22 February 2014

Will Homo sapiens evolve itself into extinction?

The notion that eventually we will create an artificial intelligence superior to our own has been around for quite a while. Now someone has boldly, perhaps foolishly, predicted a deadline.

Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering. has confidently predicted that computers will be smarter than humans by 2029. Normally I don't take predictions too seriously. I made a living in the oil business for years, largely engaged in forecasting, and if there's one sure thing I learned about predictions is that, within a minute after you've made them, they're wrong. Nonetheless, Kurzwell has impressive qualifications. He has invented world-changing devices, including the first flatbed scanner, the first computer program that could recognize a typeface, and the first text-to-speech synthesizer. He predicted the wide acceptance of the world wide web when it was still just a playground for academics, and he predicted a computer would defeat a world chess champion long before Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov. Furthermore, his employer is busy assembling the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on the planet.

In any case, if he's right we'll be on our way out in about 15 years. These smart—very smart—machines won't have any need for us. They'll be able to design intelligences (brains) and bodies for specific tasks, intellectually and physically far beyond our capacities, and they'll take over. If we're lucky, they'll keep us around as pets.

So the future doesn't look so dark after all. By 2029 we should have pretty well messed up the planet for us, but we will then be replaced by beings vastly more adaptable to whatever environment we have created. They will also be vastly more suited to leaving this degraded planet behind and setting off for new worlds. They could design perfect space travellers—tiny robots that require trivial resources, can shut down for millennia if necessary, are immune to radiation, etc.—and become intergalactic explorers like we can never hope to be.

I only hope they treat the new worlds they find better than we have treated Earth. Just because they're much more intelligent than us won't necessarily meant they are any wiser. After all, we will be their moral role model.

Andrew Leslie's troubling views on defence policy

Andrew Leslie, former Canadian forces commander in Afghanistan, now adviser to Liberal Party chief Justin Trudeau, has been busy recently defending his $72,000 moving expense, particularly from attack by the Conservatives. Apparently the expense was within appropriate guidelines, so I have no intention of joining in that quibbling.

I am, however, concerned about his views on defence policy, seeing as he has the ear of Mr. Trudeau, possibly Canada's next prime minister, and his views are troubling. Mr. Leslie has been reported as saying, "It's not going to be peacemaking anymore, it's going to be counter-insurgency ... Counter-insurgency will not form the cornerstone of our operations, but it's right in the centre of our spectrum of capabilities we're going to train for."

Putting counter-insurgency at the centre of our capabilities raises a number of red flags for me. To begin with, it smacks of secret operations, and I've had more than enough secret operations from our and our friends' intelligence agencies. I don't need any from our military.

Apparently Leslie believes counter-insurgency is now priority one due to developed countries' concerns about the security threats posed by failed states. That kind of concern tends to be American, the kind of concern that got us into Afghanistan, and I don't want to see any more of that either. It leads to invasions of other peoples' countries, something the Americans just can't seem to quit doing, but then that's the price of empire. There are many things Canada can do, including peacekeeping, to get failed states back on track, things that don't involve killing people.

No doubt counter-insurgency is popular with militarists. It's the glamorous stuff, the Navy Seals and all that, and maybe the machismo will infect Trudeau as well. It was, after all, the Liberals who got us into Afghanistan, and they started by sending in forces from the secretive JTF2 without informing the Canadian public. That was more than enough surreptitious slaughter for me.

Leslie will quite likely play an important role in setting defence policy if the Liberals are elected to government, a policy we know little about. This will bear watching ... closely.

17 February 2014

The brutal costs of the World Cup

As the scandal over Vladimir Putin's $50-billion Olympics begins to fade, equally sordid scandals about the World Cup come to the fore.

Brazil, which has won more World Cups than any other country. is holding the Cup this year. To date, things are not going well. Five stadiums scheduled for completion by the end of last year are still under construction. International Football Association (FIFA) President Sepp Blatter said Brazil was further behind schedule than any host since he joined the organization in 1975. Six workers have been killed in stadium construction accidents, four since late November as the deadline pressure accelerates. The waste of lives and money on what are widely seen as white elephants has galvanized street protests that initially had nothing to do with football. "Não vai ter Copa!" (No World Cup) is now commonly chanted at demonstrations.

The loss of life in Brazil is almost trivial compared to the veritable slaughter taking place in preparation for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The deaths of over 400 Nepalese migrant workers have been recorded on Qatar's construction sites and Nepalese make up only 20 per cent of the workforce. The workers, although generally healthy young men, are frequently diagnosed as dying of heart failure, not surprising considering they work 12-hour days in temperatures that can exceed 40C, often without adequate food and water, and are forced to live in squalid, overcrowded quarters with no air-conditioning and overflowing sewage. This in one of the richest countries in the world.

The 2022 World Cup organizing committee has threatened to punish companies who violate workers' welfare and FIFA could yet reassign the venue. The obvious question is why they awarded the Cup to a nation notorious for human rights violations and labour exploitation in the first place. But then these are not criteria for assigning international sports spectacles.

Paying a high price for insulting Mexico

In 2009, our government in its wisdom imposed stringent visa requirements on Mexicans visiting Canada, the harshest on any country. claiming this was necessary to deter increasing numbers of bogus refugee claimants. The complex and intrusive requirements included probing questions about potential visitors' families and their financial histories. The move was, and is, considered an insult by Mexicans and has chilled relations with their country. Mexican ambassador Francisco Suarez has referred to the visa as "a major irritant" that will cast a shadow over the festivities planned for the 2014 celebration of NAFTA's 20th anniversary.

The insult was difficult to understand. Mexico is after all our partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement which was supposed to open the participating countries to each other, not close them off. We do almost $30-billion annually in trade with Mexico. One might think that when dealing with a country that is so important to our economy, we could settle a problem without gratuitous and one-sided impositions.

Nor is it clear why the measure remains in place. Canada has revised its refugee policy since 2009 and a similar visa against Romania has since been removed. The U.S. uses an online system that provides almost immediate travel permission once travelers submit their basic data. It seems ridiculous that we have tougher requirements than the U.S. which has serious border and immigration issues with Mexico.

According to a report from the Canadian Council for Chief Executives, Canada's corporate elite, spending by Mexican tourists in Canada fell from $365-million in 2008 to $200-million in 2012. That's a $165-million a year penalty we are paying for our government's high-handedness.

A few weeks ago, our prime minister led a delegation of dozens of business people (plus a score of rabbis and a dozen preachers) to Israel, a country with which we do piddling trade, yet his government treats Mexico, the fifth largest market for our exports, with disdain. What strange economic idiocy is this?

15 February 2014

The human legacy—one of the world's six greatest catastrophes

I was watching with interest the other night Jon Stewart's interview of Elizabeth Kolbert, author of a new book, The Sixth Great Extinction.

There have been five great extinction events in the past 550-million years of multi-celled life on Earth, events in which abnormally large numbers of species die out simultaneously or within a limited time frame. The last, and best known, was the Cretaceous-Tertiary event which wiped out the dinosaurs, caused by a massive comet or meteor striking the Earth 65
million years ago. The cause of some of the others is debated, but we know the cause of the sixth—us. Human activity is having a catastrophic effect on our fellow species.

Stewart's interview had me pondering legacies, not mine I hasten to say, but our species'. Over the great span of geologic time, Homo sapiens will leave a legacy, and what a tragic legacy it is shaping up to be. We are becoming the cause of one of the six greatest die-offs of life on Earth in over half a billion years—a destroyer of worlds.

Yet we are a moral creature and a reasonably intelligent one. One might think such a creature would pause in its activity, and reflect on what it will leave for posterity—its own posterity and the posterity of its home, the planet Earth. But there is little evidence of such reflection. Our leaders are obsessed with growth, of wringing ever more out of the planet and despoiling it in the process.

I have always been an optimist, but I see little room for optimism as I observe the destroyer of worlds march down its awful road. If we don't pause in our obsessions, reflect on our wayward ways, and apply our innate morality to our ambitions, our legacy will be dark indeed.

14 February 2014

Our dangerous dependence on the tar sands

It sounds like good news. A new study, "Oil Sands Economic Benefits: Today and in the Future," states that tar sands production supported more than 478,000 direct, indirect and induced Canadian jobs in 2012 and contributed $91-billion of Canada's GDP, an economic contribution greater than that of the province of Saskatchewan. Government revenues in the form of tax receipts and royalties totaled $28-billion, over half going to Ottawa. Furthermore, the study claims that in 2025, the tar sands will provide 753,000 jobs, add $171-billion to the GDP, $61-billion going to the provincial and federal governments.

All of this sounds wonderful indeed, but in fact it is a curse. The tar sands are just too rich. No matter how much harm producing bitumen may do, corporations seeking profits, governments seeking taxes, and workers seeking jobs, just can't say no.

And the harm is immense. First and foremost, the tar sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emission in Canada and therefore our fastest growing contributor to global warming, the greatest threat humanity faces.

There are other harms as well, such as the serious harm tar sands production has done to our international reputation. Then there is the danger of becoming increasingly dependent on an industry that could collapse if renewables are developed faster than expected, or if our foreign markets become increasingly reluctant to buy our junk oil. This is a very unhealthy dependency, both morally and economically.

But what can we do? We are hooked. And with the money and the jobs flowing like good beer, no political party is going to turn off the taps. Like every civilization that ever collapsed because of excessive demands on its environment, we have no trouble rationalizing our self-indulgence. Sensible people can only cross their fingers and hope renewables will soon put this nefarious trade out of business. Until then, we will no doubt continue down the dark path of our addiction.

13 February 2014

From the Wildrose, an interesting idea

Alberta's Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith has offered what on the surface sounds like a good idea. Her party is proposing the province transfer 10 per cent of all its taxes—personal and corporate income taxes, education tax, tobacco tax and fuel tax—and 10 per cent of any budget surplus, to municipalities to spend as they see fit. In the 2015-16 budget year, Smith says, municipalities would share in nearly $2-billion, $500-million more than they are currently getting.

As cities assume increasingly greater importance relative to  provinces, the debate over revenue-sharing intensifies. With limited taxing powers relative to the senior levels of government, cities must beg their provincial masters for grants for major projects. Consequently, they have long sought stable sources of revenue.

Smith claims the Wildrose plan, termed the Community Infrastructure Transfer, will provide more stable funding than the grant system and precludes municipalities fighting for new taxing powers. The plan will "give municipalities the right to choose their own priorities, with no strings attached, eliminating needless layers of bureaucracy and a patchwork of funding programs."

The Wildrose proposal was no doubt motivated by the party's strong opposition to new taxes at a time when Alberta's cities are seeking just that. The City of Calgary, for example, is looking at over two dozen ways of raising revenues and hopes to adopt some of them if it can negotiate a city charter with the province.

The Community Infrastructure Transfer concept seems a worthy contender for revenue sharing. It at least offers the government and the municipalities a yardstick for their negotiations.
gives municipalities the freedom to choose their own priorities, with no strings attached, eliminating needless layers of bureaucracy and a patchwork of funding programs that play to the whims of the PC MLAs in the Legislature - See more at: http://www.wildrose.ca/press-releases/just-the-facts-wildroses-plan-for-municipalities/#sthash.
Wildrose’s 10-10 plan gives municipalities the freedom to choose their own priorities, with no strings attached, eliminating needless layers of bureaucracy and a patchwork of funding programs that play to the whims of the PC MLAs in the Legislature. - See more at: http://www.wildrose.ca/press-releases/just-the-facts-wildroses-plan-for-

Flaherty bribes automakers—globalization at work

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's $500-million handout to the auto industry has engendered a bit of controversy. Dino Chiodo, president of the union representing hourly workers at Chrysler's Windsor assembly plant, says it isn't enough. Mark Milke of the Fraser Institute says it's way too much, claiming corporate welfare is a bad idea and the money would be better spent on social welfare programs and retraining.

I find myself—and this doesn't happen very often—in agreement with the Fraser Institute's Mr. Milke. At least in theory. In practice, however, Dino Chiodo may very well be right when he says, "If they don't do this, Windsor will be a ghost town."

Mr. Chiodo is simply recognizing the reality of globalization, or at least globalization as we have come to know it. And that is as a system where corporations reign supreme. They have been granted the upper hand over both workers and government. If a government doesn't bribe them generously enough, they move somewhere that has a more amenable government. And more amenable workers. And they are quite prepared to leave a ghost town behind.

Apparently Flaherty's largesse is supposed to be repayable, however as the automakers have the advantage we can't expect the government to be too demanding. Corporate handouts have a checkered history of repayment.

So as much as Flaherty's corporate generosity ticks me off, I have to admit he may be doing the necessary thing to keep jobs in Ontario.

12 February 2014

Electoral reform—PR is not a voting system

Observing debates about electoral reform online and elsewhere, I notice one error cropping up consistently: the notion that proportional representation, like first-past-the-post, is a voting system. It isn't, of course. It is a goal, something you try to achieve with your voting system.

They are two different things and the difference is important because one frequently encounters the argument that PR doesn't work well in some country or other—Israel is commonly mentioned—therefore we wouldn't want it here. The problem with this argument is that we would never adopt the Israeli voting system. It is indeed proportional, but it's designed for a homogeneous country and Canada is anything but that.

We have been a nation for almost 150 years and yet we have never seriously asked ourselves what would be the best voting system for the unique society we are. When we created the country, we simply adopted the system at hand, and being born out of the British Empire that was of course first-past-the-post. It was never a good system, particularly for a highly regionalized country, and since 1867 we have become even more regionalized—adding the West, for instance, a highly regionalized place in itself.

It is long past time that we asked ourselves what the most appropriate choice would be, or better yet, how do we tailor-make a system that meets our needs. We might start start by asking just what our needs are. The list would undoubtedly be topped by a system that provided a legislature that satisfied the will of the people. The need for this is exemplified by the current government—a political party that a solid majority of Canadians did not want running the government is doing exactly that. That may be electoral but it isn't democratic. The number one priority, therefore, would indeed be a system that provided proportional representation.

Other goals would include answering to our highly regionalized nature and providing equal representation for women (women make up half our population but only 22 per cent of the House of Commons).

Once we established what a truly Canadian voting system would require, we could then create it. But to do that we have to keep systems and goals separate.

10 February 2014

Is the CRA reacting to political pressure?

Not being a conspiracy theorist and having great faith in the integrity of our civil servants, I find it hard to believe that the current spate of audits of environmental organizations by the Canada Revenue Agency is a result of pressure from the Harper government. Yet the pressure is substantial.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently warned, “If I were an environmental charity using charitable money, tax-receipted money for political purposes, I would be cautious," which sounds rather like a threat. Regarding suggestions that changing rules for charities could be seen as a way to silence critics of the government, he replied, “If the critics of the government are terrorist organizations and organized crime, I don’t care.” One wonders into which category he places environmental groups.

radical ideological agenda
radical ideological agenda
other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project - See more at: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/01/09/Environmentalists_other_radical_groups/#sthash.4e4jtryB.dpuf
Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver has been more explicit. Referring to environmentalists as radicals, he claimed they wanted to stop every major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families and wanted to hijack the regulatory system in order to pursue their "radical ideological agenda."

Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.
These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.
- See more at: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/01/09/Environmentalists_other_radical_groups/#sthash.FydZEDVl.dpuf
Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.
These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.
- See more at: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/01/09/Environmentalists_other_radical_groups/#sthash.FydZEDVl.dpuf
Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.
These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.
- See more at: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/01/09/Environmentalists_other_radical_groups/#sthash.FydZEDVl.dpuf
As for the Prime Minister, his enemies list is infamous and environmentalists are no doubt at the top. And then there's the fact some of the audits were scheduled after complaints by an organization founded by the PMO's director of issues management.

Quite aside from political influence, the government in effect paid the CRA to pursue environmentalists. In its 2012 budget, it allocated $8-million for the agency to take a closer look at environmental charities and their political activities.

All this is a lot of pressure to resist. So even though the agency is unlikely to take orders from their political masters, when the PM and two of his most powerful ministers are making their wishes known, and that PM is the most controlling in the nation's history, and the government even provides a not so subtle financial hint, the CRA would be less than human not to lean a bit in the right direction. At a time when the government is cutting the budgets of any agency that doesn't contribute to the tar sands mission, it wouldn't be prudent for any civil servants to look like they don't want to be on the team.

09 February 2014

Supporting Keystone is supporting the Kochs

Criticism of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline focuses, understandably, on the threat it poses to the environment, both in its construction and in its enabling more production from the tar sands. Too often overlooked is the political mischief that approval will contribute to.

According to an article in the CCPA Monitor, "Petroleum Coke from Oil Refineries Polluting the Atmosphere," the pipeline will provide the infamous Koch brothers with a potential $100-billion in profits. Charles and David Koch are aptly described by Rolling Stone magazine as "oil-and-gas billionaires ready to buy any congressman, fund any lie, fight any law, bust any union, despoil any landscape, or shirk any (tax) burden to push their free-market religion and pump up their profits." They are also major players in the tar sands from production in Alberta to refining in Minnesota and Texas.

They are most notorious for funding attacks on climate science and attempting to muzzle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Their political activities include funding Republican candidates and a maze of right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups (including the Tea Party movement). Nor is their politicking confined to the States. They have, for example, been generous contributors to our very own Fraser Institute.

The idea of reprobates like the Koch brothers making billions more to help them pursue their dangerous agenda would be enough in itself to make me oppose Keystone. However, the environmental implications are quite sufficient.

05 February 2014

The Senate as citizens' assembly?

The best idea I've seen yet about what to to do with our constitutional albatross, the Senate, short of abolishing it, appeared in a recent issue of The Tyee. The article suggests random selection of "ordinary citizens to sit as senators for a limited period of time (perhaps one or two years)." The authors suggest that "with proper support and access to expert opinion, ordinary citizens can tackle complex policy problems. A randomly selected Senate would produce an assembly that is representative of the Canadian population in all its diversity."

The Tyee is talking about a citizens' assembly chosen by lot, a system of direct democracy known as sortition. Sortition was used extensively by the Athenian Greeks who had a certain distrust of elections. It is in fact more democratic than elections and a great deal more representative than the current Senate, or the House of Commons for that matter. 

Free of any grip of party loyalty, allowed to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, participants in an assembly are willing to allow the heartfelt views of others to influence their own. The competitive, adversarial nature of conventional party politics is sharply reduced. By bringing people of all sorts together, assemblies create a more consensual, inclusive democracy as opposed to the hostile, partisan, macho democracy of party politics. In effect, they take the “politics” out of decision-making.

With the participants brought together as equals, assemblies eliminate social and financial inequality. The CEO of a large corporation sits down with the welfare mother; they can get to know each other and understand each other’s views and problems. They can conclude the issues under discussion while building bridges for the future. They escape the isolation that leads to people obsessing on their own world views, constantly reinforcing their own prejudices.

Particularly important in assemblies is the dialogue between participants. Good talk—vigorous, well-informed conversation, especially debate with those whose views differ from one’s own—remains a major ingredient of healthy democracy. It not only ensures better decision-making, it engenders respect for other views and refines the art of compromise. It offers the possibility of a politics of shared goals rather than a politics of angry difference.

There are two essentials for a sound assembly: random selection to ensure that the assembly is truly the people in microcosm, and mandatory attendance to ensure all the people are heard. Selection would still be distorted by Senate constitutional requirements such as regional representation, so unfortunately perfection would elude us.

Citizens would be selected like juries are now, providing a constant rotation. Every citizen would share the prospect of becoming a senator. The possibility would keep people on their democratic toes and create a more aware and confident citizenry. And the sober second thought the Senate was designed to provide would be provided by the people themselves.

Prostitution—keeping the state out of our bedrooms

"There's no place for the state," a prime minister once said, "in the bedrooms of the nation." I hope Justice Minister Peter MacKay and his colleagues keep that sage advice in mind as they draft our new prostitution laws. The state's primary responsibility, indeed one might almost say the purpose of the state, is safeguarding the security of its citizens. However, because prostitution is about sex, governments often find it hard to resist morality-infused legislation to govern it, but resist they should.

If one consenting adult is willing to sell sex, and another consenting adult is willing to buy it, and they aren't bothering anyone else, then it's no one else's business, including the state's. The government should confine its legislation to ensuring that people engaging in this perfectly legal activity can do so safely.

As for moral objections to the trade, logically it is hard to defend the notion that selling sex is a bad thing. Sex in itself is quite a good thing—an essential part of life and one of its more enjoyable gifts. Those who believe selling it is a sin should not buy or sell it, but they should not expect those who do to submit to their moral prescriptions.
Of course it is thoroughly wrong for women to be coerced into the profession by dysfunctional family life, poverty, drugs or white slavery, and these pressures should be dealt with through appropriate legal and social measures. No one should be forced into a business against their will. But it is also quite possible a woman (or man) may simply be making a rational economic choice. If a woman can make twenty dollars an hour as a grocery clerk or two hundred dollars an hour as a call girl, choosing the latter is eminently reasonable.

Critics of the profession attempt to demean it by accusing prostitutes of selling their bodies. In fact, they don't sell their bodies anymore than hockey players sell their bodies. Both exploit their bodies to provide a service, and in both cases they are well-paid for the service.

Workplace safety is a common focus of legislation. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that sex workers deserve safe workplaces no less than other workers, and if the new law can ensure that, it will do its job. The sex trade should then be left to go about its business.

01 February 2014

Speak up for science

Our federal government's lamentable attitude to science, or at least any science that doesn't benefit business, is one of its key features. Nonetheless, Industry Canada is giving us a chance to comment on science and technology policy by inviting responses tn a "Consultation Paper." This is your chance to offer your comments on how our policy should develop.

You can read the paper and then write up your suggestions and email them in to the address provided or, if you would prefer an easier route, you can take advantage here of the message Evidence for Democracy has composed.

Will it do any good? Probably not. The government is focused on science and technology that creates jobs and growth to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, and that won't change. However, maybe if enough progressives make their views known, the government will be deflected just a little toward science designed to stimulate innovation in the public interest as well as in the private sector, science designed to benefit the environment, public transport, health care, social services, and so on. And of course science designed simply to expand our knowledge, the kind of science that leads to the big breakthroughs. We might even encourage our government to facilitate an easy flow of information between scientists, citizens and parliamentarians in order to stimulate highly-informed discussion and debate on science and related issues.

OK, so I'm getting carried away, but other than a few minutes to compose an email to Minister Rickford, what can you lose?