

For some the cases are similar enough to shout foul. Why is Assange being treated differently? At this point the Right/Left divide makes an appearance, sides will be chosen , even when it is not a question of side but of law and its application. Strauss-Kahn was reviled as a person of wealth and privilege, abusing the weak and powerless directly in the person of a hotel maid. The Right suggested this might be a witch hunt, a "get the rich guy".

With Assange, the sides have switched. Those on the Right see it as a flight from prosecution and the Left an attempt to railroad the Hero of wiki leaks. The charges facing Strauss-Kahn and Assange are similar but the circumstance surrounding both men are not. Assange while not officially wanted in the United States on charges related to Wiki Leaks, he is certainly a person they would be happy to have land in New York. (To be fair it is suggested that the charges against Strauss-Kahn were fabricated to ruin his potential political career. This accusation seems more opinion than fact based. Yes the rape accusation derailed a bid to run for President of France. I will note that Strauss-Kahn is not a stranger to sex related accusations.)

Assange's refusal to comply with the Court's decision hinges on his belief that once extradited to Sweden he with be vulnerable to extradition to the USA. In fact he and his supporters go as far as to say the whole case has been manufactured to engineer this exact outcome. Their is no evidence of this. "Lack of evidence is not evidence of absence" might be the reply. The UK, Sweden and the USA have all said that nothing of the sort is in the works. It is they maintain a simple case of flight from prosecution and an attempt to repatriate an accused to answer for the charges against him.

Except for one thing, Wiki Leaks.  America was really embarrassed by wiki leaks if not actually harmed by it,( that too is up for discussion). Rumours of a secret Grand Jury empanelled to hear the case against Assange. As it is a secret there can't be any verification. So round we go again. It is not unreasonable that the USA would ask for extradition of Julian Assange at a later date. That is the pin about which everything has revolved. Assange has not gone to all this trouble to merely avoid a just hearing in Sweden but to avoid the USA. Then again if he has been motivated solely to avoid prosecution he has been abetted by the very governments who have sought him. He sought guarantees that he would not be extradited to to America, no were given. He had asked Sweden to send prosecutors to England, this is not without precedence where he would happily answer questions, this was refused.

I believe that Assange must answer for the charges made against him. No person must be allowed to flout the a just legal proceeding. Neither the UK, Sweden nor the USA can be considered to have a corrupt judiciary. Real or imagined fear of American prosecution is a central theme in this affair. Therefore it is reasonable under these specific circumstances that Assange be guaranteed that he won't end up in an American cell. I don't think this is an extraordinary request. Further it will allow the case against Assange to proceed and justice, if guilt is ascertained, for the victims.