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Nov 16 / Great Apes

What Does Defeating ISIS Actually Mean?

In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris this weekend, there has been a renewal of calls to defeat ISIS.  Take, for example, this New York Times op-ed:

The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris, is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq.

One big problem with these kinds of calls to action is that it’s never entirely clear what it would mean to “defeat” ISIS.  This is not a trivial question.

Most peoples’ ideas of war are based on historical conflicts like World War 2.  It’s relatively clear how you win a conflict like that: you roll back the Nazi front and force Germany to surrender.  For inter-state conflicts resulting in one state invading the territory of another, this is a good and workable model.

The problem is that it’s not a model that can be applied to a conflict with non-state groups.  ISIS isn’t the government of a state, it’s not really an army, and it can’t surrender (even if leadership surrendered, it’s doubtful that all of their followers would concede with them).  So the inter-state model of conflict resolution doesn’t hold.

So if ISIS can’t be defeated in the way a nation-state could be, that leads to the question of what, exactly defeating them would mean.  Let’s look at a few possibilities.

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Oct 25 / Great Apes

Election Projection Sites In Canada Are Still Awful

As I acknowledged in my day-after-the-election musings, I have been quite critical of Canada’s major polling companies in recent years, but they correctly pegged the results of the popular vote nationally.  The same can not be said for the variety of sites trying to cash in on the trend of election projections kicked off by Nate Silver when his blog Five Thirty-Eight was still part of the New York Times.  I’ve explained in the past why election projections in Canada are doomed to fail, and I think that analysis continues to be accurate.  But let’s look at this particular election in more detail.

It seems likely nearly every day there was a new election projection site springing up during this campaign.  I tried to ignore them, so I don’t know what most of them are.  It’s entirely possible that one of them pegged the results properly; the more people making guesses, the greater the odds that someone will be right just by dumb luck.  But I know of three projections that were relatively prominent.  One is the Globe and Mail’s (Canada’s 2nd largest national newspaper by circulation), one is from the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, and the other is Eric Grenier (better known for his Silver-aping blog title Three Hundred Eight).

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Oct 20 / Great Apes

2015 Election Musings

A few unrelated thoughts on the outcome of last night’s election.

1. The Liberals won more than the other parties lost

It is easy to view the results of last night’s election as an anti-Harper statement or a shift from the NDP to the Liberals, but I don’t think the data really supports either conclusion.  It’s easy to draw cynical conclusions about elections, but I think the Liberal victory suggests reasons for optimism even if you’re not a Liberal supporter (and I’m certainly not).

Take a look at this chart:


Party 2011 Votes 2015 Votes Difference
Liberals 2,783,175 6,930,136 4,146,961
Conseratives 5,832,401 5,600,496 -231,905
NDP 4,508,474 3,461,262 -1,047,212
Green 576,221 605,864 29,643
Bloc 889,788 818,652 -71,136


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Oct 15 / Great Apes

Why Is Harper Bringing Out The Ford Brothers Now?

Stephen Harper has started doing campaign appearances with Rob and Doug Ford.  A lot of people find this confusing, given how divisive the Fords are.  It seems especially confusing in light of the Conservatives’ drug messaging: they’ve taken out ads claiming (falsely) that Justin Trudeau wants to make marijuana more accessible to children, while Rob Ford has admitted to smoking crack cocaine in the recent past.  This strikes people as hypocritical and confused messaging.  But I don’t think it’s too difficult to see how it might actually make sense.

Part of the problem is that people mistakenly view voters as making rational, informed decisions about who to vote for on the basis of policy decisions.  But politics are considerably more tribal than rational.  To be clear, I don’t mean “people I disagree with are irrational”; it’s true across the political spectrum.  Voters identify with specific parties or movements in such a way that things are considered right or wrong by virtue of who they’re associated with.  One obvious example: many Democrats who vehemently opposed NSA wire-tapping under George W. Bush have become loud defenders of NSA wire-tapping under Barack Obama.  Same with drone strikes, and so forth.  It’s important to remember that, for many voters, Rob Ford is part of their tribe and so his specific actions are less important than his tribal affiliation.

The tribal nature of politics helps get to my theory on why the Conservatives are bringing the Fords out to campaign for them.  We’re now just four days away from election night.  At this point, there probably isn’t going to be a lot of shift in who voters support.  Policies have been explained, slogans have been repeated, ad campaigns have been purchased.  But what might matter is something known as “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV).  GOTV is the processes by which, on election day, parties try to get the people they’ve identified as their supporters to the polls to actually cast ballots.

I’m highly skeptical of the value of GOTV.  I think politicians and pundits both dramatically over-state the value of the “ground game”.  For example, many people argued that it didn’t matter if the NDP was leading in the polls in Quebec in 2011 because they didn’t have staff or volunteers on the ground in Quebec, and thus couldn’t turn their theoretical support into actual votes.  Obviously the NDP won an enormous electoral victory in QC with no ground game.  Nevertheless, the importance of GOTV is something that political parties deeply believe in.

At this point most people seem to believe that the election is going to be a relatively close one between the Conservatives and the Liberals (I’ve stated my own deep skepticism of electoral projections in Canada).  In a close election, political parties become more convinced than ever of the importance of GOTV and the ground game.  In particular, the Conservatives likely fear that the Liberals are poised to take seats in the GTA’s suburbs, which have been a Conservative stronghold in recent years, and where the Fords have typically found considerable support.  The reasoning behind bringing the Fords out is not that Harper believes they’re going to attract new voters, but that they need to get their base in the GTA out on election day in order to hold on to seats that have been an important part of the Conservatives’ electoral base for much of Stephen Harper’s time as CPC leader.  They likely fear that if they lose the GTA suburbs, they will lose the election.  So teaming up with the Fords is a perfectly rational response.

The plan may not work (or I may be wrong about what the plan actually is).  But if you think about a federal parliamentary campaign as a bunch of small elections rather than as one big one, it’s not too difficult to see why Harper might be teaming up with such a potentially toxic family.

Aug 27 / Great Apes

On Cynicism and Representative Democracy

As this federal election campaign moves on, I’m seeing an increasing number of people complaining that none of the parties are a good option.  In particular, I’m seeing a lot of people complaining about the NDP, but that’s not surprising given that I move in generally progressive social circles.  And this gets at something about how a lot of voters approach politics that really annoys me.

It often seems like what people want is a party with a platform that just says everything they want it to say and nothing that they don’t.  On one level, that obviously makes sense; we want the things we want.  But it also ignores how representative democracy works.

We live in a country with tens of millions of potential voters.  Those voters have different circumstances and priorities.  Any party that has realistic aims of governing has to find ways of convincing huge swathes of people who have fairly major disagreements to work together anyway.  Politics is, at its core, the art of negotiation.  We talk a lot about “coalition” governments, but in reality all governments are coalitions.  People who differ on some issues but agree on others come together to find a way for each group to get some of what it wants.

This isn’t a flaw of representative democracy, it’s the point.

Let’s have a look at the party that I’ve long been a supporter of – the NDP.  Do I agree with everything Thomas Mulcair says on the campaign trail?  No.  Do I agree with every policy announcement he makes?  No.  So why am I still strongly supporting the NDP?

Because an NDP government will do things that are important to me.  An NDP government will repeal C-51, the Conservatives’ awful terrorism legislation.  An NDP government will institute a national daycare program.  An NDP government will probably bring in electoral reform, and an NDP government will likely end Canada’s military involvement in Iraq.  Those are all things that are important to me, and they’re things the other parties won’t do (with the possible exception of the Liberals wanting some form of electoral reform).

An NDP government will also likely do things I don’t agree with, like extending the home renovation tax credit.  But that’s OK.  I recognise that in order to get the things I want,  I need to be willing to work with other people on the things they want.  That’s how democratic governments are formed.

Jul 12 / Great Apes

What I Learned In My Week Without Twitter

Some people take Twitter breaks because they feel like some element of the service is toxic for them.  That’s not the case for me.  I like Twitter a lot (as you can probably tell if you look at how many tweets I’ve made).  I’ve met cool people through Twitter (like, real life meeting, not “we exchanged a few tweets where we bonded over agreeing how awful the Mars Volta are”), I’ve learned a lot from people on Twitter, I’ve laughed a lot, I’ve found tons of cool things to read or listen to or play, and so forth.

Nevertheless, I decided to take a week away from Twitter.  Why?  Because – to put it as melodramatically as possible – I was starting to wonder how Twitter was affecting my mind.  We are all deeply affected by our environment, and the technology we use is a part of that.

People often object to the idea that we’re shaped by our environment by arguing that people are rational and know what they’re doing.  For example, when the issue of whether people are influenced by video games comes up, people will argue that only an idiot doesn’t know fantasy from reality, and so of course video games don’t influence people.  And in the big picture – the “does playing Grand Theft Auto turn players into violent sociopaths?” picture – I agree, people aren’t influenced by video games.  But that’s a very narrow idea about what “influence” means.  [As an aside: No one ever seems to question studies showing that video games can positively influence players.  Funny, that.]

Let me give you a simple example using a different technology: e-books.  I do most of my fiction reading on a tablet these days.  One of the cool features of e-readers is that if you select a word in the text, a dictionary will pop-up with that word’s definition displayed.  Cool!  But something weird has happened as I’ve spent more time reading on my tablet.  Sometimes when I’m reading a paper book and come across a word I don’t recognise, my brain will briefly be struck with the idea that I should press my finger to the page to find out what the word means.  Now, I’ve never actually pressed on a paper page and been surprised that a dictionary didn’t come up, but the seed of the thought is there.  Reading on an e-reader has affected how my brain works; it has influenced me. read more…

Apr 30 / Great Apes

Outrage, Kindness, and the Benefit of the Doubt

On Twitter we are often misunderstood to be an extreme stereotype of whatever view we’re expressing.  A person who says Corsi is one useful way to evaluate hockey players gets painted as someone who views Corsi as the only useful way to evaluate hockey players.  A person who wants to cut funding for one particular government program that they think is wasteful gets painted as someone who wants to replace the government with corporations.  A person who thinks a particular police officer should be held accountable for killing an unarmed, fleeing suspect gets painted as someone who thinks all police officers are bad people.  And on it goes.

I say “on Twitter” but I suppose I really mean “on the Internet.”  I don’t know why this is.  I can’t remember any instance of this kind of thing happening to me in an offline conversation, but for whatever reason it seems to be a common behaviour in any kind of online community – if someone says something you don’t agree with, they become a representative of the most extreme version of whatever argument they’re making.

This makes it easy to ignore and/or attack the person you disagree with.  “What an idiot who holds these extreme and sinisterly-motivated views that I, the rational person, must tear down!”  The problem with that attitude is that you’re very rarely criticising something the other person actually believes. read more…

Feb 18 / Great Apes

Fixing People

In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande tells the story of Bill Thomas, a doctor in a nursing home who comes up with an unusual idea to improve the lifeless atmosphere in the building.  He convinces the nursing home’s director and state authorities to purchase two dogs, four cats, and a hundred birds to keep the residents company.  The animals are at the centre of his plan to help the residents feel more lively and involved in their own lives.  He makes some other changes to the nursing home as well, such as replacing a big lawn on the premises with a vegetable garden that the residents can tend to.  Two years later, these were the results:

[Researchers compared] a variety of measure’s for Chase’s residents with those of residents at another nursing home nearby.  Their study found that the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half that of the control nursing home.  Psychotropic drugs for agitation, like Haldol, decreased in particular.  The total drug costs fell to just 38 percent of the comparison facility.  Deaths fell 15 percent.

You may be tempted to think that the key takeaways here are the decrease in deaths and the incredible cost savings.  But I think there’s another very important story here.

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Jan 10 / Great Apes

Games of 2014

Last year I gave every game a rating on a 10 point scale, similarly to how many gaming sites do.  But I tried an experiment: while most sites refuse to give games a rating lower than 7, resulting in most games bunching up between 7.0 and 8.5, I took 5/10 as the rating for an average game and meted out higher scores sparingly.  Here’s a more detailed description:

I’ve started by treating an average game – that is, one that I enjoyed but didn’t stand out in any way – as a 5 out of 10.  Good games would be 6s.  Very good would be 7s.  9s would be rare and 10s would be reserved for only the greatest of experiences.  Conversely, 4s would be games that were OK, 3s would be games I disliked, 2s would have major flaws, and 1s or zeroes would be virtually unplayable.  Using this system, I came up with 6 games that seemed to fit in a list of “best of the year”, and I describe those games below.  After discussing those 6 games I’ll post a list of all of the games I played in 2013 and how I would rate them.  Assuming that I’ve been honest, the average should come out pretty close to 5 (possibly a bit higher since I tend to play games I know I’m more likely to enjoy).

The resulting average was 5.25, pretty close to my goal.  I’ve rated all the games I played this year on a similar scale, though I’ve come out with a slightly higher 5.8 average.  There were actually fewer good games this year, but I did a better job of steering clear of games I really disliked.  This year there’s only one game below 5; last year I gave out two 1s.

Last year I wrote more detailed reviews for every game I gave a 7 or higher.  This year that’s only four games, so I’m expanding my criteria a bit this year and giving brief reviews to everything that got a 6 or higher.  In general it was kind of a disappointing year for games, with nothing beyond the top two or three really standing out.  But first, I’m going to start with a brief talk about a game that missed the cut.

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Dec 30 / Great Apes

Music of 2014

I usually write quite a few words in my end-of-year recaps, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that most music criticism is essentially meaningless.  I have things that I want to say about these albums, but they would mostly be about my relationship with the music, not the music itself, and we both know that you’re probably either here because:

  • you want to see if any of your favourite albums are on my list; or
  • you want to find new music to listen to

So I’m not going to do write-ups for these records.  Instead I’ll just link a song that I think you should check out (or a music video if one exists).

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