Friday, October 31, 2014

Books read in October 2014


1. The Queen's Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth's Court by Anna Whitelock
2. The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess in Her Own Words by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
3. All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release by Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin
4. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock
5. A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport


1. Fantasy in Death

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Things They Should Invent: tournament-style mayoral debates

In this past election, Toronto had a ridiculous number of mayoral candidates and a ridiculous number of mayoral debates.

But, for the vast majority of debates, only the handful of candidates deemed "mainstream" by the media are invited, with the dozens and dozens of others being completely ignored.

This is a waste of perfectly good scheduled debate time!  What's the point of having such a ridiculous number of debates if you aren't going to host all the candidates?

Therefore, I propose tournament style mayoral debates.  During the first few months, candidates debate each other in a round robin sort of format, so as many people as possible debate as many people as possible.  Then the people who have won the most debates move on to debate the other people who have won the most debates, until the top debates in the city are facing each other towards the end of the election period.

I'm picturing a sort of World Cup format for this, but it wouldn't be exactly the same because debates most often have more than 2 people.  And a true round robin might not be possible, depending on the math.  But, in any case, they should do whatever most convenient mathematically and scheduling-wise to get as many people as possible to debate as many people as possible.

So how do we determine who won a particular debate and gets to move on in the debate-offs?  My first thought is an audience vote - perhaps just in person, perhaps both in person and online.  But I don't know if that could be over-influenced by candidates stacking the audience. 

Another idea is a panel of judges.   But would they assess the candidates objectively, or would they favour the big names?  Although, the existing system already favours the big names, so could it be any worse?

What if audience members are assigned tickets to a debate, but they don't know who's going to be debating at the time they sign up for tickets (which would make it impossible to stack the audience).  But would enough people actually go to debates where they don't know who's debating?

Another alternative would be not to vote on winners of individual debates.  Candidates round-robin, the videos are posted online, and online viewers can vote for which candidates they'd like to see debate some more.  But, again, how could we prevent candidates from stacking the votes?

I haven't fully worked this out.  But the fact remains: if we must have dozens of candidates and dozens of debates, all candidates should get to debate.

Monday, October 27, 2014


A non-descript fall day for a very descript municipal election.

As I've blogged about before, I have a superstition that I need to pet a dog on the way to vote in order to get a good election outcome.  I had a couple of errands to do on my lunch hour, so I tucked my voting card into my purse just in case I met any auspicious doggies.  But, to my surprise, I only even saw one dog, and it wasn't in a place where I could pet it!

Worried by this uncharacteristic shortage of dogs (I usually see 2 or 3 dogs at any time of the day or night), I started planning the route I'd take to the polling station after work, to maximize the chance of encountering a pettable doggie.  The polling station is extremely close to my home - just a couple of buildings down the street, and then through a pedestrian pathway to the other side of the block.  But surely walking down the actual street rather than along the pedestrian pathway is a perfectly reasonable act, right?  Even if it increases the distance I had to walk by 50%?  And when I worked in the office I'd always do my after-work errands before voting, so it's perfectly justified to do that today, right? And so on and so on until I'd justified walking at least three times the distance, possibly meandering through some side streets, in the hope that I'd encounter a pettable dog.

I needn't have worried. Directly en route to the polling station, I saw an adorable little dog who stopped walking and sat down on the sidewalk.  "Awww, you don't want to go any more?" I squeed at him, and full-fledged petting ensued, with the doggie's enthusastic consent and the owner smiling.  So then, my mission accomplished, I walked straight to the polling station, only to discover there was another doggie tied up outside the polling station! When I said "Hi doggie!" he thumped his tail and smiled at me, so I gave him a pet too.

Two perfectly organic dog pets, not contrived at all, would totally have happened if I'd been walking the same route without a superstitious reason to pet dogs.  I hope that bodes well.


One actual election-related note: there are these security folders that we put the ballots in before they feed them into the ballot counting machine.  Problem: the ballot is longer than the folder, so if you voted for one of the bottom few people on the ballot, your vote will be visible despite the security folder!

The strange thing is the ballot is so long in the first place because there are so many mayoral candidates.  The mayoral candidates are divided into two columns, but there isn't an even number in each column - there's way more in the first column!  If they'd made the two columns even, the ballots would have fit in the folder.

Alternatively, if there was some compelling technical reason why they couldn't have adjusted the format of the ballot, why couldn't they get longer folders?


Despite my attempts to find my councillor candidates,  no platforms for any of the challengers ever emerged.  I got like a hundred hits a day on that post - far more than the rest of my blog combined - so I'm certainly not the only one looking for them. Their target audience is ready and waiting, but they still won't show themselves.  And so the question remains: why did they bother? 


Edit, since I always record the campaigning that reaches me:

Signs seen: 1, for the incumbent councillor, plus one bus shelter ad (unfortunately negative) for mayoral candidate Oliva Chow
Robocalls: 2, for mayoral candidate (and eventual victor) John Tory. I disapprove of robocalls
Flyer: 1 in my mailbox for mayoral candidate Doug Ford, 2 under my door for the challenger trustee candidate, 2 under my door for the incumbent councillor, one of which was accmpanied by a knock on the door (which I didn't answer, because I don't answer the door to strangers, which is yet another reason why people should announce themselves as they knock on the door)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

All Toronto municipal candidates should publicly post their Vote Compass results

I was pleased to see that there's a Vote Compass for the Toronto mayoral election, but I was disappointed that it only compared your position with that of the three candidates that the media is treating as "mainstream".  There are 65 candidates for the position of mayor alone, to say nothing of all the councillor candidates whose platforms could also be charted on the same compass.

I suspect the Vote Compass people limited themselves to the top three simply for logistical purposes.  They have to analyze platforms, break them down into issues, place them on the scale, validate them with the candidates and the would probably be impossible to do it for 65 candidates, even with our ridiculously protracted municipal elections.

So as an interim measure until someone can design a vote by issue that can accommodate dozens of candidates, I propose that all candidates should take the Vote Compass quiz and post their results publicly. Then voters whose positions on the various issues don't coincide with any of the top three candidates can see which of the many other candidates actually meet their needs.

It would be extra awesome if someone could compile all the candidates' answers in one place.  It's a bit late for this election, but maybe next election the Vote Compass people could do this!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Telling Koko the Sign-Language Gorilla about Robin Williams's death

The question in this week's Ethicist is interesting:

According to press reports, Koko, the gorilla adept at sign language, seemed saddened to hear the news of the death of Robin Williams, whom the gorilla met once in 2001 (and bonded with immediately). I cannot fathom the ethical reasoning behind telling Koko about Williams’s death. What is the point of telling her about the death of someone she met once, 13 years ago? The press reports dwelt on the fact that she appeared sad. I don’t think any of us can know if she was sad or not — but even if this news opens the possibility of making her unhappy, it seems cruel to bring this into her life. What moral purpose does it serve? RITA LONG, OAKLAND, CALIF.

But as I read this, it occurred to me that if it is in fact inethical to tell Koko the Sign-Language Gorilla about Robin Williams's death because it made her sad, by the same logic, it should be inethical to tell anyone anything that will make them sad.

But when Robin Williams died, my first reaction was to tell people, even though I knew it would make them sad.

Why was this my reaction?  Is it in fact ethical?

Let's explore this:

As soon as I first heard of Robin Williams's death, I tweeted it.  That was to address my own emotional needs without the consideration of the needs of others.  I was shocked and needed to get the shock out of my system by sharing it.

But then I went on to share it directly with people whom I knew to be particular fans of Robin Williams.  My thinking was "They love Robin Williams - I must tell them this!" Even though I knew it would make them sad - almost because I knew it would make them sad, although I wasn't telling them because I wanted to make them sad.  I was telling them because I felt their fondness for Robin Williams made it imperative that they know.

Of course, when we're talking about human adults in the 21st century, the fact of the matter is they would have heard anyway from media.  Koko the Gorilla wouldn't have heard anyway.  But the fact that they were going to hear anyway wasn't a factor in my decision to directly share this information with the people whom I knew it would make the most sad.

Let's think about it from the perspective of the person receiving the news.  I have no particular emotional attachment to Robin Williams, but what if, dog forbid, it was Eddie Izzard (who, for those of you who are just tuning in, is my hero)?  I would be gutted and heartbroken and genuinely in mourning. And I would very much want to know.  If Eddie Izzard died and I was never informed, I'd start missing him anyway.  After some time had passed, I'd notice that I hadn't heard anything from him lately.  No new tours, no new projects, no new tweets.  Then I'd start worrying whether everything was okay, and the worrying would persist and the lack of definitive answers would be upsetting.  I'd much rather know.

This worry triggered by long-term lack of communication and creative output would apply to the Robin Williams fans in my lives, but somehow I doubt Koko the Gorilla would notice his lack of creative output.

So how I feel about being told of the death of someone I've met before and liked, but I'm not expecting future contact or creative output from?

 This has happened twice in recent memory.  One was my boss from my old job, who suddenly and unexpectedly died about 10 years after I'd left the job. The other was the grandson of my childhood next-door neighbours, whom I'd met when he was a toddler, and died when he was a teenager.

In both these cases, the news made me sad.  With my old boss, the sadness was exacerbated by the fact that I found out too late to send my condolences (which is inapplicable for Robin Williams fans and for Koko the Gorilla).  With my neighbours' grandson, the sadness was exacerbated by how young he was and the fact that he'd never gotten to enjoy adult life (which, again, is inapplicable for Robin Williams and for Koko the Gorilla).

If I hadn't found out about these deaths, I would never have noticed the absence of these people.  Even if I'd somehow been back in touch with my old job for professional purposes and my old boss wasn't around, I'd assume he'd moved on to something else.  And I'd completely forgotten about my interaction with next door's grandson until I heard about his death.

But, despite the fact that I felt sadness at learning of their deaths and wouldn't have felt anything if I remained ignorant of their deaths, I still feel like being informed of them was better than not being informed of them. I haven't been able to fully analyze this feeling in the course of writing this blog post, but I feel like people have the right to know when people they know die.

Therefore, I don't think informing Koko the Sign-Language Gorilla of Robin Williams's death was inethical. I think it was treating her with basic human respect.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Help me find the words to describe my idiocy

I tweeted this story when it happened, so it might be familiar to some of you.  Disclaimer: I do recognize the flaws in my thinking in this story and have learned from them. The purpose of this post is to figure out the words to describe the flaws in my thinking.

I was walking down the street, and I saw an Orthodox Jewish teen carrying a piece of plant matter, which looked very much like the palm leaves used on Palm Sunday in the Catholic church.

So I wondered, "What do they use palm leaves for in Orthodox Judaism?"

I walked on some more, and realized that line of thinking is racist.  Just because I believe I can identify this young man's religion based on his dress and grooming doesn't mean the object he's carrying has religious significance!  If I saw someone whose religion I didn't believe I could identify carrying a similar piece of plant matter, I'd think it's for a hobby or a science project.  It wouldn't occur to me that its significance would be religious unless it was actually Palm Sunday.

So I chastised myself for such racist thinking, and went home.

When I got home, I googled out of curiosity Orthodox Judaism palm leaves I discovered Sukkot, a Jewish holiday that involves palm leaves.  And Sukkot was actually in progress on the day that this happened!

Then I thought to myself, "So I wasn't actually racist!"

But, of course, my logic that the leaf must necessarily have religious significance because it was being carried by someone whose religion I could recognize was just as racist as ever. It just happened to land on a correct conclusion this one time.

So here's what I'm trying to figure out:

1. What logical fallacy did I commit by assuming the leaf had religious significance?
2. What logical fallacy did I commit by concluding that I wasn't actually racist just because my assumption ended up being correct this one time?
3. What word should I be using in this blog post instead of "racist"? "Anti-Semitic" doesn't seem correct, because there were nothing "anti" about it, and I'm not sure if "that person is Jewish, therefore I think they are in the process of practising Judaism" can quite be considered anti-Semitism. So what is the word for this particular flavour of idiocy?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What if we could quantify luck?

Wouldn't it be interesting if we could objectively measure and quantify luck, and you could know exactly how much good or bad luck was involved in a particular experience, and how much you've experienced over your life?

We can to a certain extent, of course, by looking at things like our demographics and circumstances of birth.  But that's far less interesting than if we could quantify day-to-day luck, as compared with other people in similar circumstances!

For example, I've blogged before about how much good luck was involved in my career path.  But others have insisted that this wasn't good luck, it's because I went to school and got good grades and worked hard.  (I feel like it's good luck because of the number of jobs I haven't gotten, and the number of people who did exactly what I did but didn't get jobs.)

It would be so interesting if we could objectively quantify how much luck played into this. We could get data like it was 80% luck and 20% virtue that got me my job, or that I was 130% luckier than the typical person in that particular instance but I'm only 80% as lucky as the typical person when averaged out over my lifetime, or that I got 47 Luck Points for that incident out of a total of 247 Luck Points accumulated over my lifetime.

If we could quantify luck, we could know who is the luckiest person in the world and the least lucky person in the world! Someone could actually prove mathematically that their new spouse did make them the luckiest person in the world when they agreed to get married!

We'd also know when people are having bad luck vs. bringing misfortune upon themselves through their own irresponsible behaviour.  There are some people in the world who think they're just woefully unlucky when in fact it's at least somewhat their fault, and there are people who don't recognize that others are in fact unlucky and think they just need to pull their socks up.  This would give people some objective perspectives in both directions.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Toronto Ward 22 Councillor candidates Sarfraz Khan, Bob Murphy and James O'Shaughnessy

Attention Sarfraz Khan, Bob Murphy, and James O'Shaughnessy:

I am a Ward 22 voter, and I don't feel I can vote for the position of councillor unless I know about more than one candidate's platform.

I haven't been able to find any of your platforms. They aren't listed on the City of Toronto Elections website, googleable, or findable on social media.

So please post your platform somewhere online, and inform the City of Toronto Elections people of its location so they can add it to their website.  If you create a twitter profile with a link to your platform, and put #topoli and #Ward 22 in the description, your electorate will find you. (Also, if you post it in the comments here, it will become googleable within a couple of days.)

By doing so, you'll be giving the people of Ward 22 an alternative to simply voting for the loudest person by default.

Friday, October 03, 2014

My municipal election voting dilemma

There are currently 4 candidates for city councillor in my ward: the incumbent and 3 challengers.

The incumbent has the expected online presence. But I can't find any trace of any of the 3 challengers.  I've googled with multiple combinations of keywords, I've searched social media, I've looked up possible matches on LinkedIn (multiple possibilities for each name, none of whom say they are running for city councillor).  Even the City of Toronto elections website that lists all the candidates for each ward doesn't have any contact information for them - not even an office phone number, just their name and ward number. None of the organizations and media outlets that send questionnaires to each candidate have gotten responses from any of the challengers (if they were in fact able to get in touch with the challengers).  None of the organizations that endorse candidates have endorsed in my ward.  I not only find no evidence of any of the challengers running a campaign, I find no evidence that anyone else has been able to get in touch with the challengers in their capacity as candidates.

If this situation persists, I'm left with a dilemma: should I vote for the incumbent, or for no one?

The incumbent's record is decent enough that I don't see a reason to try to unseat him, but it's quite plausible that there could be another candidate who aligns more closely with my views.  (There was in the last election.)  It's also quite plausible that none of the other candidates would align as closely with my views.  It all depends on what the other candidates' platforms are.

I don't think that simply showing up should be enough to win my vote.  Earlier in the race, the incumbent was the only council candidate for the ward.  I googled around the question of whether we'd still vote for councillor if there's only one candidate (wasn't able to find out conclusively), and decided during this process that I wouldn't vote for a candidate running unopposed.  I'd be okay with them winning, of course, but I wouldn't give them a vote just for being the only one there.

So, on one hand, I feel like I similarly shouldn't give a candidate my vote just for being the only one visible. But, on the other hand, they've clearly run the best campaign.  But, on the other other hand, what if they're not actually the best candidate?  But, on the other other other hand, how would I ever know?

Things They Should Study: why do people get themselves put on the ballot but not run a campaign?