It’s the System, Stupid

•April 16, 2011 • 4 Comments

With the latest election campaign well underway in Canada, I’ve found myself being increasingly drawn into “social media” such as twitter in order to keep up (fans, I know that’s no excuse for my lack of posting). Twitter has made the election much more engaging because the normal barriers in exchanging ideas are gone. I’m able to instantly send messages to some of the people with klout in the twitosphere, and the message snowballs from there. For example, when getting the word out for McGill’s latest votemob, I got some retweets from the Montreal Gazette and a few of the Canadian journalists active on twitter, which definitely reached a wider audience than my hundred followers. That twitter leverage was possibly translated into the success of the Vote mob movement at McGill, where we put together a video that even got a shoutout from Rick Mercer on twitter.

The vote mob movement is concerned about mobilizing the youth vote. In a climate that is already defined by 41% of eligible voters staying home on election day, among my 19-24 demographic, that number shoots up to 63%. To get that number just to the national average would be a huge achievement for our youth movement, but there is a more fundamental problem with our Canadian electoral system that would not see the extra youth votes translated into seats outside of key ridings. That those key youth swing ridings are subject to voter intimidation and  suppression tactics by the Conservatives is troubling, but the fact is that even without those dirty tactics, Election 41 is going to go to another Conservative minority government, if not a majority government. This means that key issues like education and the environment that are so important to youth will continue to be safely ignored by the governing parties, and voting apathy among youth will continue to rise to record highs.

The structural problem implicit in all this is the first past the post system. For those unfamiliar, Canadian voting works by casting ballots in the riding of the MP (Member of Parliament) who will sit in the house of commons. The party that recieves the most votes within that district gets the seat. Simple, right? That system would be ideal if our system had two parties to choose from, but in reality, Canada has 4 or 5 parties running in each riding. As a result, the mandate for the seat can come from a distinct minority of citizens,  like in Kitchener Center, where 60% of voters chose ABC (anything but conservative) but the seat went to a Conservative anyway.


I understand the rationale behind the FPtP system —  it leads to more majority governments which tend to be more stable and result in fewer elections. But by its nature, it is incapable of reflecting the true political makeup of Canadian voters, especially if the supporters are evenly spread out through the entire country. This is why we see the Bloc Quebecois get just under 1.4 million votes in the 2008 election and recieve 49 seats (as all their supporters are concentrated in quebec), whereas the Green Party recieves over 900 thousand votes all across Canada and gets no seats at all.  That Green vote represents 6.8% of all Canadians voting, and yet they have zero representation in our democratic process.

Worse yet, the FPtP system rewards gaming the system. In the 1990s, Canada had two seperate Conservative parties which tended to split that 40ish% conservative vote and result in liberal governments. In 2003, those two parties entered into a formal coalition agreement to “unite the Right” and created the new Conservative party of Canada. This consolidated that 40% vote while the larger ABC vote continued to be fractured between Liberal, NDP and increasingly the Green party. I have no doubt that the conservative successes in the decade that followed has more to do with manipulating the broken system to their advantage, (oh, and don’t even get me started  on the Senate) than any fundamental change in Canadian demographics.

Symptomatic of this problem are the various ‘strategic voting’ and ‘voteswapping’ campaigns that have been started, mostly in an effort to form an ABC government. The fact that we youth feel the need to collude with other youth voters just to get a few people representative of us shows you why apathy is so high among us. Even though there are 3 million students in Canada, because we are spread out, the FPtP system will not reflect our wishes. For the record, if our democraphic had actual power, our preferred government would be radically different than the one we have:

There is a solution: proportional representation. Something like the single transferrable vote system that has been used for years in Australia. I know, I know, it’ll never happen. The NDP, who suffer from the same ‘smeared support’ and ‘fracturing the left’ problems as other minority parties have been calling for this for years, and nobody ever listens to Jack Layton. It would certainly result in more minority governments, and GOD FORBID, working together with the socialists, environmentalists and seperatists that make up the fabric of our country in order to get things done for all Canadians. What it would also mean is that when you cast your vote (even for a party that isn’t the favored one in your region), IT WOULD COUNT. That system would be more chaotic, fragile, but dare I say it, democratic.

The powers-that-be have a vested interest in keeping FPtP intact — it keeps them in power. As long as nothing changes, the clear message to youth will be “your votes don’t matter, so you might as well stay home.” Unless we get serious about creating a system that is truly democratic, I expect that voter apathy will continue to rise, especially among the next generation of leaders. We can, and we are fighting it with the youth movement and our vote mobs, but even our complete mobilization of those 3 million students will be powerless to address the structural problems of our electoral system.

We can, and ought to do better to reflect the true political nature of Canada. Anything less is a failure of the democratic process.

Power Bracelets, Power Fraud

•March 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

These fashionable accessories can be found on the wrists of a huge cross-section of society, and are endorsed by celebrities like David Beckham, Shaquille O’Neal, and Robert De Niro. Numerous testimonials on slick websites offer glowing reviews of how Power Balance wristbands improve strength, balance, and flexibility simply by slipping one on. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

In December 2010, Australian consumer protection advocates managed to put the manufacturer of the Power Balance wristbands under the harsh light of real scrutiny. As a result of this legal inquiry, Power Balance was forced to retract advertisements, issue a formal apology, and offer refunds for the $60 wristbands. Of particular note in their apology was the description of the scientific basis of their claims:

We stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance, and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct.

Despite this damning admission, the same misleading claims have continued in other markets unabated, including in Canada. On the main website of Power Balance International, any links to the Australian affiliate have been conspicuously scrubbed even though the Australian page with the apology is still active. In comparing the Canadian and Australian pages, the FAQ section that contains the misleading “scientific” explanation is absent from the Aussie page, while still prominent on the Canadian website. There is still no indication on the Canadian page that the product has no credible scientific basis. A representative for Power Balance was contacted for an explanation of these discrepancies, but never responded.

For the record, Power Balance and similar energy bracelets do not work as they’re described. The explanation offered alleges that the bracelets function because of holograms “treated with energy waves . . . [that are] believed to resonate and work with your body’s natural energy flow to help enable you to perform at the best of your abilities.” In a double blind test, scientists could not tell the difference between the “embedded frequency holograms” and Pez candy. Furthermore, the material used for the “embedded hologram” is mylar, a material used in other industries as an insulator that acts to stop many different types of “energy fields.” While this idea of a human energy field may be popular and widespread, it is not a scientifically meaningful concept that can be demonstrated to exist.

The popular Q-Ray bracelets are another example of a product that claims to work by “balanc[ing] your own negative and postive [sic] energy forces, optimizing your Bio-Energy.” The unique feature of the Q-Ray are magnets, which have long been a staple of quack medicine. Our blood does contain iron in hemoglobin, but the particular state of that iron is not magnetic. Even static magnetic fields thousands of times larger than those found in the Q-Ray – such as the ones in MRI machines – are not powerful enough to cause measurable effects on blood or tissue. Actually, the effects of small magnetic fields on living tissue, after decades of extensive clinical testing, have not been found to be statistically significant enough to reliably be called good or bad, so any reported benefits from wearing the bracelets are likely to be psychological.

At best, the whole “magic bracelet” idea is no better than a placebo. A BBC investigation into the Power Balance wristbands found no difference between the real thing and a generic plastic lookalike. Those generic plastic wristbands are available from the manufacturer for as low as $3. Power Balance sells these exact items for at least $40 dollars, which is about a 1,300 per cent markup over the knockoff. For a product that is admitted to have “no scientific evidence to support their claims,” that is quite a profit margin. In fact, Power Balance has made so much money from this scam that they could afford to buy out the Sacramento Kings’ Arco Arena, which is now the Power Balance Pavilion. At least someone isn’t suffering from the recession.

This shamelessness isn’t new – James Randi, founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, has spend much of his considerable career dealing with pseudoscientific claims. In an interview at a McGill’s symposium “Confronting Pseudoscience: A Call to Action,” he remarked: “When we say ‘pseudoscience,’ what we’re really talking about is bad logic and faulty reasoning. These things are damaging to society precisely because societies take actions, and when you take actions based upon dumb ideas, you are likely to take dumb actions.”

“What needs changing is the way the media deals with the conflicting claims of science and pseudoscience. You can’t be ‘fair and balanced.’ You can only be fair or balanced. To be fair is to tell the truth; to be balanced is to tell a truth, tell a lie, and then let the public determine which is which – and this, of course, isn’t fair to anyone.”

From a consumer protection standpoint, the truth is that these products are a scam. They are nothing more than modern snake oil that may make you feel better, but only because of the placebo effect. You should know that you could probably keep that $40 and get the exact same thing for $3. That is, if you still want one.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This piece originally appeared in print in the McGill Daily, and is cross posted here with permission. The original article can be found at this link

Canadian vs. American Politics: Interesting like a Car Crash

•March 6, 2011 • 1 Comment

Anybody who has talked to me for more than five minutes knows that I’m pretty damn obsessed with American politics. It’s a scratch that I itch essentially every day by watching The Rachel Maddow show (who my girlfriend jokes is my lesbian girlfriend) and The Lawrence O’Donnell show. Both of them are screamingly left wing in the parallel universe of American politics, but I find them to be pretty damn centrist in their messaging. At any rate, the fact that I watch them so faithfully has more to do with the state of American politics in 2011 than anything else.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t been keeping up with Canadian politics as well, but that has been stuck in this perpetual ‘pre-election’ nonsense. Harper has been divining the polls and knows he is pretty much guaranteed a majority in the next election, which will probably occur in May. He’s done some deliciously Orwellian things like try to change the official “Government of Canada” letterhead into the blatantly partisan “Harper Government”, or needlessly screw with the long form census in order to piss on statisticians and demographically important information. At this point in the 5 year regime, Harper and his meticulously picked cronies are able to do pretty much whatever they want, including suspending our democracy not once, but twice because the opposition parties are so ridiculously incompetent that they can’t even organize themselves enough to , you know, oppose anything. So Harper continues without challenge, bringing in inexcusable minimum sentencing on drug charges, dropping billions of bucks on new jetfighters without a bidding process, and unapologetically breaking elections Canada law in a huge ‘in-and-out’ scheme. To name a few. To his credit (what little credit is due), he has continued in public works spending, which is decidedly socialistic in nature.

But, the unwritten rule of Canadian politics is that “Canadians hate an election”. Both Harper and the opposition knows that whomever calls the election first will be punished at the polls, which is why Harper has been essentially goading the opposition with American style attack ads to provoke them into calling an election. It’s delicious that Harper wraps himself in the Canadian flag while simultaneously pushing for more American style policies like namely corporate tax breaks and Faux-News style propaganda. The Conservative party base is the oil patch and Southern Ontario tv-fed suburbanites like the drones that elected Rob “War of the Cars” Ford to Mayor of Toronto. That boorish asshole has succinctly demonstrated the viability of America style “anti-elitism” which plays so well in the suburbs.

That brings me to my ongoing obsession with American politics. Since the 2010 midterm elections, the new republican majority in the house has been an incredibly duplicitous charade of mind-bogglingly hypocritical politic decisions. Let us review: The number 1 priority of these conservatives was the “Paris Hilton” tax cut, which will cost America’s economy an additional 700 billion dollars of deficit spending per year, while simultaneously delivering average savings of over one hundred thousand bucks to people with a million bucks or more. It was so important that every elected republican in the Senate was willing to defund the military in order to extort Obama and the American taxpayer I guess those multi-billionare elites like the Koch Brothers who already own the plurality of all wealth in the United States really get what they pay for with their millions of dollars of anonymous attack ads totaling some 87 million bucks. With that out of the way, John “Cry-me-a-river” Boehner was free to focus on jobs. To that end, he announced (surprise) a tax-cut filled budget which would kill approximately 700,000 jobs! When questioned on the job-reducing aspect of his job ‘creating’ bill, he remarked “So be it“. Stay Classy, Boehner.

With his agenda to drive America back into the ditch by destroying the livelyhood of thousands of families complete, Boehner continued his attack on the American people by allowing various draconian anti-abortion bills up for voting. Some of them would literally allow hospitals to turn dying women away from critical care if assistance required them to perform an abortion, and others redefined rape to effectively allow non-violent abuse to not count. That’s right, America- GOP 2011 doesn’t want your daughter to have the option to terminate the pregnancy if she was drugged and raped, even if she’ll die as a result of the pregnancy. Republicans are also evidently pro-cancer, as they voted to defund Planned Parenthood, a service which screens millions of women for cancers, not to mention provides important information for people who live in one of the ‘abstinence only’ regions of America. Never mind all the workers, nurses and staff that work there, or the countless of millions of dollars saved in avoided health complications.

The GOP, practically by definition, is the party that will work whenever possible to screw over the little guy by standing up for billionares. How else could you explain Republican Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker’s refusal to negotiate with public unions, even when they have given into all of his demands which would allow him to balance his self-sabotaged budget. This is the same Scott Walker who doesn’t have time to negotiate with Union leaders, but could give a  20  minute call to someone he thought was campaign contributor and billionare David Koch. The American people do not agree with his duplicitous bullshit, with clear majorities in Wisconsin indicating their disapproval of his blatant union bashing. There have been tens of thousands of grassroots protestors in the streets and occupying the capital, but nary a peep from the national media, because pro-union narratives do not fit into the american landscape.

It is this theatricality that really keeps me hooked on American politics. While Canadian politics (and all the associated media coverage) is about politics, American politics is more of a slow motion car crash being endlessly dissected by a content-hungry media. That media, which reaches countless millions of Americans, distorts their understanding of the issues and leads to shameful polls indicating that 1 in 5 Americans incorrectly identify the religion of the sitting president.  In fact, there are strong pluralities of Americans who wouldn’t mind raising taxes for millionaires, cutting off the billions of dollars in subsidies for oil companies that pollute global waterways, and preserving the rights of unions to exist.

In that particular poll, 36% self identified as conservative and most likely voted Republican, but when asked in plain English about policy issues, majorities actually disagree with the Republican’s current actions in the legislature.  Faux News, and other widely viewed cable news programs are playing defense for these con(servative) artists, and are very successful at continuing to distract voters from the actions of legislature so that they keep voting in lobbyists for big buisness. The reality is, Republicans exist to service the needs of a small group of individuals who hold the majority of the money and the power in America, and they use that leverage to dictate the media narrative and win elections. I agree that it sounds like a bad movie plot, but that’s exactly my point.

It reminds me of that joke that’s been going around lately:

 

A union worker,a non-union worker and their boss are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies on a plate. The boss gets up, takes 11 of the cookies with him and says to the non-union guy: “She wants your cookie”.

 

Still Kickin’

•March 6, 2011 • 1 Comment

I’ve been busy this new year- so busy that I’ve apparently left my little corner of internet alone for a long time.  I’ve started up grad school, which has a much more rigorous demand for my time than I’m used to. In addition to that, and perhaps the biggest reason why posts have virtually dried up here at Prenerk is my column for my student newspaper, the McGill Daily. It’s a science and technology column that contains all of my regular musings, but with a bit more of a journalistic bend to it.

I’ve gotten permission to republish those works here on my own blog, but with additional “value-added” hyperlinking in case you find the stuff interesting. There’s been so much going on in the last couple of months, I have a ‘to do’ blog pile that is huge, but I’ll do my best to get through it for my 4 loyal readers.

 

Love,

 

Andrew

The Giffords shooting: Climate and Weather

•January 9, 2011 • 1 Comment

The inevitable has happened: Gabrielle Giffords, a serving member of Congress, was the victim of an attempted assassination  yesterday. While she survived the attack, a 9 year old girl (!) , a federal judge who stood against Arizona’s racist ‘profiling’ law and four other people were murdered at Representative Giffords public townhouse meeting. I’m at a bit of a loss of how to address this, as a violent outburst was painfully predictable given the charged political climate, but having it actually happen is outrageous.

In the wake of this kind of tragedy, the media will do what they always do: offer platitudes and calls for the ‘toning down’ of rhetoric. They will dismiss any possible motivations of the shooter besides being ‘crazy’ and will thus absolve themselves of any associated blame. To an extent, I agree. If you have a constitutionally enshrined right to bear arms in a free society, ‘the crazies’  will have guns that they will use to their own twisted ends, (JFK, John Lennon, Reagan). Effectively predicting the actions of unpredictable people is by definition impossible, which is why I think speculating on the motives of the shooter with regards to motivation is misguided. In this way the shooting can be looked at as a weather event- unpredictable without all data, chaotic and unexpected.

As an aside, it should be stressed that not all ‘crazy people’ are violent, just like not all atheists, Christians, democrats, liberals, anarchists, republicans, left-handed people and dog lovers (to name a few) are violent. Whatever the shooters motivation, the fact that he chose to act out his philosophy with violence is terrorism, and should be called out as such.

I think that the relationship here is similar to the relationship between weather and climate- climate describes long term trends whereas weather is concerned with the short term. It’s impossible to overlook the rhetorical climate in which this chaotic event took place. I won’t say here that there is any direct causal link between the Giffords shooter and faux news, because that would be a speculation based on my personal prejudice against violent, eliminationist rhetoric. But if you look at the ‘media narrative’, especially leading up to the 2010 elections, you find no intelligent discourse about policy and more charged imagery of targets, and ‘second amendment remedies’.

Take Giffords opponent in the last election-Republican Jesse Kelly literally raised money by promising to ‘remove Gabrielle Giffords from office’ by ‘shoot[ing] a fully automatic M16′ . In the wake of her actually being shot, we have the luxury of shame about these actions. I wonder what Mr Kelly would tell the parents of the 9 year old girl who was murdered because of the ‘unintentional’ implications of his fundraising. In a society populated by both rational and irrational people, we must all come to terms with the fact that what we say and how we say it matter. Charged rhetoric may make you money from the base, but it also feeds the dangerous delusions of unstable people. These unintentional consequences are still real consequences. I predict much hand-wringing to come, but no real admissions of responsibility from those who contributed to this climate.

For a more chilling example of this rhetorical violence, look no further than the Killa from Wasilla’s fundraising site, where she posted this:

SarahPAC

Yes, one of the targeted names is Gabrielle Giffords. No, there has been no apology for running such a deliberately ‘targeted’ fundraising ad now that one of the 20 has literally been shot at. What has happened is that the website has been scrubbed of any references to this ad, which suggests an element of understanding of their responsibility. Her infamous tweet advising conservatives in defeat:”Don’t retreat, RELOAD” is also mysteriously missing. As Roger Ebert said on Twitter ” Sarah Palin rummages online frantically erasing her rabble-rousing Tweets like a Stalinist trimming non-persons out of photos.”

I wish I could believe that this is a wake-up call, a time for us to move beyond violent partisan hackery, but that’s obviously not the case. To move beyond this rhetoric is to admit that the rhetoric was a cause of this violence in the first place, which is not going to happen.  How many extreme weather events will it take before we can accept the reality of the new climate? If the actual acceptance of climate change is any indication, we’re all royally screwed.  Months before any of this happened, the ladies on the view nailed it.

I’ll leave the last words to Whoopi

I want to put something out there to those talking heads who are still busy inciting this: Whatever comes down from this, it’s on your hands. When you say ‘wipe ‘em out’ and when you sort of gently suggest that people do stuff, let me tell you about people that tell you to do stuff- you notice that they are not doing it. The people who tell you to go and do stuff- they’re at home! They’re not going to jail. If you get caught throwing a brick, shooting someone- you’re going to jail. Your family is going to suffer…Watch yourself, talking heads, because this is dangerous.

2010 in Review

•January 2, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 3 fully loaded ships.

 

In 2010, there were 60 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 132 posts. There were 97 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 14mb. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was February 3rd with 685 views. The most popular post that day was NASA Wakes Up.

 

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, wordpress.com, gamepod.hu, twitter.com, and blogs.discovermagazine.com.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

NASA Wakes Up February 2010
12 comments

2

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes October 2009
3 comments

3

Why Twilight is Terrible November 2009
18 comments and 2 Likes on WordPress.com

4

Hubble Ultra-Deep Field September 2009
2 comments

5

Ottawa: How Not to do Free Speech March 2010
5 comments

Nerdgasm to the Power of Infinity

•January 2, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Truly my friends, I can never hope to attain the pure, refined nerdery that has been put together with this. Behold, and tremble at a full half hour of Dr Who meets star trek


There are no words.

 

 

 
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