Freedom from Religious Persecution

Today I saw a person praying openly and at considerable length, and I was reminded of what freedom of religion is.

I was reminded because prescribed ritual behaviour makes me quite uncomfortable. However religious freedom, freedom from religious persecution actually, means that my discomfort was my problem, not his.

Centuries of monotheists persecuting people of different faiths necessitated that secular societies advanced the principal that you should not attack anyone just because they do not conform to your views on religion.

So while I sat their and the praying continued I was not only aware of my irrelevant discomfort, but of the climate in the room as people whispered and pointed and checked to see if, in an historic context, there was something intolerant they needed to do about the “other.”

I remember IRA bombings in the news. I am belatedly aware that there are conservative senators in Canada who think the cultural genocide of my country’s first nations was not so bad if some of the victims were successfully indoctrinated to Christianity.

So, what is my point? I am not very certain. I am dismayed by the surge in public religiosity particularly among white Christian evangelicals in North America, which I can only put down to a failure in education. However what I am certain of is that the whiff of intolerance I experienced today is not a healthy response to anyone’s faith.

Sexual preference

A couple of weeks ago my mum, 98, asked me what made men gay. To which I answered nothing makes men gay.

Consider this. About half the people in the world prefer women, and about half prefer men. And most of the people who prefer women are men and most of the people who prefer men are women. If those two statements are true then it is inevitable that some people who prefer women are women and some people who prefer men are men. These are not even different sexual preferences. If I am attracted to the same person as a female friend, we are having the same sexual preference.

The problem we have as a society with sexual preference and almost any other LGBTQ2 issue is that we have created artificial communities through historic persecution and cultural prescriptivism. My grandparents would have told you that all men prefer women and, I suppose, no decent woman wanted anything other than to submit to one man. Both those assumptions, dictates really, were false; both products of narrow minds and ignorance.

When we talk about gender, it’s binaryness or spectruminess we are missing the point. These terministic screens we are constructing depend on the divisions we have inherited in our societies that are based in a worship of conformity. Primarily they are based in the repulsive human proclivity of defining criteria for damnation.

All that is really true is that there is variability. If humans are not statistically uniform as my Salvationist ancestors desperately wanted to make them, then gender identity variation is just as inevitable and unremarkable as the imperfect correlation between sex and sexual preference.

If intolerance, persecution and religious prescriptivism were to ebb away, the only time you would ever need concern yourself with another person’s gender identity or sexual preference would be if you were trying to get together with them.

Turning a light off.

Imagine if every time you did this, when you flipped a light switch off, the light stayed on and the switch asked, “Do you want to turn the light off?” requiring you to flip the switch a second time. No one would put up with that annoyance. It would be the most infuriating passive-aggressive bullshit ever. This is the kind of thing someone would implement to drive you mad.

But this strategy is commonplace in software interfaces. As an example, on a Mac the default setting for Empty Trash is to ask you if you want to empty the trash. Properly then the menu item should read, “Ask me if I want to empty the trash.” This is messed up.

You can, and should, change this particular default behavior. Putting items into the trash is a deliberate operation. The trash is not a storage location. No one would, or perhaps I should say should, ever put any file they want to keep, in the trash. And putting something in the trash and emptying the trash is already a two-step process. If you can mess that up, adding a paternalistic, “Are you sure?” dialogue is not going to help you?

And how is this useful interface design? Every time my workflow is interrupted to repeat an instruction this way, I immediately think something like, “Why would I have asked you to ‘Empty Trash’ if I did not want to?”

At the very least interfaces should allow you to disable such warnings whenever they come up. Some do, but making users repeat themselves seems to be a core strategy in interface design..

Command-shift-q opens a Log-Out dialogue on a Mac, and this is fine. However if I deliberately navigate to and choose ‘Log Out User Name’ in the menu, up pops the same dialogue, asking me if I want to do the thing I just told the machine to do.

In bizarre contrast, command-option-shift-q effectively pulls the plug on a mac shutting down unceremoniously without giving you the option to save anything. This cannot be disabled and can be very upsetting if you are working in a 3D app where command-option-shift-w is a thing.

These two examples represent diametrical strategies and are inexplicable as they occur in the same OS. On the one hand we have the passive aggressive insistence on making you repeat commands you could not have chosen accidentally. On the other hand is the impossibility of disabling a keyboard shortcut you could not possibly want to use, and could quite easily enter accidentally. These choices are both dreadful design. I would be ever so pleased if designers stopped putting such in software.

Road tolls are a solution to what?

You may think that road tolls are a good idea.

You may think that, as Toronto mayor John Tory asserts, those people coming into the city use the roads paid for by local property taxes. Those commuters should have to help pay for the roads they use.

You may understand that there are too many cars producing too many emissions and imagine that tolls will work as a deterrent. People will carpool or take transit to avoid the tolls.

You may have concluded that the City needs new revenue streams and that tolls are a necessary or desirable way of raising capital to fund infrastructure investment. Toll revenue can be used to pay for the Don Valley and the Gardener. And also that same money can be used to pay for expanded transit.

Superficially these seem reasonable.

First, please explain to me how commuters working in Toronto do not contribute to the economy of the city. While they do not pay Toronto property taxes if their homes are elsewhere, the fact that they spend their working lives at Toronto businesses means that the majority of their contribution to the economy is localized in Toronto. The City is the principal beneficiary of their labour.

Moreover these people do pay property taxes where they live, often amounts similar to those paid by Torontonians on much higher valued properties in areas with much more robust services. That they should subsidize another municipality additionally is tyrannical.

This attitude is emblematic of the worst kind of us-and-them regionalism. It is petty. Moreover as a principal it means that when tens of thousands of Toronto property tax payers head out to cottage country, they should have to pay a toll to use each regional and municipal road they did not pay for in their property tax.

Now, consider commuters. I live in Ajax. I could not be better connected to Union Station and Danforth/Main by GO. Inevitably if I am going to either I take transit because that is the most practical option by a long shot. This is absolutely not true of most of the Toronto area. People driving into Toronto are mostly not doing so because they want to. They, like myself, likely live where they do because they could not possibly afford to live closer to downtown.

Most commuters who drive in on the DVP in particular are going somewhere they could not reasonably or practically go to by transit. My wife at one point considered a job that would have been quite near the Bloor GO. Can you get there from the east in the morning? No you cannot.

When I started driving gas was 22¢/L. Gas prices five and six times that have not changed when or where I have to go and the impracticality of doing so, except in specific cases, without driving. Increased cost in the form of tolls will not accomplish this either.

You cannot make anything better by making something else worse. Ideally anyone in Ontario should be able to go out their front door on foot and get anywhere else in Ontario in a reasonable time frame at a reasonable price on transit. The only way you get there from here is to consistently improve and expand transit. As part, or more often as the entirety of a transit strategy, making alternatives to transit more difficult or more costly without providing a realistic and practical transit alternative is doing nothing useful.

And finally, revenue. How is Toronto to pay for the roads that were downloaded onto it? How is the City to fund transit expansion? For transit expansion is desperately needed.

To justify the need for more transit I will just make this argument. Some time ago 20% of trips into or within Toronto were via transit. Lets say you then wanted to reduce automobile use from 80% of trips to 60% of trips, which would still leave cars the principal method of getting around. It is basic math that to increase transit trips from 20% to 40% you are likely to need twice as much transit. So, that would cost ballpark twice as much in investment.

So, are tolls going to pay for that? The 2016 TTC expenses were $1,749,274,000.00. The Gardiner/DVP tolls are projected to bring in $200,000,000.00. That is about 11% of the TTC budget and does not include funding the roads… So, no, this is not a revenue solution.

But Toronto needs a revenue solution. This is not the only area of spending where the city is not keeping up. So why does the City not have enough money? Transfer payments from the Province are not what they should be. The provincial and federal governments are underfunded. Why is that? Why is not enough money trickling down to municipalities?

Part of that can be found in Steven Harper’s firewall letter. It was his explicit purpose in going to Ottawa to impoverish and thereby diminish the government in Ottawa. But this is not only his doing. Canadian’s high-income tax rates are much lower now than they were in the 1980’s. There has been a relentless campaign to relieve the wealthy of their tax obligations. This includes far better ways for the wealthy to shelter their incomes from tax. And corporate income tax rates are at century lows. Formerly the CIT was around 40%. Today it is about 22%.

The richest Canadians and the corporations they control hold the biggest share of the country’s wealth and we keep decreasing how much of that is taxed and at what rate.

Governments do not have a spending problem. We need to double and treble transit infrastructure investment for instance. Governments have a revenue problem. And that problem has been deliberately caused by lowering income taxes for the wealthy and their corporate interests.

So what about tolls then? What are they for? What are any user fees for? This is how we put the cost of tax cuts onto the people least able to pay. Tolls exist to fund tax cuts for high-income people and corporations.

If that is what you want, lower taxes for the 1%, by all means be in favour of tolls.

copyright died

I am not certain what the benefit is for society to go on supporting copyright the way it has been going. Copyright, and patent law, now collectively intellectual property rights, have gone badly wrong.

The legal instruments that originally protected peoples’ right to profit from their work, as an incentive to innovation were a great idea. My career was based on copyright, allowing me to sell and license the work I did. For many years, customers normally paid for a single-use of my artwork. If they wanted to reuse my work they needed to pay again for another use. If another customer wanted to use my work, I was free to profit from my right. That way I could earn a living.

Then contracts began to include boilerplate that meant, instead of paying for the right to use my artwork, customers were buying all the rights, transferred without limitation from me to them. As a contract stipulation such a provision undermined my right to profit from my work, or for that matter to use it at all. It has been more than a decade since I retained the ownership of any of my creative work. At the same time, the companies, mainly publishers, who purchased my work, enjoy intellectual property rights on work they never created.

Had I retained the copyright, it would have expired some decades after my death. However since in seven decades there will be no record of who originally created the work and owned the copyright, or when they died, it is hard to see how the corporation’s rights will ever expire.

My work is of no great cultural value, however it is important to note that since the USA increased the limit on copyright from 50 to 70 years, it is nearing two decades since any part of contemporary culture has entered the public domain there. This is stifling to cultural innovation. And the US government is keen to export its copyright law to as many other countries as possible. This is a key provision of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As for patent law, current interpretations of what is patentable and what is covered are responsible for all the non-imaginary problems associated with GMOs as well as the grave ills proliferating in the pharmaceutical industry.

We need to fix the broken parts of intellectual property law. It should not be possible for all copyright to end up on the ledgers of corporations. It should not be possible for patent law to make indentured servants of farmers. However if we cannot reset the rules protect innovation and motivate individuals as they were originally intended, then perhaps we would be better off scrapping what we have now and starting again.

Why Zoos

Recently I saw a wonderful video, “Potoka Giraffe Runs at Brookfield Zoo.” The weather at their zoo had improved enough that the giraffes could be safely let out of the barn into their yard, and Potoka was galloping about with pure joy.

Yet many of the comments on the video were extremely negative, declaiming that captivity was cruel and captive animals should be set free to live in an idyllic Lion-Kingesque wilderland. I do not think that these commenters were mostly haters or trolls.

I completely understand where this ideological impulse comes from. As a child I visited the Buffalo Zoo several times. The exhibits there were mostly cement boxes with cage fronts where, for instance, tigers lay uncomfortably on display for hours. It was difficult to see how the lives of those animals could be anything but miserable.

There are probably many zoos around the world with similar conditions today. I would not like to google ‘worst zoo.’ However for decades now, developed-world zoos have been running with rather more noble and beneficial objectives than displaying sullen wildlife. Zoos serve several important functions.

Zoos are hubs for intensive research. They are the bases for many important conservation projects that breed and release threatened species repopulating ecologically depleted areas. They serve as safe harbours for individuals who for one reason or another cannot live in the wild. And perhaps most importantly they expose increasingly urbanized people to wildlife and provide populations with educational resources.

It is possible today to live your life entirely disconnected from anything outside urbanity. This impairs people’s ability to have a sensible proportionate understanding of many important issues in conservation, ecological management or environmental issues. It helps people to feel outrage when a Cooper’s Hawk preys on House Finches at their bird feeder. It helps climate-change deniers and industrialists ignore habitat loss.

Zoos have the potential to mitigate ignorance of the natural world and help people make better decisions. But they cannot do that without funding and they cannot get funding without broad public support.

When the Toronto Zoo opened, it was a model of enlightened design. But over the years it has become less so. A big part of this is a loss of funding. Funding cuts are enabled by both public apathy and a failure to understand the value and importance of Zoos.

And while wildlife stands to suffer considerable harm from such an ideology, in the long run, failure to invest in conservation organizations that do something more than role-play publicity stunts, will impoverish us all.

What is undemocratic about ISDS and the TPP?

To explain this I am first going to discuss another undemocratic instrument, the Ontario Municipal Board. The OMB is a court that developers have access to when they want to contest municipal planning decisions and regulation. The OMB is unelected and unaccountable. Its decisions are final.

Developers use the OMB both as a threat to encourage municipal governments to act in the interests of developers and as a tool to set aside municipal decisions they are unhappy with. So while “Ontario Municipal Board” might sound like it serves municipalities in some way, what it does in fact is administratively overrule the democratic processes in Ontario municipalities.

By way of example, Ajax has a municipal plan that was a result of a good deal of research and, well, planning. But those plans were based on the public interest and adopted by a democratic government. They do not take into account what might temporarily be the most profitable for a particular developer. So developers take the town to the OMB to have democracy overruled. And even if they do not succeed, they put the town to what might often be considered insupportable expense.

ISDS provides a much more horrifying example of this kind of court. At least the OMB operates under the Ontario government. Parliament could redefine or abolish the OMB if it found it necessary. TPP member states would never have such recourse with respect to ISDS. Litigation is expensive; punitive decisions burdensome. And no state has any recourse except to pay and pay, or make undemocratic decisions that represent extraterritorial corporate interests, not those of the public.

Liberal MP David Lametti, who obviously supports the TPP and CETA, says that ISDS is “part of the democratic process…and frankly it’s a healthy part of the process, if it forces governments to reflect on what they do and what they think they should do.”

This is a terrifying prospect. That Lametti thinks it reasonable that governments trying to act in the public interest should reflect on what punishments they might face in doing so is appalling. Moreover that Lametti does not understand democracy to be government acting exclusively in the best interest of its citizens without prejudice from private or corporate interests fills me with dread.

Rejecting the TPP

February 15, 2016

Justin Trudeau

House of Commons
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0A6

Dear Justin.

Of course you are pro trade. I am pro trade. We are all pro trade in exactly the same way we are pro puppy pictures and pro moms. All economic transactions are trade. To be pro trade is the same as to be pro employment or pro prosperity.

That is why 24 chapters freeing corporations from regulation are tacked onto the 6 chapters dealing with trade in the TPP. That way its proponents can call it a trade agreement despite it mostly not being one. This is important propaganda because no one is going to support a “freeing corporations from legal restrictions” agreement.

This is the principal behind calling trade deregulation ‘free trade.’ ‘Free’ is a positive term that puts a smiling face on deregulation. No one is going to support ‘unfair trade’ or ‘disastrous trade.’

But that is what trade deregulation has been for Canada. In the 2015 election Liberal campaign literature talked about how things were worse now for average Canadians than they were in the 1980s. The Free Trade agreement and NAFTA were both major contributors to this, effectively pulling the plug on Canadian manufacturing, eliminating well paying jobs and job security, and undermining our industrial economy.

TPP supporters talk a lot about opening markets for Canadian business. I wonder, as I live amongst the empty foundations of all the industries that once made Canadian products, markets for what exactly? Are you genuinely as short sighted as the CPC and think we will just sell all our natural resources to manufacturers elsewhere, just to purchase them back as shoddy products for ten times the price? Could you possibly think this can be a basis for an economy?

Or perhaps you are as deluded as the new Chancellor of Brock University in 2007 when I listened to him tell a convocation including may graduating Chinese foreign students that the future of Canada was to be the source of new ideas and technology, and that the future of countries like China was to be the labourers that made the products. The idea that we can build an economy based on research and services denies the fact that people elsewhere can develop their own technology.

I am pro trade, and pro employment, and pro prosperity. But while TPP supporters dangle the promise of these before us, the TPP itself is not intended to provide any such thing. It is almost entirely a corporate deregulation treaty intended to make multinational corporations immune to national laws. Rather than creating or supporting a ‘global economy’ it is purposed to make it easier for corporations to exploit the extreme inequity in the world’s discrete local economies for the benefit of the corporations themselves, and the obscenely wealthy tiny minority who control them almost entirely.

Please do not promote or support the passage of the TPP into law in Canada. I will be deeply ashamed if your government does so. I, like most Canadians am well fed up with being ashamed of my government. Please do not disappoint us.

Is slower safer?

People like ‘common’ sense ideas, and surely ‘speed kills.’ So ‘all cars must go slower’ seems like common sense. However if 50 is safer than 60, then surely 40 is safer than 50 and following this to its absurd conclusion, stopped is safer than 10. But I am quite certain this is not so.

First of all 60 is not very fast. If you cannot maintain ‘care and control’ on good pavement in normal conditions at 60, perhaps you should not be driving at all.

A lighted sign warns me every day that I am going too fast on Fairall St. Fairall/Station St. is a secondary road connecting two major arteries through an industrial area. It is the connection between downtown Ajax and the GO Station. That stretch of road is now signed 50, which, regardless of what Ajax decided, is clearly not democratically what almost anyone using that road agrees to. It could be worse though. There is a similar connecting road north of the 401 signed 40. No one using that road goes 40.

But Ajax is once again on about speeding and safety. This is absurd for many reasons.

The expected stopping distance for vehicles is based on tests from decades ago. Actual stopping distances for cars today can be less than half the regulatory standard.

Both roads and vehicles, here at least, are far better designed and safer than they were when speed limits were significantly higher. So the gap between what equipment and infrastructure is designed for and regulation is getting wider, speed limits less reasonable. That governments express concern that there is more speeding should not be surprising when traffic laws do not reflect what most people actually do and more importantly, what is actually safe.

Collisions between vehicles and anything else are more likely where there is more congestion. Consider reducing traffic speeds from 50 to 40. While no modern vehicle on a modern road in normal conditions is significantly safer to drive at the lower speed, traveling 20% slower increases trip time by a quarter. If every car on the road is out there 25% longer then there are 25% more cars on the road. This is certainly more dangerous.

Finally there are the two great hypocrisies of conflating traffic safety and ever-lower speed limits. One is that while municipal and provincial governments like to affect road safety policies, it is cheaper to just go on about speeding than it is to do anything useful. For instance changing speed signs is easier than requiring everyone to get drivers training. Second is that while reducing speed limits is unlikely to reduce accidents it is a large source of revenue in the form of speeding tickets. So lowering speed limits rather than being a safety measure could be viewed as increasing yield on traffic fine farming.

Elderly Parent

No male child ever took better advantage of having a type 1, 1950’s mom than I did. My mother took care of me. She cooked and cleaned and did my laundry. She did all the things her parents, puritanical Victorian Protestants born in the 1890’s, expected a good mother to do. And I lapped it up. Long after I moved away from home, my mom still looked forward to my visits when she could feed me and clean up after me. It was important to her. Taking care of me was her best way of showing that she loved me. And it was awesome, even though I did not always appreciate that awesomeness at the time. I am sure that if I could continue to take advantage of mum’s caring, I would.

Mum is going to be 97 this year. She still lives in her own home. But she is very hard-of-hearing and has very low vision. It has been years since it was a good idea for her to cook me a meal. She does a fair job of keeping her house clean, however there is a growing list of things she cannot, or perhaps, should not do. And there are plenty of things she needs done for her.

Mum really does not like this. I did not realize until her capacities began to diminish how strongly linked her self worth was to her service and independence. And I do not mean independence in the sense of self sufficiency. I refer to not asking for or getting assistance from anyone. That would be a weakness.

Growing old and infirm is particularly cruel for someone who has lived for most of a century believing that their virtue and worth are inextricably linked to hard work and servitude, especially in taking care of children and male family members.

Needing help equals ‘lazy’ equals sin.
Failing to take care of others and serve them equals ‘lazy’ equals sin.

It cannot be said that I am too intrusive in my mother’s life. I visit her every other weekend when possible and I do what I can to help her stay in her home. There is always a certain amount of anguish as, for instance, my mum feels ‘useless’ when I cook her a meal. She wants to cook for me not the other way around. This is hard on both of us, but I understand the dynamics of the situation and I do my best.

So, I get quite annoyed whenever I get criticized for the way I deal with my mums age-related shortcomings. I am not stupidly unaware of my mum’s feelings. I sympathize with her frustration at not being able to fulfill the role she was raised for. I understand that she is unable to change her idea of what it is for her to be a good woman even if that idea was made ridiculous fifty years ago. I would be selfishly fine with letting her take care of me, but she cannot. This is upsetting for her and her situation is upsetting for me. No derisive commentary from third parties who think they know better is either helpful or welcome. In fact it is very irritating.