Showing posts with label in the news. Show all posts
Showing posts with label in the news. Show all posts

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A pragmatic approach for law-abiding citizens

The biggest benefit of being a law-abiding citizen is credibility. If your job or your landlord or the kids' hockey team you want to coach wants a police check, you'll pass with flying colours.  If anyone is trying to dig up dirt on you, they're going to find nary a parking ticket. If you ever want to criticize anyone else's less-than-optimal behaviour, you can stand up tall, look the world in the eye, and proclaim "I am a law-abiding citizen!"

That is why the greatest threat to us law-abiding citizens is non-law-abiding authorities, in particular those whose abuse their authority in a way that causes people harm.

Many people's visceral response to this statement is "No, the greatest threat to us is criminals!"  But non-law-abiding authorities are criminals.  They can do anything to us that criminals can do. Authorities can kill us. Authorities can steal or destroy our possessions. Authorities can rape us. Authorities can cause us permanent injury.

And, on top of that, non-law-abiding authorities who abuse their power can destroy our hard-earned credibility. They can lay charges that will lead to us failing police checks, regardless of whether we're actually convicted, regardless of whether we actually did it.  Our names would get be in the paper (and therefore googleable) associated with these charges, regardless of whether we're actually convicted, regardless of whether we actually did it.  They can detain us - even if we're not found guilty, they can detain us until the trial is over - thereby preventing us from going to work and earning a living, thereby making it more difficult for us to pay our bills. This could cause us to lose our jobs, our homes, our credit rating, and our credibility in many areas of life. Ever had an employer or a creditor cheerfully give you the opportunity to correct an honest mistake because you've proven your reliability over the years?  Think they'll still do that if you've missed work or missed payments because you were in jail?

Therefore, the most pragmatic approach for law-abiding citizens is to come down hard on non-law-abiding authorities.  Give them the full force of your law-abiding, hard-working taxpayer outrage, and make this outrage known on social media and letters to the editor and messages to your elected representatives.  Call for the dismissal of those who allowed it to happen. Don't let them distract you with particulars of the case that they claim justify their failure to comply with the law.  Make it very, very clear that their failure to comply with the law is unacceptable and beyond the pale, and we will not stand idly by while such things happen.

In the specific case of Omar Khadr, this means our outrage should be focused on the non-law-abiding actions (or inactions) of authority figures that led to this whole situation. If the settlement specifically is what bothers you, focus your outrage on the non-law-abiding actions (or inactions) that led to the settlement being legally required, making it very, very clear that you will not tolerate authority figures behaving in a way that makes it necessary to spend tax dollars on these kinds of settlements, whereas if they had just abided with the law they could have saved us all this money.

It is not in our best interests as law-abiding citizens to express outrage about the fact of the settlement, because the settlement was a legal requirement. By expressing outrage about the fact of the settlement, we'd be suggesting to authorities that failing to comply with the law would be a popular decision. Whereas by expressing outrage about the non-law-abiding behaviour that made the settlement necessary, we will make it clear that complying with the law is a popular decision and failing to comply with the law is unacceptable.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

It seems my policy oracle is alive and well, if slower

Five years ago I came up with a plan to cool the housing market.

Today they implemented it.

Ironically, this happen right after I move out of rental housing.  (Not that I care - it's still the objectively correct thing to do.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

I would never think of borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbour. Here's why that's a good thing.

A while back, a politician said that she moved out of Toronto because she felt it lacked community, citing as an example “I would never go next door and ask my neighbour for a cup of sugar. It just wouldn’t happen.

This led to a brief flurry of journalists attempting to borrow sugar and documenting the results, but I didn't give it much thought, until it bubbled up in my mind in the shower today and it occurred to me:

I would never, ever even consider knocking on my neighbour's door to borrow a cup of sugar, literally or metaphorically. It just wouldn't happen.

And the reason for that has absolutely nothing to do with my neighbours. And absolutely everything to do with my neighbourhood.

I chose my neighbourhood because it's easy and convenient. And part of being easy and convenient is having stores that sell and services that provide nearly everything I might ever need all within the immediate neighbourhood.  I can get a boxspring, a biopsy and a bridesmaid dress all within easy walking distance.  And, more importantly, I can get sugar - or any other foodstuff I might need - within a two-minute walk, 24/7/365.

Many urban neighbourhoods - especially high-density neighbourhoods - are like this.  There's no need to bother your neighbours because the neighbourhood infrastructure and amenities meet your needs.

That's a sign of a successful, functioning community, where people can get what they need through the normal mechanisms and infrastructure, without having to even consider imposing upon the kindness of - or being at the mercy of - those who happen to be in the vicinity.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Things They Should Invent: plane crash edition

Reading this article about people who want to take their luggage with them when evacuating plane crashes gives me ideas for a couple of inventions.

1. Public awareness of what happens to plane crash survivors

When later asked to explain their actions, most passengers cited a desire to rescue their money, wallets or credit cards. 
You can see how a person would get there. The idea of being stuck somewhere, maybe in a foreign country, without money, ID or credit cards is scary. So they need a public awareness campaign of what measures are in place to help plane crash survivors in the immediate aftermath and days following. How do they get the medical care they need without their health card or insurance information? What's their legal status if they're in a foreign country but have lost their passport in the plane crash? How do they get home without money or credit cards, and how do they get food and shelter and replacement clothing in the interim? How do they get back into their home country without ID?

There have been enough plane crashes over the years that it seems like there should be a protocol in place for these things. If there is, they should let us know how it works. If there isn't, they should make one and then let us know how it works.

2. Fireproof luggage

The motivation for wanting to take your carry-on bag when evacuating an airplane is that you don't want to lose the contents. Even if insurance gives you money to replace it, you can't just go and buy the teddy bear who's been with you since you were a baby or the discontinued underwear you haven't yet found a comfortable replacement for.

But imagine if the bag was fireproof. You leave it behind, the inferno burns around it, and after the fire has been put out everyone's luggage can be retrieved. You're deprived of your essentials for a few hours, not for the whole rest of your life.

There are fireproof/fire-resistant materials used for firefighters' and astronauts' protective gear, and I'm sure there are other fireproof things in the world of which I'm not even aware. Perhaps that would be a good starting point.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

US gun money braindump

With the various US shootings in the news and a constant flow of information about how gun industry money is influencing US politics, my shower gave me the early foundations of an idea to disrupt the cycle.

I know I'm a foreigner and therefore this isn't my business at all, but it is an idea I haven't seen elsewhere, so I'm posting it in case it's useful to anyone.

We know that the pro-gun people's argument for having guns is that they need them for self-defence and/or they're used for perfectly valid sporting pursuits.

We know that there's a lot of firearm manufacturer money spent lobbying against any restrictions on owning or acquiring firearms.

My first idea to disrupt this was to make firearm manufacturers pay a fine whenever a product they make is used as a murder weapon.  This is intended to disincentivize manufacturers from lobbying against firearms restrictions, and possibly incentivize them to produce products that make mass murder less easy.

But, because of all this lobbying money, any law specifically targeting firearm manufacturers is unlikely to pass.

So my next idea was to be big and bold: all manufacturers of all products must pay a fine whenever a product they manufacture is used as a murder weapon.

Q: But wouldn't this result in all kinds of harm to all kinds of random businesses (many of whose products are far more vital and far less profitable than firearms)?

A: To mitigate that, I propose a progressive fine structure.  The fine to be paid is a percentage of the company's revenues (not profits, because those can be hidden with accounting).  It starts out as an extremely small percentage (like 0.01%), and that percentage increases (perhaps even doubles) with every subsequent murder. (I can make an argument for the percentage increasing every time there's a murder with any of the company's products, or for each individual product having its own tally.)  So if you're a manufacturer of cosmetics and one very resourceful person comes up with a way to murder someone using a tube of mascara, you have to pay a tiny fine. But if you're a manufacturer of firearms or ammunition and someone murders 50 people all at once with one of your products, you're going to be in serious financial trouble.  (And, of course if you're a manufacturer of cosmetics and someone murders 50 people all at once with one of your products, you're going to be in serious financial trouble too.)

Q: But why are you just focusing on murder? All kinds of people are shot in alleged self-defence or in accidents too, not to mention all the people who are injured, some of them seriously!

A: All these things are important too, and I have no objection to including them if it can be made workable. My thinking in focusing on murder is that it's far more difficult to argue with. By making policy that focuses strictly on murder weapons, you're not questioning the go-to arguments of self-defence or culturally-considered-legitimate sporting pursuits. You're not trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens or regular folks.  You are, in fact, agreeing with all the standard arguments about why guns should be allowed. It's just the bizarre, exceptional case of murderers that you're addressing - people who use the guns for the express purpose of going out to kill people.

Q: Wouldn't the focus on murder make people (perhaps with firearm-industry-provided lawyers) attempt to defend themselves with claims of self-defence or accidents?

A: Since murder is already a separate crime with a more severe sentence, people are already incentivized to do that. I don't know whether or not extra lawyering could make a difference.

Q: Why manufacturers? Why not retailers?

A: I have no objection to including retailers too. I'm focusing on manufacturers because I have the impression that that's where the lobbying money is coming from.

Q: So what do you expect manufacturers to actually do?

A: Primarily, to stop lobbying against various proposed legislation intended to stop guns from getting into the hands of dangerous people.

But they could perhaps also stop manufacturing guns that make it so easy to kill so many people.  For example, they could make guns that fire fewer rounds per minute, or that require the user to squeeze the trigger each time they want to fire a round rather than holding it down. I've seen mentions of certain types of ammunition being more lethal than others, so ammunition manufacturers could probably use that information to make ammunition that's less lethal. Perhaps they might also have the option of providing their products wholesale only to retailers with stricter security checks.

And, of course, they always have the option of doing nothing and bearing the risk of a massive fine that would put them out of business if someone should choose to use their products for mass murder.

Q: And what about manufacturers of other products who get caught up in this? What do you expect them to actually do?

A: If their products are being used as murder weapons on the same order of magnitude as guns, perhaps it would be a good thing for them to be incentivized to make these products less lethal!

Q: Might this disincentivize foreign companies from making their products available in the US?

A: It might, I don't know. Maybe if it does, and maybe if there's enough demand for the product in question, it could also boost the US manufacturing sector.

Q: And how do you propose getting this kind of legislation introduced when it's so obviously targeting firearms?

A: Wait until someone is murdered with an ordinary object that isn't intended as a weapon. Sensationalize the situation in the media, cite other historical cases of people being murdered with ordinary household objects that aren't intended as a weapon, and make it sound vitally important to introduce safety measures so ordinary household objects can't be used as murder weapons. Don't mention firearms at all.  Cars have had more and more safety measures introduced over the years, at least some of which have been required by law. Use the same spirit for everything, but without (at least initially) presuming to dictate what exactly the safety measures should be.  This is a country that managed to ban Kinder Eggs FFS - surely they can pass some anti-murder-weapon legislation if no one mentions the G word.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Things They Should Invent: dog-in-car thermometer

An article about a law in Massachusetts that would allow people to break into hot cars to rescue pets turned up in my social media, and I was surprised to see some commenters complaining about this law. Their complaint was that passers-by might not realize when a dog is perfectly safe and comfortable in an air-conditioned car and break windows unnecessarily.

This made me think of a simple solution: a thermometer inside the car, positioned in such a way that it's easily visible to passers-by through the window.  That way anyone who's concerned about the dog can easily check the temperature. If it's safe, the window won't be broken unnecessarily. If it's dangerous, the dog will be rescued.

If someone wanted to manufacture this as a new product distinctive from ordinary thermometers, they could make thermometers marked with the temperature range that's safe for dogs (and humans), similar to how some fridge thermometers have coloured markings showing the temperature range that's safe for food storage.

They could also enhance the simple window thermometer with smartphone integration.  If the temperature in the car exceeds a certain threshold or rises at a certain rate, you get an alert on your phone telling you that the temperature in the car is becoming unsafe.

Now, I have heard some people say that is absolutely always 100% of the time unsafe to leave a dog in the car no matter what the conditions, and, since I don't have a car, I've never had to become knowledgeable enough to confirm or refute that statement myself.  But the fact remains that there are people who do think it can be safe.  If there was a visible thermometer in the car along with the dog, it would confirm or refute whatever dog owners or car owners or concerned passers-by or meddling internet people might believe about the safety of the situation.  Then we could all take comfort in the fact that passers-by and owners with smartphones will be immediately alerted when dogs are unsafe, and dogs who are safe can be left to enjoy the musical stylings of Steely Dan in peace.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Research/Journalism Wanted: what's up with the people who didn't see it coming?

This post is about the information that reaches people (including me) organically, without them making any effort to find it, as opposed to the full set of all information available.  While reading this, you may find yourself thinking "But you don't have all the information! You're just talking about the subset of information that reached you organically!" Yes, and that is exactly what this post is about.

In the wake of Brexit, my twitter feed has been showing me examples of people who voted Leave but were unaware of the consequences. I was rather surprised by this, because I was aware of those same consequences, and I haven't even been actively following the issue!  The information reached me with no effort on my part (and, in fact, despite my having mentally categorized it as To Disregard), but it didn't reach people who actually got to vote in this referendum, and would have voted differently if they'd had this information.

Someone should do research and/or journalism about these people. What did they think was going to happen? Where did they get that idea from? Were they given incorrect information, or just not given all the correct information they needed? Why didn't the information they missed reach them?

And, perhaps most importantly, how close did they the information get to reaching them? Was a friend of a friend on a social network posting the information they needed? Was it in the newspaper they read but on a boring page they just skimmed over?  Or were they nowhere near it and would have needed to drastically revamp their media consumption practices and/or voting research to have reached it.

After interviewing as many of the people who didn't see it coming as possible, the researchers/journalists should publish the results, highlighting any patterns they noticed.  This would serve two purposes: helping regular people see information consumption patterns that correlate with being less informed than one would like, and helping people who are trying to spread information or raise awareness see how to reach the people who would like to be more informed but don't even know it yet.

As a random made-up example, suppose 68% of the people who were misinformed got their incorrect information from their hairdresser. Then people would know that you should question/snopes/factcheck political information provided by your hairdresser, no matter how brilliant she is about doing your hair.  Or, suppose 68% of people who didn't get the information they wanted were two degrees of social media separation from that information. Knowing that, people might retweet links to political information that they normally wouldn't retweet because they think it's glaringly obvious.

And this isn't just a Brexit thing. Similar postmortems should be conducted for all elections, and for any other undertaking where they can find a significant number of people who didn't see it coming.  For Brexit we're hearing the morning after about the people who didn't see it coming, but the turnaround isn't always this fast. They should follow up after six months or a year, find people who didn't see it coming, and figure out why.

There's something wrong when the desired information doesn't reach people who will be voting in a referendum, even though that same information organically reached a random foreigner who is deliberately disregarding information on the issue. Investigating exactly how this happened is probably the first step to making the problem go away.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How to improve assisted dying legislation with one simple rule

I've been reading about the various flaws in the current assisted dying legislation, and my shower gave me an idea of a simple way to improve it, or any other assisted dying legislation really.

I propose that, in addition to whatever categories of patients legislators deem acceptable candidates for assisted dying, any patient who has tried everything and still wants to die is permitted access to assisted death.

I don't think this is anywhere near a whole solution, but I do think it's a (relatively) easy rule that is unobjectionable to as many people as possible and achieves a number of things:

1. It catches the patients that legislators didn't think of. People generally want to impose restrictions on access to physician-assisted dying because they have various "What if?" scenarios in mind that they want to prevent, and they try to write restrictions that address those scenarios.  But, apart from people who don't want anyone to die at all ever, I doubt any of the scenarios people are thinking of preventing include cases where absolutely everything has been tried and the patient still can't bear to go on living.

2. It could create an additional path to help patients access treatments they haven't been offered yet. Sometimes you hear about situations where doctors simply rule out the possibility of certain potential treatments on grounds that the patient might not agree with (e.g. to protect the patient's fertility). But if applying for physician-assisted dying triggers a review of what has been tried so far and a protocol for trying everything else, when they say "We can't offer you death without first trying to remove your ovaries to see if it helps," you can say "Great, let's do that!"

3. It provides hope for all patients.  Even if you don't qualify for assisted dying right this second, you can get there just by following the standard protocol of trying, ruling out and refining treatments.  It will take time and difficulty, but you can get there. Every unsuccessful treatment you attempt is a step towards being put out of your misery.

4. It provides a built-in waiting period. Many people who are opposed to death at will cite first-hand or third-hand experiences of wanting to die but then, after some time passes, not wanting to die any more. Their concern that the desire to die might go away with time would be addressed by all the time it takes to proceed through all the treatments, which makes them less likely to oppose this rule.

***

At this point, you're probably wondering about the definition of "everything". Does that mean you have to try every single medication in existence, or just a representative sample? Do you have to try alternative medicine? What if it's unproven? Do you have to participate in clinical trials?

And what if you can't afford the prescriptions or alternative medicine treatment? What if you can't get into the clinical trials?

First of all, I think the Try Everything rule could be implemented immediately before these points are addressed, with the understanding that we will take the time to examine the nuances and refine the definition of "everything".  This will provide immediate  access for a (admittedly very small) number of people who may have otherwise slipped through the cracks but whose death by choice is as unobjectionable as possible, because they already have tried everything and have documented evidence of this.

Then, the process of working on refining the definition of "everything" could leverage the Anti-Death No Matter What lobby to improve access to medical care in general. Currently, they seem to be limited to saying "No death! Death is Bad!"  But this would give them positive things to lobby for that would serve as obstacles to death, but also help everyone in the meantime.  For example, it's not reasonable to expect people to try every prescription medication if the cost is prohibitive. So now the anti-death lobby is incentivized to lobby for pharmacare.  It's not reasonable to demand that people try alternative medicine that's unproven and not covered by OHIP, so now the anti-death lobby is incentivized to lobby for alternative medicine to undergo clinical testing, and for treatments that turn out to be proven by clinical testing to get covered by OHIP.

***

Of course, this comes nowhere near addressing all the problems with assisted dying legislation.  Notably, it does nothing about the lack of ability to provide an advance directive. But, nevertheless, expanding assisted death availability to include patients who have tried everything would fill in some gaps while being consistent with the spirit and intent of the legislation.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Journalism Wanted: who are the people who write publishable letters to the editor without knowing they'll be googleable?

Recently, the Toronto Star's public editor wrote about people who want their letters to the editor unpublished because they're googleable.

My question: who are these people?  This is really a unique convergence of factors. They are people to whom it occurs to write a letter to the editor, they are savvy enough to write a letter to the editor that gets selected for publication, they are completely unaware of the fact that a letter to the editor would become googleable, and they are affected by the fact that their letter (and the opinions contained therein) are googleable.

How do all these factors manage to converge? The combination of inclination to write a letter to the editor and unawareness of how googleability works makes me think of people who are very old and technologically illiterate, but would these people be affected by the googleability of their letter?  I mean, my own parents are senior citizens and they know how googleability works, so those who are unaware of it would be, like, octogenarians and above, most of whom aren't in the workforce or any other situation where the googleability of their opinions would have any impact.

Also, they don't print truly extremist positions in letters to the editor. If someone wrote in with hate speech or something, it wouldn't get printed.  But one of the reasons cited for requesting a letter to be unpublished is professional repercussions for the political views expressed.  Jobs where people would suffer repercussions for political views sufficiently benign to be printed in a letter to the editor are generally the sort of job that requires some degree of savvy and nuance - the sort of thing where you'd think people would need to know how googleability works in order to function properly at their job.  So how did they get there?

I really want the newspaper to interview these people (even if anonymously) and tell us their stories.  How did all these factors converge?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

If you haven't sponsored Eddie Izzard yet, now's the time!

Tomorrow is the last day of Eddie Izzard 27 marathons in 27 day challenge.

So far, he has completed 25 marathons in 26 days, after losing a day to a medical emergency.  So he decided he's going to make it up by running two marathons (84 km) tomorrow, even though he's never done a double marathon before.  And, because apparently that's not challenging enough, he then decided to up his last day's run to 90 km, in honour of South Africa's Comrades Marathon.

Eddie is scheduled to start his double marathon at 5 a.m. South African time (which is about 2 hours after I click Publish on this post), and to end 12 hour later. 

I ardently wish him all the good luck in the known universe, and sincerely hope that enough money is raised that everyone involved feels fully satisfied that this increasingly herculean undertaking was completely worthwhile.

You can follow Eddie's adventure live on BBC, Twitter, and Periscope, and donate via Sport Relief.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Eddie Izzard's latest awesomeness and lunacy

Eddie Izzard is once again attempting to run 27 marathons in 27 days across South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela and raise money for Sport Relief!

Despite successfully running 43 marathons in 51 days around the UK in 2009 and raising 1.8 million pounds doing so, when he previously attempted the South Africa marathons in 2012 he almost died trying . So, naturally, he's trying again.  During the African summer.   With no days of rest.

You can follow Eddie's progress on BBC Three and Twitter and donate via Sport Relief.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Things They Should Invent: building emergency keys automatically summon the elevator

From an article about emergency response in highrise buildings:
Fire departments are supposed to have access to a universal elevator key, which gives firefighters sole access to elevators without public interference, the study notes. In contrast, only rarely in pre-hospital care systems do paramedics have access to a universal elevator key. “Availability of a universal key seems like a simple intervention, but it has remained unaddressed for decades,” Drennan wrote
In addition to giving keys to paramedics, they should also have a setup where opening the front (or other exterior) door of the building with the universal emergency key summons the elevator to the lobby.

Currently, firefighters can open building doors with a universal emergency key, and take control of elevators with a universal emergency key.  But they still have to make their way to the elevators before they can summon the elevators.

If the elevators started heading for the lobby as soon as emergency personnel enter the building, then the elevators can head to the ground floor as the emergency personnel head across the lobby. This would minimize waiting time, and the precious seconds gained could save more lives.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Names

I've decided to adopt the French usage of Daesh to refer to the organization that recently committed terrorist attacks in Paris.

This article gives a good English-language explanation of why.  In short, they're not actually Islamic and they're not actually a state, so we shouldn't give them an importance they don't have.  Plus, the word "Daesh" (which is an acronym of the group's Arabic name) can mean "a bigot who imposes his view on others" in Arabic, which is appropriate.

I find each of these points sufficiently compelling in and of itself, but, on top of all that, we have the fact that Daesh dislikes being called Daesh but France prefers that usage. Under the circumstances, I think it's especially appropriate to disregard Daesh's preference in favour of France's.


It occurs to me that it would be interesting to extend this principle. What if there was a general rule that the victim of any offence gets to choose the name or terminology used to define and/or address the perpetrator?

This would be optional (so the victim isn't in the situation where now they have to decide on a name for the perpetrator on top of everything else!), and perhaps there would have to be limitations, like the name you give the perpetrator can't be worse than the offence they committed (so you can't insist that everyone address the guy who blocked your car in the driveway as Pedophile) and they get to resume their own name after the consequences of their offence have ended (so if they kill someone the name change is permanent, but if they fixed your shoes wrong and you had to go back and get them redone, the name change only lasts until you get your properly-fixed shoes back.)

Assholes have been known to use names and forms of address to insult, belittle, or otherwise disrespect people (e.g. calling a grownup woman "miss", misgendering transpeople, insisting on addressing people by their birth name even though they changed it, addressing people by their spouse's surname even when they didn't opt to take their spouse's surname.)  So why not use this power against the assholes?

Unless, of course, that would just make us no better than the assholes...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The 35% minimum

An article about the Catholic school board introducing a minimum mid-term report card grade of 35% gave me a lot of questions, despite the fact that it's completely irrelevant to me

First, I found myself wondering how common this situation even is!

How many students are actually getting a mark of under 35%?  How many of them are going to be able to pull their mark up to a pass by the end of the semester?  And why 35%, of all numbers?

Also, when I was in school at least, teachers entered the mark for each assignment into a spreadsheet, which weighted them accordingly and calculated the student's overall mark.  The overall mark was not subjective; it was the mathematical result of the mark one each test and assignment.  Because of this, you could figure out how many points you needed to get on an assignment or exam or during the rest of the semester to reach a certain grade.  (During bouts of senioritis, this was also used to calculated where you could slack off.)

So if a student's real total is under 35% but their report card shows 35%, they might use the 35% to calculate how well they need to do in the second semester to pass the whole course.  But if they really have some unknown number less than 35%, they won't get the mark they expect when all the numbers are plugged into the teacher's spreadsheet. Is there some mechanism in place to address this problem?

I'm labelling this post "journalism wanted" because, even though the situation has nothing to do with me, I left the article with way more questions than I went in with.  And if I have all these questions, surely the people affected have even more.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Things They Should Invent: objective quality and maintenance standards for official residences

With the change of government and arrival of a new Prime Minister, 24 Sussex Drive has been in the news again.  Apparently it's in very poor condition and in need of extensive repairs, renovations and upgrades, but successive Prime Ministers have been reluctant to have the work done because they don't want to be seen spending public money on their residence.

A solution would be to set objective standards both for the quality level that needs to be maintained and the amount that needs to be invested in upgrade and renovating the building.  These standards would be set by people who are experts in building maintenance and heritage preservation, without any involvement by political leaders, so the Prime Minister (or, whenever possible, the National Capital Commission) is just following the rules.

As a starting point, here's a basic framework my shower gave me:

1. Baseline state-of-good-repair standard: This is your basic health, safety, functionality, and "this is the 21st century" standard. If the building doesn't meet this standard, it is to be immediately brought up to standard regardless of the price.  For example, the building needs to be free of asbestos and other poisons, have no leaks or infestations, warmer than 20 degrees in the winter and cooler than 25 degrees in the summer, etc.  Could be based on or inspired by similar existing standards for rental housing, public buildings, etc.  The decision to carry out these repairs is made without the involvement of the Prime Minister or their family, similar to how tenants often get notices from their landlords saying "We will be turning off the water for three hours on Tuesday to repair a leak." The baseline state-of-good-repair standard is reviewed and updated at a fixed interval, by non-political people who are qualified to make this kind of decision, to make sure it still reflects modern baseline expectations for housing and public buildings.

2. New resident refurbishment allowance: Every time a new Prime Minister moves in, they are permitted to spend a certain legislated amount of money adapting the house to their family's needs.  One option is that they're allowed to spend up to a certain limit on changes from a list approved by the National Capital Commission.  An option with less political fall-out (inspired by employers who give employees on business trips a per diem rather than having them file expense receipts) is to simply hand over the allowance, have the National Capital Commission provide a list of what changes are and aren't permitted, and the Prime Minister's family can do whatever they need to.  It might actually be more efficient that way by saving on red tape justifying why they need to paint this room yellow or put heavier curtains in that room.  The amount of the new resident refurbishment allowance is reviewed and updated at a fixed interval, by non-political people who are qualified to make this kind of decision, to make sure it still reflects the needs of a family moving into a new home.

3. Regularly scheduled renovation/upgrade fund: A set amount of money is available at a set interval for whatever renovations/upgrades the building needs most, beyond state of good repair.  The renovations/upgrades are decided jointly by the National Capital Commission and a representative of the current Prime Minister's household. (The optics would be better if there's a housekeeper or someone like that who is very familiar with how well the building works and fulfills its functions but doesn't benefit personally from any upgrades, but if there isn't any such person any resident would do.)  The amount of this fund is reviewed and updated at a fixed interval, by non-political people who are qualified to make this kind of decision. Depending on the amount and the frequency with which it is used, it may be permissible to bank it for later use, or borrow from the next round, if a major expense should arise.  Not every Prime Minister's household is necessarily involved in using this fund - just whoever happens to be Prime Minister when the time to use the fund rolls around. For example, if the fund is only used in years ending in 3, then Jean Chr├ętien's household would have used it twice (in 1993 and in 2003), but Paul Martin's household never would have used it.

In addition to these amounts, the Prime Minister's family is permitted to spend their own money as long as the changes they make meet the approval of the National Capital Commission.

Because the quantities and frequencies of investment are legislated (or, at least, set out in some kind of official policy), it wouldn't be the Prime Minister's fault that the money is spent - the rules are just being followed.  (The rules could be written in such a way that it is the National Capital Commission that is required to spend the money, not the Prime Minister's household.)  And this heritage building would be kept in decent conditions and be able to fulfill its official and ceremonial functions without being a source of national embarrassment.

This framework could also be used for other official residences, just replace "Prime Minister" with the dignitary who resides there and "National Capital Commission" with the organization responsible for managing the residence.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Post-election round-up

Campaigning that reached me:

- 1 flyer from each candidate in my mailbox or under my door
- Multiple phone calls from each candidate. The NDP candidate left a message (which I think is a strategic error - many people find voicemails annoying) but the others didn't. I do appreciate the fact that all candidates phone lines that display their names on call display so I could screen accordingly.
- A man in a red t-shirt knocked on my apartment door at once point. I don't know if he was a Liberal canvasser or just a strange man who happened to be wearing a red shirt, because I don't open my door to strangers.
- I saw only one sign in my riding, for the Liberal incumbent, but it was taken down when the house was sold.  I also saw one sign each for the Liberal and NDP candidates in windows of an apartment building in an adjacent riding.  (Yes, even with riding distribution, my neighbourhood is still irritatingly fragmented among multiple ridings.)
- My candidates were really irritating on Twitter.  They kept sniping at each other and subtweeting. I felt like a kid trapped in the back seat of a car while family members argued.

Traditional post-election simulator tests:

Using the percentages available on the Elections Canada site, the simulators produce the following results:

Too Close to Call

Liberal: 138
Conservative: 120
NDP: 71
BQ: 8
Green: 1

Hill+Knowlton

Liberal: 131
Conservative: 126
NDP: 78
BQ: 2
Green: 1

(Also, was the Hill+Knowlton simulator really annoying for anyone else this year? It kept jumping around on the page every time I moved a slider.)

Actual results:

Liberal: 184
Conservative: 99
NDP: 44
BQ: 10
Green: 1

As with the last federal election, the prediction and simulation models don't seem able to properly process surges.

Thoughts on the results:

I'm still pondering this surprisingly large shift from NDP to Liberals.  Did a whole bunch of people feel moved to vote for the Liberals or against the NDP?  Was it because the Liberals were campaigning left and the NDP was campaigning right, as happened in the last Ontario election? (Although it seemed to me that this shift wasn't nearly as strong as in the last Ontario election.)  None of these phenomena seemed pronounced enough to cause such a drastic shift.  Or were so many people strategically voting against the Conservatives incorrectly (i.e. by using national polls rather than looking at the situation in their riding) that it actually ended up being correct?

If it's the latter, I certainly hope the new government's statement about this being the last "first past the post" election proves to be correct, because adding the factor of other people who might strategically vote incorrectly to your strategic voting strategy is just too complicated! 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Why is defecting allowed?

With the news that some Cuban Pan Am athletes defected, I find myself wondering why defecting is allowed from the perspective of the receiving country.

The results of my googling talk about the fact that defecting is prohibited by the country of origin and measures that countries might take to prevent people from defecting away.  But they take for granted that the receiving country will be happy to welcome the defectors.

Does the receiving country always in fact welcome defectors?  If so, why?  Do they ever turn them away?  Or can people automatically get in by announcing that they're defecting?

The definition of "defecting" as opposed to "emigrating" is that the country of origin doesn't want to let you out.  So, given recent stinginess towards refugees in various parts of the world, maybe people who have to pay smugglers to get them across the border so they can claim refugee status should instead announce that they're defecting?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Things They Should Invent: sitting pants

I recently read an article about a designer who's making clothes for people in wheelchairs:
The mainstream clothing that we buy is cut and drafted for standing. It’s something we don’t think twice about. When we sit down our clothes get all mess up. What I mean by that is that with pants they cut you in your gut and they ride down at the back; Or with a long coat, it will get all bunchy at the front.
Until I discovered Reitman's Comfort Fit, literally every single pair of pants I'd ever worn cut into my gut and rode down in the back when I sat down.  And, since I've spent the vast majority of my life in a classroom or at a computer, that meant my pants were uncomfortable the vast majority of the time.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who spends far more time sitting than standing, especially when at work or in school.  I don't know what sitting pants would look like on a person who's standing up, but some people may well be willing to make the sacrifice.  Added to that, there are situations in which people have to look good sitting down but standing up is less relevant (talk show guests come to mind, and I'm sure there are others).

I'll bet this business and others like it could expand their client base and probably earn higher margins by making sitting pants for non-disabled people who simply spend a lot of time sitting.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Taking for granted achieved!

With yesterday's legalization of same-sex marriage nation-wide in the US (congratulations, by the way!), I was surprised to see a few people on Twitter suggesting that same-sex marriages had been legalized easily and without any fuss in Canada. 

At first I was shocked that anyone could forget, but then I realized that same-sex marriage was legalized in Ontario 12 years ago.  There are grown-ass adults who would be legitimately unaware of the struggle to get it legalized for the simple reason that they were children when it happened!

Five years ago, I wrote:
One day, in a couple of decades, we will be celebrating the 20th or 25th anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage. I will be in my late 40s, with lines on my face like my father's and salt-and-pepper hair dyed chestnut like my mother's, wearing no-line bifocals as though that little line is the only thing that betrays my age. My co-workers and I (for in my imagined future I'm still in the same workplace with the same co-workers) will sit around the break room reminiscing. Where were you when you first heard? Who was the first same-sex married couple you knew? When was your first big gay wedding? Newspapers will tell the story of how this all came about, track down the court justices and the Michaels and do "Where are they now?" profiles. And in our office will be some new hires, kids in their early 20s just out of university, who will look at all this fuss we're making and feel nothing, because for them it will be something that has always been there.
 I'm in my mid-30s, with the lines on my face just beginning to form and enough salt in my pepper that I'm aware of it but not enough that I'm dyeing it. My glasses are still monofocals.  I'm not chitchatting with my co-workers in the break room because I work at home, and I still haven't had the opportunity to attend a big gay wedding.  But already, 10 years earlier than I estimated, there are people who are unaware of the fuss and feel that same-sex marriage has always been there!

Happy Pride, everyone!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The mystery of the Yonge Eglinton haters

The "density creeps" who have been in the news lately remind me of one of the mysteries of Yonge & Eglinton: people who deliberately move here and then complain that the neighbourhood has characteristics that it has had since long before they moved here.

In the density creeps story, that characteristic is density.  from the proposed development site are highrise buildings, which are part of the highrise cluster that was built in the 1970s, 20 years before the density creeps moved here.  There are also four 4-storey apartment buildings that appear architecturally to date back to the 1950s on that one block alone.

In short, the kind of density they decry, along with the attendant impact on property values and population demographics, were well-established in the neighbourhood long before they even arrived.

(Which makes me want to flag a lot of the commentary on this story with #JournalismWanted - many commentators seem to be taking the density creeps at their word that this new development is somehow significantly denser or significantly cheaper than the established neighbourhood, when this allegation could be disproven with a simple google, or by going to the site (conveniently located just 4 blocks north of Eglinton subway station!) and taking a quick look around.)

But the density creeps aren't the only ones I've seen doing this.  Far more frequently than you'd expect, mostly on the internet but sometimes just walking down the street, I hear people who live here and, based on demographics, appear to have moved here recently and to have had a choice in the matter (i.e. they're old enough and employed enough to live independently of their parents, but young enough that they definitely didn't move here before the 21st century) complain about things like density or highrises or chain stores or yuppies - things that have all been here since before the 21st century, and things whose presence you can easily detect by walking down the street.  If you don't like those things, you can see that the neighbourhood isn't for you the moment you emerge from the subway.

The other thing is, this isn't the cheapest neighbourhood.  If you want lower density or lowrises or fewer chain stores or fewer yuppies, there are other neighbourhoods that meet those characteristics and are cheaper to live in. So what are they doing here?


Despite the criticism from some quarters, this isn't the worst neighbourhood in Toronto.  We're generally closer to the top than to the bottom for indicators such as amenities, services, accessibility, quality of schools, quality of housing stock, infrastructure, lower crime rates, etc. 

I wonder if people in neighbourhoods that are worse in all these areas complain as much as the residents of Yonge & Eg, who, by all appearances, could totally choose to live elsewhere?